Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Journeys to Oz

In a recent post to his popular yournz blog, Pete George said that Polynesians never visited Australia, & never encountered Aboriginal cultures. George's claim reflects received opinion, but there are some neglected pieces of evidence that suggest it is wrong.
We tend to think of the Polynesians sailing east, because of the explosion of voyages out of their Tongan & Samoan heartland fifteen hundred years ago. We know now their vaka made it all the way to the Americas. But Polynesians also went west - much further west than Australia. They founded colonies on islands like Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro, which are northwest of the Philippines.
Obsidian from Tuhua Island, in the Bay of Plenty, has been found in the Kermadecs, proving that early settlers of Aotearoa journeyed north, toward their ancestral homelands. Norfolk Island's soil has given up numerous Polynesian artefacts, including adzes.
While the finds in the Kermadecs & on Norfolk are well-known, very little publicity has ever attached itself to the discovery of a Polynesian adze on the coast of New South Wales in 1929. The adze sat forgotten for decades, but was recently analysed by three Australian scholars.
The Australian team found that the adze from NSW bore many similarities to artefacts found on Norfolk. They decided that it is likely a relic of a Polynesian journey from Norfolk to the continent.
No scholar, let alone team of scholars, has ever systematically investigated the possibility that Polynesians visited Australia. Those artefacts that hint at such a visit, like the NSW adze & a fragment of pounamu that turned up in Tasmania, were found by chance.
There are hints that Polynesians not only visited Australia but made return journeys east. In 1993 a team of Japanese archaeologists made an astonishing but little-reported discovery on Pukapuka, the northernmost island of the Cooks. They dug up the bones of a dingo.
The dingo is native to Australia. It has a cousin in Papua New Guinea, but is related only very distantly & indirectly to the Polynesian dog. If a dingo was present on the Polynesian island of Pukapuka centuries ago, then it would have had to have come from Australia.
To be fair, some scholars dispute whether the creature unearthed on Pukapuka really was a dingo. Geoffrey Clark feels it may have been a European dog
But the Pukapuka dingo is not the only piece of evidence for return voyages by Polynesians from Oz. In 1925 a man fossicking amongst midden-dunes on Muriwai beach discovered a boomerang. His discovery was reported in the Journal of the Polynesian Society the next year.
(To be fair, the boomerang found at Muriwai may have floated across the Tasman, and been thrown into the eroding midden where it was found. There's also a suggestion that the boomerang's wood came from a NZ tree, and that it was therefore made locally, presumably in relatively recent times.)
If Polynesians visited & even settled in Australia, then it might be possible to find traces of their presence in the stories & imagery of coastal Aboriginal peoples. The Muslim fishermen who visited Arnhem land for centuries left many reminders.
There's another model for tracing ancient Polynesian contacts with Australia. Over the past decade or so scholars have found convincing evidence that Polynesians visited California, by probing the vocabulary & aquatechnology of the Chumash people, who live around Santa Barbara. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Towards a Pacific Syria


[This is a comment I've put on social media and sent to a few journos]

Will 2019 be the year that Papua New Guinea becomes the Syria of the Pacific, splitting into warring fragments and suffering the interventions of superpowers? If this idea seems fantastic, think about the event that's due to be held on June the 15th in Bougainville.

On June the 15th the people of Bougainville will get the long-promised chance to vote on whether they want to secede from Papua New Guinea. Bankrolled by multinational company Rio Tinto, the Papuan army waged war on Bougainville from 1988 to 1998, after islanders closed a huge, polluted copper mine.

15,000 Bougainvilleans died during the war, mainly as a result of a Papuan blockade that prevented medicine and food reaching their island. The blockade was Rio Tinto's idea. Bougainvilleans laid down their arms in return for partial autonomy and a vote on independence.

Bougainvilleans are likely to vote overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea. But the final decision on secession will be made by PNG's parliament, which is likely to be strongly against the idea. Papuan Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has predicted that not a single MP will back Bougainville.

Papuan politicians fear losing Bougainville's mineral reserves, and worry about the signal that the island's secession would send to other parts of their country, like Enga province, which has a massive gold mine and suffered uncontrollable violence during last year's general election

If Bougainvilleans are denied independence, they are likely to once again take militant action to win it. & other parts of Papua New Guinea may well follow. PM O'Neill has already granted partial autonomy to Enga, New Ireland, and East New Britain, in an effort to placate secessionists there.

The Papuan state is dysfunctional. Last year civil servants went for months without pay. Police cannot maintain order. The army is politicised. Power is drifting from a Port Moresby-based elite to leaders in the resource-rich provinces. And China, the US and Australia are all watching.

China has funded ports and other infrastructure in parts of Papua New Guinea with mineral reserves, so that wealth can be exported without being routed through Port Moresby. Beijing's largesse might be seen as an investment in the break-up of Papua New Guinea.

Australia and the US have responded to China's interest in Papua New Guinea by announcing they will establish a naval base on Manus Island. The superpowers are being drawn into a contest over a collapsing state. It is not hard to imagine them backing different warring factions.

In the late '90s NZ organised the talks that led to the detente between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville's secessionists, and the promise of a referendum. If Bougainville votes for independence, will Ardern's government back the island, or join the US and Australia in siding with Peter O'Neill and the Papuan state?

Friday, January 04, 2019

Niuatoputapu in Matamata


On New Year's day we were saddened but also honoured to drive to Matamata, where doubly exiled & gravely ill Saia Unga lies in his daughter's living room, surrounded & comforted by a sea of loving family members. Saia is one of the last of the technician-adventurers that Tonga deployed to its remote islands to run radio communications bases in the '50s & '60s.

The first of the photos I have posted here shows Saia's friend, the legendary poet Kitione Mamata, standing by his radio post on Niuafo'ou in 1968. Saia was stationed for 20 years in a hut in Niuatoputapu, the other main island of the remote Niua archipelago; the two men would gossip & joke with each other across waves of static & ocean.

I got to know Saia Unga in 2013, when I lived across the road from him in Nuku'alofa. I remember the old man lying in a hammock hung from a mango tree beside his front fence. A beatific smile was written across his face for hours, as he gazed at a map of distant Niuatoputapu.

The contribution of men like Saia 'Unga & Kitione Mamata to the transformation of Tonga should not be underestimated. As technicians on islands that lacked cars & electricity, they were regarded with something like awe. Some used their status to educate, & to agitate.

During his years on Niuafo'ou Kitione Mamata befriended the islands' low-ranking inhabitants, & wrote a series of kava songs that expressed, in the elliptical style of language Tongans call heliaki, their poverty & alienation. Radio brought these songs to the whole kingdom.

Wendy Pond spent years in the Niuas, studying the region's insects, esoteric religious traditions, & poetry. In a classic essay she analysed & decoded Mamata's songs, & celebrated their proletarian defiance of Tonga's ruling elite. When I talked the elderly Wendy Pond several years ago, she insisted that Tonga's pro-democracy movement had begun in the Niuas, with Mamata's songs.

Even in retirement, under his mango tree in Nuku'alofa, Saia retained the independent streak that he & Mamata had shown as young men. He ostentatiously read Ko e Kelea, the paper of Tonga's Democratic Party, for example.

It was a pleasure to listen to Saia's stories about his Niuan homeland, under that tree in Nuku'alofa.