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The first arrivals

Archaeological evidence suggests humans first reached New Guinea, and then Australia and the Solomon Islands, 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 descendents of these people speak non-Austronesian (or Papuan) languages and are today called Melanesians. The Solomon Islands formed the eastern edge of the inhabited Pacific until the second great wave of colonisation began only about 3000 years ago. This second wave of migration is identified with the dispersion of distinctive ornately decorated pottery fragments known today as Lapita pottery, named after an archaeological site in New Caledonia. Archaeologists have claimed that ‘Lapita people’ were the first culturally complex people to inhabit the Pacific and some have likened the impact of their arrival to that of Europeans in the Americas. They were speakers of Austronesian languages and it was in Tonga and Samoa that they developed into the people we now call Polynesians.

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The world’s first agriculturalists

Evidence of early New Guinea coastal settlements includes 40,000-year-old stone axes found in Morobe Province. It is believed humans 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, which makes Papua New Guineans among the world’s first farmers. 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.

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Polynesians & Malay traders

Between AD 1200 and AD 1600 some Polynesians started heading westward again and, finding most of the islands of New Guinea and the Solomons already inhabited, settled some of the remaining isolated islands and atolls. They travelled vast distances in small canoes. Today some parts of PNG and the Solomon Islands remain as isolated Polynesian outposts – the Trobriands in PNG’s Milne Bay Province and Mortlock (Takuu) Islands in PNG’s North Solomons Province, and the Temotus, Ontong Java, and Rennell and Bellona in the Solomon Islands are examples. Polynesian settlements in the Solomons regularly suffered raids between the 14th and 18th centuries from eastern Polynesians from Tonga and Tokelau, seeking to exact tribute for their rulers.

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 population increases, and an increase in war, slave-trading and head-hunting.

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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 Ilhas 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. In fact it was the Solomons that first fired the imagination of Europeans.

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Mendaña & the story of Solomon

In the early 1560s in Spanish-occupied Peru there was a story about a group of islands in the far western Pacific that was visited by an Inca king called Tupac Yupanqui about 100 years earlier. He had brought back gold and dark-skinned slaves. In November 1567, Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Neyra, the 25-year-old nephew of Peru’s Spanish viceroy, set out in two ships to find the islands or the legendary Great Southern Land. He first saw Tuvalu then Roncador Reef near Ontong Java, and on 7 February 1568 he saw a large island and named it Santa Isabel. Mendaña and his men gave many of the neighbouring islands Spanish names, some of which survive to this day. His expedition was looking for gold but after six months of constant conflict with the native people it set sail again for Peru. The islands became known as Yslas de Salomon – the Solomon Islands. Mendaña was keen to return but could not raise the funds for an expedition until 1595, when he travelled with four ships and 450 would-be colonists. The expedition was a disaster – Mendaña couldn’t find the Solomon Islands and lost a ship in the process. Eventually he came upon and named Santa Cruz, where the colonists were racked by disease and hostile islanders. Mendaña died from malaria and the colony was abandoned after only two months – survivors limped back to Peru via the Philippines.

Mendaña’s chief pilot from the 1595 expedition, Pedro Fernández de Quirós, spent the next 10 years raising money for yet another return to the Solomons and the search for Terra Australis. He missed Santa Cruz altogether but reached the Duff Islands in early 1606 and venturing further south came upon and named Espiritu Santo in northern Vanuatu on 3 May. Quirós was separated from the two other ships in his expedition and his second in command, Luis Váez de Torres, subsequently navigated the southern coast of New Guinea in the body of water that today bears his name – the Torres Strait. Pedro Fernández de Quirós’ ignominious return to Peru told of yet another failed attempt to establish a colony, this time on Santo, and this signalled the end of Spanish interest in the western Pacific.

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European exploration

Eager to protect 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.

Captain Philip Carteret, a Briton, came upon Santa Cruz and then passed on to Malaita in 1767, initially refusing to believe he’d rediscovered the Solomons. The following year Louis-Antoine de Bougainville discovered 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 Solomons, 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 worked out and resentment toward Europeans led to the murder of several missionaries in the Solomons. The islands quickly became regarded 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. Despite their frenzied activity elsewhere in the Pacific, churches moved cautiously in the Solomons.

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German interest in the New Guinea’s northeast coast finally spurred the British to get serious about its own colonial ambitions. When in September 1884 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. But the Germans would have to wait – for 15 years the mosquitoes were the only things to profit from the German Neuguinea Kompagnie’s shifting headquarters on the north coast first at Finschhafen, then Bogadjim on Astrolabe Bay and then Madang. The Germans finally decamped for the relative comforts of New Britain. Many German-initiated plantations are still operating today.

