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In defence of colonialism: the case of Papua New Guinea

In defence of colonialism the case of Papua New Guinea
C. R Hallpike
Written by C. R Hallpike

Modern liberals, so loud in their condemnation of colonialism, for the most part have little or no idea of the conditions of life in traditional primitive societies, or the harsh realities facing the early European colonists. A classic example of the need for colonialism has been Papua New Guinea. Independence has seen a terrible regression.

Papua New Guinea is the eastern half of a vast island to the north of Australia across the Coral Sea.  The western half of the island was a Dutch possession from the eighteenth century, and was then seized by the Indonesians after they gained independence from the Dutch in 1949. What is known as Papua was initially a British Protectorate in the south-eastern half of the island, originally established at the insistence of the Australians in 1884, who were worried because Germany was securing its own colony of German New Guinea at the same time on the north-east coast of the island. In 1905 Australia took over responsibility for Papua, and at the outbreak of World War in 1914 occupied German New Guinea as well. After the war this became a Mandated Territory of the League of Nations. In the Second World War, the administrations of Papua and New Guinea were combined, and remained so until independence in 1975. This eastern half of the island is nearly 160,000 square miles, but in the early years of colonisation the population was less than one and a half million. Nevertheless, the number of languages spoken in Papua New Guinea is nearly 850. A relatively small proportion of coastal languages are Austronesian languages brought in the last two or three thousand years by sea-faring people, but the vast majority of languages are the far more ancient ones spoken in the hinterland.

Papua New Guinea is essentially a mass of mountains and river valleys covered in dense tropical rain-forest, through which are scattered large numbers of very small tribal societies speaking mutually unintelligible languages. Traditional societies were very loosely organized, with no hereditary chiefs to exercise political authority, nor did they even have councils of elders for peace-making and dispute settlement. Old men were more likely to be regarded as contemptible dotards than as wise counsellors to whom the community should listen with respect. Elaborate and highly competitive exchanges of pork and dances were organized by Big Men, faction leaders in their communities, who might also be fight leaders, but whose importance disappeared with age.

Technology was extremely primitive, and based of course on stone tools. While agriculture in Papua New Guinea has a very long history, beginning before 5000 BC in the Central Highlands, for some reason it has remained at the slash-and-burn stage, while the very weak social organization does not allow autonomous groups of more than 2-300, often dispersed in small hamlets. Given the extremely mountainous terrain, and the dense rain-forest, communications were limited to native tracks and pig trails, especially through the mountain forests separating the valleys. Canoes were used on the few navigable rivers like the Sepik and the Fly, while the sailing lakatoi traded along the southern coast.

The people in general were also extremely violent, and in the early years of colonisation the level of conflict and homicide was extraordinary. The usual metric for violent death rates is calculated per 100,000 people, and in modern Western nations this is normally in single figures. (The figure for the UK in 2018 was 1.2, whereas at the other extreme one or two cities in Mexico, one of the most violent countries in the world, exceed 100/100,000. Among the Tauade, however, before 1946 the murder rate was 534/100,000 (Hallpike 1977:120), and among their neighbours the Kunimaipa it was 617/100,000 (McArthur 1961). Figures for other peoples of Papua New Guinea were comparable:

  • Hewa   731
  • Telefomin 740
  • Manga   460
  • Auyana   420
  • Mae Enga   320
  • Gebusi   200
  • Boko Dani   140

(All from Keeley 1996)

These, however, are dry statistics, and modern readers – especially anti-colonialists –need a more realistic picture of what tribal violence was actually like. We can begin with this account of tribal warfare from Sir Hubert Murray, Lieutenant-Governor 1909 – 1940 :

“It was during this period [1888-1898] that the Dutch boundary was finally settled, and that a serious check was given to the Tugeri invaders. The Tugeri were a tribe living some 40 miles on the other side of the Dutch boundary, who had for years been in the habit of making periodical raids into British New Guinea [Papua], burning the villages, laying waste the country, and collecting the heads of the inhabitants. They also had a custom, not found, I believe, in British territory, of carrying off captives, especially women and children, the usual custom in Papua being to massacre all that can be caught. The result of these constant raids was that the country, for some considerable distance on the British side of the border, was filled with the remnants of broken tribes, who had been reduced to a state of desperation which rendered them dangerous of access even to those who sought to be their friends.” (Murray 1912:83).


Although the Tugeri raids were put down, their consequences lived on for many years:

“Unfortunately, however, the effect of former hostilities still continues in the state of desolation that prevails in the extreme west of Papua, where once powerful clans are scattered about in small communities where they have been driven in their flight from their implacable foes. Of the Toga tribe, on the Pahoturi River, opposite Saibai Island, who had been broken by the Tugeri, Sir William [MacGregor, a previous Lieut. Governor 1888-98]  says: “It would indeed be no easy matter to find anywhere more dangerous and ferocious savages than these tribes. They have been hunted from their homes and driven to live in these inland morasses to save their lives; and they have come to regard every man as a mortal enemy” (ibid., 195-6)

Rather like the Tugeri, another tribe, the Kukukuku,

. . .came to the attention of the Papuan Government at the end of the last [nineteenth] century by reason of their attacks on the coast dwellers of what later became the Gulf Division.

