Scott Hamilton – 5 July, 2016
The title of Bohane's book reminds us of the original meaning of the word Melanesia, and evokes the alternately sensationalist and sententious accounts of the region published by nineteenth century missionaries and blackbirders. The blackbirders bought or stole the bodies of tens of thousands of Melanesians, sailing them to the sugar plantations of Queensland and the coffee and cotton farms of islands like Fiji, New Caledonia, and Epi. Missionaries contended for islanders' souls, and could be equally greedy.
The Black Islands
B/w photographs and text
The first photograph in Ben Bohane‘s The Black Islands shows a warlord at prayer. Harold Keke stands on a beach of stones, between a foaming sea and a forest. He has closed his eyes, tilted his head, clasped his hands. Keke’s young men wear shorts and singlets, or shorts and nothing else. They have made a rough circle around the leader, and have joined him in prayer. In the distance a metal dinghy waits on the stones. The scraps of cloth mounted on the craft might be flags. One of the worshippers has dangled an automatic rifle behind his back, as though it is a secret he must keep from god, or from Keke.
In a note at the back of his book, Bohane explains that the photograph was taken in 2003, and that Keke and his soldiers were about to begin a patrol of the Weathercoast of Guadalcanal.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century the Solomon Islands were at war with one another. On Guadalcanal, site of the capital city of Honiara, immigrants from outer islands confronted armed indigenes commanded by men like Harold Keke. Trenches and bunkers dug and defended by the Americans and Japanese sixty years earlier were reoccupied by the Malaitan Eagle Force and the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army.
A stormy, ironbound shore and roadless mountains have always separated Guadalcanal’s western Weathercoast from the rest of the Solomons. Civil war and the euthanising of the Solomons state made the region’s isolation almost complete. With a few modern rifles and a few spectacular acts of violence Harold Keke could take control of the Weathercoast. Proclaiming himself an instrument of god, he moved through one village after another, torturing and killing residents who displeased him.
In 2003 seven members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, a venerable and revered order of the Anglican church, tramped to the Weathercoast. They wanted to pray with Keke, and to reason with him. Three of the brothers were shot on sight; the others were tortured for days and then slain.
When Ben Bohane visited the Weathercoast in 2003 he could hardly be sure of his safety. The photograph of Harold Keke and his shabby coastguard was an extraordinary and courageous achievement.
Bohane is a photojournalist who lives in Port Vila and has spent twenty-two years riding pickup trucks and speedboats to the battlefields and ceremonial grounds of the Western Pacific. The Black Islands is a big book, but it offers neither a record of Bohane’s career nor a narrative of the recent history of Melanesia. Bohane eschews chronology and chapters. His images move through time and space, between peace and war, the sacred and the filthy, thronged and empty landscapes. On one page of a group of West Papuans grimly observe the raising of their banned national flag; on the next page devotees of Vanuatu’s John Frum cult play guitars and smile and sing. A gangster toting a pistol in a derelict house gives way to a feminist activist offering an open-air class on AIDS prevention to a Port Moresby crowd. A nude Trobriand couple in a love-cave share a leaf of Bohane’s book with the ni-Van prophet Fred and his febrile congregation. The margins of Bohane’s pages are filled with a glossy blackness that accentuates the gloom of his analogue photographs.
Bohane believes that all of the people and events in his book are aspects of Melanesia, a region that extends, for him, from East Timor to Fiji, and includes not only Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomons but Australia’s Aboriginal and South Sea Island communities, the French colony of New Caledonia, and the Indonesian colony of West Papua. In his introduction Bohane calls Melanesia a ‘liquid continent’, and insists that its peoples share an ancient and egalitarian culture:
[V]ery few people live in abject poverty in Melanesia; which is to say that virtually everyone has shelter, food, an community…There is a disregard for money and work…Melanesia has little to learn from the West about democracy, since it is inherently so at village level. Traditionally the chieftainship of most villages is not hereditary (contrasting with the Polynesian and Micronesian chiefly bloodline system), but goes to the most capable. Issues are discussed under great banyan trees where everyone gets a say… (1)
Melanesia is one of the world’s most diverse regions: its peoples speak at least a thousand languages, and were not traditionally bound together in states or empires. The name Melanesia is a European imposition, and yet it has been adopted by many non-Europeans. The senior Papuan intellectual Bernard Narokobi wrote about a ‘Melanesian way’ of thinking and acting, and Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister Walter Lini used the term ‘Melanesian socialism’ to sum up his politics. The Melanesian Spearhead Group links the governments of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Solomons, as well as the national liberation movements of New Caledonia and West Papua.
