The Colonists

Early colonial encounters

Throughout the 1800s miners, missionaries, and merchants were among the main groups to have sustained contact with the people of PNG. Missionaries had been working throughout the south eastern region since at least the 1840s. In the latter part of the 1800s hundreds of Australians and Europeans came in search of gold on Misima, Sudest and Woodlark Island. In the north eastern region German plantation owners drew increasing numbers of local people into plantation labour, while the Queensland sugar industry also utilised Melanesian labour in a process that became known as ‘Blackbirding’.

On November 3 1884 Germany raised their flag in the northern eastern quarter of the country, calling it Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. Three days later the British flag was raised over British New Guinea in Port Moresby. The name of British New Guinea was changed to Papua after Australia assumed responsibility for its administration in 1906.

Luluai in Lihir (From Australian National Museum)

Luluai in Lihir (From Australian National Museum)

While Britain and Germany were the colonisers, the names Papua and New Guinea were coined by men from Portugal and Spain. Jorge de Menese, the Portuguese Governor General of the Moluccas first used the name Papua in 1526, taking it from the Malay word pepuah for frizzy hair. The Spaniard explorer, Ynigo Ortiz de Retez, wrote New Guinea (Nueva Guinea) on his map in 1545 because he believed the people resembled people he had earlier seen along the Guinea coast of Africa.

The administration of the two colonies could not have been more different. The Germans chartered a private business firm, the Neu Guinea Kompagnie, to run its colony and pursued and aggressive policy of economic exploitation. Whereas the British, and then the Australians, followed what was then considered an ‘enlightened’ policy of protecting the native people from exploitation and their land from expropriation.

However both administrations faced common difficulties from a lack of unified indigenous political leadership. The population was still mostly scattered in small, isolated, and often hostile groups.



Lihirians remained relatively marginal to early regional economic and political development, but they were steadily brought under external influence when Germany first raised the flag in North East New Guinea in 1884.

In the 1880s greater numbers of Lihirians became involved in the labour trade for the Queensland sugar industry. Some men and women were recruited against their will in what became known as ‘Blackbirding’. Others volunteered. For instance, in 1883, 649 Lihirians ‘signed on’ for the trade, which was an extraordinary number given that the population at this time was probably less than 3000 people.

1900s German Administration

By 1905 the German Administration had brought more of the Namatanai sub-district under its control. Several villages in Lihir had been organised into administrative units, and eight ‘chiefs’ had been appointed as village assistants to the Administration. These ‘chiefs’ were known as luluais (village police), and tultuls (assistants). By 1912 the German Administration noted that Lihir was peaceful and that internal warfare had ceased.

1900s Exploration

Image of Lihirian Men in Masks by Parkinson

In 1907, Otto Schlaginhauffen left Germany with the Deutsche Marine-Expedition for the Bismark Archipelago. He reached the shores of Lihir at Leo, near Palie in 1908. During his time in Lihir he recorded 19 traditional Lihirian songs on wax cylinders, mapped the main island of Niolam, and documented aspects of Lihirian culture.The songs have been reproduced and reinterpreted on the CD "Music of Lihir" by the Lihir Cultural Heritage Association. Click to read more

The renowned ethnologist Richard Parkinson who worked throughout New Guinea between 1882 and 1909 also recorded aspects of Lihirian culture.

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