World Rainforest Movement

First Contact in Papua New Guinea: A clash of world views

When Australians took control, at the end of the first world war, of the German colony of New Guinea, under a mandate from the League of Nations to protect the native peoples, it was thought that New Guinea had only a sparse population, mostly along the coast. The mountainous interior, it was believed, was a virtually empty and impenetrable jumble of rain-soaked hills. However, it is now clear that the highland valleys of New Guinea have long been among the most densely settled agricultural areas in the world.

The highland valleys of Papua New Guinea were first contacted by Australians in the 1930s and were found to be inhabited by over a million people, made up of several hundred different ethnic groups, who had been growing their vegetable staples and raising their pigs in the fertile upland soils for over nine thousand years. Although these peoples traded, through many intermediaries, with the coast, the highlanders were equally unaware of what lay beyond their territories. As highlander Gerigl Gande recalled in the 1980s: ‘we only knew the people who lived immediately around us. For example the Naugla, they were our enemies and we couldn’t go past them. So we knew nothing of what was beyond. We thought no one existed apart from ourselves and our enemies.’ The mutual astonishment and incomprehension of these two cultures, when they first met, was almost complete.

Australian officials and miners only became aware of these populated highlands in 1930, when the adventurer, Michael Leahy, first marched up into the hills from the east coast, in search of gold. The Mandated Territory was viewed by Australians as a business proposition, the local men were referred to as ‘boys’ and the isolated groups in the interior pejoratively called ‘bush kanakas’ in pidgin. The indigenous peoples were widely considered treacherous, bloodthirsty savages, remnants of an inferior race doomed to extinction. As one settler noted ‘the natives of this Territory are mean-souled, thieving rotters, and education only gives them added cunning’.

The miners pushed deep into the interior, travelling light and living off the land. They demanded food from the native people, paid for with metal tools and prized sea-shells, to keep their expeditions on the move. In their haste to get to the goldfield they dreamed of, they sparked confusion and conflicts. When warriors barred their path with arrows and threats, rather than return to the coast, the miners used guns to deadly effect to blast a path through to their goals. Sure that their technological superiority was, equally, evidence of their moral supremacy, it never occurred to the miners that what they were doing was wrong, much less that the local people might have their own reasons and interests for choosing to develop their interactions differently.

The gulf of incomprehension was wide on both sides. Trying to make sense of these strangely apparelled, pale skinned visitors, the highlanders, for the large part, assumed that they were ancestral spirits, either returning lost relatives coming from the east where the dead were thought to dwell or else ambiguous, even evil, mythic beings from the heavens. Recalls Gopu Ataiamelahu of Gama Village near Goroka: ‘I asked myself, who are these people? They must be somebody from the heavens. Have they come to kill us or what? We wondered if this could be the end of us and it gave us a feeling of sorrow. We said, “we must not touch them”. We were terribly frightened’. Remembers another: ‘They smelt so differently, these strange people. We thought it would kill us, so we covered our noses with the leaves from a special bush that grows near cucumbers. It had a particularly nice smell and it covered up theirs’.

Once it became widely known that the strange beings carried untold wealth with them, many communities wanted their visitors to stay with them and not carry on through to the lands of their rivals and enemies. Misunderstandings were almost inevitable. A typical conflict occurred in 1933, as the miners accompanied by a colonial officer, tried to push through to Mount Hagen. Ndika Nikints recalls the situation.

“The Yamka and Kuklika and all the people around us were making a lot of noise, shouting and calling out war cries. They were saying they wanted to take everything from the white men. Some people snatched things from the carriers, like tins and trade goods. Then Kiap Taylor [the colonial officer] broke this thing he was carrying and before we knew anything we heard it crack. Everything happened at once. Everyone was pissing and shitting themselves in terror. Mother! Father! I was horrified. I wanted to run away… the muskets got the people – their stomachs came out, their heads came off. Three men were killed and one was wounded… I said ‘Oh, Mother!’ but that didn’t help. I breathed deeply, but that didn’t help. I was really desperate. Why did I come here? I should never have come. We thought it was lightning that was eating people up. What was this strange thing, something that had come down from the sky to eat us up? What’s happening? What’s happening?”

This pattern of mutual incomprehension leading to violence and terror was to be repeated over and over again whenever the colonial officers and miners felt obliged to push through previously uncontacted areas to reach their self-ordained objectives. Another well-documented case comes from later in the 1930s when a colonial patrol, aimed at making a reconnaissance up the Strickland River and through the highlands north of Lake Kutubu, pushed through the lands of six different and previously uncontacted peoples. Carrying only enough supplies for one month’s travel, for a journey that in the end took them more than five, they were soon obliged to trade with the local communities, who sought to avoid all contact with the strangers.

Coming first into the lands of the Etoro people, the patrol emerged suddenly from the forests into full view of one community. ‘We jumped with surprise’ recounts one elder ‘No one had seen anything like this before or knew what it was. When we saw the clothes of the strangers, we thought they were like people you see in a dream: “these must be spirit people coming openly, in plain sight” ’. When these spirits approached them, the Etoro were even more dismayed and the more insistent the spirits were in offering gifts the more alarmed the Etoro became. The Etoro were convinced that if they accepted any gifts they would then be obligated to the unknown world of the spirits, thus bringing together two realms that should remain separate, lest the world become unmade and everybody die. Shortly after, in a confused encounter, one of the Etoro was shot and killed, confirming the Etoro in their view about who these beings were.

