Academic journal article Oceania

The Last Big Man: Development and Men's Discontents in the Papua New Guinea Highlands

Academic journal article Oceania

The Last Big Man: Development and Men's Discontents in the Papua New Guinea Highlands

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In the popular anthropological imagination, Melanesian Big Men are larger than life leaders, entrepreneurs, and translators of Western capitalism and 'modernization' to their village followers; they exist in pure form throughout the New Guinea Highlands; they singlehandedly command the labor, resources and hearts of followers (both male and female) through their unparalleled powers of persuasion and personal forcefulness. Leopold Pospisil painted some of the first strokes of this mythic configuration in a widely-read book (1963) in which he described the Kapauku Papuans as an individualistic, wealth-oriented people who accorded their highest kudos and fidelity to self-made rich men who gave their wealth away in flamboyant displays of generosity. In an even more widely-read comparison of political types in Melanesia and Polynesia, Marshall Sahlins further caricatured Melanesian Big Men as 'thoroughly bourgeois', 'free-enterprising rugged' individuals who combine 'with an ostensible interest in the general welfare a more profound measure of self-interested cunning and economic calculation' (1963, reprinted in Harding and Wallace 1970:206). In both accounts, a crucial aspect of the Big Man's success is his ability to put together a network of exchange partners and supporters who are indebted to the Big Man through his many acts of generosity and whose production, therefore, 'can be mobilized for renown building external distribution' (Sahlins 1963, 1970:207; Pospisil 1963, Chapter Three).

In the 1960s and 1970s, modernist anthropologists sought cases of successful indigenous adaptation to capitalist development to bolster a view that peoples around the world could make the transition (or leap) from their traditional ways of life to modernity more or less smoothly, most often with the help of local entrepreneurs or religious leaders.(1) Expanding our notions of 'primitive capitalism' and entrepreneurship, Scarlett Epstein (1968), Richard Salisbury (1970) and Ben Finney (1973) presented a model of economic development involving a younger generation of New Guinea Big Men using their support groups to raise capital for investment in modern enterprises. Salisbury, for example, argued that just as Tolai villagers give their tambu (traditional shell wealth) to the care of a Big Man in order that he might 'make it grow' in his transactions with other Big Men, so too do Tolai cocoa growers hand money over to local cocoa project managers so that they might pay off government loans and invest in further capital improvements, and (in keeping with traditional methods of supporting the enterprises of Big Men) not expecting immediate returns on their investments (Salisbury 1970:59-60, 256-264, 274). Finney drew similar parallels between the organizing capabilities and flair for 'business' exhibited in the transactions of traditional Highlands Big Men and more contemporary Goroka Big Men of Business (see Finney 1973). According to Finney, outstanding entrepreneurs in the coffee industry were men with a knack for gaining support and assistance from their clansmen and neighbors by seeming (and eventually proving themselves) to be masters of the art of making money in the new economy and promising 'to develop coffee growing and other enterprises that would eventually benefit everyone' (1973; 1993:106).

The individualistic Big Man cum Capitalist model, tenacious and captivating as it still is, however, began unraveling as soon as it was put forth. Published around the same time as Salisbury's and Finney's works, Berndt and Lawrence's edited volume Politics in New Guinea (1971) and Strathern's classic The Rope of Moka (1971) focused more on the cultural systems within which Big Men operated while yet recognizing a certain innovative potential of individual leaders. Emphasizing the egalitarian nature of New Guinea societies as well as the wider implications of exchange, our view of Big Men shifts to one in which they are more coordinators than commanders, achieving influence in return for helping others achieve various social, political and religious ends. …

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