Papua New Guinea’s national flag was displayed in all sorts of forms, along almost every street: this was the sight that welcomed me when I landed for the first time in Port Moresby in September 2014. It was two days before the 39th anniversary of independence. The black, red and yellow and the bird of paradise were vivid on shirts, dresses, skirts, hats and bilums. It was clear the nation’s identity as a post-colonial state loomed large, and is a source of pride.
This assertion of autonomy contrasted my historical links to Melanesia, which had been playing on my mind as we flew into Moresby. I had been chatting to the person next to me. After discussing mining developments that we could see below we realised that we were distantly related, both descendants of missionaries who had worked in Fiji during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Our ancestors and other Lutheran and Methodist missionaries I have been studying for the past seven years had travelled the same tracks as we were around the Pacific, moving via sea and air between Australia and Melanesia. Yet things have changed considerably since the decolonisation of Papua New Guinea in 1975.
My job, as an historical anthropologist (of sorts) trained in post-colonial theory, is to critique the structural inequity established through the colonial process – a process that Australia was intrinsically involved in both Papua New Guinea and Fiji. I was in Port Moresby to present on my latest research, invited to speak at the Papua New Guinea and the World Symposium. Staff from Deakin University and the Pacific Adventist University (PAU) had worked together to organise the Symposium, which was held at the PAU Koiari Park campus on 15 September. My paper outlined the process through which Methodist missionaries had negotiated access to land in what is now Milne Bay Province, and then later how others missionaries had contributed to debates about Indigenous rights to land, particularly as Australia took responsibility for the Territory of Papua.
The symposium turned out to be a forerunner for the work that I am doing this year. As a result of the connections made there with the PAU staff, I have been invited to design an online course in Papua New Guinea’s history for their third year students. The construction is complete, and I am preparing now for the first lecture. The course will follow both chronological and thematic trajectories, covering the early migration of people into Papua New Guinea through Austronesia, interactions with nearby neighbours to the north, and then the colonial administrations of Britain, Germany, Holland and Australia. It will be a people-centric history, highlighting the role of Papua New Guineans throughout the two World Wars, as well as the key figures of the nationalist movement and independent governments.
So far in preparations for the course I have examined colonial documents relating to governance, the ethnographies of various anthropologists including Russian Nikolai Miklouho Maclay, but it won’t just be European sources we discuss. John Waiko’s A Short History of Papua New Guinea is the set text, and biographies of Papua New Guineans such as Sir Michael Somare are on the reading list. I will also be discussing the research that my colleagues at Deakin University and I have been doing in collaboration with local Papua New Guinean historians and heritage specialists to record the oral histories of World War Two at Kokoda, Popondetta and other significant sites along the Kokoda Track.
Students will be able to research and write about Papua New Guinea’s history at a national or local level, and what I will learn from my students will be as valuable and interesting as any knowledge I can pass on to them about the history discipline. We will be able to converse not only online but in person when I travel to meet them for a set of intensive classes in the middle of the semester.
It is the personal connections that will be the most important. They reflect the connectivity between the past and the present, the continuities between our colonial and post-colonial pasts. The way in which the past shapes the present was displayed so clearly at the Hiri Moale festival, held on Ela Beach to coincide with the 39th anniversary of PNG independence. Hiri and Motu peoples demonstrated the passing of traditions down to the next generation through song and dance for a massive audience. This was done before European colonisation, and despite colonial authorities closing down the Hiri Moale for several years, it has been revived and continues now. To appreciate how extraordinary the Hiri Moale is, you need to have an understanding of the continuities and changes between pre-colonial and post-colonial Papua New Guinea. It is a past that is important to both Papua New Guineans and Australians. With such intricate and fascinating histories to explore I am excited about the learning I will share with students and colleagues across the Torres Strait.
This is a short piece I wrote for Lowy Institute about the teaching I was doing at the Pacific Adventist University, and the PNG and the World symposium held there in September 2014. I have been enjoying teaching there again several times since 2014, both PNG and Pacific Histories. The students are awesome! We have many internet issues but we forge ahead regardless… See the original publication at the AusPNG blog: https://auspng.lowyinstitute.org/article/field-notes-learning-through-shared-histories/?noredirect=1
Latest posts by Kirstie Close (see all)
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