Samarai Island lies between the islands of Logea, (Rogeia), Kwato and Sideia (Sariba), to the south of Basilaki Island in the China Straits just off the mainland of southeast New Guinea.
Little is documented about Samarai prior to the arrival of Captain John Moresby in 1873. Although he named it “Dinner” Island, it is commonly known as Samarai Island, meaning “peace”.
Dinner Island was used as the gardening island by the community living on Logea. In 1878, headman of Logea, Paolo Dilomi, sold it to the London Missionary Society (LMS) so the newly arriving European missionaries and Pacific island pastors could establish their headquarters. (Wetherell 1977, 10-11) In 1908 the LMS missionary Samuel McFarlane recalled ‘I fixed on Samarai as the most central and convenient place from which I could superintend the Mission in that district”. He had acquired Dinner Island in 1878 for hoop iron and other commodities valued “altogether at 3/-6d”. Papuans were brought in to clear the heavy timber to make space for the LMS settlement, the first of many flora and topographical changes to the island. Dilomi later recalled that Samarai was originally “thickly timbered with very big trees”.(Wetherell 1998, 111, 114, 115) In 1886, it was transferred between the LMS and the colonial administration and the LMS moved to nearby Kwato Island.
In 1885 it was occupied by sixty Papuans and one trader, it soon became a key Pacific trading port. On 20 September 1888, Port Moresby and Samarai were proclaimed as the very first Customs ports. A Resident Magistrate and Court were also appointed in 1888, and a naval coaling station established the next year. With the emerging trochus shell, beche-de-mer, copra and gold industries, by 1900, the China Straits were “a cosmopolitan highway” (Wetherell 1996, 11) and Samarai the early “commercial capital of British New Guinea’. (Kaniku 1989, 370)
Samarai was also the first sight of New Guinea for Australian miners arriving direct from Cooktown and Cairns and heading for the eastern goldfields. For example, in 1897, around 500 miners landed at Samarai heading for Woodlark Island or the Mambare River.
By the turn of the century, it was the administrative headquarters of the Eastern Papua region of British New Guinea and was known as the “Pearl of the Pacific”.
An initial task was to fill a swamp area, a project which was to extend over several years. Prisoners were employed on the project using a light railway to transport fill. Government involvement in the provision of public railway infrastructure was an early assumption. In 1891, Sir William MacGregor, Administrator of BNG, initiated the purchase of rails from Cooktown for use in construction of tramways at Samarai and Port Moresby. They arrived in 1894.
Some 75,000 cubic yards were moved in 1893-94 and completed in 1898. By this time, Burns Philp had constructed a slipway and a local trader, Whitlen, a wharf and store on the island. Work on reclaiming Samarai swamp was reported completed in February 1895. The report of completion was somewhat premature. In 1899, Samarai residents petitioned for completion of the swamp reclamation project. Work continued for a number of years. By 1905, prisoners were employed in the construction of a new jetty at Samarai. This involved the establishment of tramlines to assist the easy loading of steamers.
By 1915, a Resident Magistrates residence and a European hospital sat on the central 40 metre rise and overlooked impressive private residences, the busy port, goal, Customs House, Bond Store, three banks, trade stores, three hotels, churches, movie theatre, cricket pitch, lawn bowling green, tennis courts, shady streets, a school and native hospital.
One of the hotels was Clunn’s, which had been shipped in sections from the Cooktown goldfields in north Queensland when the Sudest gold rush began in the Louisiade Archipelago to the southeast of Samarai in the late 1880s. (Lewis 1996, 26 and 36-37 and 91-92)
By the turn of the century, Samarai had a European population of 120,
By 1919, there were 293 Europeans living on Samarai, which was a considerable presence considering there were only 2078 recorded in all of Papua in 1921. In the 1930s, except for rubber, Samarai was still the major exporting centre as eastern Papua produced the bulk of the gold, copra, trochus and desiccated coconut exports. After the war it, despite being initially made the administration centre in 1950 for the merged Eastern and Southeast districts, was bypassed and Alotau became the district centre in 1968. Samarai was still Papua’s second biggest town (with a population of 2468 in 1966).
During and after the First World War there were several public meetings called by the Europeans of Samarai to protest over the state of the wharf, the tobacco duty and the need for a local railway. Their pressure brought results. A new wharf opened in 1923 served by a 610 mm gauge railway. The railway was gradually extended. Burns Philp in conjunction with GA Loudon & Company relaid the tramway from King’s warehouse to their bulk stores in 1925. They installed a turntable which proved satisfactory and the Collector of Customs requested similar facilities for the wharf tramway in 1925. This was installed in 1928, when the Steamships Trading Company (STC) laid portable track from this point to their copra store. Other lines were also laid, although problems were reported in obtaining rail lines for the tramline from the Quarry to Dart Street in 1929. All wharves and facilities were destroyed by bombing early in 1942. However, some lines survived or were reconstructed, as tramways were still in existence on Samarai in 1962.
In 1927 it was reported that streets and houses of Samarai had electricity and that Samarai was served by five regular monthly steamer runs – the SS Montoro, SS Marsina, SS Morinda, SS Papuan Chief and the SS Queenscliffe
The white resident population enjoyed a grand lifestyle until WWII. During this period the author and artist Ellis Silas visited and declared “the white population disports itself in much the same manner all over the world; with dances, tennis tournaments, cricket matches, soirées and so on” (Ellis 1926, 44)
In 1942, fearing a Japanese invasion the residents fled the island followed by Australian military, they left their houses and possession behind. On February 23, 1942 two sticks of bombs were dropped on Samarai and at the end of March installations on the island were torched by Sgt Les Arnold. On July 31, 1943 a detachment of the US Navy 84th Seabees was sent to Samarai to build a small seaplane base. Despite material shortages, the base was built in 42 days and included a 50' ramp with a hanger and 40,000 square feet of parking. Barracks and accommodations for 220 men and 50 officers and the installation of four x 1,000 barrel aviation fuel tanks.
Although rebuilding did take place after the war, the town never recovered its former glory. By the 1960’s it became clear that Samarai had outgrown itself and it was decided to relocate the capital to Alotau.