The first European to visit the Island of New Guinea was the Portuguese trader and navigator Jorge de Meneses in 1526. He anchored his galleon in Geelvink Bay, in the protected waters between Japen Island and the mainland of West Irian, lowered a boat and was towed ashore by eight armed sailors. 


The Portuguese were looking for fresh water and they carried in the boat a score of empty 10-gallon demijohns. When Meneses had sailed from Portugal three years earlier, the demijohns had contained rich, sweet, red Portuguese wines. Wine was carried by Portuguese ships not only to delight the palate of the seamen. It was supposed to be a cure, or as any rate a protection, against scurvy-the dreaded scourge of mariners of those days. But in the long voyage around Africa and the Indian Ocean the wine had disappeared down the gullets of these formidable early sailors. So the demijohns were now empty, dragged the boat halfway up the sandy beach. The Portuguese landed, dragged the boat halfway up the sandy beach (to make sure that the changing tide didn't carry it away) and walked barefooted to a nearly stream, which they find spotted from the galleon.

Papua New Guinea Group

Meneses decided that the brown, brackish water was unsuitable. So the Portuguese party, already heavily laden with muskets, empty demijhohns, swords and spears waded in single file upstream to find a clear pool of water. They used thick pieces of cloth, tied around the neck of the demijohns, to strain the water. Then they filled up and started on the gruelling journey back to the boat. They were followed by swarms of mosquitoes and broiled by the midday tropical sun. Meneses and his party had not noticed that all this time they were being observed with a mixture of curiosity and anger, by a much larger party of short, skinny black men crouching in the jungle on either side of the stream. Suddenly, yells and a hail of arrows announced the presence of the Banda-Banda cannibal tribesmen of New Guinea."

Of course, Menses had no way of knowing either the name of the tribe or any details of the island he was visiting at that time. After dodging the first volley of arrows, the Portuguese dropped the demijohns to load their muskets (a process taking several minutes because these fire-arms were muzzle loaded), and then fired blindly into the bush. The Banda-Banda warriors charged. But at close quarters they were no match for the comparatively huge Europeans, armed with steel swords and steel-tipped spears rather than the wooden sticks and clubs of the tribesmen. The assault was repulsed. Meneses took a good look at the tribesmen. The Portuguese water party lost most of its demijohns, because they were carried away downstream and many were smashed. But these first European visitors to the Island of New Guinea preserved their heads. This was more than some other Europeans who came much later could claim. Their heads were preserved for them by the Banda-Banda themselves, in a shrunken form of course, for many generations.

Papua New Guinea postcard Branch-bridge, chutes.

Meneses and his sailors launched their rowing boat and got back to the galleon with two full demijohns. As the ship sailed from that inhospitable coast the same evening, Meneses gave himself time to reflect on the episode earlier in the day. He was angry, puzzled, frustrated. And also feeling a bit vindictive. Meneses was a cultivated, educated man. He was a linguist who had grasped the Malay language after only nine months' stay in Malaaysia, unlike most of his sailors whose Malay consisted only of descriptive swear words. Meneses pondered how best to describe, in his ship's log book, the unfriendly little men who had attacked him. He decided to use Malay words, fearing that if he described them in Portuguese (while in his present mood) he might offend the good manners of his superiors in Portugal. He called the people he had seen Orang Os Papuas. This is a rather vague expression which in polite circles could mean fuzzy-haired little people. But in the Malay vernacular it could also mean curly-haired monkeys. Thus the island of New Guinea, as a whole, was first called Papua. Now, of course, only the south-western part of the island carries that name. This episode has been described in some detail because it is typical of the way many south-west Pacific islands were "discovered" during the 16th and 17th centuries. It also illustrates the problems which some early navigators had to face.

