Background Information on
New Guinea

Thor May
Brisbane, Australia

Because New Guinea is little known to the world at large, I have included a brief profile of the island below, together with some snippets of personal experience from my time as an academic in Papua New Guinea. More detailed information is readily available from Internet search engines.





The island of New Guinea is the world's second largest after Greenland, and lies only 5° 30' south of the equator. It is aligned east-west, immediately north of Australia, and stretching across much of the width of the Australian continent. Mountain ranges run down its spine and the highest peak, Puncuk Jaya reaches 4884 meters. Politically the island is now divided in half, under Indonesian control in the west, with the independent country of Papua New Guinea to the east. The north-south border extends for 820 kilometers. Transport infrastructure in most areas is rudimentary, so traveling any distance often requires the use of light aircraft to the many, typically dangerous small airstrips.

Geologically, New Guinea is on the same tectonic plate as Australia, but unlike Australia it is subject to constant earth tremors. Much of the fauna is closely related to Australian native animals since Torres Strait, the waterway between the two land masses, was a land bridge at one time during the last Ice Age (about 18,000 years ago). Most of the flora however is more similar to plants stretching westward through south-east Asia. The climate is equatorial, although the highlands are more temperate. Rainfall is generally high, except in those areas where the mountains create a rain shadow. The whole area is volcanically active, and earth tremors are an almost daily experience.

Human habitation in New Guinea has existed for at least 40,000 years (possibly 60,000 years, at the tail end of originally out-of-Africa migration). The earlier arrivals are now classified technically as Papuan, and would be recognized amongst the incredible mix of body types on the island today as darker skinned, and often heavier than the later coming Austronesian peoples who settled coastal areas. The Austronesians came 3,000-4,000 years ago, it is thought from around Taiwan. The island of New Guinea has the greatest linguistic diversity in the world, over 1,000 languages with an almost equal number of tribes for a total population of approximately 10.6 million. Although highly advanced irrigation and crop rotation agriculture evolved in highland plateau areas, warfare amongst these groups with stone age weapons was both endemic and ritualized. The conflicts are less culturally required nowadays, but the imported modern weapons (and drugs, and diseases) far more deadly.

The Spanish navigator, LuĂ­s Vaz de Torres mapped the geographical separation of Australia from New Guinea shortly after 1605, but the first European settlements did not occur until the 19th Century. These were some very limited plantation areas, and much later a bit of gold prospecting. The very difficult environment made deeper penetration unattractive. Local populations were mostly undisturbed.


West New Guinea / Irian Jaya / West Papua + Papua (Indonesian provinces)


The Dutch East India Company in the early 19th Century "claimed" the western half of the island, today West Papua, as part of its Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) business empire. After Indonesian independence in 1947, the Dutch remained in West New Guinea until 1961 (apart from the Japanese occupation during World War II). Culturally, the Melanesian population was, and remains, radically different from the rest of Indonesia. West New Guinea almost attained independent country status in 1961, when it was handed over for administration by a United Nations temporary authority. This authority in turn passed it into Indonesian care in 1963, which under the terms of the trusteeship, arranged an "act of free choice" by the people of New Guinea in 1969. That is the sanitized history. The political reality was less wholesome.

An Indonesian military dictatorship supervised the "act of free choice by the people of New Guinea" and didn't leave the outcome to chance. Their methods harmonized with cynical political complicity (and cultural ignorance) from the United States government and, (in my view) with craven, shameful acceptance by the Australian government, the only administration apart from the Dutch with an in-depth knowledge of the area. (I learned something of all this much later as a student in New Zealand, from my professor of social anthropology, Jan Pouwer. At the time he was working for the Dutch government as an anthropologist in the area).

The West New Guinea act of free choice in 1969 involved rounding up 1025 indigenous men on a soccer field and obliging them at gunpoint to "join Indonesia". This "act of no choice" is apparently rejected by the entire current population of West Papua, but they are powerless. The Indonesian colonization, as it amounted to, has had an unhappy record, with transmigration programs of peasants from other areas of Indonesia displacing local inhabitants, huge extractive mining operations for little local benefit, brutal racial discrimination, massive corruption, and continuing military suppression of nascent indigenous independence movements. A significant number of people have died from Indonesian military and police actions. The region remains mostly closed to outside visitors. Today West New Guinea has been divided into two Indonesian provinces, West Papua and Papua. Indigenous people prefer to call the whole region West Papua. In 2001 a Law on Special Autonomy was finally passed, and the establishment of a Papuan People's Assembly (MRP) agreed. However to this date (2013) the necessary legal enabling regulations have not been enacted and any kind of real autonomy remains a paper based pretense.

