BOOK REVIEW: Bougainville before the conflict


Bougainville before the conflict By Anthony Regan and Helga Griffin Pandanus Books, 2005 Hard cover; 566 pages; AU$85

Review by Robin McKay

This is a monumental work compiled by Anthony Regan and Helga Griffin as editors of contributions by an array of highly qualified academics. This includes Bougainvillians who can add their people’s inner feelings and though processes to their scientific findings.

Anthony Regan is a Fellow in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia project at ANU [Australian National University] Canberra, and has worked in Papua New Guinea, Uganda, East Timor and Solomon Islands. He has been an advisor to the Bougainville Peace process 1997-2005.

Helga Griffin BA, Hon., Dip Ed. Graduated from University of PNG, James Cook University, and Canberra College of Advanced Education, and has been on the research and editorial staff of the Australian Dictionary of Biography at ANU Canberra for 20 years. Her interest and study of Bougainville goes back over 30 years.

Contributing authors in the introductory chapters start with Mathew Spriggs, Professor of Archaeology at ANU covering sites and artifacts from pre-history to later migrations. Hugh Davies, Professor of Geology at UPNG contributes an overall geological picture of the island and – linguistics are covered by Professor Darrell Tryon, Professor Linguistics at ANU who has worked for 40 years on the indigenous languages of Oceania. Eugene Ogan, UCAL and Harvard, has carried out ethnographic studies on Bougainville for over 40 years, mainly in the Nasioi area and is a worthy successor to his early mentor, Douglas Oliver. He provided the introduction and Jonathon Friedlander, (Harvard) delves into biological Anthropology and genetics but disappointingly does not come up with a definite reason for the distinctive and highly attractive colour of the people. Of my 35 years in NG prior to the late 1960s, I spent 23 on or involved with Bougainville, and I found the people to be dour, enigmatic, conservative and proud. I admired them greatly and trust that any impact I had on them was reasonably positive.

Chapters covering the ‘Colonial’ era, from 1910 to and including WWII, contain many rather contentious statements emanating from anecdotal and/or personally prejudiced evidence. However none of these detract markedly from the overall picture presented and little could be achieved by questioning them here. The remaining section of the book covers the Post WWII period up to the present day, the political, social and economic development and the massive impact of modern global economics on a subsistence culture. The lack of a national entity and appreciation of grassroots politics over NG as a whole led to misunderstandings on all sides, and given the unexpected solidarity of the people, the ensuing chaos became inevitable.

All this is ably recorded by the following Bougainville academics: Roselyn Kenneth, Joachim Lummani, John and Elizabeth Momis, Bill Sagir, James Tanis, and Melchior Togolo, as well as expatriate scientists Jared Keil, Jill Nash, Eugene Ogan and Hank Nelson, with a contributing chapter by Don Vernon the Managing Director of Bougainville Copper 1970-1986.

Gene Ogan’s reference to overstated fatalities might be borne in mind when assessing the human costs of this turbulent period but the sufferings of the average villager, women and children can never be overestimated. This book will be a standard reference in the future to be quoted, misquoted and argued about but one wonders how the people will cope with the 21st Century, as indeed how any of us will.

January 19, 2006

The Papua New Guinea Association of Australia [PNGAA] publishes in its Una Voce Quarterly Journal news and reviews of recently published books on Papua New Guinea.  Many of the books reviewed (both fact and fiction) have been authored by members of the Association, and are drawn from personal experiences and/or research.  Reviews of these books are generally undertaken by Association Members who have a particular knowledge or experience of the subject matter or are otherwise qualified by virtue of their long association with Papua New Guinea or particular expertise.  The views and opinions expressed by the Reviewer are entirely independent of those held by any member of the committee of PNGAA, including the Editor of Una Voce, the Association's Journal.

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