Chapter by Chapter Overview

The Administrator of New Guinea, Brigadier General Evan Wisdom, in trying to discourage Australians rushing to the goldfields in 1926, wrote:

A poor man’s field in Australia is understood to be a field to which a man without anything can go with his swag and live by the gold he gets from the field; he is not dependent on anyone helping him. He can go out with a swag and a tin of ‘dog’ and get enough gold to keep him going. But you must have natives here to help you, and money to pay them, money to carry you there, and on when you get there; therefore it is not a poor man’s field.

The title conveys a sense of why this goldfield was so different to any other and encapsulates a theme that re-emerges throughout the book and prevails to this day.


Not a Poor Man's Field

The New Guinea Goldfields to 1942:
An Australian Colonial History


Explanatory Note



21 January 1942: Japanese zeros destroy three Junkers G31 air freighters at Bulolo, marking the end of an extraordinary but little known era in Australian and PNG history.

Part 1 Discovery

1. Dreams of gold
The Spanish and 'Isla del Oro'. New Guinea a German colony from 1884. In 1910, Arthur Darling, an illegal prospector, discovered gold in wild, unexplored country, but was attacked by villagers. Other Australian prospectors crossed the border from Papua. Some confirmed Darling's discovery, but never told the Germans.

2. The search for Koranga Creek
Mining not permitted by new Australian Administration until 1923. Shark-Eye Park knew location of Darling's discovery. He and a mate found their way to Koranga Creek and began mining. District Officer Cecil Levien found them, but instead of confiscating their gold, helped them and began planning his own mining activities.

3. Hard times
In 1924 Levien pegged leases in lower Bulolo valley, believing they could be developed with hydro-electric power, with planes used to transport dredge machinery. But Australian investors unsympathetic to Levien's grand vision. 1925 hard times on the field. January 1926 discovery of gold at Edie Creek – 20 ounces to the dish.

Part 2 Transition

4. The rush
Administration confusion over grant of leases to the Edie Creek discoverers. Levien stirred up trouble to build publicity in Australia and attract investors for his leases. 1926 gold rush; Administration ill-prepared. Dysentery epidemic. Miners' protests. The sniff of another Eureka. Royal Commission into Administrator's actions.

5. Not a poor man's field   
Though Edie Creek only 32 miles inland, it was a six to eight day struggle over a tortuous track. 8 men needed to work each claim with 16 carriers to keep them supplied with stores. Each miner needed £1,000.  Edie Creek a cold, wet, miserable place; many labourers died from overwork, over-exposure and an inadequate diet.

6. Companies and capital   
Early individual miners replaced by company promoters, some honest, some not. 1927 rich reef discovered at Edie Creek; a new rush. Growing company involvement. Levien's leases transferred to Guinea Gold, but it was close to failing when Placer Development acquired option over its southern leases in 1928. Ellyou Goldfields Development Corporation acquired options over 8 square miles.

7. Transport trials and tribulations
Placer's option proved rich, but transport a major obstacle. Administration equivocated over whether to have a road and, if so, which route it should take. Late 1929, Placer opted to sectionalise dredges and fly them in on large Junkers G31 aircraft. Ellyou's operating company New Guinea Goldfields (NGG) unsuccessfully tried alternative transport solutions.

8. Gearing up     
NGG focused on testing and developing infrastructure for large scale mining. In 21 months Placer's operating company Bulolo Gold Dredging (BGD) constructed an aerodrome and flew everything in on two planes for construction of power station and first dredge, which began operating on 21 March 1932. Cecil Levien never saw his vision realised; he died a few weeks earlier of meningitis.

Part 3 Growth and Development

9. No stone unturned: the BGD story 
From its first two dredges in 1932, BGD expanded its operations to eight dredges by 1938, producing 1.3 million ounces of gold and 576,000 ounces of silver from 119 million cubic yards of gravel. Contributed nearly 25% of the Administration's revenue in 1930s. BGD's success due to rising gold price, ability to manage the risks of a large scale mining operation in a remote tropical location, a strongly loyal white workforce and contented indentured labourers.

10. The ebb and flow of fortunes  
For NGG the 1930s was a decade of disappointment. Its grand vision did not include a plan to integrate and work widely scattered leases cost-effectively. Poor performance always blamed on others. Three other companies demonstrated how modestly capitalised but well run companies could be profitable. From 1932 to 1941, BGD accounted for 70% of gold produced, NGG 20%, the remaining 10% split more or less equally between smaller mining companies and individual miners.

Part 4 A highway in the sky: the role of Aviation

11. Golden airways
In late 1927 there were four single engine plywood biplanes, mostly ex-WW1 bombers, designed neither for freight nor climate. Guinea Airways imported aluminium Junkers W34s which flew more in two months than all planes in Australia in previous eight years. Highly profitable. Competitors led by unconventional Ray Parer. Storms and clouds with 'hard centres' made flying difficult. Pilots carried revolvers to protect themselves against 'cannibals' if forced down.

12. World aviation records   
Aerial support for mining never before been attempted on such a scale. Between 1931 and 1938, aeroplanes in New Guinea flew half as much freight as all planes in Canada, Germany, USA, UK and France combined and 20 times that flown in Australia. The large Junkers G31 aircraft, particularly 'Peter' and 'Paul', flew many trips daily. Pilots embraced the challenges they faced; nothing was impossible.

