Facts, Figures & History

PORT MORESBY is the Capital of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea and the country's largest city.

It is also the biggest city in the South Pacific outside of Australia and New Zealand. The City is located on the shores of the Gulf of Papua, on the south-eastern coast of the Papuan Peninsula of the island of New Guinea, at latitude and longitude 06° 00' S, 47° 00' E.

The city emerged as a trade centre in the second half of the nineteenth century under the Australian colonial administration. During the Second World War, it was a prime objective for conquest by the Imperial Japanese forces during 1942-43 as a staging point and air base to cut off Australia from Southeast Asia and the Americas.

Port Moresby has become the main lure for migration from almost every tribal group in the country, as well as attracting a large population of foreigners. The City is now a multicultural one, embracing 21st century technology and development, while trying to retain the traditional values of its varied population. As the administrative hub for the country, Port Moresby benefits from substantial investment in infrastructure and physical development. In 2000 it had a population of 254,158. As of 2011 it had a population of 364, 145, giving it an annual growth rate of 2.1% over a nine-year period.

The place where the city was founded has been inhabited by the Motu-Koitabu people for centuries. The first European to see it was Captain John Moresby in 1873, who named it in honour of his father, Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby.

Although Port Moresby is surrounded by Central Province, of which it is also the provincial capital, it is not part of the province, but forms the 'National Capital District'.

Port Moresby has struggled with its own socio-economic issues over the years since gaining its status at PNG’s Independence in 1975. However, over the last 10 years, the National Capital District Commission of Port Moresby, the municipal government, has made many solid moves that have seen the City begin to push back the barriers in the areas of physical development, city beautification, human resource empowerment, social interaction, governance, and trade and commerce.

Today, Port Moresby has become one of the fastest growing cities in the region. With its revitalised infrastructural development and economic master plans, the NCDC has steadily been changing the physical, social and investment landscapes of Port Moresby to help claim Port Moresby’s position as the leading city among the developing cities of the Southern Pacific.



National Capital District comprises a rocky coastal strip and an inland plain divided by a steep ridge, which falls steeply to the sea. The landscape of the inland plain is dominated by a series of parallel ridges separated by broad, flat and gently undulating valleys. The ridges rise to about 200m above sea level. To the north and east of the ridges are lower areas that merge into the flat Waigani swamp and the Laloki River flood plain.



Before colonisation: People settling in the area that is now Port Moresby, in early days, were rarely able to grow enough food because of low rainfall and poor soil. Consequently, they relied heavily on trade activities. From August until December each year, fleets of multi-hulled canoes called lagatois sailed from Motu villages and were carried by southeast trade winds along the coast of the Gulf of Papua where they traded their claypots for sago, other food, and canoe logs with the people of Gulf of Papua.

The Hiri expeditions were large-scale. As many as 20 multi-hulled canoes or lagatoi, crewed by some 600 men, carried up to 200,000 clay pots on each journey. To the Motuans, the Hiri was not only an economic enterprise but a mechanism that confirmed their identity and social order as a group of people because of the long and dangerous voyages.

The language of the Motuans, Hiri Motu, used mostly during the trade made it easier for communication and coordination when the first European settlers arrived in Port Moresby.

British Protectorate: Port Moresby was thus an important trade centre when the Englishman Captain John Moresby arrived on the 19th of February 1873. It was 10 o’clock in the morning of the 20th of February 1873, when John Moresby claimed the land in the name of the British Crown and proudly named his discovery after his father, Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby. He called the inner reach Fairfax Harbor and the outer Port Moresby.

Soon after,  on 21 November 1874, the Reverend William Lawes of London Missionary Society took up post in Port Moresby and was later joined in 1877 by another missionary and his wife, Rev. James and Mrs Chalmers.  Rev. Lawes settlement of the LMS, near Hanuabada Village, started off Port Moresby's initial European settlement at Konedobu. About 1878, Australians flooded into the town in a gold rush after a bit of gold was discovered on the Laloki River.

