Senegal-look-a-likes with Malayan hairdos: meaning of PNG

Papua New Guinea Map, draped in its flag

We all have names, not of our choice, but at least every name has significance. You were named after a hero, a dear friend of your mum, or native language that has deeper meaning. It’s different if something or someone is given a name by a stranger, depicting some meaning that only the stranger knows, and that name stuck for more than 100 years. Especially if the name had no significance or didn’t depict the object named. Such was the case with Papua and New Guinea, which became Papua New Guinea at independence in 1975.

In 2015, Professor John Waiko suggested that Papua New Guinea be renamed “Paradise Country” during the Waigani Seminar at the University of Papua New Guinea. He was ridiculed. I thought it was funny too. But when you look at the alternative, that is, what Papua New Guinea means, it can be best summarized as:

“Black look-a-likes of those occupying south of the Senegal River, the second lot to be discovered, with Malayan hairdos.”

In this blog I explore how the name “Papua New Guinea” came about, and ask whether we should be content with it.

What does “Papua” mean?

Why do we have “New” in between?

What does “Guinea” mean?

To make sense of things, we have to separate Papua from New Guinea, as it was before 1975. Papua was colonized by the British in 1884 at the request of British colony in what is now Australia, as they feared German presence to the north of Papua. The Germans had colonized the north, using New Guinea Company earlier in the year.

But neither Britain nor Germany gave Papua New Guinea it’s name. Don Jorge de Meneses, a Portuguese explorer, is credited with the European discovery of the principal island of Papua New Guinea in around 1526-27. He is also credited with giving the name “Papua.”

Papua derives from the Malayan word pepuah meaning curly or curly hair. The people along the southern coast of the island had hairs that looked like those in the Malayan Peninsula. The word Papua was use to describe our people who had curly hairs similar to the Malays. They had a Malayan-like hairdo.

It sounds like a harmless descriptive word. But if you asked the locals at the time what they called themselves as a people, I’m sure you’d have a much better description of who they are as a people than a word merely describing Malayan-like hairdo. The people that Don Jorge de Meneses observed probably had a name for themselves. Something that signified their history, legend, culture etc. What did they collectively call themselves? One thing is certain: they never called themselves “curly haired Malayan look-a-likes.”

And then you have “New Guinea”. This is a bit more problematic.

‘New’ here means those found on this (new) island were not the first to have such black features. They looked like people found elsewhere in Western Africa. At the time, Spain, France, and Portuguese divided up Western African, including a landmass that they called Guinea.

We were called ‘New Guinea’ because we looked like those in Guinea in West Africa. At independence, French Guinea became Guinea as it is known today. Spanish Guinea became Equatorial Guinea, and Portuguese Guinea became Guinea-Bissau.

So what’s a Guinea?

I know what you’re thinking: Guinea Pig 🐷. No it’s not. A curly haired guinea pig would have sounded very derogatory, thank goodness it’s not.

There’s no agreement on why portions of West Africa were called Guinea. Guinea is a Spanish word, which derived from a Portuguese word ‘Guine.’ Guinea was used by the Portuguese to refer to ‘land occupied by black Guineus’ or black Africans living south of the Senegal River.

New Guinea therefore, essentially meant ‘look-a-likes’ of people who occupy the south of Senegal River in Western Africa.

So there you go. Papua New Guinea as we know now has nothing original about it. It’s a construct of terms describing ‘look-a-likes’ of those in Western Africa and those in the Malays. The former has to do with skin pigmentation and the latter has to do with hairdo.

Papua New Guinea, in summary, would essentially mean:

“Black look-a-likes of those occupying south of the Senegal River, the second lot to be discovered, with Malayan hairdos.”

Senegal-look-a-like with a Malayan hairdo is hardly a description of what we are, don’t you think?

My preference: Kumul Nation.

What other names do you think best fits us?

Published by Academia Nomad

Blogs on politics, economics and social issues in simple language.

One thought on “Senegal-look-a-likes with Malayan hairdos: meaning of PNG

  1. Thankyou for your detailed insights, hopefully we will have a referendum one day to vote on this matter and dare I say whether we remain apart of the commonwealth or become our own republic…

    I would propose our nation be called Bejijimo (keeping alive by word of mouth) from the Binandere language group of Oro Province.


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