Matthew D. Polson

Portuguese explorers Antonio d’Abreu and Francisco Serrano reportedly first saw New Guinea in 1512, although the Spaniard Don Jorge de Meneses is credited with the actual discovery in 1526. Not until 1700, however, when the buccaneer and explorer William Dampier came to New Guinea, did it become clear that New Britain, which he named, was a distinctly un-Britain-like island. Perhaps, in giving it that name, he expressed a hope about how it might be transformed.

Such perceptions often prove highly consequential, particularly when they are common to the ideology of a whole society or culture. As Donald Worster put it, ‘People are continually constructing cognitive maps of the world around them, defining what a resource is, determining what sorts of behaviour may be environmentally degrading and ought to be prohibited, and generally choosing the ends to which nature is put.’[1]

Despite the early discovery of New Guinea, Europeans were slow to colonise it. The reasons are not difficult to see, and the environmental attitudes Europeans would subsequently hold well into the twentieth century can be traced from them. Remoteness protected the Melanesian region from the early phases of European colonial expansion, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Even when European expansion into the eastern Pacific islands had gathered momentum, Melanesia’s reef-strewn seas provided further discouragement. In 1800, Melanesia remained the least known maritime area on Earth.

European colonisation had concentrated on a few areas of known or easily developed value. Given the available technology and means of communication, New Guinea’s remoteness and ruggedness made it seem unprofitable. As well, the hostility and perceived savagery of the population discouraged contact until greater force became available. In any case, Europeans did not possess crops that would thrive under Melanesian conditions. So there seemed no point in colonising these scattered islands.[2]

Underlying all this lay that key element in the way that humans approach their environments: anthropocentricity. Ideas about environments being for human use, and that it is in humanity’s own interests to protect them, run consistently through the literature. This is especially true of the perceptions Europeans historically have had of their surroundings, forming the very foundations of Western thought. The Bible, for example, encourages humans to tame the Earth. ‘And God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.’[3]

Domination of nature, as the true end of man in carrying out the wishes of God, became a European-American preoccupation. John Black has listed what he considers to be the four most important underlying aspects of the Western view of the world: a conviction that man’s role on Earth is to exploit the rest of nature to his own advantage; an expectation of continuing population expansion; a belief in progress and history, with an underlying linear concept of time; and a concern for posterity. European attitudes towards the rest of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected these beliefs. Progress meant the domination of nature. Only by increasing this domination could the evils and shortcomings of life on Earth be removed. This desire to dominate explains much of the competition between European imperial powers to carve up virtually the whole Pacific region into separate colonial preserves.[4]

Towards the end of the nineteenth century European and American interest in the Pacific heightened. Areas such as New Guinea became of great use as the great powers sought, for geopolitical reasons, a presence. In New Guinea this proved to be a driving force for environmental change, with the colonisers favouring the development of mines, timber concessions and, most notably in the case of New Britain, plantations. Advances in transport now made these resources accessible. Steamships could supply an increasing demand for tropical products, the copra market becoming increasingly lucrative. This resulted, towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the rapid growth of plantation agriculture.[5]

Europeans established two types of colony in the Pacific, those earmarked for permanent settlement and ‘colonies of sojourn’. They intended to settle only briefly in the latter, making their fortune by exploiting the local resources and/or population, then returning home to spend it. From the beginning they treated much of New Guinea, and especially New Britain, as a ‘colony of sojourn’. The attitudes of the first, German, colonisers would linger. Germany sought commercial expansion and, later, political expansion through commerce. As is the case in many former colonies, in New Guinea these initial intentions created enduring economic and political characteristics, termed ‘path dependency’ by economic historians.[6]

In annexing their respective portions of New Guinea in 1884, Britain acted primarily for political and strategic reasons, mainly to reassure the Australian colonies, whereas Germany under Bismarck moved to protect its trading interests. New Britain, known as Neu Pommern when it became part of German New Guinea, was viewed more in terms of exploitation than was its British neighbour. The German government’s decision to administer the territory through a private trading company, the Neu Guinea Kompagnie, which they ran strictly for profit, revealed Germany’s economic motives. The Gazelle Peninsula on the northeast tip of the island particularly interested the Germans. Many plantations had already been established and the best opportunities for development lay there.[7]

Although the Gazelle environment is at times as harsh and uncertain as the rest of New Guinea, it is among the most suited to plantation agriculture. The soils, formed from decomposed volcanic and vegetable matter, are extremely fertile and capable of supporting a wide variety of crops. Europeans had not been the first to recognise this. A complex and extensive system of indigenous trade had developed long before the arrival of the Germans. Commerce had become a major preoccupation of the local people, the Tolai, bound up with their concern to accumulate wealth in the form of tambu, shell money.[8]

But the New Britain interior, with its mountainous terrain and dense forests, combined with the fear of malaria and the perceived hostility of the indigenous inhabitants, did not present a reassuring picture to the German settlers. At the time of annexation Europeans had explored only parts of the coastal region, with very little known about what lay beyond. The Neu Guinea Kompagnie showed little interest in exploration unless it meant the possibility of higher profits, as its 1886-87 report clearly illustrated. ‘The management of the company has had the task of establishing itself more firmly in the aforesaid Territory, of which only a very small part was as yet known, or exploring it more closely with a view to its utilisation for settlement or cultivation.’[9]

The company could not, however, achieve the level of economic success demanded by the German government, which took over the administration in 1899. Apart from coconuts, the European planters had insufficient knowledge of the land and the climate to successfully grow any of the crops with which they experimented. As well, the first two administrative capitals proved disastrous. Both Finschhafen and Stephansort had been located in malaria-ridden areas and many officials died. Even when the capital moved to Madang disease remained a major problem. When Rudolf von Benningson took over as governor on 1 April 1899 he immediately moved the seat of government to Herbertshohe on the Gazelle Peninsula, not only for its better climate but also because of its greater accessibility to major shipping lanes and its location within the then economic hub of the territory, containing the largest number of settlers.

