British New Guinea (1884-1906)

In November 1884, in response to the German occupation of the northeast of the island of New Guinea and under pressure from their Australian colonies, the British established a Protectorate in the southeast. The Protectorate was under the control of Special Commissioners who were responsible to the British Colonial Office. The Special Commissioners attempted to prevent clashes between European traders and settlers and the local people, and impose Western law.

In September 1888 Britain formally annexed the Protectorate. The colonial governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria agreed to meet the financial costs of administering British New Guinea.

Dr William MacGregor was appointed to administer the Protectorate. He was an energetic and forceful man and much that he initiated was retained by later Australian Administrations. During the ten years of his Administration, MacGregor encouraged exploration and vigorously (and sometimes brutally) enforced white control over regions which had been subject to endemic tribal fighting. In this process, called “pacification”, the Administration used the Armed Native Constabulary. MacGregor established an administrative network which linked the Administration headquarters, in Port Moresby, with government posts in the islands and along the mainland coast. He appointed village constables who were expected to act as agents of the Administration. Gold mining was the colony’s most important economic activity but MacGregor found it difficult to control the activities of white miners as they moved from one alluvial field to another.

MacGregor did little to encourage white settlement, except for Christian missions, and was mainly successful in preventing the alienation of Papuan land. To prevent competition amongst the missions he arranged a conference, in 1890, at which the London Missionary Society (LMS), the Methodists, and the Anglicans divided the colony into spheres of influence. The Catholics, who had only one mission in Papua at the time,¬†were not consulted, but the other missions were excluded from the area in which the Catholics were working. While MacGregor greatly extended and consolidated the white presence, most Papuans remained beyond the Administration’s control.

The three Administrators who succeeded MacGregor between 1898 and 1906 presided over a period of transition from British to Australian control. Gold mining expanded, and violence between Papuans and Administration patrol officers and police increased, but no major changes were made to MacGregor’s colonial policies. In 1906 Britain handed the colony over to the Commonwealth of Australia (the newly formed, self-governing, federation of British colonies), which renamed it the Territory of Papua.

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