The issue of Indonesia's future in West Papua has recently been raised in an interesting article by Tracee Hutchinson, a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (see the reference below). Modern Indonesia itself is a work in progress, and will be for generations. Many of the diverse peoples on its 13,000 or so islands have always taken a dim view of Javanese hegemony. There are no easy answers in this part of the world.


Papua New Guinea (Eastern New Guinea)


Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. It has been an independent country since 1975. This is the region of which I have direct personal knowledge, having lectured at PNG University of Technology, Lae, in 1985 and 1987. Yes, that already seems an age ago, yet much of what I learned and observed remains true today. There has been a great deal of growth in mining and resource extraction, yielding impressive macro economic growth statistics for those who believe in funny numbers like GDP etc. However, little of this has touched the daily life experience of PNG's people, a tiny elite excepted. Indeed, in many instances there has been a regression of services and public security over the period. My perspective of course is that of an Australian, a neighbour but by no means a "wontok" of the New Guinea peoples, who will have their own understanding of realities on the ground.

The political state of Papua New Guinea as a whole is comprised of some six hundred islands, from very large to mere specks of sand. New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville to the north of New Guinea proper are the other major islands. They have distinctive cultures, and Bougainville has enjoyed a degree of autonomy since 1997 after civil wars in 1975 and 1990.

For such an extensive area, the population of PNG is not dense at roughly seven million (2013). The birthrate is a high 4.2 live births per woman, but so is mortality. Life expectancy is 63 years. 40% of the population is under fourteen. There is perhaps no place on earth where human variety is so evident. The people come in every stature from fine-boned, light skinned coastal people, to powerful, dark-skinned highlanders, to ebony black folk on the islands bordering the Solomons. The dominant culture is termed Melanesian, though that has as much to do with certain cultural commonalties as genetics. Melanesian cultures tend to be more egalitarian and competitive than those of the hierarchical Polynesians who occupy much of the Pacific.

People in the coastal regions have somewhat different traditions to the highlanders, and tend to be less aggressive. The seven million people of PNG speak over 800 languages, while only. 1%-2% speak English. The local lingua franca is a well-developed pidgin called Tok Pisin in which 30%+ of the people have some fluency. (Recommended reference on Tok Pisin : Geoff P. Smith 2002 "Growing Up With Tok Pisin". pub. Battlebridge at; ISBN 1 903292 06 9). Restrictive tribal marriage rules and tribal rivalries have made it exceptionally difficult to weld a single national consciousness from this mass of village cultures. The tribes are also passionate about land holding rights, and compensation for any infringement on these. The land rights issues have put a brake on any centrally planned development moves, and also often complicated scheming by multinational players who would like access to PNG's potentially rich resources. For a few decades, Australia was a rather reluctant colonial power in PNG, or rather a United Nations mandated trustee. This occurred partly as a result of accepting a League of Nations mandate to take over the northern colonial possession of German New Guinea after World War 1.

PNG is basically a village agricultural society, with some cash cropping of coffee and copra. The few cities (really large towns) have no significant manufacturing industry. 92% of the country remains uncultivated jungle, mountain terrain, mangrove wetlands and rough grasslands. Ruthless logging by East Asian companies has become a major ecological and corruption issue. National income (as distinct from village income) now depends heavily on royalties from vast international mining operations, together with logging. Such foreign rentier income greatly corrupts the emerging political class, who also depend upon the largesse to buy political support from their tribal groups.

