Lawrence, Peter

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LAWRENCE, PETER (19211987), a pioneer in the study of Melanesian religions and a native of Lancashire, England, came to Australia as a child and was educated at Geelong Grammar School. As an undergraduate he studied classics at Cambridge University and after serving in naval intelligence during World War II returned to Cambridge to study anthropology under Meyer Fortes. In 1949 and 1950 he undertook field research for his doctoral dissertation among the Garia of the Madang district of what was then the Territory of New Guinea. For the rest of his life he returned regularly to the Madang area and concerned himself with Australia's preparation of New Guineans for self-government and independence.

Lawrence and his wife, Fanny, made Australia their home as he took appointments in Australian institutes of higher learning and continued his research in New Guinea. He served at the Australian National University (19481957), the Australian School of Pacific Administration (19571960), the University of Western Australia (19601963), the University of Queensland (19661970), and the University of Sydney (19631965 and 19701986). Lawrence visited North America frequently and was a visiting professor at Queens University (1969), the University of Pittsburgh (1970), and Victoria University (1975). He participated in the meetings of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania, a scholarly society founded in North America with a focus on the study of the cultures of the Pacific, and was elected an honorary fellow of the association. He was also active in the Australian Anthropological Society and served the journal Oceania as associate editor (19771979) and editor (19791985). Papers on Melanesian religion given at a symposium in his honor in 1986 at LaTrobe University in Melbourne were published posthumously as a special issue of Oceania (volume 59, number 1).

Lawrence's theoretical interest was in the intellectual life of indigenous peoples; he saw himself continuing the intellectualist approach to magic and religion promoted by Sir E. B. Tylor. In their introduction to Gods, Ghosts, and Men in Melanesia, Lawrence and coeditor Mervyn Meggitt followed Robin Horton in defining religion as "the putative extension of men's social relationships into the non-empirical realm of the cosmos" (p. 8); in Melanesia, they pointed out, gods, ghosts, ancestors, demons, and totems are closely associated with the settlements of human beings. Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo became a classic in the study of cargo cults and in the study of Melanesian religion. In it he traced a complex of beliefs and ritual activities in the southern Madang area from 1871 to 1950. He presented this cargo movement as a process of changing myths and rites. In the various phases of the movement the cultists appealed to traditional myths, embraced European myths, and combined myths from both sources in attempts to discover the secret of the Europeans' cargo. The term "cargo cult" seems to have first been used in 1945 (Lindstrom, p. 15) and is not original with Lawrence although he employed it. In the post-colonial Pacific the appropriateness of the term has been questioned. Lamont Lindstrom, for example, suggests that "cargo cults" probably reveal less about Melanesians than about the ideas and the motivations of the colonial officials and missionaries who reported on them. That is, the construction of "cargo cults" may point to a deficiency in Western understandings of other peoples. Elfriede Hermann, who worked in the Southern Madang area in the 1990s, and is more familiar than most with the ideas and practices of the people in the region as well as with Lawrence's work, wondered whether is was advisable to use the term at all.

Lawrence also wrote on social structure, politics, and law. The Territory of New Guinea was a United Nations trusteeship administered by Australia that in 1975 merged with the Australian Territory of Papua to become the independent state of Papua New Guinea. Lawrence believed that because he was conducting research in the region he had a responsibility to educate colonial officials and missionaries so that they could carry out their tasks with greater cultural awareness. During his time with the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) he developed an anthropology curriculum for the teachers and public servants training for work in Australia's overseas territories. Later he was influential in the transformation of ASOPA into the International Training Institute, under the auspices of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, to provide education for administrators from Third World countries.

Lawrence enjoyed the engagement with patrol officers and teachers at ASOPA. He was similarly gracious and helpful to missionaries, many of whom studied with him at the University of Sydney. Raised Anglican, Lawrence professed to be an atheist, although, as he once wryly remarked, "an atheist with doubts." Lawrence's sense of humor, and his frustration with British structural-functionalism, found an outlet in a satirical poem, Don Juan in Melanesia. Peter Lawrence retired from the University of Sydney at the end of 1986. He died of a stroke on December 12, 1987. At the time of his death he was working on a book on the nature of religion.

See Also

Cargo Cults.


Hermann, Elfriede. "The Yali Movement in Retrospect: Rewriting History, Redefining 'Cargo Cult.'" Oceania 63, no. 1 (1992): 5571.

Jebens, Holger. "How the White Man Thinks. Peter Lawrence: Road Belong Cargo. " Paideuma 47 (2001): 203221.

Jebens, Holger, ed. Cargo, Cult, and Culture Critique. Honolulu, 2004.

Lawrence, Peter. Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea. Manchester, U.K., 1964.

Lawrence, Peter, and Mervyn J. Meggitt, eds. Gods, Ghosts, and Men in Melanesia. Melbourne, 1965.

Lawrence, Peter. "Daughter of Time." Inaugural lecture as foundation professor and head of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. St. Lucia, Queensland, 1967.

Lawrence, Peter. Don Juan in Melanesia. Saint Lucia, Australia, 1967.

Lawrence, Peter. The Garia: An Ethnography of a Traditional Cosmic System in Papua New Guinea. Manchester, U.K., 1984.

Lindstrom, Lamont. Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond. Honolulu, 1993.

Mary N. MacDonald (2005)

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