Siassi: A Culture of Maritime Trade in PNG

From Alice Pomponio’s “Seagulls Don’t Fly into the Bush: Cultural Identity and the Negotiations of Development on Mandok Island, Papua New Guinea” in Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific, edited by Jocelyn Linnekin and Lin Poyer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1990), pp. 51-52:

For the Siassi Islanders, trade implies sailing. Knowledge of the sea, winds, and stars is crucial to overseas sailing in the precarious Vitiaz and Dampier straits. In pre-European times men who were renowned sailors and good navigators were therefore highly regarded. Along with maritime knowledge, such a man would also possess the magical incantations to control the weather, wind, and seas, and in some cases, the sorcery by which to control or destroy his rivals. A traditional leader would combine as many elements as possible to expand his wisdom and enhance his renown. However, merely having the talent or the personality to lead is not enough: one must demonstrate that power continually. Before pacification and missionization, demonstrating prowess entailed aggressive overseas trade, navigation and sailing skills, competitive feasting, sorcery, multilingualism, and social networking to establish and maintain trade alliances. Definitions of manhood stressed creative abilities, mental shrewdness, knowledge concerning economic investment/return ratios, and manipulation of social relationships. Finally, all of these displays and trading exploits must be carried out with the aplomb of a “man of wisdom.”

Out of this constant travel and trade emerged a big-man status system oriented not toward the accumulation of land and wealth in a sedentary environment, but toward manipulation and management of others’ products through mobility and trade—that is, the control and redistribution of wealth. I call this kind of system “middleman culture.” Though recognizably Melanesian, it is distinct from the more familiar patterns of entrepreneurship studied to date in Melanesia in three crucial respects: (1) the relative lack of land or utilization of land resources (horticulture and pig husbandry) as a basis for the local economy; (2) the emphasis on trade as a primary, rather than secondary, feature of the subsistence economy, and as a standard for evaluating entrepreneurial talents and achievements; and (3) a social and distributive system that militates against the accumulation of significant amounts of wealth and favors instead the control and manipulation of goods, food, and people.

Siassi big-men are not “men of anger” or warriors. They are craftsmen, clever investors, and men of knowledge. They succeed not by overpowering their adversaries physically, but by outsmarting them—not by production, but by clever manipulation. Through generations of trading they have transformed a landless society of maverick immigrants into a patterned system of seagoing salesmen, trading their own and others’ products for a profit. This profit is then recycled into their own system of exchanges, politics, and prestige.

This sounds rather more benign than the cultures of maritime raiding that have also plagued the coasts and islands of so many parts of the globe, including PNG before the imposition of a pax Germanica in New Guinea and a pax Britannica in Papua.

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Filed under economics, Papua New Guinea, piracy, travel

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