Papua New Guinea's history is strewn with stories of struggle in paradise. Beyond the picturesque yet malaria-prone coast, the magnificent mountains have long challenged human migration. Later arrivals had to contest with hardened pioneers: these idyllic islands and emerald forests were notoriously tainted with tales of cannibalism. Europeans first arrived in the 16th century, though the hostile territory and fierce natives tempered any colonial enthusiasm. That was until missionaries and industrialists saw the region as a rich repository of unclaimed souls and wealth.

The First Arrivals

Archaeological evidence suggests humans first reached New Guinea, and then the Solomon Islands and Australia, by island-hopping across the Indonesian archipelago from Asia at least 60,000 years ago. The migrations were made easier by a fall in the sea level during the Pleistocene period, or Great Ice Age, and by a land bridge that linked PNG with northern Australia. The descendants of these people speak non-Austronesian (or Papuan) languages and are today called Melanesians.

The World’s First Agriculturalists

Evidence of early New Guinea coastal settlements includes 40,000-year-old stone axes found in Morobe Province. Humans probably climbed up to settle in the Highlands about 30,000 years ago. At Kuk (or Kup) Swamp in the Wahgi Valley in Western Highlands Province, archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation going back 20,000 years and there is evidence of gardening beginning 9000 years ago. They cultivated breadfruit, sago, coconuts, yams and sugar cane (which originated in New Guinea). New Ireland, Buka and the Solomon Islands were probably inhabited around 30,000 years ago and Manus Island 10,000 years ago.

Elsewhere in the world, the development of agriculture resulted in the establishment of cities and an elite class, but this did not happen in New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. Perhaps this was because basic food crops could not be stored long so food couldn’t be stockpiled. It’s not known when pigs and more productive starch crops (Asian yams, taro and bananas) were introduced, but New Guineans have had domesticated pigs for at least 10,000 years. People lived in small villages on well-established tribal lands practising shifting cultivation, fishing and hunting. Coastal people built canoes, and feasting and dancing were regular activities. Each settlement comprised just one extended family as well as the captives from raiding neighbouring settlements – ritual head-hunting, slave-raiding and cannibalism were common. People worshipped ancestors, not gods.

Polynesians & Malay Traders

Between AD 1200 and 1600 some Polynesians started heading westward and, finding most of the islands of New Guinea already inhabited, settled some of the remaining isolated islands and atolls. They travelled vast distances in small canoes.

By the mid-16th century, sweet potatoes were being taken from South America into southeast Asia by the Portuguese and Spanish, and Malay traders brought them to the western part of the New Guinea island. The high yield of sweet potatoes in cold climes allowed for the colonisation of still higher altitudes in the Highlands and the domestication of many more pigs. Around this time steel axe-heads were traded into the Highlands from the coast. These developments saw huge rises in population, and an increase in war, slave-trading and head-hunting.

The First European Contact

The first definite European sighting of the New Guinea island was in 1512, when Portuguese sailor Antonio d’Abreu sighted the coast. However, it wasn’t until 1526 that another Portuguese, Jorge de Menezes, became the first European to set foot on the main island – he named it Ilha dos Papuas. But New Guinea was regarded as a large, daunting place with no obvious wealth to exploit and very hostile natives, so it was largely left alone while European colonists plundered the Americas.

European Exploration

Eager to prevent incursions into the eastern end of their fabulously profitable Dutch East Indies Empire (modern-day Indonesia), the Dutch East Indies Company claimed sovereignty over unexplored New Guinea in 1660. And so it remained for more than a century.

In 1768 Louis-Antoine de Bougainville explored Buka, Bougainville and Choiseul islands. Many British, French and American explorers followed and from 1798 whalers sailed through the islands. Sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) traders brought iron and steel tools, calico and fish hooks, but ultimately it was treachery and resentment that they left. European diseases were devastating in New Guinea, and the guns the traders brought resulted in an explosion of warfare and head-hunting.

