Friday, January 25, 2013

Guinea New Papua

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We occasionally get mail from a certain Canadian government agency that's addressed to our address in the country of "Papau New Guinea." Maybe they're getting mixed up with the island of Palau, a few thousand kilometres north of New Guinea.

Other times, we get mail from overseas that has a stamp on it from the post office in Jakarta, Indonesia. It would seem that somebody at some post office between point A and point B is thinking "Papua… and New Guinea… that's in Indonesia…" And that as such would be true, because there is a Papua (or two or three) in Indonesia and Papua is on the island of New Guinea (half of which is in Indonesia). PNG is next door to Indonesia, but it is a very different kind of country in many ways. So different, in fact, that there aren't even any commercial flights connecting the two countries and the only way to get across the border is to walk.

"Papua New Guinea" is a bit of a strange name for a country, isn't it? In some ways, it would be like calling Canada "India New Scotland." How does a place get to have a name like that? This is going to be a bit of a complicated answer, and involve a trip to most of the world's continents, but bear with me. I'll try and get the facts straight. And just to make it a little easier, we'll do this backwards – Guinea – New – Papua.

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First of all, the name Guinea. Guinea is the name of a region in West Africa stretching from about Senegal to Equatorial Guinea. In this region, which is next to the Gulf of Guinea, there are several countries that have the name "Guinea": Equatorial Guinea as already mentioned, Guinea-Bissau, and just plain Guinea as well. There are a few more countries that used to have "Guinea" in their name in colonial days. For example, Danish Guinea together with Dutch Guinea (not to be confused with Dutch New Guinea) later became part of Ghana.

So what does "Guinea" actually mean? There is debate about this, but most likely it came from a Berber word meaning "black," referring to the colour of the skin of the people living there.

Just for the sake of clarity, the name Guinea is not related to Guyana and French Guiana in the northern region of South America that is known as the Guianas (but just for the sake of interest, there was also a Dutch Guiana there, now known as Suriname). But the name is related to that former British coin, the guinea, because the gold used to make it was mined in African Guinea. But I digress, as we have discussed three continents in one paragraph, and not one of them are anywhere close to Papua New Guinea.

So how did the name "Guinea" end up in PNG, almost halfway around the world from Africa? It all comes down to first impressions. When the Spanish explorer YƱigo Ortiz de Retez sailed by in 1545, the people of this island reminded him of the people he had seen in African Guinea. And so he called it "Nueva [New] Guinea." (Interestingly, when Dutch explorers came along later, they called the same island "Schouten Island"… a name now restricted to a small group of islands off the north coast.)


The name New Guinea stuck.

But, the question is, what did it stick to? First of all, the name applied to the whole island, which, incidentally, is the second largest island in the world, after Greenland. And so, in one sense, the name "New Guinea" includes both the western half of the island (former Dutch New Guinea, now part of Indonesia) and the eastern half (the mainland part of PNG). But more specifically, the northern half of this eastern half of the island (still with me? – northern PNG in other words) was especially known as New Guinea. German New Guinea was a colony consisting of this northeastern part of the island of New Guinea as well as some of the islands to the east (the Bismarck Archipelago).

After World War I, the League of Nations took German New Guinea away from the Germans and entrusted it to the care of Australia as the Territory of New Guinea.

Nowadays, the name New Guinea refers to the whole island, but also refers more specifically to the northeastern part of the island (as opposed to Papua, the southeastern and the western parts). Also the islands to the east are often referred to as the New Guinea Islands region of PNG (with islands such as New Britain and New Ireland). And in some cases, often in the names of companies, the whole country of PNG can be referred to in its pidginized form as Niugini (e.g. the airline Air Niugini).


So what about the name "Papua"? For this segment, we'll start with the etymology.

"Papua" was also a name given by a European explorer, this time the Portuguese Don Jorge de Meneses, who "discovered" the island in 1526. The word apparently comes from a Malay word referring to the frizzy hair typical of the island's inhabitants. That frizzy hair also earned the name "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" to the locals who were of great service to Australian troops during World War II.

And what does the name Papua refer to now, geopolitically? Well, let's start on the west side, the Indonesian side of New Guinea, the side that was formerly called Irian Jaya. Nowadays that western half of the island is generally known as West Papua. But within that region of West Papua, there are two Indonesian provinces, conveniently named Papua and West Papua.

That's west of the border. But PNG also has a "Papua." While the Germans were running the show on the north side of the island, the British ran British New Guinea on the south. In 1906, however, the British handed over responsibility of the colony to the Australians. It then became the Australian Territory of Papua. Today still, the southeastern quarter of the island of New Guinea is known as Papua.

In 1949, the two territories of New Guinea and Papua, now both in the hands of Australia, were joined together into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. In 1972, the "and" was dropped so that it was simply the Territory of Papua New Guinea. Then, in 1975, PNG peacefully separated from Australia and became the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, or Papua New Guinea for short, or PNG for really short.

A quick review

To summarize… PNG is more or less the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and is an independent country. West Papua (formerly called Irian Jaya) is the western half of the island, and is part of Indonesia. PNG is made up of the former colonies of Papua (south) and New Guinea (north).

And that's about all there is to it.