euro1Undisturbed by European intrusion for tens of thousands of years, the people of these islands built up their own civilisations and cultures.

Then early in the sixteenth century, Portuguese and Spanish navigators first met the islanders and gave them a new name. In 1526 Jorge de Menezes called the land Ilhas Dos Papuas, the last word being a Portuguese corruption of the Malay term for curly hair. Seventeen years later, in 1545, Ynigo Ortiz de Rexes renamed the country Nueve Guinea, because it reminded him of Guinea in Africa. Caught between an arbitrary label and a rather demeaning slang word, the name Papua New Guinea has nevertheless stuck. For a long time, Europeans mistakenly thought that the inhabitants of PNG were related to the negro peoples of Africa.

The Spaniards and the Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, who consolidated their hold on the East Indies in the 17th century. Although they were clearly not averse to finding gold in the area, their main efforts were concentrated on the lucrative Spice Island trade in mace, nutmeg and cloves. There was no obvious wealth in Papua New Guinea and interaction with the inhabitants was limited to stopping for food, firewood and water. During the next centuries, the mainland and islands of Papua New Guinea were visited by British, French and Dutch mariners, many of whom left their names or the names of European places behind them. It was not until 1828 that the Dutch claimed sovereignty over the west part of the island of New Guinea. Coastal communities started to become accustomed to contact with whalers, pearlers, sandalwood cutters and traders of various kinds. As the fledging colony of Australia developed, there was an increasing need for cheap indentured labour to work in the sugar plantations of North Queensland and an unscrupulous ‘blackbirding’ industry arose. Ships would visit islands in the Milne Bay, New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville and the Solomons to forcibly ‘recruit’ young men to work as labourers in Australia, Fiji and Samoa. This sometimes led to violent clashes with local clans, but ‘kanaka’ labour was instrumental in getting largescale commercial agriculture successfully established in those countries.euro

English cartographers were soon mapping the edges of their international domain. In 1847, Captain Owen Stanley surveyed the Papuan coast, immodestly naming the country’s central cordillera after himself. Thirty years later, in the southern part of the country, the Englishman John Moresby located a break in the fringing reef and went on through it to find a large natural habour and a village, Hanuabada. This harbour and the town that replaced the village is now known as Port Moresby.

The future capital, however, grew very slowly. Its European population remained fairly static except for a brief invasion by gold prospectors in 1878. Reports of gold on Laloki River outside the town spurred more than a hundred hopefuls to travel from Cooktown in North Queensland. Within six months they were all back in Australia again. By 1897, Port Moresby had a resident white population of only 33.

In 1848, the Dutch formally incorporated the eastern end of mainland New Guinea into their empire. That part of the country is now Irian Jaya and is part of Indonesia. When Germany annexed north-eastern New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago as Kaiser Wilhelmsland in 1884, the growing and exportation of copra was a major commercial activity on Gazelle Peninsula. Several previous attempts by British navigators to annex Papua New Guinea had all ended abortively, including one by Captain Moresby himself in 1873. However, only three days after the German announcement, Commodore John Erskine officially raised the Union Jack over British New Guinea. Four years later, in 1888, it became a British colony. The actual demarcation lines between German and British New Guinea were drawn up over a table in Europe by bisecting the country with a ruler, then dividing up the eastern half. Papua New Guinea became the proud ‘possession’ of Britain, Germany and Holland.