PNG Book Review Series: Part 1 – Racism and Colonialism

After Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare passed away on 26 February 2021, many Papua New Guineans called for PNG History to be taught in primary, secondary, and tertiary level-education. We invited readers to submit reviews of books about PNG. In this series, we will be publishing reviews of books about Papua New Guinea, written by both Papua New Guineans and non-Papua New Guineans. The reviews will be presented in broad categories, starting with ‘Racism and Colonialism.’ The reviews below are not an exhaustive list, but its a start for those interested in race relations, and colonialism in PNG. A separate review will be on ‘history’ of PNG. The four books are: Miklouch-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871 – 1883. This is the account of a Russian Scientist’s effort to prove that our ancestors were not a mere link between the animal kingdom and the Europeans as argued by others at the time. The second is a review of one of the earliest books on race relations and colonialism, titled ‘Race Relations and Colonial Rule in PNG’. The third is a book published in 2016 titled ‘The Embarrased Colonialist’ refereeing to Australia-PNG relations. The fourth is an account of a magistrate during the colonial times titled ‘Some Experiences of a Resident Magistrate.’

Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883book review by Bradley Gewa

Perhaps it is little known nowadays but in the 19thcentury, scientists in the Western world believed that Papuans were the lowest form of human species.

This idea about racial hierarchy in humans was passionately propelled into the mainstream by a prominent German scientist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Using Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Haeckel proposed that there were 12 living human species categorized into 36 races, and that these species were at different stages of evolutionary progress. Haeckel based his ideas on criteria such as hair structure, skull shape and distance of the big toe from the others. Papuans, which Haeckel described as “bushy-haired” and with underdeveloped intellects, closely resembled the ape-like common ancestor of all humans, and thus were the most primitive human species.

Now considered racist and unscientific, Haeckel’s views at that time had a fundamental flaw: they lacked supporting empirical evidence.

These burning scientific issues in Europe would bring Haeckel’s own student to New Guinea in 1871, a time when the vast island was mostly alien to outside contact and influence.

Spanning a period of three years from three separate visits, Nikolai Nikolaevich Mildoucho-Maclay (1846-1888), a young Russian zoologist, anthropologist and ethnographer, would become the first European to live with and study the people of the Astrolabe Bay in Northern New Guinea.

His personal diaries, translated from Russian by C. L. Sentinella and including biographical and historical notes, was published in 1975 under the title “Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883”.

From the very start, Maclay employed a personal policy of respectfulness, friendship, honesty and trust-building in his dealings with the Papuans. With this he was able to gradually immerse into and almost become a part of the people of his study, giving him a rare insight into a human race that was poorly understood and regarded as “savages” in the Western world.

Maclay, perhaps through the noble nature of his interactions with the Papuans, witnessed a people who were self-sufficient, ingenious, imaginative and moral. This was far from the widely-held views promoted by his mentor and former teacher Ernst Haeckel.

Ultimately, his research findings would scientifically disprove many of Haeckel’s racial theories about Papuans, making Maclay one of the first scientific anti-racists and an eminent authority on New Guinea and its people. Maclay and Haeckel’s personal and professional ties would also deteriorate, as a consequence.

With the rise of black-birding, colonization and exploitation in the Pacific, Maclay would relentlessly plead for the rights and protection of native people. But this would all go unheeded by the superpowers.

Plagued by a debilitating illness, and with many of his works unpublished, Maclay died in his homeland, aged only 42.

C. L. Sentinella, in the book’s prologue, describes Maclay as “an objective scientific observer with an innate respect for the natives as human beings, and with no desire to exploit them in any way or to impose his ideas upon them.”

While intriguing in themselves, Maclay’s diaries also serve as a historical documentation of early contact of Papuans with outsiders and share a personal insight into an extraordinary man who deserves greater appreciation among modern Papua New Guineans.

Full reference: Sentinella, C. L. (1975). Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883. Published by Kristen Pres, Madang.

You can download a PDF copy of Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883by clicking here.

The life of Nikolai Nikolaevich Mildoucho-Maclay was made into a movie, but unfortunately, its in Russian language. Two documentaries can also be accessed online: Man from the Moonand PNGeans visit Russia

Bradley Gewa is a Research Technician with the New Guinea Binateng Research Centre based in Madang. His research/publications can be accessed here.Binateng Research also has a website, and Bradley’s blogs can be accessed here.  