But the title of Bohane’s book reminds us of the original meaning of the word Melanesia, and evokes the alternately sensationalist and sententious accounts of the region published by nineteenth century missionaries and blackbirders. The blackbirders bought or stole the bodies of tens of thousands of Melanesians, sailing them to the sugar plantations of Queensland and the coffee and cotton farms of islands like Fiji, New Caledonia, and Epi. Missionaries contended for islanders’ souls, and could be equally greedy. (2)
Whether they wielded whips or Bibles, Westerners tended to see Melanesia as a region of spiritual as well as literal darkness. With their carved gods and tattooed bodies and esoteric knowledge of war, the Melanesians were as dangerous as the malarial rainforests they inhabited.
In the twentieth century generations of anthropologists earnestly and sometimes awkwardly tried to make sense of the differences and similarities between their Western homelands and Melanesia. Malinowski showed that the orgies and sorcerers’ spells of the Trobriand Islands were neither obscene nor absurd, but aspects of a coherent and meaningful way of life; Reo Fortune followed his Arapesh friends through their Papuan mountains, and learned that roads can be made with songs as well as bulldozers; John Layard celebrated the similarities between the megaliths and afterworlds of Malakula and ancient Greece.
But most of the newspaper editors and television producers to whom Ben Bohane must sell his images are uninterested in the subtleties of anthropology. They are preoccupied, all too often, by the same clichés as the adventurers and god botherers of the nineteenth century. In the Western media Melanesia is still an archipelago of picturesque barbarians, a place of laughable cargo cults and frightening warriors. Headhunters make good headlines.
In his short preface to The Black Islands the ni-Van painter, anthropologist, and politician Ralph Regenvanu laments the persistence of stereotypes about Melanesia, and praises Ben Bohane as an expatriate Australian calling for his country to “consider itself a Pacific island.” Regenvanu believes that The Black Islands might upset Melanesian elites, as much as white Australians:
It is a sad truth that many of our “statesmen” would probably choose not to have many of the images in this book published. These are not images that demonstrate to our foreign sponsors a desire “to develop”, to leave behind superstition and ritual and move towards a brave new world of title deeds and bank accounts. (3)
The Black Islands shows Bohane trying, again and again, to counter the simplistic demands of the Western consumer of news with the complexities of Melanesia. If the settings and subjects of Bohane’s photographs often seem determined by the priorities and preconceptions of Western audiences, then the details of the images usually offer an implicit critique of those priorities and preconceptions.
A photograph near the beginning of Bohane’s book shows a lean but muscular man wearing nothing but a loin cloth lunging towards the camera whilst waving a machete above his head. The image conjures all sorts of old fantasies and fears. Is this man, we might wonder, one of Harold Keke’s soldiers, or some relict South Sea cannibal who has somehow avoided Christianisation and colonisation? When we look more closely, though, we notice that the dangerous savage wears a wristwatch, and is puffing on a steel pipe. As Bohane explains in a note, the man in the photograph is actually saying hello. Like the powhiri in Aotearoa, the waving of a machete on Guadalcanal is a simulation of aggression intended as a gesture of welcome.
A photograph taken in the highlands of West Papua shows a Dani tribesman dressed only a penis sheath looking inquiringly at Bohane. The Dani live in a series of valleys far from the coast, and were one of the last sizeable peoples to make contact with the European and Javanese colonisers of Papua. In 1961 an expedition organised by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum arrived in Dani territory in time to witness a tribal war. The expedition’s film-makers and writers made the Dani synonymous, in the minds of many Westerners, with Papuan barbarism.
A portrait of an almost-naked Dani tribesman might appeal to clichés about untouched and untamed peoples, but Bohane took his photograph in Wamena, one of the largest towns in West Papua. A rickshaw moves through a dirty market behind the tribesman, under the dome of a mosque. Papuan men idling in the market wear Western shirts; a woman packing groceries wears a headscarf. Since they seized West Papua half a century ago, Indonesia’s Javanese ruling class has planted hundreds of thousands of settlers and scores of mosques in the territory. In response, the West Papuans have killed both Indonesian security forces and Javanese settlers with arrows and axes and homemade guns. Ben Bohane’s photograph implicitly asks whether the Dani man is ennobled by the coming of modernity to his homeland. Is his near-nudity any more absurd than Western shirts, with their obsessive use of commercial emblems, or the oppressive modesty of conservative Islamic dress?
