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- March 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This article forms the final part of a trilogy covering the history of the Solomon Islands and Bougainville Island. Part 1 discussing the Solomon Islands from European discovery to the Second World War appeared in the March 2020 edition of this magazine, and Part 2 addressing the history of the Solomon Islands from the end of the Second World War to the present occurred in the December 2020 edition.
The Bougainville group are one of the most picturesque islands in the southwest pacific with a human occupation dating back about 30,000 years yet they remained in virtual isolation until European intervention. We set out to explore them and their more recent development.
Louis Antoine Comte de Bougainville
Nowadays the name Bougainville is associated with a thorny rambling South American bush covered with many blooms in exotic colours, and a troublesome island somewhere in the Pacific. More than two centuries ago when the French announced their interest in the Pacific they sent for Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a 37-year-old soldier turned sailor. He had served as a colonel under Montcalm when Canada was lost to Britain, and as a naval commander, assisting the American Revolutionary cause leading to the loss to Britain of its American colonies. He had also claimed the Îles Melouines (Falkland Islands) for France before they were ceded to Spain.
The Bougainville expedition of two well provisioned ships, the frigate Boudeuse and corvette Étoile, set out from Nantes in northern France on 15 November 1766. Their circumnavigation added much to the knowledge of the Pacific islands and greatly improved the charting of these largely unknown regions. When approaching the Great Barrier Reef, they were hampered by storms and high seas preventing them surveying the coast and claiming the Great South Land for France. Retracing their steps, they passed through the Solomon Islands where attempts to approach were thwarted by hostile natives. On 6 July 1768, desperately short of fresh water, without wood for fuel, and lacking fresh fruit and vegetables, they came across an island which was seemingly uninhabited where they anchored in a fine bay with a sandy beach, without rocks or surf.
The next day an armed party was sent ashore which pitched tents for the recovery of those sick with scurvy, filled water casks and took in wood which was good for fuel and some excellent pieces for the carpenters to make repairs. Exploring further inshore they discovered a native boat with outriggers, two huts with the remains of fires, sea shells, animal skeletons and some fresh bananas. But during their stay they saw no local inhabitants. One sailor died from complications of disorders, without any mixture of scurvy and is buried here. Otherwise fully restored they left this pleasant land now known as Bougainville on 23 July 1768 making for New Guinea before returning home.
The Bougainville expedition returned to St Malo on 16 March 1769. The first French circumnavigation of the globe was heralded a great success especially as from the total complement of 340 men (one woman was disguised as a man) only seven succumbed to illness which was an unheard of low level of casualties for those times. This was attributed to the enlightened management of this remarkable expedition. Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a contemporary of James Cook, who also made his name in Canada at the same time as Bougainville, was an intellectually gifted soldier and sailor who should be held in similar high regard.
Development and Colonisation
The Solomons were among the last regions on Earth to be colonised by Europeans. In part this was because their inhabitants had a fearsome reputation as cannibals and their produce was seen of limited value. The exception was cheap labour mainly for plantations in Queensland’s cane fields, with a trade in human cargoes with more than a passing resemblance to slavery, known as ‘blackbirding’.
Prior to the discoveries of Bougainville and Cook, New Britain, New Ireland and the Solomon Isles were thought to be one and the same. This perhaps explains some poorly orchestrated plans for colonialisation promoted by the nobleman and adventurer the Marquis de Rays, of dreamlike destinations abounding with riches. A number of ships taking unsophisticated migrants were fitted out between 1870 and 1880 which landed in La Nouvelle France (New Ireland). The results were disastrous with many dying from disease and starvation. The survivors, much poorer for their experience, were eventually brought to New Caledonia and New South Wales to restart their lives.
About equidistant between New Britain and Bougainville are the relatively small Green Islands. British and American whaling vessels called here for fresh water, wood and food supplies in the 19th century. The first recorded visit was in 1837 and the last in 1881. These islands now fall under the jurisdiction of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
With European competition for influence in the Pacific in 1884 Kaiser-Wilhelmsland (New Guinea) became a German protectorate with other island groups added the following year, comprising Neu Pomerania (New Britain) Neu Mecklenburg (New Ireland) plus Bougainville and Buka. Under the 1899 Tripartite Convention the Samoan Islands were divided between American and German interests and in return Germany ceased its claims upon Tonga and the southern Solomon Islands. A sub text of the Convention was consideration of adjacent French outposts and the Pacific trading aspirations of Australia and New Zealand.
