While Port Moresby today has dozens of tribal groups, only two can truly call it home: the Motu and Koitabu. The native people of the Port Moresby area are descendants of Polynesian people, unlike the predominantly Melanesian population. The Motu are traditionally a sea-going people and didn’t arrive until relatively recently, probably less than 2000 years ago. Motu villages were built on stilts over Moresby Harbour. Hanuabada (‘Great Village’) was the largest of their communities and still exists today. Stilt houses can also be seen at Koki Village near Town and Tubuseraia down the Magi Hwy.
The first European to visit was Captain John Moresby in 1873, after whom the harbour was named. Moresby explored extensively along the south coast and spent several days trading with villagers at Hanuabada. One year later, the London Missionary Society arrived and was soon followed by traders and ‘blackbirders’, who recruited indentured labourers and were little better than slave-dealers.
In 1888 Port Moresby became the capital of the newly declared British New Guinea, and in 1906 the territory was handed to Australia, itself only five years independent of British rule. Sir Hubert Murray took over administration of Papua, as it was known, until his death in 1940, aged 78, at Samarai Island while still on duty.
Port Moresby was overshadowed by Lae, the supply base for the gold rushes in Wau and Bulolo, and Rabaul until WWII. The Japanese quickly occupied all of northern New Guinea and were rapidly advancing south when Port Moresby became the staging post for Allied troops fighting along the Kokoda Track. Port Moresby remained in Australian hands throughout the war.
After the war, Papua and New Guinea were administered as one territory with Port Moresby becoming the capital largely by default – more attractive alternatives such as Lae and Rabaul had been flattened by Allied bombing.