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War on New Guinea, Part 1
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2015

The world's second-largest island, New Guinea entered European consciousness in 1528, when Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses gave it the name Ilhas dos Papuas. The origin of the name is uncertain, perhaps related to a Malay word for "frizzy haired," but when Spanish mariner Ynigo Ortiz de Retez christened it Nueva Guinea in 1545, that name stuck among Europeans for the next four centuries.

Europeans pretty much ignored the island for most of that time. But in the later 1800's came the explosive growth of the Machine Age. Machines of all shapes and sizes needed lubricants, and for several decades vegetable oils (chiefly peanut oil, palm oil and coconut oil) were the primary substance used until giving way to petroleum-derived versions. Coconut oil is also useful in steel making, and is widely used in food processing - including many of the now-standard grocery items that first appeared in the late 1800's.

Copra making
The white gold of the Pacific, copra.

The search for copra - dried coconut meat from which coconut oil is extracted - brought German traders to New Guinea in the 1870's. But Britain struck first, with an unauthorized annexation of southeastern New Guinea by the colony of Queensland in 1883. London - unwilling to take on a new financial burden just to satisfy local dreamers - rejected the move, finally allowing a protectorate to be declared in late 1884 once the Australian colonial governments had agreed to bear the costs. Formal annexation came in 1888.

Germany acted also in 1884, annexing the territory but granting sovereign rights to the newly-formed German New Guinea Company - like the British government, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck did not want to spend government funds just to show the flag. German New Guinea also included the nearby islands of New Britain and New Ireland, as well as Bougainville and the northern Solomon Islands. Poor management by the commercial companies in several German colonies led to the removal of their sovereignty, and in 1899 the German government took direct control.

Although the Dutch had had a presence in the Molucca Islands just to the west of New Guinea since 1599, they did not begin to aggressively claim all of what would become the Dutch East Indies until the very end of the 1800's. The Dutch first made a claim in 1828, and expanded this to cover the western half of the island in 1881 by leaving an iron signpost on the spot; a treaty with Britain in 1885 and one with Germany ten years later formalized the arrangement.

For the first half of the 20th Century, New Guinea was almost entirely covered with thick jungle. Population remained sparse, with most of the inhabitants, known as Papuans, at a fairly low level of technological development. Local agriculture, based in gardens centered around the nitrogen-fixing ironwood tree, provided good yields of yams, bananas and taro but could not easily adapt to export-driven cash crops like kapok (a tree producing a cotton-like fiber used to stuff pillows, mattresses and plush animals) or coconuts.

Sea turtle captured
These Papuans in German New Guinea have captured a sea turtle.

Development came slowly in all three colonies, with the Germans making the most effort to extract value from their territory. With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the European conflict played out in New Guinea as well. A brigade-sized Australian expeditionary force of rapidly-enlisted volunteers landed on New Britain in September 1914 and quickly overwhelmed the small garrison of German reservists, native troops and police. The remainder of the colony surrendered with the loss of its capital, and a small Australian force quietly occupied the territory for the rest of the war.

After the war, the League of Nations assigned the former German New Guinea to Australia as a Mandated Territory. For the next two decades the eastern half of the island was pretty well ignored in both London and Canberra. The Dutch half of the island, however, became the focus of several utopian settlement schemes. In the 1920's, Eurasians - people of mixed race descended from Indonesian and European forebears - from Java launched several agricultural projects on the island's northern coast. As the Dutch began to allow more and more Indonesians access to education and to more prestigious (and high-paying) office jobs in both the civil and private sectors, the Eurasians lost their previously semi-privileged status Some sought a new way of life, and these new settlements seemed to offer a new start. Most of the colonies failed quickly, but one of about 1,000 acres near Manokwari managed to hold on for several years.

New Guinea market day
Market day in a Papuan village, 1911.

Alongside that effort came a project to settle unemployed Dutch farmers in the New Guinea highlands, at the time thought to be more or less uninhabited. Japanese companies had begun to show interest in establishing plantations in the same areas, and more alarmingly, the Japanese government formally suggested that it and the Netherlands "cooperate" in developing Borneo, Celebes and New Guinea. Turning New Guinea into a white colony would preserve it for the Netherlands, and the idea fired the imagination of right-wing groups including the Dutch Nazi Party. Few of the intrepid pioneers lasted very long.

