[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]
Papua and the Pacific
A ‘Monroe doctrine’ for the Pacific — French annexation of New Caledonia — The New Hebrides — New Guinea — Captain Morseby’s discoveries — The colonies and New Guinea — Queensland’s awakened interest — Gold discoveries — German intentions — McIlwraith orders annexation of New Guinea — Action disavowed by British Government — Strong feeling in Australia — German annexations — Lord Granville’s surprise — Kanaka labour — ‘Blackbirding’ — Queensland regulates the labour traffic.
Prévost-Paradol, a French author who wrote an excellent book on the colonies of his country in 1868, predicted that ‘some day a new Monroe Doctrine would prevent old Europe, in the name of the United States of Australia, from setting foot upon a single isle of the Pacific.’ A policy so exclusive has never been promulgated, though a convention of all the Australian colonies which met at Sydney in 1883 did enter its protest against any foreign power being permitted to acquire fresh territory in the Pacific south of the Equator. But until the achievement of federation the people of Australia were too much immersed in their own particularist affairs to pay attention to, or even to take the trouble to understand, what their future interests might be in the many groups of islands powdered over the face of the Pacific. Only a suddenly stimulated sense of danger warned them, almost at the last moment, to reach out a hand towards New Guinea, lying close to their doors; and their concern for other parts of the Pacific has only been aroused when they have been awakened to its imminence by some striking circumstance.
The transportation of French prisoners to New Caledonia, and their occasional escape to Brisbane and Sydney, afforded such an instance. France annexed the island in 1853, and ten years later determined to use it as a penal settlement. After the Parisian insurrections of 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War and the anarchy of the Commune, between three and four thousand political prisoners were crowded upon this little patch of coral-fringed tropical soil. They included journalists, professors, artists, artisans, and a varied assortment of common rascals. The most famous of the better sort was the intrepid political writer, Henri Rochefort. The Australian colonies became uneasy about the establishment so near to their shores of a foreign imitation of the system which they themselves had happily cast off, and their anxiety increased when escapees and time-expired convicts began to find their way to the eastern seaboard of the continent. The police of New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland reported that between 1874 and 1883, at least 247 escaped prisoners and ‘expirees’ were known to have landed in Australia. The Imperial Government made polite representations to the French Republic, explaining that Australia thought the transportation system vexing and its continuance in New Caledonia rather unneighbourly. The French Government, moreover, was finding that by making New Caledonia a jail it was retarding the development of the great natural resources of the island. It therefore determined to discontinue the practice, and after 1898 convictism was abandoned. Up to that date 15,000 prisoners had been transported to New Caledonia.
The British and French joint occupation of the New Hebrides presents a more complicated problem. A French company commenced to buy land in this group of islands in 1882, and organized a regular trading service between them and Noumea, the chief town in New Caledonia. For some years previously the Presbyterian Church had been conducting missions to the Pacific Islanders, and the missionaries, who were strongly posted in the New Hebrides, knew all that was happening. They spread the alarm among the churches of their denomination in Australia. The Presbyterians, being a numerous and influential body, were able to bring political pressure to bear, through the Governments of the colonies, upon the British Foreign Office, which intimated to the French Government that the annexation of the New Hebrides, if that step were contemplated, would certainly give offence in Australia. France gave an undertaking not to annex the islands, and in 1887 a convention was signed between the two Governments by which the New Hebrides were placed under a joint British and French commission of naval officers. This system of government is called the Anglo-French Condominium.
The Convention of 1887 was modified by a more detailed and elaborate convention in 1906, providing a scheme of government for the New Hebrides. It described them as ‘a region of joint influence,’ in which the subjects of Great Britain and France enjoy equal rights of residence, personal protection, and trade, each retaining jurisdiction over its own subjects ‘and neither exercising a separate control over the group.’ A British and a French Resident Commissioner were stationed at Vila, in the island of Efate. The joint Naval Commission was also continued, its functions being mainly to maintain order. This somewhat awkward arrangement cannot be said to be satisfactory or to make for just and wholesome government.