In 1884 a protectorate was declared over British New Guinea and in 1902 the protectorate was placed under the administration of the Commonwealth of Australia under the name of Papua.
The first European presence on Bougainville is likely to be from recruiters who were active from the 1880s. When accurate records were established in 1907 about 1,000 natives a year were being recruited from Bougainville and Buka which continued until 1914. This allowed for plantations to be established in Bougainville and throughout the Solomons which were controlled by both German and British/Australian interests. According to German colonial reports Bougainvillean warriors taken away from their home environment became excellent labourers and were reliable policemen.
It was not until 1901 that any form of colonial rule came to these islands when a Marist mission was established at Kieta in southern Bougainville. In 1903 the naval vessel Cormoran called at Kieta to add support to the authority of the mission. Finally, in 1905 the colonial government opened an administrative office close to the mission under the enlightened Dr August Doellinger.
After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Australian troops captured Kaiser-Wilhelmsland with the Australian takeover formalised by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The Commonwealth assumed a mandate from the League of Nations for governing the former German territory of New Guinea (including Bougainville) in 1920 and this continued until the Japanese invasion in January 1942.
The period from 1914 to 1920 covered by Australian military rule was one of unrest with inadequate supervision by those unsuited to the task. With return to civilian administration and the flourishment of mission schools the position began to improve. In 1921 Bougainville had an estimated population of 47,000 with Australian administration operating from Kieta, an outpost of 119 men and 29 women plus a 45 strong native police force. It was mainly a plantation economy built by the Germans which was enlarged by Australian ex-servicemen with limited experience. Gold was discovered in central parts of the island in the 1930s and small scale deposits were worked until WWII.
The Second World War
With news of the Japanese capture of Rabaul on 23 January 1942 the Kieta administration was abandoned, leading to an orgy of looting and destruction. While advanced parties from Japanese forces quickly entered Kieta it was to be another six months before they returned and consolidated their positions. At first the Bougainvilleans welcomed the Japanese but they soon discovered they were less tolerant masters than the Australians.
In early March 1942 the Japanese landed at Buka Island which is separated by a narrow strait from Bougainville, where they first established an airfield, followed by another airfield at Buin in southern Bougainville. Smaller bases were also established at Kieta and Mawaraka on the west coast. Almost immediately they suffered American air attacks and incorrectly believed the elderly Coastwatcher Percy Good had broken his parole and he was executed – the reports were in fact sent by fellow Coastwatcher Jack Read from his hideout overlooking Buka Strait. The Japanese garrison in Bougainville grew considerably to about 40,000 troops of the XVII Army plus 7,000 naval personnel at the Tonolei naval base near Buin.
With the Allies having broken Japanese codes they had advance warning of certain military operations which included an inspection by Admiral Yamamoto of his forces in Bougainville. On 18 April 1943 after leaving Rabaul for Buin two Mitsubishi Betty Bombers and three escorting Zeros flying low over the jungle were attacked by four American Lightning fighters. In less than five minutes all enemy aircraft were shot down with the loss of one American aircraft. One of the Bettys carried the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and four of his staff. The Admiral’s body was recovered, cremated, and the ashes returned to Tokyo for an impressive public funeral. Post-war interrogation of senior officers confirmed that his death produced an unbelievable blow to the morale of Japanese military forces.
At dawn on 1 November 1943, after preliminary bombing of enemy positions, an Amphibious Force of 12 transports, carrying 14,300 troops of the 3rd Marine Division, with an escort of 11 destroyers plus minesweepers, landed on the beaches at Cape Torokina, Empress Augusta Bay. While the Americans suffered casualties caused by artillery and machine gun fire and air attacks, the landing was a success with the establishment of a secure foothold on the island. By Christmas Day 1943 the Americans had completed a large airstrip near Cape Torokina from which they could strike at both enemy forces on Bougainville and the main base at Rabaul.