‘Whilst at Kerema, some natives of the eastern villages reported to us that a party of natives of an inland tribe, generally spoken of as the Kuku-Kuku people – apparently of nomadic habits – had attacked and killed a party of Kerema natives while they were in their gardens. They also stated that the attacking party had cut the victims to pieces, taking away with them for gastronomic purposes portions of the bodies.’ (Giulianetti 1901:74)

. . . So seriously did the Government take the effect of the Kukukuku on the peace of the coastal region that it established a new Division, the Gulf Division, with headquarters at Kerema, to deal with them.

‘This division was established in the year 1906 with the object in particular of pacifying the truculent little semi-nomads on whom the Motuan traders have bestowed the somewhat ridiculous name of Kukukuku, and of extending the Government influence among the numerous population of the Purari Delta’(Murray 1908:17).

(Hallpike 1978:3-4).

Again, Sir William MacGregor, while on patrol of the Musa River, apprehended a number of canoes returning from a raiding party, and his report (Annual Report 1895-96, pp.95, 96) is quoted in detail by Sir Hubert Murray:

“It would appear that the marauders had already captured probably some ten or twelve people. There were, on as many separate canoes, four adult undivided dead bodies; on another there was the body of a little girl of seven or eight, still tied by the hands and feet to the pole on which her tender little body had been carried to camp.” The village of Endari, which the Government party had visited only two days before, had been raided, and the canoes were full of plunder: pots, adzes, clubs, and a host of miscellaneous articles had been collected, all of which were lying about in the canoes, with here or there a human hand or foot protruding.

“A nearer examination would then show that the member was detached, that it had been clumsily and unskilfully hacked from the body by an inexperienced hand, and that it was already half cooked, probably in order to keep it longer sweet. On the platforms of the canoes were also little made-up parcels and packets of human flesh, deftly enveloped in leaves and tied with bark. On some of the platforms were large and small uncovered pieces, some cooked and ready for the table, others apparently the remains left over from an interrupted meal. One of these was a large portion of the back of a child half cooked, and corresponding exactly to what is known to the cook as a ‘saddle’. In the holds of some of the canoes were coils of human intestines, sorted as one folds a fishing-line, with a stick through the coil supporting it by resting on the edges of the canoe, so as to let the coil fall into the hold but without the lower end reaching the bilge-water in the canoe.” (Murray1912:106)

Sir William MacGregor was a physician, and previously Chief Medical Officer of Fiji before becoming Lieut. Governor of Papua, so pace Professor William Arens1, we may take it that he was an expert witness and knew what he was talking about. Sir Hubert Murray continues:

“In 1905 I paid a visit to the then headquarters of the Wesleyan Mission at Dobu, and there saw two little girls called Minnie and Marie Corelli, who had been saved by the Mission from the awful fate of being buried alive. Many other children have been saved by this Mission from a similar doom, for it was the custom in Dobu when a mother died to place her in a chair, tie her child in her lap, and bury them both together. There is another little girl at Yule Island who was saved by the Roman Catholic Mission from the Kuni tribe, where a similar practice prevailed, and there is, or was, a girl at Kerema in the Gulf who was rescued from the same fate by a teacher of the London Missionary Society. It seems that the practice must have been a widespread one, but it is one which would die out quickly with the spread of civilisation, and I do not know of any case that has come before the court. The idea seems to be that the child should go with the mother for company, or perhaps for protection. Similarly it is said that at Rossel Island it is, or was, the practice, on the death of a chief, to kill either one of his wives or some small boy or girl to accompany him to the next world and there cook his food” (Murray 1912:213-14).

Speaking now about my own fieldwork among the Tauade, this is an account of the preliminary events leading to prolonged warfare between the Laitate and the Sene which I obtained from an informant, and which gives a real flavour of what daily life could be like:

The Laitate planted their gourds and yams by the Aibala River, and gave them to the Sene people in exchange for pandanus nut and animals which they hunted in the forest. They were friends with the Sene people at first.

One day some Sene boys were on a ridge called Orotuiki, above the yam gardens of a Sene Big Man named Papaitsi and his wife Kari. The boys had come to Orotuiki with their parents to work in the gardens there. Kari arrived after them; the boys saw her and laughed, because there was blood running down her legs and the boys thought that she has been copulating with someone. An old man said ‘Who are the boys laughing at?’ Then he heard that it was Papaitsi’wife Kari, and he became angry. They were sitting a little above the garden where she was working. A little bird called tsivutu settled on one of the poles for the yam vines. It has a red neck and the wings are white. It was sitting above the woman as she worked. The boys threw a stone at the bird and it missed the bird and hit the woman.  She was very angry and shouted out ‘Who has hit me? I am not a widow [i.e. a defenceless woman] why have you hit me?’Her husband Papaitsi came and she told him what had happened.

