Papua New Guinea: A Pantomime Tale

The East Indies were first visited by Europeans in 1606 when the explorer Luiz Vaz de Torres passed through the Straits that now carry his name, between New Guinea and Australia. The native inhabitants of New Guinea consisted of numerous close-knit tribes that were wild, feudal and cannibalistic. The island was and still is covered with dense jungle and many of the tribes lived on the coastal fringe in houses that were often constructed on stilts in the sea a short way from the beach.

It was not until 1862 that the Government of Queensland (then one of a number of self-governing States in Australia) took on the role of administering some of the islands in the Torres Strait that were closest to Cape York, the northern most tip of Australia. The nineteenth century was a century of ‘land grab’ by Europeans. The Dutch colonised most of the East Indies including the western half of the island of New Guinea to promote trade. Britain and France were very active throughout the Pacific but few nations had attempted to colonise eastern New Guinea. The first European to land and set up a home in New Guinea were missionaries working for the London Missionary Society who arrived at Port Moresby in 1873. They had sailed along the coast looking for a suitable place in which to start their ministry and decided on Port Moresby, named after the sea Captain that had charted the coast looking for a safe haven where the missionaries might land.

The leader of the missionaries that led the introduction of Christian teaching at Port Moresby was an Englishman, Rev. W. G. Lawes. He was supported by a number of Christian teachers from the Cook Islands, many of whom later succumbed to malaria and died. Lawes was already well known to many in the Pacific Islands where he had worked as a missionary before arriving in New Guinea. He had a certain flair in learning the language of the islanders that he visited, so important in the translation of sections of the Bible, hymns and conversing with the local population. The indigenous residents of the South Pacific welcomed the education that the missionaries provided and many became devoted Christians. The reputation of the missionaries spread to other tribes on New Guinea and Lawes, together with the South Pacific island teachers, went on expeditions along the southern coast of New Guinea to meet them, spreading their missionary message as they did so.

In the late 1870s, Germany started to show a interest in the region and the Queensland Governor became concerned about the eastern half of New Guinea falling into German hands. The Governor sent a message to the British Government early in 1883 requesting that the south eastern quarter of the island be claimed as a British colony. The telegraph messages were not acted upon and with Germany rebuffing claims from the Dutch that the island was totally theirs, the Governor decided to act without authority. He dispatched senior staff to raise the Union flag at Port Moresby and claim that part of New Guinea as British. The problem was that there was only one flag pole in Port Moresby and that was at the missionary’s church. The Rev. Lawes did not want to become embroiled in the politics but allowed the event to take place. With the flag hoisted, three cheers were given to Queen Victoria, a British gunship in the bay fired a salute and so ended the ceremony of annexation. The indigenous natives had little appreciation of what the event was about.

Meanwhile, the British Government came to the decision that they would rather not annex New Guinea. An embarrassing dialogue followed between the Queensland authorities and the British Government with the latter eventually accepting the annexation. Towards the end of 1884 when the annexation had been ratified, the Deputy Commissioner for Queensland returned to Port Moresby to repeat the raising of the Union flag. The south eastern part of New Guinea was now officially recognised as a British Protectorate … or so everyone thought!

A few weeks later, on 2 November 1884, British warships arrived at Port Moresby under the command of Commodore Erskine. He had been given sole authority by the British Government to raise the Union flag and claim New Guinea as a British colony. He was surprised to find that this had already been done but still insisted on going through the process yet again to fulfil the orders given to him by the British Government. A church service was held at Port Moresby to which the tribes in the area were invited followed by a dinner aboard MHS Nelson, the Commodore’s flagship. Papua New Guinea had then finally become a part of the British Empire – on the third attempt!

Papua New Guinea 1934 1d Stamp commemorating 50th Anniversary of Declaration of British Protectorate - Hoisting the Union flag
50th Anniversary 1d featuring the hoisting of the Union flag
Papua New Guinea 1934 5d Stamp commemorating 50th Anniversary of Declaration of British Protectorate - Reception aboard HMS Nelson
50th Anniversary 5d featuring the reception aboard HMS Nelson

In 1934, the Jubilee (50th anniversary) of the declaration of British Protectorate was commemorated with a set of four postage stamps featuring two designs. The 1d red and 3d blue feature a scene of the quadrangle outside the church at Port Moresby with the Union flag being raised. The 2d scarlet and 5d purple feature a scene at the reception aboard HMS Nelson.

To view postal issues of Papua New Guinea, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by billmandsphilatelycom

William (Bill) Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 60 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the British Commonwealth including most notably, the issues from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, he also has specialist interest in the postal history of Egypt, Norfolk Island, Papua New Guinea, Sarawak, Sudan and the Italian States as well as a fine collection of overprints.

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