The escalation of gambling in Papua New Guinea, 1936–1971: Notable absence to national obsession

Anthony J. Pickles

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Future Papua New Guineans (PNG) start gambling from the 1880s. Gambling was then made illegal (for them but not for their colonisers). It takes off during World War II, becoming ubiquitous knowledge by the late 1970s, just after Papua New Guineans achieve independence from Australia. As incidence accelerates gambling relationships proliferate until they plateau at saturation point. This exciting, liberating, unpredictable cloud of activity became a threat to the prospect of an ordered, advancing independent modern nation-state. PNG legislators responded by banning playing cards completely. This is suggested as evidence of an ‘escalation’ because gambling became something new, a vehicle for imagining the nation as a truly connected whole through this relational technology, even if the image was an uneasy one. As the escalation occurred the acceleration plateaued once new recruits dried up and as economic development failed to materialise, revealing some useful socio-material guardrails for an anthropology of escalation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-46
Number of pages15
JournalHistory and Anthropology
Issue number1
Early online date13 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


  • Gambling adoption
  • Australian colonialism
  • World War II
  • Melanesia
  • gambling law

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