In the earliest days of colonisation, Australia was a spearhead for the British Empire. But in the 1850s, gold rushes caused economic boom. The accumulated wealth began seeking outlets in the surrounding region, giving rise to an expansion drive. The colonists themselves became imperialists. Very keen ones.

Queensland Premier Thomas McIlwraith sent a party led by a police magistrate to raise the flag in Port Moresby in April 1883, hoping to force Britain to annex New Guinea. While this failed, by 1914 the Melbourne Age soon decided it was time to take New Guinea from the Germans:

“We have long since realised that we have a Pacific Ocean destiny… By virtue of the European war an unexpected path has been opened to the furtherance of our ambition [to lay down] the foundations of a solid Australian sub-empire in the Pacific Ocean…”

For most people, the carnage of World War I was a tragic waste; Australian Prime Minister Hughes made the toll of fallen soldiers into bargaining chips at the Paris peace conference. Having invested so many Australian lives, he used them to great effect, demanding control of all the South Pacific islands taken from Germany. This was about both territory and race. Hughes fought for creation of a special “C-class” League of Nations mandate, to cover what is now Namibia and (the key thing for Australia) Pacific islands. Under this mandate, the occupying power would be able to impose its own laws, including “white Australia”-style immigration controls. A great triumph for Western Civilisation.

Australia’s main prize from the war was the New Guinea mandate, in effect making the territory an Australian colony. Deputy Prime Minister Joseph Cook hoped the new conquest would be full of “great resources”, perhaps including oil. When Canberra acknowledged it also had responsibilities, this took the form of Senator Matthew Reid’s words: Australia must treat local peoples “like grown-up children”.

Systematised oppression

While the division of the spoils was being finalised, the Australian military ruled New Guinea ruled from 1914 to 1921. Historian Derick Scar says they “were able to flog freely” and did not hesitate to “shoot pretty much at random when whites were killed by New Guineans”. After 1921, the Mandated Territory Administration took a liberal view of hangings. Some 65 executions had taken place by the time Japanese troops arrived in 1942.

In the course of the Second World War, Canberra sought to project power throughout the Asia-Pacific. Critics have asked whether Australian commander in chief Thomas Blamey’s late offensives in the islands were necessary, since they cost lives without bringing Japan’s surrender any faster. This is to mistake much of their purpose. In addition to restoring colonial rule, they were important for Canberra’s strategic position. Blamey told the government:

“Were we to wait until Japan was finally crushed, it would be said that the Americans, who had previously liberated the Philippines, were responsible for the final liberation of the natives in Australian territories, with the inevitable result that our prestige, both abroad and in the eyes of the natives, would suffer much harm.”

The “natives” had already seen what white rule was like. Under the Native Regulations and Ordinances in Papua, according to former district commissioner David Marsh:

“A native wasn’t allowed to drink [alcohol]. He couldn’t go into a picture show with Europeans. When walking along the footpath the native was expected to move aside. We had the White Women’s Protection Ordinance which more or less said that if you smiled at a white woman it was rape … They also had a Native Women’s Protection Ordinance which seemed to say something quite different, and didn’t mean much anyway.”

In 1929 black workers in Rabaul struck for higher pay. Astonished to find themselves without breakfast, white mastas were outraged. “My coon’s not here”, complained one; another grumbled that there was “no response from the slave … the Government … is disgustingly lenient with the natives … why, the only thing a native understands is a beating.” White police put the strike leaders on trial, and a white magistrate jailed them.

Wartime resistance

There was resistance during the war too. Historian lan Powell quotes a man called Emboge, from near Popondetta in New Guinea, who tried collaborating with the Japanese but then moved to attempting to build an independent struggle:

“The kiawa [whites] treated us badly before the war and they deserted the people when the Japanese landed at Buna. We tried the Japanese but we did not like them at all. So all we could do is organise ourselves and settle our own differences before we can hope to fight the external enemies.”

In other cases, local people simply lined up with whoever seemed to be winning in their area, or whoever conscripted them. As an inhabitant of the Huon Peninsula told Australians: “We thought the Japanese could beat you when you left these places, so we went their way. Afterwards when you bombed and bombed we were doubtful so we made up our mind to sit in the middle, but when you hunt them from these places we will know you are the stronger.”

For those who opposed them, the Australians served out rough justice. A veteran recalled that Australian troops had been ordered to massacre entire villages, shooting the people one by one for collaborating – not aiming to kill immediately, but shooting through the legs so that they could return later and bayonet them to death.

The Papuan carriers, later dubbed “fuzzy wuzzy angels”, were virtually conscripted by Australians as forced labour to carry wounded over the Kokoda Trail. Many were paid nothing. According to the writer Peter Ryan, recruitment in some villages was 100 percent of fit adult males. The villages suffered without men to clear gardens, hunt and maintain houses and canoes. Diet was poor, so diseases increased, with some places facing near starvation and very high infant mortality.

In the late 1960s, former carriers told PNG University’s Ulli Beier that about two-thirds of them had tried to escape. Reasons for wanting to abscond included bad food, sore shoulders from carrying, beatings, cold and bombs. But whenever some got away, the Australians conscripted their sons, so that fathers were forced back to face ghastly penalties. “The most terrifying punishments were the so-called drum beatings in Kerema … A fire was lit in a 44-gallon drum and when it was hot the unlucky carriers were put cross the drum and beaten.” A song still current among villagers in the 1970s ended:

The white man has brought his war to be fought on this land

His king and queen have said so

We are forced against our wishes to help him.

Tom Hungerford’s novel The Ridge and the River portrays an Australian musing about local villagers who had watched plantation owners, the “little tin gods”, driven out by the Japanese and lucky to escape with their lives. He suspects the planters might get a shock after the war, when they attempt to get local labour at the old rates, “and there might be something more ugly”. At the time, the government identified Papua and New Guinea as Australian territory, but Prime Minister John Curtin himself was cynical about this in private, telling journalists that New Guinea wasn’t Australia, and that calling it so was just “military strategy”.

At the end of the conflict, a man from Wewak in New Guinea told an Australian: “Yes, we have helped you in this war, now we are like cousins, like brothers. We too have won the war. Now whatever knowledge, whatever ideas you have, you can give them to us. Before all the things we did, you gaoled us, and you fined us, all the time. But now. What now?”

Some people in PNG believed logically that whites should compensate for past plunder, and that was the starting point for many of the social movements known as cargo cults. Instead, colonial plunder resumed. People throughout the islands had the bitter experience that whites confiscated gifts from soldiers, or money received for carvings, on the grounds that it must be stolen. For this, Major-General Basil Morris came up with a brilliant rationale. The native mind, he argued, responded to marks of distinction, so money or goods had much less value in their eyes than a medal.

What profound consolation for the millions who once lived under Australian colonial rule.