The Germans were also active in the Shortland Islands, Choiseul, Santa Isabel and Ontong Java in the present-day Solomons. With about 50 traders and missionaries residing in the Solomon Islands, the British proclaimed a protectorate over the southern part of the archipelago on 6 October 1893. This claim was extended in 1897 and 1898, and in 1899 Britain relinquished its claims in Samoa in exchange for Germany ceding the Shortlands, Choiseul, Santa Isabel and Ontong Java to Britain. The new territory was called the British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP) and was under the administration of Charles Morris Woodford, the first resident commissioner.

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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. From 1907 until his death in 1940, Papua was governed by Sir Hubert Murray with equal measures of paternalism and progressive thinking.

Despite being in demise elsewhere, slavery was thriving in New Guinea and especially the Solomons during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Known as ‘blackbirding’, men were carted off to provide plantation labour in northern Australia and Fiji. More than 29,000 people were taken from the Solomons alone.

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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 the League of Nations officially handed German New Guinea 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.

WWI bypassed the Solomons altogether, but the first prominent rejection of European values occurred in the 1927 Kwaio Rebellion in Malaita. In 1928 several of the Kwaio rebels were hanged in the then-capital Tulagi. Basiana, the rebel leader, made a defiant prophesy shortly before his death: ‘Tulagi will be torn apart and scattered to the winds.’ Fourteen years later his prediction came true…in spades.

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WWII breaks out

Having raced south through Asia and the Pacific, the Japanese occupied Rabaul in New Guinea in January 1942, and in early April they seized the Solomons’ Shortland Islands and Tulagi, the colonial capital, three weeks later. Soon they controlled most of the Solomon Islands. In early June, Korean labourers were seen building an airfield on Guadalcanal (present-day Henderson Airport). This would supply further Japanese advances in Allied territory in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), New Caledonia, Fiji and even Australia and New Zealand. The Allies had to retake Guadalcanal whatever the cost. The huge US war machine began landings on Guadalcanal in August 1942 and the ensuing battles exacted a terrible cost on both sides. During the Guadalcanal campaign alone six naval battles were fought and 67 warships and transports were sunk on both sides – the stretch of water between Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands became known as Iron Bottom Sound. Although there were more than 7000 US casualties, Japan’s losses were devastating. Of more than 24,000 soldiers lost, over a third died from disease, starvation or war wounds, and another 15,000 perished in sea actions.

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Birth of the Kokoda legend

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, eventually taking Salamaua, Buna, Gona and Lae at a cost of thousands of lives.

The Japanese, however, 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 Japanese surrender. For years after the end of WWII there were stories about Japanese soldiers still hiding out in the jungle. Many of these stories were apocryphal, but some were true.

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. But some were heavily involved with the Allies, operating behind enemy line as ‘coastwatchers’. A number of Papua New Guineans and Solomon Islanders were decorated for their bravery. It is estimated that almost a third of Tolais from northern New Britain were killed.

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Postwar experience

In the Solomons, once Guadalcanal had been secured by the Allies, several thousand islanders, mainly Malaitans, went to serve as labourers and orderlies at the massive US military base at Honiara. The Honiara township was established to service the Henderson air base. This massive WWII relocation of Malaitan people to Guadalcanal was actually the first seed of the devastating ethnic tensions that first erupted in 1999 and around the 2000 coup nearly 60 years later.

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 just stepping out of the Stone Age.

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.

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Towards independence

Masses of abandoned war equipment was put to use in developing both the Solomon Islands and 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 PNG, mainly Australians, fuelled rapid economic growth. The expatriate population grew from about 6000 to more than 50,000 in 1971. Today it’s about 19,200.

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 wedded to 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.

In the Solomons the Marching Rule nationalist movement was crushed by the British in the early 1950s, but self-rule was slowly introduced, culminating in independence on 7 July 1978.

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Troubled young nations

Law and order was not a serious issue until 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 descended into war. Rebel leader Francis Ona and the Bougainville Revolution Army (BRA) fought for independence from PNG and a homeland state called Mekamui.

The Bougainville conflict drained resources and divided PNG along tribal lines for years, and strained relations with the Solomon Islands. In 1996 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 with the help of talks brokered by New Zealand and Australia.

The Solomons, meanwhile, had its own war that erupted in early 1999 and this led to a coup the following year. Gwale people from Guadalcanal and ethnic Malaitans squared off and took the country perilously close to becoming a failed state. Twenty-thousand Malaitans were made homeless, Gwalese people fled Honiara and the capital is now a Malaitan enclave. The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) intervened and brought a cessation of hostilities but the enmity between the two ethnic groups persists.

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-confidencemotions that characterised politics in PNG and the Solomon Islands.

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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 2006. Ona’s supporters continue to defend the so-called No-Go Zone around the abandoned Panguna mine. The proliferation of weapons in the No-Go Zone remains serious.

The area around Tuno in the No-Go Zone is also where con man 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, but 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, and it all began over a pair of shoes.

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