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The New Guinea Mandate : Australia's "sacred trust." Olusanya, Gabriel Olankunle


After the First World War Germany was deprived of her colonies by the Allied Powers. These colonies were then portioned out amongst some of the allied nations under the League of Nations Mandate System with the proviso that they should be held as 'a sacred trust of civilisation' and that the mandatory powers should provide for the 'moral and material well-being and social progress of the native inhabitants'. To help the League in seeing that this task was properly discharged the Permanent Mandates Commission was set up. Its duty was to receive and examine the Annual Reports which were submitted by the mandatories and to make the necessary recommendations to the League Council. Under this arrangement Northern New Guinea was handed over to Australia. This thesis examines the extent to which Australia fulfilled her 'sacred trust'. Australian interest in New Guinea dates from the second half of the nineteenth century, and was motivated by economic and strategic concerns. Since the discovery of the Island of New Guinea in the fifteenth century, there had always been the hope of discovering gold in this area. Apart from this, in the nineteenth century the rivalries amongst the various colonial powers directly affected the Australian colonies, which feared that war between the European powers would involve them as dependencies of Great Britain. The danger to Australian security in case of war would be serious if Germany or any other Great Power was allowed to occupy New Guinea, which lies like a stepping stone off Australia's north-east coast. For these two reasons, Australians were anxious that the part of New Guinea not under Dutch control (Eastern New Guinea) should be annexed by Great Britain. The British, however, had no great desire to further extend their influence in the Pacific without demonstrable cause and as long as there was no indication that any other Great Power was keen on annexing the Territory, Britain was satisfied in leaving it alone. In 1877, with the discovery of gold in the area, the clamour for annexation became more insistent. Although the goldfields soon petered out Australian demands for annexation did not die down. Germany's activities and interests in the Pacific were a constant stimulus to such demands, but the Colonial Office, unwilling to shoulder the burden of annexation and believing that no other Power was interested in the area, turned a deaf ear to all pleas. Eventually Queensland, annoyed with the Colonial Office and fearful of the consequences that might attend Germany's annexation of the Territory, proclaimed it a British protectorate in 1883. Great Britain refused to endorse this action. Nevertheless, as a result of joint pressures from all the Australian colonies and with the guarantee that they were prepared to shoulder the financial burden that might be consequent upon annexation, Whitehall annexed South-eastern New Guinea in 1884 after previously informing Germany of her action. An agreement as to the future of the north-eastern part of the Territory was to be made subject to negotiation between Britain and Germany. Suddenly, and without previous warning, Germany annexed North-eastern New Guinea in October, 1884. This action was greatly resented in Britain because of the offhand method adopted. The Australian colonies were bitterly disappointed and protested unavailingly to the mother country. Australian interest in the area now increased, because the danger to Australia in case of war was greater than ever before. This strategic fear played a significant role in bringing about the union of the six colonies into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. With the outbreak of the First World War, the Australians, acting under the instructions of the British Government, attacked and conquered German New Guinea. After its conquest a considerable campaign was waged in Australia, led by responsible members of Parliament, for the annexation of the Territory. The Australian Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, fought desperately to see this end achieved at the Paris Peace Conference. But he met in President Wilson a determined opponent who was convinced that the former enemy colonial possessions should not be annexed but placed under international control. Hughes had to give way but not until he was assured that the C class mandate under which the Territory was placed was "equivalent to a 999 years lease". The debates on the Peace Treaty in the Australian Parliament clearly showed that the Australians merely accepted the mandate as a compromise and as a cloak to outright annexation. After the War, military administration was ended and civil control was established in New Guinea. Australia faced many difficulties in administering the Territory. These difficulties arose from the rugged nature of the country, the backwardness and diversity of its inhabitants, Australia's lack of experience in governing subject races, and her preoccupation with her own development. Various methods were adopted for the pacification of the Territory but perhaps the chief characteristic was the lack of enthusiasm displayed by the Administration in the task of bringing the Territory under control. The first task was to extend administrative control over the whole Territory but this was slowed down by the inadequacy of the staff devoted to the task. Another problem was that of native administration, in which the New Guinea natives played little or no part at all. This was not the fault of the Australian Government but was due rather to the chaotic nature of New Guinea society and particularly to the absence of any well-organized political institutions and hereditary leaders or chiefs that could be utilized. Economic development and labour questions were also of great importance under the Australian Mandate. Economic activities in New Guinea centred mainly on the production of copra and gold by white settlers, with the natives providing the labour force. This master-servant relationship obviously called for legislative regulation. The Australian Administration realized this and passed a comprehensive Labour Ordinance which, though it contained some objectionable provisions, was on the whole commendable. Despite this, labour conditions in the Territory left much to be desired because of the inability of the Administration to properly enforce the Labour Ordinance. Some of the evils were the products of the indentured labour system which prevailed in the Territory. The Australian Government maintained that this was the most sensible system that could be adopted, taking into consideration the level of advancement of the people. While this is true, the Australian Government failed to encourage free labour with a view to eventually substituting it for indentured labour. Another important task facing the Australian Administration was that of providing education and medical care for the natives. Missionary activities in these fields were quite considerable, but through shortage of staff, lack of funds, and the opposition of the white settlers to any scheme for native betterment, the Administration failed to provide adequate educational and health services for the native inhabitants. After taking into consideration the difficulties encountered by Australia in the task of administering the Territory and analysing her successes and failures, the conclusion seems inescapable that Australia did not adequately discharge the duty entrusted to her under the League of Nations Mandate.

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