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The Death of the Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots

The Death of the Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots: Custom and Conflict in East New Britain

Keir Martin
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Death of the Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots
    Book Description:

    In 1994, the Pacific island village of Matupit was partially destroyed by a volcanic eruption. This study focuses on the subsequent reconstruction and contests over the morality of exchanges that are generative of new forms of social stratification. Such new dynamics of stratification are central to contemporary processes of globalization in the Pacific, and more widely. Through detailed ethnography of the transactions that a displaced people entered into in seeking to rebuild their lives, this book analyses how people re-make sociality in an era of post-colonial neoliberalism without taking either the transformative power of globalization or the resilience of indigenous culture as its starting point. It also contributes to the understanding of the problems of post-disaster reconstruction and development projects.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-873-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. General Maps
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Note on Language
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. Introduction: Land Politics and Postcolonial Sociality in the Wake of Environmental Disaster
    (pp. 1-29)

    On 14 September 1994, the twin volcanoes of Tarvurvur and Vulcan erupted, devastating Rabaul, the provincial capital of East New Britain, as well as many surrounding villages predominantly inhabited by members of the ethnic group known as the Tolai (see Map 1). The destroyed Tolai villages included Matupit, the community that is at the heart of this study (see Map 2). The volcanic eruption is what first drew the attention of many, including myself, to this area of the South Pacific, a part of the independent country of Papua New Guinea (PNG). After the volcano, the residents of Matupit, who...

  8. 1 An Orientation to the Shifting Patterns of Tolai Land Tenure
    (pp. 30-38)

    Land has probably always been central to Tolai social life. Salisbury (1970:67) reports his informants routinely saying that land ‘is the most basic element of life’. A.L. Epstein (1969: 2) likewise states that on his very first visit to Matupit, ‘I was at once made acutely aware of the importance the Matupi attached to land, and of the tensions that could be generated when any question arose that seemed to touch on it’.

    Descriptions of the ways in which Tolai organise access to land have most commonly emphasised the role of thevunataraiin negotiating such access. The Kuanua term...

  9. 2 Land at Sikut: Freedom from Kastom and Economic Development
    (pp. 39-60)

    In the immediate wake of the volcanic eruption of 1994, the residents of Matupit fled to many different locations, but today most Matupi live either at the resettlement camp of Matupit-Sikut or have returned to Matupit. Land at Sikut provides a challenge to the legalistic distinction between ‘customary’ and ‘non-customary’ land. Legally the land at Sikut is supposed to be ‘noncustomary’, but many residents fear (or in a few cases hope for) the gradual re-emergence of customary land tenure practices over time. Some people even claim to have detected the first signs of their re-emergence only a few years after...

  10. 3 Kulia: An Ambiguous Transaction
    (pp. 61-74)

    While the allegedly individual, discrete nature of block holdings at Sikut is complicated by the tendency of customary ways of thinking and acting to creep back in, so too the tenure of customary land back at Matupit has been complicated by Tolai responses to new economic circumstances. Debates around land tenure in this part of East New Britain have long centred on the issue of patrilineal versus matrilineal transfer of rights, with patrilineality being associated by many with a positive move towards more ‘modern’ land tenure systems. What is often at stake in these debates is an argument about the...

  11. 4 What Makes a Landholder: A Case Study of a Matupit Land Dispute
    (pp. 75-99)

    In the previous chapter I described changes inkuliaover the decades at Matupit, and how this transaction, commonly glossed in English as ‘purchase’, has become more akin to what we would understand as buying and selling. In this section I examine a case study of a land dispute whose origins lie in a contestedkuliatransaction. My intention is to demonstrate the rhetorical devices through which a form of individuality and individual rights are asserted and contested. This dispute does not centre on the nature of the transaction and the extent to which it implies absolute alienation of the...

