WAGAWAGA is a village of two hundred and seventy people on the south shore of Milne Bay, in the Australian Territory of Papua. I make no apology for writing about an Australian rather than a British village in a Colonial Service journal. For here something is happening that is significant for all Oceanic communities.

In Wagawaga and the surrounding area of Milne Bay tradition is being broken. For generations the people have tilled the soil by methods of shifting cultivation: for to them preservation of timber resources and top soil was unnecessary. The staple food crop, taro, was supplemented with other garden crops, wild fruits, coconut, pig and fish. The great gardens were directed not only to household food supply but to the provision of wedding and mortuary feasts, and the leaders of the community were men of wealth and knowledge. As in most other parts of Melanesia,  and some parts of Africa, there was no closely-knit tribal organisation with chiefs and paramount chiefs. Even to-day Wagawaga speaks its own language, rather mixed with other dialects, but nevertheless quite distinct; and this linguistic separation is paralleled by a political separation which makes it difficult to secure a loyalty to a group wider than the village.

For about seventy years Wagawaga has been subject to intensive missionary influence. The great feasts and the warfare which stimulated activity have disappeared. The three matrilineal clans still exist, but not in an organised way. Clan sentiment still influences in a subtle manner the inheritance of land, the choice of wives, the internal politics of the village, the distribution of income, but the clans do not now maintain club-houses nor hold ceremonies. Domestic houses, no longer of thatch, are of weatherboard roofed with corrugated iron—a typically Antipodean touch. The men still leave most of the garden work to the women, and earn such private cash as they need by casual labour.

This, in its essentials, is a situation that is common in Melanesia—old ways gone, nothing left but the hollowness of a semi-civilized living, no practical hopes that provide a spur to constructive activity. Indeed, as the women said at a meeting a few months ago, “Why should we have children ? Our work is hard and dull our children will be unhappy as we are. There is nothing for them, so we are not keen to have any more.”

These people have not been without help. They have seen comparatively little of government, but have been in continual contact with the missionaries of the Kwato Extension Association. Education in the three “r”s has been provided to a high standard, a dispensary with two Papuan nurses is nearby, and the missionaries have helped with all kinds of spiritual and general advice. Indeed, the Association has gone further than any other body I know of in this area in holding to two important ideals, the creation of a sense of equality between Papuan and European, and the provision of an outlet for activity in industrial work. The latter has been particularly marked and the advances made in training for boat-building, metalwork, sawmilling, house-building, furniture-making, and domestic crafts at the Mission headquarters, are an achievement of Melanesian development. The measure of this achievement may be gauged by the statement that there is, so far as I know, no Melanesian in the British Solomon Islands or the New Hebrides who has reached the standard of training of these people except in medical and clerical work and boat navigation—though they are people of the same race, character, abilities and social structure.

During the war the Japanese landed on the north shores of Milne Bay and were driven back in bitter fighting. Wagawaga was evacuated and used as an Allied naval base. When the people returned to their homes they were listless and apathetic. It seemed that the shock had been too much. The people were ripe for those psychological maladjustments which have appeared all over Melanesia, such as the “cargo cults” of New Guinea. They were filled with a sense of frustration, of inability to solve their problems or to achieve a level of activity comparable with that of Europeans. Some of the missionaries, too, had a sense of failure, and realised that their industrial education and their encourage­ment of equality had not been sufficiently related to village needs. It had remained, as it were, locked up at Headquarters and had made no deep penetration elsewhere except in religious practice and social etiquette.

Fortunately, the chance to remedy matters came and was recognised. A Papuan with some technical training, who had been away from Wagawaga for many years, returned to his people during the war. He was impressed with the activity of his military neighbours, and after lengthy discussions with the villagers, determined to ask a missionary whether it was possible to find a means of attaining similar standards of efficiency and industrial output. The idea of industrial efficiency in village life is so novel for Melanesia that the missionary would have been pardoned had he replied with the stock answer: “Industry is impossible. We have no local materials. It is too hard to train village people. Your society is not sufficiently acquisitive. You have no capital. There are no markets for inferior Melanesian work.” Instead, he determined to take up the challenge.

The scheme that is now being developed is one that could be applied, in its essentials, anywhere in the Western Pacific, except perhaps on atolls. A glance at import figures is enough to show that these colonies are completely dependent on outside sources for many significant items—all European consumption goods, furniture, foods including the native wants of rice, tinned meat, tinned fish, sugar, tea, flour and dried or tinned milk, and industrial materials such as machinery and jute bags. Except in Papua and New Guinea, where the immensity of the country permits the development of several crops, the only important export crop is copra.

The first task has been to experiment with the production of some of these commodities to see if they are suited to village manufacture, and to find other lines suitable for export.

