Daily Archives: 1 February 2004

Torajan Carvers in Exotic England

Anthropologist Nigel Barley invited a team of Indonesian woodcarvers from Torajaland to build an exhibit at the British Museum. They found the British to be an exotic people.

The first shock for them was that all British were not white. West Indians look to them like Irian Jayans, the Indonesian half of New Guinea, so they tended to expect them to talk Indonesian. Chinatown did not surprise them. ‘Chinese are good at business. They get everywhere.’ Indians they would assume to be Arabs. The most mortifying experience was to discover that there was no slot ‘Indonesian’ in English folk categories and that they themselves would be regarded as Chinese.

A second shock was that all Europeans were not rich. Admittedly, they had seen young puttypersons [i.e., orang putih ‘white person’, like orang utan ‘inland person’] in Torajaland playing at being poor, but everyone knew they would be carrying larger sums of money than a Torajan farmer would see in a lifetime. Why did I have no servants, no car, and no chauffeur? They were distressed by the drunks who roam the streets of London, being unused to situations where you pretend that people shouting at you are not there. That people should have no work and receive money from the government staggered them like right-wing Tories. Surely they had misunderstood. Were these people not pensioners? Had they not at some time been in the army and were receiving money for their wounds?

They arrived at a moment of high political activity, just days before a General Election, and were amazed at the lack of respect we show politicians. ‘We would go to jail for that!’ was their constant cry. Yet it should not be assumed that they envied us our freedom. To them, it appeared more as lack of order, as messy and reprehensible ill-management. Johannis summed it up swiftly, ‘I see that England is a place where no one respects anyone.’

The position of the Queen puzzled them too. Like many foreigners they found it hard to imagine the relationship between a female prime minister and a female sovereign and drew the inevitable conclusion that only women are eligible for positions of power in this strange land. ‘It is like the Minang people of Sumatera,’ they opined with appropriate ethnographic example. ‘There it is the women who own everything and the poor men are sent abroad to work for them. You are just like them. We feel sorry for you.’

SOURCE: Nigel Barley, Not a Hazardous Sport (Henry Holt, 1988), pp. 182-183.

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The German Pacific "Gutpela Taim Bipo"

Germany acquired its colonial empire in the Pacific beginning in the 1880s and lost it abruptly in 1914. Conventional wisdom usually assumes that one colonial administration was as bad as another and that colonial transitions usually made little difference to the indigenous population. However, the new military administrators who took over from the Germans in Micronesia, Samoa, and New Guinea ran so roughshod over their new territories that the inhabitants of all three regions soon began to look back on German times as the good old days–at least according to a meticulously researched revisionist history of that transition entitled The Neglected War: The German South Pacific and the Influence of World War I, by Hermann Joseph Hiery (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1995).

While Germany’s African colonies were governed by aristocrats, often with the aid of sizable contingents of Schutztruppe (colonial troops), the farflung Pacific colonies were governed by administrators drawn from the middle class, with the aid of tiny police forces.

In New Guinea they replaced the “Perpetuum Bellum Melanesicum” with a Pax Germanica, which attracted more and more unpacified Melanesians. But they also generally let Melanesian villagers settle their own disputes in traditional ways, often by compensation for damages rather than by the trial and conviction of offenders before German courts. This was in marked contrast to the later Australian administration, under whom flogging, the pillory (“Field Punishment No. 1”), and public executions became not only far more common, but far more arbitrarily applied. The Australians also began to dispossess indigenous plantation owners and to impose new restrictions on native dress and education. (For instance, New Guineans were prohibited from speaking proper English and from wearing nonnative garments on the upper half of their bodies.)

In Micronesia, the laissez-faire attitude of the German administration gave way to the much more hands-on approach of the Japanese, who modernized the island economies with unprecedented force and speed. By 1921, the value of exports from Micronesia had already exceeded the value of imports. (And by 1940, the population of Micronesia was over 50% of foreign origin.) The islanders were forced to assimilate to Japanese norms in every respect.

Perhaps the most incompetent new administrator, however, was Col. Robert Logan, New Zealand’s military governor of German Samoa. Whereas Wilhelmine Germany and oligarchical Samoa had shared basic values about social hierarchies and ritual forms of behavior, “the Samoans perceived the ‘democratically’ undifferentiated behavior of New Zealanders as an insult and expression of open disregard for Samoan mores” (p. 250). During the war years, New Zealand bled dry the Samoan treasury, and the fiercely anti-Chinese and anti-American Logan also issued discriminatory edicts against their representatives in Samoa. Worst of all, Logan allowed an influenza-infected ship from New Zealand, the Talune, to dock in 1918, then stubbornly refused either to implement strict quarantines, as the American administrator had done in eastern Samoa, or to accept American medical aid. “Rarely would anti-American prejudice have more disastrous consequences than in Samoa under New Zealand occupation” (p. 174). As a result, about 20% of the population of western Samoa died, while eastern (American) Samoa escaped virtually unscathed. (New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark issued an apology to Samoa in 2002.)

Among the many other gems Hiery’s archival research unearths is a dispirited quote from Woodrow Wilson recorded in the minutes of a meeting at Versailles on 28 January 1919: “the question of deciding the disposal of the German colonies was not vital to the world in any respect.” He seems to have anticipated by exactly half a century Henry Kissinger’s alleged comment about Micronesia in 1969: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”

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Filed under Germany, Japan, Micronesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Polynesia