Her husband became angry and abused the boys’ fathers. Then they all went back to Sene; Papaitsi’s village was Ovaritava, and the boys and their parents lived at Sene. They (Papaitsi and the men) were quarrelling all the time, and blows were exchanged. Later [probably the same day], the men from Sene village, including Aia, his father Kamo, and Laipo  came and surrounded Papaitsi’s hamlet. Papaitsi and his son Avauta [who were both Big Men of the Sene tribe]  were in their men’s house, and the Sene men set fire to it. At the same time Kamo put his head inside the house to kill Papaitsi and Avauta. There was a plank above the entrance, tied with vine, but the fire burnt through the vine, and the plank fell down and hit Kamo. Laipu was outside in the yard with the other men when the plank hit Kamo. Kamo called out to Laipu when the board hit him, and Laipu thought that Avauta and Papaitsi had killed him. So he got a spear and killed Papaitsi. [He was able to do this  because] at this time the leaves had fallen off the side of the men’s house [due to the fire burning through some of the rafters] so he was able to see them sitting inside. Others got in and killed Avauta as well.

The relatives of Avauta and Papaitsi lived at Maini, Laitate, Ita, Tumi, One, Iveyava, Gane, Karoava, Watagoipa, and Gona in Fuyughe. They wept very much when then heard of the deaths of Papaitsi and Avauta. The rest of the Sene were greatly afraid. ‘Where shall we go?’, they said. ‘The Maini will kill us. The Laitate will kill us, the One, and the Iveyava,  and the Sopu will also kill us, so will the Ita, and Tumi, and Gona, they thought. So the Sene all went to Karoava, with their Big Man Kamo, to the village of  the Karoav of a Big Man Anamara , at Topom.

He was angry because of the death of Avauta and Papaitsi. But while his inside was angry he did not speak his anger, and his lips uttered only kind words [and he welcomed the Sene people]. Later, when it was dark, he cut elaivi, and sent it to the Iveyava people, saying ‘You will come to my village and surround it, and you will kill the Sene people, as vengeance for the deaths of Papaitsi and Avauta’. The Iveyava agreed and brought all their weapons [presumably the next morning]. Before the Iveyava came Anamara told some of the Sene men that they would go up the spur and get firewood, but that first they would improve the path as it was slippery, and the bad bits should be dug over.

He thought that he would lead the men away from the village and allow it to be defenceless against the Iveyava as only the women and children would be left. So they made the path good, and then went up and got the wood and came back with it. [Meanwhile the Iveyava had arrived and were killing the women and children.] The Sene men heard the screams of their women and children as the Iveyava slaughtered them, and they became angry. All the men of Sene who had been left behind had been killed except Kamo because he was a Big Man. They had just speared him in the side and he recovered.. Anamara and the other Sene men came back to the village, where they found their women and children dead. When they saw this they were very angry and chased the Iveyava men. A man called Topo of Sene killed four of the Iveyava, the rest of whom ran back to their land. In Anamara’s village they put the bodies on platforms.The people of Loleava heard the story, and invited Kamo and the surviving Sene to come and live with them. So the Sene went there and lived with the Loleava [where they remained for perhaps two or three years] (Hallpike 1977: 220-22).

An almost interminable series of murders and massacres followed, and Murray gives a vivid picture of a night raid on a village. Not far from Port Moresby,

There were two Ekiri villages, a couple of miles apart, and one night, about five years ago, one of them was attacked and burnt, and nearly all the inhabitants murdered. There were two witnesses who had escaped from the massacre – one a youth who had heard the footsteps of the attacking party as he lay awake and had wisely taken to the bush, and the other a woman. The latter was sleeping in her house with her husband and her baby by her side when she was awakened by a blaze of light, and found the village in flames and her house full of armed men. Her husband was killed where he lay, the baby was driven through the floor by a blow from a club, and she dashed through the wall of the house receiving a wound in the back from a tomahawk as she went. Outside, the scene was as bright as day, and she saw the war party murdering all they could find. Of course she took to the bush as fast as her legs could carry her. . . (Murray 1912:230-31).

Some idea of the horrors of a Papuan raid may be gathered from the following description by Mr Hennelly when Magistrate of the Northern Division of the village of Munuaga in the Hydrographer’s Range, which had been raided shortly before he visited it:

“It was a large village containing forty-four houses built on two sides of a long street. A number of the houses have been burnt, but in six of them the dead were laid out. I counted seventeen bodies, men, women, and children, and in the surrounding bush there were supposed to be twice as many more. Those we saw presented a horrible spectacle, and were in a very advanced stage of decomposition. . . Myriads of flies hovered round the bodies, and their presence made my duty of inspection far from pleasant. I intended to cremate the bodies, but when I gave the order to do so the relatives became frenzied with grief, so I relented and left them as they were (Murray 1912:235).

