Marape tells Oil Search PNG wants ‘greater participation’

How PNG avoided Australia’s devastating ‘frontier wars’

Waterlook Creek massacre
New South Wales mounted police engage Indigenous Australians during the Waterloo Creek Massacre of 1838


ADELAIDE - In late 1982, I completed the last semester of my studies for a university degree, in which I had majored in history and politics.

When the official transcript of my academic record turned up, I was surprised to discover that I had, entirely by accident, also majored in a subject called Australian Studies.

So, in theory at least, I was a certified ‘expert’ in Australian history, not to mention having completed my bachelor's degree with an unusual triple major.

Reading Phil Fitzpatrick's article, Colonial wars much bloodier in Australia than Papua’, it occurred to me that at no time during my studies did the topic of Australia's frontier wars ever come up, except obliquely when race relations during the colonial era were discussed.

Even then, it was never stated or implied that those wars amounted to a form of genocide.

I have long since concluded that my supposed expertise in Australian history was conspicuously deficient in certain areas, the frontier wars being one of them.

The term ‘frontier wars’ is possibly misleading, in that it implies that the conflict had a certain level of direction and organisation, as is the case for the many guerrilla wars fought during the 20th century.

In an Australian context, the warfare on the frontiers was usually fought as a series of small engagements. Apparently the numbers involved were rarely very large.

Often individual colonists would claim to have driven off “threatening natives”, shooting a few in the process. These killings were regarded as self defence and reported as such (if at all).

There also apparently was a conspiracy of silence about them, even though many colonists disapproved of such killings.

No-one knows how extensive such practices were, but they are mentioned sufficiently often in historic documents to suggest that they were not rare.

Large scale massacres of Aboriginal people were more uncommon but certainly occurred. The authorities did not sanction these events but very rarely were the perpetrators called to account for their actions.

Given the technological advantages enjoyed by the colonists, the battles were usually very one sided. Appallingly, it seems that women and children were often killed, not just the men engaged in the conflict.

These events should be a source of deep national shame in Australia but a sort of political and moral amnesia prevailed for nearly two centuries.

Only now are the appalling crimes of the past being exposed, often to the genuine dismay of people who were kept in the dark about the ignoble actions of hitherto venerated ancestors.

A few supposed paragons of the colonial era have been exposed as little more than the moral equivalents of the perpetrators of the Jewish holocaust. No doubt more will be exposed in due course.

No-one knows how many Aboriginal people were deliberately murdered in the colonial era, but figures of 20,000 or more have been suggested. Some people believe that this is the low end of estimates.

As Phil suggests, this colonial predilection towards the violent dispossession of the indigenous population might well have been visited upon Papua New Guinea if the early enthusiasts for taking over the country had had their way.

Fortunately, attitudes had changed markedly by the time PNG began to interest the European colonial powers. The indiscriminate use force was regarded as both unnecessary and unreasonable by many of the people who occupied positions of authority.

The notion that the colonial powers had a duty to bring civilization to places like Africa, India, South East Asia and the Pacific (the so-called "white man's burden") had by then gripped the minds of many colonial administrators.

Of course, this did not end colonial violence but, in the case of PNG, a combination of this type of thinking with the unusually enlightened leadership of Hubert Murray and his successors, meant that it was spared the worst excesses of colonial rule.

I have previously written about the documented examples of colonial extra-judicial killings in PNG, of which there are quite a number.

Mathias Kin has written about undocumented cases of violence and murder allegedly carried out by or at the behest of patrol officers.

That there were undocumented cases of extra-judicial killings seems to me to be highly probable. The covert nature of these events makes it very difficult to assess the numbers who were killed.

What can be said with some certainty, however, is that Phil’s assertion that Australia’s colonial wars were bloodier than those in Papua (and, by extension, in New Guinea) is undoubtedly correct.

There are quite a few reasons for believing this.

First, the explicit policy of the colonial administration was to avoid conflict if at all possible and, if it became unavoidable, to use only the minimum force required to defend patrols from being overwhelmed.

The rule of law was to be imposed, not the rule of the gun. This policy was enforced in relation to both government officers and private individuals.

Second, the number of colonial officers, planters, miners and missionaries in PNG was only very small and they mostly were widely dispersed in rural and remote areas. The terrain itself conspired against easy movement and provided a huge tactical advantage to the indigenous population in the event of conflict.

Basically, the opportunity to inflict harm on a large scale was absent. There nevertheless are at least some examples of punitive expeditions conducted by groups but these appear to have been rare.

Third, the ability to carry out extra-judicial killings was constrained by the fact that such events were unlikely to go unreported for very long, which tended to discourage such actions. The presence and influence of missionaries very probably exerted a significant influence as well.

Fourth, the environment in PNG was very hostile to the early European colonialists. The prospect of living in a sometimes uncomfortable tropic climate and the ever present risk of death from the many tropical diseases found in PNG, especially malaria, greatly discouraged large scale migration.

In Australia, the colonialists were the bringers of new lethal diseases, not their most likely victims, so the risk of disease did not constrain mass migration.

