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Some thoughts on writing history the Melanesian way

British in Port Moresby  1885
British troops observed by Motuan people in Port Moresby, 1885


TUMBY BAY - Like a lot of expatriates in Papua New Guinea prior to independence, I commenced a university degree through the University of Queensland’s school of external studies.

I didn’t have a particular goal in mind. My motives were to add some direction to my voracious reading habit and give me something to do in the evenings on the remote patrol posts where I worked.

My vague study plan allowed me to range over many different subjects. The only constraints were the rules of the university. In this way I flitted from one course to another as they caught my interest.

The plan would certainly not provide any particular qualification when my degree was completed. Rather it offered a good general education in the nature of the old style Victorian scholastic era.

What I probably didn’t realise at the time, though, was that my approach had a particular Melanesian flavour to it, a sort of laid-back way of learning. It was something, along with a few other bad habits, I must have picked up in that Papua New Guinean water.

Through this ‘make it up as you go along’ degree, I found myself as one of only a few males tackling Women’s Studies and later among hippies absorbing The Politics of Non-Violence.

One thing I did learn from university, no matter what the subject, was that original thinking was a big no-no. It was all about giving the lecturers what they wanted to hear. In other words, echoing their ideas.

I first realised this when an essay on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ was returned to me with a low mark. In the essay I had had the temerity to suggest that my location on a remote patrol post on the upper reaches of the Fly River had some relevance to an appreciation of the novel.

I had also dabbled in a few history subjects and made the same mistake. As Pink Floyd declared, I was just ‘another brick in the wall’ and that’s where I was expected to stay.

When I understood this, I settled back to regurgitating the lecturer’s points of view and my marks improved accordingly. I guess it was good training in writing bullshit.

I also learnt to rigidly adhere to the formalities of presenting essays and other assignments. Wrongly setting out references or citations could mean the difference between a high or low mark. Commas had to be in their pre-ordained places, like this.

Only when I went on to post-graduate study was I allowed to express any degree of originality but I still had to be careful about upsetting the status quo.

That I ended up with a post-graduate degree is a minor miracle. It was also interesting that the degree qualified me to do nothing in particular.

Fortunately this wasn’t important to subsequent employers. They just wanted me to have some bits of university paper, they weren’t interested in what. As far as they were concerned I could have had a degree in basket weaving.

The rigidity that is taught in universities must have an effect on the disciplines they teach.

Take history.

I may have this wrong, but history seems to be about weighing up tangible evidence to arrive at well-constructed interpretations.

The essence of history about any matter is, therefore, largely determined by its sources. If those sources can be proved to be credible then an interpretation will hold.

The sources should be mainly primary, that is, original documents from the archives and other places or original work by authoritative writers. You will see information referenced as ‘personal communication’. This is information heard directly from key players who were involved in whatever event is described.

All up, this kind of methodology works well in literate societies where information and records have been stored.

However, it doesn’t work well in non-literate societies. In these cases, the main sources are oral.

Oral literature in mainstream history is not highly regarded and is labelled as hearsay and thought to be unreliable. And it is true that oral literature filtered through different generations is necessarily coloured by this filtration. Sometimes it is indistinguishable from invention.

This makes the job of a historian in a largely non-literate society extremely difficult. How is it possible to assert a proposition for which there is no conventional written proof?

Harder still is asserting a proposition if the limited written sources conflict with oral interpretation. If this occurs across cultures, the problem becomes really difficult.

As an aside, I should also note that oral literature quoted by a qualified historian, especially one from outside the country, seems to have more clout than oral literature quoted by a local, unqualified person.

This is when I think that history in places like Papua New Guinea needs to be taken out of its rigid, formal restraints and called something else.

For instance, Mathias Kin’s ‘History of Simbu’ could be called ‘The Story of Simbu’.

Or should it?

That would make it, in terms of an historian’s parlance, a secondary source – a kind of second-hand item. A ‘popular history’, written for entertainment rather than accuracy.

Maybe Papua New Guinea, like it needs a Melanesian Way of governance, needs a Melanesian Way of recording its history.


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William Dunlop

Arthur, What an absolute gem.

Arthur Williams

Do you believe in ghosts?" I reckon at least one guy in Wales does......

It all happened one lovely spring morning in 1937, just before dawn. My Dad was one of those old time coppers in 'B' Division of the Cardiff City Police Force, stationed at Llandaff.

Every hour or so each patrolling constable would be visited by his sergeant, who would sign his regulation pocket book in which he had noted any strange activities.