Both before and after independence, Australia has designed most of the PNG administrative structure, organized the majority of whatever civil engineering development has occurred, established the education, health and security systems, and provided most of the professional expertise to make things happen. As Australian advisors attempted to train local recruits into responsible roles, Australia's direct participation became somewhat less publicly visible. This relative reticence was politically important after Independence was thrust upon the rather bemused citizens of Papua New Guinea in 1975, following a long United Nations trusteeship. The Australians also bequeathed PNG the forms of a parliamentary democracy. This has evolved rapidly to reflect local cultural conditions, so that parties in the territory are in fact highly volatile personal alliances sourced in tribal interests, and only occasionally directed to any kind of overall national interest. Within those limitations, a number of capable individuals have made useful contributions.

PNG's international involvements since independence have been understandably narrow, except in the South West Pacific where it has influence within the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a nascent political alliance of small, culturally similar island nations in that area. Apart from Australia, foreign involvement in PNG has been similarly restricted. It has a wary relationship with Indonesia, complicated by the difficult issue of West Papua. Malaysian business interests have played a less than benign role in the logging industry. As elsewhere in the Pacific, the Chinese government has slowly developed a diplomatic presence in PNG (partly to offset historical Taiwanese Kuomintang influence) together with some commercial interests. Small numbers of Chinese traders have been in New Guinea for over a century, but recent mainland arrivals, many of them undocumented workers on Chinese projects, have sparked considerable hostility. This has partly been as a result of mutual distrust, cultural ignorance, and a crude attitude to racial relations.

For many years, Australia has poured hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the Papua New Guinea out of altruism, commercial calculation and for strategic insurance. Considering the size of the Australian taxpayer investment, the returns have been pretty meager to ordinary PNG (and Australian) citizens. A few large mining operations have made some money, and sparked serious conflict. Many Papua New Guineans themselves concur that since independence, things have tended to go steadily downhill. In particular, corruption has become entrenched in the national politics of country, and the physical security of daily life has deteriorated dramatically. The failures may have been a necessary historical growing process for a new state. (Note that Australia's own urban populations mostly know next to nothing about PNG or other Pacific Island states). At least in the short term, the scarcity of happy outcomes is a great loss all round, for not only is Papua New Guinea a strikingly beautiful country with immense natural resources, but most of the ordinary people are gentle, humorous and kind. Perhaps only time can repair these fault lines in the social fabric.

As in many situations where an outside civilization imposes its technologies and values by colonial presence, racism has always been part of the equation between foreigners (mostly Australians) and PNG nationals. In the PNG situation racism was almost a natural extension of hostilities between highlanders and lowlanders, and amongst rival tribes themselves. The presence of complete outsiders however naturally tends to draw PNG nationals together psychologically against the invader. The Japanese military incursion during World War II for example provoked extreme antagonism to the outsiders. The formation of nations may have always been like this. The white-man version of racism was also an early constant. My father was in PNG in the early 1950s and found himself sickened by the condescension of white expatriates towards locals. Colonial racism however is not a simple equation. Everyone tries to make sense of the world as they meet it, and many of the whites in PNG were no gurus in psychology. They tended to be practical people, and after their own fashion often made sacrifices and contributions which greatly benefited those around them, black and white. Equally today, you will find some citizens of Papua New Guinea, especially politicians, who can be quite doctrinaire in their discrimination against whites. Most people on both sides arrive at a working accommodation within the limits of their own understanding.

My Contact With Papua New Guinea

For a year in 1985 I taught English as a second language for academic purposes at the University of Technology in Lae (PNG's second city). I returned to teach again in 1987, before eventually moving on to the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. My students were as bright as any I have taught anywhere. However, they did labour under significant handicaps. English was a language used only in study and the classroom. Reading was simply not a pastime for people in the villages they came from. Even the occasional village TV set was a prize possession for mass viewing, and usually driven by a small, noisy portable generator. The fathers and grandfathers of these students had literally been stone age hunter-gatherers or shifting cultivators. The psychological gulfs they had to leap were awesome. It was common for my students -- they were mostly boys -- to be sponsored by a whole clan, and the honour and future prosperity of the clan rode on their young shoulders. They were expected, in fact required, to marry village girls from their areas, and these girls would probably be illiterate.

