The island of New Britain was settled around 30,000 years ago. The Lapita people, the world’s first true ocean navigators, arrived about 4500 years ago, bringing pottery and trade with them. Several hundred years ago, the Tolai people came from southern New Ireland and invaded the Gazelle Peninsula in northernmost New Britain, driving the Baining, Sulka and Taulil people south into the mountains.
From 1874 to 1876 German traders established settlements in the Duke of York Islands and Blanche Bay. The area was renowned for cannibalism. In some districts, more missionaries were eaten than heathens converted.
On 3 November 1884 a German protectorate was declared and the German New Guinea Company assumed authority, which it held until 1914 when Australian troops landed at Kabakaul, east of Kokopo. At the end of WWI, the German planters had their plantations expropriated and were shipped back to Germany.
In 1937 the Vulcan and Tavurvur volcanoes erupted, killing 507 people and causing enormous damage. Before this eruption, Vulcan had been a low, flat island hundreds of metres offshore. It had appeared from nowhere during an 1878 blast (and had been immediately planted with coconuts). When the 1937 eruptions ceased, Vulcan was a massive mountain attached to the coast.
In 1941 Rabaul was completely crushed by the advancing Japanese. At the peak of the war, 97,000 Japanese troops were stationed on the Gazelle Peninsula. But the Allies never came. More than 20,000 tonnes of Allied bombs rained down upon the peninsula, keeping the remaining Japanese forces underground and impotent. When the war ended, they were still there.
On 19 September 1994 Tavurvur and Vulcan re-awoke with relatively little warning, utterly destroying Rabaul. Only two people died but 50,000 people lost their homes and one of PNG’s most developed and picturesque cities was flattened again. In the following weeks buildings creaked under the weight of the falling ash and collapsed. There was widespread looting.
Today the region’s seismic activity is measured more conscientiously than ever and the vulcanology observatory posts regular bulletins. Tavurvur’s occasionally spectacular emissions of smoke and noise are not presently considered dangerous.