Papua New Guineans have been mining and manufacturing stone implements, harvesting oil seeps and using clay for pottery for about 40,000 years, however metals never became part of the indigenous culture. The first reported traces of gold were from pottery collected in Redscar Bay to the west of Port Moresby in 1852.
An expedition to find the source of this gold in 1855 failed when the ship carrying the prospectors was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast. The 1800s was a period of rapid colonial expansion by European powers and in the Pacific this mainly involved Britain, Germany and France with the Netherlands active in southern Asia.
In 1828, fearing British intentions, the western half of the island of New Guinea (west of 141˚ longitude) was claimed by the Governor of the Maluccas, Pieter Merkus, for the Netherlands (Dutch New Guinea). In 1875, the Netherlands Government defined its 1828 claim by fixing 140˚ 47’ east as its eastern boundary.
Various proclamations by British officers taking possession of the eastern portion of New Guinea (Lieutenant C.B. Yule, at Cape Possession in 1846 and Captain Moresby at Hayter Island in 1873) were not acknowledged by the British Government. A claim in 1880 by the Marquis de Rays to the whole of New Guinea and adjacent islands outside the Dutch possession for his free colony of Nouvelle France received no international recognition.
In 1883, Queensland, then a British colony, attempted to secure the territory of New Guinea outside the Dutch possession by proclaiming British sovereignty over the land between 141˚ and 155˚. This action was repudiated by the British Government.
During 1884, Germany annexed the northern half of the eastern side of the island (German New Guinea) and this was quickly followed by Britain’s annexation of the remaining southern half of the island as the British Protectorate of New Guinea (British New Guinea). The boundary between the two possessions was finalised in April 1885.
The British proclamation contained an interesting statement “that all purchase of land from the natives by white men is absolutely prohibited”. This was to have a long lasting impact on the development of the colony and ultimately on the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. This was, in fact, recognition of the indigenous land rights of the inhabitants of the possession and PNG remains almost unique in the developing world in that its indigenous people retain ownership of 97% of their original land.
The other 3% is owned by the State. This simple statement in 1884 set the underlying premise for the drafting of all laws in the country, including laws relating to resources. The recognition of indigenous land rights in German New Guinea was introduced by the Australian administration in 1921 when the former German colony became a Mandated Territory under the League of Nations after the First World War.
The development of PNG as a nation is closely tied to the development of the mining industry. It was the hope of discovering riches in unexplored lands that “opened up” much of the land interior. The miners and missionaries often went first and the administration and development followed.
PNG has suffered the same “boom and bust” times in mining as experienced by many other countries. There have been periods of intense activity, driven by the hope of striking it rich in new lands and by changing commodity prices, followed by periods of little or no activity. The various phases of mining development, which have occurred during the past 120 years, are outlined below.
Several expeditions occurred prior to colonisation. The most notable was a rush in 1878 to the Laloki River near Port Moresby following the discovery of flakes of gold by Andrew Goldie, a storekeeper and trader of Port Moresby. The rush soon failed due to the lack of gold and many of the miners died of malaria.
In 1876 Luigi d’Albertis, together with aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargraves, navigated up the Fly River in a steam launch and found a speck of gold and a specimen of copper at the upper most point of their expedition in the lower Ok Tedi River above its confluence with the Fly River (D’Albertis junction) about 90km directly south of the present day Ok Tedi mine.
1887 to 1914
Most of the mining activity during this period was in British New Guinea later renamed Papua, as the British, then Australian administration from 1905, saw gold mining as a valuable source of revenue. The German administration (Neuguinea-Kompagnie) in German New Guinea was more focused on commercial agriculture and scientific endeavours than prospecting and as a result, there was little mining activity. The first significant gold discovery in Papua was made on Sudest Island, Milne Bay in 1888 by David Whyte who returned to Cooktown in North Queensland with over 142oz.
Gold on the Palmer goldfield to the west of Cooktown was getting hard to find and a rush to Sudest soon followed with 200 miners on the field by end of 1888 and 400 a year later. The gold on Sudest was easily won by ground sluicing however this required permanent supplies of water. The distinct wet and dry season on the island soon caused miners to seek riches elsewhere.
William McGregor (later Sir William), the British Administrator, used HMS Swinger to transport miners wanting to prospect on nearby islands and by 1889 gold had been found on Misima. In 1895, when word reached the miners on Misima Island that Lobb and Ede, traders and prospectors, had won a ‘half billy can’ of gold from a creek on Woodlark Island another gold rush ensued.
The Murua goldfield was declared that year and by 1897, 400 miners were working, but that number soon dwindled to 160 by 1898 as the easy, shallow gold was worked out and malaria took its toll
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