Then there was the complication of local wars. Highland tribes had (and have) a tradition of annual wars, and the student who declined to participate would lose all rights to inheritance, land, marriage, sponsorship and respect. In these 'wars' a few people might get killed, but they tended to be a kind of rough diplomacy and vehicle for leadership ambitions, with everyone going home for lunch. However, things have turned nasty in recent years, with stone age weapons being replaced by serious firearms, both home made and smuggled (increasingly for drugs). Worse, the 'payback' system meant that if a man of a certain status was killed (in war or by supposed magic) by another clan, a man of equal status in the offending clan had to be killed in revenge. Thus, as persons of high potential worth, my students were sometimes at risk from quarrels in which they had no personal part.

In short, PNG was an extremely interesting place to spend some time, but it was not and is not for the faint-of-heart. Anywhere in the world, life in rural villages (even quasi stone age villages) tends to be pretty safe for those with a local invitation to be there. This is because rural villages everywhere live by strict cultural rules which are understood by everyone and enforced by local leaders who also know everyone by name. Town and city life is an entirely different matter, especially in the first few generations before urban cultures have properly developed. PNG towns are full of young men removed from village control, and deeply frustrated by a lack of work, a lack of sexual opportunity, and an absence of anyone who speaks their local language. This is a violent mix, and the violence is random, indiscriminate and often fatal. It has morphed into dangerous gang rule ('rascals' in the local argot), and the most powerful gangs now have close political connections... What? You have just crossed the place off your holiday itinerary? That's a shame. There are offshore islands as close to paradise as you are likely to find anywhere. For an academic like myself, life was also generally unproblematic. But one did have to think sensibly about where to go, and when.

My own routine tended to revolve around the campus, and a mouldering tropical apartment in a safety-fenced compound several kilometers away. Gecko lizards scuttled busily up the apartment walls and enormous centipedes would regularly wriggle their way under the door. The cockroaches, those universal survivors, were also on steroids. But the real killers in this ever-buzzing, humming world were the malaria mosquitoes. Now they did scare me. In my little 4x4 Suzuki truck, I would make supply trips to the only real supermarket, and often on Saturday morning, trips to downtown Lae where one lonely deli' in a banking building could make halfway decent chicken salads.

My neighbours tut-tutted at the daily risk I took on a forty-minute jog past kampongs and galvanized iron shacks, up to a jail by a stony river bed. I can still smell the smoke from acrid cooking fires in the early tropical evenings, and remember the ragged kids playing under palm trees by the roadside. My neighbours were right of course. The risks were real, not that the campus itself was an entirely safe haven. Monthly incident reports from the university security service were a grim reminder; (that monthly report also included a scary score for the number of rapes on campus during each period). But my evening runs were in the real PNG. The campus was on another planet.

Through the cyclone razor wire fencing of my residential compound was a squatter settlement of folk who had somehow made their way down from the mountain villages in search of an imagined el dorado city life. It was beyond me how they survived, for there was basically no work to be had in the city. But survive they did, and the rascal gangs apart, the Papua New Guinea people like this whom I met were remarkably tolerant, hopeful and self-disciplined. The closest dwelling I could see from my back door was a tin shack, hardly a garden tool shed, where eight people lived in something like harmony. One enterprising lady with spiky black hair and a missionary smock introduced herself through the wire as Jane. She had spotted my fridge as a money-making machine, and in fractured Tok Pisin (pidgin) asked if she could sometimes make ice blocks in it. Breaking all the security codes once again, of course I had to agree. So Jane would make her sticky red ice blocks to sell to harum-scarum 'monkeys' (kids) in a nearby vegetable market; (see my prose-poem, Friends - Irimo Street PNG. Link below).

The university staff themselves were an eccentric mixture academic refugees from a dozen countries. The design, funding and administration of Unitech was unmistakably Australian. However in my field (language) the core were from that British colonial legion who seem to have tramped from one god-forsaken outpost of The Empire to another ever since Britain briefly ruled the waves a rapidly receding century ago. These were not your London toffs, but a special breed with thin hairy legs in baggy shorts who spent the best years of their lives swearing miserably in African shanty towns, or perhaps some Caribbean outpost, with a career peak when a mate got them a job in Hong Kong. Their circuit diminished dramatically when India, then sundry other failed states dropped off the Queen's garden party list. However, thanks to mutton-chop God self-confidence and American imperialism, English linguistic imperialism lives on triumphant. Almost to a man (even if they had gone native and married a local woman) they were supporting a clutch of ungrateful brats at enormous expense in some draughty English boarding school. They would finally retire, savings and friendships exhausted, disowned by their children, to a boarding house in Bournemouth ..... Given this awful prognosis, a surprising number of them were pretty nice fellows.

