Sea border closed between Qld & PNG
Bongbong wins on a myth as history wanes

Port Moresby Harbour is not Fairfax Harbour

A Port Moresby  19th century - from The Colonial Portfolio (The Werner Company  London)
Port Moresby,  19th century - from The Colonial Portfolio (The Werner Company London)


MELBOURNE - Names often change with time but, after nearly 50 years of independence and 150 years after the arrival of Captain John Moresby, the name of Papua New Guinea’s remains Port Moresby.

Prior the arrival of the first British sailors in 1873, and still today, the traditional inhabitants lived in a few small villages on the harbour shores with many houses built over its waters.

A Warrillow - Map
Map shows the main Port Moresby harbour and Fairax Harbour tucked away to the west

European settlement followed soon after John Moresby and his sailors, and the growing town, and now city, was named.

It was called ‘Granville’ but this was subsequently changed to Port Moresby, after the harbour.

The first serious attempts to survey and chart the south-eastern part of the island of New Guinea was made during this voyage by the Royal Navy vessel HMS Basilisk under the command of Captain John Moresby.

Moresby’s book, Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea and the D'Entrecasteaux Islands, a detailed account of the expedition is dedicated to ‘Sir Fairfax Moresby, Admiral of the Fleet GCB DCL (Oxon), Knight of Maria Theresa, By His Son’.

At page 152 the author describes how “we resolved that the Basilisk should be the first ship to honour the new harbour with her presence”.

On page 153 he describes how “I conned her … into the still waters of Port Moresby to Jane Island, and past it into the landlocked many-bayed Fairfax Harbour... As we broke into these unknown waters I determined that the outer and inner harbours should bear the names of my father, the venerable admiral of the fleet.”

In his narrative, Moresby then proceeds to briefly describe each of the two harbours.

I believe these writings accurately record that Moresby’s intention was that the main harbour be named Moresby and that the inner harbour, west of Tatana (Jane) Island, be named Fairfax. Others share my belief.

It is only in recent decades, perhaps first in the local press, that the name Fairfax has become commonly used to refer to the main harbour, Port Moresby Harbour.

Eleven years after Moresby’s visit the British flag was raised in Port Moresby by Commodore James Elphinstone Erskine during a visit on HMS Nelson.

On the second page of a book published the following year to commemorate that voyage, Erskine described Port Moresby as having “an inner bay in the west called Fairfax Harbour”.

He continued, “Large vessels can also enter Fairfax Harbour which is of course perfectly land-locked”.

It seems clear that the distinction between the two separate harbours was officially recognised by the two names bestowed upon them by Moresby; names accepted by later European visitors and settlers.

The Admiralty’s manual, Pacific Islands Pilot Vol 1, could be described as the mariners’ bible.

On pages 76-81 it details ‘Port Moresby and Approaches and Fairfax Harbour’, the latter being described thus: “Westward of Idumava point, in the north-western part of Port Moresby, is Fairfax harbour, the entrance to which, between Idumava point and Raven rock, is 2 ½ cables wide.”

This publication refers to ‘Admiralty Chart Aus 621 Plan of Port Moresby’ as being the authoritative guide to follow. 

More recent charts, produced in 2016 by Australian Hydrographic Service, are Nautical Chart(s) AUS 621 and 622 - Port Moresby.

These charts show Fairfax Harbour as a distinct geographical feature to the west of Port Moresby Harbour.

A map produced by the Australian Army in 1978 clearly shows and names the two distinct harbours. However, the larger Port Moresby Harbour also bears the title Mamala Gadona.

This creates something of a mystery. Motu speakers I’ve questioned cannot explain the meaning of these words.

In his well-written history of Port Moresby in 1970, the Rev Ian Stuart mentions the naming of Port Moresby and Fairfax Harbours. A map (pages 48-49) clearly shows the latter to be a distinct body of water as an extension in the north and to the west of the main harbour.

Recent confusion may have resulted from reporters writing in the local press who, having picked up the name Fairfax Harbour, started to use it when the occasional cruise ship began to arrive in Moresby Harbour.

Such events initially rated photographs and a story in the Post-Courier, and there are a number of examples in the newspaper’s archives.

As more and more newcomers arrived and the old timers departed, it seems the name Fairfax Harbour became installed into common usage.

Stuart Hawthorne lived in Port Moresby, from the age of eight, from 1957 until 1977. His book of 2010, gets it right.

