Mother Earth
Papua New Guinea desperately needs a new leader

In the case of land, the colonial administrators mostly got it right

Bill Brown on patrol in PNG
Respecters of the people's land - a young Bill Brown on patrol in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s


ADELAIDE – The Australian colonial administration in Papua New Guinea understood right from the outset of its rule that the concept of individual ownership of land didn't apply.

In part, this was based upon the British colonial experience elsewhere in the Pacific, like Fiji, where land was also a communally held and managed asset.

The Administration, as it was known, therefore pursued a policy of tightly controlling how land issues were managed and, in particular, demonstrated a strong general bias against acquiring land.

Given that a feature of the late European colonial era was the rapacious and violent seizure by colonists of traditional lands, it puzzled me that the Pacific colonies tended to be treated differently.

Possibly, it was because the Pacific fell under imperial rule relatively late in the piece and thus its early colonial administrators were much more enlightened in their outlook than their predecessors in other parts of the world.

Another reason that occurs to me is that Pacific nations are in the tropics and, for Europeans, were a hotbed of various lethal diseases, notably malaria. But the same might be said for Africa.

Of course, the hair-raising tales popularised in the late 19th century of cannibal warriors rampaging through steamy and largely impenetrable jungle may also have discouraged mass migration to such far flung and remote places.

Or maybe it was simply because opportunities for fame and fortune offered by places like Africa, Asia, the USA, Canada, Australia and South America ensured that the bulk of European migration simply by passed the small and economically insignificant Pacific nations.

Anyway, whatever the reasons, their combined effect was to spare most of the Pacific nations from the very worst excesses of European colonialism, including the expropriation of land.

It is thus a heavy irony that, Papua New Guinea’s national government seems hell bent on undermining, if not destroying, the colonial legacy of generally seeking to protect the interests of traditional land holders ahead of outsiders intent upon the commercial exploitation of the land.

European imperialism cops plenty of criticism, and so it should. But in the case of land in PNG, the colonial administrators mostly got it right.

There were glaring exceptions like the Panguna mine on Bougainville, but even there (as Bill Brown has vividly recounted) the administrators and officials ‘on the ground’ sought to advise and warn against what remote bureaucrats were determined to do.


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Chris Overland

Yes Phil, I am sure you are right.

Gordon really set the pattern I think. As I recall, he learnt to speak Fijian, freely fraternised with the local population and insisted on regular patrolling.

Also, because Britain was invited by the Fijian Chiefs to take on ruling Fiji as a Protectorate, I think that he viewed his role as being to literally protect their interests.

He therefore was quite unwilling to act as an agent for those who merely wished to exploit the Fijians and their land.

As you have said, McGregor transplanted the same attitude into Papua and the redoubtable Hubert Murray thoroughly entrenched it in the policy and legal framework of what eventually became the TPNG that we knew.

I think that modern day Papua New Guineans could do worse than erect statues in honour of McGregor and Murray respectively.

They were arguably the most important reason that PNG did not suffer the same appalling exploitation and violence as, say, the South Africans or the Aboriginals.

I guess that the modern historic revisionism which insists that all colonial regimes were irredeemable bad effectively precludes recognising people like McGregor and Murray for the humanitarianism that they brought to what was, inevitably, a paternalistic and authoritarian regime.

Philip Fitzpatrick

It might have had something to do with William MacGregor Chris.

He had spent 13 years in Fiji before becoming the Administrator of British New Guinea in 1888 and would have been aware of the concept of communal land ownership. While he was in Fiji he would also have observed the humanitarian paternalism of his friend, the Governor Arthur Gordon.

When Australia took over British New Guinea the new Administrator Hubert Murray followed MacGregor's lead.

With regard to the wider Pacific Fiji, as a large colony, tended to set the pace, at least in the British colonies.

So maybe the relatively benign Pacific experience of colonialism is down to those three men, Gordon, MacGregor and Murray.

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