The night shift had been exceptionally quiet and most of the initialled entries in his notebook had been 'ND' (nothing doing).

At a quarter to six he had to sign off at the Victorian police station just beyond the village green. Around twenty-five past five he decided to call it a day and walked slowly to the police-station using the shorter route through the cathedral's ancient graveyard.

It was a little too early to arrive at the station so he decided to rest his weary feet and back for a few minutes. He chose one of those lovely old raised monuments to a long gone dignitary from the parish.

Taking off his tall helmet he put it on a nearby grave and folding his cape to make a pillow he climbed on the cold stone and lay down. He lay there a few minutes watching the first flush of dawn tinting the light covering of clouds slowly spreading over the eastern sky.

Suddenly he heard hurrying footsteps coming towards him along the gravel pathway. Fearful lest his sergeant was making an unusual final round of his men he sat up with a jerk and slight burst of surprised air.

Alas the early morning worker taking a short cut to catch the workers bus from a Western Avenue stop was only partially awake. The sudden movement and noise from a figure rising from the silent graves had a startling effect on him.

He gave a frightened yell, dropped his lunch and ran like the proverbial bat out of hell along the pathway and out through the distant wrought iron gates without ever looking behind him.

If he had done so he would have seen PC33B doubled up with mirth and picking up the discarded lunch box and muttering.

"Poor perisher...bet he wont come this was again in many a month, if ever."

So I reckon there is at least one guy in Cardiff who believes in ghosts, because he actually saw one...

A new ghostly story arose in the terrified man's family and so on to the extended family, pub darts team etc etc.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Oral history (or literature) changes and evolves as it gets older.

First you have the actual event and people talking about it. Then you have the memories of the event with a few added embellishments and then it turns into folklore, then legend and then mythology.

Through this whole process there is always a central core of truth.

Thus, in Australian Aboriginal mythologies (Dreamtime stories) anthropologists have discovered records of events, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, that happened thousands of years ago that are recorded in the geological record.

In the same way some biblical events have a basis in fact.

So you can't dismiss oral history lightly.

Garry Roche

In a response to the blog on the Kum River Massacre, I think Dr. Paulus Ripa’s final paragraph is also of pertinence to the discussion on “writing history the Melanesian way”. Paulus revealed an 1939 killing incident that I had not heard about before and concluded “However I am of the view that, though a written version is more reliable than oral version, if the single version was written without the basic facts being true, the body of evidence as told by many eyewitnesses cannot be dismissed out of hand as being unreliable; at least in the basic overall outline of events that took place.” In other words well supported oral evidence cannot be lightly dismissed.

Chris Overland

I would, like Ed and Phil, seek to reassure Mathias Kin that he should not be concerned about his credibility merely because he trained as a metallurgist, not an historian.

No-one has a mortgage on history and that includes historians.

There are people who are professional historians and they frequently do good and important work.

However, there are many more amateur historians who also do a great deal of good work, especially in the collection and recording of local histories about specific places or individuals. I think Mathias would safely fit into this latter category.

One of Australia's best writers about history is Peter Fitzsimons. He is not a trained historian, although he did take an Arts degree at the University of Sydney.

I understand that some people who fancy themselves as "real " historians sniffily dismiss him as being a mere journalist and so not to be taken seriously. This is academic snobbery at its finest.

So far, Fitzsimons has written at least 12 books relating to Australian history, selling many tens of thousands of copies. This level of success is a silent rebuke to his critics.

So, more power to your arm Mathias. Write your book and publish it for the world to see. There are bound to be critics but that is just life: there always are critics (as I have graphically demonstrated).

What matters is that you are making a start of recording history as the Simbu perceive and understand it.

Rashmii Bell

Mathias Kin's proposed title 'History of Simbu' should be published 'History of Simbu'. That is all.

Paul Oates

The Aesop's fables we were read as children are an excellent example of where the true value of story telling can have a real impact and carry a potent, ethical message.

No one should believe the stories are real yet the import of them is an effective way of passing on an important message.

Factual reporting and well written stories each have their place in a culture. It's only when they become blurred in people's minds that dangers can arise.

Philip Fitzpatrick

There are several problems with oral history.

The first is that over time the essential 'facts' tend to change according to the teller. If an incident is relayed through several generations the more likely it is that elements will change. This is why it is important to get the earliest possible version of an event from the most reliable source rather than just taking the consensus interpretation.