Under Imperial administration the territory began to prosper financially. At the same time, the Germans did possess a growing sense of humanitarianism, going some way to protect the indigenous people from the ‘rapacious self-interest’ of their exploiters. But as the British Embassy in Berlin later reported, ‘little has been done to influence the natives, and their local feuds continue’.[10]

The outbreak of World War One saw the beginning of a new era in the history of New Guinea. Australia, New Zealand and Japan quickly occupied German colonies in the Pacific. An Australian expeditionary force, the ‘Coconut Lancers’, occupied Rabaul in September 1914 and the rest of German New Guinea followed quickly. Australia placed the territory under a military administration, which lasted until 1921. Little changed, however, during this period regarding methods of administration and attitudes towards the environment and indigenous people. The administration retained the bulk of German laws and most German officials and planters kept their jobs, ostensibly ‘so that when the Territory came to be disposed of at the end of the war it should as far as possible be in the same condition as at the time of the capitulation.’[11]

Australia had long been jealous of the profitable plantations in German New Guinea. Prime Minister W.M. Hughes considered the territory to be ‘legitimate booty’, compensation for some of Australia’s war losses. Australia hoped that the territory would pass to them in the event of an Allied victory, and indeed it did. In December 1920, under the Treaty of Versailles, Australia received a mandate over German New Guinea. That same year the Australian Parliament passed the New Guinea Act, stating that the government would ‘promote to the utmost the material and moral well-being and social progress of the inhabitants of the Territory.’[12]

In the eyes of many they fell short of doing so, placing economic development above the needs of the New Guinea people. In fact Australian policies were probably less beneficial to the indigenous people because, according to Arnold Epstein, Australia expected New Guinea to be self-sufficient. Europeans living there also retained essentially the same attitudes towards the environment as their German predecessors, of whom very few remained. Like them, the Australians sought to make money by exploiting the land and the people.[13]

In the years ahead, however, Europeans began to perceive the New Britain environment differently and hence changed their attitudes towards it. During the turbulent 1930s and 1940s there were three influential but quite different events that altered the way in which the settlers viewed and treated the environment. One was a financial disaster, the second a natural disaster and the third a man-made disaster. As a result, European settlers became less confident of their ability to exploit nature and the morality of doing so. The perceived worth and place of New Britain within the Territory of New Guinea also shifted in this period.

Copra: ‘the currency of the Pacific’

Prior to 1930 it was widely accepted that the economic success of the territory of New Guinea and most of the Pacific Islands rested on the continuing prosperity of the copra industry. According to The Times of London, ‘Copra will for years be practically the currency of the Pacific’.[14]

Copra, the oil-rich dried kernel of the coconut, is easy to produce and until the late 1920s provided lucrative returns to those who invested in it. New Britain and New Ireland became the principal areas of coconut cultivation in New Guinea. The viability of the plantations relied on exploiting cheap land and cheap labour. The Gazelle Peninsula, with its fertile, free draining pumice soils, contained a large proportion of the plantations, some fifty being connected by road to Rabaul, the port and centre of the copra trade. East of Rabaul, thirty kilometres of continuous plantations stretched towards Watta on Cape Gazelle.[15]

Copra exports from New Guinea peaked in 1927-28 at 63,333 tons, 79.9 percent of total exports, worth A$2.352 million. But the Depression led to a slowing in demand and a gradual decline followed by a sharp drop in the market price. In 1934-35 copra exports amounted to 57,154 tons, but by then the price had slumped to A$732,000, a mere 17.6 percent of New Guinea’s total exports, due largely to the increasing use of cheaper vegetable oils, fluctuations in the world market, quality problems, below average rainfall and a shortage of shipping.[16]

European perceptions of the profitability of the New Britain environment changed markedly when the bottom fell out of the copra market. A hitherto lucrative trade, providing large returns for little effort, became for a time almost worthless. For small plantation owners especially, the industry became thoroughly uneconomic. The two big trading companies, Burns Philp and W.R Carpenter and Co., which between them controlled much of the copra industry in the Territory, bought only enough to keep their subsidiary plantations from going under, providing the Australain planters with only ‘the bare necessities of life’. Many resorted to stockpiling, hoping that the market would recover, but this further decreased value through shrinkage and insect damage.[17]

Some planters, unable to able stand the pressure, went under, inexperienced Australians being among the hardest hit. Many were ex-soldiers who had paid inflated prices for plantations in 1920 when competition and the availability of easy loan terms led to prices being bid up. Most had begun operations with little capital and a heavy debt and found themselves in serious financial difficulty when copra prices fell.[18]

If anything positive came out of the slump, the quality of New Guinea copra improved. The Pacific Islands Monthly encouraged planters in that direction, otherwise ‘[they] will not be in a position to take advantage of the increased demand should the market improve.’ Low quality smoke dried types were no longer profitable, so planters turned increasingly to more labour-intensive but higher quality, and more lucrative, sun and hot-air drying methods.[19]

In the meantime, gold mining on the New Guinea mainland had increased rapidly, the value of gold exports exceeding that of copra from 1933 onwards, thus moving the economic heartland of the Territory away from New Britain. Burns Philp and W.C. Carpenter took advantage of the predicament of many planters, buying plantations from individuals and firms wishing to withdraw from the industry for the ‘right’, usually low, price. Some began to look for new ways to make money, turning to coir fibre, coffee and timber production. Others, despite heavy mortgages, hung on in the hope that prices would rise.[20]

The onset of World War Two and the resulting shortage of vegetable oils saw a renewed demand for copra and the rise in price that the planters had wished for. Prices continued to rise as the Japanese overran other copra producing islands, leading to them being fixed by the Australian wartime government. But unfortunately for the New Britain planters, the Japanese also overran that island for most of the war. As the Pacific Islands Monthly put it, ‘They now see this most profitable copra price developing after years of starvation, and just at a time when they need it the most, and in circumstances which do not allow them to get any benefit from it whatever.’[21]

In the meantime another event had occurred that altered the way in which Europeans perceived the New Britain environment, in terms of its economic desirability and their personal safety.

