Bamus and Ulawun are more than 400 m higher than all other major composite volcanoes in the 1000-km-long Bismarck volcanic arc. The two cones are immediately adjacent to each other and have partly coalesced. This close proximity, their similarity of form, and their positions over the same depths (70-160 km) to the New Britain Benioff zone, could be indications that Bamus and Ulawun have had related, or at least similar, eruptive histories. But there are important differences between the two volcanoes. Bamus is thought to have last erupted some time between 1878 and 1894, whereas Ulawun has erupted at least 17 times since the late nineteenth century. In addition, the rocks of Bamus are distinctly different from those of Ulawun. Mafic rocks are found in the older part of Bamus (including a boninite-like, or magnesian-andesite, lava flow), and the younger rocks of Bamus are low-MgO andesites (the most recent products have the highest SiO2 contents of all the analysed rock samples). In contrast, Ulawun appears to be a uniform pile of basalts and some andesites that have consistently lower amounts of CaO and Zr compared to Bamus rocks. Ulawun basalts are unlikely to represent the parental magmas from which Bamus andesites were derived by simple crystal fractionation, judging by the results of least-squares mixing calculations and the relatively high Zr contents of the Bamus andesites. The magmatic histories of Bamus and Ulawun appear to be unrelated, but because both volcanoes are the highest of all volcanoes in the Bismarck volcanic arc, both may now be susceptible to large-scale gravitational slumping or cauldron subsidence. North- and east-trending lineaments and escarpments on both volcanoes may represent the tectonically controlled scars of former gravitational collapses. Ulawun, in particular, may be at a critical stage because of its great height and steep slopes, and because eruptions in 1978 took place from a new, east-trending (possibly tectonically controlled) fissure low on the eastern flank of the volcano.