From Australia to Papua New Guinea 1971

In the 1970s I was an Australian in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The street scene below was taken on my outward journey by the late Denis Williams and it does a brilliant job of encapsulating what Australia was like at that time. The first and most obvious impression is that fashion was in a state of change. The older generation was still clinging to its long coats, suits and hats, but it was being overtaken by a younger generation in corduroy and duffle, leather jackets, floral shirts and beads. The next generation of women were raising their skirts and letting their hair down, while their male counterparts were favouring long hair, moustaches and sideburns.

Australian street scene 1971.

Australian street scene 1971.

The second impression is the one that counts. There are 32 people in the photo and they are all white. Although the White Australia Policy had been relaxed to some extent, in 1971 there were very few non-European immigrants to Australia and those that did come were mostly Vietnamese boat people. The policy wasn’t completely outlawed until 1973.

Young Papua New Guineans are entitled to wonder today why Australia did such a mediocre job of governing its nearest neighbour. They may find the answer in this image. We were a mostly benevolent and law-abiding people, dull and unimaginative perhaps but well-intended. We were also race exclusionists although few would have admitted it. Given our birth heritage, how could we have been otherwise? By the 1970s, young Australians were pouring into Papua New Guinea for an exotic overseas work experience. With little or no background in governing other races and cultures, we looked to the 19th century and the days of British colonial rule for some sort of guidance on what not to do. You know, all those white ‘sahibs’ and their ‘memsahibs’ running India and bossing everyone around. We vowed that we would be different and ended up being the same.

6 thoughts on “From Australia to Papua New Guinea 1971

  1. Yes we were unaccustomed to mixed races and cultures, but were we just replicated sahibs/memsahibs? I’m not so sure…I saw some of those up in the Highlands on tea plantations, and their attitudes. Being part of the transition to Independence meant a transition to a more equal partnership. Granted there were many old timers who couldn’t and didn’t make the transition but others were more open. While it was exotic for me, arriving around the same time as you, it was “normal” and “home” for my husband who’d lived there all his life.

    • I take your point about the Highlanders. I guess I was thinking more of the short-termers in Port Moresby who stayed for only a year or two and never really did assimilate, keeping instead to their own colonial-type clubs and social groups. After Self-Government and Independence though, there is no doubt that attitudes did change, including among the Papua New Guineans themselves who developed a real sense of national identity.

  2. Hi, I was researching about New guinea and its colonization history. I like your post as I gain more insights about your people, on the other hand, can you refer to me any sources which will describe how colonizers treated the natives of New Guinea? That will be a great help. Thanks.

    • I will try and see what I can find for you Cherrie but I am not sure there is too much around at the moment on the colonial years in PNG (under both Australian and German administration) written by Papua New Guineans and describing it from their perspective. Many of the people who lived through the era of Australian administration are old now so hopefully people are making oral/written/videoed records of some of their personal stories. I think you are on the right path in tracking down any blogs or websites that refer to the pre-Independence years. Apart from that, I usually check what’s available on Amazon then see if any of the titles I am interested in are available at my local libraries. Perhaps someone else knows of some online sources that they can recommend to you and will be happy to post the info as a comment. I see from your Facebook page that you are a philosophy student at the University of the Philippines. It reminds me of the ’70s years when Filipinos were hired to work in PNG because they we seen as a cheaper source of labour than the highly-paid Australians. The argument was that the fledgling country needed a short-term skilled workforce that they could actually afford because it was obvious that they couldn’t afford to keep hiring Australians. Air Nuigini followed this up with their regular flights to Manila. There is a close relationship and shared history between your country and PNG. Best wishes and good luck with your research.

      • You could start with Michael Somare’s memoir Sana for a specific PNG perspective. James Sinclair wrote several books about the life and experiences of a patrol officer which would give inferences from the colonial perspective. Searching the National Library of Australia is a good starting point as anything published in Australia has to have a copy deposited there.

    • http://asopa.typepad.com/ for the website Keith Jackson and Friends: PNG Attitude

      Hi Cherrie, The above website is an absolute treasure trove of information about PNG and not to be overlooked by anyone with an interest in that country. I think you will find the Obituaries pages particularly useful for information about both Australians and PNG locals who lived through the colonial era and because it will always be updated regularly as more of us oldies pass away, it’s a site that is well worth following. There are also many individual blogs in it by contributing authors that are of a historical nature and they would interest you. Also arguably the best site on the Internet for general information and stories about PNG. Cassmob’s suggestions about Somare’s Sana and Jim Sinclair’s kiap books are very good and Sean Dorney has written excellent books on the political side of life in PNG, particularly the early years of self-government and independence, so check with your university library. You never know your luck.

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