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How New Guinea’s highlanders came to live all over PNG

Boroko Hotel ad from 1969PHIL FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - Remember the old Boroko Hotel on the corner of Okari Street and Angau Drive and its popular beer garden?

Pictured here is a faded 1969 newspaper advertisement offering its glories – it was a place “where Sportsmen meet” apparently.

It was first opened in 1956 and was added to in a haphazard way in subsequent years. The entrance moved around a fair bit but finally found its niche behind a pretty tropical garden on Okari Street.

By the late 1960s it had become the favourite watering hole for Port Moresby’s highlanders, particularly those from Chimbu.

They called it ‘Two Hundred Yards’ after an illuminated sign up the street that announced you were nearly in reach of a cold SP beer.

There was many a happy riot there that often spilled out onto the road but quickly dispersed when the cops from Boroko Police Station just along the road arrived. The District Court backed onto the hotel and was most convenient for the quick processing of the rowdy and recalcitrant.

I went past there often as I made my way to a wonderful traditional English-style fish and chip shop run by a sweating English woman and her burly red-headed husband. But I seldom dropped in for a drink for fear of being trampled by rampant highlanders.

The migration to Port Moresby and other major towns by highlanders didn’t begin in earnest until the commencement of the Highlands Labour Scheme in 1950.

Up until then the colonial Administration was very wary about allowing highlanders to venture out of their high valleys.

In 1943 a sick American serviceman with bacillary dysentery had caused the deaths of an estimated 5,000 people around Mount Hagen.

This alerted the Administration to the dangers of introduced diseases. It was also aware of the high mortality rates among the few highlanders who had been taken to the coast before the war.

While the Administration was afraid that the introduction of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis could result in a high death rate, it also knew it couldn’t go on isolating the highlands in such a paternal way. It was, after all, where half of Papua New Guinea’s population lived.

To this end they set up a carefully monitored pilot scheme in 1949 where 210 young men from the Bena Bena area were allowed to go to Wau to work for New Guinea Goldfields Limited.

Mick Leahy’s younger brother, Jim, was granted the first recruiter’s licence in the central highlands and he chose only the fittest and healthiest men for the work.

The scheme was a success and this opened up the highlands to other recruiters. Great pains were taken to maintain strict guidelines drawn up by the Public Health Department.

By the end of 1950, some 3,000 highlanders had taken advantage of the scheme. Many more were also queuing to take part, lured by the prospects of seeing the coast and the great saltwater and earning money to bring back boxes of trade goods to their villages.

Most of the labourers ‘made paper’ (signed contracts), usually of two years duration and spelled out under the terms of the Native Labour Ordinance that was introduced in 1958.

The ordinance was administered by the kiaps or by special ‘native labour inspectors’. As time went by, however, people began to seek employment of their own volition and venture to the coast. The deluge had begun.

The strict labour controls angered some employers who said the workers were being pampered by the Administration. When kiaps or native labour officers visited for worksite inspections they weren’t always greeted cordially.

By the late 1960s highlanders were working as labourers all over Papua New Guinea.

SP beer ad  1954 In places like Chimbu, where land pressure was a problem and paid jobs hard to get, many men left to find work and never returned. Others became involved in resettlement schemes, especially in the New Guinea islands region.

In his book, ‘The Flight of Galkope’, Sil Bolkin refers to how this exodus established a Chimbu diaspora throughout PNG.

And that’s how the highlanders took over the Boroko Hotel – and many other places to boot.

Nowadays it’s hard to find a place in Papua New Guinea where there are not at least a few highlanders living. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

It’s now hard to imagine that just under 70 years ago highlanders were not allowed out of their high valleys.


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Jarrod Tappin

Can anyone confirm that the Boroko Hotel is gone now? Appears to be looking at Google maps. My mother worked there in the early 60s and I’m visiting Moresby soon.

Lindsay F Bond

People use words from their existing observations and nominations and so saddle the beast of each current opportunity, looking to ride to further advantage.

For example, look at labels applied in the arena of information communication technology. Ol spik, nu ting?

Would saddle (for horse) fit purpose when tied to 'giraffe'? Useful only for idea sharing.

From rural PNG to raucous Mosbi comes a dromendary, a camel, the riding of which awaits to be mounted.

The hump of the beast is a sociological forefront of quite exhilarating opportunity not seen in villages.

Language and labels will evolve as cohesion and community constrain and corral. Hopefully, creatively.

Daniel Kumbon

Jordan, it was migrants who took over America and Australia. They developed these lands to the powers they are today. Compare the world problems and our own domestic problems - the same as experienced by people everywhere. Problems will always be there it seems.

Garry Roche

It is not unusual that 'migrants' become more industrious than 'asples' locals.

It used to be that most of the PMV buses and taxis in POM were run by Western Highlanders, I do not know if that is still the case.

Chimbu people tend to be industrious in agriculture no matter where they go. I remember asking students at Trinity Teachers College where they came from.

When one student told me he came from Chimbu, I asked what part of Chimbu he came from and he answered "Six Mile!" - which is of course a Port Moresby suburb near the airport.

But there has also been a lot of migration from Sepik area to POM and to places like new Britain, Madang and Morobe.

Jordan Dean

We've witnessed a lot of problems associated with such migration in Port Moresby, Lae and the recent dispute in Madang. Maybe it's time we introduce the Vagrancy Act to control highlanders migrating unnecessarily to coastal towns.

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