Further along the trail that they followed, the patrol came upon taboo signs, clear indications that the local people did not want the strangers to pass. The patrol pushed on regardless and, coming upon an old woman, pressed her with gifts of beads. When she returned to her own people, who were hiding in the forest, and showed them the gifts they were thrown into even greater dismay, imagining that the whole world would collapse to its origin point if the world of humans and spirits was not kept apart. Their consternation was even greater when they returned to their huts and found gifts of cloth, axes and machetes hanging from the rafters. Unsure what might happen if they touched them they were left hanging there. ‘What are these things? Why don’t you take them down?’ asked a visitor from a nearly village. ‘We are afraid. Who knows where these things are from. Perhaps they are from the Origin Time’.

The further on the patrol went the more often it had to resort to violence to secure food. In one encounter with the Wola, the patrol found itself in a narrow defile and fighting broke out after further miscommunication and cultural incomprehension. The devastating rifle fire and close quarter shooting with service revolvers killed and wounded over fourteen Wola. Recalls Leda: ‘They shot my cross-cousin Huruwumb, and I went to see him. You could see his liver exposed. They kept sending me to fetch water for him to drink because he was thirsty. Back and forth, I kept going to fetch water for him. He lived in agony for three days. On the fourth day he died.’ One of the Wola women, Tensgay, remembers other gruesome wounds:

“Kal Aenknais had his thighs and lower torso smashed. Completely pulverised here and here. He kept groaning ‘Oh! Ah!’. I saw him. He died later. Wounded in the guts he was. His intestines were punctured. When he was given water to drink, to cool him off, it came spurting out of the holes in his body. Then there was Obil. His eyes were blown clean out of his head. When they landed on the path they wriggled around and around for ages. He died too. And then there was that poor blighter – aah – whose entrails were shot out. His intestines and stomach were blasted right out of his body…”

After the massacre, the white officers sent the coastal police men to get food from the village. Coming on the village hut they found the women and children cowering inside. Tengsay recalls the scene:

“We were terrified… They tore open the door of our house and demanded everything. Puliym’s mother released the pigs one at a time and drove them out of the door to them waiting outside…They tore off the front of the house, attacked it with axes and bushknives… They took the pigs one at a time and shot them outside. After they killed them they singed off the bristles over a fire made from the wood torn from our house. Then they butchered them ready to carry off… After they had killed and prepared the pigs they turned on us. We didn’t see well what was going on. We were cowering inside. They returned and stood there [about three metres away] and fired their guns into the house. They shot Hiyt Ibiziym, Bat Maemuw, my sister, Ndin, Maeniy and me. That’s six of us… We were so frightened that we were all dizzy and faint… We slumped in a sort of stupefied state. Who was there to bandage our wounds with moss and levaes?… we just slumped indoors. We didn’t think anything. All we felt was terror and dizziness. I was sort of senseless… Well, they didn’t rape any women. That was done by later patrols, when they not only stole our pigs but our women too, and broke into our houses and smashed up our possessions, like our bows and things. They even excreted in our fireplaces”.

The task of the colonial authorities in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, as commanded by the League of Nations, was to protect the native peoples. Accordingly, the highlands were declared a ‘controlled area’ into which access was only allowed to those with permits. There were strict regulations, on paper, about what those with permits could do if they entered the controlled area. They must not enter native villages; not allow their carriers (coastal porters) to trade with the local people without supervision; and ensure that all campsites were provided with pit latrines to avoid contamination of local waters. Arms were only to be used as a last resort, in self defense. However, not only did the colonial power lack the resources and manpower to control access effectively, they also wanted to encourage economic development in the interior. Permits to enter the ‘controlled areas’ were thus issued to miners, and the local officials were themselves in two minds about the appropriateness of the regulations.

Many of the colonials were, however, clear in their minds that, if there was to be ‘development’, the way of life of the native people would have to change. As one editorial in the “Rabaul Times” on 25 September 1936 noted:

“One of the greatest contributing factors to the unsatisfactory services rendered by native labourers in this country is their economic independence. For it must not be forgotten that every native is a landed proprietor, and nature has endowed New Guinea with a prolific soil, which provides adequate sustenance for a minimum of labour. Dismissal from employment, if he fails to carry out his duties, holds no terrors for the New Guinean native. It is the shadow of the sack, hovering over the white employee, which urges him to render service. Unless and until our natives reach such a stage of development that they must work to obtain sustenance or a livelihood, they will never make suitable indentured labour for the average white resident”.

From this point of view, the enforced contacts and integration of the highlanders into the modern world, were necessary steps to achieve a kind of ‘development’. A certain amount of bloodshed could then be justified as an inevitable part of the process of social change. Perhaps, if those in the outside world hadn’t been in such a hurry and could better appreciate that people in other worlds have different priorities and beliefs, things might have been different.

By: Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: