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