The next European navigator to visit the island, the Spaniard Alvaro de Saavendra in 1528, had a kinder opinion. He called it Isla de Oro - "Island of Gold" - because some rocks he found on a river bed (while on a similar foray) had that glossy yellow appearance which impelled Spanish conguistadores all the way to Mexico and Peru, and Spanish sea captains across the oceans to the Philippines and Micronesia. But Saavendra was out of luck. An essay showed the New Guinea rocks were alluvial. So for the moment Spain lost interest in the island.

Papua New Guinea postcard - Food preparation

Another Spanish sea captain, Ynigo Ortiz de Doda, visited and surveyed much of the north coast of the island in 1545. He called it New Guinea, because it reminded him of the Guinea coast of Africa and its people. The list of early explorers who surveyed and mapped parts of the whole, of the Island of New Guinea is too lengthy to quote in detail. Among them were Dutchman Abel Tasman (1642); William Dampier (1700) who also surveyed and named the island of New Britain; the Frenchman Count de Bougainville (1768) who discovered the island which now bears his name; the Spaniard Louis Vaez de Torres (1605) who surveyed the Torres Straits and discovered the Louisiade Archipelago; the Frenchman Joseph D'Entrecasteaux (1799) who discovered the group of islands which now bears his name.

Portuguese, Spanish and in turn Dutch activity in the south-west Pacific area began to decline by the middle of the 18th century. The British soon took the lead with the French close behind. Captain James Cook, who missed little in the South Pacific Ocean, also had a hand in the exploration of the island of New Guinea and the associated archipelago. Other 18th century British navigators who surveyed the islands which make up today's Papua New Guinea included Carteret, Shortland, Hunter, McLure, Bampton and Alt.

Papua New Guinea postcard Hanubada Nat. village

By the end of the 18th century the Dutch were well established trading partners of the people in the group of islands previously known as the East Indies (present-day Indonesia). They were anxious to extend their influence further east and corner the world's spice trade - pepper, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves among others. These spices, particularly cloves, the most valuable, were available at a low price in the Indonesia-Malaysia area. The Molucca Islands - Amboina, Tidore and Ternate - produced and traded enormous quantities of cloves. These exotic food lines were very valuable in Europe not only because of their use in spicing foods. Cloves were above all useful as a food preservative - it could preserve fresh meat and fish for lengthy periods of time. It did the job of a present-day refrigerator. 

Papua New Guinea postcard Native basketwork

Top man in the Moluccas, and Holland's best trading partner, was the Sultan of Tidore - a powerful Muslin potentate. This Indonesian hereditary monarch held sway over a vast area, including New Guinea. The Dutch concluded an agreement with him enabling them to exploit whatever resources they could find in the western part of Island of New Guinea. In 1828 they formally annexed that part of the island. An attempt to found a Dutch trading post and missionary station proved disastrous, mostly because of the deadly fever - malaria. No further attempt was made to colonise the area until the end of the 19th century. On the eastern side of the island, Britain swiftly took the lead in exploration, survey and contact with the natives. Captain F.P. Blackwood, in H.M.S. Fly, surveyed the Fly River estuary and neighbouring tidal swamp-lands and coasts in 1842; Captain Owen Stanley, in H.M.S. Rattlesnake, surveyed the south-eastern part of the island in 1873; Captain Simpson, in H.M.S. Blanche, examined Simpson Harbour (now Rabaul Harbour) in 1872; Captain John Moresby discovered and surveyed Hall Sound and the Harbour of Port Moresby; also in 1872.

The accurate survey of the coasts of the eastern part of the island, and the small trading posts set up under the protection of naval guns, meant that secure, well-supplied beachheads were available for the exploration of this unknown land. Soon there was a scramble among various countries to send scientific and other expeditions into the hinterland. A Russian biologist of Scottish ancestry, Baron Nicolai Mikluho Maclay, landed on the north-east coast of the island in 1871. supplied by a mile-long train of native bearers he marched through the steaming rain-forests to the highlands of the Finisterre Mountain ranges. He went back again in 1876 and 1878. In 1876 an Italian naturalist, Luigi Maria D'Albertis, sailed 500 miles (805 km) up the Fly River in a 45-foot steam launch. Most of his supplies ran out. He was plagued by malaria. he was assailed by tribesmen who objected to this trespass on their crocodile-infested jungles. The story of the voyage of this launch, called Neva, would probably make a film script every bit as exciting as the movie Trader Horne.

