Place: Bougainville Island


The Solomon Islands nation lies immediately to the southeast of the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, separated by a narrow strait. Bougainville is the largest island in the Solomons Archipelago. Twenty-eight to eighteen thousand years ago, when seas levels were lower, Bougainville was the north of a single land mass that included Buka, Shortland Islands, Choiseul, Isabel and Nggela. Bougainvilleans are close relatives of Solomon Islanders to the south, particularly those of the Western Solomons.

The 168 islands in the present-day Autonomous Region of Bougainville cover 9,300 square kilometres, with Bougainville and Buka being the main islands (250 kilometres north-south). There are also a number of small islands (many uninhabited), island groups and atolls, including Nissan (Green), Nuguria (Fead), Takuu (Mortlock), Nukumanu (Tasman) and Tulun (Carteret). Bougainville is home to several active and dormant volcanoes, and central mountains rise to 2,400 metres. Mt. Bagana in the north-central part of Bougainville is extremely active and overall volcanic activity has created a coastal plain of rich volcanic soil. Bougainvilleans stress matrilineal descent, which sets them apart from many other Papua New Guineans. They are dark-skinned, far darker than other Papua New Guineans but similar in skin-colour to their neighbours in the Western Solomons. (Friedlaender 2005)

Human occupation of Buka Island, contiguous with north Bougainville, dates back thirty-two thousand years, the earliest date for human settlement in the Solomon Archipelago. Three or four thousand years ago a significant new group of migrants, agriculturalist Austronesians, arrived from Asia via the north coast of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, bringing with them domesticated pigs, dogs, and chickens, as well as obsidian tools, and they settled alongside the earlier inhabitants. (Spriggs 2005) Bougainville has many languages, both Austronesian and Papuan (Non-Austronesian). The most widely spoken of the seventeen Austronesian languages is Halia and its dialects, spoken in Buka, Kilinailau (Carteret) and the Selau Peninsula in northern Bougainville. Other Austronesian languages-Haku, Petats, Solos, Saposa (Taiof), Hahon, Piva, Banoni, and Tinputz (Vadoo), Teop, Papapana, Torau (Rovovana), Urava (now extinct), Nehan, Takuu, Nukumanu and Nuguria-were spoken on Buka, outlying islands and atolls and several parts of Bougainville. Nine Papuan languages are spoken on the main island: Kunua (Konua), Rotokas, Eivo, Keriaka, Nasioi (Kieta), Telei (Buin), Nagovisi, Motuna (Siwai), and Buin (Telei). (Tryon 2005)

Because of its size and fertility Bougainville probably always has been the most populous of the Solomon Islands, followed by Malaita and Guadalcanal. The pre-contact population of Bougainville, Buka and the surrounding outliers could easily have been one hundred thousand and possibly higher, even allowing for malaria limiting the size of the population. Significant depopulation took place on all Solomon Islands during the nineteenth century (q.v. Demography). The first British Solomon Islands Protectorate census in 1931 recorded a total of 94,066 people, but the Protectorate's pre-contact population was probably in excess of two hundred thousand and possibly twice or even three times that number, and this has implications for trying to calculate the size of Bougainville's early population. In 1914 the Germans estimated its population at around 32,000. Australian estimates were 36,000 in 1931, 41,000 in 1935, 51,190 in 1940, around 50,000 in 1942, 59,250 in 1967 and 129,000 in 1980. (Nelson 2005; Lummani 2005) The population of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in 2000 was 175,160. (Turner 2001) These numbers are similar to the population of Malaita during these decades.

