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Pacification in the Eastern Highlands in the 1940s – 1960s

Tobias Schwörer

TOBIAS SCHWÖRER | Summary of PhD Thesis

Ending War: Colonial processes of pacification and the elimination of warfare in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea by Tobias Schwörer. Summary of PhD thesis, 2016. University of Lucerne, Lucerne. See further information on the thesis and related papers here

LUCERNE - Pacification denotes a process whereby a state attends to extend its monopoly of violence onto politically  autonomous  groups  outside  its  sphere  of  control  and  thereby  curtails  any  further collective violence between those groups and armed resistance against the imposition of state control. 

It  is  a process  that  has  been occurring  throughout  history  in  situations  of  colonial conquest and  state expansion.

Despite the importance and prominence of these processes not only  for the state but even more so for the indigenous groups affected, there is remarkably little systematic analysis  and theoretical reflection  on the causal factors  that led members  of such  groups  to agree  to  lay  down their  weapons  and  refrain from  pursuing  further  acts  of collective violence.

In this thesis, I  look at colonial processes  of  pacification in the Eastern  Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and establish the  causal mechanisms that lead to  the elimination of indigenous warfare  between  the  late  1940s  and  the  mid-1960s.

I not only document and  analyse  these processes  in  detail,  but  also  develop  a  methodological  and  analytical  toolkit  to  compare processes  of  pacification in general, and an encompassing theoretical framework to explain the gradual but ultimately successful transition to a colonially induced peace. 

The  thesis  centres  on  four  communities  in  three  ethnic  groups  in  the  Okapa  and  Obura-Wonenara Districts of the Eastern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea, namely Purosa among  the  Fore,  Amaira  among  the  Auyana,  and  Bibeori  and  Obura  among  the  Southern Tairora.

All of these communities were first contacted between 1947 and 1949 by government patrols  of  the  Australian  Administration. 

The  ensuing  process  of  pacification  has  been  far from  uniform,  however. 

While  indigenous  warfare  ceased  quickly  among  the  Fore  and Auyana, it persisted for a much longer  period  among  the  Southern  Tairora.  These temporal variations and the differing outcomes form an ideal setting to compare different trajectories of pacification and extract general features conducive to the elimination of warfare.

Using a combination of  documentary  and archival sources from  the  colonial administration, published  ethnographic  information  and  own  fieldwork  data,  oral  history  interviews  with villagers  in  the Eastern  Highlands  as  well  as  former  colonial officers,  I  trace  in detail  the complex circumstances and preconditions of the processes of pacification as they occurred in the four communities.

I document the interests  and strategies of the different colonial agents trying to implement a ban on warfare or contributing  to  this  process,  analyse  the  impact  of these strategies on the local  groups,  and  investigate the cultural perceptions,  interpretations, reactions and strategies of the members of these groups in interacting with agents of the state.

In  Purosa,  a  desire  for  goods  brought  in  by  the  colonial  officers,  a  desire  fuelled  by  cargo cults and a  general  climate of uncertainty,  rapid  change and new  possibilities  led to a  quick cessation of warfare by the people themselves.

Once peace was established, it was the village leaders’ adoption of village-level courts to peacefully settle conflicts that sustained this rapid pacification.

As leadership  among the Fore was  not solely dependent  on prowess in warfare like in the other case studies, but also on the organisation of alliances and peace ceremonies, it was the leaders’ legacy as peacemakers that facilitated their transformation into mediators and adjudicators to keep the peace. 

In Amaira, the strategically precarious situation between two  enemies and the  resulting high death toll, coupled with the reputation of police as fierce warriors, led to the local population asking  for  the stationing of a policeman in their village for protection against enemy raids.

This ensuing  constant police presence and the heavy-handed repression of the police quickly curtailed any further violence. After the police were withdrawn, it was again the leadership of village officials who emulated the  police and held police-style courts,  which guaranteed that conflicts  no  longer  escalated. 

