Western influence was slow to reach the interior of the massive island of New Guinea. Traders and missionaries began to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century but their numbers remained small: malaria and the hostility of some Papua New Guinea (PNG) communities deterred more widespread settlement. The earliest traders were primarily British, or colonial Australian, and they traded in people as well as tropical products. Inexpensive labor was needed on the expanding plantations of Australia and Fiji during the last half of the nineteenth century, although concerns about slavery, along with developing a White Australian policy, put an end to the Western Pacific labor trade by the early twentieth century.
By this time, the Australian colony of Queensland maneuvered Britain into declaring Papua New Guinea a colony in 1884. The Netherlands and Germany eventually claimed the remaining parts of the island. These imperial rivalries were largely symbolic; New Guinea was not particularly important economically.
In Papua New Guinea the British operated largely by indirect rule, interfering as little as possible with village government, and allowing missionaries a large role in education. PNG islanders had responded enthusiastically to Anglicanism (as well as other Christian denominations), and by 1906 Britain handed control of the colony over to the new Commonwealth of Australia. Australia also took over the administration of German New Guinea and other areas after 1918.
By the interwar period, Papua New Guinea’s small settler community, mainly plantation owners, pressured the colonial government into regulating village life and enforcing increasingly draconian penalties for offenses committed by islanders. This process peaked in 1926 with the passage of the White Women’s Protection Ordinance; this new law made the death penalty mandatory for the attempted rape of a white woman by a PNG man.
World War II saw Papua New Guinea suddenly become strategically and politically important. Large numbers of troops poured into the region, and the contributions of PNG islanders to the Allied war effort were substantial. Calls for decolonization grew louder after 1945. Australia increased its spending on colonial infrastructure, and in 1962 the western part of New Guinea (formerly a Dutch colony) became the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. PNG islanders pressed for rapid constitutional reform, and the country became independent in 1975.
Papua New Guinea had not had substantial preparation for self-rule, and this, combined with strong regional identities, created many intractable problems. The island of Bougainville attempted to secede almost immediately after independence. Political compromises broke down in the 1990s, and the PNG armed forces intervened several times on Bougainville. Papua New Guinea’s fractured polity, and its ongoing reliance on Australian economic and military assistance, raises the question of whether technical independence brought about actual decolonization or not.