PNG's phony corruption fighters
Guise & Kerr – the Whitlam connection

How PNG escaped colonialism’s worst

The Australian colonial Administration's basic position was that PNG people should be brought under the rule of law as humanely and non-violently as possible


ADELAIDE - Phil Fitzpatrick is right to equate racism with economic oppression, as they clearly go hand in hand.

You do not need to be a Marxist to understand that neo-liberal capitalism relies upon the ability to exploit labour in order to flourish.

The basic theory underpinning capitalism as outlined by Adam Smith is that if each person is free to pursue his or her own economic best interests so the total economy must inevitably grow.

This is so because every economic exchange generates a profit which means that, over time, the total size of the economy will grow.

Smith was wise enough to understand that the role of government is to moderate the worst excesses of capitalism by, for example, preventing the emergence of gigantic monopolies or oligopolies and generally ensuring that economic activity was conducted fairly.

Karl Marx's contribution was to point out that capitalism is inherently exploitative.

It largely relies upon capitalists being able to convert the labour of their workforce into products and services which are sold at a profit, with profit being maximised by, amongst other things, labour costs being minimised.

Capitalists allow their workers to share in the wealth they create only to the minimum extent necessary to secure their cooperation in the production of goods and services for sale.

A person's colour is significant in this capitalist process because racism is a mechanism by which a defined group can be regarded as essentially ‘non-human’, thereby providing a philosophical or moral justification for their enslavement or some other form of exploitation.

This is why the founding fathers of the USA could proclaim that "all men are created equal" whilst at the same time acknowledging that this supposedly universal statement did not apply to black people because, as Phil Fitzpatrick mentioned, they were regarded as an inferior sort of human or even non-human.

Even at the time, the fundamental hypocrisy of this position was well understood and there was a vociferous anti-slavery movement, especially in the northern states.

It set the scene for the American Civil War because it created moral and economic tensions within the new republic that could not be resolved politically.

Papua New Guinea was spared the very worst form of European imperial capitalism and the associated racism.

This is so because, by the time PNG was being drawn into the modern world, most people regarded the routine racism of the past as unacceptable.

This is not to say that the exploration and pacification of PNG was without blemish, as this is clearly not the case.

But the Administration's basic position was that the population should be brought under the rule of law as humanely and non-violently as possible.

Thus while the Administration was, at some level at least, informed by a racist outlook, this was hugely modified by an insistence upon procedural fairness in applying the rule of law and a determination that the people should not be dispossessed of their land and so avoid the fate of many Africans who became refugees in their own country.

While what might be called petty racism was an underlying issue in PNG, the grotesquely systemic racism found in the pre-Civil War USA and many European colonies in Africa was not allowed to develop.

Also, the worst excesses of capitalism were not visited upon Papua New Guineans, with significant restrictions imposed upon colonists to ensure that the wholesale depredations of Africa were not repeated.

Thus was PNG spared the worst of either racism or capitalism and able to smoothly and peacefully transition from colonial dependency to full independence.

All that said, a problem for PNG now is to avoid becoming ensnared in a new form of economic colonialism which may turn out to be every bit as pernicious and destructive as overt racism.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

And if you don't believe that dig up a copy of 'Sanders of the River' and see if you recognise yourself.

You could have dropped Sanders into the highlands in the 1950s and no one would have thought twice about him.

Chips Mackellar

I agree with Chris. Irrespective of what we considered ourselves to be, others could easily have seen us as colonials, and for good reason, and that is that in the initial stages, the Australian Administration was based on the British Colonial Service.

That is why we had District Officers and District Commissioners, just like the British Colonial Service. And remember what the uniform of our uniformed commissioned police officers was before they wore blue? It was khaki, with Sam Brown belt - just like the British Colonial Police Service.

As time when on the British Colonial image was changed, for example when the police wore blue, and Districts became Provinces and all that, but in the beginning, outsiders may have been forgiven if they thought we were colonials.

Chris Overland

In relation to Ian Robertson's point, I think that he is largely correct. I agree that no-one who lived in PNG ever thought of themselves as colonists and that the word "colony" was not used to describe the then TPNG.

