Corruption: Hey PNG, hear Marie Yovanovitch
Dr Sheldon Weeks, UPNG educator, dies at 90

The awkward takeover of German New Guinea

"Perhaps there was a lack of faith in Indigenous authority, a deficit arising from their own Australian attitudes towards native people both at home and in their territories"

The Australian fleet headed by the flagship  HMAS Australia  enters Simpson Harbour Rabaul  12 September 1914 (AWM)
The Australian fleet, headed by the flagship HMAS Australia,  enters Simpson Harbour, Rabaul,  12 September 1914 (AWM)

| Tok Piksa | Edited extracts from an article

BIELEFELD, GERMANY - At the time of the Australian takeover, the capital of German New Guinea, Rabaul, was described by AL Epstein in his book Matupit as "not so much a town as a tropical garden, dotted about with government offices, business premises, and bungalows.

“The avenues were carefully laid out and planted with Poinciana and Casuarina trees, the latter creating the feeling, as one visitor many years later was to describe it, of looking down the nave of a cathedral half a mile long."

The Australian expropriation of German New Guinea and the problems that the locals faced dealing with their new colonial masters were presented favourably to the public back in Australia.

'The Black-Birds in the Tree-Tops of New Guinea' (Sydney Mail,  December 1914)

The military victory and takeover in New Britain and Bougainville (known as German Solomons) was depicted in a cartoon in an Australian newspaper in December of 1914.

Notice that the native soldier is already wearing a Digger hat and in the cartoon's caption, he is referred to by the derogatory term, ‘The Black-Birds’.

At this time, Pacific Islanders were still working as slaves in the sugar cane fields of Queensland.

Between 55,000 and 62,500 South Sea Islanders were taken to Australia as slaves during the Black-Birding days.

In Australian hands, Epstein found a perceived deterioration of the administration and state of the former German colony.

And the noted historian, Charles Rowley, wrote:

“The Administration was, from its very nature, a caretaker administration, whose main concern became to maintain and increase the value of already existing European economic enterprises in the hope that victory would place them under Australian control.

“Despite the many signs of neglect, Rabaul remained physically very much as the Germans had left it.”

Epstein quoted a letter to the Rabaul Times from a Rabaul resident in 1928: "Why has the Botanic Gardens been neglected? It is to be hoped that some effort will be made at least to restore them to what they were when Germany lost Rabaul.”

But it seems the first thing that preoccupied the Australians when they took over was law and order. Epstein quotes the Rabaul Times from July 1925:

"It was however, the 'native question' - or the 'Black Peril' as it was sometimes called locally - which appears to have preoccupied many of the white residents of Rabaul at this time.

“Frequent complaints were made about official laxity in administering the laws that purported to control native movements and behaviour, and a contrast was drawn between the contemporary 'disregard of all control and authority, the laziness and insolence, an even open scorn displayed' by the natives towards their white masters and the 'ingrained respect and obedience shown to their previous controllers' under the German regime."

Australian frustration with their own lack of control could be manifested on two fronts.

On one, there seemed to be the need to humiliate the former German colonial masters in front of the natives, seemingly to show everyone who the real masters were.

On the other, the Australians needed to command the obedience if not the respect and admiration of the natives.

The whipping of German doctor,  Rabaul,  30 November 1914

To do that, Germans who broke the law under the new Australian administration were caned in public in front of assembled natives and white residents.

In November 1914, two months after the Australian takeover of German New Guinea, there was a public whipping of a German doctor who had assaulted Methodist missionary, Reverend WH Cox.

Many Germans in Rabaul and New Ireland were part of the Roman Catholic mission while the British were Methodists.

There were tensions attributed to Christian ideological differences but it seems the Methodist church was also able to enlist the new regime to pursue its own interests in grabbing both land and congregations.

This religious tension between the ‘Popies’ (the derogatory slang term for Catholics) and the Methodists continued in New Britain until PNG’s independence many years later in 1975.

After World War I the people themselves continued to be whipped or flogged as a matter of course.

That was the general way the Australian masters related to the natives who were their labourers and domestic servants.

German official government residence at time of Australian takoverof Rabaul  1914
German official government residence at time of Australian takeover of Rabaul,  1914

The Germans had developed a system of organisation and working with native authorities which the Australians seem not to have fully grasped.

Perhaps they were too distracted by a number of factors, one being the seizure of property previously ‘owned’ by the defeated Germans.

Or perhaps a lack of faith in Indigenous authority, a deficit arising from their own Australian attitudes towards native people both at home and in their two New Guinea territories.


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John Beswick

It isn’t a matter of like or dislike, approve or disapprove, what is important is to know what happened.

Public caning of previous administration nationals is needed knowledge for understanding. Interestingly the Japanese as the new colonial masters followed suit in their own way.

It looks to be that PNG is once again to loom large in Australian public consciousness and policy where both historical knowledge and cultural awareness will be needed.

Chris Overland

While I am sure that the Australian take over of German New Guinea was a far from perfect venture, a reader of this article is invited to infer that the German regime was some sort of model of how to apply colonial rule in an orderly, methodical and humane way. My reading of history is that this was not the case.

The German administration was doubtless well organised and thorough but also it was undeniably authoritarian and severe. Rigid adherence to the prescribed rules was demanded of the indigenous population and dissent was not at all tolerated.

For some people this form of behaviour is seen as evidence of strength and they appreciate the highly structured way such authoritarian regimes tend to work. Others see such regimes as both oppressive and repressive and bridle at what they feel are unwarranted restrictions and pettiness.

As I understand it the take over at Rabaul was led largely by sailors and soldiers with little or no experience of New Guinea or anywhere else outside Australia for that matter. Their attitudes in relation to religion, the indigenous population and to people they understood to be enemy aliens reflected the prevailing views of the day, repugnant as they are to us now.

Unsurprisingly, they were poorly equipped to implement an effective civilian administration.

A persistent fault in trying to understand history is to insist on applying modern day values retrospectively, without any regard for how much those values and related attitudes may have changed over time.

It is pointless judging people who lived in the past based upon contemporary moral or social values. It adds precisely nothing to our understanding of history and merely results in finger wagging and tut tutting at their actual or perceived deficiencies.

You don't have to admire the ruthless military tactics and large scale killing perpetrated by Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars but the magnitude of his achievements still needs to be recognised.

The same may be said for the achievements of Genghis Khan or William the Conqueror or Peter the Great or Robert Clive or General Ulysses S Grant or Winston Churchill.

History is the product of the often imperfect actions of imperfect people, some more so than others. Genuine evil is present too. By all means recognise the imperfections and evils but, in most circumstances, moralising about them is unhelpful when trying to understand what motivated them.

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