Race Relations and Colonial Rule in Papua New Guinea – book review by Michael Kabuni

Ted Wolfers’ groundbreaking book, Race Relations and Colonial Rule in Papua New Guinea, has just been republished in 2016, forty years after the first edition appeared in 1975.  It is 181 pages long, and can be bought on amazon. 

Ted Wolfers wrote this book whilst he was in PNG between 1961 and 1971. He was sent as a young researcher for the USA foundation called ‘Institute for Current World Affairs’ (ICWA). This work is the collection of articles written for the ICWA as Newsletters. The research, lived experiences, and conversations inform the book. There are many aspects of the book that stands out, but for me, his defense of the Papua and New Guinea natives’ way of life, intelligence, and organized traditional way of life stands out. 

He understood what others at the time didn’t: that Papua and New Guinea societies were very efficient in their own traditional ways. For instance, PNG tribes had differing but quite developed arithmetic systems. The society was complex and organized. He critiqued the colonial administration and the racism that prevailed at the time. 

Wolfers was awarded the first PhD in Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Papua New Guinea based on this book.  The book has been widely used for scholarly research and tertiary-level courses on race, culture, and colonialism in general, and studies on racism and colonialism in the history, politics and governance of Papua New Guinea specifically. 

PNG and Australian relations have moved past some aspects that were clearly racist, but maintain other aspects that are quite paternalistic. It is surprising how similar some of the experiences documented in this book are still seen today. But also, it provides accounts that you cannot recognize today, as both countries have moved beyond such relations. It was a book that captured moment in time. Its worth reading.

Ted Wolfers’ later became the Permanent Consultant to Papua New Guinea’s pre-independence Constitutional Planning Committee in the run-up to sovereign independence in 1975.  He is now an Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Wollongong. 

Full reference: Wolfers, T. (1975). Race Relations and Colonial Rule in Papua New Guinea. Australia and New Zealand Book Co.

The book is sold on Amazon

$39.95 for hardcover

$29.95 Paperback

Free shipping.

Michael Kabuni is a lecturer with the Politics Department at the University of Papua New Guinea. 

The Embarassed Colonist – book review by Tanya Zeriga-ALONE.


The 140 paged book, titled, The Embarrassed Colonialist was published in 2016 for the Lowy Institute of Australia by the Penguin Press.  The book is small and easy reading but the 8 chapters are packed with so much insight about the Australia-PNG relationship.

I was curious about the title.  Who was embarrassed for what? In PNG, there is already a feeling of shame and anger at being labelled a lot of names including a failed state, a violent nation and even a hellhole.   Since the author is married into a PNG tribe, was he embarrassed at the way PNG has turned out – a 40-year-old wayward man-child? Or was the author just being a mouthpiece for the collective view held by Australia – PNG’s former colonial master. Or was he expressing his own embarrassment about the deteriorating state of the PNG-Australia relationship forged at colonial days.

It was an interesting read for me. I was born after PNG independence and therefore had no memory of time and events before independence and the two decades thereafter. Therefore, this book put into perspective the Australia-PNG history.

The main emotion that ran through my veins was pride but when I eventually closed the  book, I was angry…. then sad …and then resolute that change for the better must take place in my lifetime.

Change has been very rapid for PNG since independence. The vortex of change has sucked PNG from isolated primitive tribes into the global village already made small by virtual reality.

The physical change has been enormous in the last 80 years but sadly the psyche of the Papua New Guinean individual is yet to assimilate the changes.

The continuous transition from a thousand cultures to the western culture is indeed a growing pain for PNG. As rightly stated by the author, the symptoms of this transition are everywhere – corruption, poor development policies, law and order challenges and attitude problem. But PNG has made commendable progress in other fronts: economic development, the justice system, the free media, and women empowerment, to name a few.

Indeed, the PNG challenges started at independence. At independence it was a big ask for thousand tribes to exist as one. In retrospect, the author observes that the Australians including the Kiaps packed up and left too soon. But they left a legacy behind.

