By 1914 the Germans had enumerated 16,000 people in Bougainville, and estimated this was less than half the total population. By 1931 the Australians thought that they administered 36,000, by 1935 41,000, and by the eve of the war this had reached 50,000. In the interior of the main island there were still communities that had never been visited by a government patrol, but the numbers in these groups were too small to change the overall statistics. Population growth was uneven. On Buka the population was almost stable through the 1920s and 1930s, but on parts of the mainland there were areas of vigorous growth. Compared to other districts, on Bougainville there were few indentured labourers from other areas — just 131 in 1940. Even on Manus there were over 400 ‘foreign’ labourers, and on New Britain and in Morobe over 5,000. Among the New Guineans from other districts on Bougainville, only the 80 from the Sepik formed a significant group. But Bougainvilleans were prepared to leave home: nearly 1,000 of them were working elsewhere in the Territory, over 700 of them on New Britain. Before 1940 the ‘Bukas’ were well known through the Territory, but Bougainvilleans at home saw fewer outsiders than the peoples of any other district.
The 200 or so foreigners in Bougainville on the eve of war included about 80 Chinese, two Japanese and one Korean at Buka Passage, three of four Japanese further south, and four or five families of Fijian and other distant islanders. In the racial classification of the time mixed race people, such as Bobby Pitt, were usually placed with Asiatics — those who by status and salary were somewhere between Europeans and Bougainvilleans. At Kieta (south of the government rest house) and at Buka Passage (on the Buka coast opposite Bonis plantation) there were concentrations of Chinese stores and houses inevitably called ‘Chinatown’. The 130 Europeans were mainly British, but they were a diverse lot. The most common occupation was missionary, mainly because the Marist Mission Society had a foreign staff of 64. The 25 Sisters accounted for half the foreign women on Bougainville, and the 21 French, 15 Americans, 13 Germans, three Luxembourgers, and one Belgian employed by the Marists diluted the British dominance. The Australian troops thought that Father Richard O’Sullivan at Patupatuai was the only Australian priest in the mission. The Marists were widely dispersed: Bishop Thomas Wade, three other priests and three Sisters were in Kieta, two priests, two Brothers and three Sisters at Tinputz, but other stations had less than four staff, and 11 priests worked alone.
The Reverend Harry Voyce, his wife and Sister Ada Lee (a teacher) of the Methodist Missionary Society of New Zealand were at Kihili near Buin, the Reverend Don Alley and his wife at Teop, and Clarence Luxton, his wife, and a trained nurse, Sister Elizabeth Common, at Skotolan on Buka. Both the Marists and the Methodists had gone north from the Solomons, and both had exploited old alliances between the islanders — such as those between the Shortlands and Buin, or Mono and the Siwai. Both churches moved some people for education or church work between the British and the Australian Solomons, and the Methodists also employed other Pacific Islanders, such as the Fijians, Usaia Sotutu and Eroni Kotosoma. The Malaita on its last trip north in January 1942 left 16 Bougainvilleans at Kieta; they had just completed three years training at the Methodist college at Roviana in the Solomon Islands. Within Bougainville the churches continued to use old alliances, so that the Methodists went north from Buin to establish churches behind Kieta at Moru and Lamausi, and that area became part of the Methodist Buin circuit while the Kieta coast was Catholic. The Methodist pattern was of a European missionary supervising teachers, and by 1940 they claimed to have 146 stations in Bougainville, each under the control of an islander, some of whom came from the British Solomons and a few from elsewhere in the Methodist Pacific. The Seventh-Day Adventists had one European missionary, Cyril Pascoe, at Rumba, and teachers at Buin, inland of Kieta and further north on the coast. And like the other missionaries the Seventh–Day Adventists had gone north and brought Solomon Islands teachers with them. Compared to the government officers, the missionaries were more numerous, had more diverse national backgrounds, were more likely to be female, stayed longer, and were more likely to learn a local language.