Papua is nearly twice the size of England (90,000 square miles to 50,000), and its forested and mountainous terrain meant that even getting from one place to another to enforce law and order was a far more formidable challenge than that faced by the Romans in Britain, for example. Assistant Resident Magistrate Humphries tells how he tried to lead a patrol of six police and eighteen carriers from the goldfields at Nepa to Divisional Headquarters at Kerema, a distance of about fifty miles as the crow flies, but a great deal further on the ground:

The following day we entered a great bamboo forest, where the cutting became more tedious than ever, the knives glancing off the smooth, shining branches. We did not find water, so we went on without a halt at midday. It was distressingly hot, and I was anxious, if only on account of the track cutters, to camp, but we had to find water first. Two policemen, relieved by their comrades of everything except their rifles, were with me in the lead cutting a way through the thorny tangled mass with their scrub-knives. Behind us came the carriers, and in the rear the rest of the police. In parts where the forest was heaviest, the track cutters were changed every hour, this being necessary on account of the strain and jar of the heavy knife on the wrists. (Humphries 1923:42)

They were constantly tormented by clouds of mosquitoes:

For such dry country the mosquitoes were amazing, and I remember being at a loss to account for them. They settled on us in clouds, even in the broad sunlight, but I noticed that they invoked little or no remonstrance from the sick men [with influenza]. The pests never left us for a moment, and when at evening we staggered upon a muddy but swiftly flowing river, they seemed to be reinforced by millions of others. But we had found water, and although it was muddy, it was sweet and wholesome when compared with the stuff we had left behind” (44).

But the party were now faced with swamps:

The swamps were obviously vast, so I sent a man up a tree and on his report sheered away southwards, skirting closely the wall of sago fronds that blocked our path. Twice we tried to penetrate them, but the slime and mud in which they grew was too deep, and on both occasions we retreated from the abomination much the worse for thorns and mud. Later, getting a good report from the north, I turned in that direction, and travelled almost until darkness had set in, but the swamps still were before us, barring the way to our goal. That the men were beginning to lose heart was not to be wondered at, for some of them had temperatures of well over 100, and they had marched all day through that desolate country, with a fifty-pound swag (45).

They eventually had to turn back, and never reached Kerema. Crossing rivers also presented challenges. In some places the natives had constructed suspension bridges out of jungle vines, but on other occasions patrol officers had to improvise, as when trying to cross the Waria river:

At length I was compelled to return up the river in search of a narrower crossing. About a mile away we found a likely-looking spot, a place where the banks are about thirty feet high. Confined by these miniature cliffs, the river was a fearsome spectacle of crested waves and whirlpools; but that did not bother us, for near at hand were several fine pine trees, all of which were long enough to span the gorge. The tree selected for this purpose was about eight feet through at the base, and three police were able to commence felling it at the one time. Not a moment was lost: as one man tired, so another took his place, until all hands had had a cut at it. We gave a great cheer when we saw it sway; but imagine our chagrin when, crashing with terrific force, it broke in two! The top half was carried away in the current like matchwood, but the other half stuck in the bed of the river, giving a passage to within forty feet of the other bank (152).

They made a further rickety kind of bridge out of bamboo poles tied together:

We had certainly made a bridge, but half of it was a perilous structure, to be sure. When my turn came to cross I took off my boots and clothes, and I am afraid I made a very sorry showing up that bamboo slope. As the reader might suppose, I was thankful when I got on to terra firma again (152).

I think the reader will by now have got the general idea of what colonial officers faced in their efforts to bring law and order and civilisation generally to Papua. The Queensland Criminal Code was used as the basis of law, with local adaptations, and an administrative structure was also one of the basic requirements of government which took many years to extend its reach across the whole of Papua. At its head was the Lieutenant-Governor, under whom were the District Commissioners, each responsible for one of the seven districts of Papua, and under them their Assistant District commissioners, each responsible for one of the Sub-Districts. So the Tauade, with their neighbours the Kunimaipa and the Fuyughe, constituted the Goilala Sub-District, which was part of the Central District. The ADCs were each assisted by a number of Patrol Officers who were themselves supported by a body of armed police recruited from the coastal tribes, the Papuan Armed Constabulary. The patrol officers were supposed to settle disputes, arrest murderers, and in particular compile as accurate a census as they could of each local group every year.

In the early years of colonial rule the frequent response of the Government to tribal raids and massacres was to send a punitive expedition to inflict retribution on the village deemed responsible, but MacGregor was strongly opposed to this. His expeditions

. . . were essentially administrative and pacificatory, and he took great personal risks on them to inspire confidence in the Government among the natives. MacGregor expressly avoided the use of force on an expedition except for self-defence, as his remarks to Cameron show: “Instead of organising hostile parties Mr. Cameron should visit the country of the different tribes and leave for them or give them presents; influence them to visit the station and coast tribes. This will require tact and patience; but this is the only policy which will meet my approval. Recourse to force is justifiable only in self-defence (cited in Oke 1975: 11-12).