Eruption: ‘the very bowels of the earth seemed to be vomited from the crater’

Although the economic focus of New Guinea had shifted from New Britain to the mainland, Rabaul had remained the administrative capital of the Territory. But on 29 May 1937 the nearby Vulcan volcano erupted violently sending the settlement into a state of chaos and profoundly affecting the surrounding landscape.

Europeans had known about volcanic activity on New Britain, especially on the Gazelle Peninsula, since 1767 when Philip Carteret recorded in his ships log an eruption in the Rabaul area on 10 September of that year. Captain John Hunter reported another on 22 May 1791. The emergence of Vulcan Island during an eruption of the Tavurvur volcano in 1878, together with severe earthquakes and tidal waves, spelt out for the early European colonisers the unsettled nature of the landscape.

Despite these occurrences and the obvious danger, in 1910 the then governor, Albert Hahl, persuaded the German government to shift the administrative capital from Herbertshohe (Kokopo) to what became Rabaul. Whether or not Hahl took into account the implications of building his capital close to several active volcanoes, it seems that economic and political considerations outweighed any concerns. The deep, sheltered waters of Simpsonhafen (Blanche Bay) attracted trading companies keen to establish a port near the strategic shipping lanes through St Georges Channel.

In any case, the settlers became used to the unstable nature of the landscape and appeared somewhat naïve about the dangers it posed, a situation not helped by a reassuring administration. The New Guinea Handbook reiterated the observation of geologist Evan Stanley in 1921 that the whole volcanic series around Rabaul appeared to be ‘in the dying stages.’ This appears to have been the attitude of the townsfolk immediately before the 1937 eruption, which seems to have caught them almost completely by surprise.[22]

Just prior to the eruption Brett Hilder, the second mate of the SS Montoro, had sailed past Vulcan Island, then being used as a quarantine station by the Australian administration. He described it as ‘a harmless island with pretty little Sheoaks and things on it.’ Similarly, Europeans in New Britain had developed a blasé attitude towards the region’s seismic activity. The Handbook assured them that ‘Earthquakes are frequent, and on occasion have been severe, but native huts and timber-built residences of Europeans do not suffer.’[23]

Severe earthquakes the day before and on the morning of the eruption did not worry the local Europeans unduly. ‘[I]t being Saturday, everyone went about the week-end’s recreation much as usual until midafternoon.’ Although uneasy, they in no way suspected that the tremors were the precursor to an eruption.[24]

Despite a severe earthquake and strong aftershocks the previous day, and severe quakes every two minutes ‘with underground noises like rolling thunder’ from 5 am on Saturday morning, Jan Hoogerwerff, the editor of the Rabaul Times worked with his staff until 11 am then closed the office. ‘We were all too nervous.’ After lunch he worked in his private office preparing accounts for the following month.[25]

Others played and watched baseball that afternoon while some drove to Rupindik, near Matupi crater ‘to see what was going on.’ A visitor to the island likened the tremors to the movement of the sea. ‘[O]ne could easily have become seasick.’ Another, Caroline Mytinger, who visited Rabaul in the weeks prior to the eruption, had also felt uneasy about the place. She later described the ‘stench of sulphur and brimstone’ as the first thing she had noticed when sailing into Blanche Bay. She considered that the volcanoes were ‘far from extinct’. Whilst accepting official assurances that earthquakes were ‘just about normal’ she felt apprehensive. ‘There is something in this uncanny quiet, an electrical charge that is not the invigorating kind but rather the tenseness that makes small boys suddenly take a crack at a glass window with rock, as much to their surprise as anybody’s.’[26]

At 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, noticing people running, Hoogerwerff went to the end of his verandah. There he saw ‘huge columns of dense smoke rising in the air … It was a terrifying sight; a crater had been formed on Vulcan Island and smoke rose to a great height, thunder and lightning in the air, the water in the harbour started running forward with hissing noises’. The spectacular lightning display, caused by friction between volcanic particles in the ash clouds from both Tavurvur and Vulcan, not only contributed to the fear experienced by those caught in the fallout zone but also cut off radio communications with the outside world, adding to their sense of helplessness.[27]

Fortunately the eruption was relatively short lived. By the following Monday ‘the air had cleared enough to see something of the havoc in the town.’ Caroline Mytinger noted that the roofs of houses still standing had been smothered by deep mud and many had caved in. Vegetation ‘looked as if it had been struck by poison gas’, with limbs piled in the road fifteen feet deep. ‘In the harbour all light craft had been sunk … and everything above water was under four feet of mud and pumice. Why there was not a disastrous tidal wave is not understood.’[28]

The end of the volcanic activity, which killed 500 indigenous people, did not, however, dispel the discomfort of Rabaul residents. Clouds of dust, combined with dry weather and intense heat, irritated the eyes of all. Those suffering from respiratory diseases fared the worst, but ‘everyone coughed in the morning hours’. This lead the administration to order 2000 face masks. When heavy rain finally came another problem arose. It could no longer percolate through leaf litter and normally porous soils. Instead, it ran off ash-coated surfaces causing torrential flooding. This swept mud into the town, blocking drains, eroding roadsides and carving gullies into the hillsides.[29]

