Prior to the establishment of German and British rule in 1884, the main contact PNGans had with non-Melanesian people was with European explorers, whalers, traders, labor recruiters and missionaries. Almost all whites regarded PNGans as a culturally and intellectually inferior people. Where the whites were paternalistic race relations were reasonably good. Where they were brutal bitter clashes frequently occurred.
During the colonial period (1884-1975) German, British and Australian Administrations introduced racially discriminatory legislation. Some land use and labor regulations were designed to protect local people from gross exploitation by Europeans. Other regulations protected the privileged position of the colonial settlers. The whites discouraged social contact with PNGans and were particularly neurotic about sexual contact. Under the White Women’s Protection Ordinance, Papua, 1926 to 1958, indecent assault by a PNGan man on a white women was punishable by life imprisonment and whippings. Sexual relations between white men and PNGan women were not uncommon but not socially acceptable. Marriage between white men and Melanesian women was discouraged.
During World War II relationships between the races changed when PNGans came into contact with Australian soldiers who were far more ready than the prewar settlers to treat them as equals. After the war Australia embarked upon a “New Deal” under which funding for education, health and social services was significantly increased and discriminatory legislation repealed. In 1967 the House of Assembly set up a committee to recommend amendments to the Discriminatory Practices Ordinance 1963. In the 1960s steps were taken to prepare the country for Independence which was achieved, peacefully, and with expressions of friendship between the races, in 1975. At the Independence ceremony, the first head of state of the new nation, Governor-General Sir John Guise said:
It is important that the people of Papua New Guinea and the rest of the world realise the spirit in which we are lowering the flag of our colonisers. We are lowering it, not tearing it down. (Official record. Installation and Constitution Ceremonies. Independence Day, 16 September 1975.)
After Independence both the Australian and PNG governments emphasized the importance of a close, friendly and equal relationship between the countries. There was little sign of antagonism towards whites. But few Australians had put down roots in PNG, and only a small number opted to become PNG citizens. The small, locally born, Chinese community has been relatively well accepted by most Melanesians, but by the 1990s there were signs of an emerging antagonism towards some other Asian groups, and towards Africans. The PNG government had recruited Africans and South Asians to replace Australians as public servants, medical staff, teachers and others, partly because they were able to employ them at lower salaries. Southeast Asians are found more often in the private sector.