Helen Gardner,     Jonathan Ritchie and Brad Underhill


The most recent issue of Australian Historical Studies: Wan Solwara: Australia and Papua New Guinea, brought together scholars from PNG, Australia and the broader Pacific to reconsider the place of PNG in Australia’s national story.  Edited by Deakin University scholars: Helen Gardner, Jonathan Ritchie and Brad Underhill from the Centre for Contemporary Histories, this special issue was born from a strong PNG focus at Deakin University that can be traced to the origins of the institution.

In his capacity as editor of the AHS, Tim Rowse approached Brad, Helen and Jon to consider a special issue on PNG at the Australian History Association Conference hosted by Deakin University in 2022. A symposium of possible contributors was held in September 2022 and included four Papua New Guineans: Lahui Ako and Keimelo Gima attended from Port Moresby while Steven Gagau and Joycelyn Pipike-Kama were living in Sydney and Melbourne respectively.  Reorienting the history of Australia to include the former Territory of Papua and New Guinea for an Australian audience more attuned to continental history and including Papua New Guinean perspectives, required innovative responses on the content and the nature of the contributions.

The editors prioritised papers that crossed the internal border from the continent to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and revealed the outlier and ambivalent status of TPNG within the Australian nation. But it was clear that this approach would not capture the distinctions between Australian forgetting and Papua New Guinean remembering of the years of colonial rule in the territory north of the Torres Strait.  These differences were represented in the structure of the special issue, and the form of the contributions.  The Australian trained historians produced articles, while the Papua New Guineans wrote individual and community accounts of Australian rule.  The latter captured personal experiences of colonial policies and institutions on topics such as education, the defence force and labour but did so with a clear intellectual understanding of the historical context of these events and how they played out across the territory.

Another issue was that few Australians, including historians, had a grasp of the complicated annexation of eastern New Guinea in 1884 by Britain and Germany, or understood how the separated territories came under Australian rule.  This was a problem for the AHS issue as there were differences between the status of Papuans and New Guineans during colonialism, born of the international oversight of New Guinea under the League of Nations then the United Nations – Papuans were Australian citizens from 1948-75 while New Guineans were Protected People. These distinctions were explored but not explained in a number of the articles.  For this reason, Keimelo Gima, who lectures in history at the University of Papua New Guinea, provided a primer in PNG history for the introduction, from a Papua New Guinean perspective.

The articles in this issue address different aspects of the colonial era and many question the assumptions inherent in the nomenclature – for example, can we speak of ‘Australians’ in Papua New Guinea when Papuans were Australian citizens? ‘The Moat of Oblivion: Australia and the forgetting of Papua New Guinea’, by Helen Gardner, Jonathan Ritchie and Brad Underhill, argues for the constitutional equivalence of Australia’s territories both within and beyond the continent and explores the reasons for the absence of PNG from Australian historiography. Keimelo Gima suggests that the people PNG were not sufficiently consulted on either colonialism or decolonisation, and questions how prepared they were for independence. Michael Webb and Steven Gagau’s article, ‘“We Come Here and Play Music Like Hell”: The Royal Papuan Constabulary Band’s 1945 Australian “Victory Loan Tour”’, highlights one of the main themes in this themed issue. While part of a wider Australian political entity, the Papua New Guinean territories remained very much on the other side of a border that was defined in terms of culture and ethnicity. Joycelyn Pipike-Kama’s reflection on her grandfather’s experience in the ‘Highlands Labour Scheme and Colonisation in the Maril Constituency of Chimbu Sub-District: The Story of Kaul Ole (Komtee)’, gives a rare insider’s account of this important postwar development scheme to address labour shortages. Jon Piccini’s contribution, ‘“Time is against us”: Anti-Communism and Papua New Guinean Independence’, examines Australian concerns that communism would prove attractive in TPNG during the Cold War era.