The kiaps left behind their colonial policies – policies that are outdated for the 21st century, policies that favor colonial power. Translated to this day: policies that favor those in power (i.e. modern day kiaps) and outsiders.  This is most obvious in the natural resource extraction policies.

Given this insight, it is indeed not ignorance, but self-serving and blatant indifference to PNG, when Australian projects and even in some case AID money is given to implement projects based on such old policies.

Australia also left behind a leadership vacuum.  The kiaps were a government unto themselves in the villages . But when they left, they transferred everything to a committee  of parliamentarians in Port Moresby. Without direction, people came up with their own definition of leadership – mixing the new and the old. This may have also contributed in the self-serving, indefinable concept of the “Melanesian Way”.

I disagree that PNG is Australia’s illegitimate child as asserted by the author. The inhabitants of the island of New Guinea were nations running their own affairs until colonialism unceremoniously dumped this land of a thousand nations onto Australia.

At the time, the island of New Guinea was made a territory of Australia, the white Australia had declared Independence less than 5 years prior. Australia was a very young nation of united colonies when it was given the task of rearing an unruly and primitive nation of a thousand tribes.

Unlovely it may have been, the island had natural resources for exploitation. Australia had forsaken the caste system of their motherland and was embracing capitalism – they needed a chicken that could lay golden eggs. Even before the World War II, Australians were prospecting for gold, timber, and oil in New Guinea. These prospectors were the ones that opened the New Guinea interior to the world.

Then World War II broke out.  The Japanese threatened the newly independent country, and Australia needed to win that battle away from their home front in New Guinea.

As valuable as it were, PNG was reared at arms length. The evidence is in the many policies from the colonial days. Then again, in defense of Australia, PNG was their first-born, and like new parents they were unsure how to bring it up.

What I still don’t understand is why in this day and time, Australia is still keeping PNG at arms length when compared to how they treat other Pacific Islanders? How else can we explain the unjustified challenges faced by Papua New Guineans in issues such as visa and the fruit picking scheme and the latest project – the Colombo Plan?

It is true that so many Australians love and have adopted PNG as their second country and like the author, may have married into the Melanesian culture. But the collective machinery in Australia used in dealing with PNG still seems so-old fashioned and racist and patronizing.

Evidence? How else would one describe the 5-word admonishment by a representative of Australian High Commission to the author … “Stop thinking like a PNGean” (pg 76). I have read and reread but the author does not elaborate anywhere in the book, what it means to “think like a local”.

Unfortunately for white people who have been in the PNG sun too long, they start thinking different-like Papua New Guineans.

So at the end, who was the embarrassed one? Sean Dorney is an Australian, with over 40 years of family ties to PNG. He may be regarded as a renegade to his birth country because he has started to think like a local. This inside knowledge however, makes his voice one of the most authentic voices to discuss PNG issues. With his leg in both societies, he has judged for himself and has spoken.

The rules for re-engagement as recommended by the author are spot on.  Seeing eye-to-eye is very important for the way going forward. PNG has been forced to grow up fast in the last 40 years. At 40, PNG is old enough to navigate its own waters, but put into nation building perspective – 40 years is still infancy. Indeed, PNG needs a guide, if not Australia then who else will do it?

As a re-engagement recommendation, PNG also needs to take responsibility for its own growth and start behaving like an independent nation.

This book even though written by an Australian, is the PNG voice speaking to Australia.  It will serve Australia well to take this work seriously. I also highly recommend this book to Papua New Guinean readers. Young people, you need to learn your history and only then can you chart a better way forward for your nation.

Full reference: Dorney, S. (2016). The Embarassed Colonist. Penguin Group (Australia), 2016

The Embarrassed Colonialist is available to purchase from all good bookstores ($9.99). An e-book version ($3.99) is also available

Tanya Zeriga-Alone is the Lead Researcher at Menggeyao Morobe Consultancy. She also blogs frequently. You can read her work here.

Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate – book review by Bradley Gewa

New Zealander Charles Arthur Whitmore Monckton (1873-1936) first arrived in British New Guinea in 1895 to find work as a Magistrate. However, the Protectorate’s Lieutenant-Governor Sir William MacGregor was unable to recruit Monckton due to budget constraints and the latter’s inexperience and lack of knowledge about New Guinea and its people. Macgregor directed Monckton’s attention to the newly-discovered goldfields on Woodlark Island, and this Monckton gladly took on, later engaging in pearling and trading in the Louisades.