Murray as well was strongly opposed to punitive expeditions, which he described as “swift injustice”. He was also Chief Judicial Officer for the colony, and his policy was for patrol officers to arrest those considered responsible for the killings and to bring them back to Port Moresby for trial and sentencing to a few years of imprisonment, intended to be an educational experience as well as a punishment.

Sir William MacGregor had introduced the very practical institution of the Village Constable, who was given a red rami or cummerbund and a belt as a uniform, together with a blue jersey and a laplap or type of kilt, as well as a pair of handcuffs.

The clothes are eagerly sought by, but are not given out haphazard. To qualify for the honour of wearing the uniform, for to them it is an honour, the Chiefs are told that they must make an effort to bury the hatchet as regards inter-tribal enmities. And to show by constant demonstration their willingness to assist the government in all matters . . .In most cases the man recommended for appointment is selected by the people themselves and is usually a chief, but seldom the principal chief of the tribe (Middleton 1936: 1-2).

Capt. C.A.W.Monckton, a very experienced Resident Magistrate, explained the advantages of the Village Constable system:

Let me take an example: assuming a murder, or any serious crime, had taken place in a village of raw natives without a village constable or Government chief, and I heard of it; then, the arrest would be made by constabulary – strange armed men – and the whole community would be alarmed; the women, children and witnesses would all fly for the bush, and regard the whole matter in the light of a hostile raid by a foreign enemy. Take the same village and the same offence with a village constable or Government chief firmly established; then, upon the offence being reported, it was only “old so-and-so” whom the villagers knew well, who donned his uniform and, accompanied by the elders of the village, seized the offender and hauled him forth for judgment; and this without in the slightest degree disturbing the village life or alarming the uninvolved people.. . . In weak villages, the village constable gave the villagers a sense of protection, for he was a constant reminder that a force existed able to protect them from their enemies, with which he was intimately connected; whilst in strong and turbulent villages, his presence was a constant reminder of a watching Government, and therefore a deterrent to crime (Monckton 1921:271).

The kiap or government officer, such as Monckton, was also an essential of government:

The kiap, for example, is district administrator, commissioned policeman, magistrate, gaoler: if he is in a remote area he may well be engineer, surveyor, medical officer, dentist, lawyer, and agricultural adviser. The kiap system grew out of necessity and the demands made by poor communications in impossible country: the man on.the spot had to have power to make the decision (Allan 1969: 2).

While the kiap had a body of armed police to back him up, police by themselves would have been quite inadequate to carry out the many different and demanding roles that he was called upon to perform, particularly as magistrate and general administrator.

In some areas, such as the Fore region, the arrival of government patrols achieved quick results:

The most obvious immediate effect of the arrival of Australian patrols in the Fore region was pacification. Fighting ceased almost spontaneously throughout the entire region. Most Fore groups did not wait to be told to cease fighting by the new administration, but stopped on their own – almost as if they had only been awaiting an excuse to give it up . . .The Fore said among themselves that the kiap (government officer) was coming, so that it was time to stop the fighting. They looked to his arrival as the beginning of a new era rather than an invasion. Disputes that could not be settled by the Fore themselves were eagerly put into the hands of the patrol officers for arbitration, and an anti-fighting ethic quickly spread throughout the region (Sorenson 1972:352).

Many other Papuans, such as the Tauade and other groups in the Goilala Sub-District, reacted in a far more bellicose manner. The first patrols into the Tauade area were in 1911, and the first reactions of the people were rather timid and evasive: as long as patrol officers and other Europeans, such as missionaries or explorers, were merely passing through the country, the Tauade seem to have displayed no animosity, but once the Government became involved in the suppression of raiding and killing, relations changed dramatically. Being divided among themselves, they initially welcomed the Government as a potential ally in their perpetual warfare with one another, but because warfare was endemic any administration attempting to pacify such a region was inevitably drawn into tribal conflicts, as the groups with whom the patrol officers first came into contact complained of having had men killed by other tribes, against whom the Government was then bound to take hostile measures. Indeed, much to the bewilderment of the people, the same patrol officer who in one year had “helped” them against their hated enemies across the river, on his next visit would turn on his old friends and arrest their leaders simply because they had carried on the good work and killed a few more of their enemies in his absence.

So while Murray’s policy aimed at “peaceful penetration” it took many years of sometimes violent confrontation between patrols and the Tauade before peace was finally established in the area. As part of the pacification process the patrol officers from the beginning began taking annual censuses, and, as stated, village constables were installed, and supervised the construction of rest houses where patrols could camp. The people were also employed in the construction of graded tracks, first supervised by patrol officers, but the work was handed over to the missionaries when they were established in the area. The Aibala valley, the home of the Tauade, was eventually encircled by a graded track for horses and motor-bikes which was built under the supervision of the Catholic missionaries at Kerau, who also eventually supervised the building of an airstrip in 1967. In the forested and mountainous terrain of Papua New Guinea, where road-building is often so difficult, air transport has been an essential factor in the social and political unification of the new nation, and in familiarising the young men in particular with life and work in the urban centres of the country. The Mission also ran a school and clinic, and it is now time to consider the vital work of missionaries in the advancement of Papua New Guinea.