The Marists resented the Protestants arriving on Bougainville 20 years after them, and entering areas where they already had converts. When the Methodists introduced more teachers from New Georgia into the Siwai the Marists equipped their catechists with bicycles so that they could respond quickly to propagation of error. Competition turned to conflict: churches were destroyed and government officers had to calm enthusiasm. On Teop Island, where the one large village was divided in allegiance, the Methodist teacher from the British Solomons, David Voeta, was found guilty of disturbing the peace, ‘suffered several terms in gaol, but continued in his work as teacher with unflagging zeal’. Each mission was enlisting converts to fight other missions, and Bougainvilleans were enlisting missions in their contests with other Bougainvilleans.
The government divided the Kieta District (its name for what is now Bougainville) into three sub-districts: Kieta, Buka Passage and Buin. The district officer and a patrol officer were at Kieta, and one or two kiaps (government field officers) at Sohano and another in the south at Kangu. The Department of Public Health was almost as strong as the Department of District Services and Native Affairs with a doctor and a European medical assistant at Kieta and at least one more European medical assistant in a sub-district. A European warrant officer of the New Guinea Police Force stationed in Kieta commanded 60 police. The police often maintained a post, such as at Wakunai, giving the government a fourth station. A clerk, an agricultural officer and schooner master completed the 11 or 12 public servants in the district.
In the 1930s the Australian government officers on Bougainville had most trouble, not with people from uncontrolled areas, but with those who were among the longest contacted. In 1913 the Germans had dealt with a cult at Lontis on the north-west of Buka by exiling the leaders to Morobe. In 1932 another movement swept the area. The leaders, Pako, Terasin and Muling (who had also been involved in 1913), variously prophesied cataclysm followed by wealth in food, axes, firearms and even motor cars. The arrival of ships was greeted with excited expectation, some people even claiming cargo. The Australians sent the convicted leaders to Madang where Pako died. By 1935 Sanop of Gogohei village, claiming to be inspired by the spirit of Pako, was again preaching that there would be an earthquake, the resurrection of the dead, and the distribution of cargo. To prepare for the distribution of the firearms that were on their way, his followers began drilling with carved wooden rifles. Several thousand people on Bougainville were influenced by Pako, and his teachings spread across Buka Passage to northern Bougainville. Catholic catechists and government appointed officials joined the movement. Even in the carefully worded reports that the Australians sent to Geneva, they made clear that the cult members wanted equality in power and wealth, were quick to believe that they had been deceived by Europeans, and while they hoped for restitution by ritual and the supernatural, they were also ready to fight for their rights. At the end of 1935 the government officers took strong action, arresting Pako and many of the other cult leaders. They claimed that when Pako was shown to be powerless, many of his former followers ridiculed him. The Australians said they were confident the movement had ‘collapsed’. Both the 1939 and 1940 annual district reports began with the assertion that ‘Routine administration … was carried on as in previous years’. Although there were still large areas of central and west Bougainville only ‘under partial government influence’, on the eve of war Kieta seemed to be the quiet district, a long way from the frontier of contact in the highlands, and from the mines, airfields and new capital being built in Morobe.
Starting with Kessa and Carola in north-west Buka, 60 plantations cut orderly lines of palms into the west coast to Buka Passage, along the west of Bonis Peninsula to Soraken then down the east coast from Baniu through Tinputz, Tiop, Inus, Numa Numa, Tenakau, Arigua, Kurwina, Arawa, Aropa, Iwi and Kekere to Toimanapu. Over half of the coast, in the south and west, was without plantations. Adjoining plantations — as on Queen Carola Harbour, or as with Tinputz and Tiop, and Arigua and Kurwina — were rare: most plantations were isolated rectangles cut into the coast, each with its own anchorage. The plantations were almost solely concerned with the one crop, coconuts, and just a few hundred hectares were given to cocoa, coffee and rubber. There was not even much interplanting to use the shade from the palms, but over 2,500 head of cattle and 1,000 goats helped keep the plantations clean of weeds. Two women, both recently widowed, ran plantations, Mrs Eve Falkner at Tearouki and Mrs C. Huson at Haramon on Buka.