The Japanese had established a lightly fortified staging base for barges on Green Island which brought supplies from Rabaul to the Bougainville garrison. On 15 February 1944 Green Island was attacked by a vastly superior United States and New Zealand force resulting in the capture of the islands and the establishment of two airstrips and a patrol boat base. Serving as a supply officer at this base was Lieutenant Richard Nixon USNR – later to become the 37th President of the United States.
On 8 March 1944 the Japanese launched a counterattack at Empress Augusta Bay with 15,000 troops having scrambled over many miles of tortuous countryside with virtually no roads. The Americans had prepared heavily fortified positions supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft. Despite a series of savage attacks, the enemy were repulsed losing about 5,000 men to the American losses of 263.
In November 1944 the situation in Bougainville had reached a stalemate. Despite air superiority and heavy bombardments, the enemy could not be dislodged from their mountain retreats. The Japanese became masters of camouflage by hiding their remaining aircraft beneath the jungle canopy, and huge craters caused by bombing of their runways were quickly filled with crushed coral. With the enemy causing little or no threat and the Americans not wishing to unnecessarily incur further casualties a decision was made to withdraw their forces and insert them in the final push towards Japan.
With an unofficial truce there was a policy of live-and-let live pursued by both sides. From later interrogations the Japanese were in dire straits because of a lack of re-supply, excepting for very limited amount of stores being brought in at night by submarines. Approximately 30% of their forces were sick, and to overcome starvation another 35% were employed in gardens to provide food, and another 15% were involved in primitive transportation; only about 20% could be employed in forward areas on front line duties.
Arrival of the Australian Armed Forces
When the Americans departed for the final push to the Philippines and Japan their positions were backfilled by Australian forces. While headquarters staff first arrived in October 1944 the majority of troops arrived on 15 December 1944 in 18 transports including HMA Ships Manoora, Kanimbla and Westralia escorted by six American destroyers. The Americans had left behind a well-established base providing a greater level of comfort than Australian troops had previously known. Accommodation huts had folding beds, showers and bathrooms. Food was plentiful and with refrigeration came ice-cream and soft drinks. Added to this were educational, recreational and sporting amenities. This was a holiday camp, not what the Australian General Staff wanted. They now had a large and well supplied army to defeat the enemy; and politically an Australian Government felt that active fighting would strengthen their position in forthcoming peace treaty negotiations. The Australian Second Corps which served in Bougainville comprised 30,000 men, roughly equal in manpower to that of the current Australian Permanent Army.
It was not long before the unofficial peace was over with Australian patrols breaking into enemy held territory, followed by larger incursions including the use of tanks. The Japanese were at a loss to account for the Australian aggression in actions that would have no bearing on the course of the war and were therefore pointless. However, these provided live field training for another generation of young warriors.
This final phase of the campaign lasted until August 1945 when surrender terms were agreed. During the eight months of the Australian offensive in Bougainville the Japanese, who with depleted resources were unable to effectively counterattack, suffered immensely with an estimated 8,500 dying in conflict and a further 9,800 dying from deprivation and sickness. The total Australian troop losses were 516 killed and 1,572 wounded.
HMAS Lusair, a small naval base no more than a Quonset hut surrounded by a cluster of palm trees, was established here where the renowned ‘father’ of coastwatchers, Commander Eric Feldt, was briefly Commanding Officer and Naval Officer in Charge Torokina.
HMAS Diamantina proceeded deep into enemy territory to Moila Point off southern Bougainville to rendezvous with a launch which held Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda – Commander Japanese XVII Army and Vice Admiral Tomoshiga Samejima – Commander Japanese 8th Naval Forces Fleet plus staff. They boarded Diamantina for passage to Torokina where they disembarked on 8 September 1945 and signed the formal instrument of surrender of Japanese Forces (approximately 23,000 soldiers, sailors and labourers surrendered) on the island to Lieutenant General Stanley Savige, General Officer Commanding Australian Second Corps.
