Bougainville's journey to the present



Bougainville Island is estimated to have been inhabited by humans for at least 30,000 years. Modern studies of the region’s mix of Papuan and Austronesian languages suggest that both the first prehistoric settlers and later Lapita peoples (of roughly 3000 years ago) migrated eastward to Bougainville from New Ireland and New Britain. Together with the recent Polynesian and Micronesian settlers of the outer atolls, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville’s indigenous histories are rich and colourful.


The island was named after the French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville who sailed along Bougainville Island’s east coast in 1768. In 1885, the region came under German administration under the German New Guinea Company. With the outbreak of the First World War, Australia occupied all of German New Guinea in 1914. At the conclusion of the war German New Guinea was declared a League of Nations mandate, to be administered by Australia.  


In 1942 the Empire of Japan invaded Bougainville and constructed multiple airfields and other strategic assets to use the islands as military bases. In 1943 Allied forces launched a counter-invasion to take back control of the region. Bougainville became an important air-base for the Allies in attacks on other Japanese-occupied islands, such as New Britain. Japanese garrisoned in Bougainville continued to resist until the surrender of Japan in September 1945.


Following the War, Australia took over administration of all the British and German New Guinea territories until Papua New Guinean independence in 1975. In the 1960s, Bougainville was explored for copper and gold mining opportunities which resulted in the opening of the Panguna Mine in 1969, managed by Bougainville Copper Limited (a subsidiary of Rio Tinto). Activists proclaimed the independence of Bougainville (Republic of North Solomons) shortly before Papua New Guinea in 1975 but failed to achieve recognition.


Tensions over the mine rose again in the late 1980s and in 1988, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed. Acts of sabotage on the mine and workers’ concerns for safety led to the closure of the mine in 1989 and escalation into civil conflict between the BRA and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). PNGDF established a blockade of Bougainville in 1990 and conflict between factions of separatists, loyalists and the PNGDF continued throughout the following decade. The war claimed an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 lives. In 1996, Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan requested the help of Sandline International, a private military company, to put down the rebellion. The “Sandline Affair” was a controversial incident that eventually led to a maintained ceasefire and reintroduced negotiations for peace. The Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) was signed in Arawa on 30th August, 2001.


Since the BPA was signed, peace has been maintained and autonomy of governance has been granted to Bougainville as a region within Papua New Guinea. The first Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) was inaugurated in 2005 under President Joseph Kabui. Current President, John Momis, is serving his second five-year term in office after winning the 2015 General Election. Eligible Bougainvilleans will participate in a referendum on the region’s political status by 2020 as stipulated in the terms of the BPA.