Part 5 The New Guinean experience

13. Early Encounters: the European perspective
Early miners generally treated villagers well, but in 1926 carriers stole food from the gardens of the Biangai, who reacted, killing several. Punitive expedition: the Kaisinik killings. By 1929, miners were encountering the Kukukuku, renowned for their volatile nature and fierce resistance. Administration did little to prepare for trouble. 1931 miner Hellmuth Baum murdered, with seven carriers.

14. 'Pacification' of the Kukukuku
Administration determined to arrest villagers responsible and to suppress resistance. Three patrols sent to the area where Baum was killed; one killed every man, woman and child in one village. Police posts were established but two more miners killed in 1933, and another in 1934. Each precipitated conflict and deaths of many villagers. An uneasy peace settled, but Kukukuku remained uncontrolled up to the War.

15. Early Encounters: the New Guinean perspective   
Kukukuku believed Europeans to be spirits of dead ancestors. Initial reactions ranged from curiosity to fear. Responses reflected their belief systems, of which Europeans knew little. The outcome of contact situations depended on many factors which were difficult for Europeans to predict. Villagers believed all strangers were enemies and Europeans believed villagers were unpredictable and treacherous.

16. "If the native is to be uplifted…"    
Administration believed indentured labour system would transform warriors into workers and was key to economic and social progress. In 1930s, mining was the main source of growth in labour, although there were many desertions. The need by mining companies for a more experienced workforce meant labourers stayed away longer and became more skilled. Village ties loosened. Villages sometimes closed to recruiting, but otherwise the Administration paid little heed to the effects of the labour system on village life.

17. The Shadow Battalion – The Indentured Labourers' Experience
The impact of the indentured labour system on traditional village life was considerable. On the goldfields living conditions were good and working conditions hard but generally fair. Labourers usually returned to their villages healthier, with money and material possessions, an expanded view of life in the outside world, but with needs or wants that were not easily fulfilled thereafter.

Part 6 Life and death on the goldfields

18. The 1920s: Isolation and mateship
Strong bonds of mateship, trust and honesty evident among the early miners, many of whom were WW1 returned servicemen. Some others (Errol Flynn) pushed the boundaries. Death a constant companion; miners' humour black and sardonic. The number of Europeans was very small with barely embryonic townships. By 1931 the rough frontier character of the field was changing, with more regular supplies, better health and a reduced feeling of isolation.

19.  The 1930s: Small miners, small planes and small 'dromes
New wave of miners with rising gold price after 1932, but debt and hope were still constant companions. Miners denied the pleasure of intimate company of white women. But three women provided emotional support as well as practical assistance. Rigours of life alleviated by small biplanes flying in with fresh food and supplies to landing grounds carved out of the jungle. Approaches involved dodging ridges or hills before landing on short, uneven surfaces with little room for error.

20. The 1930s: Township life - A slightly manic existence     
The 1930s saw the rapid transformation of the Morobe goldfields from a frontier society dominated by miners to a more diverse community with many more women, though the European inhabitants numbered no more than an average Australian country town. Residents sought to recreate their Australian life through Anzac Day, sport and dances. The intensity with which such activities were pursued suggested a slightly manic existence.

21. Race relations on the goldfields
Native Administration Regulations enforced racial segregation little different to apartheid in South Africa. A growing concern that existing social structures were breaking down led to more restrictions on New Guineans. The murder of a European woman in 1941 led to a rising crescendo of antagonism, cut short only by the outbreak of war. The White Australia policy was enforced vigorously, the Chinese subject to a wide range of restrictions. But their relatively small numbers and model behaviour limited anti-Chinese sentiment on the goldfields.

22. The coming of war
In September 1939, New Guinea was defenceless. Small part time voluntary defence force, New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, formed but in December 1941, still numbered only 175 on the mainland. The Japanese had quietly gathered intelligence on New Guinea's infrastructure and on 21 January 1942, attacked Lae, Salamaua and Bulolo. Scorched earth policy. NGVR destroyed all BGD's infrastructure except the dredges. ANGAU formed. Inexperienced leader of newly formed Kanga Force panicked, destroying everything else. Of the vibrant goldfield towns, nothing remained.

Part 7 Administration of New Guinea between the wars

23. How could so much go so wrong?
The Commonwealth required New Guinea to be financially self-supporting. Small grants were cancelled out by some dubious transactions. While required to promote the material and moral well-being and social progress of the inhabitants, resources were largely allocated to revenue generating activities. Progress limited in health, education and agriculture. New investment in agricultural, timber and pastoral industries not encouraged by provision of ports and roads. Instead of the incremental change it desired, the Administration unleashed dynamic changes at the village level.

Part 8 After the War

24. Decline and renewal
Road to the coast changed pattern of post-war development. Salamaua abandoned, Bulolo thrived, Wau never regained former glory. Rising costs forced dredge closures as early as 1949, the last one in 1965. Commonwealth New Guinea Timbers; the last part of Levien's vision fulfilled. Golden Peaks a major producer. NGG struggled on to 1991. Reminders of mining era abound, including the rusting, skeletal remains of three dredges. New mine at Hidden Valley. A new cycle begins.


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Click here for a list of corrections to the book - updated November 2011.