On 6 November 1884, Papua was formally declared as the Protectorate of Britain, with the event taking place in Konedobu. About 1887, the town expanded when a second settlement was established across the swampy area (now the site of Sir Hubert Murray Stadium) on the narrow saddle between Touaguba Hill and Paga Hill which has come to be known as Downtown Port Moresby. The two townships were designed and laid out, with their streets named at this time, and some of the town's first buildings were constructed about this time also. One of them  is the Ela Church which was built in 1890. After several renovations, it still stands today on Douglas Street, Downtown Port Moresby and is one of the oldest buildings in Port Moresby.

Over the course of the British possession, Port Moresby became home to several administrators who ran the Protectorate and while based here did their patrols throughout Papua. Major-General Sir Peter Scratchley was the first Special Commissioner of the new Protectorate of British New Guinea. He passed away from illness on 2 December 1885 and John Douglas took his place.

On 4 September 1888, Dr. William MacGregor arrived in Port Moresby as the first Administrator of British New Guinea after the annexation of Papua by Britain.

Australian Administration: On 1 September 1906, the Papua Act was formally proclaimed. The law changed the status of the country from a British Possession to that of an Australian Territory. The Possession of British New Guinea now became the Territory of Papua. After the change of hands of several administrators from MacGregor, Hubert Murray was sworn in on 19 November 1908 as the first Lieutenant-Governor of Papua. Under him was Miles Staniforth Cater Smith, who was Administrator.

Murray set about actively encouraging European settlement and investment and this change of policy was soon reflected in improvements and developments in the capital. A lot more buildings including government offices and guest houses were added to the town as a result, civil works including the plans for a railroad, telephone service and the establishment of the town's first two banks (1910), the publication of the first newspaper (1911), a school (1911), first live theatrical performance (1914), electricity (1925), first flight out of Port Moresby (1928), first petrol bowser (1928), wireless telegraph (1931), talking-pictures (1933), first official airmail service between Australia and Port Moresby (1934), official radio broadcasting (1935),  first traffic signs (1938), piped water supply (1941), and the town took on a lot more social and economic life.

The town witnessed a quiet part of the First World War but felt some measure of the pain of the Great Depression.

Historian Ian Stuart notes: "The atmosphere of the town had changed completely by the 'thirties. Whereas previously it had been a hot-bed of intrigue, strife and bitter argument, it was now a pleasant little community of some 500 expatriates who ..... managed to live together through an economically depressed and depressing period reasonably happily and harmoniously, united in the hope that the rich gold finds in New Guinea would soon be repeated in Papua."

On 27 February 1940, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Hubert Plunkett Murray - the first Lieutenant-Governor of the Territory of Papua and the man who grew Port Moresby with his "native administration" policy - passed away in Samarai while on tour of the Eastern Division. He had served in that role for 32 years. His nephew Hubert Leonard Murray was appointed by the Australian Government as the Administrator of Papua (and the position of Lieutenant-Governor abolished after an amendment to the Papua Act).

When the Second World War broke out into the South Pacific in 1941, Papua and New Guinea was designated as the Eight Military District of Australia, with its headquarters in Port Moresby. The town became the military base for the Australian Defence Force against Japanese invasion from the north-east after the fall of Rabaul. Many Papuan residents were told to return to their villages. Enlisted men formed the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) while Papuan men who enlisted formed the Papua Infantry Battalion that helped as carriers, porters and as riflemen. Port Moresby became the target of Japanese air raids, and it is estimated that 124 bombs were dropped in the vicinity of the new airfield at 7 Mile alone. American soldiers also arrived in Port Moresby to assist the Australian Force. Port Moresby was strongly expecting Japanese invasion but on 8 May, the main battle was staged off the Louisiade Archipelago (in what is now Milne Bay Province) primarily by fighter planes from carriers from the respective fleets and land-based planes. Port Moresby at this time was apprehensively expecting heavy bombing attacks, to be followed by paratroopers and a sea invasion force. Then the news came through  at last that the Japanese fleet had turned and was heading back to Rabaul. The town had been saved by the allied victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

In July, the Japanese made another attempt to capture Port Moresby especially because of the town's growing airfield at 7-Mile and the ships in the harbour. They landed at the Anglican Mission station at Gona (now Oro Province) on 21 July and used the inland track on the other side of the Owen Stanley Range to advance toward Port Moresby. The force was met by Australian troops where the Battle of Kokoda Trail ensured. Although many of the soldiers were hungry and ill from lack of supplies and reinforcements, they fought bravely and drove back the Japanese. The invading Japanese had actually reached Imita Ridge, within sight of Sogeri, and only a few miles from the motor road to Port Moresby. Many young Australians lost their lives in that battle.

