Richard Alexander MacLellan  and the Kupei Gold Mine c1936, Bougainville

Richard A MacLellan

Pre European

New Guinea has been inhabited for at least 50,000 years. The agricultural economy dates back about 9,000 years and in the Western Highlands, a permanent system of agriculture with drainage and garden tools was established 2,500 years ago. The sweet potato, introduced 1,200 years ago, became the staple crop of the highlands, the yam and taro being grown in lowland areas.


European Re-discovery

The first European to reach New Guinea was probably the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Menezes in about 1526, who named it Ilhas dos Papuas. It was visited by several Dutch traders in the 17th century, and by the Englishman William Dampier in 1700, who named the island of New Britain. French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville was in the area in 1768. The Dutch East India Company took control of the western half of the island, and in 1828 it became part of the Dutch East Indies.

Location of Bougainville

The Discovery of Gold

Gold was first detected in a pottery fragment collected on Captain Owen Stanley's survey of Papua New Guinea's south coast in 1850, and early in 1878, a missionary found alluvial gold about 40 miles inland from Port Moresby. Two parties of prospectors set out by schooner from North Queensland. The Colonist from Cooktown with experienced miners who had been on the Palmer Goldfield and the Emma, out of Cairns with a 'mixed crew who solaced the rigours of pioneering with liquor and women' (G.C.Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away 1963:61). Neither of these parties had any success and returned to Queensland with malaria and dysentery (Spencer Browne  A Journalist's Memoirs Brisbane 1927:57-60).


After the European settlement of Port Moresby was established in the 1870s, small amounts of gold were found inland near Laloki and Brown Rivers. However the discoveries at this stage did not make mining an economically viable option. The 1888 discovery of gold on Sudest Island, Milne Bay, led to a gold rush of Europeans from the declining goldfields of North Queensland. Gold was soon found on the nearby islands of Woodlark and Misima. However, the easily extracted alluvial gold on the islands was soon depleted. Prospectors moved to the mainland in the 1900s and made further discoveries of gold in the Yodda, Gira, Waria and Lakekamu river areas.


In the 1880s and 1890s New Guinea and nearby islands were divided up between three colonial powers. The Netherlands ruled the western half of New Guinea.  In 1884 the southeast of New Guinea was claimed by Britain. Germany controlled eastern New Guinea (northern PNG), New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville. Bougainville is one of the largest islands in the North Solomons group.


The British sector, Papua, was transferred to Australia in 1905. One month after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Australian armed forces seized German New Guinea. This military occupation, one of the first colonial conquests of the war, was rubber-stamped when the League of Nations granted Australian mandate over the whole territory in 1921. Australian colonial rule was ratified again, this time by the United Nations, following the defeat of Japan in the Pacific in World War II.


Gold in the Interior

Declining returns of the Papuan goldfields led prospectors even further inland. These were often the first Europeans to visit parts of the country such as the inland Sepik, Madang and Morobe Provinces.

Transporting mining equipment to Kupei Gold Mine c. 1936. Richard MacLellan at far right.

The years between the two World Wars saw an active pursuit for the discovery of minerals in Papua New Guinea. The search for gold had led administration patrols deep into the country and groups of people previously unknown to the western world were encountered and filmed.

All food and supplies were carried in the Kupei Gold Mine by hand.

Fuel supplies being carried by hand.


Further searches for minerals and oil began in earnest, following up on earlier indications that the country had vast reserves. Minerals were discovered in large quantities.


Gold discoveries on Koranger Creek near present day Wau led to a gold rush in 1922. In 1926 further discoveries were made at Eddie Creek, near Wau.  By 1926 there was over 150 European miners and 1500 labourers working on the creeks draining into the Bulolo and Watut rivers.

The Kupei Gold Mine.

Alluvial slucing

Gold was also found on the wide river flats, and a thriving settlement was established at Bulolo. Materials for the construction of eight dredges were flown into the area for assembly on site. These dredges operated from 1932 until after WWII, working the gold bearing gravels. In places the alluvial gold-bearing beds were more than 30 meters deep. Administration patrols into the Highlands found gold occurrences in Western Highlands, Eastern Highlands and Enga provinces in the 1930s.

The first ingot of gold 80 ozs 7 dwts transported from the Kupei Gold Mine 18 November 1936.

Gold being transported from the from the Kupei Gold Mine c1936.

In 1936 Richard Alexander MacLellan managed the Kupei Gold Mine at Kupei Creek near the town of Panguna on the island of Bougainville. Panguna is situated in the mountainous interior of Bougainville, virtually at the heart of the island, in an area of high rainfall, seismicity and volcanic activity. Earthquakes of 7.1 on the Richter scale are recorded on average every ten years Any archaeological remains of the gold mine have now been destroyed as Panguna was later to become the site of the largest copper mine in Papua New Guinea and one of the largest open-cut mines in the world. By 1990 the Panguna mine was 2.5 kilometres across and 400 metres deep.

Richard A MacLellan at the Kupei Gold Mine.

 The Kupei Gold Mine; Richard A MacLellan is in the top centre.

Richard Alexander MacLellan was a mining hydrologist. His role was to ensure that the Kupei Gold Mine was adequately supplied with a reliable flow of water. Economical gold yields could be obtained by the working of larger quantities of dirt, however, this necessitated an efficient method of washing. One of the most crucial factors with which all miners had to contend was the abundance, or lack of, water.


In auriferous country, gold bearing gravel is usually found in the channels of antediluvian rivers. These rivers may have been upheaved several hundred metres above their ancient level or the valley through which they ran may have been covered during volcanic activity. However obtaining payable washdirt depended upon determining the lay of the lead, the location and flow direction of the older river or creek, and the depth of the gold bearing gravel and sand beneath the surface.


Where the gold-bearing alluvium could be accessed from the surface, the process of  'sluicing', washing the clay and gravel to recover the gold, was implemented. Water was brought to the mine site from the headwaters of a creek or river by the use of water races.  Where these races had to cross deep gorges or valleys, a trough or flume made from timber, bark or bamboo elevated above the ground, was used. (How alluvial mining races work).


Richard was skilled horseman and an excellent bushman. He had a repour with animals and at ease in the natural environment. It was these tested qualities that stood by him in the establishment of the Kupei Gold Mmine and perhaps helped him survive WWI.


Richard at his soldier's settlement block of land at Silkwood.


Richard was an accomplished artist. Many tales exist as told by his children of the drawings that were done of then at play. Unfortunately these works were lost in floods at Lota in Brisbane where Richard spent his final years.

The modern era 

In 1960 an Australian geologist working for the colonial Administration located low-grade copper deposits near Panguna. When large scale copper deposits were discovered in 1964 by Ken Phillips, a geologist with CRAE (Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia Exploration Ltd), the company was actually benefiting from gold discoveries that had been made near Panguna thirty years before (Gulliver CRA Dossier 178 CRA).


Bougainville Copper Limited

Bougainville Copper Limited operated an open cut mine at Panguna on Bougainville Island, Niugini, and associated treatment works and infrastructure for the extraction and export of copper/gold concentrate. Operating from 1972 the mine proved one of the CRA group's most successful ventures, providing over the next 15 years 45% of PNG's exports and 17% of government revenue. During initial surveying the mine became entangled in disputes with local landowning groups. Initially overcome these periodically resurfaced and after Bougainville declared independence eventually forced suspension of mining in May 1989 and abandonment of the operation in the following December.



Acknowledgement is given to May (MacLellan) Jenkins on and John 'Jacky' McGrath for some of the information on this website.





Website content researched and designed by Jennifer & Michael Tracey

Historical, Archaeological & Genealogical Research Consulants

 Mobile 0419011860

Heritage Archaeology ~ Historical, Archaeological & Genealogical Research Consultants

 (Copyright 2013)

Friday, 06 February 2015