On 2 January 1929, around 3000 Papua New Guineans (PNGers) in the town of Rabaul staged the first ever industrial strike by PNGers.
They hoped to end the poor wages paid by Australian colonial ventures.
The strike was defeated within 24 hours because of the strikers’ inexperience. But it showed the people of PNG how to organise against Australian imperialism.
At the time Australia ran PNG, after seizing control during the First World War. It did next to nothing to fund services or development. In 1921, Australia spent the equivalent of just $1000 on “native education” for the whole of PNG.
The strike’s organiser was a 26-year-old boat captain, Sumsuma.
After running away to work on a plantation at the age of ten, by 1927 he was a well-respected captain on the Melanesian Co.’s motor schooner, Edith, a coastal trader out of Rabaul, and probably the highest-paid PNGer in Australia’s “Mandated Territory”.
As ship’s master Sumsuma was able to mix as an equal with crews of overseas ships that called into New Guinea ports. He, like other PNGers working on the ships, felt shame after hearing from African American crew that their wages were too low.
Rabaul at the time was a white colonial outpost, populated by Europeans who ran plantations or mining operations employing local labourers.
Sumsuma himself earned up to £12 a month. But most PNGers who were working for cash received just 6 shillings a month, around $25 in today’s money.
During December 1928, Sumsuma began organising a strike by word of mouth among Rabaul’s 3000 PNG workers. He united PNGers from around coastal New Guinea and local Tolais, many recently hostile to one another. He kept their plans secret from every European, and gained the vital co-operation of N’Dramei from Manus Island, who commanded great respect as he had risen to a trusted role in the Australian Colonial Administration (ACA) police.
Although the commanding officers of the police were all either Australian or British-born, most of the police ranks were made up of local PNGers.
Workers began quitting Rabaul after dusk on 2 January 1929 and by late that night had gathered at the Methodist and Catholic missions three or four kilometres out of town.
When the Europeans in Rabaul woke the next morning, “practically every native [sic] had departed out of the town”, one resident later told a friend in Australia.
N’Dramei chose a date when white officials were absent. He watched and waited until the Administrator, the Chief Judge, the Government Secretary and the Inspector were on leave or had left town.
The strike was entirely peaceful, with those who quit work simply waiting patiently for a response.
Sumsuma had expected the missionaries to mediate on their behalf. But they would not, and Rabaul’s employers refused to negotiate.
The Missionary heads both told the PNGers to return to work. The acting Police Inspector drove to the first mission, where there were about 1000 strikers. He argued for a return to work and ordered the police to “fall in”. Inexperienced in a strike, many did so.
The 2000 strikers at the Catholic Mission, further down the road, were more determined. Some held firm for two or three days, and a few never went back to work. But by mid-morning on 3 January the strike had collapsed.
Nonetheless, most of Rabaul’s expatriate Australian colonialists, especially the planters and bosses, reacted with fear and fury.
Many PNGers were beaten up by their “mastas”, despite a timid ACA warning that private employers should not take the law into their own hands.
The government dismissed 190 police, sentencing most to six months hard labour as carriers.
A Royal Commission found Susuma and N’Dramei had been the leaders and instigators. They and 19 others were imprisoned for three years.
Prison warders beat Sumsuma so severely that he bore the scars for the rest of his life.
The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) argued that, “the strike shows that the first wave of the world-wide revolt of the oppressed colonial peoples has reached the shores of this colony of Australia”. It urged Australian unionists to support any further actions by workers in Papua, “who are fighting the same bosses as Australian workers”.
Up until the late 1920s, the CPA viewed Australia as an exploited colony of Britain, rather than an imperialist power in its own right. The Rabaul strike helped to shift this, leading to a new focus on specifically Australian forms of colonial rule, and solidarity initiatives in support of both Papuans and Aboriginal people in Australia.
Australia displayed all the brutality of a European colonial power in PNG. And, as Australia’s moves to assert influence in the south Pacific against China today show, that desire for imperialist dominance in the region continues.
By Tom Orsag