The second is that people tend to manipulate oral history for various personal or political reasons. They also manipulate recorded history but it is easier with oral history.

The third is human nature. Story tellers tend to embellish the telling to make them more interesting. The classic case is inflating numbers. Two men killed suddenly becomes fifty men killed. Fifty men killed has a much more dramatic impact, hence the inflation.

Oral history thus becomes a mixture of fact and fiction. It is the historian's job to try and separate the fact from the fiction. The only way to do this, in the absence of records, is to make educated guesses.

It is, therefore, very important for the historian to explain the logic of his or her conclusions. Teller A says that two men were killed, Teller B says that fifty men were killed. For the following reasons I think the number of men killed is likely to be the lower number but I think a lot of other men were probably wounded.

A number of readers might have noticed the variations in the reported cases of deaths during the Bougainville civil war. The estimates of deaths range from a few thousand up to twenty thousand. The further away in time one gets from the event the higher up the figure goes. One day someone might do a census of the actual numbers. I would guess it won't be anything like twenty thousand.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I should have worded that paragraph a bit better Mathias. It wasn't directed at you. I was thinking about other Papua New Guinean writers who have written histories who are not qualified historians.

And, no, don't bother about getting a history degree. That would make absolutely no difference to what you are doing.

I think through the debates around the book you've won a lot of friends on PNG Attitude and that's a good outcome.

And just between you and me I failed chemistry in high school, didn't even bother to sit the final exam because I knew I was hopeless.

Paul Oates

The so called western culture evolved from the successive previous cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world and through the testing times of the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. During the recent last few centuries, there has been further ‘tempering’ by free thinkers and popular followings, not the least being the various branches of the Christian religion and many wars both small and large.

It has often been said that history is only written by the victors. To this axiomatic fact it is suggested that humankind is often susceptible to being misled by lies, damn lies and statistics.

Popular leaders should share the guilt as well as those who are gullible enough to believe what they are told without checking the facts.

It is only recently that computer sites like ‘Snopes’ have been available for those who try to evaluate what they hear against what actually happened.

Albeit there are many translations in many languages, during the 17th, 18th and into the 19th Century, many Europeans chose to implicitly believe that what was written in the Christian Bible was actual fact and not oral history. Charles Darwin was castigated for simply putting forward a hypothesis about his ‘Origin of the Species’. Those in political power at the time and in thrall to Christian teachings were fixated in their belief that what was written in the Bible was the word of God and shouldn’t and couldn’t be challenged.

Everyone should merely conform and accept what they were being told. The Earth was apparently ‘created’ in the year 4004 BC and everyone could see that it was obviously flat.

Some then questioned the apparent conflict between factual information and cultural history. Could one really be a Christian Scientist?

Yet it seems that there can easily be a reconciliation between the two ideologies if one accepts that oral history and scientific facts can coexist provided that each is recognised for what it is and not confused or blended together. The classic sleigh of a political hand is to state a fact and blend it with an opinion and apparently create a new fact.

The Bible is a collection of oral stories that have been passed on over many generations before they were written down around 2,000 years ago. The famous Dead Sea Scrolls are almost fully translated and yet many more records of the time are still being discovered. We know that Jesus Christ was not known to be literate and stories about his life were written well after he died and then suffered from many successive translations through a number of languages.

Yet today, many people, and as Phil comments about those who call themselves ‘Creationists’ fervently believe what is written in their bible is fact. It has been suggested that over 36% of the USA refuse to believe in anything but what is written in the bible.

So now we come to the recent written history of PNG and far be it that anyone from another culture should suggest that PNG people should not write their wonderful stories about their living history and dynamic cultures.

However, to learn from the history of other cultures it is always better to establish proven fact from unproven but nevertheless very important oral histories and acknowledge where difference between the two can exist like parallel railway tracks and not be blended together. The danger is that if one looks away in the future, railway tracks tend to join up and become one.

In the really ‘old days’ if I were to be back in a PNG village I might have said: Em olsem ol wantok. Igat tupla kainkain tingting istap wantaim. Em olsem igat tupla baret istap hapsait long rot. Baret istap lo han keis em tok stret na baret istap lo han sut em olsem tok stori tasol. Sapos yu bin lukluk lo rot igo long we tru em nau tupla baret ibung wantaim lo ai blo yu. Nogut tupela baret ibung wantaim tru tasol oa gutpla rot ibin bagarap pinis lo taim planti wara ikamap!

