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University of Chicago Press
Pub. Date:
University of Chicago Press
Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History / Edition 1

Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History / Edition 1

by Frederick Errington, Deborah Gewertz Frederick Errington


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Yali's Question is the story of a remarkable physical and social creation—Ramu Sugar Limited (RSL), a sugar plantation created in a remote part of Papua New Guinea. As an embodiment of imported industrial production, RSL's smoke-belching, steam-shrieking factory and vast fields of carefully tended sugar cane contrast sharply with the surrounding grassland. RSL not only dominates the landscape, but also shapes those culturally diverse thousands who left their homes to work there.

To understand the creation of such a startling place, Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz explore the perspectives of the diverse participants that had a hand in its creation. In examining these views, they also consider those of Yali, a local Papua New Guinean political leader. Significantly, Yali features not only in the story of RSL, but also in Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning world history Guns, Germs, and Steel—a history probed through its contrast with RSL's. The authors' disagreement with Diamond stems, not from the generality of his focus and the specificity of theirs, but from a difference in view about how history is made—and from an insistence that those with power be held accountable for affecting history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226217468
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2004
Series: Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series , #2002
Edition description: 1
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Frederick Errington is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College. Deborah Gewertz is the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor of Anthropology at Amherst College. They are authors of four previous books together, most recently Emerging Class in Papua New Guinea.

Read an Excerpt

Sugar, Culture, and History

By Frederick Errington Deborah Gewertz
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-21746-8

Chapter One
What Do They (Should They) Want?

SOME THEORISTS ARGUE THAT all human desire derives from a primal, preverbal "wanting" for something that, once named (for example, the breast, a sugary confection, or even a BMW), becomes inadequate. But even such essentialists of desire agree that what people want, beyond their preverbal desiring, is socially constructed. In particular, they argue that what people ask for is shaped by their history and in turn shapes their history. This is to say, what people want is formed in the context of the stories they are told and the stories they tell about the way the world works or might work-stories about what human beings might plausibly hope for.

Strathern (1992) illustrates well this social construction of desire in her discussion of the Papua New Guineans who first encountered Australian explorers in the Highlands of the country's interior in the 1930s. The Australians assumed that the Papua New Guineans were impressed with their complex technology-their guns and steel. Yet in Strathern's view, possession of novel technology initially marked the explorers as spirits, and from the perspective of the Highlanders, the appearance of spirits among the living was extraordinary but ultimately not very consequential. Spirits, after all, would likely disappear without much effect. Only when the Highlanders discovered that the strangers had large quantities of pearl shells and wished to trade with them did the Australians become plausibly human. Pearl shells, traded up from the Coast, were for a long time central in the Highland exchanges through which marriages were contracted, compensation for death or injury was paid, and alliances were cemented within and between groups. In other words, only when the Australians showed that they apparently valued what the Highlanders already valued and desired did the Highlanders regard them as interesting and socially significant. Only then could the Highlanders fit these strange but fundamentally peripheral beings into their own narratives as full human beings: they became persons with whom the Papua New Guineans could, and would want to, engage. Only at this point did these whites appear to enter history-Highlands' style-as people who were and would continue to be social players. This is to say, the way Highlanders understood what was happening around them and the way that they reacted to what happened depended, in significant part, upon their expectations for the future-expectations shaped by local narrative conventions, by the stories they told about the past, present, and future (see Donham 1999: 10).

To be sure, Yali's people and other Coastal groups had a much longer history of European contact (often dating from the latter part of the nineteenth century). Yali himself had especially extensive contact with Europeans. He served as a policeman in New Guinea's colonial administration before World War Two and as a member of the Allied Intelligence Service during the war. In fact, there is a photograph taken in 1944 in the Australian War Memorial Archives commemorating his military service (fig. 5). The image shows Yali inside the Dace, an American submarine, together with other members of his company of intelligence-gathering "Coastwatchers." In advance of a major Allied landing, Yali's group of twelve-seven Europeans, one Indonesian translator, and four Papua New Guineans-had been sent to Hollandia, then Dutch New Guinea, on a hazardous mission to gather strategic information. In the picture, Yali and the other men are posed next to their weapons in cramped, machinery-packed quarters. After the war, as a distinguished veteran, Yali embarked on a controversial political career, one that kept him in close association with Europeans.

Yet, like the Highlanders Strathern describes, Yali's life and aspirations followed a largely Papua New Guinean historical narrative. In outline, this narrative focuses less on the material attributes of things themselves than on the social uses to which things are put (see Appadurai 1986; Sahlins 1988 and 1992; Thomas 1991). Things have value because they can be used in transactions to establish relationships of recognition and respect. Things are more like gifts than commodities, establishing qualitative relationships between the people exchanging them rather than quantitative ones between the items exchanged (see Gregory 1982). The major point of these transactions is thus to establish relationships of obligation, alliance, and friendship rather than to get "good deals." Therefore, when Highlanders desired pearl shells, and they did desire them with a passionate intensity, it was not for the sake of the shells alone. Indeed, as Malinowski (1922) points out about Coastal Papua New Guineans, men acquired coveted shells so as to be able to give them away at a later time.

