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Choiseul Island

Choiseul Island

ETHNONYMS: Lauru, Rauru

Orientation

Identification. Choiseul Island is the northwesternmost island in the Solomon Islands chain of the western South Pacific, lying between Bougainville Island and Papua New Guinea to the west, Santa Isabel to the east, and Velia Lavella and New Georgia to the south, all of which are 40 to 80 kilometers distant.

Location. Choiseul covers an area of 2,100 square kilometers, is about 130 kilometers long and 12.8 to 32.2 kilometers across, and is generally a mass of deep valleys and sharp, jungle-clad ridges, mostly between 243 to 606 meters in elevation (maximum elevation 160 meters). Average daytime coastal temperature is 26° to 32° C, and rainfall averages 254 to 508 centimeters per year.

Demography. In 1956 the native Melanesian population was about 5,700; in the early 1980s it was estimated to be 7,900. It seems to be growing rapidly because of decreased infant mortality and increased longevity, both attributable to improved health care.

Linguistic Affiliation. The peoples of Choiseul speak four different Melanesian languages, all more similar to one another than to those spoken on adjacent islands. Dialectal variation is small except for the central-eastern language, which has the most speakers and the widest distribution. Ultimately, the languages of Choiseul, of Santa Isabel, and of New Georgia and its neighbors form one set that is related most closely to the languages of Bougainville and, through them, to the languages of the Central and Southern Solomons.

History and Cultural Relations

No archaeological work has been done on Choiseul, but based on the linguistic variation, it has been estimated that the island has been occupied for about 3,500 years. It was sighted by European explorers in 1568 and in 1768 but it was not until the late 1800s that the people had significant Contact with persons other than the inhabitants of the neighboring islands, and their interactions with the latter were Typically hostile and violent. A major effect of contact with the outside world was uneven access to firearms, and that Development increased the deadliness of the intergroup conflict that was endemic on and between the islands of the Western Solomons. Choiseul and other islands were transferred from the German to the British colonial sphere in 1899. Christian missionaries then began to work the area, and they found its peoples ready and more or less willing to be pacified and Christianized. On Choiseul, intergroup warfare continued here and there into the 1920s, but well before the beginning of World War II the island was fully pacified and Christianized (in different areas by Methodists, Catholics, and Seventh-Day Adventists). Other forms of European penetration such as coconut plantations have been very limited and sporadic. Few Japanese or Allied troops set foot on Choiseul, so it was only indirectly affected by the World War II. The Solomons became an independent nation in 1978, but that had little effect on Choiseul, which remains isolated and severely underdeveloped.

Settlements

Prior to pacification and Christianization, the bulk of the population lived inland on ridge tops, either in compact and sometimes fortified villages of up to fifty houses, or in small hamlets of a few houses each located closer to gardens. Large canoes and canoe houses were hidden in the coastal flats, which were too vulnerable to attack for permanent residence. The government and missions encouraged compact settlement on the coastal flats where health and educational services could be provided; by the beginning of World War II few inland villages remained, and today there are none. Most Villages are now rows of houses strung out along a flat of coastline and flanked with the coconut plantations owned and worked by some inhabitants. Houses, now as before, are made from palm and vine materials; most families now maintain a sleeping house (which may feature prestigious corrugated-iron roofing) raised off the sandy surface by stilts 1.2 to 1.5 meters high; behind it there is usually an on-the-ground cookhouse in which older people sleep to keep warm. Most villages have a houselike church that is used also as a school, and some have a dispensary stocked with minor medical supplies.

Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Prior to Colonization, subsistence was mainly by shifting, slash-and-burn horticulture; the principal food crops were taro, yams, and bananas. Also seasonally and ritually important was the ngari nut or Canarium almond, groves of which were privately owned. Meat sources included opossums and wild pigs; some domestic pigs were kept for ceremonial feasts. Sea fishing was not a major source of food, and the Choiseulese do not think of themselves as a sea people but as a bush people who now happen to live on the beach. Because there is a blight that attacks most forms of taro, the principal food (introduced by the missions) is now the sweet potato; it is supplemented by white rice acquired from Chinese traders and, again, by bananas, papayas, and wild but edible flora and fauna. Aside from working off the island as wage laborers, which only young men do, the only source of cash income is the sale of copra to Chinese traders. Ownership of coconut plantations is unevenly distributed and so also are cash incomes and desired commodities (tobacco, tea, pots and pans, tools, rice, tinned meat). The local economy is severely dependent on fluctuations in the world market for copra.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Ground stone and shell tools were replaced early on by metal axes and saws. A distinctive form of shell "money" known as kesa was attributed a mythical origin, but other shell rings and disks used as money or as ornaments were manufactured locally or were imported from the Roviana region to the south.

Division of Labor. Most domestic labor was and still is done by women and girls who do also much of the planting, weeding, and harvesting of the crops and the gathering of firewood. Men and boys do most of the work of preparing the land for planting, gather materials for houses, and Occasionally hunt and fish. Men occupy all positions of public significancevillage headman, preacher-teacher, officer of the local court.

Land Tenure. Ownership of land is by kin groups known as sinangge, but ownership of trees is by single persons. Because only flatter strips along the shoreline suitable for coconut plantations are really valuable and because such land is in very short supply, land-tenure disputes are common and difficult to settle.

