Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

by Dr. Michael Main

Early patrol officers encountered resistance from fighting men who often resented the interventions of the administration. Patrol reports have a tendency to sanitise the situation, preferring to present a picture of administrative control. However, private diaries and letters often paint a more chaotic scene. The diaries and letters of Albert Speer, an Australian medical assistant at Koroba during the 1950s, reveal unrelenting levels of violence that the administration struggled to control. One fight that started on 28 May 1956 took away all the men that were working on road construction. 1 Speer writes of three killed and several wounded, with smoke from burning houses, before one man returns from the fighting after three days. On being made aware of the government prohibition against fighting, the returned man stated that he hadn’t been at the fight because “he had a cold!”. Five days later, with the fight still raging, the man returns again to state that his “line” is not involved in the fight. Another entry, dated 11 April 1956, refers to the prohibition against the carrying of bows and arrows, “Broke another arrow today. A bloke from Hedamari who said he didn’t know of the rule!” Five years later, writing to his wife from Tari on 1 September 1961, the botanist Royal Pullen reveals some of the difficulties faced by the administration:

“It is a horrible place to chase murderers in for the police, & administration is very difficult. Consequently the hand of authority cannot be pressed down as hard on the locals as the govt. would wish. Jail breaks are frequent here for a long time & the fighters hard to recover. Coupled with a homicidal tendency among all adult males it is a great place to keep in order. Never a dull moment” 2 Compared with a patrol report from Tari conducted in mid-June 1961:

“A very helpful attitude was in evidence when police action was undertaken by the patrol. Two men, V.C. IBARE and one URUBU, informed the patrol of the presence of two escaped murderers in the WAIWANDA area… IBARE guided the police party accompanied by the writer to WAIWANDA and the arrest was successfully accomplished… The positive nature of police action appeals to their warlike temperament.” 3 The two men were clearly writing about the same event, the difference being that one was writing to his employer, and the other to his wife. Another Tari letter from Pullen, dated 20 August, 1961:

“The kiaps here say Tari is a different place because of the nature of the Taris who get cross on all sorts of pretexts & quickly resort to axes and arrows. The merrys [women] too seem to have a lot of say, as a group, & quite often incite the men by saying such things as “such & such has happened. What are you going to do about it? You must be scared!!” 2

A Native Affairs patrol through the Haibuga area of the Southern Highlands reports that good progress has been made in establishing peace among the tribes in that region. Until this area came under Administration influence there were frequent tribal clashes and many individual disputes led to violence. The degree to which the people have accepted law and order was evidenced by the number of civil complaints put before the patrol for settlement, many of them concerning matters which in tribal days would have undoubtedly led to violence… 4

Reports submitted by patrol officers that speak of progress towards pacification need to be read with caution. An early report from Komo station, which was established ten years after Tari, states, “It is a fact that the Huri native can only be impressed by superior force and it is interesting to note that many trouble-makers, having been in prison, often become very pro-administration.” 5 Prison experience, which would have included shelter, comfortable bedding, and provision of food, would also have been unlikely to create very much disenchantment among the young fighting men who were placed there for periods of time. Over three years later a patrol covering “the whole area administered from KOMO Patrol Post” reveals the limits to the extent of administration control:

The population throughout the area at the moment is in a state of flux. Because of the fighting which took place throughout the area prior to the establishment of administration control many groups broke and became scattered. Now with the Administration firmly established and fighting eliminated, these people are now moving back to their areas of domicile. The migration figures which are high at the moment will probably remain on this level until the people are resettled. This I feel shows complete confidence in the Administration’s ability to maintain law and order. 6

A picture emerges of two very different worlds. The areas that were under administration control were indeed peaceful, which was appreciated by the Huli residents and the missionary groups who had established themselves well within these boundaries. Barbara Hutton spoke to me of their very peaceful experience at Hoyebia from their arrival in 1956.

“It went on to be very peaceful… Traditionally when you had killed so many of your enemies you had a rejoicing celebration with a mali. But after they became Christian they decided they wouldn’t kill people and things and so they switched it to being times of celebration. So when it was Christmas they would have a Chrismali. Victory over your enemies, so when your family line killed so many of their family line, they would celebrate a victory. So then they decided to switch it to celebrate the victory of Christ’s death. Their idea. As far as I recall, they didn’t want to give up on the mali, but they knew it was wrong to kill people, so they looked for a new meaning for it.”

Photo 3.4 “Picnic at the Piwa River, April 1957” 7

The mixed and complex reaction to administration control is reflective of the diversity of motivations and individual personalities of the Huli population. But it is also reflective of the structural obligations experienced by Huli fighting men and the limits to which people were able to feel secure in the ability of the administration to provide a structural alternative. As Glasse observed, “Obligations of kinship were not the only force which drew allies into engagements: warriors joined the issue also for the glory to be won and for the sheer excitement and adventure of a fight. But the majority of Huli warriors were not fanatical in their purpose”. 8 Fighting obligations are structurally nebulous, and this was certainly the case during my fieldwork. Alliances are based on friendship as much as kinship and what are contemporarily referred to as “fighting teams” can form and reform in an endless variety of ways.