  12. 5 Kastom, Family and Clan: Extending and Limiting Obligations
    (pp. 100-120)

    In the previous chapter, I analysed the changing ways in which Matupi have organised access to land, and the central importance of different kinds of kinship relations to that process. Kinship has long been central to the ways in which Tolai land tenure is negotiated. Or to put it another way, relations negotiated through land have long been central to how people recognise each other as kin. The institution ofturguvuai, in which two separatevunataraicome to be recognised as one by virtue of a history of joint customary transactions, often performed on specific pieces of land, is one...

  13. 6 Kastom and Contested Reciprocity
    (pp. 121-140)

    Kastomhas become central to debates about the how Tolai should behave in the twenty-first century. For example, as we have seen, this category is central to the negotiation of the appropriate relationship between the family-based household and the more extended kinship obligations of thevunatarai. This is the case both for the face to face interactions at the village level, and for the macro-level debates of policy formulation and implementation. The resettlement at Sikut, carried out under the auspices of the Gazelle Restoration Authority (GRA), is clearly operating under the premise of non-customary land holding. While the reality on...

  14. 7 Big Shots, Corned Beef and Big Heads
    (pp. 141-153)

    The example of the Big Shots provides perhaps the best illustration of how the contradiction between family and clan crystallises the wider contradictions of a global capitalist economy in East New Britain. This contradiction between family and clan is one of the key sites at which the emerging elite pursues strategies of individuation and hence are seen by others as abrogating their obligations to the grassroots. I examine this issue in more detail in Chapter Nine. The overall pattern, though, is one of ‘extended’ kin of Big Shots tending to feel that they have a greater claim on the Big...

  15. 8 A Fish Trap for Kastom
    (pp. 154-175)

    Across the previous several chapters I looked at the concept ofkastomand how its meaning has constantly been creatively re-invented in new social contexts, as a marker of the ever shifting boundaries of appropriate reciprocal interdependence in postcolonial PNG. Across those chapters, I examined concrete examples to illustrate the different ways in which this one word can mark out a moral position on the appropriate limits of reciprocity in a variety of different contexts. In this chapter I take a different approach, looking in detail at a single issue, namely changes in fishing technologies over the past fifty years...

  16. 9 Big Men, Big Shots and Bourgeois Individuals: Conflicts over Moral Obligation and the Limits of Reciprocity
    (pp. 176-211)

    One evening towards the end of my fieldwork, I was accosted by a drunk. I was in a bar in Kokopo, the Provincial Capital and my friends and I were chatting in Kuanua, when a well-dressed middle-aged man grabbed me by the shoulder and insisted that I speak in English, as the poor standard of my Kuanua made me ‘sound like a dog’. For the past few weeks, national news had been dominated by the Australian government’s attempts to get the PNG government to agree to the placement of Australian officials in overseeing positions in PNG governmental departments to counteract...

  17. 10 Your Own Buai You Must Buy: The Big Shot as Contemporary Melanesian Possessive Individual
    (pp. 212-230)

    In the previous chapter I discussed the similarities between contemporary uses of the term ‘Big Shot’ at Matupit, and Macpherson’s analysis of the political theory of ‘Possessive Individualism’. The theory of Possessive Individualism stresses the ‘conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them’ (Macpherson 1962: 3). This autonomy grants the individual the moral right to assert agency in various social spheres. Macpherson (1962: 107–59) cites the Putney Debates over the extent of the franchise between the Independents and the Levellers after the English Civil War as an...

  18. Conclusions
    (pp. 231-240)

    The emergence of the category of the Big Shot and the contests around its use and meaning are perhaps the starkest illustrations of the ongoing contest over the appropriate limits of reciprocal interdependence that characterises contemporary Tolai sociality. But the ways in which the limits of reciprocity are contested in this context have parallels in other contexts. ToNgala’s attempts to keep the claims of his extended kin within a box markedkastomin order to protect his own individual household are of a similar order to Philip’s desire to removekastomfrom the land at Sikut in order to protect...

  19. Glossary
    (pp. 241-244)
  20. References
    (pp. 245-252)
  21. Index
    (pp. 253-256)