European voyages began to pass by Bougainville in the seventeenth century: Schouten and Le Maire in 1610, Tasman in 1643, Carteret in 1767 and Bougainville in 1768. As in other parts of the Solomons and the Bismarck and Louisiade Archipelagos, in the first half of the nineteenth century whalers and traders worked around Bougainville and Buka, and the New Britain-based Forsayth company recruited labour and purchased copra on Nukumanu and the Mortlocks in the 1870s and 1880s. Thirty-three indentured labourers left Bougainville, Buka and Nissan for Queensland in the 1870s, followed by another 278 in the 1880s. (Price with Baker 1976) Over the same years 710 labourers from these islands went to work in Fiji. (Siegel 1985)

The original 1884 declaration of German New Guinea (q.v.) was vague on its eastern extreme because the status of the Solomon Archipelago was unclear. In 1886 Bougainville was proclaimed part of German New Guinea when the eastern border was defined as including Buka, Bougainville, the Shortlands, Choiseul, Isabel and Ontong Java. Britain claimed the remainder of the Solomon Archipelago as a Protectorate in 1893. Then in 1899-1900 another Anglo-German convention shifted the German-British border north to between the Shortlands and Bougainville. Bougainville Strait became the dividing line and the peoples of southern Bougainville found themselves politically divided from their close kin in the Shortlands and on Choiseul. Powerful Shortlands chiefs such as Gorai, son of Porese, helped the Protectorate traders obtain coconuts from Bougainville, and traders never felt bound by the border, crossing at will. The first official tours of inspection of the German North Solomons were made in 1888, 1893 and 1900, searching for a suitable place to establish a government station. Once the Catholics established a base at Kieta, this was chosen as the most suitable government base. (Sack 2005) After recruiting to Queensland and Fiji ceased, North Solomons labourers were absorbed onto German plantations. Between 1907 and 1913, 5,214 Bukas and Bougainvilleans were recruited by the Germans and others crossed from southern Bougainville to work in the Shortlands. During the German years (until 1914), Bougainville was primarily a labour reserve along with the beginnings of a local plantation economy.

The first plantation, at Kieta in 1902, was a side-product of the Marist mission. The first fully commercial plantation was established by the Bismarck Archipel Gesellschaft at Aropa in 1908 and another was begun by the New Britain Corporation at Toiemonapu two years later. By 1911 there were ten plantations on Bougainville, with another ten thousand acres recently acquired by Hernsheim and Co., which also had trading branches in Kieta, Buin, Petatz, Arawa and Enus. Just before the Germans lost control, Lever Brothers applied to the governor to extend their Solomon Island plantation interests into Bougainville. The non-indigenous population of the Northern Solomons remained low, at seventy-four in 1914, one-third of them part of the Marist mission. (Sack 2005; Bennett 2000)

Initial missionary work on Bougainville came from the Catholics (q.v.) and Methodists (q.v.), as part of endeavours that reached out of the British Solomon Islands and across Bougainville Strait. The Catholic Society of Mary (Marist) missionaries began a new phase of Catholic outreach to the Solomons in 1898. From their base in the Shortland Islands in 1901, Marists established their Kieta base and soon after used the close trading and kin links between the Shortlands and southern Bougainville to establish a base at Patupatuai on the Buin coast, making patrols further inland. Between 1901 and 1922, when their mission monopoly was broken, the Marists established several stations between Burunotui on Buka and Patupatuai. Between 1901 and 1939 eighteen Marist stations were established on Bougainville and Buka. The South Solomons prefecture was elevated to an apostolic vicariate in 1912 (including Guadalcanal, Makira and Malaita) with the same elevation granted to the North Solomons in 1930 (Buka and Bougainville). Thomas Wade, an American, became the first bishop of North Solomons. (Laracy 2005a, 2005b)

After a brief sojourn in 1916 at Siwai, the Methodists arrived permanently on Bougainville in 1922, establishing a base in Siwai, and incurred a great deal of resentment from the Marists. Like the original Catholic mission, the Methodist's Bougainville venture was an extension of their work in the Western Solomons. The Methodists were firmly established on New Georgia by 1914 and began to cast their eyes toward Bougainville. They succeeded in establishing themselves on Mono, the main Treasury Island, which had close trading and kin alliances with Bougainville. After Australia seized German New Guinea in 1914, the Methodists felt secure enough to expand into Bougainville. In 1916, Methodist boundaries were altered to include the German Solomons into the New Georgia district. The border at Bougainville Strait did not stop the constant indigenous movements nor the movement of mission personnel, although by the 1920s discussions were held to try to stop Buin labourers working in the Protectorate. (Bennett 2000) Seventh-day Adventists (q.v.) were also active in the Western Solomons, following the Catholics and Methodists to Bougainville. In 1924, R. H. Tutty and two Solomon Islander evangelists, Nano and Rongapitu, sailed to Lavilai on Bougainville and established a station there. In 1927, A. J. Campbell worked for some months on Bougainville, and the next year the first two local converts were baptized there. Today, seventy percent of people in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville are Catholics.

