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I was about halfway through my trek up Namanula Hill, to the site of the former governor’s house dating to German colonial times, when a local family stopped to give me a lift the rest of the way. Their niece was visiting from Port Moresby, and this family invited me to join them on their tour of Rabaul and its surrounds. Riding in the back of their two-seater pickup truck, they showed us their part of Papua New Guinea, sharing their knowledge of its complex, layered histories.
The sign at Namanula Hill, bearing the likeness of the former German colonial governor, Dr. Albert Hahl, speaks to these histories—of successive colonial governments, expropriation, and violence—while suggesting residents’ pride in their “well planned” town, whose gridded streets, laid out by the German colonial administration, today lie blanketed in feet of volcanic ash from Tavurvur’s devastating eruption two decades ago. Coconut palms evoke a colonial plantation economy dependent on the production of copra, and today’s working plantations continue to map older colonial holdings carved out on the islands and cultivated through the labors of indentured New Guinean people.
As seats of German colonial governance in the early twentieth century, Rabaul and nearby Kokopo (formerly Herbertshöhe) were centers of colonial life. They were homes to German administrators who produced many of the records that inform my dissertation, and were destinations for many of the New Guinean women and men whose labors under colonial rule my dissertation explores.