The Motuan people of the area now known as Port Moresby traded their pots for sago, other food and canoe logs, sailing from Hanuabada and other villages built on stilts above the waters of the bay. Their language, Motu, was the basis of Hiri Motu, an official language of Papua New Guinea. It has been steadily in decline since the 1960s when Tok Pisin (till then confined to the northern side of the former border between Papua, British New Guinea until 1905, and New Guinea, that was German New Guinea until 1914) began to grow in popularity.
The Hiri expeditions were large scale. As many as 20 multi-hulled canoes or lakatoi, crewed by some 600 men, carried about 20,000 clay pots on each journey. To the Motuans, the Hiri was an economic enterprise and it confirmed their tribal identity through its long and dangerous voyages.
Queensland raises the British flag at Port Moresby in 1883
Government House in Port Moresby—still used today though substantially enlarged and altered—, at the beginning of 20th century.
There was already an important trade centre on the site of Port Moresby when the English Captain John Moresby of HMS Basilisk first visited it. He sailed through the Coral Sea at the eastern end of New Guinea, saw three previously unknown islands, and landed there. At 10 a.m. on 20 February 1873, he claimed the land for Britain and named it after his father, Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby. He called the inner reach "Fairfax Harbour" and the other Port Moresby.
In 1883 Queensland attempted to annex the south-eastern corner of the New Guinea Island (subsequently known as Papua), fearing that Germany would take control of the entire eastern half of the island. British authorities refused to approve the annexation following the German annexation of New Guinea in 1884, but four years later it established a protectorate over Papua as British New Guinea.
In 1905 the recently federated Australian government passed the Papua Act which came into effect in 1906. The act transferred Papua, with Port Moreseby as its capital, to direct Australian rule. From then until 1941 Port Moresby grew slowly. The main growth was on the peninsula, where port facilities and other services were gradually improved. The first butcher's shop and grocery opened in 1909, electricity was introduced in 1925, and piped water supply provided in 1941.
Douglas Street, Port Moresby: Old hotel lot, vacant for 30 years, and new building behind it.
World War II and after
The long-closed Burns Philp
department store, in the mid-1990s having been used as a private school building
During World War II, some Papuan men enlisted in the Papua Infantry Battalion and others as carriers over trails and rough terrains (porters) as supply support to Allied and Japanese armies during long jungle marches. Historian William Manchester makes it plain in his biography of General Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, that acting as porters was well down the natives' list of acceptable voluntary activities and that they would fade away without great inducements. Many Papuan residents of Port Moresby either returned to their family villages or were evacuated to camps when the threat of Japanese invasion loomed. The city became, by September 1942, home to an important Allied complex of bases and thousands of troops were eventually stationed in the area or more often, staged through it, as it was the last Allied bastion on the island and, conversely, a key staging and jumping off point as the Allies began conducting offensive warfare themselves, pushing back the Japanese advances.
The longstanding downtown United Church with next door office building in 2013 were replaced with one building, the church on the ground floor.
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 two territories and remain so, which can be complicating with provinces sitting on two sides of the otherwise extinct boundary. Port Moresby became the capital of the new combined territory and a focal point for the expansion of public services.
Front side of the parliament building
In September 1975, Papua New Guinea became an independent country with Port Moresby as its capital city. Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, represented the Queen of Papua New Guinea 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 included 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.
The Papua New Guinea National Museum and National Library are in Waigani. A mansion was built in Port Moresby just west of the old legislative building but the last pre-independence chief minister and first prime minister of the sovereign state declared it not nearly grand enough; it was made the residence of Australian high commissioners and a mansion suitable to Somare's demands was built in Waigani.
Several of the government buildings have been abandoned due to long-term neglect. Chief amongst these are Marea Haus (known to most locals as the "Pineapple Building") and the Central Government Offices. Nearby buildings, such as Morauta Haus and Vulupindi Haus, are starting to show significant signs of decay due to a lack of maintenance.
However, widespread restoration rather than demolition of long-disused office buildings has been highly active since the first decade of the 21st century. The legislative building before independence and the first parliament building is long-gone but the old court house in town Port Moresby remains, bearing its pre-independence label with its previous title.
The population of the Port Moresby area expanded rapidly after independence. In 1980, the census return registered a population of 120,000; by 1990, this had increased to 195,000.