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Papua New Guinea - History

Although human habitation of the island of New Guinea extends back some 40000 years, recorded history is very recent and in some cases goes back only a few decades. It was the last major land area in the world to be colonized by European powers and almost all regions have a history of contact of less than a century. New Guinea was originally peopled by many different waves of migrants, whose prehistory is largely unknown. Linguists generally recognize two major groupings among the languages: Austronesian and non-Austronesian (or Papuan). The Austronesian languages clearly constitute a family. The relationships among the nonAustronesian (Papuan) languages are less clear, and the label is best seen as a cover term for perhaps a couple of dozen of distinct families.

The first people to settle in the Islands of Papua New Guinea were Papuan, Melanesian and Negrito tribes. The tribes migrated from Southeast Asia via Indonesia between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago during the ice age when the sea was probably lower and sea distances were shorter. The next wave of migrants was Austronesian who settled in coastal areas approximately 5,000 years ago.

The name Papua originates from Spanish and Portuguese sailors who arrived in the South Pacific region between the 1500s and early 1600s. Jorge de Meneses is reported to have named the main island in 1526- 1527 as Papuwah or Ilhas dos Papuas, a Malayan term meaning islands of people with fuzzy or woolly hair. New Guinea was a name given to the island in 1545 by Spanish sailor Ynigo Ortis de Retez due to the supposed similarity between local people and those he found living in the Guinea coast of West Africa.

Dutch, British, and French sailors also made frequent short commercial visits to the area in later periods and by 1870, longer visits were made by scientists, gold miners, traders and missionaries.

PNG was first encountered by Europeans two hundred years ago, and German traders and planters were active there from the 1860s; quite early when one considers that the PNG highlands had no contact with outsiders until the 1930s. Germany annexed Bougainville at the end of the 19th century, at a time when it also colonized New Guinea (the northern half of whats now PNG) and the Solomon Islands.

Then, in 1898, Germany ceded the Solomon Islands to Great Britain, as part of a deal between Germany, Britain, and the US over territory in Samoa, but it kept Bougainville. Through the first half of the twentieth century, Bougainville changed hands, along with the rest of New Guinea several times. After World War I, it became part of the League of Nations mandated territory of New Guinea, administered by Australia, which already had colonial jurisdiction over the southern area of Papua. Then for three years of World War II, it was controlled by Japan, and was the scene of intense fighting and bombardment by American forces.

For many years these powers had very little influence over the majority of people. In some areas, the contact between the villagers and foreigners was friendly. In other areas, the contact was very hostile. The main task of the early foreign governments was to try to keep peace between different local groups - clans, villages, tribes - and between the villagers and the foreigners. Both governments did this by appointing government officers to teach village people about the new types of government in Port Moresby and Rabaul. These officers were called kiaps in New Guinea and patrol officers in Papua. Government matters became important whenever the kiap or resident magistrate made his visit. This might have been only once a year. For the rest of the time, village life remained the same as it had been for hundreds of years.

On November 6, 1884, a British protectorate was proclaimed over the southern coast of New Guinea (the area called Papua) and its adjacent islands. The protectorate, called British New Guinea, was annexed outright on September 4, 1888. The possession was placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902. Following the passage of the Papua Act of 1905, British New Guinea became the Territory of Papua, and formal Australian administration began in 1906.

In German New Guinea (before 1914) local people were appointed in many villages as luluai, and taltul' to act as village leaders and as representatives of the people with their colonial German rulers. When Australia took over German New Guinea in 1914 this system was retained. In Australian-ruled Papua a similar officer was appointed, called the village constable. He was given a full uniform.

Papua was administered under the Papua Act until the Japanese invaded the northern parts of the islands in 1941 and began to advance on Port Moresby and civil administration was suspended. During the war, Papua was governed by a military administration from Port Moresby, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur occasionally made his headquarters. It was later joined in an administrative union with New Guinea during 1945-46 following the surrender of Japan.

In World War 2, the Japanese invaded the island but their progress was halted by Australian and American troops on the famous Kokoda Trail. After the war, the newly formed United Nations Organisation asked that Australia continue to be responsible for the trust territories of Papua and New Guinea. Australia greatly increased its financial aid to the country and assisted in the preparation for 'self-government'.

The Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949 formally approved the placing of New Guinea under the international trusteeship system and confirmed the administrative union of New Guinea and Papua under the title of "The Territory of Papua and New Guinea." The act provided for a Legislative Council (established in 1951), a judicial organization, a public service, and a system of local government. A House of Assembly replaced the Legislative Council in 1963, and the first House of Assembly opened on June 8, 1964. In 1972, the name of the territory was changed to Papua New Guinea.

After World War II, PNG went back to Australian control under the auspices of the UN; and in 1975 it became part of the newly independent nation of Papua New Guinea. The eastern half of the island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, was divided between Germany (north) and the UK (south) in 1885. The latter area was transferred to Australia in 1902, which occupied the northern portion during World War I and continued to administer the combined areas until independence in 1975.

Minor protests progressed to insurgency, leading to a breakdown of law and order in 1988. The civil war in Bougainville (1989-1998) is one of the most serious conflicts PNG has experienced since it gained independence in 1975. The conflict has been described as the largest in Oceania after World War II. Estimates indicate that 70,000 people out of a population of about 180,000 were displaced into care centers or camps. Many people died as a result of the conflict; reports range between 10,000- 20,000. The total number of deaths indirectly caused by the Bougainville conflict is difficult to quantify mainly due to the air and sea blockade that prevented access to goods and services, particularly medical services.

In 2001, Papua New Guinea and a Bougainville provisional government agreed to put an end to the armed conflict. The deal included autonomy for Bougainville, regular elections starting from 2005, and a referendum on independence between June 2015 and June 2020. The timing of the referendum is subject to meeting two prerequisites which is achieving good governance and the implementation of a weapons disposal plan. It remains to be seen if the time periods and the conditions of the provisional government agreement will be compatible and which one will take precedence.

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Page last modified: 21-12-2016 19:24:15 ZULU