The plantations had expanded under the Mandate but they faced hard times by 1940. The price of copra which had been averaging £13.10.00 a tonne in 1929–30 fell to £4.11.00 in 1933–34, recovered briefly, and then fell again when war broke out in Europe. Where in 1929–30 copra had made up nearly 90 per cent of Territory exports, in 1939–40 it was just 14 per cent. As Bougainville produced 15 per cent of the Territory’s copra, the island had lost its significance in the Territory economy. Declining plantation income had also meant that more plantations were in the hands of companies — particularly Burns, Philp & Co Ltd and their associated company, Choiseul Plantations Ltd. The war in Europe meant a shortage of shipping in the islands, and it was the private owners’ copra that was likely to be left in the shed, not the company’s. By 1940 on Bougainville the plantation overseers outnumbered the owners. The tough times also meant that the number of Bougainvilleans working on the plantations declined as planters left weeds to flourish and even uncollected nuts to rot. Robert Stuart, who bought the small Tenakau plantation in 1929, had an income of £1,000 his first year but that soon fell to £250. Without additional income he could not pay off the outstanding debt and meet the costs of his 40 labourers. He survived by recruiting, shelling (gathering trochus shell on the reefs) and managing neighbouring plantations, but he no longer bought whisky by the case.
On Bougainville over 1,300 men were signing indenture contracts each year — and in 1940 just four women. Most were new contracts and, unlike in other districts, most were for less than three years. To work on a plantation was a common experience among Bougainville men, but it was clear that they were not inclined to do it for long. Those two years that many of them spent on a plantation were their closest contact with a world outside the village, and what they thought of that experience did much to shape their attitudes to the rest of the world. Other Bougainvilleans living near plantations sometimes worked casually for the planters, contracting for particular tasks — clearing an agreed area of bush for new plantings or cleaning a neglected corner of a plantation. But the casual workers could bring with them their own women, children, food and language; they entered the cash economy but not the culture of the plantation. At the standard rate of five shillings a month, a labourer who worked the full three years had nine pounds at the end of his contract. Bob Stuart paid a bonus of a pound so that the ‘time-finish’ men (who had completed their indentured labour contract) had two ‘fuses’ to spend in Wong You’s Kieta trade store — two rolls of one hundred shillings that looked like sticks of dynamite. They were hard-earned fuses. On many labour lines the threat and the fact of violence were common, and it was not all one way; John ‘Wee Bobbie’ Scott, the manager at Inus, was hacked to death in 1925, and Stuart records three or four occasions when he was attacked. The great restraint on planters was that they recruited on Bougainville, and word travelled quickly about labour lines where the food was poor, hours long and kicks and cuffs frequent. The other critical factor was that the bosboi (foreman) was often more significant than the planter and on Bougainville the bosboi was usually from Bougainville. Kerosene, who virtually ran Tenakau alone for eight years was from Buka. The local bosboi was constantly encountering people from the communities of the men he commanded, and that too curbed excess. The conditions set down for carriers reveal the demands that could be made on Bougainvillean muscle; a carrier could be asked to carry 50 pounds for 10 hours for payment of six pence plus food.
From the granting of a reward claim at Kupei in 1930, a few men had been mining at Kupei, Korpe, Moroni and Pumkuna. Often just three or four white miners worked on the field at the crest and on the southern slopes of the Crown Prince Range, and by 1940 only one of Kupei’s two leases was being worked effectively. A small stamper and mill treated over a 1,000 tonnes of ore in the year, but the previous year’s report of copper and other minerals in the area had excited no interest. In December 1941 there were five white miners at Kupei.