Kinship

Kin Groups. The term sinangge (Varisi language) designates both the egocentric personal kindred and the cognatic stock consisting of all descendants of a married pair, whether through males or females. Named units of the latter kind, some seven to twelve generations in depth, are associated with large areas of land, some of it said to have been first cleared by the founding ancestor; in some instances that area is divided between different branches of the major sinangge. Any member of a sinanggeand each person is a member of more than onehas a right to use of some of its land for Subsistence purposes but cannot alienate it from the group. Usually a subset of the members of such a cognatic stock reside together at some place on its land and form a cohesive Political, economic, and ceremonial unit via common allegiance to a big-man leader; the local group centering on such a sinangge may include not only the spouses and relatives of spouses of sinangge members, but also long- or short-term visitors, some of whom (in the past) may have been enjoying the protection of its big-man or leader. In principle Membership in the "little sinangge" is always open to members of its more inclusive sinangge, and any individual may freely choose to affiliate himself or herself with any local sinangge within any large sinangge of which he or she is a member. In practice, each local sinangge effectively controls who is allowed admission to its ranks; although it cannot admit to its ranks persons not descended from the relevant apical ancestor, it can exclude persons who are such descendants.

Descent. Descendants of a sinangge founder are divided into those related to him solely through men (i.e., his patrilineal descendants) and those related to him through at least one female tie (i.e., his nonpatrilineal descendants). This distinction is relevant only in internal affairs; it has no bearing on membership status per se.

Kinship Terminology. This system departs from being simply "generational" or Hawaiian-like only in having a distinct term for a mother's brother (not "father") and in designating a man's sister's child as "grandchild."


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Kin groups were and are neither exogamous nor endogamous in principle, and kinship beyond first- or second-cousin range is not a bar. The most prestigious form is via payment of bride-wealth in the form of kesa, in which case postmarital residence is in the community of the husband and his family. When bride-wealth is not given the husband is expected to reside with the bride and her natal family, and their offspring are expected to remain active members of the wife's little sinangge.

Domestic Unit. In the early years of marriage a couple usually resides in the same house as the parents of one of them. As they acquire children they expand into a house and gardens of their own, usually located in the same village; subsequent residence might be in virtually any village in which either spouse has kin, though there is of course a strong preference for residence with close kin such as parents or siblings.

Inheritance and Succession. Heritable forms of property includes kesa and groves of valuable trees, both of which devolve equally on a man's sons, though it seems likely that, in the case of a big-man, the eldest son or likely successor would attempt to acquire all the shell money. A big-man's eldest son was entitled to succeed him, but only if the son was an able leader.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. In the precolonial era law and politics were dominated by competition, and often violent conflict, between big-men who were at the centers of factions focused on their own little sinangge. These men were expected to protect their followers from external violence and to assist them in getting revenge or compensation; they sought military support from other big-men to whom they had to promise compensation in kesa presented ceremonially at a feast. A big-man's followers supported him in defensive and offensive action and by contributing to his ceremonial feasts.

Social Control. Aside from contractual relations established between big-men, and between big-men and some of their followers, the rights and duties of persons vis-à-vis one another were (and still are) mainly those entailed by kinship, and they were (and are) enforced mainly by expectations of reciprocity. Otherwise the only recourse was to self-help (in the extreme instance to take by stealth the life of the offending party) or to securing the aid or protection of a big-man.

Conflict. The precolonial history of Choiseul was dominated by violent conflict between big-men, or between contractual alliances of big-men, and their factions. This conflict often took the form of a group making a surprise attack at dawn on a village, burning its houses and killing all of its inhabitants who did not manage to escape. There was no taking of land or captives, though raiders from New Georgia to the south took heads for religious purposes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Present-day Choiseulese are all Christians and church services are a daily routine in all villages of sufficient size to have a resident preacher-teacher; the aboriginal religion has not been practiced (openly at least) for several decades. The aboriginal cosmology included various bangara or "gods" and "spirits" of the bush, some good, some evil, as well as ghosts of the dead. Some little sinangge kept shrines dedicated to particular gods or bangara and one member of the group regularly made offerings of food there in order to secure the god's blessings for the group; usually that god is reputed to have presented itself to the group. The ghosts of greatest significance and alleged power were those of former big-men; their sinangge might propitiate them but their influence for good or ill was not restricted to that group, and their kin who were not members of the group could propitiate them at that shrine. Anyone could maintain a shrine for and give offerings of food to recently deceased parents or grandparents.

Religious Practitioners. Some men were thought to have the special skill of being able to communicate with gods, spirits, or ghosts and to discern whether personal misfortune arose from sorcery or the displeasure of such a being.

Death and Afterlife. The corpse was usually disposed of by cremation, but in some areas interment and later exhumation of the bones were preferred. Ashes and bones were put in a clay pot and often placed in a shrine somewhere in the nearby forest or, in the case of a big-man, in a larger shrine maintained by the sinangge of which he was once the leader. The spirit of the deceased might remain around the village for a while and occasionally reveal itself (an ominous sign of dissatisfaction); but eventually it departed to the land of the dead, Ungana, somewhere high on Bougainville Island. Life there was much the same as among the living, though with Little work and much happiness.

See also New Georgia

Bibliography

Bennett, Judith A. (1987). Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Scheffler, Harold W. (1965). Choiseul Island Social Structure. Berkeley: University of California Press.

HAROLD W. SCHEFFLER

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