Milne Bay Art Culture and History

Posted on by Richard
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The aim of this article is to briefly outline the culture and history of Milne Bay Province in New Guinea and examine the great range of Artworks that arise from their fascinating Culture. Milne Bay is the Eastern most extremity of Papua New Guinea mainland.  The central mountains that run right through the spine of New Guinea abruptly stops and shelves into the South pacific. Approximately 30 miles wide at this point it fork into two peninsulas, (East and South Cape). The body of water between the two capes is Milne Bay itself with the capital Alotau deep on the Northern shore of the bay.  Milne Bay Province though is far larger and dominated by Islands and Island Culture. The most published part of Milne Bay is the Trobriand Islands and this is due to it’s early contact with missionaries and famous anthopological work. Milne Bay has three Airports one in the capital Alotau, one on Misima Island and the last on the Trobriand Islands.

New Guinea Map

Map of Milne Bay


The population of the Milne Bay province is around 100,000 people which is comparitively small compared to other Papua New Guinea Provinces. Culturally the province can be split into North Milne bay and Southern Milne Bay with the line being roughly drawn just above the D’entrecasteaux Islands.

Traditionally Southern Milne Bay tribes tended to live in hamlet clusters of no great size but had a men’s house. The men’s house has a saddle back roof and carved beams and boards that acted as racks for trophy skulls. They engaged in raid warfare had a payback system for inter clan fighting. They would bring male captives back to the home village to be tortured killed and eaten on stone platforms. They had no hereditary chief system and men would gain prestige and repute through personal accomplishment.

In the northern Milne Bay area (not just the trobriand islands) people lived in large villages with buildings on each side of a sand street or in concentric circles. There were no men’s house but they did have special houses for storing Yams. There was a hereditary chiefdom system with several grades of rank. Although there was rampant organized warfare cannibalism was not practiced.

Traditionally the people of Milne Bay had no belief in a creator but legends and myths usually about the first ancestors arising out of caves. They had and in many places still have animalistic beliefs in spirits inhabiting tress swamps springs rocky areas and certain reefs. Generally these spirits were believed to be malevolent or indifferent to human beings but with the area where the spirits lived being avoided.

There were no major cults in Milne Bay Province and people were remarkably secular, with the exception of Yaboaine a divinity of war. Sorcery though played a major part in Milne Bay life with sorcerers able to use their powers to kill, inspire love, control the weather, increase garden fertility and ensure success in trading missions known as Kula.

Today the majority of Milne Bay province people are Christian and go to church on Sunday but when you get to know them well still also believe in sorcery and avoid certain areas.


Artistically Milne bay is more commonly referred to as the massim, and is one of about half a dozen distinctly different art style areas in Papua New Guinea. It is related to the Lake Sentani Area and it has been suggested that this is due to a related group of ancestors.


Milne Bay Splashboard

It is little wonder then that much of the art created in Milne Bay is connected with sailing canoes. Some of the most recognizable Milne bay art objects are canoe Splashboards and Canoe Wave splitters both which are usually covered with low relief carving and then painted in white blacks and red.  Inter island trade was commonplace and a unique system of trade evolved known as Kula on which whole books have been written.







Milne Bay Canoe (photo by f.E. Williams 1929)

The other art objects that are found commonly in Milne Bay are associated with Chewing Betel nut where local palm nut is mixed with lime and chewed as an intoxicant.  Milne Bay province produces the most superb Lime Sticks betel nut mortars and lime gourds of anywhere in the Pacific.

Superb Milne Bay Spatula

The third major group of art objects to be found in Milne Bay are forms of Currency or trade valuables. They have superb shell necklaces (Bagi) and shell armbands (Mali) along with stone axe heads and spatulas for displaying shell valuables.












The final group of objects that are made with such superb craftsmanship commonly found are objects used in Warfare and every day utilitarian objects like dishes and spoons.





Historically compared to other parts of Papua New Guinea Milne Bay has had a long history of European contact.  The Spanish Torres and Prad made first contact in 1606 when they observed the Louisade Archipelago and Basalaki Island on their way to the Torres straits. It was not visited again until 1793 when it was explored by D’entrecasteaux and then by Captain Owen Stanley in 1849.


It was in the late 19th century that Milne Bay saw any major influx of Europeans when Pearl Divers gold prospectors and missionaries moved into the area. Three main areas of early European settlement include Samurai Island in the South (former provincial centre), the Trobriand Islands in the North and Dogura (Bartle Bay) on the mainland.




Milne Bay Sunset

Today Milne Bay province is one of the most advanced provinces in Papua New Guinea. It is a good place to travel (although logistically difficult) with lots of white sandy beaches small villages great fishing and a slower way of life that comes as a refreshing change.




Travel information on Trobriand islands

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