The Political Order and Corporal Coercion in Kanak Societies of the Past (New Caledonia)

By Bensa, Alban; Goromido, Antonie | Oceania, December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Political Order and Corporal Coercion in Kanak Societies of the Past (New Caledonia)


Bensa, Alban, Goromido, Antonie, Oceania


'But when the Words Free and Liberty are applied to anything but Bodies, they are abused...'

(Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chpt. 21, [section]2)

Even today, our historical and anthropological knowledge of Kanak political institutions from yesteryear still harbours a major paradox: the pivotal figure of the chief is described sometimes as a tyrant endowed with all power and sometimes as a figurehead whose preeminence does not entail exercising authority of any kind. How to make these two images compatible? Leenhardt (1937:149-152), for instance, baulked at seeing the chief both as an 'elder brother' whose 'authority does not at all lie in his force' and as a 'sacred being [who . . .] has the power of life and death over his own'. The likening of Kanak chiefdoms to feudal kingdoms was undoubtedly, as Douglas (1996:33) has remarked, a 'colonial figure of speech for the unexpected submission of savages to the "absolute" authority of chiefs'. But in turn, does the opinion that praises the chief as the powerless representative of a clan or territory not hark back to the theory of the noble savage?

Regional variants do not account for this paradox. True, in the Loyalty Islands, as in northern and southern Grande Terre (the biggest island by far in France's New Caledonian Overseas Territory), chiefdoms structured like a pyramid existed; some of them are thought to have been founded by Polynesian migrants. But in central Grande Terre, political structures, more disjointed, did not make it easy for strong power-holders to arise. Nonetheless, for the archipelago as a whole and over a long period, we come across descriptions of people's respect for their chiefs and of the latters' benevolence... or aggressiveness toward their subjects. The chiefs of Mare, who massacred the island's former inhabitants who had apparently welcomed them (Dubois 1975), are no less outstanding than the chief of Ouindo, who ate his enemies (Garnier 1871:355-359), or the famous Goodu, whose cannibalism and warfare in the mid-19th century, even against his own kinsmen, terrorized the whole Kone area.(1) The figure of the chief mistreating his subjects also crops up in many a legend and tale (Bensa & Rivierre 1995:481-485). As evidence that, despite undeniable differences between regions, Kanak political hierarchies were often based on physical coercion, the foregoing facts undermine analyses that overvalue the formal dimension of chiefdoms. If, like Guiart (1963:658), we think that chiefdoms in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands are only 'determined by their formal aspects', we overlook the many accounts of the use of force in and among chiefdoms. A 'structural analysis of the myth of the chief' (Guiart 1963:659) or interpretations of Kanak chiefdoms as balanced or regulated systems, though they shed a dim light on the logic of these systems, do not account for the place of physical coercion and warfare therein.(2)

We intend to describe and analyze precolonial cannibalistic practices with the purpose of seeing how the latter served to constitute and reproduce political hierarchies in north central Grande Terre. Most of our information was gleaned during field work conducted, since 1973, in the Paici- and Cemuhi-speaking zone (about the Paici political system, see Bensa 1992). During long periods spent in Kanak reservations on the coasts there, we gathered stories in the vernacular, genealogies and lists of place-names and we spoke with people about past and present forms of social organization and attended various ceremonies (marriages, mourning ceremonies, etc.).

Like all of Grande Terre during the 19th century, the Paici-Cemuhi zone was the theatre of several conflicts among the Kanak and also with the French. Wars, uprisings, displacements (especially as of 1880 to reservations) and the strict enforcement of the Indigenous Code (the Indigenat, applied in all French colonies) have left not only records from that period but also marks on the Kanak memory. …

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