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Everyone controlled New Guinea, but never the natives

A history 1545-1969

The island of New Guinea has seen many colonial powers rule since it was "occupied" on June 20, 1545 by the Spaniard Inigo Ortiz de Retes, who visited the large island and saw  similarities — he believed —with a country on the west coast of Africa to which he had previously sailed: Guinea, which is how he came to call the Melanesian island of New Guinea.

He planted the Spanish flag on the east coast at the mouth of the Mamberamo River. And so one of the largest islands in the world became Spanish. Nevertheless, Inigo Ortiz de Retes, who was on his way from Tidore to Mexico on his ship "San Juan", was not the first European to come across the area. Nor did he know that it was an island.

New Guinea

 The early history of New Guinea is rather hazy. It is believed that the area was discovered as early as 1511 and 1512 by the Portuguese D'Abreu and Serrano when they passed it, but they did not set foot there. The Portuguese governor of the East Indies Ternate, De Menenez, did pay a (forced?) visit in the years 1526-27, but Nueva Guinea became only an 'existing' country from 1545.

It would take until 1606 before the first Dutchmen got a look at it: when the ship "Het Duyfke" sailed along the south coast, it was only in 1616 that Schouten and Lemaire mapped the northern coastal area: Schouteneiland. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) did not show much interest in the area in the 17th century. The first trade contacts date from 1678.

 The VOC did make sure that New Guinea was not used by other colonial powers as a base for the Spice Islands located to the west of New Guinea. The Company had major interests there and Spain and England were also fond of nutmeg and cloves, which they would rather import themselves than via the Heeren Zeventien (VOC managment) from Amsterdam.

Spanish crown domain

How did the Republic get this Spanish colony? Until 1714, Nueva Guinea had been more or less privately owned by the Spanish crown for 168 years. But by the Treaty of Utrecht signed by the belligerents in the War of the Spanish Succession on June 26, 1714, New Guinea was taken from Spain and assigned to the Dutch Republic. Until July 1793, the Dutch would assert their rights and claims on the island, but in that year the English founded a fort here and so ruled over the Negroid population of the Papuans. This interlude with Albion did not last long: the British left again in April 1795. The Dutch claims again applied and they founded a fort on Triton Bay.

From 1828 the Netherlands claimed the area of New Guinea from the west to the 141st longitude, which still forms the arbitrary border between Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea.

Many candidates

The colonial history of the island does not become more transparent because in the last century the English appeared again, but now also the Germans, followed a little later by the Australians.

Van Delden had proclaimed on 24 August 1828 that the Netherlands took possession of the land from the coast of New Guinea of the 141st length from Greenwich on the south coast, and from there west-northwest and northward, to the Cape of Good Hope on the north coast.

The  prince of Tidore also claimed this part and so it came under the Ternate residence.

The Dutch government never claimed that all vast New Guinea belongs to the Netherlands Indies. By its decisions of 24 Aug. 1828 and July 30, 1848 in Dutch parliament it was expressly stated that her claims to this island extend no further east than the 141st meridian east of Greenwich.
Strictly speaking, Dutch sovereignty extended over directly governed areas. The rest of the archipelago, including the 'allied empires', was not formally part of the Dutch East Indies.

These 'protectorate countries' were after all vassal states that had not formally accepted Dutch sovereignty.

There was no real Dutch authority at first in New Guinea: Fort Merkusoord had to be abandoned again in 1836 due to the high death rates. The Netherlands did not interfere intensively with the area, although in 1861 the sultan of Tidore had to be condemned.

Sultan's raids

The Sultan of Tidore had in fact instituted the so-called "hongi trips" to West New Guinea, intended to collect back taxes for himself. But that got out of hand in major looting and looting expeditions among the Papuans. 

Dutch presence in New Guinea 

In 1897 the Dutch parliament approved the establishment of an administrative organization for the area. Later, New Guinea became a kind of Robben Island: a remote place where difficult political rebels could be stored, such as in a penal camp on the Upper Digoel River. Missionary Started in 1905.

Germans and Brits

In the second half of the last century, English and German private companies became more or less simultaneously interested in the other New Guinea, including the German Neu Guinea Gesellschaft.

 In 1873, the British colony of New South Wales in Australia asked England to dedicate itself to that area. An English army led by Fairfax Moresby occupied the south coast of the island, but this left quite a bit that had not been taken over by the Netherlands. Australian Queensland wanted England to take care of this as well. That did not happen and then the Germans struck: the northeastern part of the island was annexed.

 Until around 1900 the Gesellschaft was in charge, then the imperial government took over, among other things, Kaiser Wilhelmsland, the Bismarck Islands, part of the Central Bergland. This part (called New Guinea) would remain German until 1921, after which it fell under Australia as a mandate area. The English part (later called Papua), which lay between the 141st and 155th degrees of longitude when Chester was proclaimed in 1884, came under Australian rule in 1905 and after the First World War there were therefore only two "bosses" of Papualand left: the Netherlands and Australia; A foolish political and historical division that did not take into account the ethnological and geographical unity of this island at all.

Strategic basis

Dutch involvement in their part of the island was not very intense. It lay in a remote corner from Batavia, had not yet been opened up and had not been mined at all. There was not much to achieve (yet). It was not until around 1900 that Dutch branches were established in Manokwari, Fak-Fak and Merauke. The rights of the sultan of Tidore, recognized by the Dutch government, still applied. In 1905, however, he would transfer it to the Dutch East Indies government.

