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Bousimae, the chief who resisted colonisation

Port Moresby, colonialism and after

Port Moresby town centre  1960s
Port Moresby town centre, 1960s


ADELAIDE - Rebecca Kuku's article, Growing Up in 60s Port Moresby, describes Port Moresby as I too remember it.

Although colonial Moresby had its problems, it was generally a pleasant and mostly peaceful place to live at that time.

The same could be said for other major centres like Lae, Rabaul, Madang and Mount Hagen.

Sadly, in post-colonial Papua New Guinea, it seems these centres have become much less attractive places to live.

Infrastructure has decayed, many public services have declined and there has been a large influx of immigrants, many of whom live in poverty and some of whom resort to crime to survive.

The public service and government are riddled with incompetence and corruption which has hugely diminished the effectiveness of many government services, as well as inflating their costs.

These are depressingly common characteristics of many post-colonial societies.

Decolonisation all too often led to decline, or even disaster, especially for those countries which started life as essentially colonial constructs.

Such countries frequently had no unifying ethnic, linguistic, social and cultural ties. Indeed, all too often, they seem to be divided by these characteristics.

Papua New Guinea is a colonial construct carved out of half of the island of New Guinea mostly as an accident of history.

While the entire island would have a certain coherence as a Melanesian nation, there are many points of difference and division within it that would always make effective governance hard to achieve.

When people like Rebecca's mother, who lived in the colonial era, look upon Port Moresby through a haze of nostalgia, it is difficult not to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong for PNG.

PNG's colonial experience was relatively benign. The colonial power generally asserted and extended its power and authority mostly by peaceful means.

Ela Beach 1960s (Jerry Coleby-Williams)
Ela Beach, 1960s (Jerry Coleby-Williams)

Although there was resort to violence in some instances, this was sporadic and fell far short of the open warfare experienced in other places.

PNG’s peoples were not enslaved nor, for the most part, dispossessed of their land.

The rule of law was imposed in an equitable and mostly culturally sensitive manner.

Independence was achieved peacefully with minimal discord.

When the decolonisation process has gone badly wrong, it often is easy to attribute this to the sins of the former colonial powers.

History is replete with examples of sometimes appalling behaviour by former colonial powers, and such attributions are often accepted fairly uncritically.

This process of blame attribution sometimes results in overlooking the subtleties and complexities of the relationship between the colonisers and the colonised.

In particular, it tends to cast the colonised in the role of helpless victims of a domineering and authoritarian colonial regime when the truth may be rather different.

This problem is the subject of sometimes heated debate among historians.

Some historians, such as John Bowle in ‘The Imperial Achievement’, have argued that the positive aspects of imperialism receive considerably less recognition than they deserve.

Others, such as William Dalrymple in ‘The Anarchy’, argue that the colonisation process was very much the product of ambition and greed, not of the noble sentiments put forward by some of those involved in the process.

Interestingly, both these authors acknowledge that the imposition of colonial rule required the active collaboration of at least some of the colonised. This is certainly what happened in PNG.

Indeed, I would argue that many Papua New Guineans, implicitly at least, recognised the colonial regime as a mechanism by which they could gain access to the many benefits that modernity and the rule of law can confer, albeit at the cost of enduring the mostly petty annoyances that accompanied a sometimes patronising and authoritarian mode of governance.

It seems to me that in post-colonial PNG the removal of the sometimes heavy hand of the colonial regime has been both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing has been the achievement of the opportunity to place the country's destiny into the hands of its people.

The curse has been that the people into whose hands power was placed, all too often chose to further their own interests rather than the interests of the country as a whole.

One result is that Rebecca's mother remembers the colonial era fondly because it conferred the safety, stability, certainty and even freedom that is now often conspicuously absent.

This is a tragedy for the great mass of Papua New Guineans who deserve much better.

I am truly sorry to say that, to some extent at least, Australia is implicated because it failed to leave behind sufficiently robust institutions to resist the forces of incompetence and corruption.

Irrespective of how the current situation came about, the future of PNG lies firmly in the hands of its people. Only they can change the situation for the better and I hope that they do.

I also hope that the situation as it was in the 1960s an be restored, so that Rebecca might one day experience the sort of world her mother lived in.


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Su Mills

It would be interesting if you would explore the role foreign corporate resource extraction is playing in present day post colonial Hela and other PNG provinces.

Apparently traditional beliefs about natural resources and their conservation are leading to unrest and conflict.

The traditional legal systems (based on traditional value systems) no longer exist, and so things are getting out of hand.

Hi Su - Many articles in PNG Attitude and elsewhere have covered this issue. I append here links to two of these - KJ

Noel Pascoe

This is a pretty good summary of what’s happened and the results that are left for young Papua New Guineans. Lovely folks who will be tested in their efforts to get good education and a decent lifestyle.

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