Symposium: Rethinking Decolonization in Papua New Guinea
Organizer: Alex Golub, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Co-Organizer: Courtney Handman, University of Texas at Austin (email@example.com)
It is time to rethink common narratives of decolonization in Papua New Guinea’s, to recognize the limits of current histories of Papua New Guinea’s independence movement, and draw on new developments in history and anthropology to reimagine Papua New Guinea’s past and continuing relationship with Australia today.
To greatly simplify, there are two major narratives of Papua New Guinea’s transition to independence, what might be called the ‘proud independence’ narrative and the ‘never a colony’ narrative. The ‘proud independence’ narrative is typical of stories which emerged across the globe during the ‘decolonizing era’ following World War II: A nation achieves independence for its citizens, charts its own course and, once free of the influence of the colonizer, moved forward in history. This story of nationhood, patriotism, and unity (or, in Papua New Guinea’s case, ‘unity in diversity’) was well-studied in the nationalism literature of the 1990s (e.g. Foster, ed. 1996). The second, ‘never a colony’ narrative takes its name from the first chapter of Hank Nelson’s Taim Blo Masta (1982). The Australians whom Nelson interviewed in the book emphasized the essentially benevolent nature of the administration, insisting that Papua New Guinea was ‘never a colony’ to be exploited by Australia. Rather, Australians worked to develop the country and, indeed, to give it independence. On this account, decolonization was largely a process of Australia’s gradual retreat, rather than Papua New Guineans’ growing political agency (see also Denoon 2012). A corollary of this narrative is a sense that Papua New Guinea’s independence came ‘too soon’ and its current problems are a result of an over-eager desire for independence. These narratives are in tension with each other: The ‘proud independence’ narratives sees the ‘never a colony’ narrative as down-playing the impact of colonialism, while exponents of the ‘never a colony’ narrative argue that stories of proud independence inaccurately and unfairly erase the contributions of Australians to Papua New Guinea.
Both of these narratives are incomplete. Both assume the end goal of an autonomous nation-state in advance. This assumption accords poorly with the diversity of both Australian and Papua New Guinean perspectives of decolonization, both during Papua New Guinea’s colonial history and throughout its postcolonial present. In this special issue we seek to use historical and anthropological evidence to open up spaces for new narratives of decolonization, alternative models for how the relationships among Papua New Guineans, Australian administrations, Australian citizens, Christian missions, or international organizations have been conceptualized. We believe that there are new scholarly tools which can be used to center and highlight less-heard or submerged histories of Papua New Guinea’s independence period.