The remains of rock shelters found near Namatanai suggest that New Ireland was inhabited 30,000 years ago. Missionaries began arriving in 1875 along with blackbirders who forcibly removed many New Irelanders to work on the plantations and cane fields of Queensland (Australia) and Fiji.
A villainous crew, blackbirders often posed as missionaries to coax men aboard, killing them offhand if they revolted. One slaver even impersonated the bishop of Melanesia; the real incumbent, believed to be an imposter, was later killed in vengeance! Meanwhile, the shortage of males devastated village life in places.
Cannibalism and head-hunting were rife. Even a death from disease was often attributed, from certain ‘signs’, to the actions of another tribe, which might be mercilessly attacked in revenge. In some communities, relatives smeared themselves with the blood of their deceased loved ones as part of the funeral rites.
During the German reign, large copra plantations made New Ireland one of the most profitable parts of the colony. The tyrannical Baron Boluminski became district officer of Kavieng in 1910 and built the highway that bears his name by forcing each village along the coast to construct and maintain a section. He made villagers push his carriage over any deteriorated sections.
New Ireland fell to the Japanese in 1942 and Kavieng was developed into a major Japanese military base. Most of the Australians in Kavieng managed to escape, but some chose to stay behind as coastwatchers (spies).
The Allies made no attempt to retake New Ireland but rather bombed it into oblivion. The Japanese surrendered in Namatanai on 19 September 1945.