The considerable financial losses from damage to property and investments altered European settlers’ perceptions of the economic appeal not only of the directly affected areas in and around Rabaul but also of the rest of the island. The Rabaul Times reported that ‘Plantations have suffered severely on the North Coast as palm fronds have been weighted down so much by falling dust that thousands of palms stand with only the centre spathe pointing upwards.’[30]

Although the Australian government set up a special committee to provide financial assistance to those otherwise ‘unable to carry on their means of livelihood’ several claims were refused, raising doubts about official commitment to the region and encouraging people to leave. It also discouraged anyone considering moving to New Britain. Two months after the eruption Jan Hoogerwerff commented that ‘the people who remain here only do so because they have to have their daily bread … everybody would leave Rabaul if it was possible to make a decent living elsewhere.’ He found it hard to fill vacant positions in his newspaper office, having to offer a larger than usual salary to attract interest. His proprietor, Jean Mouton, could no longer obtain cover for the printing plant against further eruptions and had the freehold value of his property lowered.[31]

One planter and administration official, Eric Wood, summed up his reasons for leaving Rabaul in a poem written on the back of a photograph of the mountain of ash on top of his Karavia house:

Gone finish was the little house/ Gone finish were our belongings in it/ Gone finish were my years in New Guinea.[32]

Moreover, a vulcanological investigation set up by the Australian government reported that in a future eruption ‘the whole of the capital invested in the town and harbour may be jeopardized or wiped out of existence in a few hours by another and more serious eruption taking place under conditions not so extraordinarily favourable as those of the recent phenomena.’ The government took the danger seriously, setting up the Rabaul Volcano Observatory in the following months to provide warning of future eruptions.[33]

The Australian government also gave consideration to moving the New Guinea capital from Rabaul, weighing up the cost of doing so against the fears of those living there. People outside New Britain believed the town should be left to its ‘incessant “gurias” [earth tremors or earthquakes], temperamental quivers and nerve wracking uncertainties.’ Salamaua, Lae and Wau vied for the right to be the capital, Lae, on the coast, eventually being selected as the most suitable.

But events in Europe intervened. At one point it looked as if Germany might be handed back its old colonies as part of an attempt to appease Hitler. Then, when war broke out in September 1939, the government deemed it too expensive to undertake the move in a wartime economy. In any case, as the 1937 eruption receded in the minds of Rabaul residents and the more the vegetation recovered, the safer they felt. By 1939 they had come to the general opinion that the capital should remain at Rabaul.[34]

A smaller eruption in 1941 changed that. The administration formalised the decision to move to Lae, a shift planned to take place over several months. But the Japanese invasion of New Britain prevented completion of the process.[35]

War: ‘They bulldozed and graded the place’

On 23 January 1942, just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Rabaul fell to an overwhelming Japanese landing force. The few hundred-strong Australian garrison had no chance against more than five thousand well-equipped and highly trained Japanese troops supported by heavy ships and planes launched from aircraft carriers of the Fourth Fleet.[36]

Those Europeans who had either not been evacuated prior to the invasion, or who not been captured by the Japanese, faced some stark choices. They could give themselves up and take their chances about the treatment they would receive, or take refuge in, or try to escape through, the surrounding mountains and jungle, which hitherto had seemed so menacing and unknown.

For those soldiers and civilians who chose to risk the New Britain wilderness the jungle proved to be an asset for a few, but for most their downfall. The Australian troops in particular were ill prepared for a retreat through the jungle and many perished. ‘Their ignorance of the country was their own worst enemy: one party thought they were near starvation when actually there was a large field of tapioca alongside the house in which they were camped.’[37]

The refugees soon learned why the New Britain interior had been almost unexplored and largely ignored by Europeans. Scarce and unpalatable food, malaria and lack of anti-malarial drugs plagued them. ‘Those unfortunate fugitives, foodless and malaria-ridden, were relentlessly hunted down by Jap patrols and Jap destroyers along the coast.’ Typically, in one group of 200 who had begun a cross-island trek from Rabaul all but seven dropped out, ‘though not necessarily all died.’[38]

The knowledge that the Japanese would have to confront these same conditions in any attempt to advance through and across New Guinea towards Australia led many to feel confident that it would prove costly in terms of time, energy, money and lives:

The mainland of New Guinea, and the islands of New Britain and Bougainville … are defended by ramparts of mountains, which present … an almost impenetrable tangle of jungle and ravines … country so wild and so broken that it has to be seen to be believed … what chance have the Japanese?[39]

At the same time, apart from strategic considerations, the loss of New Britain to the Japanese was not taken as bitterly as it might have been. Europeans had long regarded most of the island, apart from the Gazelle Peninsula, as ‘hopeless country’. As well, the Depression and volcanic eruptions had lessened the value of European investments on the peninsula and in Rabaul itself. The Pacific Islands Monthly expressed the opinion that the Japanese occupation ‘gives her little more than strategic position’, mentioning the loss of the copra industry more or less as an afterthought.[40]

Reports of another eruption in 1942, this time of ‘intolerable gases’ from Matupi, led the Pacific Islands Monthly to comment that ‘[it is] pleasant to think that the Sons of Heaven, in Rabaul, were enduring for a few weeks what the Rabaul folk had to put up with for years’, rather than lamenting the possibility of more damage to European properties and investments. The Royal Australian Air Force even tried to use the Tavurvur volcano as a weapon against the Japanese. Against the advice of vulcanologist Dr. N.H. Fisher, who considered the idea futile, the RAAF bombed the crater of the volcano in an unsuccessful attempt to trigger an eruption.[41]

