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Indonesia History - New Guinea

New Guinea for long regarded as "No Man's Land," although Holland was known to have had for some time settlements on its western shores. But little was known of this magnificent island till the late 19th Century, due partly to the difficulties and dangers of the navigation of Torres Strait, but principally to the exclusiveness of the Netherlanders, who, having acquired great interests in the Spice Islands, did not encourage any access to places east of them. New Guinea was divided, for political purposes, by a purely scientific frontier, the 141st meridian of east longitude, all to the westward of this line being claimed by the Netherlands.

The island was discovered by the Spaniards in 1528, and it is difficult to determine under what conditions the Netherlands acquired their settlements in the island, but in 1828 just three hundred years after its discovery the commander of the Netherlandish vessel, the Triton, took possession, in the name of his government, of all territory westward of the 141st meridian, but after a few years the un" healthiness of the climate caused the settlement to be abandoned.

In 1835 the commander of another Netherlandish ship surveyed other parts adjacent to this earlier settlement, and on these efforts at colonisation, the Netherlands government apparently based its claim to the 150,755 square miles of New Guinea in its possession, having a population of some 200,000 as of 1885. This territory belonged for political purposes to the Netherlandish Residency of Ternate, in the Moluccas.

The position of this island, which is only a little smaller than the colony of New South Wales, being about 1,500 miles long, and with a breadth of 200 to 400 miles, rendered it of great strategic importance. It formed, as it were, a link connecting the Indian Archipelago on one side, with the Polynesian group on the other.

The climate of New Guinea was extremely unhealthy on the sea coast, even the natives suffering there in the wet season. The island is, in fact, remarkable for its humidity, owing doubtless to the equatorial stream of vapour and to its high mountains, which come close down to the sea, while in the interior there are still loftier ranges covered with perpetual snow. It was clear, therefore, that the only colonisation, in a proper sense, of this island must take place on the high grounds.

On the west coast, that was in the portion occupied, or rather claimed, by the Netherlands, there were numerous Malay settlements, but the bulk of the inhabitants were "negroes", though not precisely of the African type.

One of the greatest difficulties with which settlers in New Guinea had to contend is the want of real chiefs, authority resting very much with the sorcerers, who, when the chiefs lost their influence, or their lives in the wars, arrogated to themselves tribal power. The natives were not such savages of exceptional cruelty as they have been represented to be, since Mr. Chalmers, who had travelled many hundred miles into the interior and has lived for twenty years amongst them, considers the inhabitants of New Guinea to be "semi-civilised savages, very impulsive, easily won, who can do terribly cruel things, but who can be tender and sympathetic."

The cultivation of the soil was largely carried on by natives on the coast, who terrace the hill sides for the purpose of planting their yams and sugar canes; and the Papuans show generallya knowledge of husbandry rare among savages, having a systematic plan of turning over the soil with sharp-pointed sticks so effectively that it resembles a well-ploughed field, in which they cultivate rice, maize, yams, and other tropical productions.

The available products of the country for commercial purposes were the sago-palm, the sugar cane, native flax, and cedar. The sago promises to be a most valuable export; it is said that thousands of tons are available. Much of the timber was of gigantic size, and tobacco was a natural production of the country, being cultivated by the mountaineers. Pottery and ropemaking were the principal native manufactures. All business between the Papuans and whites was carried on by a system of barter, ordinary twist tobacco being the most convenient medium of exchange, but knives, tomahawks, pieces of iron hoop, beads, and looking-glasses were in great demand.

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Page last modified: 18-04-2012 19:22:44 ZULU