PRIOR to World War II people in the Admiralty Islands lived in patrilineal societies linked by complex trading relationships. These relationships bred a pervasive and stressful form of debt and commercialism and engaged a large part of people’s lives.
During the war nearly a million American and Australian troops passed through Manus. The American presence on Manus left an indelible impression on the local people. Not least was the amount of materiel and infrastructure brought to the island. Also impressive was the free and easy ways and generosity of the servicemen.
Particularly significant was the involvement and expertise of American Negro troops in the construction work. This egalitarianism provoked the islanders to later petition a Visiting Mission from the United Nations to have the island administered by the United States.
There was a general belief following the war that the missionaries and Europeans were deliberately holding back knowledge that could give equal opportunities to islanders. In 1947 JH Wootten, a staff member of the Australian School of Pacific Administration spent five months in Kawaliap, a village in central Manus.
The young village men talked freely with Wootten but the older men were less open and cautioned the younger men, stressing to Wootten that the people were fully supportive of the Australian administration.
The older men suspected that Wootten’s visit was some sort of government trap. When they realised this wasn’t the case they explained to him that they wished to be equal with the Europeans but their efforts to find the key to equality seemed to be continually blocked.
This desire for equality came to a head with the so-called Paliau Movement. Paliau Maloat came from the Matangkor village of Lipan on Baluan, an island off the south coast of Manus. He was born about 1907. He was a police sergeant who was on New Britain during the Japanese occupation. When he returned to Manus in 1946 he began formulating plans to bring his people into the modern world.
For this purpose he advocated making a complete break with the past. This included breaking away from the missions and setting up an indigenous church that would preach the core values of Christianity.
He believed that an indigenous-controlled program of economic development, the emancipation of women and new social relationships at the village level would pave the way towards a modern Manus society. His movement initially encompassed thirty two villages but gradually spread wider.
Paliau’s ideas conflicted with the views of the largely conservative and authoritarian administration as well as those of the missions. The initial view of the Australian administration was that the Paliau Movement was a cargo cult that needed to be repressed. A cargo cult, referred to as ‘The Noise’ had broken out on Rambutjon Island at roughly the same time and probably confused the administration.
Paliau was arrested in 1947 on a charge of adultery but instead of being jailed he was sent to Port Moresby to see what the administration had planned in terms of development, including the setting up of local government councils. After the visit Paliau refined his ideas for the future.
He was appointed luluai of Baluan in 1949 but became frustrated at the slow pace of the promised development of local government councils and developed a political and religious organisation that effectively took control of the south Manus area, including people who were once enemies.
The Christian missions complained to the administration and he was again arrested on charges of ‘spreading false rumours’. The islanders petitioned the administration for his release. Protests were also made to a United Nations Visiting Mission in May 1950 about the slow rate of the council development.
In July of that year an officer was appointed by the administration to establish a Native Local Government Council on Baluan. While the boundaries of the council area excluded some of the villages that supported Paliau his success paved the way forward for his people. Paliau was subsequently elected president of the council.
Paliau devoted a great deal of energy towards local government issues and he became active in national politics, being elected to the first House of Assembly in 1964. He was a founding member of Michael Somare’s Pangu Pati.
He was re-elected to the national parliament in 1968 but his bid for re-election in 1972 failed and he lost to Michael Pondros. He ran again in 1977 but also lost. He won a seat in the Provincial Government in 1979. With these other interests the movement began to languish and his influence and authority seemed to be diminishing.
The movement was given a new lease of life in 1978 when a young, educated Manus islander, Paliau Lukas Chauka, became involved. With the elder Paliau’s blessing the younger man set up a political arm of the movement called Makasol, an acronym for Manus Kastam Kansol (Manus Custom Council).
Makasol focused on the provincial government system suggesting that village lapans (big men) should be given roles in a tiered system. It also suggested that pilapans (high ranking women) should also have a role. In a traditional patrilineal society the idea of high ranking women was a new idea. At the same time Paliau was refining the spiritual side of the movement and renaming the traditional Christian deities.
Lukas Chauka is best known for his resistance to plans for a tuna cannery on Manus. When he and his colleagues, who were then living in Port Moresby, learned of the national and provincial governments’ plans to build the cannery at Lombrum in collaboration with StarKist, a subsidiary of the HJ Hienz food company, they reacted strongly arguing that the Manus people had not been consulted and environmental issues had not been considered.
Lukas Chauka and his colleague, Karol Kisokau, got government approval to do a social impact study. The study confirmed their suspicions that the cannery would pollute Seeadler Harbour and adversely affect local people who relied heavily on fishing for their diet. The national government changed its mind, much to the annoyance of the provincial government, and StarKist quickly agreed to an alternative cannery site in nearby New Ireland Province.
Paliau deliberately did not anoint a successor and when he died in 1991 the movement was run by a collective leadership of educated men and women. His biological and adopted sons showed little interest in the movement. The movement never proselytized and retained a flexible approach to issues.
A new system of provincial government was introduced in Papua New Guinea in 1996 and while it fitted more comfortably into the movement’s ideals personal issues continued to ensure an uneasy relationship. Paliau Lukas Chauka left the movement in 1985 but its leadership continues to be strongly representative of a significant minority in the Manus community.
Paliau was awarded an MBE and was knighted just before he died in late 1991. It is a moot point whether he originally used the administration for his own purposes or whether they used him in the same way. Margaret Mead called him an ‘untutored genius’ and this is probably an apt description. What his legacy might be and what influence it has on present day Manus society is also difficult to judge.
Towards the end of his life Paliau seems to have changed his mind about traditional culture, so that instead of rejecting it as an impediment to progress he now encouraged various aspects of it. The political arm of the movement took up this cause and advanced it after his death.
Cultural aspects have particularly become visible in provincial politics in the last decade or so. The provincial assembly is now called the Lapan Assembly, referring to traditional clan and village leaders, and reflects community expectations about good leadership.
In developing this modified approach Makasol and other political groups linked the ideals of living up to correct ethical and moral standards to kalsa (culture). Paliau had earlier based his plan for a ‘new way’ on abolishing customs that he thought was wasting valuable resources and time. He particularly focused on what he saw as the interminable feasts which resulted in cycles of plenty and poverty. He also opposed the concept of bride price, calling it an unnecessary waste of resources.
The cultural revival of kastom (custom) on Manus still accepts these strictures and instead focuses on the actual underlying meaning of ceremonies related to births, deaths and marriages. This new emphasis seems to be highly flexible and dynamic and is consistent with calls in other parts of Papua New Guinea to re-examine cultural values that are rapidly declining in the face of modernization.
The proponents of this approach argue that many aspects of traditional culture have positive attributes, such as their innate egalitarianism, that are worth preserving, even if this is done in a modified form.
Being seen to be aligned with values that reify the unique identity of Manus in the larger Papua New Guinean sphere is now a political plus. One of the off-spins of this approach is to limit the effectiveness of the so-called ‘flying fox’ politicians.
Flying foxes are seen as animals that fly in to feed when fruit is ripe and then disappear again. These are candidates in national elections who reside outside Manus and only come back to conduct campaigns. Very few of these people have successfully competed in the two national Manus seats.
How this evolving form of parochial politics manifests itself in terms of its relationship to other areas and other ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea has yet to be seen but whatever happens much credit should go to Paliau Maloat.