An open letter to the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA)
But still my country’s beautiful

The end of the benign Papua New Guinean 'Big Man'

Big_manPAUL OATES with a comment from Phil Fitzpatrick

GOLD COAST - Traditional Melanesian custom required the accumulation of wealth and influence to be a notional practice - referred to as ‘social capital’ to differentiate it from capital measured in terms of money. 

This is because traditional wealth in Papua New Guinea was often measured in highly perishable items like food and animals.

In a tropical climate, with no means of preserving food, it had to be given away, creating recognised wealth in terms of obligation to the giver by the receiver. This wealth became measurable.

Giving away food animals was also important since there was a limit of how much fodder could be grown in most villages to feed a large number of food animals. By giving the animal away, this relieved the original owner of the need to continue to feed the animal while creating an obligation.

The benefit of sharing resources in small communities also helped create cohesion and the survivability of the whole community.

In many traditional PNG cultures, the term ‘Big Man’ referred to a wealthy person. Mostly this wealth was measured in social capital or perceived reciprocity and not in tangible assets or money. The Big Man would care for his community.

In order to attain perceived wealth and prestige, the Big Man had to distribute his wealth to obtain obligation. He would also be looked on as a father figure when help was needed.

This traditional custom came under threat when the means arrived to acquire wealth that could be stored indefinitely in the form of money and the availability of bank accounts.

Wealth could also be acquired from any number of sources (including paid labour) and stored or used as required. It also could be easily transferred between two or more parties, mostly without the knowledge of the public or anyone actually seeing the transaction.

So traditional PNG wealth accumulation in terms of social capital and reciprocal obligation has morphed into the modern ability of an individual to seek and accumulate personal wealth.

That has altered the concept of fostering a cohesive and self-sustaining society into one where individuals who attain wealth, by whatever means, can store it away from public view.

The original benefits of reciprocity in traditional Melanesian culture have been effectively destroyed. A chasm has now opened up between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Yet the concept of acquiring status and prestige by giving away wealth has not changed.

Once acquired, personal wealth can be used to gain advantage, including using wealth to secure loyalty or influence public opinion.

While there are laws that restrict the improper use of personal funds but, in the cultural context of traditional society, to put it bluntly, when does reciprocity become a bribe? When does the socially-orientated Big Man become nothing more than a Rich Man who can buy favours and control?

This conflation of tradition with modernity has become one of the major problems facing today’s PNG.


Anthropologists have identified two categories of leadership in traditional PNG society. One is the Big Man, as set out in the article and the other is the Great Man.

The Big Man is peculiar to the highlands, whereas the Great Man tends to be seen in the coastal and island regions.

Where the Big Man achieves his power and prestige from the distribution of accumulated wealth the great man achieves his power through magico-religious, fight leadership and general charisma.

We tend to give everything Papua New Guinean a highlands flavour these days but the coastal and island people are still a large minority and very influential.

Accumulating pigs is not much different to accumulating money. A live pig is not perishable. The spin off from having a large holding of pigs is that you need more wives and more land to accommodate them, thus driving the economy.

As Francis Nii and others have pointed out on PNG Attitude, there haven’t been any large pig kills in the highlands since the late 1960s so I guess that marks the time that the traditional Big Man power crashed and was replaced by the Big Thief Man.


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Ross Wilkinson

In recent years I’ve been reading PNG history books, Annual Reports and patrol reports related to the work of the early administrations and field officers.

Unfortunately the records from early Mandated New Guinea were destroyed by the Japanese and what remains are merely the personal recollections of people who survived that time.

Obviously, post-war the systems continued as there were many officers from “before” to continue the work. However, the Administration had decided to amalgamate the two territories under one system of government and laws and progressively moved to educate the people to more democratic systems such as publicly elected local government councils and a National Parliament.

From this study and my own observations from just over 13 years as a kiap, I understand that, as Phil observes, the concept of what constitutes the true “big man” has altered significantly over time. And, as he stated, our understanding of what the term means depends entirely on the context with which it is used by all parties.

In the early years the move to seek the expansion and acceptance of this “new” centralised colonial rule or “gavamen” in the villages, the field officers, kiaps, were looking for the people who would influence the rest of the villagers to accept this.

Once identified, they were given uniforms and badges as the trappings of office and appointed as Village Constables in Papua and Luluais and Tultuls in New Guinea.

Occasionally mistakes were made and the person selected did not perform to the expected standard and was replaced. And, of course, they grew old and became less influential or physically incapable of fulfilling the role and were also replaced.

Then, the people were introduced to the concept of local government where they would decide what was needed to develop their immediate areas through a local body known as a council.

They would elect the representatives to this body and it would be responsible to make the decisions and organise the things to enable them to advance their lifestyles.

From the government’s perspective it was perceived that the big men would continue to represent their people with the only change being that they would be nominated by their own people via the ballot box at both local and national levels.

Of course, we are aware that genuine big men were elected as related elsewhere on this site but, as time passed, it appeared that this situation changed, particularly in the local councils.

With aging came generational change. Younger men were being elected as councillors but did capacity to influence transfer to them? In my experience I would say, in many cases, no. They wanted the appearance of power and influence and, when passing by-laws in council meetings, would always ask if the by-law gave them power over their people.