Papua New Guinea postcard of Native group

This news story possibility which New Guinea offered was quickly grasped by the editors and publishers of the Melbourne newspapers Argus and Age. They each sent expeditions into the interior of the island. They hoped to scoop each other, and newspapers throughout the world, with an "exclusive" on New Guinea. The Argus news mission was led by W.E. Armit, of Cooktown, Queensland. The Age foray was commanded by G.E. Morrison, of Victoria. Armit went to the Astrolabe Ranges and Morrison to the Goldie River area. Neither of them accomplished very much scientifically. But some good copy was duly written and printed.

Cultural pictures available upon request

Papua New Guinea postcard Native women + men

In 1885, Dr Otto Finch, a German zoologist, visited the Sepik River area. The strong personality, energy and organising ability of this Teuton explorer overawed the unruly local tribesmen. Hundreds of them worked for weeks to built a small fleet of canoes for his party. Leading the way, himself in a whaleboat, Dr Finch was then rowed upstream for 50 miles (80 km). He shot scores of crocodiles to the delight of the natives who ate them. And surveyed and explored one of the wildest, most fearsome parts of New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea postcard Pilarroad, pilarhouses

"Death lurked everywhere," Dr Finch said after his experience. "In the air were mosquitoes, carrying the deadliest type of malaria - the cerebral variety. In the river were the crocodiles. On land were cannibals who objected to o9ur intrusion." the town of Finchhafen was named after Dr. Finch.

Papua New Guinea postcard Preparation for dance.

Another German, Vice-Admiral Freiherr G.E. von Schleinitz (the natives called him Capn Slis because they were unable to pronounce the jaw-breaking name) sailed 300 miles (322 km) up the Sepik in a steamer in 1886. When the water became too shallow, the admiral continued for another 40 miles (64 km) in a whaleboat. And when the whaleboat ran aground, he walked along the stream for another 10 miles (16 km).

Papua New Guinea postcard Uroun Station.

It was left to a Scotsman to climb the highest mountain during this feverish exploratory period. He was Sir William MacGregor, in 1889. Papua had become a British colony by that time. Sir William had been appointed Administrator - obviously with good reason. He scaled the awesome 13,363-foot (3952 m) Mount Victoria peak, highest point in the Owen Stanley range. It overlooks the Kokoda trail, later to become the most miserable death trap in the Pacific theatre of war. True to tradition, Sir William had one of the native porters carry his bagpipes. Wild tribesmen, their noses pierced and adorned by the feathers of birds of paradise, listened fascinated to Scottish tunes.

Papua New Guinea young person.

These are only a few of the many 19th century pioneers who took part in the exploration of Papua New Guinea. Some of them did so at the cost of their lives.


Events in Europe, where all the great powers of the 19th century were centred, had a profound effect in the Pacific.

Papua Postcards

The defeat of France by Prussia in 1877 sent political, economic and military tidal waves across all the oceans. suddenly, under the leadership of Bismarck, a united Germany began to stretch its economic influence in the south, south-west and west Pacific.

This influence was backed, in Europe, by the most astute political leadership that Germans had ever produced. And, in turn, German policies were supported by the best-equipped, most effective army in the world - probably ever since the days of Jenghiz Khan.

Within a spell of five years, from 1884 to 1899, Germany gained control, by diplomatic and economic means, over the Marshall, Caroline and Mariana Islands (except Guam); the north-eastern part of the Island of anew Guinea and nearby major islands (known thereafter as German New Guinea), and the group of islands which now comprise the State of Western Samoa.

