Undemocratic parliament = absolute power
70 years after – and memories of Trawool

Rabaul: an enduring town on shaky ground


Rabaul is this year celebrating the centenary of becoming the capital of German New Guinea under its present name (it was originally Simpsonhafen). REV NEVILLE THRELFALL tells its story.

STANDING ON a superb natural harbour, ringed by green hills, and filled with brilliant tropical flowering trees and shrubs, Rabaul was known as one of the most beautiful towns in the Pacific for most of the twentieth century.

Even now, with so much destroyed by volcanic action, beauty remains. Yet Rabaul has always been a town on shaky ground. Within living memory shorelines have altered, land levels have risen and fallen and a fresh mountain has arisen to transform sea into dry land and join an island to the mainland. Hardly a suitable location for a town, one would say!

Beneath the Pacific Ocean a plate of the earth's crust is pushing southwestwards against the plate which carries the Australian continent, subjecting the islands of the New Guinea region to enormous pressures.

Rabaul stands on this line of pressure at a point where three lesser plates press against the Pacific Plate and against one another. As the plates grind together, buckling and slippage in the rocks below the earth's surface produce continual earth tremors and, periodically, massive earthquakes followed by tsunamis.

Weaknesses and fractures along the lines of plate movement provide outlets for the fiery heat raging beneath Earth's fragile crust, producing Rabaul's volcanoes as part of the Ring of Fire around the Pacific. Geological evidence shows that volcanic activity created a great mountain 3,000 metres high and ten kilometers wide at its base in the area where Blanche Bay and its inner harbours now lie.

Blockage of vents by cooling lava caused tremendous explosions, rivalling the notorious eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. These destroyed the mountain, letting in the sea to form the harbours, but left the remnant of its base as the rim of a great caldera around them.

Fresh eruptions created lesser volcanic peaks and craters around the rim: Kabiu (The Mother), Tovanumbatir (The North Daughter), Turagunan (The South Daughter), Tavurvur (Matupit Crater), Rabalanakaia (literally The Heart of the Volcano) and Kalamanagunan (Vulcan Crater). Some of these have been dormant for centuries, but the last three are still active.

The first European witness of volcanic activity at Rabaul was William Dampier in 1700. Sailing into the southern end of St George’s Channel (which he mapped as a deep bay), Dampier observed “a large cloud of smoke” to the north. In 1878 a massive eruption was observed by traders and missionaries who had established themselves in the area.

Tavurvur erupted, and on the opposite side of the harbour an underwater explosion caused an island to emerge, mainly flat except for a low crater. The Tolai called it Rakaia (The Volcano), and Europeans named it Vulcan. The two islets in the harbour, Dawapia (The Beehives) sank lower, causing a fishing village to be abandoned. The waters of the harbour boiled and dead fish and turtles were washed ashore.

With this evidence of destructive forces lurking close to the surface, why was a town built there? The need for a sheltered anchorage for shipping drew Edouard Hernsheim and other traders to settle on Matupit Island in the 1880s, using the waters between the island and Tavurvur as a harbour. But it was Albert Hahl, the Governor of German New Guinea, who formed a more ambitious plan to create a port and with it a new capital for the colony. Hahl must have known of the eruptions of 1878, but chose to disregard them because of the fine sheltered harbour.

The Imperial Government of Germany did not accept the suggestion. Having just moved the colonial capital from Friederich Wilhelmshaven (Madang) to Herbertshoehe (Kokopo), they were not going to spend money on a new port and town.

But Herbertshoehe had no harbour, and Hahl was determined. He persuaded the Norddeutscher Lloyd Shipping Company to build a deepwater jetty on Simpson Harbour at its own expense, then used government funds meant for buildings at Herbertshoehe to build a town at the new port instead, clearing away the mangrove swamp which lined the foreshore and gave the place its Tolai name Rabaul, The Mangroves.

By 1910 Rabaul was ready to be the colony’s new capital, having come into existence without Imperial Government intention or sanction.

Volcanic eruptions since then caused massive damage in 1937, ongoing discomfort in 1941-43, and massive damage again in 1994 and a continuing threat since. Orders to abandon the town after the 1937 eruption were not carried out; although removal of the capital began in 1941 but was interrupted by war.

Removal of the town to Kokopo was ordered in 1946, but again not carried out. Rabaul residents developed a strong bond with the town, and clung on stubbornly in spite of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

Improvised housing sprang up: shacks of tarpaper on timber frames, store buildings of “black iron”, and even homes of bush timber and kunai grass.

Wharves were improvised from wrecked shipping, and the port of Rabaul got into full swing. Finally it was decided the town should stay.

In July 1971 two massive earthquakes, twelve days apart, rocked the town and its environs, each causing damage and followed by a tsunami. From the Volcanological Observatory on the hill above the town came warnings that another volcanic eruption was likely.

Evacuation plans were drawn up and emergency procedures trialled; but time went by and the level of alertness slackened. So when the big eruption of September 1994 came, it caught people by surprise. At least two-thirds of buildings were destroyed or so badly damaged that they were demolished. Kokopo was declared the commercial and administrative centre for the province. There was hopeful talk of rebuilding parts of Rabaul, but continued emissions of volcanic dust from Tavurvur have put an end to that.

