Academic journal article Oceania

The Story of Jimmy: The Practice of History on North Pentecost, Vanuatu (1)

Academic journal article Oceania

The Story of Jimmy: The Practice of History on North Pentecost, Vanuatu (1)

Article excerpt

There is to be a dispute settlement at Lagaranboga, and I have just arrived at the village with Chief Ruben Todali. A number of distinguished older men are sitting about and chatting on an outcrop of stones situated above the gamali. As we join them we are greeted with handshakes, and Chief Ruben sits down amongst them. I want to sit down, too, but the only dry seat I can find is a cluster of rocks situated a few feet behind and above the group. I vaguely sense that I am about to commit a faux pas by placing myself so conspicuously above the group of chiefs, but I do so anyway. I am tired from the walk and frustrated of the field and in the mood for rebellion--for experimentation. After a short while the men begin talking about me, referring to me as 'ratahigi'--meaning 'mother' or 'chief'. I understand more Raga than they guess. A moment later an old woman approaches up the pathway. Momentarily startled, she stops, then laughs, 'Awe! Tuturani mon do amare, kun atmate'--"Wow! The white man is sitting up there, like a Spirit!"

The past envelops the lives of Raga speakers, and like the grand tusks that are grown on boars it is shaped into a spiralling future. From everyday gossip to the telling of epic stories, such as those relating the deeds of ancestors or the adventures of culture heroes, the practice of telling historical narratives pervades daily life on North Pentecost. This paper explores the significance of one such narrative, being the arresting account of the adventures of Jimmy, the first tuturani (white man, foreigner) to visit the northern Raga-speaking region of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. (2) During the fourteen months I spent in the area I frequently heard versions of 'Storian blong Jimmy', as it was usually called in Bislama. (3) In fact, so often was The Story of Jimmy offered to me, or told in my presence, and by so many different people, that I began to feel haunted by its main character. Jimmy appeared to be stalking me, from village to village, like my own shadow. Yet as I became entangled within the webs of meaning that his story seemed to throw out--as it seemed to me, at least--I began to understand that the telling of histories on North Pentecost is not simply about recounting immutable pasts, but rather that the arts of memory and narrative performance are essential to the evaluation and re-creation of Sia Raga community and personhood. Engaged within specific social contexts and at particular moments, histories provide frameworks through which people make sense of their own presents, and furthermore, they may also be utilized as a part of that work by which people seek to shape others, and in doing so give shape to their shared futures. Here we see how The Story of Jimmy is used as a point of departure for examining aspects of the North Pentecost colonial past, and how, more importantly, it has become a vehicle of social and political assessment and agency within the neo-colonial present. (4)

What follows is a somewhat abridged telling of The Story of Jimmy. This translated version is based on that which was told to me by John Leo Tamata of Ataleva, a village in the Hurilau District of North Pentecost (see figure 1).

THE STORY OF JIMMY

The story begins with a group of ni-Vanuatu labourers, from the islands of Epi, Paama, Ambrym and Pentecost, at work on a plantation in Fiji. (5) Dissatisfied with their working conditions and wishing to return to their homes, on a Saturday night the men steal a boat from the dock. However, it is not until they are far out to sea that they detect the presence of two white men who emerge from a cabin below: the ship's captain and his young son Jimmy. In bad weather, and with no knowledge of the how to operate the ship's navigation equipment, they soon become lost. Food and water runs short and is eventually finished. Close to starvation, one of the men who is a leader amongst them decides that in order to survive they must kill and eat one of the white men. …

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