The fighting continued elsewhere throughout various parts of Papua, particularly in what is now Oro - in Buna, Sanananda, and Gona. But by the end of January 1943, it was all over. The enemy was beaten and Port Moresby's year of peril had ended.

But Port Moresby's role in the war against Japan was clear.  It was General Douglas MacArthur himself who, after visiting Port Moresby for the first time, ordered in October 1942 the immediate establishment of a Combined Operation Service Command in the town to deal with the docking and unloading of ships and the storage and distribution of supplies, as well as the staging and despatch of personnel, the operation of repair shops, depots, and major utilities, and the provision of hospitals and evacuation of wounded troops. The town thereafter became a great base for the campaigns against the enemy in New Guinea and the occupied islands to the north. At the peak of operations of COSC, 8500 tons of supplies were unloaded in the port in one day, leading to the construction of another wharf by the Americans on Tatana Island and a causeway linking the island to the town constructed because the small town wharf was too small to take in all the cargo.

The centre of Port Moresby came back to life and for the remainder of the War, the whole of the Port Moresby area was a great, if temporary, metropolis. As for the Papuan's engagement in employment, by the end of 1944, 28,000 were at work - twice the number ever employed before. This was aside from those volunteer Papuans and New Guineans enlisted in the Papuan Infantry Battalion, which numbers between 5,000 and 6,000.

Restorative efforts went into rebuilding Port Moresby and in 1945, the Territory of Papua and New Guinea was formed when Papua and the former German New Guinea, which had been administered by Australia since 1918, were amalgamated under a single Australian Administration though several laws remained in the two territories. Port Moresby became the capital of the new combined territory and a focal point for the expansion of public services.

Under Colonel Jack Keith Murray (former Principal of Gatton Agricultural College and Professor of Agriculture at the University of Queensland) as the post-war Administrator, Port Moresby began to take on its revitalised physical character and a new social character in terms of its race relations by 1950. Col. Murray, early on, made it clear about his stance on race discrimination when he entertained two Papuans who had been captured by the Japanese to lunch at Government House. Shock and outrage swept the expatriate section of the town as Europeans saw this contrary to all the accepted conventions and standards of behaviour.

Historian Ian Stuart observes: "Pre-war expatriate society had been built on a foundation of unquestioned belief in white superiority. The doctrine gave moral justification for colonialism and it was firmly held that life for the white man was only possible in New Guinea as long as the native people regarded him as a superior being. Now the Europeans were horrified to find this seemingly sacred and self-evident truth questioned, and questioned moreover by the Administrator himself."

Although earning the wrath and the alienation of the expatriate community Col. Murray continued his non-discriminatory "Native's First" Labour Government policy and toward the end of his term was successful in laying secure foundations of the new New Guinea.

Stuart continues his observation: " It took a long time for the old Port Moresby hands to realise that they were fighting a losing battle and that the old days had, indeed, gone forever. They failed to see that three years of total war had dissolved forever the magic of the old white mystique and that the Papuans had inevitably been changed by the completely new kind of relationships they had enjoyed with the troops during that period."

In February 1949, the Australian Federal Parliament passed the Papua and New Guinea Act and on 15 March, Port Moresby was designated as the capital of the two united territories. The final choice of Port Moresby was influenced by the fact that much building had already taken place to provide accommodation for the Provisional Administration and that there were no comparable facilities in any of the towns.

In 1952, Col. Murray was replaced by Brigadier Donald Cleland as Administrator.

Planning and preparation by the Australian Administration was well underway for self-government and many leading and promising Papua New Guineans were trained and prepared when the House of Assembly was opened in 1964.