With the support of military expeditions, the interiors were explored , not so much to conduct an ethical policy and to carry out missions, but to give Dutch capital opportunities. One of the companies that smelled profit was the Nederlandsche Nieuw-Guinea Petroleum Maatschappij, which extracted petroleum and which, among other things, sent an expedition to the more than 5000 meters high Carstensztoppen (todays Puncak Jaya) . Other scientific expeditions also began to exploit the interior, in 1938 a post was founded at the Wissehneren.

But (Dutch) New Guinea only became really important in the Second World War, not so much because of the many minerals and oil that were extracted with difficulty or not at all, but because of its strategic location. When Japan began its advance in the "Indies" — from December 1941 — apart from southern Merauke in the Dutch part, a large part of the Australian half of the island was occupied by the Japanese. During the entire WWII Merauke and the whole of South Dutch New Guinea stayed Dutch. 

From Japan to MacArthur

When further naval battles left the United States in charge of this area, the north coast of New Guinea became even more important: from here General MacArthur could plot his marching routes to conquer the Philippines and from there force Japan to surrender.

 In April 1944, the capital of Dutch New Guinea, Hollandia, was recaptured from the Japanese and became MacArthur's temporary headquarters. At the end of July of that year, almost the entire island was under Allied (American/Australian/Dutch) control.

Sukarno and New Guinea

 In August 1945, shortly after the proclamation for Independence, Sukarno declared in a speech that all the people of Indonesia included the following areas: Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Celebes, the Lesser Sunda Islands, the Moluccas, the people "from Aceh to Ambon" Not a word about New Guinea.

Mohammed Hatta stated in July 1945 about the territory of Indonesia, among other things: “I would like to leave the territory of Papua to others. But if the Japanese government wishes to leave Papua, which used to be under Dutch administration, to Indonesia, I have no objection to that. But I would not claim it, and if the territory of Papua could be exchanged for North Borneo I would have no objection, but rather be grateful." Hatta continued: "...that Papua does not matter to me; we can leave that to the Papuan people themselves. I recognize that the Papuan people also have the right to become a free nation."

Sukarno remarks on official occasions at that same time: „...that we are not obliged to become the heirs of the Dutch. As for Papua, I do not know the wishes of the Papuan people, but I am willing to assume that the Papuan people still do not understand politics. We are not heirs of the Dutch We will talk to Japan. Japan will decide the extent of Indonesian territory."

With the transfer of sovereignty on December 27, 1949, after the Round Table Conference in The Hague, it was determined that Dutch New Guinea would fall outside this transfer to the then United States of Indonesia.

Indonesian takeover

By 1961, the Netherlands government was struggling to find adequate international support for its policy to prepare West New Guinea for independent status under Dutch guidance. While the Netherlands' traditional Western allies—the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand—were sympathetic to Dutch policy, they were unwilling to provide any military support in the event of a conflict with Indonesia. 

On 26 September 1961, the Dutch Foreign Minister Joseph Luns offered to hand over West New Guinea to a United Nations trusteeship. This proposal was firmly rejected by his Indonesian counterpart Subandrio, who likened the West New Guinea dispute to Katanga's attempted secession from the Republic of Congo during the Congo Crisis. By October 1961, Britain was open to transferring West New Guinea to Indonesia while the U.S. floated the idea of a jointly-administered trusteeship over the territory.

Following the failure of diplomacy in the United Nations and persisted Dutch efforts to prepare the West Papuans for self-rule, Indonesia's Confrontation against the Dutch in West New Guinea reached a new crescendo. On 19 December 1961, President Sukarno gave orders for the Indonesian military to prepare for a full–scale military invasion of the territory; codenamed Operation Trikora. He also ordered the creation of a special People's Triple Command or Tri Komando Rakyat (Trikora) with the objective of 'liberating' West New Guinea by 1 January 1963.

By 1961, the United States government had become concerned about the Indonesian military's purchase of Soviet weapons and equipment for a planned invasion of West New Guinea. The Kennedy Administration feared an Indonesian drift towards Communism and wanted to court Sukarno away from the Soviet Bloc and Communist China. The U.S. government also wanted to repair relations with Jakarta, which had deteriorated due to the Eisenhower Administration's covert support for the Permesta/PRRI regional uprisings in Sumatra and Sulawesi. These factors convinced the Kennedy Administration to intervene diplomatically to bring about a peaceful solution to the dispute, which favoured Indonesia.

Throughout 1962, the U.S. diplomat Ellsworth Bunker facilitated top–secret high–level negotiations between the Dutch and Indonesian governments. These protracted talks produced a peace settlement known as the New York Agreement on 15 August 1962. The Dutch would hand over West New Guinea to a provisional United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) on 1 October 1962, which then ceded the territory to Indonesia on 1 May 1963; formally ending the dispute. As part of the New York Agreement, it was stipulated that a popular plebiscite would be held in 1969 to determine whether the Papuans would choose to remain in Indonesia or seek self-determination.


Algemeen Handelsblad 10-06-1880
No. 9. Correspondence respecting New Guinea. May 1883
De Volkskrant 29-06-1937
De garoeda en de ooievaar Indonesie van kolonie tot nationale staat, Herman Burgers ISBN 978-90-67-18347-5

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