A  rapid  involvement  in  the  colonial  economy  and  the abandoning of traditions associated with  warfare  due  to the presence of mission  evangelists also made the recurrence of collective violence less likely. 

In Obura, pacification came late and only through systematic repression and a continued state presence.  There  were  less  conduits of information  that  prompted  expectations  of  wealth  or security from enemies  to be possibly gained  from collaboration with  state agents.

Excessive and unsystematic state  violence  also proved to be  detrimental to the process  of pacification. Village  officials  did  not  cooperate  in  settling  conflicts  or  arresting  troublemakers,  and continued to be primarily war leaders  that  often  initiated  retaliation  against enemies.

It was only after a government station was set up in Obura that warfare eventually slowed down, as retaliation in the form of arrests by the police was now more systematic and swift. 

In Bibeori, people welcomed an  early  presence  of  mission evangelists, as the connection to these outsiders perceived as powerful allowed them  to regain their original territory lost in a previous war.

The  people of Bibeori attempted  to remain allies of  the administration, but as they were situated in an area in which conflicts continued to escalate to warfare, they at times had to resort  to  violence to defend  themselves. 

This shows that  pacification  could only take hold if all groups in an area gave up warfare at the same time. Violent repression by the state and  the  unavailability  of  alternative  institutions  for  the  settlement  of  conflicts  led  to  the development  of  soccer  matches  as  an  incomplete  form  of  restorative  justice,  allowing  for dissipation of tensions resulting from conflicts and a normalization of relations, albeit with an inherent danger of violent escalation. 

In  comparing  the  four  case  studies  I  show  that  there  are  three  decisive  conditions  for pacification:

1)  a  strategy  of repression that  punishes  groups  still  engaged in warfare;

2)  a strategy of incentives that rewards  groups  willing  to cease war; and

3) the  establishment  of judicial institutions that  enable the peaceful settlement  of conflicts between  pacified groups.

These strategies would ultimately reverse the incentive structures to pursue warfare as a form of  retaliation,  and  over  time  guarantee  lasting peace. 

While  the  Australian  Administration employed all of these strategies  to varying degrees, it was the perspective and agency of the local  population  that  made  the  difference.  Pre-contact  conditions,  such  as  modalities  and intensity of warfare, patterns  of  leadership and alliance, as  well  as traditional institutions of peace-making also shaped the process of pacification.

Political  decision-making within local groups led to different strategies of interaction with the colonial agents, ranging from violent resistance  to  avid  acceptance  of  the  proclaimed  ban  of  warfare.

Only  when  the  villagers perceived repression as systematic and impartial, only when they welcomed selective rewards and  only  after they  widely  accepted  alternative institutions  of  conflict  settlement,  did they stop waging war.

And it was  in  areas  where  local leaders started to settle conflicts  on  their own  in  courts  styled  after  the  courts  of  the  Australian  Administration  that  an  initial  end  of warfare was turned into a lasting peace.

This demonstrates that it is crucial to investigate local cultural  understandings  and  epistemologies,  as  it  is  the  culturally  patterned  agency  of indigenous  actors  that  determines  not  only  resistance  to  the  imposition  of  state  control,  but also the sometimes quick, sometimes delayed cessation of warfare.


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Tobias Schwoerer

I am rather pleased that my research has caught the attention of someone from PNG Attitude and that they decided to showcase it on their website.

I welcome this interest, and hope that some of the readers will consider buying the book I am currently working on once it is published.

I am also grateful to the posts by Chris Overland and Philip Fitzpatrick for making me aware of potential misunderstandings that can emerge from my use of terms. I understand repression to mean the repression (or suppression) of warfare, not the repression (or oppression) of people.

In my thesis, and also noted by Chris, I show that Australian kiaps and New Guinea policemen used a wide variety of enforcing tactics to stop armed conflict.

These were for the most part benign uses of police force, in the form of arrests and imprisonment, in a few cases the destruction of property (burning houses) or corporal punishment (caning), and only rarely (and then mostly in cases of self-defense) the use of potentially lethal force by firing guns.

