Australasian Spartacist No. 234
Australian Colonial Terror in PNG
19 January 2018
I appreciated the article “Full Citizenship Rights for Manus, Nauru refugees!” (Australasian Spartacist no 233, Summer 2017/18) that refers to the re-imposition of Australian colonial rule in Papua New Guinea (PNG) at the end of World War II as consisting of “punitive expeditions, massacres and the burning of villages.”
Pith-helmeted overseers enforcing slave-labour conditions in the mines and on the plantations, savage reprisals inspired by hysterical fantasies of black men menacing white women (the plight of black women, very often coerced by white men, did not get any air play)—the administration in the colony had a long history that was particularly mean, vicious and nasty.
Contrary to widely-held perceptions, Japanese military success in 1941-42 saw significant elements of local populations across the Southwest Pacific and the Indian Ocean initially welcome them as liberators from white colonial rule. Collaboration was not uncommon—examples include proto-nationalists such as Embogi in PNG and Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in South Asia. In Timor the Australian Sparrow Force wrought havoc among villagers sympathetic to Japanese forces before they were forced to flee, abandoning their collaborators on the beach. The new masters did, however, eventually prove that they would act no more in the interest of the masses than their predecessors.
In April 1942, the Curtin Labor government established the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), whose Commandant had “supreme control of all territorial affairs.” ANGAU quickly began press-ganging villagers for dangerous and dirty, heavy work as carriers for the Army (the so-called “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”). Vincent Eri’s novel The Crocodile is worth reading in regard to this period.
Among its other activities ANGAU, between July 1943 and April 1945, officially executed at least 40 “collaborators” across the islands. Andrew Chalk in The King’s Reward says that, supported by the churches and former civil authorities, it was “the Army’s way of announcing the return of the old order”—the white man was back. Local villagers were forcibly assembled to witness the hangings that included very old men and young boys, the executioners proclaiming to each of the condemned, “the King has asked me to give you a reward.”
Chalk goes on to cite summary executions, one serviceman recalling “it was the Australians too who took apart entire villages, men, women and children and shot them one by one for collaborating—not dead but through the legs so they could go in afterwards and bayonet them to death.”
The PNG hangings are, as a percentage of national population, the highest in the world. Only Belgium even came close, but then the Belgians ruled the Congo in very like manner, a rule so eloquently captured by Mark Twain in his 1906 King Leopold’s Soliloquy.
During World War II and after, Labor controlled the Treasury Benches, presiding over the rebuilding of white colonial rule in PNG. It is perhaps here, in the administration of Australia’s premier colony, that the real character of these “humanist” social democrats is most starkly evident.