Cultural Context – Gulf District, Kerema Station, Volume 15, 1936-1937

Commonly known as PNG, Papua New Guinea’s reputation often precedes itself. PNG’s infamous diversity, combined with its many colonial relationships, has resulted in a deeply complicated history. Papua New Guinea is a young nation, having gained independence in 1975 following a long process of missionization, outside government control, and colonial rule which began in earnest in 1847. (Brown, 2001, 15) Many foreign powers sought to exploit PNG’s valuable resources, and some were successful: Germany controlled the northeast, where they established plantations; Britain sought to protect the European population in the southeast, as well as to use the indigenous population for labor. (Brown, 2001, 17-18) The Australian government’s long-standing relationship with Papua New Guinea was made official with the passing of the Papua Act of in 1905, which transferred administrative control away from Britain. This colonial relationship was further deepened once German New Guinea came under Australian military government control following the end of World War I. (Brown, 2001, 17-18)

Although there are many wide themes of colonialism in Papua New Guinea’s history, even just a brief glance at PNG’s demographics tells a story of incredible variation. For example, PNG’S approximately 7 million inhabitants have 853 distinct languages. (Simons and Fennig, 2018). Even the terrain is diverse: there is a 4,509m difference between the highest and lowest points in PNG. (The World Factbook, 2018) Indigenous populations have also had varying levels of outside contact and influence, ranging from the rapidly-modernizing capital Port Moseby to the sparsely populated lowlands.

PNG’s incredible diversity has made it a mecca for anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Alfred Cort Haddon. Much to my disappointment, I have discovered that historians have made far less headway in the region. It has been theorized that Papua New Guinea lacked three key preconditions generally considered to be necessary for histographic advancement: nationalism, anti-colonialism, and independence. (Denoon, 1981, 341) As intriguing as that theory may be, I believe that accessibility and availability of source material maybe have also hindered the development of PNG’s historiography. As valuable sources such as the kiap patrol reports become more widely accessible, I hope that the historical community can do more justice to the region.

My contribution to our project will be focused on Kerema, one of PNG’s less populated areas located on the southern coast. I have been assigned patrol reports which were taken by officers at the Kerema station, located in what was then known as the Gulf District. Kerema has a population of 107,231 and is now the capital of the Gulf Province, which as a whole has 158,197 inhabitants. (Somers, 2011)  Located on the Gulf of Papua, languages like Toaripi, Kakiae, Opao, and Tairuma are predominantly spoken there. (Summer Institute of Linguistics, 2004). Like so many other places in PNG, sago is the main source of nutrition.

The reports assigned to me span from July 1936 to August 1937. Over the course of that time period, Stalin began his Great Purge, F.D.R. was inaugurated for the second time, and the Hindenberg airship exploded. I am interested to see what, if any, contemporary news or current events are reflected in the reports. I am particularly curious to see if there is any note about Amelia Earhart’s fateful departure from New Guinea on July 2, 1937.

PNG Patrol Report: Gulf District, Kerema, 1936-1937

Works Cited

Brown, Paula (2001). Colonial New Guinea: The Historical Context. In Naomi McPherson (Ed.), In Colonial New Guinea: Anthropological Perspectives (15-26). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Donald Denoon (1981). Papua New Guinea, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 9:3 (341-345).

Summer Insitute of Languages (n.d.). Welcome to PNG Language Resources. Retrieved from http://www-01.sil.org/pacific/png/

Simons, Gary F. and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2018. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twenty-first edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International.

Somers, B. (2011). Population. Retrieved from https://www.nso.gov.pg/index.php/population-and-social/other-indicators

The World Factbook 2018. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2018.

4 Comments


  1. In my report on West New Britain region, the patrol officer also mentioned on the diversity of languages in PNG. I believe more than 800 different languages throughout the nation are one of the most fascinating characteristics of PNG.

    Reply

  2. Following up on your observations about Pacific Historians, Lea – there is a great community of historians in the Pacific History Association and publications like The Journal of Pacific History and the Journal of Pacific Studies. Here is a libguide from the University of Auckland that has further resources:

    https://www.library.auckland.ac.nz/guides/arts/pacific-history

    https://www.jstor.org/journal/jpacihist
    https://www.pacifichistoryassociation.net/

    And here is an article that further analyzes the discipline:

    Bronwen Douglas (2015) Pasts, Presents and Possibilities of Pacific History and Pacific Studies: As Seen by a Historian from Canberra, The Journal of Pacific History, 50:2, 224-228, https://doi.org/10.1080/00223344.2015.1043040

    Reply

  3. Hi Lea, You provide some excellent background to Papua New Guinea as a whole and situate it well within the larger historical context. One question I thought of while reading your blog was: When did Kerema become the capital of the province? Was it already the capital when the patrol report was written? Is there any sign that it would be a good place to develop? On a smaller note, is sago mentioned in the patrol reports? Did the officers try it? have you tried it? On a personal note, it was also the main staple where I was in the Southern Highlands. I tried it in the pancake form and bamboo cooked form. It can also be eaten in a runny form more like a porridge.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Rachel! I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that sago is mentioned heavily in the reports. Interestingly, the patrol officers seemed to see sago as an appropriate cash crop for farming but not for eating. For example, one of the reports mentioned that only the poorest villages relied on sago for nutrition. I have not had it but I would not turn it down in PNG, as it seems like a very important part of life and culture.

      In regards to Kerema, I am not sure when or why it became the capital city. My assumption is that Kerema’s coastal location was one of the more important factors in the decision. Kerema is also not very far from Port Morseby, which was a center of colonization by the late 1800s. My reports also mention the area’s many swamps and unpredictable rivers, so perhaps the quality of available land was superior and more conducive to settlement. I am looking for additional information on the region’s development and will hopefully have more to add for context.

      Reply

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