An Introduction to German New Guinea: 1913

German New Guinea FlagWhile I was in Paradise for a month, I ended up reading a substantial amount of literature concerning Papua New Guinea. They varied from books and magazines to journals and newspapers and had a scope as far back as Captain Owen Stanley and Admiral Philip Carteret’s adventures to Moses Maladina’s novel Tabu.

One such article is definitely worth the read and I want to share it with you. The article was published on March 23, 1919 in the New York Times and reveals an extraordinarily large amount of information regarding how life used to be in German New Guinea following the completion of the First World War:

Of the cruelties of the Germans to the natives of German New Guinea the colony must long carry the marks. Even the Germans themselves, fearing the effect of ill treatment, substantial slavery, disease, and death upon the commercial value of the colony, endeavoured, in the last days of their occupation, to manifest a little humanity; and its last German Governor seriously undertook to protect the rights of the natives. To the German planters, however, a native laborer was, or any black, was simply a beast to be flogged, to be exploited and driven to death. So the population of the numerous islands that constitute what used to be German New Guinea has steadily diminished, and the diminution continues even under the mild and just administration of the Australians. The supply of labor grows shorter every year; and if it continues, the future development of the islands will be impossible.

It is curious to observe that the gentle treatment of the natives by the new administrators has alarmed even some of the missionaries. Mr. Thomas J. McMahon, in Chamber’s Journal, tells us that “the missionaries in many parts are complaining that the natives are becoming more useless and idle as they become more protected”. In short, the native, having long been treated with the utmost harshness, is inclined to consider his new freedom as absolving him from all restraint and putting him under no obligation. “Me no frighten of Government” is what the independent native says. This reaction is intelligible and natural: the same sort of feeling is displayed by people or races long oppressed upon whom freedom comes as a new experience which they have to learn to understand. Of course, some discount has usually to be made for colonial feeling about natives and native labor; and the colonial wouldn’t be happy, probably no man of British birth would be happy, unless he could grumble at the Administration. But we cannot doubt the testimony of the missionaries. Mr. McMahon says that no blame can be put upon it, but that is management of the natives is its weak point, and that they “are fast becoming less energetic, while their powers of cunning are being developed to an extraordinary degree”.

For the health of the population, for the sick, for the children, the Administration is working vigorously. There are well-equipped native hospitals wherever there is a settlement. Over the sufferings, the plagues and abominations that “civilisation” has inflicted upon these, as upon so many other native races, it is best to draw a veil. Whatever British humanity and science can do for this evilly treated folk will be done.

German New Guinea CrestWhether natives should be taxed or not is a disputed question. The Germans brought the taxation system into New Guinea. Their methods were characteristically brutal. Now it is said that the natives have got used to it and pay promptly the annual tax of two dollars and one-half a year. Their delightfully humorous name for a tax is “throw-away money”. A race capable of inventing so fine a synonym must be capable of a great deal more. The purpose of the tax is not revenue, but to teach the natives to work, if they cannot pay the “throw-away money” they “work off” the taxes, as the New England phrase is or used to be, by repairing the district roads. Those that work for planters or anybody else, or for the Administration, don’t have to pay “throw-away money.” It is hoped that the native, seeing that work brings tax money, will be encouraged to work for money to buy tobacco and knives, and so on.

These people, lazy as many of them are and dense as many of them seem or pretend to be, have great potentialities and capacities. “Not a single one of the many tribes of the many islands”, Mr. McMahon tells us, “is low in the standard of intelligence or the possibility of usefulness”. At the missions and on some plantations you find natives who can do any sort of mechanical work; and some “even of literary abilities sufficient to make first-class teachers and clerks”. They are in a period of transition, of uncertainty and puzzlement. The Germans treated them like dogs. The British “pamper” them. Former New Guinea has great resources and possibilities. The great problem of the Administration is to prevent depopulation and arouse ambition in the natives.

“Pidgin-English” is the curious gibberish spoken everywhere in this former German settlement. German talks to German, Englishman talks to German, Englishman and German talk to the natives in this elegant tongue. If you want hot water for shaving, you tell your “boy” to bring hot water “to cut em grass”. If you ask for a bottle of beer, you tell the same youth to “fight em bottle”, a metaphor our Drys will appreciate. If you want a cross-cut saw, you use this pleasing formula: “Pull him, he come; push him, he go; all time kai-kai [eat] tree”. It is an engaging language, since its use seems to be founded on a misapprehension that may be compared to that behind “baby talk” or to the ingenious habit some persons have of speaking loudly to foreigners as if all foreigners were deaf. At the missions pidgin-English is not allowed. There the natives learn to read and speak good English and good German, each easier for them than the outlandish artificial dialect foisted on them. Some mission “boys” “even set up correct English printing”. It is the English and the German, not the native, whose want of understanding forces on the native his superfluous, absurd pidgin-English”.


At its height, German New Guinea included the German Solomon Islands (Buka, Bougainville and several smaller islands), the Carolines, Palau, the Marianas (except for Guam), the Marshall Islands and Nauru.

Total land area was 249,500 km² and the German colony was administered from Rabaul.

~ by Tavurvur on January 8, 2009.

One Response to “An Introduction to German New Guinea: 1913”

  1. Someone one day needs to set up a catalog of all PNG literature ever printed…

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