Participation is based, as is the case generally with Huli life, on individual choice, however, those who choose to opt out also isolate themselves from social networks that they may need to depend on. The pacification of Huli was therefore about establishing a reliable alternative that was able to extend its influence across the vast expanse of Huli territory and hundreds of Huli clans. The alternative was desirable, but it also had to be dependable.

Glasse also stresses a notable feature of Huli redress, which is a strong tendency to over compensate for loss or aggrievement. “Huli have no ideal of lex talionis” 9 Glasse proclaims. It would not be unreasonable to offer the retort, “yes, but neither do we.” Lex talionis operates in a formal jural setting that is independently arbitrated and penalties are issued by disinterested parties based on a logic of fair redress. It might be fair to suggest, however, that Huli redress has the tendency to overcompensate to an extreme. The logic of redress is not based on material equivalence, but on the symbolic act of theft or insult. I personally experienced this perception after travelling with a friend who had been given the task of transporting several drums of diesel fuel to the Ambua Lodge, located on the slopes of Mt Ambua outside Tari. The road out of Tari is very bad, full of potholes and rocks and one of the old drums developed cracks along the way. By the time we arrived at Ambua, the tray of the truck was soaked in diesel fuel and one of the drums was a little low on volume. Clearly the payment for the fuel needed to be reduced to compensate for the loss of fuel. Drums were inspected to estimate the amount of loss. I had a look and arrived at an opinion, but my estimation was considered too generous by the buyer. The reaction of the buyer was extraordinarily intense. It was a matter of opinion of only a few litres, but his reactionwas immediately recognisable as a characteristic Huli response to the perception of theft. The response was not weighed against the quantification of material loss, but against the symbolic act of stealing. A friend at Komo had told me about a time when he was a child during a drought. He had little to eat and had taken to stealing a small sweet potato from the garden of a man he did not know. The man caught the boy and asked why he stole the potato. The boy was certain that he would be killed, but he replied that he needed food and that the potato that he stole was only of a quality to be given to pigs. The man replied that, because the boy had told the truth, he would be spared his life. The boy had extinguished the symbolism of theft by making himself vulnerable in the embrace of truthfulness (henene), which is something to be highly regarded. The extreme Huli response to redress is based on a logic of abundance, as I have described in Chapter 2. Abundance creates the space for the symbolic value of materials to inflate. The intensity of redress is a reflection of this inflated symbolic value.

Although it was a difficult task, the colonial administration was successful in drastically reducing the endemic warfare and individual incidents of violent redress that were constant features of Huli life, but it took a generation to achieve. By the 1970s a generation of Huli who had grown up under administrative influence became the young men who would otherwise have been participating in the disputes of their fathers. Huli readily accepted the lex talionis that was proscribed by independent arbitration that derived a singular head of power from an external source. Huli acceptance of this power is not simply explained as capitulation to a stronger, punitive authority, rather the embrace of a leadership and authority that could be relied upon to be universally accepted is an important element of this change. A more detailed analysis of Huli conflict is provided in Chapter 6.

(Extract printed with permission of Michael Main. “Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity”. Doctoral Dissertation, Canberra: Australian National University, 2020. pp. 101-109)

(Feature Photo by Damien Aragabali)

  1. Albert Speer, “Appointment Diary 1956,” in Papers of Albert Speer (National Library of Australia, MS8450, Series 1, Diaries, 1943-74, Box 1, File 71956). []
  2. Royal Pullen, “Tari, Ms., 3pp,” (Pullen, Royal (1925-2009): Personal correspondence while on botanical expeditions in Papua New Guinea, 1956-1972: Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, PMB 1232, Reel 2, 1961). [][]
  3. B.J. Maume, “Tari Patrol Report No. 14 1960/61,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea1961), 5. []
  4. J.K. McCarthy, “Administration Press Statement No. 2. Patrol through Haibuga area of Southern Highlands,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea 1962). []
  5. M.R. Haywood, “Komo Patrol Report No. 3 1961/62,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea1962), 3. The patrol was conducted during February 1962. []
  6. N Wright, “Komo Patrol Report No. 4 1964/65,” (Patrol reports [microform], The National Archives of Papua New Guinea1965). [No page number visible] []
  7. Photo courtesy of Barbara Hutton and used with kind permission. The Piwa river is close to Tari and its sandbanks are a popular swimming location. []
  8. Robert Glasse, “Revenge and Redress among the Huli: A Preliminary Account”, 286. []
  9. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua: A Cognatic Descent system, 87. []

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