Fifth, the colonial intruders actually needed the cooperation of the local population to survive and to run patrol posts, plantations, mines or other businesses. Consequently, even the dimmest colonialist understood that going around shooting people was highly prejudicial if you routinely needed their active assistance.

Sixth, the people of PNG very rapidly came to understand that they were overmatched by colonial technologies, especially high powered rifles. They may have been unsophisticated but they were not stupid, so they appear to have made a collective decision to work with, not against, the colonial intruders where this was to their overall advantage.

Seventh, the reach and influence of the early colonial regime was severely limited by factors such as the immense difficulties associated with moving across PNG's rugged terrain, the impact of disease which I have previously mentioned and a generally acute lack of resources. Thus the colonial power’s relatively low impact presence and approach reduced the likelihood of conflict.

Eighth, the distinctive social values that had emerged in colonial Australia by around 1900 at the latest, especially its relatively easy going egalitarianism and suspicion of authority, were probably factors too.

For example, Australians did not usually manifest to any great degree the “born to rule” mindset that was prevalent amongst the British colonial authorities, who frequently were drawn from Britain’s elite ruling class. There consequently was much less inclination to adopt the frequently heavy handed tactics that accompanied European colonialism in other places like Africa and South East Asia.

Ninth, attitudes to Aboriginal people seem to have been different to those manifested towards Papua New Guineans. Maybe this was because the structure and organisation of PNG cultures was generally more sophisticated and it was thus easier for colonialists to understand and work with.

For whatever reasons, Papua New Guineans seemed to be regarded as more relatable as fellow humans and this reduced the likelihood of conflict. Dehumanization of “the other” is a prerequisite for genocide.

The latter two factors are somewhat speculative, but the rest seem solidly based in demonstrable fact.

I suggest these multiple factors combined to ensure that PNG underwent an unusually benign period of colonial rule and so spare them anything like the genocidal Frontier War experienced by Australian Aboriginals.

The truly horrendous stories of enslavement, mass murder, cruelty and cultural destruction that characterized early colonialism in South America, the USA, Africa and Australia have no equivalents in PNG’s history.

History indicates that, sometimes, you just have to be lucky and PNG's colonial experience appears to be an example of this.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

You're right Paul, imperialism is not just something that was practised by European colonialists. It even happened among Aboriginal groups in Australia.

In Central Australia there was a small language group in the Petermann Ranges that was so far away that it actually survived European incursions largely culturally intact.

The anthropologists refer to them as Pitjantjatjara. There are closely related to the Yankunytjatjara to their east. Because they had retained their culture they became very powerful and influential.

Their influence has now spread to much of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Some anthropologists refer to the development as Pitjantjatjara Imperialism. They have even overrun the sophisticated Aranda to the northeast and the Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Range to the south.

Southern tribes now send their young men to the APY Lands to be initiated. Their "Wati' culture has now subsumed the old cultures of the south.

A similar thing happened in the highlands of PNG when the people now referred to as Enga invaded the valleys in the Central Ranges. They effectively conquered and absorbed the groups living there.

You could call that Enga Imperialism. The Enga's bigman culture spread to the rest of the Western and Eastern Highlands and is now endemic throughout the highlands and, as we know, the streets of Lae and Port Moresby.

Paul Oates

Let us not forget that this is a world wide problem and not just restricted to 19th and 20th Century Europeans. Look at examples in previous human history like Genghis Khan and Shaka Zulu?

It is a human trait that must be recognised and resisted. To some extent, religions like Christianity has both helped and then hindered this problem. William Wilberforce is an example of how the overall ethnic worm can turn.

In the colonial scheme of things in Oz, Governor Macquarie also had some worthwhile qualities. Papua and later, New Guinea were very fortunate to have initially acquired the far thinking Sir Hubert Murray. I wonder is his grave, which I understand is in Moresby, ever honoured and revered at any time by those who now benefit from his efforts?

Perhaps the descendants of the original Motu owners of the now Greater Moresby region now feel somewhat aggrieved over the gradual takeover of their land by outsiders from their own country?

Philip Fitzpatrick

I agree with what you suggest Chris.

I think one of the substantive differences between the colonial experience in PNG and that of places like Africa is that the colonialists didn't come as part of an exploitative force.

In Africa one of the main motives of the British, French, Belgians et al was the commercial exploitation of the colonial resources. The colonial services in those places were there to support such measures. Hence it was populated by people from the master country's ruling elite.

With the exploitative motive ruled out by Murray etc. the type of person attracted to the Australian colonial service was quite different.

The exploitative element in the African and other colonies existed well into the 20th century and it was only after WW2 that the colonists began to think in terms of their duty to develop the indigenous populations.

Interestingly there was only one state in Australia where colonial violence was largely absent and that was South Australia. This was because it was planned that way right from the beginning.

Curiously, a lot of kiaps in PNG came from South Australia.

There was a lot more organised resistance to colonialism by Aborigines in Australia than is immediately apparent. This began quite early when people like Pemulwuy fought the British in NSW. He had escaped Irish convicts fighting with him and advising on tactics.

So too the Wiradjuri further inland fought organised wars against the settlers.

PS: I finished my degree in 1982 with three majors too.

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