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Revisiting Hahalis: Cult or flawed crusade?

'John Teosin was a complex personality and an enormously deep thinker. He was ahead of his time in many ways. Among the living dead, John Teosin shan’t be forgotten'

Hahalis headline

| With some useful references from Dr Robin Hide

NOOSA - The John Teosin Highway (aka the Buka ring road) connects villages along the east coast of Buka Island with Bougainville’s commercial and administrative centre, Buka Town.

The ring road plays a vital role in people’s lives as well as moving them from one place to another.

In a material sense, this is symbolic of what the members of the Hahalis Welfare Society was seeking to do: emulating some colonial institutions and structures to see if they would work for them.

The Johnson cult of New Ireland, initially labelled a cargo cult, was later more soberly characterised as political theatre.

In the same way, perhaps what John Teosin and his followers were acting out was development theatre.

After the sound and fury had died down, that’s certainly what it looked like.

We Remember Them, by Simon Pentanu

We have Bougainville leaders we often think of and hear and read about and would have liked to come into personal contact with.

For me John Teosin (1940-74) from Hahalis, Buka Island, is one such community leader, a Bougainville leader really.

In my view he was a complex personality but an enormously deep thinker. Ahead of his time in many ways.

He was a man of numerous talents and a leader of men to whom the community gravitated.

His name and fame and contribution are indelibly inked in the annals of Bougainville’s rich political history, along with other chiefs, colleagues and contemporaries of his time.

Among the living dead, John Teosin shan’t be forgotten.

An interpolation, by Keith Jackson

Professor Philip Jenkins has noted parallels between the prosperity theology, as practised by the Pentecostal churches, and the cargo cult phenomenon once – and perhaps still - found in Papua New Guinea.

“The prosperity gospel actively fosters a ‘cargo-cult’ mentality in religious people,” Brisbane theologian Garry de Vries has written.

“Virtually every false religion worships a god whose function it is to deliver some sort of ‘cargo’.”

Christianity is not about what we get out of it as much as it is about what God has done and continues to do for us in Christ and our response to that.

Hahalis Welfare Society, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

The Hahalis Welfare Society was a nativist movement on Buka Island, Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

The movement began in 1960 and was most active in the 1960s and 1970s.

At its peak, the Society numbered as members half the population of Buka Island, which was 25,000 at the time.

While the Society was mainly focused on anti-tax activism, the Administration classified it as a cargo cult.

A Police Inspector John Hihina described it this way: "In 1962 we had trouble at Hahalis on Buka Island, where John Teosin, Francis Hagai] and the old Sawa started a cargo cult. About 2,000 members joined in and the situation was rather awkward".

Hahalis Welfare Society, from Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions

Hahalis - John Teosin
John Teosin

A religious and economic development movement with some cargo ideas on Buka Island, Papua New Guinea.

In 1952, two former students in Roman Catholic schools, John Teosin (born 1938) and his brother-in-law, Francis Hagai, formed a family cooperative which in 1957 developed into a cooperative society involving half the Buka population in plantations, stores, transport, etc.

In 1961, they set up their own ‘church’.

The Mixed Legacy of the Hahalis Welfare Society, by Patrick Nomos

Hahalis Village on Buka Island is a quiet place now, similar in appearance to all the other villages along the island's east coast road.

There’s no outward sign that from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s it was the centre of a notorious organisation known as the Hahalis Welfare Society, regarded as a cult by the Port Moresby-based Administration.

The Hahalis Welfare Society, a breakaway from the East Coast Buka Society, was established in 1957 by Catholic-educated John Teosin and his brother-in-law, Francis Hagai, on the principles of communal farming and self-help.

In 1961, in addition to pooling land, labour and profits to capitalise machinery, trade stores and marketing, the Society set up a sori lotu (opposition church).

The sori lotu terminated the practice of paying bride price and revoked the elders control over marriage.

Of even greater controversy it established a ‘Baby Garden’ - an area in which the single girls of the village were segregated by age, housed in small thatched huts and required to provide sexual favours to men.

According to my mother, her parents and other parents in central Buka, were afraid their young daughters would be kidnapped by Hahalis followers for placement in the Baby Garden.

Girls were warned by their parents not to stray far from their houses and to always walk in groups if they needed to visit food gardens beyond the village boundaries.

In 1972, when my mother commenced studies at a Catholic girls secondary school on Bougainville Island, she got to know some of the young women who had endured their early years in the Baby Garden.

The school arranged for them to be baptised as Catholics.

'3,500 Buka Islanders pose a cargo cult problem' in Pacific Islands Monthly

The leaders of the movement are the headmen of the Hahalis villages. Some of the leaders, but not all of them, are office bearers in the Hahalis Welfare Society.

The two main ones are Francis Hagai, who is secretary of the society, and John Teosin, who is chairman. Both are school teachers trained by the Catholic Mission.

Teosin’s mother-in-law was one of the natives beheaded by the Japanese for wartime cargo cult activities.