The British East India Company explored parts of western New Guinea in 1793 and even made a tentative claim on the island but in 1824 Britain and the Netherlands agreed the latter’s colonial claim to the western half of the New Guinea island should stand (and it did until 1963). A series of British ‘claims’ followed, which were repudiated each time by Queen Victoria’s government.

By the late 1860s the sandalwood had been exhausted and resentment toward Europeans led to the murder of several missionaries. The islands quickly became notorious as the most dangerous place in the Pacific, inhabited by head-hunters and cannibals. There were violent and unpredictable attacks on foreigners, and several savage massacres.


German interest in New Guinea’s northeast coast finally spurred Great Britain to get serious about its own colonial ambitions. In September 1884, when the British announced that they intended to claim part of New Guinea, the Germans quickly raised the flag on the north coast. A compromise was reached – an arbitrary line was drawn east–west through the ‘uninhabited’ Highlands between German and British New Guinea.

New Guinea was now divided into three sections: a Dutch half protecting the eastern edge of the Dutch East Indies; a British quarter to keep the Germans (and everybody else) away from Australia; and a German quarter that would ultimately become a highly profitable outpost of German plantation agriculture. The Germans eventually decamped to New Britain, where German-initiated plantations still operate today.

Government by Patrol

In 1888, when Sir William MacGregor became British New Guinea’s administrator, he established a native police force to spread the benefits of British government. He instituted the policy of ‘government by patrol’, which continued through the Australian period. In 1906 British New Guinea became the Territory of Papua and its administration was taken over by newly independent Australia.

Despite being in decline elsewhere, slavery was thriving in New Guinea during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Known as ‘blackbirding’, men were carted off to provide plantation labour in northern Australia and Fiji.


When WWI broke out in 1914, Australian troops quickly overran the German headquarters at Rabaul and for the next seven years German New Guinea was run by the Australian military. In 1920 German New Guinea was officially handed over to Australia as a mandated territory.

Australia was quick to eradicate the German commercial and plantation presence, baulking only at the German missions. Australia enacted legislation aimed at restricting the commercial exploitation of Eastern New Guinea to British nationals and, more particularly, Australians. Copra, rubber, coffee and cocoa were the main earners.

The discovery of large deposits of gold at Edie Creek and the Bulolo Valley in the 1920s brought men and wealth to the north coast. After 400 years of coastal contact, some of those white men finally made it into the interior.

Under the Australian administration, kiaps (patrol officers) were usually the first Europeans to venture into previously ‘uncontacted’ areas, and were also responsible for making the government’s presence felt on a regular basis. This situation continued until independence.

The Land That Time Forgot

When Mick Leahy ventured inland in 1930 he was looking for gold. Instead, on that and nine subsequent expeditions over the next five years, Leahy, his brother Dan and Jim Taylor ‘discovered’ about a million people living in the secluded valleys of the New Guinea Highlands.

New Guinea’s white colonialists had thought the area uninhabited, but it was the most densely populated part of the country. In an age of aeroplanes, radio and international telecommunications, the discovery was stunning. It didn’t take long for the ‘land that time forgot’ to be dragged into the 20th century. The Leahy brothers introduced coffee, and before long missionaries and aircraft were also arriving. The Highlanders, who had only known a barter economy, were quick to adapt to cash.

Mick Leahy’s meticulous recording of events – in his diary, several hours of 16mm film and more than 5000 photographs – can be seen in the 1983 documentary First Contact.

WWII & the Birth of the Kokoda Legend

Having raced south through Asia and the Pacific, the Japanese occupied Rabaul in New Guinea in January 1942. However, Japanese successes in New Guinea were short-lived. Australian troops fought back an advance along the rugged Kokoda Track, which the Japanese were using in an attempt to reach and take Port Moresby, the only remaining Australian stronghold on the island. In a flanking move, the Japanese landed at Milne Bay but were repulsed after a bloody 10-day battle with Australian troops.

The Japanese came within 50km of Port Moresby, but an unsustainably extended supply line and heroic resistance by Australian soldiers with local help turned the course of the whole Pacific war. By September 1942 the previously undefeated Japanese were in a slow and bloody retreat. Over the next 16 months, Australian and US forces battled their way towards the Japanese strongholds along the north coast at a cost of thousands of lives.

