The Battle of Bitapaka

European arrivals in Melanesia


The Portuguese and the Spanish were the first Europeans to visit the area of what is now Indonesia/New Guinea in the early 1500s. Both these powers competed for the trade and the expansion of their own national power base. During this period many ships passed along the northern shores of New Guinea without realizing its importance.

The Dutch arrived in 1606 and again in 1623 and explored the area to the east and north of New Guinea. William Dampier, flying the English flag arrived in 1700 and landed on and named the island of “New Britain” was followed several years later in 1766 by Carteret who named the island of “New Ireland”. He took possession of this land and the surrounding islands in the name of the King of England.

Captain James Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 and sailed along the southern coast of New Guinea. Captain William Bligh in the HMS Providence also sailed in this region and took possession in the name of King George III of England. The East India Trading Company sent ships to explore and to take possession of territories and did in fact set up a base in western New Guinea with British troops for about six months.

The French turned up in 1769 (La Perouse) and in 1793 another French expedition surveyed areas of the islands to the east. The next French intrusion in 1827 surveyed the northeast coast of New Guinea. The British returned and continued to map the islands and claim possession.

The Australian colonies and New Zealand had, during the 1800s, requested the British to exercise sovereign rights over the area of New Guinea to prevent any European powers from claiming the area for themselves. They were told that no foreign power was contemplating such a move. By 1875, Germany, through the voyages of the HIMS Gazelle, had surveyed the coast, named and probably claimed possession of Bougainville, and parts of New Britain. The colony of Queensland in 1882-83 tried to annex all of the area which was not held by the Dutch including the adjacent islands. The British government rejected this and Germany moved in and took possession of the northern coast of New Guinea and the adjacent islands. [Extracted in part from entry at I RAR First Battalion Association: German New Guinea: 1st Battalion ANMEF 1914.]

Under British Prime Minister Gladstone, Britain welcomed Germany, under Chancellor Bismarck, belatedly becoming a colonizing power: “our ally and partner in the execution of ┬áthe great purposes of Providence for the advantage of all mankind.” [See Paul Ham: 1914 The Year the World ended, Heinemann, 2013 pp27-32]

In 1884 Germany sent four ships of war to the New Guinea area and on 3 November 1884 the German flag was raised at Matupi in New Britain. During the next month Germany took possession of Mioko in the Duke of York group, Madang and Finsch Harbour. In 1886 Germany took possession of Bougainville and Buka in the Solomon Islands. With British approval, Commander Erskine on 6 November 1884, proclaimed the South East quarter of the island, the Protectorate of British New Guinea (later Papua).