To the north of Australia, separated from it by Torres Strait, lies the great island which the Portuguese called Papua, because of the frizzled hair of the natives. The Dutch, who formed small settlements on the north-west coast, adopted the Spanish name of New Guinea, by which it was more generally known. With the exception of Australia itself, Papua is the largest island in the world, having an area exceeding three hundred thousand square miles. It was inevitable that the Australian people should concern themselves about the ownership of a territory so near to their own country. Occupied by tribes of black warriors to whom its rich soil afforded an abundant sustenance without requiring strenuous labour from them, it had never been explored for its mineral resources nor used for tropical agriculture, except for native gardens. The navigators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had often cruised along its shores. Dampier had named the promontory on the north-western extremity King William’s Cape, ‘in honour of his present majesty William III.’ Torres, Cook, Bligh, Flinders and others had threaded the intricacies of the channels between the coral reefs of the strait. The shape of the island upon the map was defined with a fair approach to accuracy, and it was known to be the home of birds of gorgeous plumage, but hardly anything had been ascertained about the interior. Some day the attention of adventurers was bound to be directed to it. In any case, it was obviously not to the interest of Australia that a foreign power should be established there.
Yet Australian politicians were very slow to appreciate the importance of Papua. If in the years when the separate affairs of the colonies were absorbing attention and so little thought was devoted to the deeper interests of Australia as a whole, some of them had spent half an hour upon the study of the map, and had given a little consideration to the future, the whole of the island not already in Dutch hands might have been secured without much trouble. In later years newspapers and public men were wont to blame the British Government for its remissness; and, truly, that Government had been tardy, and had allowed itself to be deceived by German diplomacy. But a study of the official papers shows that the colonies themselves were also at fault.
Theoretically, the eastern peninsula of Papua had been British territory since 1846, when Lieutenant Yule of H.M.S. Bramble landed at Cape Possession, in the Gulf of Papua, and hoisted the Union Jack. But it is not clear that he acted under formal orders to declare British sovereignty, or that his act had more validity than had those of two East India merchantmen who ‘took possession of New Guinea and other islands of Torres Strait,’ in 1793. The Admiralty, in a memorandum over twenty years later than Yule’s action, expressed a doubt as to whether the territory was more than nominally British.
Not until 1867 did any body of persons in Australia turn towards Papua as a field for development. In that year a small New Guinea Company was formed in Sydney. It applied to the Government of New South Wales for assistance. That Government was not prepared to grant any, but forwarded a memorandum to the Imperial Government urging the annexation of New Guinea as ‘a matter of the highest importance to the Australian colonies.’ Lord Derby’s Ministry, which was then in power, was icily unsympathetic. It refused to give any plan of voluntary settlement the sanction of Imperial authority, nor would it undertake to confirm any titles to the acquisition of land which persons who embarked in such a venture might profess to take from the natives. The Sydney Company thereupon dropped the venture.
A party of adventurous young men who set out from Sydney in 1872 to explore Papua with a view to settlement came to misfortune by shipwreck and murder by blacks. Thus a bad beginning had been made. A failure, a disaster, and the official frown of Downing Street marked the first phase.
The discoveries of Captain Moresby in H.M.S. Basilisk (1873) opened the next phase. He discovered a magnificent landlocked harbour on the south coast, and on landing formed a very high opinion of the fertility of the soil. So he hoisted the British flag, and took possession of eastern Papua pending the decision of the Government. The ceremony of taking possession had been performed so often by this time that it must have seemed like an entertainment got up for the amusement of the natives.
The importance of Moresby’s discoveries was pressed upon the Imperial Government, which inquired of the Australian colonies what their views were. This afforded an opportunity to Australia to express a strong and united demand that steps should forthwith be taken to prevent any foreign power from acquiring rights in Papua. A new administration, that of Disraeli, had just come into office in Great Britain, with Lord Carnarvon as Colonial Secretary, and, had there been a clear intimation of what was wanted, there was nothing to prevent the annexation of the whole of Papua except the western portion, where the Dutch were. But the Imperial Government found that some of the colonies were lukewarm, whilst others were opposed to assuming any responsibility. It happened that, a short while previously, Lord Derby had made a speech in which he had expressed the opinion that ‘Great Britain had already black subjects enough.’ People are apt to be caught by phrases, and this one ran through a large number of speeches and leading articles. Thus, Governor Bowen reported from Victoria that there were few thinking men in that colony who did not ‘agree with the principle that, as a rule liable to exceptions in particular cases, Great Britain has already black subjects enough.’
