Historical Dictionary of Papua New Guinea: Second Edition

Historical Dictionary of Papua New Guinea: Second Edition

Goddard, Michael

HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Second Edition. By Ann Turner. Lanham (Maryland): The Scarecrow Press Inc. 2001, 359 pp. (Maps.) US$85.00, cloth. ISBN 0-8108-3936-9.

This is an updated version of Turner’s 1994 text, with additional entries mostly in the field of politics. Scholars with an interest in Papua New Guinea will be annoyed by an editor’s foreword claiming that detailed knowledge of the country is hard to find, particularly on the present-day economy, society and politics (p. vii). Turner’s own introduction is better informed, although residents of PNG’s capital city in particular may be bemused by her unqualified assertion that there are no beggars (p. 1). The dictionary’s strengths are in its representation of political, geographical and economic matters, and it is a very handy ready reference for readers who need accurate, concise histories of political parties, biographical details of significant individuals, and basic facts about important historical events. By following quod vide links among the brief entries, it is also possible to piece together reasonably balanced accounts of significant episodes in PNG’s recent history, such as the conflict ensuing from the development of large-scale coppermining on Bougainville Island in the 1960s.

The inherent weaknesses of this kind of reference book show up, however, in its treatment of matters where interpretive caution is required, particularly in the treatment of cultural material. The country is anthropologically celebrated for its extreme cultural diversity, which is the bane of attempts to give general yet accurate information in a paragraph or two. Inevitably the dictionary stumbles in this area. For example, the generalization ‘cargo cults,’ applied to many kinds of social movements in Melanesia, has taken a battering from anthropologists since the end of the colonial period, cognizant of a wide variety of spiritual, economic, political and cultural motives behind phenomena crudely glossed together by colonial observers. Yet Turner perpetuates an outdated, simplistic distinction between “cults and millenarian movements” (p. 59) and refers to the 1919 phenomenon commonly known as the Vailala Madness as a cargo cult (pp. 59, 266), which contemporary analysts would consider unwise. The entry “magic” (p. 155) has no descriptive text; we are advised instead to look under “sorcery.” Finding “sorcery” (p. 244), we are similarly referred on, this time to “traditional beliefs.” The latter finally offers some text (p. 257), which covers “religious activities” (including “magical practices,”) “sorcery,” and “myths”-categories which all require critique since they are popularly misused in reference to Melanesia and elsewhere. The three-paragraph entry addresses these “traditional beliefs” in terms which are anthropologically outdated, and makes the extremely risky assertion that “No words exist that can be equated with the European concept of religion” (p. 257).

Other niggling lapses could perhaps have been avoided by a more careful reading of some of the books listed in the bibliography. For example, an entry on the Papuan lingua franca now known as ‘Hiri Motu’ (previously ‘Police Motu’) reproduces the popular assumption that it was used in the traditional trading expeditions known as hin, conducted by the Motu people along the Papuan coast (p. 119), while relevant bibliography listings (pp. 351-2) include some forceful arguments to the contrary. “Hands off Papua” was the rhetoric of a separatist movement of the early 1970s, known as Papua Besena, butin the book it is wrongly represented (pp. 1, 201) as the translation of its name. Further small errors of the same kind occur mostly when the author is off the safer ground of formally documented institutional information, but given the task confronting anyone attempting such wide coverage, Turner has done admirably over all. The bibliography, about 60 pages in length, is a valuable resource in itself.

University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia MICHAEL GODDARD

Copyright University of British Columbia Summer 2003

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