The sense of an unalterable difference separating the people on both sides of the Torres Strait was reflected in the Australian government’s struggle to define their subjects and citizens in the Territory. The problems were exposed when Papua New Guineans sought to cross the internal border to study. Anna Kent’s article, ‘Domestic, Expatriate, International, Overseas? Australian Government’s Categorisation of Students from the Territory of Papua and New Guinea’, highlights the confusion over where these prospective students sat within the Australian state and their rights to scholarships designed for those beyond the nation. Lahui Ako provides a lively account of growing up as the son of a pastor deployed with the PNG Defence Force in the first years after independence. While decolonisation assumes the inevitability of independence, Brad Underhill and Helen Gardner present a counter-narrative to examine the alternative that TPNG become a state of Australia. ‘The Seventh State and the Barnes Dance: Deciding the Future for the Territory of Papua and New Guinea’ shows that statehood was a realistic option in the Territory and held strong minority support elsewhere in Australia. The theme of forgetting and remembering concludes the articles for this issue in Dario Di Rosa’s analysis of the historical consciousness of the Kerewo people. ‘Never (Again) the Twain Shall Meet? Some Reflections on Australian and Papua New Guinean Shared Histories’ explores concepts, agency, power imbalance, and otherness in historical thinking.

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‘Wan Solwara: Australia and Papua New Guinea’ is the result of the long focus on PNG from Deakin University which survived the turn away from PNG history in Australian universities around the continent.  Francis West, scholar of the Pacific and biographer of Lieutenant Governor of Papua, Hubert Murray, was the inaugural Professor of History and Government at Deakin University, then Dean of Social Sciences from 1976. He recruited renowned historian of Papuan missions David Wetherell who produced two books on PNG and numerous articles during his tenure.  Helen Gardner and Jonathan Ritchie’s appointment to Deakin in 2002 and 2008 respectively a ensured a focus on PNG that has continued to the present day. From 2011 to 2014, Ritchie conducted a series of annual symposia that brought together researchers, journalists, government and community practitioners to share knowledge about PNGIn 2013 Gardner and Ritchie led a workshop on decolonisation in Melanesia which resulted in an edited collection in the Journal of Pacific History.

Teaching the history of the Pacific from the Australian perspective ensured a steady stream of Honours students first from ‘Race Science and Religion: Colonial Australia and the Pacific’, then from more focused topics on decolonisation in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. In 2018 a third year unit ‘Australia’s Empire: Colonialism in Papua New Guinea’ was taught from Port Moresby, where Ritchie was leading a large oral history project funded by the Australian Government on War Histories in PNG and on the Deakin campuses by Gardner.  Honours and postgraduate students were attracted to topics on PNG, in particular Brad Underhill, whose Honours thesis on cooperatives and development in Papua New Guinea won the Vice Chancellor’s award in 2017.  His PhD thesis, ‘The New Deal on the Ground in Papua New Guinea’ is currently under contract with ANU Press.  Brad was followed by Anna Kent whose thesis explored Pacific scholars in Australia with a focus on PNG, also recently published by ANU Press as Mandates and Missteps, Australian Government Scholarships to the Pacific – 1948 to 2018. Deb Lee Talbot, won the Alfred Deakin award in 2018, her dissertation was on the London Missionary Society Mission in Papua and the Archives of the Australian Joint Copying Project.  This trio of scholars formed a core of PNG focused post-graduates: they led the PNG study group run out of Deakin, and a study group to Port Moresby in 2019.

‘Wan Solwara: new histories of Australia and Papua New Guinea’ is a publishing first in Australia.  It brings together Papua New Guinean with Australian voices to explore a shared history that became separated in the 1960s.  The survey article ‘The Moat of Oblivion: Australia and the Forgetting of Papua New Guinea’ unpacks the methodological and geographical cleaving of these histories into Australia and Pacific history and the historiographical trends and infrastructure that maintained this separation.   Dario Di Rosa’s exciting and innovative analysis based on ethnographic research, concludes the special issue and insists ‘that Australia’s and PNG’s shared past should be considered within a single analytical framework that highlights the legacies of colonialism in shaping Papua New Guineans’ perceptions of themselves and their place in the world’.