Post War Development
In 1949 the Territory of New Guinea, including Bougainville joined with Papua, forming the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, a United Nations Trust Territory under Australian administration, although many would argue with insufficient preparation. On 16 September 1975 political independence was granted to Papua New Guinea. However, on 11 September 1975, in a failed bid for self-determination, Bougainville declared itself the Republic of North Solomons. Failing to achieve international recognition, in a settlement reached in August 1976, Bougainville was absorbed into PNG but with an increased level of self-government.
The discovery of vast copper ore deposits in Bougainville’s Crown Prince Range in 1969 led to the establishment of the huge Panguan Mine by a subsidiary of the Australian company Conzinc Rio Tinto. The mine began production in 1972 with the PNG central government as a 20% shareholder from which Bougainvilleans received 0.5 – 1.25% share of the total profits. The mine provided over 45% of PNG’s natural export revenue and was incredibly important to the economy.
Before the mine opened some locals began to resist the imposition by what they regarded as a colonial regime and to assert more of an independent status seeking a form of autonomy. A complex system of land ownership through matrilineal inheritance does not sit easily with Western concepts of land tenure and causes immense difficulties as it was necessary to resettle some from their traditional homes.
The mining operation in remote mountainous country lacking infrastructure was, while technically challenging, conducted with care and considered highly efficient. The ore was produced in a concentrate slurry which was pumped to a custom built east coast port for shipment to overseas smelters. Initially the major customers were Japan, Germany and Spain, subsequentially expanded to include China and South Korea. A new township to house workers was constructed at Arawa with many modern amenities. At its peak the mine provided employment for 3,500 people of which 80% were from PNG and of these a third were locals.
Bougainvillean leaders alleged the mine delivered adverse environmental consequences being responsible for poisoning the entire length of the Jaba River which led to birth defects and the loss of native habitat. They also complained of apartheid with preference given to PNG and white workers. Frustrated at lack of progress in negotiations with the mining company, in 1988 a local landowner Francis Ona took to the jungle and formed a militia. He was joined by former soldier Sam Kaona who led the military operations of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army which resulted in a civil war, accounting for an estimated 15,000 deaths – this most likely includes many attributed to disease. Mine production halted in May 1989 leading to a complete closure of the mine in March 1990. The revolt was essentially a dispute by traditional landowners over receiving very little in compensation from this lucrative mining operation.
The conflict resulted in the PNG Government imposing a blockade on the island using helicopters and patrol vessels supplied by the Australian Government and with additional support to the PNG Armed Forces. With the PNG Government exasperated by the long running civil war they looked elsewhere for hard-line support leading to the hire of mercenaries in what became known as the Sandline Affair. Widely condemned by a hostile Australian media, the agreement to hire mercenaries was dropped and this in turn eventually led to the collapse of the central PNG Government. In 1997 a peace settlement brokered by New Zealand led to Bougainville becoming an autonomous region within the framework of the Papua New Guinea constitution. An Australian peacekeeping force was maintained in Bougainville until August 2013 and the island continues to enjoy considerable Australian aid.
A referendum held in November/December 2019 showed 98% of voters in favour of Bougainville becoming an independent country. This has led to negotiations between the Autonomous Bougainville Government and the central PNG Government. These negotiations are expected to be protracted.
Bougainville has been called one of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific and it is therefore an unfortunate indictment that this potential paradise should remain divided by conflict, unable to reach its potential. In hindsight a civil war could have been avoided by a more tolerant and experienced society, but as nationhood had only recently come to Papua New Guinea, this was not to be.
Bougainvilleans are dark skinned peoples with pronounced differences to their PNG cousins; possessing a greater ethnic affinity and cultural connection to Solomon Islanders. The artificial division of Bougainville from the remainder of the Solomons through European colonisation remains an underlying cause of unrest. The exploitation of wealth from national resources remains another reason for conflict and the peace process after a protracted civil war is fragile. Bouvainvilleans now have to make difficult choices between a continued association with PNG or the Solomons, who would both like to enjoy the benefits of their untapped natural resources. The other option is for this relatively small island, with a limited population and virtually no infrastructure, to go down the path of independence nationhood, which is fraught with dangers. Australia has an important diplomatic role in ensuring the stability of the region while helping find a solution suitable to the peoples of this troubled island.
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