The Japanese refused to surrender. It took until 1945 to regain all the mainland from the Japanese but New Ireland, New Britain and Bougainville were not relieved until the official Japanese surrender. For years after the end of WWII there were stories – some apocryphal, some true – about Japanese soldiers still hiding out in the jungle.

Most Melanesians were initially militarily neutral in the conflict, although they were used extensively on both sides as labourers, guides, carriers and informers – sometimes press-ganged by the Japanese and Australians. But some were heavily involved with the Allies, operating behind enemy lines as ‘coastwatchers’. A number of Papua New Guineans were decorated for their bravery. It is estimated that almost a third of Tolais from northern New Britain were killed.

Summary Justice – Secret Lynchings Of WWII

It’s been a dark secret until recently but, as Australian Paul Ham, amongst other writers, has pointed out, Australian troops summarily hanged New Guineans during WWII for cooperating with the Japanese – perhaps as many as 213. Hundreds of children were made to watch the execution of 17 men in a single day in 1943 near Higaturu in Oro Province to ‘learn a lesson’ about cooperating with the Japanese. Many of the ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’, as they were affectionately known – the New Guinean stretcher-bearers who carried wounded Australian Diggers along the Kokoda Track – were actually press-ganged into service.

Postwar Experience

The Melanesian experience of WWII caused a sharp resurgence in cargo cultism. The war’s sudden arrival and its massive impact could not have been more profound. US soldiers – many of them black – treated locals as equals and shared food with them. This was something that locals had never experienced from their colonial overlords. The postwar profligacy of the massive US war machine – where boats were scuttled and guns and jeeps were dumped in the sea before the soldiers disappeared in giant transport planes – sent very strange messages to people who were living subsistence lifestyles.

Every year, 23 July is commemorated as Remembrance Day for the Papua New Guineans who died in WWII. It’s also the anniversary of the 1942 battle between the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Japanese invaders that took place near the Kumusi River in Oro Province.

Cargo Cults

To many New Guineans, it seems the strange ways and mysterious powers of the Europeans could only have derived from supernatural sources. Cult leaders theorised that Europeans had intercepted cargo that was really intended for the New Guineans, sent to them by their ancestors in the spirit world. One cultist even suggested that the white people had torn the first page out of their bibles – the page that revealed that God was actually a Papuan.

If the right rituals were followed, the cult leaders said, the goods would be redirected to their rightful owners. Accordingly, docks were prepared and crude ‘airstrips’ laid out for when the cargo arrived. Other leaders felt that if they mimicked European ways, they would soon have European goods – ‘offices’ were established in which people passed bits of paper back and forth. But when locals started to kill their own pigs and destroy their gardens, the colonial government took a firm stand. Some leaders were imprisoned while others were taken down to Australia to see with their own eyes that the goods did not arrive from the spirit world.

Seeing black American troops during WWII with access to desirable goods had a particularly strong impact. In Manus Province in 1946, a movement started by Paliau Moloat called the New Way, or Paliau Church, was initially put down as just another cargo cult. But Paliau’s quasi-religious following was one of PNG’s first independence movements and a force for modernisation. He opposed bride prices, for example, and sought to dissuade the local populace’s belief in the arrival of actual cargo from the sea.

Paliau was imprisoned in the early days, but in 1964 and 1968 he was elected to the PNG House of Assembly. He was seen by his followers as the last prophet of the world. He died on 1 November 1991.

Towards Independence

Masses of abandoned war equipment was put to use in developing New Guinea. Even today you can see how Marsden matting is used for fencing and building material, and many WWII-era Quonset huts are still standing. However, the war’s main impact proved to be social and political.

An influx of expatriates to Papua and New Guinea, mainly Australians, fuelled rapid economic growth. The expat population grew from about 6000 to more than 50,000 in 1971. (Today it’s around 20,000.)