More practically, the colonial government in Batavia sponsored formation of an oil exploration company, Nederlandsche Nieuw Guinea Petroleum Maatschappij, as a joint venture of Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil and Chevron. NNGPM teams found oil in several locations, but their most intriguing discovery only bore fruit many years afterwards. In 1936, Jean-Jacquez Dozy, a geologist working for the exploration company (a) went to West New Guinea to climb the Jayawijaya glacier. He spent weeks investigating interesting green rocks, and filed a report in 1939 describing the Ertsberg, or "Ore Mountain," he had discovered. But NNGPM could not obtain the mining licenses it desired before the war ended new ventures. The report languished in Shell's archives until 1959, when a geologist from Freeport Sulphur, a New Orleans-based mining company, connected Dozy's find to media reports of alluvial gold found in nearby rivers. Freeport obtained a license from the Dutch in 1960, and another from the Indonesian government after their takeover of Western New Guinea. The Ertsberg proved to have massive reserves of copper, gold and silver but was played out in just 15 years; the nearby Grasberg mine that replaced it remains the world's largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine.

The exploration efforts also revealed that the interior was far from the unpopulated jungle wasteland that colonial officials had assumed. In 1938, wealthy adventurer Richard Archbold used a flying boat to visit lakes and rivers in the jungle highlands, contacting a large Stone Age civilization in the Baliem Valley known as the Dani. An estimated 44 "uncontacted" cultures still exist in the interior, all apparently having no knowledge of the outside world.

More of New Guinea might have remained similarly uncontacted if not for the progress of the Second World War. The island formed a natural barrier between the waters held by the Japanese Empire to the north, and the Dominion of Australia to the south. Thanks to the islands and shoals off the island's eastern tip, steaming around the island proved a problem, and because of the high mountain ranges along the island's spine, aircraft could not easily fly across it. For the Allies to move northward they would need bases on the island's north coast; likewise, for the Japanese to move southward, they would need bases on the island's south coast.

The Japanese moved first, seizing the port of Rabaul on the nearby island of New Britain in January 1942. With its location and one of the world's finest natural harbors, Rabaul made a perfect base for controlling the surrounding seas. But two nearby volcanoes made it a dangerous spot, and massive eruptions in 1937 had almost destroyed the town. Plans were underway to move the colony's capital to Lae on the New Guinea mainland when the Japanese attacked.


Rabaul's beautiful harbor, and the volcano that killed it.

For the rest of the war it would be an important Japanese base, with over 100,000 military personnel assigned there including 800 Korean "comfort women," or sex slaves. The Japanese dug over 500 kilometers of tunnels through the soft volcanic rock to house their troops and facilities. In 1994, Rabaul was wiped off the map by a series of volcanic explosions.

It wasn't much better in 1942 for the Australian troops guarding the port. A brigade-sized Japanese landing force made short work of the single independent company detailed to garrison the island; the odds were made even worse when the tiny garrison was split up to cover multiple potential landing sites. But moving south proved much more difficult.

Port Moresby, capital of the Australian Territory of Papua, would provide an excellent air and naval base on the northern shore of the Coral Sea. From there, communications between Australia and the United States could be interrupted; though Allied politicians feared the Japanese would invade Australia this does not seem to have been seriously contemplated. Instead, Operation MO had the ultimate aim of jumping forward from Port Moresby to Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa and other areas astride Allied lines of communication.

Port Moseby, New Guinea
Port Moresby. Pitiful town.

In 1942 Port Moresby was a small backwater port, serving chiefly as administrative center for a colony inhabited mostly by natives who had little interaction with the government or with white traders and little desire to change that relationship. It would become the capital of Papua New Guinea after the war and in 2007 The Economist named it the worst place to live on the face of the Earth: unemployment is over 90 percent, crime is completely out of control, the local fire department has long ceased to answer calls, and government buildings have had no apparent maintenance in at least two decades. In 1942 it wasn't much better, with hastily-erected housing for the rapidly-increasing garrison and a noticeable stench - piped water only arrived in 1941. By 1945 the town was in such bad shape that the Australian authorities simply bulldozed the entire area and re-built Port Moresby from the ground up.

Fight for Port Moresby! Order The Kokoda Campaign right now. Yes, now!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.