A couple of Bohane’s images are unambiguously amusing. He shows us a skinny white man wearing a penis sheath and nothing else confronting a group of sullen ni-Vans. A note explains that the foreigner had been sent to Tanna Island to attend the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Prince Philip Movement in 2011. A few hundred Tannese consider Prince Philip the reincarnation of one of their ancestral heroes, and regularly ask him to visit their island, where he can have his pick of wives and pigs. The naked diplomat had been charged with explaining to the Tannese that Prince Philip would not be able to attend the party planned in his honour.
If we return to the astonishing image that opens The Black Islands, then we can appreciate Ben Bohane’s subtlety as well as his courage. The Solomons’ civil war was portrayed by Australasia’s media and politicians as a symptom and symbol of the backwardness of Melanesian societies. Men like Harold Keke were portrayed as avatars of an ancient, irrational violence.
This sort of explanation was convenient, because it allowed commentators to ignore the contribution of the West to the Solomons’ problems. Britain’s long rule of the archipelago was both repressive and neglectful. Administrators banned nationalist movements, yet failed to invest in their colony’s infrastructure. The British let churches fund and run much of the islands’ school system, and left the Solomons without a single university when they lowered the Union Jack in 1978. By the 1990s the country was disastrously indebted, and International Monetary Fund technocrats based in Canberra were forcing its government to cut spending on health and education and lay off many public servants. As the state and the economy shrank ethnic and inter-island tensions grew. The civil war that began at the end of the ‘90s owed more to Western imperialism than to Melanesian culture.
When he shows Harold Keke praying, Ben Bohane tries to remind us that the warlord grew up with the Moro Movement, one of the religiously-based nationalist campaigns that British colonialists repressed. The movement’s founder Pelise Moro dreamed of uniting the Solomons, fusing Christianity with autochthonous beliefs, and developing the islands’ economy using traditional agriculture. The Guadalcanal Weathercoast was a Moro stronghold, and many followers of Moro became soldiers in Keke’s army. A national liberation movement degenerated, in a generation, into Keke’s terrorised micronation. This tragedy was not predestined. (4)
(1) Many scholars have written about Queensland’s involvement in the blackbirding trade, but few have considered New Zealand’s connection to indentured labour and slavery. In 1863 a group of New Zealanders and Tasmanians raided two Tongan islands and took a shipload of slaves to Peru. Dozens of New Zealand ships transported Pacific Islanders to Queensland and to Fiji, and in 1870 a group of ni-Vans from Efate were unloaded at Auckland and put to work in flax mills. Later many indentured labourers were brought to Auckland to work as servants in the homes of the city’s elite. I have blogged about some of this history at http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2011/06/new-zealands-slaving-history.html and http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2015/08/the-slave-raids-on-tonga-documents-and.html.
My book The Stolen Island, which describes the slave raids on Tonga, will be published next year by Bridget Williams.
(2) Ben Bohane has turned some of his experiences as a photojournalist into a fascinating text called Blackfella Armies - Custom and Conflict in Melanesia from 1994 - 2007, which earned him a Masters degree from the University of Wollongong and can be downloaded at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/648/
(3) Ralph Regenvanu was the director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, an organisation famous for its fusion of academic and traditional methods of research, before entering politics and becoming, briefly, Vanuatu’s Minister of Lands. He is influenced by Walter Lini’s notion of Melanesian socialism, and set up a ‘piggy bank’ scheme that allows rural ni-Vans who are poor in cash to pay for their childrens’ education with pigs, and urban ni-Vans who have cash but lack pigs to buy the animals for ceremonial occasions. The anthropologist Haidy Geismar has published a lengthy and important interview with Regenvanu: http://www.haidygeismar.com/My_Professional_Webpage/Publications_files/HR%20Ch1%20Regenvanu%20Geismar.pdf Regenvanu’s defence of autochthonous Melanesian culture seems to inform many of the images in The Black Islands.
(4) The West responded to the Solomons’ crisis by trying to recolonise the country. In July 2003 the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomons Islands landed on Guadalcanal. I described some of the problems RAMSI’s neo-colonial methods have created in this article: https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/54740 In his essay ‘Resisting RAMSI: Intervention, Identity, and Symbolism in Solomon Islands’, which was published in the journal Oceania in 2009, Matthew Allen provides a careful account of the clashes between the neo-colonial army and the peoples of Malaita, the country’s largest island. Allen’s essay can be read online at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264659803_Resisting_RAMSI_Intervention_Identity_and_Symbolism_in_Solomon_Islands