Port Moresby on New Guinea, 14 June 1893

A dense dark bank of clouds out of which from time to time rain was pouring down concealed the coast of New Guinea completely during the morning. As navigating by tracking the path was proving difficult at Port Moresby due to the incomplete sea charts of this territory, we were only able to enter the very small passage into the harbor after the orientation points on the coast became visible.

The sea was glittering for quite some time in the gleaming daylight when finally towards 8 o’clock in the morning the clouds lifted up from the coast and allowed the land to become visible which appeared in a rich green with mountains and hills in the distance. Port Moresby itself is almost completely surrounded by limy hills whose treeless slopes often are covered with tall grass. Not a single spot of plain land is visible all around. It was overall a very friendly view that developed in front of our eyes but it fell back by far in comparison to the tropically luxurious vedutas we had experienced in the Solomon islands.

Our attention soon was caught by something much closer namely the difficulty of the passage. The harbor of Moresby is bounded towards the open sea by a long coral barrier that leaves only a very small passage open for large ships between reefs on both sides. The waves were crashing mightily into these coral reefs that one can see from afar by their light green color of the water around it. To the dangers of navigation in this passage added itself another element. As the bank of clouds had disappeared the sun was shining fully into our faces thus blinded by the sun and the glittering water, we were unable to see the details of the passage. Despite all the difficulties the captain and the excellent navigator succeeded to drive „Elisabeth“ through the basilisk passage at half past 10 o’clock in the morning.  At 11 o’clock the anchor was finally set in Port Moresby.

Discovered by captain Moresby, the explorer of the South-eastern territories and the South coast of New Guinea, in 1873 and named after him, Port Moresby is currently the seat of administration of British New Guinea and a special governor administers the colony which is under the control of Queensland, part of British crown. The island of New Guinea, including Prince Frederick island, the islands of Papua, the islands of the Louisiades archipelago and other islands is today divided among three powers. The largest part of the 807.956 km2 area is under Dutch occupation as Western New Guinea with an area of 397.204 km2. The Northeastern part of the island is a protectorate of the German Empire of 181.650 km2. The Southeastern part finally is British New Guinea with 229.102 km2 declared formally an English protectorate in 1884 and on 4 September 1888 the sovereignty of the queen was in a ceremony proclaimed. The borders of these possessions are now set on the maps but government administration covers but small parts of the total area as New Guinea, some of its coasts, river valleys and islands excepted, still largely is terra incognita. Even at a short distance from the coast there are native tribes that have never seen a white man.

The harbor is very large, it extends with many small bays over 9 km from South to North and in the West reaches Fairfax Harbour but offers no good ground for anchoring. In the North-east of the coast raises a mountain range whose highest elevation is Mount Astrolabe (1166 m).

Port Moresby is characterized fully by its recent creation and has a rather cheerless appearance. Government House is a small single storey building on a hill surrounded by a small number of rather shabby bungalows constructed out of corrugated iron. These are the houses for the few white men living here. Not far away in a sheltered bay are three native villages namely Elewara on a peninsula that is cut off from the mainland during the tide, Tanubada and Hanuabada. Above Tanubada raise the houses of an Anglican mission.

During our arrival the whole outer harbor within the barrier reef was filled with canoes as the natives were going fishing. The canoes are very slim, partly with extensions for the oars and all equipped with square sails made out of straw mats. Despite this very primitive equipment, the crew navigated these heavily staffed canoes with great skill and at speed over the turbulent sea.

Next to us lay a small coaling ship which we had ordered here in Sydney to restock on coal. Its captain immediately came on board of „Elisabeth“ and reported that he ran aground on a coral reef about 80 sea miles out of Moresby but it did cause major damage as they managed to free the ship during high tide. The captain also brought the mail that had arrived for us in Sydney up to the time of his departure. Among others, the mail included newspapers with illustrations of „Elisabeth“ and some of our episodes of our stay in Sydney — many of these images we found hilarious.

Who, however, did not come on board was the governor, Sir William Macgregor,  whom we were vividly expecting to come as only he could initiate our planned expedition into the interior of the island. Finally the harbor steward arrived as a substitute and reported that Sir W. Macgregor had departed the day before on his steam yacht to Yule Island, around 80 sea miles to the Northwest of here, to settle disputes about possessions between the mission station there and the natives. He was expected to return either today in the evening or tomorrow morning to Moresby. Thus we had to be patient and decided to await the arrival of the governor.

Regarding an excursion into the interior of the land the harbor steward could only inadequately orient us, but he said to be ready to lead us into a bay close by in the afternoon. As far as ethnographic objects were concerned he directed me towards the only merchant house in the settlement that collected such things and in fact there was a rich collection of beautiful shields, spears and other weapons as well as bodies of all kind of local birds of paradise of New Guinea. I bought this collection and then immediately set off from land with the barge, the dinghy and the cleaning dinghy to drive across the harbor and to go to the Northernmost bay between the mainland and the island of Tatana.

On the shore of Tatana we saw two large villages whose huts rested on poles high above the water.

Landing in the bay proved difficult due to the strong tide which had built up in the mean time. The steam barge soon had to stop and we tried to come close to the coast with the dinghy but were soon stuck on a coral reef. Thus it was time for the cleaning dinghy. When it too failed to advance we had to jump into the water and wade to the shore. Here we met a local Malay trader near a small settlement. He was willing to lead us to a spot where there was a chance of bagging birds.

We formed two groups: i entered with Clam and the Malay in a Western direction while Wurmbrand and Prónay, led by a Papuan, marched towards the hills in the North. The route was trying. Tall grass alternated with small clumps of trees and bushes. In the grass, however, lay numerous rotten trunks.

As soon as the rainy season is over and the grass starts to die, the natives burn it and set up nets and thus bag wallabies and wild boars that flee from the fire. Naturally the growth of the trees is suffering to such an extent that a luxurious development of the trees only takes place close to the streams in the valleys.

The information of the harbor steward that there was no furred game in the surroundings of  Port Moresby and only a few bird species and had been heavily plundered by the natives as well as collectors was fully confirmed. Our catch was limited to only a few unimportant specimens. Furthermore our guide, the Malay, seemed to show little interest in this kind of sport as he led us again and again in circles and repeatedly told us that one would have to march many miles inland to have success. The other gentlemen had a bit more luck than we as they killed parrots of a species (Geoffroyus aruensis) I did not know.

The Malay whose house we had been visiting is said to be very wealthy and sails along the coasts of New Guinea in small sailing boats trading tobacco with the natives against coconuts, sandalwood as well as other product which he sells to the ships entering Port Moresby.

The South-east monsoon had grown stronger, even within the harbor the waves were moving so intensively that wave upon wave landed in the boat.

On board we received the message that governor Macgregor still had not arrived and we had to continue waiting patiently.

Links

  • Location: Port Moresby, New Guinea
  • ANNO – on 14.06.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Die Tochter des Herrn Fabricius“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

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