While the Japanese certainly recognised the strategic value of New Britain, and Rabaul in particular, making it their central base for naval, air and land operations in New Guinea, they initially paid little heed to its natural resources. Bishop Leo Scharmach, a German missionary held captive by the Japanese for the duration of their occupation, expressed astonishment at the lack of appreciation the Japanese showed towards the resources developed by the Europeans. Cattle, pigs and fowls were shot at random, a portion cut off and the rest left to rot. ‘Soldiers wanting a drink-nut (as they called the kulau [green coconut]), did not climb the tree to get it … they cut the whole tree down.’ He was appalled when the Japanese levelled 350 acres of bearing coconut trees. ‘They bulldozed and graded the place, levelling it into a huge aerodrome.’[42]

As Allied counter-offensives began to shatter their supply lines in 1943, increasingly isolating the region, the Japanese occupants began to appreciate the potential of the Gazelle Peninsula, constructing vast networks of gardens to sustain themselves. Crops included rice, sweet potato, maize, cabbage and eggplant. As defeat loomed closer and food shortages worsened, gardening became their principal occupation. Manoeuvres became a thing of the past, with soldiers’ and officers’ energies ‘directed towards agricultural pursuits, plus poultry breeding.’[43]

By early 1944 the Japanese had come to the same conclusion as their European predecessors, that the Peninsula was the only part of New Britain worth occupying. They abandoned the western and central portions of the island, concentrating their forces to defend their gardens and the port of Rabaul. The Pacific Islands Monthly estimated that by then the ‘primitive and inhospitable jungle and mountains’ had cost them 5000 lives ‘and they will lose many more before they struggle through to Rabaul.’[44]

Supply problems also reduced the availability of anti-malarial drugs such as quinine or atebrin to both the occupying army and its captives. Bishop Scharmach recalled that ‘On the advice of our doctor we ceased to take quinine prophylactically, but waited for an attack of malaria. The doctor then supplied an appropriate dose to cure it. Most of us, myself included, suffered periodical attacks.’ The Japanese unsuccessfully tried to find natural substitutes for quinine and other medicines in short supply and preventative measures proved difficult. Bomb craters, overturned vehicles and other wreckage, when filled with rainwater, provided ideal breeding places for the Anopheles mosquito. Other disease carrying flies, some of which had arrived with the Japanese, also required preventative measures. ‘The medical section started a fly-drive; each man had to catch so many flies and special prizes of cigarettes were given to the men bringing in the biggest hauls.’[45]

The Allied air raids, which began soon after the Japanese had established themselves in New Britain, contributed to the transformation of the landscape in and around Rabaul, to the extent that it became almost unrecognisable to Europeans after the war. The Allies systematically bombed anything of use in the area. ‘Rabaul was receiving a terrible air-pounding, every day the houses and stores grew less and less, and well known landmarks were being bombed. Everyone had gone underground and the town was “getting the works.” ’

Initially the Japanese sheltered from the raids in slit trenches but the extent, magnitude, accuracy and frequency soon forced them to reconsider. ‘They soon woke up and started to dig tunnels – miles and miles of them, the steep mountain sides were ideal for that purpose.’ They often used dynamite to speed up the process. Fifty feet of rock and earth overhead provided security from direct hits. Eventually, the army carried out almost all of its activities in the safety of the underground networks, providing accommodation for 15,000 troops. ‘In their tunnels they had big navy repair workshops, auto repair garages. Those near the seashore … hid landing barges.’ One tunnel went through a mountain to link Blanche Bay with the North Coast.[46]

After their release from captivity Bishop Scharmach and Gordon Thomas, editor of the Rabaul Times, found the landscape almost alien to the one they remembered before the war. Scharmach found the changes and destruction both disorienting and unnerving. Not a building remained at what had once been Kokopo and Vunapope. Headless palm trees stood out against the sky and near the beach skeletons of ships poked into the air. ‘I was glad when we once again turned into the bush and the heavy jungle closed around us.’

The destruction and disarray also shocked Thomas but he noticed another, different army had invaded Rabaul. Nature had reasserted itself on the ‘scarred and cratered hillside’, amongst the ‘shattered buildings’, the ‘torn and twisted motor cars’ and the ‘headless palms’. ‘Every now and again I saw wild patches of flowers and shrubs: hibiscus and frangipani. “Frangipani bloom again” thought I, recalling … the phrase used after the 1937 eruption when the struggling creamy flower came thrusting its head through the mud and volcanic ash.’

At the same time, ammunition dumps, refuse, wrecked ships and seaplanes littered the landscape and shoreline. Rabaul itself had become a ‘huge flat with sweet potato and wild passion-fruit vines hiding the rubble of bombed buildings’. Not a single house stood, but here and there Thomas recognised the remains of once-familiar places such as ‘the pillars of the old Palms Building, a bit of the Masonic temple, the front wall of BP’s store and the strong-room of the Commonwealth Bank.’ The blasted walls of the New Guinea Club ‘showed up like bleached bones of a buffalo on the western prairies.’ Recalling again the 1937 eruption, he commented that ‘Man’s destruction of the town had been far greater than that of Nature’s.’[47]

Altogether the war brought unprecedented environmental change to the Gazelle Peninsula. It also influenced the way Europeans perceived and treated the environment, ushering in a new era for New Guinea.