In the residential compound, we had a single American. I remember because he lived in the apartment next to mine. A lawyer, I think, drop-dead handsome, with a live-in PNG girlfriend who must have been the prettiest girl in Lae. He strung her along with the promise of marriage in fabled USA, then disappeared one day in a puff of smoke. Also in the compound, upstairs, was an Iranian geologist possessively married to Philippina dentist who was slowly going crazy as a kept object. This gent liked to throw karate kicks from his balcony to ward off the devils. Just to be extra safe, he had a scrawny, shivering mongrel tied to the balcony, piddling through the floorboards and barking incessantly to scare away the rascals (smile..). I kept a supply of pebbles to heave at this poor creature around midnight when I wanted to get some sleep, so one bright morning the karate thumping hero threatened to break all my bones for disturbing the peace. I thought dryly of the real heroes on the other side of the fence, living eight to a shed, open to the vagaries of marauding gangs, tribal warfare, and simple, devastating starvation.





Australian Government (10 May 2013). "Papua New Guinea Joint Partnership Declaration". @

Baker, Mark (5 July 2013) "Tackling the Curse of Hate", Brisbane Times @

Brisbane Times (April 22, 2013) "'Sorcery' killer jailed for 30 years in PNG" @

Brisbane Times (24 April 2013) "Four arrested over PNG gang rape" @

CIA, Unitest States of America, Map of Papua New Guinea . sourced University of Texas resource site at

Hutchinson, Tracee (2013) "Could West Papua be Abbott's East Timor?". The Drum, Austalian Broadcasting Commission at (duplicated for safe reference on this site at )

Jacobs, Sean (13 May 2013). "Thatcherism, economic ideas and Papua New Guinea". Online Opinion @

McDonald, Hamish (July 20, 2012) "Damning forest study to hit PNG" @ (28 May 2013). "Death penalty by suffocation passes Papua New Guinea parliament". @

Papua New Guinea Facts (2012) "PNG's Growth to Moderate, Fiscal Pressures to Grow in 2012, 2013". - report on Asian Development Bank bulletin @

Smith, Geoff P. (2002) "Growing Up With Tok Pisin". pub. Battlebridge ISBN 1 903292 06 9

Sydney Morning Herald (December 2, 2002) "PNG 'cowers' while MPs brandish guns" @ ; and also at

Sydney Morning Herald (December 2, 2002) "Police blame church stupidity for pack rape." @, and also at

University of Technology, Papua New Guinea. Campus, Lae, PNG @

University of Papua New Guinea. Campus, Port Morseby, PNG @

Xinhua (28 June 2013). "China to assist relatives of victims in Papua New Guinea". reported in Islands Business @

Wikipedia (2013. New Guinea. @

Wikipedia (2013) West Papua region. @

Wikipedia (2013) Papua New Guinea. @

Wikipedia (2013). Chinese People in Papua New Guinea. @

Wikipedia (2013) Torres Strait, and LuĂ­s Vaz de Torres @

 Wikipedia (2013) Jan Pouwer, 1924 – 2010, Anthropologist @


Other documents by Thor May touching on New Guinea


1. Photographic Memories of Papua New Guinea @

2, Expedition to Snake River, PNG,1987 @

4. Friends - Irimo Street PNG 1985 (a prose poem) @

3. Super-Culture and The Ghost in the Machine (..reflections on human innovation and insight) @

6. This Is Your Problem Friend, Not Mine -- towards a cure for formal language errors in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere.. @

7. Case Study 6, English for Special Purposes in Papua New Guinea 1985, Language Tangle (doctoral dissertation, 2010, University of Newcastle, NSW), pages 121-128 @ or


Bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. Many of his papers, essays and stories may be seen on his website at ; e-mail .

"Background Information on New Guinea"... copyrighted to Thor May 2002, 2013; all rights reserved