Australian Territory of Papua (1906-1945)

Under the Papua Act, adopted by the Commonwealth of Australia in 1905 and brought into effect in 1906, Australia took over responsibility for British New Guinea and renamed it the Australian Territory of Papua. Hubert Murray, styled Lieutenant-Governor, was head of the Papuan colonial Administration from 1907 until his death in 1940. In July 1945, after the Japanese had been driven out, the Australian government passed the Papua New Guinea Provisional Administration Act under which Papua and New Guinea were administered as a single territory.

From 1907 to 1918 Murray followed policies which he hoped would attract European settlers to develop copra, rubber and sugar plantations. Under the Papua Act, and the Land Ordinances of 1906, land could be leased cheaply for 99 years and rent was not required for the first ten years. When these policies were unsuccessful Murray reverted to the policy which had been adopted by the British of trying to protect the land and labor rights of the people against gross exploitation. There was little alienation of land to white settlers and, compared with the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, close control of labor conditions. Murray’s paternalistic and relatively liberal land and labor policies were opposed by most expatriates who held him responsible for their not being able to make vast profits.

Murray extended Administration influence in the colony through extensive exploration by white patrol officers and the Armed Native Constabulary. By 1939 he believed, incorrectly, that the whole of Papua had been explored. By 1940 the Administration had established a permanent presence, by force if necessary, in key parts of the colony.

Western health services were scarce but the continuation of the relatively effective quarantine system established by MacGregor prevented the entry of some serious diseases. All Western-style education was left to the missions, partly subsidized by the Administration. There were very few employment opportunities for educated Papuans. Most Australians did not believe that Papuans were capable of anything other than manual labor and were reluctant to train them for other employment. Some were employed as domestic servants or as boats’ crews, a few were trained in clerical work or in manual trades such as carpentry and some became missionary assistants. Others were recruited as police. The police (Armed Native Constabulary) often acted as guides and interpreters to European patrol officers and were attached to Administration stations. Papuans also worked as indentured laborers for planters and gold miners under conditions set down in the Native Labour Ordinance of 1907. The work was hard, hours long, and housing and food poor, but men were prepared to suffer hardship to earn cash with which to buy European goods.

Murray thought more highly of Papuans than did most resident Australians but his Administration passed discriminatory legislation and maintained a system of racial segregation. The movement of Papuans in towns was restricted. They were excluded from ”European” areas and required to observe night curfews. Despite Australian racism and the exploitation of Papuan labor there was no organized opposition to Australian rule. In 1942, when the Japanese invaded, Australia was able to rely on the support of many Papuans, including the police.

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