Even Queensland, which a little later was to manifest a passionate interest in Papua, reported on this occasion, through Governor Cairns, that ‘but little interest is taken as yet in the destiny of New Guinea by either the Ministry or the outside public of that colony.’
The only Australian statesman who at this date (1874) showed any sense of the importance of the question was Henry Parkes, then Premier of New South Wales. He wrote an emphatic memorandum pointing out that the colonization of Papua by a foreign power would give rise to many embarrassments, whilst its colonization by Great Britain would be hailed with universal approbation. But Governor Robinson, in forwarding Parkes’s memorandum to London, threw cold water over its argument, and suggested doubts as to whether there was any serious public opinion on the subject. It was, at all events, clear that there was no disposition on the part of the Australian Governments to share the cost of administering the country if it were annexed by Great Britain, and, as the Imperial Government saw no reason for imposing the cost on the British taxpayer, there seemed no more to be said. So ended the second phase.
The third opened in 1875, when Queensland awoke to the fact that the contiguity of Papua to her territory gave her a special interest in its future. The Queensland Parliament passed resolutions urging annexation upon the Imperial Government. But the other colonies refused to join in bearing the cost of administration, notwithstanding that a rumour had gained currency that Germany was thinking of planting her flag in the Pacific. Lord Carnarvon, when this fear was brought under his notice, brushed it aside as unworthy of credence. ‘The German Government has, I am informed,’ wrote the Secretary of State, ‘very lately intimated that it has no intention of acquiring colonies, and this intimation has special reference to New Guinea.’ The sequel to the story shows how ill-informed the Foreign Office was as to Germany’s designs.
But at the same time Lord Carnarvon promised that the Imperial Government would move as desired if the Australian colonies would pay the expense of governing the territory annexed; and Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, who succeeded him at the Colonial Office, plainly laid down the principle ‘that the Australian colonies must bear the cost of an enterprise in which this country is not directly concerned, except in so far as it is of interest and importance to those colonies.’
In 1878 gold was discovered in Southern Papua, and the incursion of a fairly large number of miners made it necessary to take steps to maintain order among them. The task was placed under the direction of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, an office established in 1875 with headquarters at Fiji. The Commissioner, Sir Arthur Gordon, pointed out how difficult it was for him to exert authority whilst the country was not under British sovereignty. If an English digger were murdered by an American or a German, the High Commissioner’s Court would be unable to exercise jurisdiction. The offender would have to be left to lynch law, which would certainly be exercised in a mining camp where there was no legitimate authority. But even when this view was laid before the Colonial Secretary he declined to act. If the Australians wanted Papua they must pay for governing it. From that principle the Imperial Government would not depart.
The fourth phase opened in 1882, with a renewal of reports of German intentions. Lord Derby was then Colonial Secretary, and he scouted the suggestion in similar terms to those which Carnarvon had used. There was ‘no reason for supposing’ that the German Government contemplated such action. But Sir Thomas McIlwraith, the Queensland Premier, believed that he had better information than the Imperial Government possessed. He was satisfied that Germany was about to act, despite the denials given to the British Foreign Office by Berlin. The case was so urgent that he could not afford to parley about terms. So McIlwraith cabled to London in February 1883: ‘Queensland will bear expense of government and take formal possession on receipt of Imperial authority by cable.’ But Lord Derby — still haunted by the nightmare of too many black men — now disregarded his predecessor’s principle, ignored the resolutions of the Queensland Parliament, and flatly refused his sanction unless he were assured ‘that public opinion in the colony would approve of the annexation,’ and that ‘the Legislature would adopt the necessary resolutions.’ He replied to that effect by letter, not by the more expeditious medium of the cable, in March.
McIlwraith was, however, a man of energetic resolution, and, knowing what German agents in the Pacific were doing, he considered that the matter was too pressing to be any longer strung out by the leisurely method of official correspondence. One morning in April, when the Colonial Secretary opened his newspaper, he found there, to his great astonishment, a telegram informing the world that the Queensland Government had taken possession of New Guinea. When Lord Derby recovered his breath he cabled to the Governor, ‘Please telegraph explanation.’
