Defining moments in Australian history
IN 1906 THEYOUNG nation of Australia became a colonial administrator when it assumed responsibility for the external territory of Papua – the southern half of what is now Papua New Guinea.
Australia saw the administration of the territory as an opportunity to secure its borders, expand commercial and colonial interests and prove itself as a mature and modern nation.
On 7 February 1883, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article about German intentions to annex the eastern portion of the island of New Guinea. (The western part was already controlled by the Dutch.) Because the island lies only 150km north of Cape York, the article heightened anxieties here about the Australian continent’s vulnerable and sparsely populated northern borders.
A month later, Queensland’s colonial government pre-emptively annexed eastern New Guinea. But Lord Derby, Secretary of State for the Colonies, promptly repudiated Queensland’s claim when news reached him in London.
Free to act, Germany annexed New Guinea’s north-eastern section in 1884 and named it Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. At the same time it claimed the Bismarck Archipelago, which included New Britain and New Ireland off New Guinea’s north-eastern coast, as well as other small island groups.
Britain responded by proclaiming the protectorate of British New Guinea (covering south-eastern New Guinea), providing a buffer between German territories and the Torres Strait, which was vital to Australian navigation.
Administration of the Protectorate was shared between Britain and the colonies of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. But in 1906 full control of this area was handed to the Commonwealth of Australia and it was renamed the Australian Territory of Papua.
World War I
Shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Australian military and naval forces occupied Kaiser-Wilhelmsland to prevent it being used as a German naval base. After the war, the United Nations mandated that German New Guinea come under Australian rule. Both territories, however, were administered separately and retained their own identities. In 1949 the Papua and New Guinea Act brought both territories together under one administration based in Port Moresby.
During the 1960s debate grew, both in Canberra and Papua New Guinea, about the future role of Australia’s administration. There was a view that the Australian administration favoured European interests over those of locals. By November 1973 Papua New Guinea had attained self-government and on 16 September 1975 it was granted independence.
Part of the Defining Moments in Australian History project. To find out more: nma.gov.au/definingmoments
An Australian patrol officer (left) trades a stick of tobacco with local tribesmen in New Guinea, in about 1950. This mask (below) was one of many artefacts collected by
Sir Hubert Murray, who in 1908, was appointed lieutenant-governor and remained head administrator of Papua until his death in 1940.