Yet the town continues to live, on a smaller scale, and the port still operates as the shipping centre for East New Britain and the surrounding region. The surrounding hills are still green, and flowers still bloom, including the frangipani, which was adopted as the symbol of hope and regrowth after the 1937 eruption. The town on shaky ground, after its unauthorised start and all that Nature and human disorders have thrown at it, still endures!

Photo: Rabaul as it was circa 1970s and as we like to remember it


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Karen Henderson

I lived at Rabaul (Nonga actually) and went to school there in 1971 and have been asked to give a talk on Rabaul at the CWA tonight.

It's been so lovely reading some of the history and articles on the place I hold dear. So very sorry to read that Chris Percival is deceased ... we were in the same class at school and I have fond memories of all our classmates.

Bill Allom

I arrived in Rabaul in early 1979 fresh out of the Australian Army to become a teacher at Maltech.

Tamie to Paurier was the principal and some of the names I remember are Bill Soady, Graeme Grieves, Gerry Wynne, Graham Sutherland, Jim Hicks, Granger Nichols, Damien Gaynor and Pete Cortez.

I can visualise some of the others but names escape me.

Despite brownouts, no TV or decent radio, bouts of dengue fever, etc, it truly was a beautiful place to work and live.

I met and married my wife there and our first son spent his first two years there and was baby sat by Tammie's wife.

The scuba diving was second to none and I dove with Bob Clayton, Frank and Wendy Fischer and Stuart Mason to name a few.

The social life revolved around the New Guinea Club, scuba diving with picnics on the beach and the Filipinos.

We regrettably left in late 1983 after Maltech was to close and I was offered a contract at Arawa Tech. Lucky for us we did go as it turned out.

We still reminisce about the beauty of Rabaul and friends we made, some whom have passed on but others we still have long distance contact with.

John Irvine

I too have wonderful memories of Rabaul and I will be visiting in July this year to re-connect with my past.
My family was in Rabaul from 1966-1974 after spending time throughout PNG since 1956.

I attended Court St Primary and boarding school in Sydney but my teenage years were spent in Rabaul.

My father, (John Irvine Snr)was the Hospital Administrator at Nonga Base Hospital (now Nonga General) and my mother was a secretary at the hospital as well. We lived near the hospital and I had my own fishing canoe and used to ride my bike into Rabaul over Tunnel Hill (whew).

Names like Donald McKenzie, the Percival Brothers (Chris now deceased) and Ian Cuming come to mind. We had a ball in Rabaul learning to drink at the Kaivuna Hotel and the yacht club. Wouldn't change it for the world.

I hope I am not disappointed on my return but I still speak fluent Pidgin and hope the volcano hasn't taken away too many memories.

John Irvine

Rob Cummins

I was born at Nonga hospital in 1965. My father owned a bakery. I still get sad thinking about that beautiful lost town.

Jen Robertson

Went to school in Rabaul and we were there for the earthquakes.

We sat in class and counted until the teacher told us to stand and walk to the sports field.

The earth moved in waves and we staggered the distance. The rumbling was impressive and I thought it was the sound of the Beehives collapsing (one did and so did cliffs along the Kokopo Road and inland).

There was an evacuation plan in place at the time - we didn't use it because my Dad was working at OTC the night the tsunami was supposed to hit.

We lived in Tavur Street. I thought Rabaul the most beautiful place I had ever seen and sent school friends in Australia crazy just talking about it!

Rebecca Jansen (McPhee)

I was in Rabaul in 1971-72. My father was OIC at the weather station and I worked at the Commonwealth Bank.

I still think of how quiet, pretty and peacful it was and had visions of one day returning, but alas it is not how I remember it.

I have some photos of the tsunami that occurred on 26 July 1971. I remember both earthquakes for their strength; one was like a rolling wave and the other shook from side to side (we were watching the water tanks at the bank clap together as the ground went from on direction and back again!).

We lived at 35 Malaguna Road and I remember a houseboy named Bun-Bun who baby sat our house when we went out for the evenings - I gave him my guitar when we left.

Don Robinson

I love to read about Rabaul. My wife and I went there in 1952 and stayed ten years.I managed town transport.

We carted scrap from the jungle - aircraft, torpedoes, you name it. Also a lot of propellers from the harbour, removed by some enterprising blokes.

I could have stayed but had five kids to educate. The Japs came back and removed the ships from the harbour. All very ineresting.

Mavis Host

Rabaul will always be special in our family memories. I taught at Tavui Secretarial School (which became Rabaul Secretarial College and has now been re-established at Kokopo as a business college) and my husband taught at Malaguna Technical College.

Two of our children were born at Nonga Base Hospital and we still have many friends from Rabaul.


Thank you, Neville, for your history of Rabaul.

When I arrived the then TP&NG in 1961, I was fortunate to be sent to Rabaul, and I still love it. Been back a few times, including 1974-5.

The oil-palm seedling I planted [corner Mango and Namanula Avenues] survived the 1994 events, as I saw from satellite and aerial photos.

Long live Rabaul's beauty and charm, even if mostly in the hearts of us who live afar.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)