What had happened was that McIlwraith had sent instructions to Chester, the police magistrate at Thursday Island, to take possession of ‘so much of the island as was not already in the occupation or possession of the Dutch.’ Chester executed his mission on April 4. The Queensland Government, McIlwraith informed Derby, had acted ‘under the full belief that the matter was too urgent to admit of the delay necessarily involved in waiting for instructions from the Imperial Government.’ From information ‘obtained from various sources,’ he also said, ‘there appeared to be every probability of the island being taken possession of by a foreign power.’
Lord Derby was angry, and repudiated McIlwraith’s action. He refused to recognize the annexation. It was unauthorized, and therefore invalid. He wrote in the most positive terms that ‘the apprehension entertained in Australia that some foreign power was about to establish itself on the shores of New Guinea appears to have been altogether indefinite and unfounded, and the inquiries which have been made by Her Majesty’s Government have given them the strongest reasons for believing that no such step has been contemplated.’ Before many more months had passed Lord Derby was left in no doubt that the Premier of Queensland had accurately gauged the situation all along, and that the German Chancellor, Bismarck, had completely hoodwinked the agents of the British Foreign Office.
Meanwhile the Australian colonies had unanimously rallied to McIlwraith’s support. His prompt action was applauded throughout the country, and the six Governments undertook to share with Queensland the cost of administering Papua. Lord Derby had these expressions of opinion brought before him repeatedly during the remainder of 1883 and the early part of 1884, but still he would not ratify what had been done. He felt safe in holding back because in June 1883 he had inquired of the Foreign Office whether the Government could ‘rely with confidence’ on the absence of interference by any foreign power, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville, had replied (June 26) that he had ‘reason to believe that no such action is intended on the part of any foreign power.’ Granville also — himself a model of polished and trustful politeness — was soon to discover how the blue-eyed German had looked him in the face and sworn to the thing that was not.
In 1884 the German Ambassador to Great Britain, Count Münster, began openly to reveal an interest in the Pacific. He informed Lord Granville that the German Government was of opinion that the wild country on the north side of Papua might be available as a field for German enterprise. Now, at this very time (August 1884), under the persistent pressure of the Australian colonies, the British Cabinet had just decided to proclaim a protectorate over the whole island except the part occupied by the Dutch. But they had not yet taken definite action to that end, and the Germans were much better informed about British intentions than British statesmen had been about those of the Germans. Count Münster intervened at the opportune moment; with the result that, as stated in Lord Granville’s biography by Lord Fitzmaurice (vol. ii, p. 371), ‘the decisions of the Cabinet were not carried out in their entirety.’ The ship which was to have conveyed the British officer to make the annexation was delayed, while the Under-Secretary for the Colonies was sent to Berlin to confer with Prince Bismarck, the German Government having intimated through the Ambassador that there ought to be ‘a friendly understanding by means of a Commission.’
But while the conference in Berlin was actually in progress — a conference suggested by Germany professedly with a view of arriving at a ‘friendly understanding,’ but really, as will presently appear, for the purpose of enabling Bismarck to make a coup — while the British representative, sent over in good faith, was conversing with the German Chancellor — a German ship was speeding full steam to Papua and had annexed the north part and several of the adjacent islands before the British Foreign Secretary knew that anything definite had been determined upon. ‘I think the German Government have behaved very shabbily by you,’ wrote the Under-Secretary to Granville, who had, indeed, in the innocence of his heart, been utterly deceived. He protested in his most gentlemanly manner: ‘Her Majesty’s Government were quite unprepared for such an announcement.’ Bismarck knew that; but his deep bass chuckle could not be heard in London.
The Australian colonies were very sore, considering that their interests had been sacrificed, but they could do no more than protest. They had to be content with the annexation of the southern portion of the island, which was effected by Commodore Erskine in October 1884. From that date until the Commonwealth came into being the administration of British New Guinea was carried on by Queensland, at the joint expense of the six colonies.
Samoa was also annexed by Germany in 1884. Fiji had become a British possession ten years before (October 1874).