That said, I think that it is fair to say that outside observers regarded Australia's presence in TPNG as being a part of the legacy colonial structures of the European imperial era. Certainly, the members of the UN's "non-aligned movement" thought about TPNG in such terms as did the major communist powers of the era.

So, while I reckon Ian has made a fair point, I think it is still reasonable to describe Australia as a colonial power.

Robert Forster

It does no good to pretend that late 19th and early 20th century PNG with its stone based technology and scattered, perpetually warring, tribes could have lain undisturbed by relentless world impetus for ever.

Discussion of Australia’s presence should begin, not with whether it had any right to be there, but with what might have happened if a potentially harsher Japanese or Indonesian administration had taken over the country before it became independent instead.

It was inevitable that, rightly or wrongly, a technologically enhanced and more powerful nation state would have done. That is a fact.

Much as they may dislike sections of the Australian administration’s legacy Papua New Guineans could not, even with the advantage of hindsight, have escaped global advance by hiding indefinitely.

A culture backed by superior modern skills would, as surely as night follows day, have imposed itself on them. That it happened to be Australia, which in colonial terms arrived late, was also unusually benign, and which may have spent more money on PNG than it ever extracted, is incidental.

It should also be accepted that European style colonialism, the cultural and capitalist phenomenon which began in the fourteenth century when hopeful trading ships from Lisbon, Cadiz, Amsterdam and then London began to find harbours in sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia, South East Asia and China, will prove to be only the first of many worldwide economic and cultural disturbances - the vanguard of what is now termed globalisation.

History may also show that the occupancy form of transferred dominance, or colonialism, directed by Caucasian managed economies ended when PNG became independent.

Even in the 1930s when a handful of kiaps armed only with rifles made first contact with, began to subdue, and then advance, a million perpetually fighting people living in the previously unknown valleys of the Highlands this imposed administration directed from Canberra through Port Moresby was already seen elsewhere in the world as a political anachronism.

Australia’s late place in this centuries long process will no doubt continue to be criticised but my overview is that it, its kiaps, and the other civil servants it employed, were bit players in a process that opened the way for the Papua New Guineans they pushed or cajoled into taking their place within the world economy to join the rest of humanity in being pinned, and pained, by the global acceleration in cultural evolution that was the dominant feature of the 20th Century – and which continues to pick up speed at an even greater rate today.

No criticism of Australia, or PNG’s people, is implied because no one, especially villagers whose first international contact began in the 1930s, can say – “Stop the world I want to get off”, even though there will have been times when every human in history, including individual readers of PNG Attitude, would have liked to have slowed the clock hoping they might be able to live, even for a moment, in calmer, more predictable, social and economic waters.

Keeping pace with almost daily advancements in the global process becomes quite dizzying doesn’t it?

Ian Robertson

The following comment is not specific to this topic but rather to a number of recent discussions.

During the 16 years I worked in PNG (from 1960 to 1975) Papua was always referred to as a Territory of Australia and New Guinea as a Trust Territory of the UN. They were never referred to as colonies. Not by the people of PNG or Australia.

The Administration was never referred to as a colonial administration. Not once in my hearing.

The expatriates who lived permanently in the territories of P & NG were known as Territorians, not Colonials.

I did not regard myself as anything other than an Australian who worked in one or other of the Territories. I did not work in any colony.

Why is there this need to change historical terminology in such articles on this forum?

If someone thinks that the Administration was "colonial" in the execution of its duties then specific examples should be quoted - not this broad-brush application that has been used recently.

Paul Oates

Looking at the human race as a whole, an outstanding feature could well be its ability to compete and conquer any challenge that stands in it way. In many ways, humans, in the western world at least, have not really progressed past the Roman Empire in all but scientific knowledge and mechanical improvements.

When the challenges of this world have became so passe, there are virtually only two alternatives left for humans to accept as a new challenge. Competing internally among themselves (in war, medical research against disease, business, theft or extended tribalism), or spreading out among the planets and stars of the universe in a competitive way.

It really all depends on one's perspectives, education opportunities and how much of the world, your government claims or actually owns at any one time.

We evolved as a competitive animal. The only real difference are the different circumstances we now find ourselves in.

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