Both men were given gaol sentences during the tax troubles, but Hagai emerged from gaol more powerful than before. He was once overshadowed by Teosin, but now he appears to lead.

The Hahalis movement for the last 12 months, especially, has attracted fierce opposition.

Main opponents, until recently, have been the missions, which object to the Hahalis people turning their back on Christianity.

They say that ‘baby farming’ is immoral and therefore must be illegal, and they have had the Administration under pressure to take legal action.

But lately even stronger opposition has developed among the 55,000 other natives on Bougainville who say the Hahalis people have no right to go their own way, and that the Administration must make them conform.

Francis Hagai, by James Griffin, Australian Dictionary of Biography

Hahalis - Francis Hagai
Francis Hagai

In 1961 a local council was imposed on Buka, the alternative to joining being the payment of a head tax.

The Hahalis Welfare Society defied the colonial administration on this issue and in February 1962, with Francis Hagai leading, two confrontations with a police riot squad occurred.

Forty villagers and 25 police were injured and 460 people were arrested, including John Teosin and Francis Hagai.

In general, the Supreme Court remitted the sentences of those arrested, but the head tax was finally paid.

Tensions eased at that point and from then on the colonial administration left the Society alone.

Despite the failure in the 1970s of the its larger enterprises, the Society remained viable though inefficient.

With the approach of Papua New Guinea's independence from 1972 to 1975, the Hahalis Welfare Society joined mainstream provincial politics and in 1975 supported Bougainville's secession from PNG.

It continued to support the Bougainville Provincial Government into the 1980s.

The experience gained from its rebellion against the Port Moresby-based Administration in 1962 no doubt informed the position taken by secessionists in the late 1980s, when the PNG government failed to adequately recompense Bougainville from tax revenue generated by the Panguna gold and copper mine.

References extracted and edited from these sources: Simon Pentanu’s Facebook; Pacific Islands Monthly, vol 34 no 3, October 1963; The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions; Wikipedia; Nesian Nomad; Australian Dictionary of Biography; EASA2018 Conference: Staying, Moving, Settling; Philip Jenkins’ The New Faces of Christianity; Garry de Vries, Quora


Compiled by Dr Robin Hide
College of Asia & the Pacific, Australian National University

Rimoldi, M. R. (1971). The Hahalis Welfare Society of Buka
PhD thesis. The Australian National University, Canberra 

Rimoldi, E. (1982). Relationships of love and power in the Hahalis Welfare Society of Buka
PhD thesis,  University of Auckland, Auckland 

This thesis explores the role and status of women in the Hahalis Welfare Society, a populist social movement on Buka, North Solomons Province, Papua New Guinea.

The author spent 15 months in the field, spread over three field trips between 1975 and 1978. Welfare Society members in Hahalis Village shared with her the work of their hands so she could appreciate its significance, and the work of their hearts so she could feel the compassion, love, and positive exuberance that informed their thinking.

This enabled her to understand in some measure the analysis, critique and transformation of Buka culture and society in which they were engaged.

The first chapter of this thesis elaborates the relationship between Hahalis Welfare Society and its historical, and contemporary social/political context on Buka. There is also a discussion of the author's approach to fieldwork on Buka –both in terms of theory and practice.

The second chapter explores the nature of traditional power and leadership which remain central to the philosophy and organisation of the Welfare Society. The special importance of matrilineal principles and the brother-sister relationship are explored, as are forms of alliance between lineages and moieties.

The qualities of balance and restraint inherent in the Buka concepts of power and leadership are shown to be under some strain in the contemporary political and economic context.

Chapter 3 discusses ritual occasions in relation to the issues raised in the preceding chapter. Ritual is seen as a creative re-thinking of the nature of power, and personal and social relationships – a complex weave that reflects the past, the present, and possible future designs.

Chapter 4 centres more directly on the role of women in Welfare Society and their past and present active participation in the development of its philosophy and its practice.

The final chapter explores three issues drawn from the author's fieldwork experience which are discussed in terms of their relevance to Hahalis Welfare Society, and the development of anthropological practice.

These issues centre on the subjective stance in anthropological fieldwork, the debate over fertility and family planning, and the problematic interpretation of sacrifice.

Rimoldi, E. and M. Rimoldi (1991). Buka marriage ritual and the power of Tsunono
In Pawley, A. (ed).  Man and a Half: Essays in Pacific Anthropology and Ethnobiology in Honour of Ralph Bulmer. Auckland, The Polynesian Society. pp, 326-335

Rimoldi, M. and E. Rimoldi (1992). Hahalis and the Labour of Love: a Social Movement on Buka Island
Oxford/Providence, Berg

This book studies the Hahalis Welfare Society, a Bougainville movement which worked for many years to maintain and reform traditional practices and to retain a degree of autonomy in a world of rapid political change and economic dependency.

The first extended ethnography of Buka published in nearly 60 years, this book will be of particular interest to Melanesian specialists.


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