Post-war: ‘The Tolai were not in a mood to accept … a return to the status quo’

The shock of the speedy Japanese advance through the Pacific created a degree of uncertainty amongst those involved with or interested in New Guinea about future Australian involvement in the Territory. Most expected radical changes, as something had clearly gone wrong. The Pacific Islands Monthly accepted that, once the war had been won, there would be no going back to the 1918-39 politico-economic system. But it remained biased towards the planters, believing that once the Japanese had been removed and with a civil administration back in place the most important task would be re-establishing the planting, mining and transport industries.[48]

At the same time there were those who believed that any post-war settlement of Pacific affairs would mean little,

unless it brought with it a new order of things for the peoples of the Pacific zone. It must bring them a higher standard of living; it must enable them to rise above a situation in which so many of them are either politically or economically dependent on the more highly organized nations of the world.[49]

And, as elsewhere in Melanesia, the war also encouraged New Guinea indigenes to question the role of Europeans in their country. This was especially true of the Tolai of the Gazelle Peninsula, who had long resented many aspects of the pre-war policy and practice of the European administration. Arnold Epstein believes that their wartime experiences gave Tolai aspirations a new force and direction. Although vague and difficult to understand and explain precisely ‘what is at least clear is that the Tolai were not in a mood to accept meekly a return to the status quo of the pre-war period.’[50]

Having seen the Australians convincingly beaten and forced out of New Britain, the indigenes were reluctant to accept that Europeans were a superior example of humanity and the rightful leaders of New Guinea that they had previously portrayed themselves to be. ‘Here were the leading citizens of the town herded together by a coloured race, and shorn of every vestige of authority … Colours had been reversed: yellow ruled, white served.’[51]

In addition, the indigenous population had suffered appallingly in a war not of their own making. Some of the heaviest fighting had taken place in New Britain, forcing thousands to abandon their homes, gardens and livestock, much of it destroyed. An unknown number lost their lives, victims of bombs and bullets, or dying from disease or famine. For many, the old way of life had been broken beyond repair.[52]

Colonel J.K. Murray, appointed as the first post war Administrator in 1945, recognised that the indigenous peoples had lost faith in the Europeans who had brought this conflict and destruction to their islands. ‘Security … has been replaced by the memory of fear and a new knowledge of the impermanence of the seemingly-solid European order.’ In this changed climate of opinion, the Australian government began to recognise its obligation to provide facilities for greater participation by the indigenous people in the wealth and government of the country.[53]

By 1948 Australia was contributing a hundred times as much in grants to Papua New Guinea as it had before the war. As well it began to limit the expansion of European interests. New plantations could only be established with the approval of the Administration. While not actually forbidding land acquisition, the Administration allowed development only if it did not affect the welfare of the indigenes, the intention being to give them a greater share of their islands’ economies. This led the Pacific Islands Monthly, very much on the side of the planters, to brand the Australian Labor government as a ‘socialist regime’.[54]

Its policies increasingly isolated the New Britain planters. Many found it hard to re-establish their plantations and cash in on the post-war boom in copra prices, due to labour and transport shortages. Rabaul residents, too, complained of uncomfortable living standards and food shortages, believing the Australian government, ignorant of the necessities of island life, had neglected them.[55]

While a change of government in 1949, to a coalition of the Liberal and Country parties, provided some encouragement for European industry in Papua New Guinea, by and large policy remained the same. This included the abolition of indentured labour, replacing it with contracts. Further aid also ended the necessity for the Territory to be self-sufficient. Administrators could now place less emphasis on the development of European industry and more on indigenous welfare.

So, New Britain’s European planters found themselves increasingly less important for the well-being of the Territory. Those struggling to re-establish war-decimated plantations had difficulty finding labourers willing to work for the low wages they were accustomed to paying. Some gave up, disgusted at the changes that accompanied the new order. The Australian government no longer saw the New Guinea environment as one that could and should be exploited. For Europeans, New Britain had ceased to be a land of limitless resources and opportunities.

Conclusion: A transformation of environmental perception

In 1930 most Europeans, whether living in the Territory or elsewhere around the world, perceived New Britain in much the same light as the Germans had thirty years earlier, a place where abundant land and cheap labour could be exploited for financial benefit. The island’s extremely rugged interior had, however, limited European experience to those coastal regions best suited for copra plantations. The rest remained a ‘heart of darkness’, unexplored and treacherous.

Worse, it provided a home for people seen as primitive and uncivilised, unpredictable and dangerous. Safe in their belief in their own superiority, Europeans considered it their right and duty to organise and discipline the indigenes. This would benefit not only the burgeoning colonial economy but would in future benefit the indigenous people themselves, thus justifying the use of indentured labour by the European ‘mastas’.

At this time New Guinea remained an unknown quantity for most Australians. Government policies reflected this lack of knowledge of the environment and people. An emphasis on economic outcomes required that the Territory be self sufficient, including financing any development of the indigenous people’s welfare. This in turn hinged on European industries, a dependency that hindered any real progress being made. That suited the European planters on New Britain, maintaining a source of cheap labour upon which the viability of their plantations depended.

By 1950, however, perceptions about the environment and people of New Britain had markedly changed, caused largely by the momentous events of the 1930s and 1940s. The ‘copra depression’ had hit the island’s planters particularly hard. Used to lucrative returns for relatively little effort, those who managed to survive had to drastically cut their overheads and endure long periods without any income.

Additionally, the swing from copra to gold as the territory’s main export earner and the consequent transfer of the economic hub from New Britain to the New Guinea mainland lessened European interest in the island, a lack of significant gold deposits weakening its overall importance within the Territory. As a result, New Britain remained largely unexplored throughout the 1930s whereas the mainland began to open up as the gold-mining industry flourished there,.

The Rabaul eruption in 1937 further diminished the island’s importance. Not only did the eruption cause heavy damage to buildings and plantations but for months afterwards extensive flooding also plagued Rabaul. More importantly perhaps, the eruption had a considerable psychological effect on Rabaul residents. Hitherto most Europeans had felt reasonably safe within their coastal plantation enclaves and especially in Rabaul itself, a large, orderly thoroughly Europeanised town.

