Missionary presence was by far the biggest influence upon Lihirian society. In 1902 the Sacred Heart Catholic Mission sought to expand its influence from Rabaul to New Ireland (then New Macklenburg), concentrating on Lihir and the other outer islands. Despite an early presence, the Palie Catholic Mission Station was not established until 1933.
Similarly although the Methodists had been permanently positioned in Lihir prior to 1933, they never established an official station. The first Lihirian man to be baptised (in 1907) was a ‘reformed cannibal’ named John Targolam from Bulamwei Village on Masahet who was previously languishing in the Namatanai prison. His conversion to Catholicism proved instrumental in the transformation of Lihirian social and religious life; the majority of Lihirians soon aligned themselves with either the Methodists or the Catholics.
MV Robert at Palie. The Catholic Mission supply boat from the early years.
Economic and political development
The main form of economic development throughout the colonial period was the copra industry. By the 1950s copra plantations had been established on the Londolovit plateau, which is now the site of the mining camp, and at Hunio and Lakakot. However, the copra industry advanced minimally. Few Lihirians chose to work on these plantations, which amazed and frustrated plantation owners. The association with indentured labour and negative war time experiences may have influenced their reluctance to work. Given the low prices for copra and limited transport options Lihirians were also disinclined to develop their own copra plantations.
Between 1965 and 1970, Lihir underwent three significant developments that paved the way for future change. These were the establishment of ‘progress’ or ‘cooperative’ societies that attempted to generate forms of local development around the copra industry; incorporation into the Namatanai Local Government Council in 1967; and the emergence of entrepreneurial ‘big men’ who gained control over the local copra industry.