Colonialism wasn’t popular in the 1950s and '60s and Australia was urged to prepare Papua and New Guinea for independence. A visiting UN mission in 1962 stressed that if the people weren’t pushing for independence, then it was Australia’s responsibility to do so. Australia’s policy of reinforcing literacy and education was part of a concerted effort to create an educated social group that could run government.

In 1964 a House of Assembly with 64 members was formed. Internal self-government came into effect in 1973, followed by full independence on 16 September 1975.

Troubled Young Nations

Law and order became a more serious issue in the 1990s, when mineral-rich PNG began to develop large-scale mining operations. These fast became the greatest contributors to the economy, but also social, environmental and political burdens that, in the 1980s and '90s, took a heavy toll. First the giant Ok Tedi gold-and-copper mine poisoned much of the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers, and then conflict over profits from the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville led to war. Rebel leader Francis Ona and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) fought for independence from PNG.

The Bougainville war drained resources and divided PNG along tribal lines for years, it also strained relations with the Solomons. In 1997 the government of Sir Julius Chan hired mercenaries to try to crush the separatists. What became known as the Sandline Affair was a disaster, but ironically the fall-out brought world attention to the conflict and forced the protagonists to find peaceful solutions.

The 1980s and '90s saw PNG face a series of challenges: a volcanic eruption in 1994 buried much of Rabaul; ongoing border problems involving the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free West Papua Movement) strained relations with Indonesia and saw thousands moved to refugee camps in PNG; and a growing level of corruption and government misspending sucked money away from where it was needed most – education and health. All this served as a backdrop to the revolving door of prime ministers and no-confidence motions that characterised politics in PNG.

The New Millennium

In March 2002 the PNG government passed legislation that brought into effect autonomy arrangements of the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA), which guarantees a referendum for Bougainvillean independence by 2020. The Autonomous Bougainville Government was sworn into office on 15 June 2005 with Joseph Kabui as its president.

Francis Ona, leader of the BRA and staunch opponent of the BPA, died of malaria barely a month later on 24 July 2005. Ona’s supporters continued to defend the so-called No-Go Zone around the abandoned Panguna mine. The proliferation of weapons in the No-Go Zone remains a concern.

The area around Tuno in the No-Go Zone is also where Noah Musingku maintains his own fiefdom. Musingku operated an illegal pyramid fast-money scheme called U-Vastrict that left investors all over PNG empty-handed. He fled to Bougainville in 2005 where he feted Francis Ona, proclaiming him King of Papala and then assumed this bogus title himself when Ona died. Musingku hired eight Fijian mercenaries as bodyguards and to train his private army, offering them US$1 million each. In November 2006 there was armed confrontation between the Fijian ex-soldiers and their trainees on one side, and pro-government Bougainville Freedom Fighters on the other. To date, all but one have either returned to Fiji or turned themselves over to the PNG police – none received the money promised to them. These bizarre circumstances aside, the UN regards the negotiated peace agreement on Bougainville as one of the most successful anywhere in the world in modern times.

‘Grand Chief’ Sir Michael Somare, PNG’s ‘father of independence’, returned in 2002 for a third stint as prime minister and introduced electoral reforms to create a more stable political climate, and in turn to help the economy. Somare was the first prime minister in the country’s history to avoid the familiar no-confidence motion and then be re-elected in July 2007 as an incumbent prime minister. However, Somare returned to the prime ministership under strained relations with Australia.

When Prime Minister Michael Somare took leave from the country in 2011 to receive medical care abroad he unexpectedly remained away for nearly five months. During his absence, MPs officially removed Somare from his post and installed Peter O’Neill as prime minister. When Somare returned to PNG, he tried to reclaim his position, which led to a ruling by the Supreme Court in his favour. O’Neill and MPs refused to recognise the court order, resulting in a deadlock until January 2012, when ‘a mutiny’ was carried out. Soldiers loyal to Somare seized key military barracks and placed military chief Brigadier-General Francis Agwi under house arrest. The whole affair greatly discredited Somare in the eyes of many Papuans, who felt that after his 43 years in parliament, 18 as prime minister, it was time to move on.