The eruption provided a reminder that, in New Britain at least, nature could not be totally subdued. Even when the mess had been cleaned up, the residents could not fully put their minds at ease. The Australian government shared their disquiet. Preparations to move the administrative capital, thwarted by the onset of war, marked a further shift in European perceptions about New Britain’s environments.

World War Two compounded the situation, most European interests being systematically obliterated. The Allied bombing not only reduced Rabaul to the point of non-existence, but also permanently scarred much of the surrounding landscape. The massive Japanese underground system of fortifications added to the destruction. Other European economic interests not already blown up were either levelled to make way for airstrips, or rendered useless by neglect.

Those Europeans who sought refuge from the Japanese in the mountains, swamps and dense jungles perished in large numbers. Lack of prior experience of the conditions they encountered as well as starvation and malaria took a heavy toll among both civilians and military personnel. Their fate and the many articles and stories about wartime activity in New Britain endorsed traditional perceptions about the inhospitable nature of its environments.

Despite the bad press, the post-war situation in New Guinea attracted more worldwide attention than it previously had. More importantly, many Australians began to take a humanitarian interest in the Territory and their country’s presence in it, becoming for the first time concerned about the welfare of the indigenous people. Reflecting the views of the bulk of Australians, the Labor government instituted policies designed to advance the development of the indigenes. The latter were now able to participate more fully in the economy, care being taken to see that European interests did not interfere with them doing so. This included abolition of the indentured labour system on which the viability of New Britain plantation agriculture had previously relied.

The planters themselves were far from happy with the new direction being taken. Highly critical of the Labor government and in particular its Minister for External Territories, Eddie Ward, they argued that they were being unfairly discriminated against and that the new policies were detrimental to the immediate welfare of the indigenous people. But, despite the views of the Pacific Islands Monthly, the opinions of New Guinea’s European planters were no longer seen as relevant, and they ceased to be influential in the Administration’s decision making.

The planters apart, by 1950 environmental perceptions of New Britain had been completely transformed. It was no longer seen as a place which could and should be exploited for the benefit of the ‘white race’. Europeans’ confidence in their power over nature had been replaced with a sense of responsibility towards the indigenous people and their environment. New Britain ceased to be a ‘colony of sojourn’.



[1]Donald Worster, ‘Transformations of the earth: Toward an agroecological perspective in history’, The Journal of American History (March 1990), p 1091.

[2]H.C. Brookfield, Colonialism, Development and Independence: The Case of the Melanesian Islands in the South Pacific, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1972, p 21; Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, Reed Books, Chatswood, NSW, 1994, pp 338-41.

[3]F.C. Fleming, ‘Some Aspects of Environmental Attitudes’ , BA Hons dissertation, University of Otago, 1975, p 2; Genesis, 1: 26-28.

[4]John Black, The Dominion of Man: The Search for Ecological Responsibility, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1979, pp 20, 21-2, 30.

[5]J.R. McNeill, ‘Environmental history of the Pacific islands’ Journal of World History (Fall 1994), pp 326, 329, 336.

[6]Lionel Frost, ‘Coming full circle: A long term perspective’ in Studies in the Economic History of the Pacific Rim, ed. Sally M. Miller, A.J.H Latham and Dennis O. Flynn, Routledge, London, 1998, pp 52-3.

[7]P. Biskup, B. Jenks and H. Nelson, A Short History of New Guinea, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1968, pp 42-5, 46; A.L. Epstein, Matupit: Land, Politics, and Change Among the Tolai of New Britain, University of California Press, Berkley, 1969, p 22.

[8]Epstein, Matupit, p 10-14, 15.

[9]‘Annual Report for 1886-1887’, ed. Peter Sack and Dymphna Clark, German New Guinea:, The Annual Reports, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1979, p 3.

[10]Biskup et al, A Short History of New Guinea, pp 46-7; Official Handbook of the Territory of New Guinea administered by the Commonwealth of Australia under Mandate from the Council of the League of Nations, Prime Minister’s Department, Australia, 1937, pp 33-4, 37.

[11]‘Report on New Guinea, 1914-1921’, in C.D. Rowley, The Australians in German New Guinea 1914-1921, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1958, p 50.

[12]Biskup et al, A Short History of New Guinea, p 97.

[13]Epstein, Matupit, p 33.

[14]‘The Pacific today: The control of the copra trade’, The Times (London), 8 January 1921, in The Times Cutting Book, 1, Times Intelligence Department, London, 1943, p 37.

[15]Rod Lacey, ‘Our Young Men Snatched Away’: Labourers in Papua New Guinea’s Colonial Economy, 1884-1942, University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1983, p 48; Hank Nelson, ‘The troops, the town and the battle: Rabaul 1942’, Journal of Pacific History 27, 2 (1992), p 204.

[16]Harry H. Jackman, Copra Marketing and Price Stabilisation in Papua New Guinea: A History to 1975, Australian National University, Canberra, 1988, pp 64 and 240, Table 2.

[17]Pacific Islands Monthly (hereafter PIM)(February 1942), p 53; Pat Boys, Coconuts and Tearooms: Six Years in New Britain, New Guinea in the Colonial Days the 1930s, P. Boys, Auckland, 1993), p 135; Jan Hoogerwerff to Jean Mouton, 28 June 1940 and Mouton to Hoogerwerff, 9 August 1940, Jean Mouton Personal and Business Papers.

[18]K. Buckley and K. Klugman, The Australian Presence in the Pacific: Burns Philp 1914-1946 Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1983, pp 228-9); Boys, Coconuts and Tearooms, p49.