In the 1870’s  the London Missionary Society and the Mission of the Sacred Heart of Issoudun established themselves among the relatively peaceful societies of the south coast, and were subsequently to play a very significant part in the civilising of Papua. There are of course advanced thinkers who oppose the teaching of religion on principle, but it is wholly fanciful to suppose that the Papuans could have been transformed into modern atheistical humanists in the style of Richard Dawkins or Bertrand Russell. The choice was either to leave their traditional religion untouched, or to give them some form of Christianity, which also had the very important function of being able to transcend local tribal identities and animosities. At this point it would be appropriate to say something about what traditional religion was like, taking that of the Tauade as fairly typical.

There was generally no idea of any kind of deity, least of all one who was some sort of enforcer of morality. The closest they came to divine beings were a variety of mostly evil spirits, and the supernatural and superhuman culture heroes who were believed to have roamed the land and carved out the mountains before their own ancestors appeared on the scene out of a tree. These “Agoteve’ were white, with very long hair and sometimes tusks, could fly through the air like birds or burrow through the ground, had penises “like horses” or “forty-gallon drums”, could put themselves back together again if dismembered, and were of marked homicidal tendencies. They roared over the country raping and pillaging, smearing people with faeces or shoving lengths of wood up their anuses or down their throats.

Kioitame was the Zeus, as it were, of the Agoteve, with Ovelove his wife. They had two sons, Alili Kato the elder, and Alili Kori the younger. One day Kori came back with some food from the garden and gave some to his mother Ovelove, but not to his brother, who was in his house with the door shut. So Ovelove told Kori to go and give him some too. He did so, but when he entered the house Kato leapt up and bit him, because he was angry that Kori had not brought him the food straight away, but had had to be told to do so by their mother. Kato then ate his brother, and put his bones in the corner. Their mother went looking for Kori, and eventually smelt his blood under Kato’s finger-nails, and made him confess what he had done. Kori had been her favourite son, so she took her revenge by heating a great rock in a fire while Kato was out hunting, and putting it in a hole in the ground with some wood on top to conceal it. When he came home and sat down on the wood she kicked it away so that he fell down the hole and was roasted to death. Ovelove then magically brought Kori back to life, but he was very upset to find out that she had killed his brother, and said that he had deserved to be eaten. Kato, on the other hand, had been the favourite son of Kioitame, who, when he came home and found out that Kato had been killed by Ovelove, magically brought him back to life too, so they all lived happily ever after.

Alili Kato and Alili Kori were essentially a pair of juvenile delinquents. For example, one day they came to Kiolivi when the people were away at a dance, so the brothers flung the houses, the pigs, and all the riches (things like dogs’ teeth and shells) into the river. Then they collected all the soil of the gardens into a heap, and Kori defecated on it, and Kato put it all up in a tree and tied it there. The brothers then called to the Kiolivi people to come home. When they saw the earth up in the tree they said, “What is that up there?”. “It is your pork”, said Kato and Kori, lying. The people said to them, “Bring the meat down for us to eat. You have thrown our houses, our gardens, our pigs, and our riches into the river, so in return give us the meat.” They all stood there under the tree with their mouths open. Then Kato and Kori pulled down the earth with the faeces in it all over the people, and it was in their hair and all over them. Then they went off to Elava and began raping all the children, but that’s another story. Even unbelievers might admit that Jesus and the Saints are improvements as role models on the homicidal culture heroes and evil spirits of the people’s traditional beliefs.

But in the conditions of financial austerity under which the colony operated, the Missions also made an essential contribution to its purely secular development: it was they who provided the first schools, and the clinics and medical services, and also did much of the road building and later the construction of airstrips in the mountains, essential parts of the communications network that was a fundamental necessity for any coherent national life to develop. For this was essentially what the colonial enterprise was about: the transformation of a totally chaotic mass of little tribes all speaking different languages into a modern state where all the people could co-operate as a single nation.

A nation requires a language, without which pacification is only a first step, and initially a simplified version of the Motu language, spoken around Port Moresby and known as “Police Motu” was tried, but was superseded by Pidgin English, or Tok Pisin which was developed by the people themselves in ports and plantations where men of different tribes had to communicate with one another. (Pidgin or Pisin has nothing to do with pigeons, but is a contraction of “business”.) The vocabulary is basically English, with Melanesian grammar, and became an essential basis for communication across Papua New Guinea, but the Government’s aim was to eventually make the population learn English, which opens up the whole world to them.

