Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

13 Warfare and Colonialism in the
Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea

CHRIS GOSDEN

War is a simple three-letter word, but is not a singular category. It represents a spectrum of behaviour from aggression contained within social rules to that which erupts despite social regulation and is then difficult to contain. Von Clausewitz’s famous definition of war as politics by other means, might in Papua New Guinea, be formulated as exchange by other means. Groups which are most closely locked together in exchange relationships are also most likely to fight, as the competitive spirit found in exchanges spills over into more naked aggression. This form of warfare is not benign, as Wiessner (chapter 11) shows, but it is contained within rules and can be brought to an end by mutually understood forms of mediation. But occasionally war breaks free from all social regulation, taking a form which is hard to contain and thus threatens the very basis for society. I want to look at one such case of unconstrained warfare, brought about by early colonial relations in Papua New Guinea and I shall consider the lessons that unregulated warfare holds for an understanding of war as a whole.

Colonialism is basic to an understanding of war in Papua New Guinea and war is vital to understanding colonialism. War was the point at which the prestige of the colonist confronted the prestige of local men. In many areas of New Guinea war and exchange were the basis for male standing, so that success in one or both of these arenas was vital to gain a name in the region. In the Australian colonial period (1914–1975) territory within New Guinea fell under four different classifications: uncontacted, contacted, pacified and under full control (similar classifications were used by the Germans between 1884–1914). Pacification meant an acknowledgement that the sole legitimate use of force lay in the hands of the colonial state, which went rather further than giving up warfare, also including local forms of punishment and pay-back. Nevertheless, stopping fighting between groups was the topic most mentioned in patrol officers’ reports and this is what was foremost in their minds when thinking of pacification. In most areas of the Bismarck Archipelago people gave up warfare very readily in the early twentieth century. Did this represent an easy victory for the colonial forces and an acknowledgement by local people of the overwhelming power of the new police and military forces at colonial command? Things are not as simple as that and in order to understand ‘pacification’ we need to consider the type of warfare that was given up, which was itself an outcome of colonialism.

To understand the warfare that ceased we need to embed it within colonial structures. The formal

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