Alotau: 50 Years as Provincial HQ: by Roy J Andrews
On the 14th September, 2018, Alotau had been the Provincial (formerly District) HQ of the Milne Bay Province for 50 years. It was decided to celebrate the occasion in conjunction with the 43rd Anniversary of Independence.
In 1959, I was recruited as a Cadet Patrol Officer in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
In March, 1964, I was posted to the Cameron Plateau, first as Assistant District Officer and later that year as Assistant District Commissioner. I held that position until September, 1965. That was the year when the future town of Alotau was initially planned and laid out.
Being possibly the last surviving person of the embryonic days of Alotau, I was invited, by the Milne Bay Provincial Government and the Council of the Town of Alotau, to attend the celebrations arranged for Friday, 14th September, 2018 and the following Independence Celebrations on the 16th. I accepted the invitation and had several remarkable days back in Alotau where I was feted, by all, as a VIP guest, for which I feel very humble and full of gratitude.
Alotau was officially declared the administrative HQ of the Milne Bay District on 31st July, 1968, but there were still as few years before Samarai would finally relinquish its hold on being the District’s principal town.
Picturesque and charming Samarai, in early days, was known as the “Pearl of the Pacific” and in the early 1900s, it was the most important urban centre in Papua. After WW2 however, it lay in ruins and Port Moresby by far exceeded it in size and importance. Samarai was a tiny island with no room to expand and, in hindsight, it might have been sensible to move to Milne Bay to make use of the US infrastructure remaining post war. However, Samarai clung to the memories of its former glory, and resistance against moving was high, especially from the then commercial heavyweights, Burns Philp and Steamships.
Nevertheless, as early as 1949, discussion began about the need for a new administrative HQ located on the mainland, but serious consideration was not made until 1958. At this time, the problem was examined afresh and it was concluded that a new site must be found, but transfer from Samarai should be gradual. Several sites were considered but Cameron Plateau was preferred and 365 acres were purchased there in 1961. A factor was the willingness by traditional owners to sell, since was the factor they considered it to be “bad ground” because of the deaths and sufferings in the war.
In 1962-63, the first houses were built, 6 married “High Covenant” (HC) and 2 single HC at Hiwe Hiwe and 8 “Low Covenant” married quarters at Gabi-Gabi. Thus, it was that the gradual transfer of government and commerce commenced moving from Samarai to Alotau.
Progress was slow and it was not until May, 1964 that District Commissioner, John Preston White was given directions to proceed with a program for development of the site. Fortunately, Preston White’s enthusiasm was the driving force. I know that he put many hours into the planning of the new town. He was determined it would be a model town, not spoilt by poor planning or commercial convenience and greed. Some regard him as the true father of the town.
Choosing a name:
In 1965, District Commissioner Preston White commissioned me, the acting ADC, to canvass local suggestions for a more suitable local name to replace Cameron or Cameron Plateau. Bondai Pita, Clerk of the very active Milne Bay LGC, informed me that there had been much local discussion and the preference was for “Alotau”. This word in the Suau language simply means “bay” and Milne Bay itself was referred to by Suau speakers as “Alotau”. This was endorsed by 100% at the next LG Council Meeting and, after a political struggle, became official in May, 1967.
It was another 14 months before senior government staff, including acting D.C. Max Denney and D.D.C. Ross Johnson moved from Samarai to Alotau, when Papua’s newest town became the District’s new headquarters.
Alotau is now a thriving modern town of over 30,000 people. It celebrated its 50th Anniversary with over 40,000 people in attendance! It was a marvellous occasion and I was proud to be part of it! As a town, it is now an important tourist destination and regularly visited by tourist liners.
Alotau, A New town in Papua New Guinea. UPNG Occasional Paper No.7, August, 1973.
Alotau, nee Cameron Plateau. From whence the names: Una Voce 2003 No.3, September, 2003, Roy Andrews.
TO BE PUBLISHED:
The Story of Alotau — Sir, Chris Abel, 2018
An Embryonic History of Cameron Plateau to Alotau, Roy Andrews, 2018