However much Lord Derby, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, and Lord Granville may be blamed for letting northern New Guinea slip through their fingers, the historical facts make it clear that the lack of co-operation among the Australian colonies at an earlier period was really responsible for the mischance. Closely absorbed in their local affairs, they did not look beyond their own boundaries. Parkes had a wider vision, but he stood almost alone. It should, however, in justice to the colonies be remembered that they were young communities whose work of development made large demands upon their resources and energies. The wise and generous policy of the mother country would have been not to haggle about terms but to annex as requested, trusting to the Australian Governments to assume full responsibility. The trust would not have been misplaced.
Another problem of the Pacific arose out of the importation of South Sea islanders, or Kanakas, to work in the sugar-cane fields of Queensland. The word ‘Kanaka’ is the Polynesian word for ‘man’ — though the islanders pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable, whereas in Australia the second syllable is stressed. Rudyard Kipling used it correctly when in the original version of his poem, ‘The Lost Legion’ (1883), he wrote:
We’ve shouted on seven-ounce nuggets,
We’ve starved on a Kanaka’s pay.
But some one assured him that the second line would not scan according to Australian pronunciation, and he altered the line (1896) to ‘We’ve starved on a seedeboy’s pay.’
Kanakas had been introduced to Queensland for work in the cane-fields very early in the history of tropical agriculture in that State. There was a serious dearth of labour, without which it was impossible to make industries successful. The idea of utilizing Kanaka labour occurred to Robert Towns, an English sailor who settled in Sydney in 1842 and started to develop what became a very profitable trade with the islands of the Pacific. Towns, an eminently enterprising man, was fond of experimenting. He started a cotton plantation, and became interested in a number of station properties in northern Queensland. It was for cotton-growing that he originally imported two or three hundred Kanakas, and when he had found their labour to be useful and profitable, other growers of tropical products followed his example.
The islanders were recruited by owners of luggers, who professed to enter into contracts with them by which they were to serve for a term of years in the Queensland plantations, and were to be returned safely to their islands at the end of the period. But the natives of different islands spoke different languages, and the only common medium of speech was a pidgin English, which only a comparatively few of them understood. What they were contracting to do was very rarely realized. The ‘contracts,’ indeed, were but a device to obscure the real nature of this traffic in human flesh and blood, which, as practised in the fifties and sixties, was nothing better than a disguised form of slavery. Kidnapping, or ‘blackbirding,’ as it was popularly called, had very little respect for law, humanity, or the natural rights of the islanders. J. G. Paton, one of the best-known missionaries who worked in the islands, declared that ‘many of the natives are taken away fraudulently and by force from their native lands.’ The natives themselves called it, in their own speech, ‘man-stealing.’ Strong young men were lured on board the luggers, or carried off by superior force, not infrequently after the use of firearms, and, if they were ever returned to their islands at all, it was as experts in vices which they had acquired upon the plantations. Sometimes they were paid for their labour only in trumperies. Thus, in one certified instance, a Kanaka, after five months’ service on board a vessel, received four handkerchiefs, some pipes, and a few figs of tobacco.
Grave scandals occurred in connexion with the traffic. The Queensland Government in 1868 legislated to regulate it, but some of the very bad instances of kidnapping and murder occurred after the passage of that measure. The piratical exploits of the notorious ‘Bully’ Hayes, one of the most desperate of the blackbirding skippers, and of others engaged in the same business, were hardly distinguishable from the methods adopted by the slave-raiders of the West African coast in the days when slavery flourished as a lucrative British industry. In the later years recruiting was conducted under a more stringent system of supervision by inspectors appointed by the Queensland Government. Kidnapping ceased, and the Kanakas were paid a minimum of £6 per annum. They were returned to their islands at the expiration of the contract period, and were protected while in the service of the planters. But, as soon as the Labour Party became strong in Queensland politics, a determined assault was made on the importation of Kanaka labour, and the gravity of the evils associated with making this a permanent source of labour supply for the State was appreciated generally. When Queensland entered the Federation it was quite understood that the system would be ended, and that the Commonwealth would make provision for protecting the sugar industry when it was deprived of labour from this admittedly undesirable source. The action which the Commonwealth took will be related in Chapter XXVIII.
Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 285-298
[Editor: Changed “Thecolonies and New Guinea” to “The colonies and New Guinea”.]
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