[19]Jackman, Copra Marketing and Price Stabilisation, p, 65; ‘Review of the copra industry’, PIM (October 1939), pp 10-13.

[20]Jan Hoogerwerf to Jean Mouton, 28 June 1940, Jean Mouton Personal and Business Papers; Buckley and Klugman, The Australian Presence in the Pacific, pp 267-8; ‘Coir fibre production’, PIM (October 1932), p 52; ‘Bond-selling companies: Coffee plantations in New Guinea’, PIM (October 1934), p 52; ‘Seeking timber in New Guinea: Series of new enterprises’, PIM (September 1939), p 47.

[21]‘Copra outlook’, PIM (June 1941), p 40; ‘Copra Rises Sharply’, PIM (March 1942), p 5.

[22]R.W. Johnson and N.A. Threllfall, Volcano Town: The 1937-1943 Eruptions at Rabaul, Robert Brown and Associates, Bathurst, NSW, 1985, pp 8-9, 10, 14; Official Handbook of the Territory of New Guinea, 1937, p 103.

[23]Johnson and Threllfall, Volcano Town, p 10; Official Handbook of the Territory of New Guinea, 1937, p 109.

[24]Caroline Mytinger, Headhunting in the Solomon Islands and Around the Coral Sea, Macmillan, New York, 1942, p 408.

[25]Jan Hoogerwerf to Jean Mouton, 8 June 1937, Jean Mouton Personal and Business Papers.

[26]Boys, Coconuts and Tearooms, p 109; Mytinger, Headhunting in the Solomon Islands, pp 325-6.

[27]Jan Hoogerwerf to Jean Mouton, 8 June 1937, Jean Mouton Personal and Business Papers; Mytinger, Headhunting in the Solomon Islands, p 409.

[28]Mytinger, Headhunting in the Solomon Islands, p 411.

[29]Jan Hoogerwerf to Jean Mouton, 27 June 1937, Jean Mouton Personal and Business Papers; Johnson and Threllfall, Volcano Town, p 120.

[30]Rabaul Times, 4 June 1937, in Boys, Coconuts and Tearooms, pp 122-7.

[31]Johnson and Threllfall, Volcano Town, pp 128-32; Jan Hoogerwerf to Jean Mouton, 27 June 1937, Jean Mouton Personal and Business Papers.

[32]Boys, Coconuts and Tearooms, p 119.

[33]Charles Stehn and Walter Woolnough, ‘Official report of the Rabaul Eruptions’, in Johnson and Threllfall, Volcano Town, pp 127-34.

[34]Ian Grabowsky, ‘A history in diary form of civil aviation in Papua New Guinea’, PMB no.7, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington; Jan Hoogerwerf to Jean Mouton, 11 June 1939, Jean Mouton Personal and Business Papers; Johnson and Threllfall, Volcano TownI, pp 127-32.

[35]Johnson and Threllfall, Volcano Town, p 141.

[36]Biskup et al, A Short History of New Guinea, pp 109-10.

[37]Eric Feldt, The Coast Watchers, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1946, pp 46-8.

[38]‘The defeat of Japan’, PIM (April 1944), pp 1-2; ‘How 250 Rabaul refugees were rescued in New Britain in March, 1942’. PIM (August 1946), p 44.

[39]‘Japan’s real position in the New Guinea area’, PIM (April 1942), p 9.

[40]‘What is Japan trying to do?’, PIM (February 1942), p 6.

[41]‘Eruptions etc.’, PIM (July 1942), p 9; Johnson and Threllfall, Volcano Town, p 147.

[42]Leo Scharmach, This Crowd Beats Us All, The Catholic Press, Sydney, 1960, pp 17, 84-5.

[43]Gordon Thomas, ‘Rabaul 1942-1945 (An account of four years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese)’, PMB 36, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, pp 241, 271, 294.

[44]‘The defeat of Japan’, PIM (April 1944), pp 1-2.

[45]Scharmach, This Crowd Beats Us All, p 105; Hitoshi Imamura, ‘Extracts from “The Tenor of My Life”, The autobiography of Hitoshi Imamura’, PMB 569, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, p 153; Thomas, ‘Rabaul 1942-1945 …’, p 249.

[46]Thomas, ‘Rabaul 1942-1945 …’, pp 187, 188, 273; Scharmach, This Crowd Beats Us All, pp 55-56.

[47]Thomas, ‘Rabaul 1942-1945 …’, pp 198, 273, 296, 312-3.

[48]‘Native labour in New Guinea’ and ‘The “in-betweens”; Political aspects of the post-war problems’, PIM (April 1942), pp 26, 32.

[49]Lord Hailey, ‘A British view of Far Eastern settlement: Some fundamental assumptions’, in War and Peace in the Pacific: A Preliminary Report of the Eighth Conference at the Institute of Pacific Relations on Wartime and Post-war Co-operation of the United Nations in the Pacific and the Far East, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, p 4.

[50]Epstein, Matupit, p 32

[51]Thomas, ‘Rabaul 1942-1945 …’, p 21.

[52]Thomas, ‘Rabaul 1942-1945 …’. p 254; Stephen Windsor Reed, The Making of Modern New Guinea, with Special Reference to Culture Contact in the Mandated Territory, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1943, p 265.

[53]J.K. Murray, The Provisional Administration of the Territory of Papua-New Guinea: its Policy and its Problems, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1949, p 14; Epstein, Matupit, p 34.

[54]Biskup et al, A Short History of New Guinea, p 166; ‘Socialist regime may be nearing its end in New Guinea’, PIM (August 1948), pp 5-6.

[55]‘Native labour muddle in New Guinea is a vicious circle of ignorance’, PIM (September 1946), p 18; ‘Miserable Rabaul’, PIM (October 1946), p 2.