Kain olsem na nogut sapos tupla kain tingting ibung wantaim oa aiting bihain bai tingting blo ol pipol ibagarap.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You have to be careful of 'fake news', Paul. What Donald Trump calls 'fake news' usually turns out to be accurate news and what he calls accurate news usually turns out to be 'fake news'.

Maybe there is now such a thing as 'fake rumours'.

You might also have noticed that our pollies in Oz and PNG are catching on quickly.

The other Trump new invention are 'alternative facts'. The Americans have been doing this for a long time i.e. passing off creationism as fact.

Peter O'Neill seems to be an expert in 'alternative economics'. Given that economics is akin to sorcery this is not hard to believe.

I agree with Ed that one of the main purposes of tertiary education is to teach people how to learn but I'm not sure this applies at the undergraduate level.

I was taught a lot of Marxist theory in my undergraduate years and had to conform to that teaching to get by and pass courses.

I took a lot of useful ideas away from Marx but quietly rejected a lot of it too. Now Marxism is out of favour. I wonder if they still teach it.

I would also contend that some of the smartest people I have met are self-taught. At the same time some of the dumbest hold PhDs.

Mathias Kin

Oh yes Phil, after this project I should go to uni again to gain a degree in history and writing to better my position on history writing, thank you for that advice.

I am a trained metallurgist -- that's chemistry, geology and mining engineering sandwiched together. English being being my third tok and no history at all from the point of view of formal schooling and not too deep into the language in uni also.

I have got setbacks but again I like a challenge and I am enjoy my life here among you learned people so far. Husat tok nogat! I am not gonna throw this sugar cane stick yet, especially when I am about to chew the sweeter bottom part.

My project is a work in progress, hopefully it will all come together soon.

Sure I used existing sources and these are stuff you scholars already are well versed in but much more important to me are these "primary sources" which you all have never heard and may never have that opportunity to.

By the way in my Listing of Interviews shows that many of these old people have died since, sad but a fact, I just can't sit while these oral histories from "my" side are going to their graves faster now.

Anyhow the killing story is one chapter in the whole book of eight chapters, there are more likable (I would think) parts which all can appreciate.

Gutpla tru olgeta. Thank you again for all advice.

Ed Brumby

Spot on, Paul: The primary purposes of education, at elementary and secondary schools at least are: socialisation, compliance and conformity. It is only at tertiary level, in my view, that we start to learn how to learn and, in theory at least, to develop our own, idiosyncratic understanding of the world, past and present.

Bernard Corden

Several good reads from the deschoolers:




Paul Oates

I'm not surprised you met with the same rigidity in the education system. I too suffered from the same problem and was chastised for it.

The essence of what we went through was reverse culture shock.

ASOPA taught us about culture shock and we expected it and many anticipated going to PNG to learn about other cultures and people.

What I, and it seems many others, didn't expect that when we arrived back in what we thought was our original culture, we had been subliminally but immutably changed.

Most kiaps experienced situations that required original thinking and often depended on this attribute to survive. There was no Plan B and often no one to ask for assistance if things went wrong.

Western culture, especially in higher education at the time, encouraged conformity and discouraged non conformity. That helped settle any perturbation in the higher levels of academia. Essentially it was all about control.

We now face a different form of social engineering that is strangling original thought by legally ensuring any oral utterance or written work conforms to those who profess to have the right to tell others how they should act and think.

I was recently told that university students in the UK are now instructed not to use gender specific terminology in their thesis or else they will be marked down. Is this just a rumour or fact? If only a rumour or 'fake news', these days it does seem believable.

Has the proverbial pendulum of political correctness swung too far the other way?

Daniel Kumbon

I have just watched a video ‘The Day Walker’ produced by Trevor Noah, a South African actor, TV host and stand-up comedian in which he jokes about the accents of people - French, Chinese, Indian etc and the 'Black accent'.

Trevor Noah says, and I agree with him, that people easily accept and never seem to mind other accents but make fun of the black accent and wrongly equate it with stupidity.

And so it seems with Simbu or PNG history written by a Papua New Guinean and based on oral history. It will never be credible it seems.

But I say Mathias Kin must continue with his work and publish 'The History of Simbu' as part of the overall history of the highlands and PNG written by a Papua New Guinean.

One day Mr Kin’s work will be recognised as an original source by future generations. To Papua New Guineans, it will still be a history of their country.

I have already quoted John Waiko from his book ‘A Short History of Papua New Guinea’ n my own book ‘I Can See My Country Clearly Now.’

Our ancestors survived perfectly well basing their everyday lives on oral history.

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