New Guinea - Two Different Tales

This is a very quick overview of a very complicated history! Most Australian's have heard of Papua New Guinea and many will think that the entire New Guinea island is one nation. This however is not the case...


New Guinea is located just north of Australia, in fact the top of Queensland is just 150km from Papua New Guinea (PNG) however the furthest northern Australian island in just 5km from PNG.

The island of New Guinea is directly north of Australia (Google Maps)

New Guinea is the entire island land mass however governance of the island is split right down the middle. One half is governed by Indonesia (the west) while the other half is the independent country Papua New Guinea


The whole New Guinea region falls into the Melanesian ethnic group of the south pacific. This makes the people of New Guinea ethnically different from those of Indonesia and this is why there have been some tensions over Indonesian rule of that part of the island.


Human presence dates back around 40,000 years in New Guinea and it wasn't until the sixteenth century that Portuguese explorers arrived. The island has been carved up by the various European powers since that time. The western portion was part of the Dutch East Indies, which is how it ended up under Indonesian rule following the collapse of Dutch rule. Initially Western New Guinea gained Independence in 1961 however it was handed from Dutch control to Indonesian control in 1962 with the understanding that a referendum would take place allowing some kind of self determination. In 1969 through under very dubious circumstances the "people" voted for Indonesian control.


Following the end of the Dutch East Indies, Indonesia rose as the successor to the Dutch and extended their claims of sovereignty over most of the former Dutch East Indies, including Western New Guinea. Even as recently as 2019 protests have taken place to "Free Western New Guinea". It has been accepted that the situation needs to be revisited and a new referendum held but its seems Indonesia is unlikely to permit this.


Though it seems Indonesia is imposing their rule on Western New Guinea (which given a lack of referendum is not questionable) there is historic precedent for this action. Back in 1660 the Dutch recognised that the Sultan of Tidore, an island in eastern Indonesia, held sovereignty over New Guinea. As the Dutch assumed power of Tidore they also assumed power over New Guinea, initially it seems over the whole New Guinea island until other colonial powers turned up. Therefore when Dutch rule ended one can somewhat understand why the Indonesians thought the old (albeit over 350 years old) precedent should stand.

The division of New Guinea during colonial times (Wikipedia - By User:Cartol - Self-created map)

When it comes to the eastern portion, otherwise known as Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Germans claimed the north in 1884 during their search for a localised base. In response the British were forced to claim the southern portion of PNG. The British's hand was actually forced by Australia, well Queensland. I could make a number of Queenslander jokes here but lets just summarise the situation by saying the Queensland government got nervous about having the Germans moving so close. The year before (1883) the Queensland Premier instructed the Police Magistrate on Thursday Island, the northern most Australian territory, to proceed to Port Moresby and annex New Guinea in the name of Britain. Queensland had no authority to do this but it left Britain in an awkward situation and they ultimately had to make the area a British Protectorate. Though what is interesting is that the Germans didn't lay their claim to any portion of the island until after the Queenslanders showed up so this is like a miniature (a really miniature) version of the scramble for Africa that took place on the other side of the world!


This section of New Guinea eventually was handed to Australia for governance by the British, given Australia was in better proximity to oversee the region. Following World War Two the north portion of PNG was reincorporated with the south and fell under Australian governance. In 1975 the eastern side gained independence from Australia and officially became PNG, an independent country within the Commonwealth realm and today this remains the case.


The entire island of New Guinea's population is estimated at around 11 million people and it is one of the most diverse places on earth. Over 1,000 different tribal groups comprise the island and use their unique languages and culture daily. Approximately 7.3 million people live in PNG and despite showing initial promise the island has been rather stagnate since the 1970's, relying heavily on Australian economic and infrastructure support.

Papua New Guinea Flag (Did you know the 5 stars represent PNG's close association with Australia)!

PNG's economy has great potential given an abundance of natural resources however the rugged terrain means much of the island is yet to be properly explored or where it has been, the cost of setting up industry has been classed not viable. Unfortunately only 64% of the islands population is considered literate which has added to the lack of progress across the country.


Sport plays a great role in New Guinea with the most popular sport being rugby league, showing the influence of Australia on the island. Rugby League is considered to have been a replacement for tribal warfare and over the recent years there have been a number of players who have made it into Australian teams. This has made the players instant celebrities back home and all games, even those not involving PNG or PNG players are watched with great interest by all in the local PNG communities.


All of the issues facing PNG seem nothing though when compared to the plight of Western New Guinea. Despite the ethnic similarities the two sides are kept separate by politics. Indonesia have ruled with an iron fist in Western New Guinea and as a result many refugees have fled into PNG or made attempts to enter Australia via boat. Indonesia is accused of gross human rights violations against the ethnic Melanesian's with several south pacific leaders calling for action by the United Nations. Foreign journalists require permission from the Indonesian authorities to enter the region and with such strict controls in place the number of journalists allowed into the unstable area to cover the situation are few and far between, so it is hard to know exactly what the situation is, though it seems to be deteriorating.

The island of New Guinea, PNG and Western New Guinea (Google Maps)

One thing I want to quickly acknowledge is the Kokoda Trail. During World War Two Japanese soldiers used this route from the north of the island to try and ambush Port Moresby, the capital of PNG which was an allied stronghold during the war (remember the Germans held the north of PNG at this time). Australian and PNG troops repelled them however this led to intense battles along the trail from July 1942-late 1942. The reason I mention this is that the Kokoda Trail is regularly travelled by Australian's who wish to pay homage to the heroes of WWII and is probably the most known location on the island.


-This blog was written a few years ago in response to the misconception that "Papua New Guinea" and "New Guinea" were one and the same.

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