Academic journal article Oceania

Memory, Forgetting and the New Tribes Mission in West New Britain

Academic journal article Oceania

Memory, Forgetting and the New Tribes Mission in West New Britain

Article excerpt


This paper explores the politics of memory and forgetting amongst the bush Kaliai people of West New Britain.(1) It focuses on the recent attempts by the New Tribes Mission to transform and eradicate not only the collective memory of the traditional past, but also the more recent collective memories created by cargo cults which are still active in an underground form. In 1986, during my first period of fieldwork, the New Tribes Mission had just arrived but had yet to set up 'literacy classes'. I then rarely heard any mention of Satan or Hell. By 1991, converts to the new mission spoke continuously of Satan and the fires of Hell. Converts took up the new mission's condemnation of their traditional customs which were now denounced as Satan's laws. The ancestors, dead relatives, and masalai, who use to regularly visit people were now seen as Satan's illusions and tricks.(2) An American missionary, whom I will refer to as Sign, was influential in bringing about these mass conversions.(3) He proudly told me how people had cried when confronted with the 'fact' that their dead relatives had died without knowing God. Villagers told me that the reason people were crying was because they had been told their parents and grandparents were burning in Hell for having sinned against God.

Soon after the new mission's arrival in 1985, a clandestine cargo cult developed around the missionary Sign. His Christian millenarian preaching of doom and salvation revived the already existing millenarianism of cargo cults which had been operating in the Kaliai area probably since the time of first contact.(4) Nearly everyone in the Kaliai bush has now renounced their affiliation to the Catholic Church, which remains strong only in villages near the Kaliai coast. Many converts accuse the Catholic Church of hiding the true Bible from them; some hold the Pope directly responsible for blocking the new Law which will deliver cargo to Melanesians.

Part of the new mission's success came because it recruited its personnel largely from America. Since the Second World War, many cargo cults in Melanesia have referred to Americans as the good whites - as opposed to the bad whites - the Australians - who were just interested in working Melanesians hard and in pulling money from them (cf Chowning 1990; Lawrence 1964; see Losche this volume). Contemporary Kaliai cargo cult stories tell of how when God ran away from people's ancestors, he went to the Americans to whom he gave everything. Many Kaliai believe that God, Christ, and their dead relatives, all reside in America. Many are waiting for the black God whom they wronged to return, with the new Law which will straighten their existence. When the American missionaries came telling people that Christ was coming and they were bringing His word and His law, this confirmed people's millenarian understandings of America.

Throughout Melanesia, memories of the Second World War have served to validate cargo cult understandings that there are other, more equitable ways of organising human existence than the coercive selfish laws of the Australians. During the war, some bush Kaliai men were recruited to fight alongside American soldiers and they remember the law of America as the law of everything being free. They remember the black Afro-American soldiers who wore the same clothes as whites and ate European food. These old men tell of how they were treated as equals by American soldiers. The discipline and subordination to whites which were part of the war have been forgotten. What the old men selectively remember is the utopian dimension of their relations with Americans. Cargo myths have blended with these war memories to form a powerful horizon of expectation into which came the American New Tribes Mission which reinforced this horizon of expectation with its own millenarian redemptive view of its missionising and of America.

Prior to European contact, the bush Kaliai used cults to contact the dead so as to acquire better gardens, more shell money and the return of the dead (see Haley this volume). …

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