In an early act of the First Wold War Australian armed forces arrived on 9 December 1914 and took control of Bougainville, and a final transition to Australian administration was made in 1921 once the League of Nations Mandate was enacted. By the 1920s large coastal areas in Buka, and along the north, south and east coasts of Bougainville had become coconut plantations. Labour was mainly from Bougainville and Buka. The administration remained based at Kieta. German plantations and other property were disposed of via an Expropriation Board, with Germans only able to claim compensation from their own government. The plantations were reserved for Australian servicemen who had served in the First World War, an extension of the soldier-settler experiment in Australia. Police patrols were concentrated around Kieta and a police post was established at Kangu near Buin on the south coast in 1919, although regular patrols did not begin in the south until the mid-1930s. The small hamlets which had dominated the earlier settlement pattern were discouraged by the administration in favour of larger ordered villages. Burns Philp, through its subsidiaries and Choiseul Plantations Ltd., became the largest managers of plantations, and W. R. Carpenter & Co. Ltd. Was also involved in trading and plantation management. (Elder 2005; MacWilliam 2005)

In 1942 the Australian administration and most of the planters and missionaries fled before the Japanese advance, just as most whites did in the British Solomons. During the Second World War (q.v.) parts of Bougainville were under Japanese control between January 1942 and August 1945. Initially the Japanese numbers on Bougainville were small and they were not in direct contact with the Australians who had remained. Then from August 1942 to July 1943 coastwatchers (q.v.) were able to give advance warning of Japanese ships and planes heading south into the Solomons. The Japanese dominated Bougainville in mid-1943, but then between November 1943 and October 1944 the Americans began to fly there, and onwards from October 1944 Australian troops were responsible for the island's recapture. Around forty thousand Japanese, two thousand Allies and an unknown number of Bougainvilleans (probably around 16 percent) died during the war. (Nelson 2005)

In 1945, once the war was over, the islands returned to Australian control. War damage took a decade to repair, but slowly the plantations began to operate again. Burns Philp worked hard to re-establish their plantations, and plantations diversified to interplant coconut palms and cocoa trees, the new crop of the 1950s. Official development policy changed to include Bougainvilleans as smallholders and co-operative societies were established. Village-made copra and cocoa began to enter the market, creating a small indigenous bourgeoisie. Between the 1960s and 1980s most Bougainvilleans turned to cocoa and coconuts as their dominant cash crops, although production plummeting in the 1990s during the civil war. (MacWilliam 2005; Lummani 2005)

In 1964 a large copper deposit was discovered at Panguna on Bougainville by a subsidiary of Conzinc Riotinto Australia. Mining at Panguna, which became the second largest open cut mine in the world, began in 1969 with the first exports in 1972. The mining agreement was made between Bougainville Mining Company, later Bougainville Copper Ltd. (both CRA subsidiaries) and the Australian administration, ratified by the House of Assembly in Port Moresby, with little consultation with or compensation of the landowners. Australia saw the huge copper mine as a way to provide finance for the approaching independent government of Papua New Guinea. This uneven agreement sowed the seeds for the conflict that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. (Vernon 2005; Denoon 2000)

