Papua New Guineans Reconstructing Their Histories: The Pacific War Revisited

By Ritchie, Jonathan | Oceania, July 2017 | Go to article overview

Papua New Guineans Reconstructing Their Histories: The Pacific War Revisited


Ritchie, Jonathan, Oceania


ABSTRACT

This article discusses the project to record interviews with Papua New Guineans about their experiences of the Pacific War between 1942 and 1945, which was very much a critical juncture in the course of Papua New Guinean history. It examines how Papua New Guineans' encounters with the War that devastated their land have been portrayed, and suggests that an exploration featuring Papua New Guineans in the telling of their own experiences with the War derives from the argument by the late Epeli Hau'ofa that they should be active participants in the reconstruction of their histories and the creation of their realities.

Keywords: history, Papua New Guinea, World War II, Epeli Hau'ofa, Oceania.

INTRODUCTION

This article develops ideas that were first and tentatively explored at the 2015 biennial conference of the German Anthropological Association on 'Crises: reconfigurations of life, power and worlds', held at Marburg University. I had gone to Marburg, fresh from a period of living and working in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG). While in PNG, I had been coordinating an oral history-based research exercise looking at the memories of Papua New Guineans who lived in the vicinity of the Kokoda Trail, the location of an important campaign in the Pacific War, and was planning another one which would see similar research being conducted in other parts of the country. This was an exercise long in buildup and long overdue, with most of the people who had been active participants in the War, or whose lives had been directly affected by it, now dead. Nevertheless, its importance continues to be recognized, and the PNG and the Australian governments had approved a pilot study to proceed in late 2013 (see International Work 2014:26). Although my task was to coordinate the project, from its outset the exercise was predicated on the active involvement of Papua New Guineans in the researching, recording, and retelling of their own history of this critical event.

The Pacific War, which lasted from late 1941 until September 1945, was a time of great significance in the history of the people of Oceania. As Lindstrom and White (1989:4) have remarked, the War was 'a watershed event in the history of the Pacific region' which 'left deep and enduring marks on postwar history and culture'. Its impact on the people of PNG was both profound and pervasive. It was catastrophic in those locations where fighting and devastation took place; and even away from the shooting and bombing, the presence of thousands upon thousands of outsiders--Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, and Americans--for up to 4 years brought upheaval, with ramifications that continue to be experienced to this day. Hank Nelson estimated that around one-and-a-half million foreigners had come to PNG by the War's end in 1945, where in 1939 there had been 'fewer than 8000' non-Indigenous residents. Two hundred thousand died during the conflict (Nelson 2007:73).

The War was undoubtedly an extended period of crisis for PNG, and it can also be seen as a critical juncture for its inhabitants. For many, the level of disruption surpassed anything experienced before aside from natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. The attempts by European missionaries, traders, and administrators to bring PNG into the colonial world suffered a serious setback with the hurried departure of colonial authority, while the arrival of thousands of foreign soldiers introduced a time of ferment when previous certainties, including about race, autonomy, and sovereignty, began to be questioned. If the upheaval brought about by War failed to result in an immediate change in policy following some ideational change, there is little doubt that the changes caused at least some Papua New Guineans who were caught up in the War to question their status and relationship with their erstwhile colonial masters. …

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