However, Paul has talked about the issue of reciprocity and my impression from these experiences is that, in this regard, it became reversed and the power and influence transferred to the voters.

Leave us alone and we’ll keep voting you in and allowing you to keep the trappings and benefits of being a councillor. Naturally, this meant that if the kiap wasn’t around construction and maintenance of the rural roads and airstrips was not done.

When the kiap next attended the village and saw that work hadn’t been done, the councillor was summoned and chastised. The councillor would then gather his men and berate them for not listening to his instructions and then order them to the work site.

And so we have the decline into Phil’s “Big Thief Man” situation where they have become tempted by not just the trappings and benefits of the position, but the larger wealth opportunities that come their way by fair means or foul.

Garry Roche

Perhaps transparency was more common in traditional business dealings.

The ‘big-man’ in the photo is wearing a cluster of small bamboo sticks down his chest. In Hagen (Melpa) language this is called an ‘omak’. It is a record of what he has given in ‘moka’ transactions.

‘Moka’ involved exchanges where pigs and kina shells were given in trade. (Of course Kawelka Ongka went one better than his rivals by including a motor vehicle in a Moka exchange!)

To the best of my knowledge the big men would not attempt to pretend they had given more than they actually had.

Everything was out in the open, people could see the pigs and shells that were on display. One of the current problems is perhaps the lack of transparency in financial accounting.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm guessing that the name 'Donkey' was related to the stubborn nature of your grandfather to do what he thought was right Philip.

I've worked with Aboriginal people in Australia and a few places in the Pacific, such as Vanuatu and the Cook Islands, as well as PNG, and it seems to me that context is an important consideration when discussing traditional issues.

If you take a tradition out of context you invariably change it, sometimes in bad ways.

The big man system worked really well in its traditional context but once an outside context was imposed on it, such as modernism, problems began to surface.

The big man system works well in a traditional setting but as soon as you take it out of that setting it breaks down or, as in PNG, transmogrifies into something less desirable.

Thus you cannot really call the so-called big men operating in modern PNG big men, they are something else.

Crooks and conmen spring to mind for a lot of them but there are also people of influence, power and wealth who do good things. Perhaps we make a mistake by calling them big men. Since they exist in a modern context perhaps they should just be called 'good people'.

Philip Kai Morre

The decline of power and authority of traditional big men and the creation of ad hoc big men via politicians, business men, educated men and even criminals gives us a lot of problems in our society.

The authority and respectful relationships with the people is not practised anymore. The social stratification, social cohesion and customary laws that regulates behaviour is declining.

The big men now don’t know how to control, mobilise people for development and make peace with other conflict clans. Young people don’t respect some of their big men as well due to many reasons and vice versa.

In the highlands of PNG big men gained their title either by working for it or traditionally handed down from fathers to sons. Traditional big men have to be economically fit, acquiring wealth in looking after many pigs, food gardens, having more feathers and kina shells and etc.

Traditional big men have to be physically fit, morally qualified and can have assertiveness, respect and equipped with problem solving skills.

Traditional leaders or big men don’t dictate or impose their ideas and force the people to follow. They listen attentively to their people in every aspect with their ears, hearts, eyes and minds open.

Big men don’t talk about themselves or talk for the people to gain big name but they talk with the people. They feel pride in giving and supporting their people and receiving from their own people with appreciation.

In the colonial times the pioneer kiaps adapted the culture of the people very well and they study the social stratification, the social and political groupings in the tribal and clan settings which are always there.

They identified big men or leaders and gave them titles like Luluai, Tultuls and others to signify their leadership. They also called them bospo namba wan, tu etc. Such titles sounds funny but they were serious names, workable and effective in the colonial times and is the basis for colonisation and development.

My grandfather was a luluai in the 1940s and was given the task to organise the workforce to build roads and other developments. He was in charge of his section 3 kms west of Kundiawa town.

There were two policemen attached to his clansmen and they have to listen to him as well. It happened that one of the police man belted one of his men saying that he shouldn’t smoke during work.

The Luluai (my grandfather) grabbed a digging stick and hit it on the policeman’s head with blood until he fell unconscious. He quickly grabbed his gun and the other policeman ran for safety to Kundiawa to tell the kiap.

The same day police reinforcements and the kiap came to the site where the incident took place. When the kiap asked the luluai why you did that to my policeman, the luluai responded through a interpreter without fear, “You appointed me a luluai and call me bospo for this road building and the two policemen as well.

"The two policemen have to obey instructions and they are here to avoid problems and protect the people. The policeman standing over there hit one of my clansmen without a good reason so I had to hit him back.

"I got his gun to avoid shooting, he will kill me or the rest of us when I don’t get the gun from him.”

The kiap listened attentively and was satisfied by his explanation. Before the kiap make any comments the luluai told the people to bring one of his pigs to make peace. The kiap looked at my grandfather and said, “You are a brave man, from now on I will call you Donkey”.

What good name the kiap gave is known to him and he used that nickname beside his own name until he died in 1978.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, councils were introduced to replace luluais and tultuls. Again nominees were given and mostly sons of traditional big men.

My uncle was nominated a councillor and was the survivor of the vehicle accident at Daulo Pass when the late Kondom Agaundo was killed in 1966. They were returning home from the Coffee Board meeting when accident took place.

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