Let me also state that I have the utmost regard for the work of the Australian kiaps, as they operated in sometimes very difficult and hostile circumstances, and most went out of their way to prevent situations in which they would have to use firearms.

The number of victims of pacification in the area I studied is small (I have collected testimonies for a total of 32 deaths), and pales in contrast to those that would have died had indigenous warfare continued.

There are a few isolated incidents in the late 1940s and early 1950s that warrant the term “excessive violence”, however.

These incidents were mostly perpetrated by unsupervised New Guinean policemen, which is why there is hardly any documentary evidence, and why so little is known about them (even by ex-kiaps).

The case study of Obura which I too briefly mention in my summary is one such incident: a coastal policeman stationed at a police post in Omaura (such police posts only occasionally visited by kiaps existed in the Eastern Highlands until late 1952) together with some local villagers mounted a punishment expedition against Obura, and at dawn and without warning opened fire on a men’s house. This resulted in the death of 13 men, the largest death toll in any of such encounters.

I would like to emphasise, however, that this is an exception, and that for the most part, positive material incentives, the promise of wealth, the introduction of courts, and the support by local leaders led to a quick end of warfare accepted by all.

If someone would like to know more about these positive processes, I suggest a read of my article entitled “The Red Flag of Peace: Colonial Pacification, Cargo Cults, and the End of War among the South Fore”, available here:

Andy McNabb

Chris, stop this “mea culpa”. At least yu no how to spel proper like.

I was taught “proper” English, and I still remember the ruler across my fingers when Miss Broadbent noticed I had got an “irregular verb” confused with a “past participle”.

If it occurred again, it was the “naughty corner” for 10 minutes, and all the other kids would laugh at the naughty one.

You writings are always insightful, accessible, and instructive.

Keep them coming!

Chris Overland

Andy, you are right. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa maxima!

Andy [The Pedant] McNabb

Chris - The adjective "repression" is more typically associated.... I think you will find "repression" is a noun.

Philip Fitzpatrick

While I haven't read Tobias' thesis either, Chris, this summary seems to be reminiscent of academia's old kiap bashing days post 1975.

"Excessive and unsystematic state violence" - perhaps someone should send him a copy of 'Departmental Standing Instructions - General Field Administration'.

Chris Overland

I have no argument with Tobias Schworer's basic conclusion in his thesis. I think that he has correctly described the process by which PNG was brought under the control of the Australian colonial administration.

That said, I think that the use of expressions like "repression that punishes groups still engaged in warfare" is, whether intended or not, an emotionally loaded way of describing the pacification process.

The adjective "repression" is more typically associated with injustice and inequity, not the lawful imposition of an orderly, fair and effective system of justice upon what were essentially anarchical and sometimes exceptionally brutal social systems.

In short, it is a pejorative term and, I think, capable of misleading a reader as to the nature of what happened.

He could more accurately have said that the administration followed a strategy of imposing law and order by a variety of means including coercive and, sometimes, lethal force in some cases.

Having not read the thesis I hope that within it he has developed his thinking on how Papua New Guineans themselves, having understood what the objectives of the colonial intruders actually were, soon realised that their collectively interests would be best served by accepting the new situation without violent resistance.

They did this even though I have no doubt that the behaviour of the intruders was sometimes irksome and high handed.

A lot of effort went into creating a justice system that was fair and reasonably accessible to all.

As well, the authorities knew that it had to take into account traditional beliefs and values, at least to the extent that this was reasonably possible.

For example, I have personally stood by and allowed traditional justice to be applied in a few cases where pursuing them through the official justice system could not have produced an acceptable result for the people involved.

Also, in the very early years penalties for things like killings during tribal fighting were usually very lenient because the presiding judges realised that the offenders were operating within a traditional paradigm.

Please note that my comments are not meant to detract from what appears to be a pretty good piece of academic work that will presumably be rewarded with a PhD.

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