There are several measures of the social and economic condition of Bougainville in 1940. There were four cars there, 14 trucks, and one motor bike. And at Arigua plantation there was a light railway, diesel engine and flat-top trucks. At Soraken plantation there was a light railway running for a mile from the drier to the beach: it had four trucks but no engine. Unlike the peoples around Rabaul and Port Moresby, no Bougainvilleans owned trucks but they had accumulated the cash to buy bicycles. Although no one wanted to estimate how many wilwils (bicycles) were on the island, on the Buin plain and on Buka they were said to be ‘plentiful’. Unlike Rabaul, Lae, Wau and even the highlands, the aeroplane had had almost no impact on Bougainville before 1940. One measure of the cash in the hands of Bougainvilleans is the number who were paying the ten shillings head tax. In 1938–39 £3,245 were collected and in 1939–40 £2,265, the amount varying more with the number of people visited than with declining funds. Relative to population, the Bougainvilleans were paying less than New Irelanders, about the same as people on New Britain, and more than those in Morobe, Madang and the Sepik. In terms of schools provided by the missions the Bougainvilleans probably had more per capita than any other district except New Ireland.
On the eve of war Bougainville was at the limit of the Australian administration’s consciousness, but that did not mean that Bougainvilleans were missing what little was available to New Guineans, they faced slight competition from outsiders whether from other districts or other countries, they themselves were participating in events elsewhere in the Territory, they had more chance of going to a mission school, the population was increasing, they were earning as much or more cash — some having enough to invest in a wilwil.
One change in technology had its impact on Bougainville in the 1930s, and later it determined the significance of Bougainville in the war, and influenced the course of battles. During the Great War the Australian Military Administration had established a wireless station at Kieta. The mast stood on the ridge above the bungalows belonging to the wireless and the police masters as well as the jail, the tennis court, the beach and Kieta Harbour. In 1922 Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd (AWA) — in which the Australian government held a controlling interest — took over the Territory stations. In 1928 and 1929 the Reverend John Flynn, Alfred Traeger and AWA combined to develop the Flying Doctor Service and the pedal wireless that serviced it. By 1933 the first pedal wireless had connected Buka Passage and Kieta, and Pacific Islands Monthly (PIM) began writing enthusiastically about the transmitting and receiving sets operating on ‘power supplied by a native, who sits on a thing like a bicycle frame, and pedals lustily’. Already AWA was experimenting with a set that would transmit and receive voice as well as Morse code, and the word ‘sked’ — the time when the outstations knew that someone was ready to hear and relay their messages — entered Territory English. By 1939 AWA was introducing the 3B transmitter and receiver, its parts enclosed in metal boxes, and powered by batteries that could be recharged with a petrol engine. The radio could now be used by planters who had little ability to correct faults, and it could be carried on patrols — although it needed at least a dozen men to shift its awkward bulk. Within the Kieta District, stations were operated by Percy Good at Kessa plantation in the north of Buka, the government officer at Buka Passage, Paul Mason at Inus plantation, Drummond Thomson at Numa Numa plantation, AWA at Kieta, Tom Ebery at Toimonapu, and the government officer at Kangu. This meant that a line of communication was open for messages, important and trivial, right down the east coast.
There was one other factor critical to radio communications in the Mandate. In 1933 J. H. L. Waterhouse was appointed principal of Nordup government school in Rabaul. Students responded to his skill as a teacher and to his confidence in their abilities. In the late 1930s he began to teach some of them to be wireless operators. They learnt about Morse code, frequencies, battery charging and the characteristics of the 3B set. Wireless, Waterhouse said, was the coming thing. The Administration posted Nordup students to outstations. Among them were Nelson Tokidoro and Amos Tamti. At Talasea, Keith McCarthy relied on Tokidoro to send the only messages that Australia was receiving after the Japanese landed at Rabaul. At Buka Passage Tamti was the kiap’s righthand man, and when conditions made it impossible to communicate by voice, Tamti sent and received Morse.