Monckton returned to New Zealand for a period to study navigation, and in 1897, bought a small boat in Sydney and sailed to Port Moresby. Macgregor was then able to offer him relief posts as Resident Magistrate in the Eastern Division, the Mekeo district and the South-Eastern Division from 1897-99. He would later take up permanent appointments in the North-Eastern and Northern Divisions after 1899.

Monckton’s book “Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate” published in 1920 is the first of several books about his time in British New Guinea.

In this gripping, adventure-packed narrative, Monckton recounts his exploits as a miner and trader in Woodlark and Louisades, and his later experiences as a Resident Magistrate in a land largely unpenetrated by colonial impact.

Taking up his job as Resident Magistrate at Samarai for the South-Eastern Division, Monckton enquires with his departing predecessor about his required duties and discovers that beside his magisterial responsibilities, he had to train his own police, sail boats, marry people; and act as gaoler, undertaker, surveyor and doctor in the absence of these and any other specialists. Sir William Macgregor, Monckton learnt, expected his Resident Magistrates to “know everything and do everything”.

The Samarai gaol at that time held the troublesome Binandere prisoners charged with the recent murder of the Northern Division’s Resident Magistrate John Green at Tamata Station. In the book Monckton gives his description on the events that unfolded which led to punitive expeditions into the Mambare River by the colonial government.

In the Mekeo District, Monckton tells of his exasperating efforts in attempting to aid the Mission’s work and exert government order in an area where cunning sorcerers had perpetually held the locals in a fearful grip. It was in the newly created North-Eastern Division that Monckton takes up a permanent appointment as Resident Magistrate. Arriving at Cape Nelson (now Tufi Station) in April 1900, Monckton is charged with establishing a government station to control the numerous war-like tribes and exercise law and order for the miners at the Yodda goldfields.

Based at Cape Nelson, Monckton trains his local constabulary, led largely by his trusty Binandere men, into one of the most effective fighting forces in British New Guinea and embarks on exploratory and, at times, punitive expeditions throughout the Division.

He wisely forges close alliances with the chiefs of some of his Divison’s fearless tribes, notably Chief Giwi of the Kaili Kaili Tribe and Bousimai of the Binandere, and enlists their help in his missions. He also wins over to his side captured war leaders like the powerful Oiogoba Sara of the Baruga Tribe to aid in the government’s cause.

With his highly disciplined police and warrior tribe allies, Monckton effectively subdues cannibalistic pillages by combative groups like the Doriri, Dobuduru and Paiwa on their weaker neighbours and brings the Division into relative order.

In the Musa swamps, Monckton describes his amiable encounter with a peculiar people known as the Agaiambu, who over generations had adapted to living entirely on stilt house villages over the water, and thus rendering their feet impractical for walking on land.

Monckton’s descriptions in “Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate” have been confirmed to be factually accurate where concerning events in Divisions where he was directly involved in. His narrative also contains perceptive observations on the local people and their customs, accompanied by various sketches and historical images. Intermittently in his writing, Monckton both extols and criticizes the conducts of his colleagues, missionaries and other expatriates in the British Protectorate.

 An efficient, tough and quick-witted officer who also showed great loyalty and respect for his faithful Papuan allies and subordinates, Monckton was admired as a “fearless fighting man” by some of his colleagues. On the other hand, his trigger-happy methods in some of his dealings with aggressive tribes made him unpopular with some officials.

Monckton’s book, nonetheless, provides a first-hand historical glimpse into the workings of the early colonial government, as well as the raw, pre-modern way of life of Papuan tribes as they began to come into increasing contact with a foreign, overpowering influence.

Monckton, C. A. W. (2016). Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate Wentworth Press 

The book can be accessed in various ways, and the costs vary. On Kindle its $3.99. Hard Cover and Paper Back copies can be bought on Amazon, costing $37. 12 and $28.1 respectively.

Bradley Gewa is a Research Technician with the New Guinea Binateng Research Centre based in Madang. His research/publications can be accessed here.Binateng Research also has a website, and Bradley’s blogs can be accessed here.  

We invite reviews from readers.

Published by Academia Nomad

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

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