On pages 106-107 he has a reproduction of a 1943 military map; a photograph taken from Burns Peak in about 1962 and a descriptive sentence - each of which corroborate the distinction between the two harbours.

However, in Volume II of her tomes, Papua New Guinea’s Pictorial History, Dianne McInnes has an aerial photograph of downtown Port Moresby on page 347 captioned, The Port Moresby CBD is on Fairfax Harbour.

Long-time Papua New Guinea resident John Brooksbank, on page 101 of his coffee-table book published last year, Eda Moresby Reflections on the City of Port Moresby, states that Tatana Island is in Fairfax Harbour.

Any decent map or chart clearly positions the island east of the narrow entrance to Fairfax Harbour, (between Idumava Point and Raven rock/Motukea Island).

So, Port Moresby Harbour it is and, by sailing a little further to the west, you will come upon its companion, the true “the landlocked many-bayed” Fairfax Harbour.


A Aerial photo of section of Port Moresby Harbour
Aerial photo of Paga Point showing a section of Port Moresby Harbour

Australian Army (1978), The Papua New Guinea Topographical Survey Map Sheet 8379, Edition 1, Series T601, Port Moresby (1:100,000), Royal Australian Survey Corps

Brooksbank, John (2021) Eda Moresby Reflections on the City of Port Moresby, Paradise Publishing Haus Ltd, Waigani, PNG

Erskine, John Elphinstone (1885), Narrative of the expedition of the Australian squadron to the south-east coast of New Guinea October to December 1884, Government Printer, Sydney, NSW as reproduced as a facsimile by Robert Brown and Associates, 1984, Bathurst, NSW

Globus (1873b), Entdeckungen des britichen Kriegsschiffes ‘Basilisk’ in der Torres Strass und Ander Sudustkuste von Neu Guinea’.* Globus, 24(20) pp312-3

Hawthorne, Stuart (2011), Port Moresby Taim Bipo, Boolarong Press, Salisbury, Qld

Hydrographer of the Navy, Department of Defence (1970), Pacific Islands Pilot, Vol 1, 9th edition (first edition 1885), Taunton, Somerset, UK

Mann, JF (1885-88), Notes on a Visit to New Guinea in HMS ‘Nelson’.* Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, NSW branch. Transactions and Proceedings 2: pp 116-129; 3 and 4; pp 1-53

McInnes, Dianne (2015), Papua New Guinea’s Pictorial History (two volumes), Pictorial Press, Corinda, Qld

Moresby, John (1876), New Guinea and Polynesia Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, John Murray, London

Murray, JHP (1912), Papua or British New Guinea (page 71). T Fisher Unwin, London

Stuart, Ian (1970), Port Moresby Yesterday and Today, Pacific Publications, Sydney

* Chris Warrillow does not possess copies of these two books and has not sighted either


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Terence Kelliher

Chris, thank you for a clear, precise and correct article!

Arthur Williams

Enjoyed your post, Chris. Some time ago I read this good record of the scramble to make Port Moresby and Fairfax harbours safer once the Japanese war started. Plenty of pix old and modern. Well worth a read.

(4) Passage of channels: The greatest difficulty in a landing operation at Port Moresby would be passing through the waterways.

There are three channels entering the harbor of Port Moresby.

Liljeblad Passage, on the extreme west, has a very strong current and shoals. This passage cannot be used in general because there are shallows before the mouth of the harbour. Therefore, it is difficult to enter this passage.

Basilisk Passage, in the centre, is the channel used by vessels at present, but it is about six kilometers from the gun emplacement on Ela Hill and thus is within the guns' effective range.

In general, unless the gun emplacement is destroyed, it would be difficult to enter through this channel.

Padana Nahua, at the extreme east, is quite wide (about 900 meters and is outside the effective range of the gun emplacement (about 18,000 meters). This channel should be selected for an entrance.

However, all three waterways are neither very deep nor wide, and could easily be covered with mines and other obstacles. These obstacles must be cleared first of all.

If a place where the Nateara and Sinavi coral reefs can be passed over with boats could be found, then an approach could be made without risking the danger of passing through the channel.

Anchoring outside a coral reef is very difficult, so in such a case the transfer to boats would have to be made while drifting.

These remarks by Dr Richard Walding, Research Fellow, School of Science, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia

Did any of the military installations on Paga Hill survive the recent activities by land developers when the bulldozers struck 10 years back?

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