Literacy was also essential to take advantage of this opportunity, and the establishment of primary and secondary schools in addition to those of the Government was one of the most important contributions of the missions. This provided the basis for the employment of Papuans and New Guineans in the Administration, and by the time of Independence in 1975 there were more than 13,000 in the public service. By 1965 the University of Papua New Guinea had been established, which has since expanded to teach more or less all the subjects typical of higher education, and is able to supply the staff for the Administration of the country, its elected representatives, and the technical departments of government.

Commercial enterprises, mainly headed by Australians, were also a very important civilising influence:

There is another aspect of European contact with natives which has a direct and important effect upon the natives’ way of life – namely, the employment of large numbers of native men by Administration and private employers. The detachment of large numbers of young men from their communities, to engage in a period of regular employment is probably the largest single factor in the Territory contributing to the “Europeanisation” of the natives. Although, having left the village to work for wages, a minority remain away from home, the great majority, in due course, return to their own communities and, as the years pass, they introduce new ideas, methods, and standards. (Tudor 1969:57-8).

They become used to working at regular hours and time-keeping, under the discipline of foreman or overseer, of handling money and making some acquaintance even if for the first time with the written word, and, in particular, to working with people from other tribal groups, which was one of the most profound modifications of traditional life.

Australian currency was necessary for the first colonial officers, missionaries, gold miners, and plantation owners, and the use of low denomination coins gradually spread in the native population, especially natives living in towns and those who worked for white employers. In the 1930s silver shillings, sixpenny, and threepenny pieces with holes in the middle so they could be strung as necklaces were minted for New Guinea. Several Australian banks established early branches and at independence in 1975 the Kina replaced the Australian Dollar as the national currency supported by the Central Bank of Papua New Guinea.

To give a picture of Papua New Guinea shortly before Independence I will quote some passages from the Handbook of Papua and New Guinea describing facilities in the Western Highlands. This is a mountainous area in the centre of Papua New Guinea whose substantial population (of more than 300,000) was only discovered in the early 1930s, but has since seen rapid economic development.

By far the greater part of District requirements and the goods that it exports are now moved by road through the Mt. Hagen-Lae trunk route. [Lae is a coastal port.] The average number of freighter trucks entering and leaving Mt. Hagen was 47 a day in mid-1969. . . There was, in 1969, a total of 713 miles of all kinds of roads in the District – 154 miles of which were suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles only. . .

Mt.Hagen, the District Headquarters and other centres such as Wapenamanda, Nondugl, Wabag, Minj, Banz, Baiyer River and smaller patrol posts are well served by Fokker Friendship, DC3 and smaller aircraft. Mt. Hagen has a direct air connection with Port Moresby and frequent flights by Ansett and charter aircraft to Lae and other centres. . .

There are 49 established European coffee plantations in the District and large native plantings. Native production was 50 per cent. of the District’s 7,000 tons in 1968. There were 10 sawmills in operation in the District in 1969. A dozen nurseries for raising and distributing seedling trees have been established, some by Local Govt. Councils. A plant for treating locally sawn timber is to be erected at Kagamuga. . .

In 1969, nine European tea plantations had been established with between them 8,500 acres planted up. There were, at the same time, approximately 500 natives who had taken up small blocks for growing tea, and these had, between them, planted up 500 acres in tea. . .

The Administration maintains hospitals at Mt. Hagen, Wabag, Laiagam, Kompiam, Minj, Kandep, Lake Kopiago, Kol and Tabibuga. In addition there are 138 aid posts. The various missions have hospitals at Baiyer River, Kudjip, Mambisanda, Sopas and Kotna, and also operate 47 aid posts . . . . The Administration runs 33 Primary schools, 1 high school, and 2 vocational schools, The various missions operate 91 primary schools, 3 high schools, and 4 vocational schools. The Catholic Mission has a Teachers Training College. The Lutheran Mission has 2 agriculture training schools; and the Baptist Mission at Kompiam conducts . . .adult education courses (Tudor 1969: 364-5).

Papua New Guinea is also a member of numerous international bodies, including the Commonwealth, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the Asia-Pacific Economic Community, and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Forum.

Large parts of Papua New Guinea, notably the Highlands, had only forty years or less of colonial rule, and it may be conceded that Australia accomplished a remarkable amount in terms of imposing law and order, education, medical facilities, and economic development in a very short period of time. Political development, however, and familiarity with state-level institutions had a long way to go. Many areas were only just getting used to local elected councils, and were suddenly expected to vote for Regional and District members of the new National Assembly by proportional representation, so had had little chance to learn anything about modern democratic government. The transition from the era of Village Constables and the rule of kiaps, to Local Level Councils, Provincial Assemblies, and a national Parliament was enormously demanding, and in the opinion of many who were familiar with the country, independence was considerably premature. But it was nevertheless pressed for by the United Nations and especially the Soviet Union, and the United States with its usual anti-imperial rhetoric. So not surprisingly the country has since struggled, with some significant constitutional crises, such as the unstable party system, the conflict between Parliament and the Supreme Court, and the continued efforts of the island of Bougainville to secede. “From Independence until 2002, no prime minister was able to complete a full five-year term in office, while between 2002 and 2019, no prime minister was able to complete a second term” (Bishan & Gorea 2021: 3)

