Australian [Mis]treatment of Indigenous Labour in World War II Papua and New Guinea

By Riseman, Noah | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Australian [Mis]treatment of Indigenous Labour in World War II Papua and New Guinea


Riseman, Noah, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


One of the most enduring images of World War II from Papua New Guinea is the George Silk photograph of a wounded Australian soldier, Private George C. Whittington, being escorted by a Papuan named Raphael Omibari. The photograph, taken in late 1942 during the Buna Campaign, shows the wounded Australian soldier, his eyes bandaged, clearly dependent upon his Papuan companion. The photograph portrays Papua New Guinean loyalty amidst adversity and evokes genuine affection for the Papuan attendant, symbolic of all Papua New Guineans toiling for the allied war cause. (1) Silk's photograph represents much of the mythology surrounding World War II in Papua New Guinea: the injured digger, the difficult trek, and the extraordinary loyalty and support of Papua New Guinean 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels'. (2) Certainly the loyalty of many Papua New Guineans merits praise, and the affection for Papua New Guineans epitomised through Silk's photograph is genuine. Yet it is what Silk's photograph does not depict--the harsh treatment of Papua New Guinean labourers during the war--which has remained on the periphery of Australia's national memory and which is the subject of this article.

As the course of World War II placed increasing labour demands on Papua and New Guinea, the mass employment of Papua New Guineans became vital to the allied war effort. The pamphlet You and the Native, issued to Australian soldiers serving in New Guinea, stated:

   we absolutely need their [natives'] help in order to win. So we may
   have to make them work for us whether they like it or not. That is
   a hard thing. But it will come easier to them, and the work will be
   better, if we try to deserve our prestige and treat them fair. (3)

Another military assessment of New Guinean labour in 1943 declared: '[t]he native is overawed by the white man's powers and regards him as a superior being, adopts a submissive attitude and accepts the European as a superior. It is worth a lot of trouble to maintain this state of affairs'. (4) These documents highlight the Australian government's attitudes towards Papua New Guinean labour during the war. Notwithstanding indigenous people providing critical logistical support, officials continued to position them as compliant labourers. The documents rationalise colonialism by asserting that Papua New Guineans embraced notions of inequality and white supremacy. The 'state of affairs' alluded to really signified continuing Papua New Guinean subservience to white power, conscriptive recruitment tactics, relegation to menial labour tasks, poor living conditions, unequal wages and sometimes even physical abuse.

World War II provided a unique chance to shake up the labour system in Papua and New Guinea. The former Treasurer of Papua even wrote to the armed forces in 1942, declaring 'some things merit correction now, not after the war, where they can be corrected by a military regime'. (5) However, as this article argues, the military did not take the opportunity to overhaul the labour system and instead perpetuated the status quo. A number of scholars have discussed the role of Papua New Guinean labour in World War II, most notably Alan Powell, Hank Nelson, and Neville Robinson. (6) This article differs from their work by focusing specifically on ongoing poor conditions, the abuse of labourers and the role race played in justifying such circumstances. Anthropologists such as David Counts, Marty Zelenietz, Hisafumi Saito, and Carl E. Thune all describe World War II as a brief interlude, after which Australia reimposed the previous unequal relationship between colonisers and colonised. (7) However World War II did not represent even a temporary rupture of colonialism in Papua and New Guinea. Although the war was certainly a watershed in global history, and the ramifications would resonate in Papua New Guinea, during the war, the Papua New Guinean labour conditions magnified the status quo of colonialism through racialisation of labour. …

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