Bismarck Archipelago

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Bismarck Archipelago

The Bismarck Archipelago stretches in a counterclockwise arc northeast of the New Guinea mainland. Comprising the large islands of New Britain and New Ireland, the Admiralty group containing Manus, and many smaller islands, this island sphere is one of the most fertile of the northern Melanesian region. It may also be the "homeland" of the Lapita ceramic culture around 1500 bce, whose migration south and east began the formation of the proto-Polynesian populations.

The colonial history of the Bismarck Archipelago properly begins with the Germans who started copra plantations in the fertile Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain among the Tolai people in the 1870s. In 1884 the German flag was raised in Blanche Bay where Rabaul lies, and the Neu-Guinea Kompagnie, followed by the imperial German government in 1899, began the administration of the region. The Bismarck Archipelago became part of what was known as the "island sphere," which together with the northeastern mainland of New Guinea, the islands of Micronesia, and Western Samoa further south comprised Germany's Pacific empire.

The Germans fought wars of pacification with the Tolai people in the 1890s and appropriated and purchased 40 percent of the arable land. They also fought with the Manus people and groups on New Ireland to establish their rule. Governor Albert Hahl (1868–1945) established the foundations of an orderly administration with local leaders as officials, but relations with regional groups of New Guinea peoples remained haphazard and punitive expeditions were relatively frequent.

In 1914 an Australian naval force occupied German New Guinea, and Rabaul was the center of fighting. A military administration then ruled over the area until the League of Nations awarded Australia a mandate over the former German colony. The islands were then administered in a more commercial manner by Australian planting and trading interests, provoking the first major industrial strike in Rabaul in 1929, until the Japanese invaded in 1942. Australian planters and missionaries were executed or imprisoned, and the local New Guineans were made to work supplying Japan's forces. Many also died in the continual bombings.

After 1945 Australia resumed control of the Bismarck Archipelago and the mainland as a trustee of the United Nations. Not until the 1960s was any radical move made towards independence for the people of New Guinea, and the Tolai people of New Britain played a major role in pressuring Australia, organizing an anticolonial movement, the Mataungan Association, in the 1960s. The people of the Bismarck Archipelago shared with their mainland cousins ninety years of formal colonial rule under three different colonial regimes, the Tolai bearing the brunt of commercial development during that time. They were able to turn economic growth to their advantage and entered independence as the most prosperous and influential group vying for power in the newly independent country of Papua New Guineau.

see also Pacific, European Presence in.


Firth, Stewart. New Guinea Under the Germans. Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1982.

Howe, K. R., Robert C. Kiste, Brij J. Lal, eds. Tides of History: The Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

King, David, and Stephen Ranck, eds. Papua New Guinea Atlas: A Nation in Transition. Bathurst, Australia: R. Brown and the University of Papua New Guinea, 1982.

Moore, Clive. New Guinea: Crossing Boundaries and History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

Ryan, Peter, ed. Encyclopedia of Papua New Guinea, 2 vols. Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1972.