Because the Highlanders were relatively inexperienced in European ways, they apparently thought that the explorers were generous in offering them the pearl shells that affirmed their fundamental worth-their shared humanity. In contrast, the Coastal peoples had long before learned that the colonists were stingy, offering them only meager wages that denied a common humanity. Moreover, exacerbating raw feelings was local recognition that whites had real and intrusive power. Certainly colonial administrators sought to bring many aspects of native life under their discipline, and they could, in fact, punish those who, by flouting their directives, challenged their power. Indeed, as we shall see later, Yali was to spend nearly six years in jail during the 1950s for his recalcitrance.

Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness-to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history. In their efforts to establish the transactions, the exchanges, on which the elusive equality would be based, many Papua New Guineans sought, often through magical and ritual means, the European things-the "cargo"-that whites so evidently valued. It would be an error, however, to believe that it was the things alone that interested them. Rather, with these things, they hoped to become interesting and socially significant (exchange-worthy) to the Europeans. In Road Belong Cargo, Lawrence describes the attempts of Yali and his neighbors, including those in the Upper Ramu Valley, to acquire this cargo through what is now known as the cargo cult:

It is based on the natives' belief that European goods (cargo)-ships, aircraft, trade articles, and military equipment-are not man-made but have to be obtained from a non-human or divine source. It expresses the followers' dissatisfaction with their status in colonial society, which is to be improved imminently or eventually by the acquisition of new wealth. It has, therefore, a disruptive influence and is regarded by the ... Australian Administration ... as one of [its] most serious problems. (1964: 1)

Deeply resenting their inferiority in colonial society, Papua New Guineans sought for decades to improve their status by gaining access to cargo. In fact, during Fred's early Papua New Guinea research on the island of Karavar (in 1968 and 1972), local people remained preoccupied with gaining long-denied respect from Europeans. In discussing their contemporary cargo activities (which focused on learning how to place an order such that a small payment would elicit a shipload of manufactured items), they described a history of their efforts to compel Europeans to recognize mutual humanness. In particular, they referred to the "dog movement," a series of meetings they held during the 1930s. The question addressed with perplexity and anger at these meetings was why the Europeans persisted in treating them with contempt-driving them away, telling them to get out, as if they were unwelcome dogs. Through obtaining cargo, they sought to win European respect by possessing what Europeans so obviously valued.

Over a considerable period of time, hence, Papua New Guineans frequently sought to acquire and master the ritual techniques by which Europeans accessed cargo. Influenced by Yali or other cargo-cult leaders, they tried a combination of recalcitrance and ritual experimentation. They interrupted and transformed normal routines: they refused to pay taxes, repudiated the directions of colonial administrators, established alternative governments, wrested theological control from missionaries, and mobilized villages, if not whole regions, in fervent invocation and prophesy. In their choice of such means, Papua New Guineans often became interesting and socially significant in ways the Europeans considered undesirable-ways that provoked greater exercise of European power and made recognition of mutual equality even less likely.

Diamond therefore misunderstands what many Papua New Guineans desired when he explains the background to Yali's question about the differences between white and black people. In Diamond's words: " [W]hites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as 'cargo'" (1999: 14). Because Diamond does not understand that Yali really was asking less about cargo per se than about colonial relationships between white and black people, he describes the introduction of centralized government as almost parenthetical to the indisputable fact that whites and their goods had arrived. Thus, he presents local resentment as directed not so much at the nature and use of concerted colonial power as at the differential access to goods. We might also note here that in using the term "goods" Diamond implies that such items were inherently desirable, instantly recognizable as worth acquiring. Yet, as we all know from advertising, things become desirable only when they are caught up in narratives that define them as such. In some cases, things may fit easily into a range of narratives-steel axes, for example. But as Sharp shows in his classic essay (1952) about the introduction of steel axes among the Yir Yoront, "Stone Age" Australian Aborigines, their significance-their meaning and use-is no simple product of any immediately obvious technological superiority. Indeed, for major segments of Yir Yoront society, such axes were far from goods, undercutting as they did indigenous trade networks and power relationships.