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Economic Development in South East Papua

Permission has been obtained from Dr. Belshaw to include this unpublished survey of village enterprise in the Commission Social Development Committee Circular series since, though related to a single area in Papua, it deals with post-war problems of native production common to most of the South Pacific territories. It is hoped, therefore, that it will prove of interest and practical value to many engaged in furthering the commercial and industrial advancement of island communities.

  1. The author is a New Zealander, formerly a District Officer in the British Colonial Service and. now a Fellow of the Australian National University engaged in field resarch in New Guinea. Possessing the double qualifications of an anthropologist and economist, Dr. Belshaw has published several articles on topics connected with the economic life of the Melanesian peoples. His first book, “Island Administration in the South West Pacific: Government and Reconstruction in New Caledonia, the New Hebrides and the British Solomon Islands”, was published jointly by the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Institute of Pacific Relations early this year,
  2.  It should be emphasized that the views expressed in the paper are those of the author and. are not necessarily endorsed by the South Pacific Commission or the Australian Government.

A Summary

Dr. Cyril S. Belshaw

With the object of observing modern economic activity among the Papuans and the effects of modern activity on Papuan life, I have recently had the good fortune to visit a number of villages in the area adjacent to Samarai. I have gained the very strong impression that the Papuan of this area is intensely interested in commercial development and the mastery of industrial techniques, and that, given encouragement and advice, he is well on the way to achieve a society and economy quite new to Papuasia. It is the object of this paper to summarise the situation here, and to suggest ways in which the area can be integrated commercially. This is of course no “blue print” for development. There are so many unknowns in such a subject that a “blue print” would be too rigid and lead to disappointment. This is only a suggestion, pointing up possibilities and opportunities.

The people have been under more or less intensive missionary influence for the past 70 to 80 years. The indigenous culture has, in most places, given place to something new. In the main it is the exotic custom that has given way —— warfare, cannibalism, ritual food abstentions, old—time feasting and dancing in some places, pre-marital sexual intercourse, magical exhortation, the practice of sorcery, and the like. On the other hand the deeper features of culture have remained, with varying degrees of modification. Most of the ancient customs are remembered and regretted: some of the old people still practice magic in their gardens, and young people point with envy to their success as gardeners; in times of misfortune there are immediate accusations of sorcery, and perhaps some poor unfortunate and unpopular person will be seized upon as a scapegoat and hauled off to court. More important, clan and family organisation is still strong, and all economic organisatlon is based on an indigenous social structure. The District Officer who wrote that social structure and religion parallel the social structure and religion of the European was wide of the mark.

The people are matrilineal, not matriarchal. That is, descent and clan—membership is traced through the mother, though women are in other respects no more important than men. Land inheritance is fundamentally matrilineal (from the mother’s brother, not the mother), though in many areas sons customarily give a feast to the father’s relatives, in return for which they may inherit from their father. This link between feasting and inheritance is one of the reasons why successful European attacks on feasting would have serious social and economic repercussions.

Marriage exchanges, where they continue, are very modest and not at all onerous in this area, besides having a stabilizing influence on the family, Over most of the area (except for instance Wagawaga) native valuables such as greenstone adzes, ceremonial lime spatulae, armshells, and bagi, are very much in evidence. The ancient ceremonial exchanges still continue, especially in the islands, linking a wide range of communities in friendship, and providing opportunities for trade and. cultural spread. The desire to move about for these reasons seems to village constables and other people to conflict with the patrol officers’ desire, natural during census-taking, for them to remain quietly in one village.

Some villages are large, of nearly three hundred people, but nearly all the Papuans of this area are scattered in small hamlets, sometimes of one house, sometimes of four or five, all containing relations who own the hamlet land and nearby gardens. There is a prevalent belief that this is a modern and undesirable state of affairs. As regards its modernity, there is I think no justification for this belief. The hamlets are consistent with an age—old social structure, and are common to many Melanesian societies.

Desirability is a different question and seems to have been answered in the negative by patrol officers. Putting aside the crude argument that centralisation makes administration easier, there is much to be said for this view. Scattered hamlets remove labour from development areas, and make problems of distribution and transport almost impossible to solve, especially in inland areas. Eventually there must be found some way to linking scattered family groups to a common centre.

The method employed in at least one case that has been brought to my notice has been for the patrol officer to order hamlets to be abandoned and the inhabitants to move to specific sites. One cannot but agree that the Circular Instruction which forbids this practice is correct, and it is a pity it has not been observed. The patrol officer concerned was obviously too rushed to enquire into details of land ownership, distance from gardens, and. other factors involved. The people do not appear to understand the reasons for the move, and have contented themselves with building houses on the new sites and living on the old ones.  Read the rest