The Sepik’s first contact with the outside world was probably with Malay bird-of-paradise hunters – the feathers from these beautiful birds were popular in Asia long before fashionable European millinery incorporated them into late-19th-century women’s headwear.
The first European contact came in 1885, with the arrival of the German New Guinea Company. Dr Otto Finsch named the river the Kaiserin Augusta, after the wife of the German emperor. Dr Finsch, after whom the Germans’ first station – Finschhafen – was named, rowed about 50km upstream from the mouth.
The Germans established a station at Aitape on the coast in 1906, and in 1912 and 1913 sent a huge scientific expedition to explore the river and its vast, low-lying basin. They collected insects, studied local tribes and produced maps of such accuracy that they’re still referred to today. Angoram, the major station in the lower Sepik, was established at this time.
The early 1930s saw gold rushes in the hills behind Wewak and around Maprik, but development and exploration ceased when WWII started.
The Japanese held the Sepik region for most of the war. Australian forces pushed along the coast from Lae and Madang, and the Japanese withdrew to the west. In early 1944 the Americans seized Aitape and the Australians moved west from there. When a huge American force captured Hollandia (now Jayapura in West Papua) in April, the Japanese in Wewak were completely isolated. A year later, in May 1945, Wewak fell and the remaining Japanese withdrew into the hills. Finally, with the war in its last days, General Adachi surrendered near Yangoru. The formal surrender took place a few days later on 13 September 1945 at Wom Point near Wewak. Of 100, 000 Japanese troops, only 13, 000 survived.
The region has been volatile since the Indonesian takeover of Dutch New Guinea (now Papua). The border was jointly mapped and marked in 1968. On several occasions large numbers of Papuan refugees have fled into PNG. In 1984 more than 100 Indonesian soldiers deserted to the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or Free West Papua Movement), sparking a major Indonesian operation which in turn drove 12, 000 West Papuans into PNG. Some of these refugees were settled permanently in PNG in camps close to the border at Blackwater, near Vanimo, and Green River, near the Sepik River. Since then, following brutal Indonesian crackdowns on West Papuan separatist activity, even more West Papuans have fled over the border to PNG.
In March 2001 PNG police beat some asylum seekers at the Blackwater camp in an attempt to coerce them and others back across the border. The PNG government has been fickle about recognising the West Papuans as refugees and negotiated the repatriation of some with Indonesia in early 2002. In late 2004 about 400 border crossers, mostly women and children who had fled West Papua in 2000, were finally granted refugee status within PNG after sustained pressure on the government from the Catholic church and the UNHCR. The refugees were transferred to East Arwin camp in Western Province. The situation remains unstable.