Moreover, in defining cargo as goods, Diamond provides a narrative in which local people will do whatever it takes to get such things. This kind of narrative, as Thomas (1991) points out, implies that, in their desire for these goods, local people are the agents of their own domination. Such a narrative, we think, serves to displace attention from the nature of colonial power relations. These relationships are not vested in the "nature of things." They are not inevitable because of the instantly recognized value of manufactured items. Instead, colonial relationships have been imposed, often to the resentment and resistance of local people. Papua New Guineans such as Yali wanted cargo not because of its inherent and instantly recognizable value, but because of a desire to transform the relations of inequality between whites and blacks that were pervasive in colonialism. They wanted cargo primarily because they objected to the ways in which the centralized, colonial government used power and, correspondingly, diminished their relative worth.

This sense of being ill-appreciated and ill-used was elaborated in various stories that presented Papua New Guineans and Europeans as sharing a prior history of social obligations. These stories were, in effect, arguments designed to demonstrate European immorality in denying this history and in behaving in ways that were inappropriately, almost inhumanly, asocial. As Lawrence demonstrates in Road Belong Cargo, Papua New Guineans often understood and represented this prior history in a range of changing forms. For Yali and others of his region, the history of social obligation was conveyed through myths, Christian beliefs, and accounts of wartime service. Whether the stories focused on a mythic brother who, after teaching cargo secrets to Europeans abroad, was prevented from returning to instruct his brother remaining at home, or on the Christian beliefs about the kinship of blacks and whites as descendants of the same original parents, or on the wartime actions of Papua New Guineans who jeopardized their own safety by saving Australians from death and capture, these stories were all proofs that Australians should recognize them as equals. This history, in all its variations, showed that for reasons of fairness, kinship, and alliance, Papua New Guineans were not only worthy recipients of such recognition, but also were owed this acknowledgment and the transformed future that would flow from it.

* * *

In this chapter, we begin the stories of why and how many people from different cultural groups and social classes in Papua New Guinea's Upper Ramu Valley (some of whom, in fact, knew Yali well) came to want, or came to contribute to the desire for, a particular kind of transformation: the creation of a plantation that would produce mill-white sugar, one of the quintessential "goods" of modernity. Central among their stories was a narrative in which expectations-indeed, desires-came to be focused on the idea of "development." In the Upper Ramu Valley, a place directly influenced by Yali's teachings about how equality between whites and blacks might be achieved, this narrative of development was the best that the centralized colonial government and its agents could offer. As we shall see, this narrative of development was designed so that local people could formulate "realistic" (non-cargoistic) desires and eventually realize a productive and satisfying future.

Place and Certain People

The Upper Ramu Valley had long been a place of confluence and contention for people of at least three different language groups. Now calling themselves the Mari, the Raikos (or Nahu-Rawa), and the Kafe, these people converged from different directions. The Mari came up the valley from the plains to the east (originally from the contiguous Markham Valley); the Raikos came down into the valley from the coastal range to the north; and the Kafe came down into the valley from the high ranges to the south. Divided into small settlements, the members of these different language groups intermarried, traded, and fought with each other. More recently, all claim to have lived in the foothills on either side of the valley, where they gardened along the waterways flowing down from the mountains. All say that they ventured into the valley itself primarily for hunting, fishing, trading, and fighting. Specifically, they drove game by burning the grasslands, they fished in the Ramu River, and they met up with each other, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.

This valley land, seen by colonial officers as remote, underpopulated, and underutilized, was purchased in 1956 by two Australian patrol officers, Douglas Parrish and Neil McNamara, on behalf of the Territory of Papua New Guinea. The land was to be offered to Australian settlers in the form of pastoral leases. Although, technically, no part of what became the nation of Papua New Guinea was a colony of Australia, practically speaking, Australia administered it as a colony. This was an era in which colonial development policy was generally one of noninterference, or "laissez faire," as it had been pre-World War Two. With the government primarily occupied with repairing the considerable amount of war damage and regaining political control over the entire Territory, it could, through offering these leases, pursue its modest development objectives. Furthermore, expatriate-owned ranching operations, it was thought, would provide beef for domestic consumption and would thus lessen the external drain on Territory resources by reducing the need for imported beef. In addition, these operations might also eventually incorporate Papua New Guinean smallholders in peripheral and subsidiary enterprises (Connell 1997: 20, 69-71).


Excerpted from YALI'S QUESTION by Frederick Errington Deborah Gewertz Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: On Avoiding a History of the Self-Evident and the Self-Interested
1. What Do They (Should They) Want?
2. Factories in Fact and Fancy
3. The Peopling of a Place and the Placing of People
4. Clansman, Family Man, and Family-of-Man Man at RSL
5. The Life of Expatriates: Setting the Standards
6. Replacing Expatriates with Papua New Guineans
7. On Landowners, Outgrowers—and Just a Little Respect
8. On the Road, Mari Style
9. Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water
Conclusion: On Listening

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