The coastal people and islanders of this region have traded for centuries in extensive barter networks, the most famous of which was the kula ring. The hiri trade between Motuans in Central Province and villages further around the gulf was conducted in huge two-masted lakatois (sailing boats).
In 1606 Spanish mariner Luis Vaéz de Torres, after whom the Louisiades were named, abducted 14 children and took them to Manila in the Philippines to be baptised. He was followed by an array of explorers, including the famous Frenchman Antoine d’Entrecasteaux, who left his name on a large group of islands. But it wasn’t until 1847 that Europeans sought to settle the region. In that year, Marist missionaries arrived on Muyua (Woodlark) Island, but the locals, it seems, were unenthusiastic about Christianity and the Marists were gone within eight years. Apparently undeterred, the London Missionary Society (LMS), Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and finally the Seventh-Day Adventists opened for business between the 1870s and 1908. Most notable among them was Reverend Charles W Abel, a dissident member of the LMS, who in 1891 founded the Kwato Extension Association on Kwato Island, near Samarai in the China Strait. This was the first church to provide skills training to the indigenous people of Milne Bay.
Apart from men of God, the region attracted a less savoury crew of opportunists who forcibly removed local men to work in northern Australian sugar plantations. This loathsome practice was known as ‘blackbirding’ and continued well into the 20th century. Errol Flynn, who spent his formative years ducking and diving around New Guinea from 1927 to 1933, later wrote of the ‘confidence’ required to persuade local elders to allow their men to be carted off.
On the north coast early European contacts with the Orokaiva people were relatively peaceful, but when gold was discovered at Yodda and Kokoda in 1895, violence soon followed. A government station was established after an altercation between locals and miners, but the first government officer was killed shortly after he arrived. Eventually things quietened down and the mines were worked out. Then came the war.
Milne Bay became a huge Allied naval base and a few American landing craft and several memorials can still be seen. The gardens and plantations inland from Buna and Gona had barely recovered from the war when Mt Lamington’s 1951 eruption wiped out Higaturu, the district headquarters, and almost 3000 people. The new headquarters town of Popondetta was established at a safer distance from the volcano.