Cultural and historical pictures available upon request only


Now it is necessary to backstep a few decades in history, to bring events of the 1880s and 1890s into proper focus. In the last half of the 19th century tracts of coastal Queensland and Fiji were turned into immense, highly profitable sugar plantations. These needed a large force of workers to cultivate the sugar cane, and to cut it and carry it to th4e sugar mills.

No special skills were required for this labour. What was needed was a large workforce, made up of tough workers used to tropical and semi-tropical conditions.

Papua New Guinea -1918

Australia was underpopulated and already urbanised. It could not provide such a large number of agricultural workers. So plantation owners began to recruit workers from the native tribes in the New Hebrides, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. 

The term "recruiting" soon became a euphemism. It was more of a wholesale abduction . The Islanders were brought to Queensland from almost every major island in the south-west Pacific. All were of the Melanesian race of Pacific Island people. They were called kanakas, a name still in use today. It denotes people of the Melanesian race employed as plantation workers in 'Queensland and Papua New Guinea. When these human cargoes arrived at the ports of Queensland, they were auctioned off to the highest plantation bidder. The employers provided food, and sometimes ramshackle accommodation. The kanakas worked the plantations, often under the hip of gang bosses, six days a week, a minimum of 12 hours a day. Homesickness, disease, ill-treatment, poor nutrition, took a heavy toll. Less than 25 per cent ever survived the three-year "contract" period. Of these, some stayed on in Queensland, to take better jobs. Only 10 per cent of the original recruits returned to their islands. Their wages, two or three pounds a month, were given to them in one lump sum at the end of their contract.

Papua New Guinea man

The ships and the captains which carried the Kanakas to the plantations were called blackbirders. One in every ten recruits died aboard the ship, usually because of the crowded and filthy conditions. Modest estimates put the number of Kanakas whipped to Queensland at 20,000. The Australian authorities soon discovered what was happening. At their request the British Parliament in 1872 passed the Pacific Islanders Protection bill which set minimum pay and strict conditions under which any recruitment was to be carried out. British warships were sent to patrol the islands and intercept blackbirders. At the same time, legislation was passed in Queensland which made it less profitable for plantation owners to use kanaka labour. But the increase in the sugar price in London still left a handsome profit for the sugar planters. They complied with all the stringent new regulations and continued to bring Kanaka labour, though on a smaller scale.

So, when Germany entered the south-west Pacific area, the Premier of Queensland, Sir Thomas McIlwraith, urged by powerful sugar planters and conscious of a possible military threat to his State, sent the police magistrate on Thursday Island (just off the northern tip of Queensland's York Peninsula) to Port Moresby, to take possession of the south-eastern part of the Island of New Guinea and secure this reservoir of manpower - all in the name of Queen Victoria. The British government, however, thought otherwise. Confident in the power of the Royal Navy, Britain saw no danger from the expansion of German activity in the south-west Pacific. It repudiated the annexation of Papua and reprimanded McIlwraith. However, public opinion in Australia and New Zealand had swung in favour of immediate annexation. Germany declared a protectorate over the north-eastern part of the Island of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago on 3 November 1884. Britain declared a protectorate over the south-east coast three days later.

Papua New Guinea man

In 1885 German New Guinea was formally annexed. In 1889, following an Anglo-German agreement. Bougainville and Buka in the Solomons were ceded to Germany in exchange for German concession to Britain in Tonga.

 Cultural and historical pictures available upon request only

Papua New Guinea lady with child and Papua New Guinea man with skulls

So at the turn of the century, the Island of New Guinea was divided three ways. The western half, east of 141 degrees E longitude, belonged to Holland. The south-eastern part belonged to Britain and the north-eastern part to Germany. This administrative division, with minor adjustments, persisted until 1949, though the administering powers in the eastern half of the island changed. In that year a Bill passed by the Australian Parliament merged the two eastern quarters of the island, and associated archipelagos, into one administrative area called Papua New Guinea.

One of the minor adjustments mentioned above refers to the Fly River "bulge". Though on the Dutch side of 141 degrees E longitude, it was agreed with Holland in 1895 that it should be part of British New Guinea.

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