In 1969, Port Moresby hosted the South Pacific Games which contributed greatly to creating a sense of community and cultivate an awareness of citizenship. The event was held at the new Sir Hubert Murray Stadium in Konedobu and turned out to be a great success.

Independence: In September 1975, Papua New Guinea became an independent country with Port Moresby as its capital city. Prince Charles represented the Queen of the Commonwealth, of which Papua New Guinea belongs, at the celebrations.

New government, intellectual and cultural buildings were constructed in the suburb of Waigani to supplement and replace those of downtown Port Moresby. They include those for government departments including a National Parliament Building, which was opened in 1984 by Prince Charles and blends traditional design with modern building technology.



Figures out of National Statistics Office from its National Census in 2011 states the population of Port Moresby at 369,139. Studies within the National Capital District Commission’s Policy Office say that with a total square area of 240km, this poses a population density of 1,052 per square kilometre.  However, considering the population growth rate of 3.3% per annum, the projected figure by 2016 would just be over 400,000 (414,621). In the next 10 years, projected population for NCDC would be in the vicinity of 1,323,388.

On the other hand, since the unprecedented financing from PNG LNG Project, Port Moresby has experienced a rapid growth in infrastructure development between the period 2011 and 2014. This has ignited the swift increase in the population of an influx of migrants from rural to urban areas seeking employment opportunities. Access to improved health and education services, entertainment and social activities.

This particular gives an indication that the growth rate at 3.3% per annum would have undoubtedly increased immensely. The NCD Commission also understands that sample households in unplanned settlement were not accounted for in the 2011 National Census. Therefore, the current projected population 2014 may be higher than 450,000.



Port Moresby climate is determined by the influence of two surface pressure systems. From May to October, Trade Winds originating from a subtropical high-pressure system located to the south of NCD blow consistently from the South-East. Wind strengths of up to 25-30 knots are common late in the season although lower velocities occur at the start of the season. During this period, the city experiences a marked dry season and water demand is significantly high.

From December to March, the city is influenced by the movement of the Inter Tropical Convergence zone, first southward and then northward. This zone is where air streams pass over the NCD and moist north-westerly winds bring regular daily rainfall. In both April and November, transitional periods between the two seasons influence the two pressure surface systems and so the NCD experiences humid and still conditions.

The city’s average annual rainfall is 1197mm approximately with a district Wet period from December to April. Rainfall is often unpredictable and often very heavy at this time. Temperatures are high throughout the year. Seasonal variation is small and is exceeded by daily variation with the night-time minimum contrasting with the daytime maximum.



There is only one district for Port Moresby – the National Capital District – which is broken into three electorates. These are Moresby North-East, Moresby North-West and Moresby South.



Port Moresby is the main administrative centre, its economy is dominated by the service sector or the service industry. Though there is presences of manufacturing industry, and agriculture, both are seen in a much smaller scale compared to service sector.

A high percentage of the unemployed are those with no formal education or dedication up to primary school level. However, this is not to say that they are not involved in other income generating activities as most of these people participate in informal sector activities.

According to the 2011 National Census for the households in NCD, over 2% are engaged in Agricultural activities. Less than 0.5 % grow their own crops for use, 5% are engaged in income generating activities and just over 2% are engaged in selling food.



A total square area of 240km land in Port Moresby are customarily-owned, mostly by the Motu Koitabu Clan. In existence are seven Motu Koitabu villages.



The 2011 National Census established the Literacy and Educational indicators in NCD for population at age of 10 and over are as follows: Literate in one Language 91%, Not Literate in an language 7.5%, Literacy not reported 1.2%, Total Literate in English 80%, Total Literate in Tok Pisin 82%, Total Literate in Motu 26%, Total Literate in Other Language 70%.

Educational Qualification for Population aged 15 and Over are as follows: Protective Qualification 2%, Vocational College 5%, Technical College 7%, Tradesman/Apprenticeship 3%, Business and Secretarial College 19%, Teacher’s College 7%, Health College 2%, University/Public Admin College 10%, University Degree 24% and Others 9%.

Historical Reference:

  • Port Moresby: Yesterday and Today, Ian Stuart, 1970, Pacific Publications, Sydney





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