There had been many suggestions during the first half of the twentieth century that the North Solomons be reunited with the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, or that the Protectorate be combined with Papua New Guinea, but all failed to eventuate. During the 1950s and 1960s, Bougainvilleans were unhappy about their future as part of Papua New Guinea. They always regarded themselves as different from other Papua New Guineans and identified more closely with the rest of the Solomon Islands, based on their dark skin colour and matrilineal societies, and also their geographic isolation from the other islands off eastern New Guinea. Bougainvilleans rightly regarded the Panguna mine agreement as exploitative and grew to fear the environmental damage being caused by the mine. The first moves for succession were in 1964, extended by the exploitative mining agreement and unwillingness to join with the rest of Papua New Guinea at independence in 1975. (Griffin 2005) Discontent simmered with Bougainvilleans in the National Parliament being strong advocates for devolution of power to the provinces. In 1988 a rebellion began which became a protracted civil war. The rebel Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed, forcing the mine to close in 1989, with a civilian government established under Francis Ona. Between 1990 and 1994 the PNG Defence Force fought the BRA. In 1991, a Bougainville Interim Government was established, which in 1995 became the Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG). The PNG government calamitously tried to bring in mercenaries (O'Callaghan 1999; Dorney 1998), and finally a permanent cease-fire was established and an unarmed peace-monitoring group was created staffed from Australia and New Zealand, Vanuatu and Fiji. In 1997 an Autonomous Region of Bougainville was agreed to, still within Papua New Guinea but with provision for future independence. There was an election in 1999 in which Joseph Kabui, commander of the BRA, was elected president of the BTG; he died in June 2008 and was succeeded by John Tabinaman as acting president. Since December 2008, James Tanis has been president. Frances Ona died in 2005. The peace agreement that was finalised in 2000 was brokered with the help of New Zealand. There will be a future referendum on whether the Autonomous Region of Bougainville will become an independent nation. (Turner 2001)

The crisis in Bougainville impacted the Solomon Islands since supplies including guns and ammunition that passed over the border, and Bougainvilleans used health facilities as far south as Malaita and Honiara. The Bougainville crisis also gave some momentum to the internal crisis between Malaita and Guadalcanal in the late 1990s.

Related Concepts

Related Natural Phenomena

Related Party

Published resources


  • Bennett, Judith A., Pacific Forest: A History of Resource Control and Contest in Solomon Islands, c. 1800-1997, White Horse Press; Brill, Cambridge; Leiden, 2000. Details
  • Denoon, Donald, Getting under the skin : the Bougainville copper agreement and the creation of the Panguna mine, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2000. Details
  • Dorney, Sean, The Sandline affair : politics and mercenaries and the Bougainville Crisis, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 1998. Details
  • O'Callaghan, Mary-Louise, Enemies within : Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Sandline Crisis: the inside story, Doubleday, Sydney, 1999. Details
  • Turner, Ann, Historical Dictionary of Papua New Guinea, 2nd edn, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, and London, 2001. Details

Book Sections

  • Elder, Peter, 'Between the Waitman's Wars: 1914-42', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville before the conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Friedlaender, Jonathan, 'Why Do the People of Bougainville Look Unique? Some Conclusions from Biological Anthropology and Genetics', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville before the conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Griffin, James, 'Movements towards Secession, 1964-76', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville before the conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Laracy, Hugh, 'The Pacification of Southern Bougainville, 1900-30', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville before the conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Laracy, Hugh, ''Imperium in Imperio'? The Catholic Church in Bougainville', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville before the conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Lummani, Joachim, 'Post-1960s Cocoa and Copra Production in Bougainville', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville before the conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • MacWilliam, Scott, 'Post-War Reconstruction in Bougainville: Plantations, Smallholders and Indigenous Capital', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville Before the Conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Nelson, Hank, 'Bougainville in World War II', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville Before the Conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Sack, Peter, 'German Colonial Rule in the Northern Solomons', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga Griffin (eds), Bougainville before the conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Spriggs, Matthew, 'Bougainville's Early History: An Archaeological Perspective', in Anthony J. Regan;Helga Griffin (ed.), Bougainville: Before the Conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005, pp. 1-19. Details
  • Tryon, Darrell, 'The Languages of Bougainville', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville Before the Conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details
  • Vernon, Don, 'The Panguna Mine', in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds), Bougainville Before the Conflict, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2005. Details

Journal Articles

  • Siegel, Jeff, 'Origins of Pacific Island Labourers in Fiji', Journal of Pacific History, vol. 20, no. 2, 1985, pp. 42-54. Details


Bougainville HEC Robinson Pty Ltd Sydney 1930s