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability index, Papua New Guinea ranks 136th out of 140 countries as of 2017, indicating that many aspects of living in the country are relatively insecure. The Economist has rated Port Moresby the worst city in the world, ranking it 130th, with a murder rate 23 times that of London and equally high rates of gang violence, robbery and rape, while in the country at large the police force is not only deeply corrupt but has far fewer numbers than the country needs: “While the ratio of police to the population at Independence was 1:380, it is now around 1:1404, which is well below the United Nations recommended ratio of 1:450” (Bishan & Gorea 2021: 2). (Only four countries in the world have fewer police per capita than Papua New Guinea.)  The effects of this drastic fall in police numbers, especially in rural areas, has of course been compounded by the abolition of the kiap, and the modern breed of local politicians have no appetite for gruelling patrols into remote areas to settle local disputes. I am told that in the Tauade area, for example, the Kerau Mission has been abandoned and its airstrip overgrown with vegetation, the road from Kerau to the local centre of Tapini has collapsed, various attempts to grow vegetables for the market have failed, and that there has been a resumption of communal warfare, with “careless, merciless killing”.

There can also be extraordinary discrepancies in the number of crimes officially reported by the police and those reported by victim surveys. So in Lae the police reported 746 property crimes in 2005, whereas a victim survey recorded 40,119, and whereas the police recorded 851 crimes of violence the victim survey reported 28,730 (Akhani & Willman 2014: 13).

A World Bank study found that

In general, crime in PNG is characterized by high levels of violence. A survey on young people and crime indicates that crimes in Port Moresby involved a high level of violence (38%) compared to other cities around the world, where a maximum 25-30% of crimes involve violence (UNHABITAT 2004). The same study found that young perpetrators of crime often reported the use of violence in conducting property crimes. The urban victimization studies also illustrate that violence was commonly used in property crimes (Akhani & Willman 2014: 17).

Sexual violence is particularly common. According to Wikipedia, “Papua New Guinea is often ranked as likely the worst place in the world for violence against women”. According to UNICEF nearly half of reported rape victims are under 15 years old, and 13% are under 7 years old.  A report by Child Fund Australia, citing former Parliamentarian Dame Carol Kidu, claimed 50% of those seeking medical help after rape are under 16, 25% are under 12, and 10% are under 8.

At the time of Independence an anti-colonialist said to me that “good government is no substitute for self-government” but this is a view more likely to appeal to the strong rather than to the weak who become their victims.




  1. Professor Arens wrote a notorious book, The Man-Eating Myth, in which he claimed that there were no reliable accounts whatsoever of cannibalism by credible witnesses, who in his view had to be trained anthropologists. I have discussed the credibility of Professor Arens in Hallpike 2018:93-120.


Allan, J. 1969. “The day of the kiap is over”, Canberra Times, 26th November.

Bishan, N., & Gorea, E. 2021. “Is PNG a fragile state?”, Development Policy Centre, Papua New Guinea.

Hallpike, C.R. 1977. Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains. The generation of conflict in Tauade society. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hallpike, C.R. 1978. Introduction to Beatrice Blackwood The Kukukuku of the Upper Watut, Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum.

Hallpike, C.R. 2018. Ship of Fools. An anthology of learned nonsense about primitive  society. Castalia House.

Humphries, W.R. 1923. Patrolling in Papua. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Keeley, L.H. 1996. War Before Civilization. The myth of the peaceful savage. Oxford  University Press.

Lakhani, S., & Willman, A.M. 2014. Trends in Crime and Violence in Papua New Guinea. World Bank

McArthur, M. 1961. The Kunimaipa. The social structure of a Papuan people. Unpublished Ph.D Thesis, Australian National University.

Middleton, S.G. 1936. Goilala Police Camp Annual Report.

Monckton, C.A.W. 1921. Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate. London: John Lane.

Murray, J.H.P. 1912. Papua or British New Guinea. London: Fisher Unwin.

Oke, C. 1975.”The native administrations of MacGregor, Murray and Hasluck in Papua/New    Guinea: continuity and contrast”, University of  Wollongong Historical Journal, 1, 7-41.

Sorenson, E.R. 1972. “Socio-ecological change among the Fore of New Guinea”, Current Anthropology, 13.

Tudor, J. (ed.) 1969. Handbook of Papua and New Guinea (6thed.) Sydney: Pacific Publications.

About the author

C. R Hallpike

C. R Hallpike

Christopher Hallpike is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada. His books include The Foundations of Primitive Thought, The Principles of Social Evolution, Ethical Thought in Increasingly Complex Societies, The Konso of Ethiopia, Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains, and Do We Need God to be Good? He conducted several years’ fieldwork in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea, and received a D.Litt from Oxford in 1989. He is also a sometime Bye Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge.