Papua New Guinea doesn’t deserve Biden’s cannibal comments, PM says

Uproar over President Biden’s comment coincided with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Papua New Guinea.
Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby
Papua New Guinea doesn’t deserve Biden’s cannibal comments, PM says Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Kiribati President Taneti Maamau (left to right) stand for a group photo following a U.S.-Pacific Islands summit, at the South Portico of the White House in Washington, Sept. 25, 2023.
Jim Watson/AFP

Papua New Guineans do not deserve to be labeled as cannibals, their prime minister said after U.S. President Joe Biden suggested his missing uncle was eaten in the Pacific island country during World War II. 

Headlines about Biden’s gaffe coincided with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Papua New Guinea on the weekend that produced several agreements between the two countries. China and the United States are jostling for influence in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea, the most populous Pacific island country, is a key battleground in that contest.

A statement from Prime Minister James Marape’s office on Sunday said Biden “appeared to imply his uncle was eaten by cannibals after his plane was shot down” over Papua New Guinea. It urged the U.S. to find the remains of World War II victims in Papua New Guinea, including American servicemen, so the “truth” could be known.

“President Biden’s remarks may have been a slip of the tongue, however, my country does not deserve to be labeled as such,” Marape said in the statement. “World War II was not the doing of my people; however they were needlessly dragged into a conflict.”

Biden made the comments on April 17 following a visit to a war memorial in Pennsylvania, according to a White House transcript. 

He said his uncle, Ambrose Finnegan, was never found after being shot down during a reconnaissance flight in a single-engine U.S. Air Force plane over Papua New Guinea. The Pacific island country was invaded by Japan in 1942.

“He got shot down in an area where there were a lot of cannibals in New Guinea at the time,” Biden said. “They never recovered his body.  But the government went back,” he said, “and they checked and found some parts of the plane and the like.”

U.S. defense records show however Finnegan was a passenger on an Army Air Forces plane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the north coast of Papua New Guinea “for unknown reasons.” There is no mention the plane was shot down or any indication that Biden's uncle was a victim of cannibalism.

President Joe Biden reaches to touch the name of his uncle Ambrose J. Finnegan, Jr., on a wall at a war memorial in Scranton, Pennsylvania, April 17, 2024. [Alex Brandon/AP]

Cannibalism in Papua New Guinea was fading out by the 1960s after being banned by Australia – the colonial power – the previous decade. It was largely a ritualistic practice. 

The Fore tribe in the eastern highlands, for example, believed it was more loving to eat remains of relatives than let them be consumed by insects, according to a University of Western Australia summary of cannibalism research. 

Biden’s comments have caused an uproar in Papua New Guinea. Opposition Deputy Leader Douglas Tomuriesa said the White House should apologize to Papua New Guineans.

President Biden’s comments “contribute and are a testament to the broader misunderstanding and this fantasization from the West about cannibalism in PNG,” he said in a statement.

“It is bemusing and sad that all President Biden could say in reference about PNG to his crowd was [about] a very isolated practice in a small number of villages in the country. This has since died out and no longer accepted in our society,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Yi’s brief visit to Papua New Guinea produced a slew of announcements including China Southern Airlines’ decision to start three flights a week to Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby in June.

“We must, as a nation, stand up and decide on what is best for our national interest, and the signings with the Chinese Foreign Minister show that,” Marape said.

“Our relationship must be built on trade, and not just aid and grants from China,” he said.

Biden in May last year canceled a brief stopover in Papua New Guinea – that was meant to underline renewed U.S. commitment to the Pacific – to focus on budget battles at home. The same month, Papua New Guinea and the U.S. signed a broad-ranging defense cooperation agreement.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.