An often quoted fact about Papua New Guinea is that it is the second largest island in the world after Greenland. As a description of PNG this is not very helpful. Firstly PNG shares the island almost equally with Indonesia – along a ruler straight line drawn by European colonialists in the nineteenth century. Second there is much more to PNG than the mainland. There are many large islands both to the northeast and east and these are surrounded by smaller islands.
It is geography which first determines the regions of PNG. The mainland is divided by a great mountain range which makes a natural break between Papuans to the west and the New Guineans to the East. Geography also marks out the islands region. But it was an early colonial land-grab which drew a dividing line across the mountain range to give the Dutch, the Germans and the British a share of the territory and defined the four regions.
Papua comprises much of the south part of the mainland, stretching from Western Province out to the islands of Milne Bay. It was first under British and then under Australian rule until Independence. New Guinea comprises the provinces of West Sepik, East Sepik, Madang and Morobe, annexed en mass by the Germans. The five Highland provinces were the last area to be penetrated by Europeans. The New Guinea Islands from Manus in the Northwest to North Solomons in the east have always taken an independent line. It is no surprise that this ‘regional’ structure is barely in use today. But it has left a residue, a rich sediment of cultural and traditional difference which erupts from time to time.
A rugby game had to be suspended in 1973 because a Papuan woman referred to the New Guineans as ‘kaukau’ eaters. The resulting brawl spilt out of the pitch and continued for three days. Papuans express considerable fear of ‘Highlanders’ fierce disposition. Morobe, Madang and Sepik have formed a loose association called Momase. Secessionist movements break out in the Islands. But overall PNG has succeeded in uniting itself into one Independent modern state – a State which has a provincial structure to represent the interests of difference.