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ETHNONYM: Edugaura


Identification. Dobu (Goulvain Island on the earliest maps) is a small island (3.2 by 4.8 kilometers), an extinct volcano. It is also the name of the language of its inhabitants and, more generally, of those speakers of the same language in neighboring areas. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski described Dobuans as a "tribe," implying a linguistic, cultural, and even political entity, but this wider sense of "Dobuan" was largely a construct of the first missionaries.

Location. Dobu Island is situated in Dawson Strait (9.45° S and 150.50° E), which separates the large mountainous islands of Fergusson and Normanby in the D'Entrecasteaux Archipelago of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Dobu speakers occupy southeastern Fergusson, northern Normanby, and the offshore islands of Dobu, Sanaroa, and Tewara. The natural vegetation is lowland rain forest, though much of the settled area is covered with secondary forest or grassland. The region is tropical with two main seasons: the southeasterly winds dominate the year (May to November), while the northwest monsoon (December to April) brings heavy squalls. Average annual rainfall is about 254 centimeters, but droughts are not infrequent.

Demography. At the last census (1980) there were about 10,000 people in the Dobu-speaking area. They are centered on the island of Dobu with a population today of about 900 (though missionary William Bromilow estimated there were 2,000 in 1891). The tiny island of Tewara, to the north of Dobu, had a population of only 40 when anthropologist Reo Fortune worked there in 1928. At that time the Dobuan Population (along with many others in the Massim) had been reduced by a half.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Dobu language, comprising numerous local dialects, is one of forty or more Austronesian languages belonging to the so-called Milne Bay Family of the Massim. Dobu's closest affiliations are with other languages of the D'Entrecasteaux. The Edugaura dialect of Dobu Island was adopted as a lingua franca by the Wesleyan Mission and is spoken throughout the central Massim and beyond.

>History and Cultural Relations

In the late nineteenth century, Dobuans (Edugaurans in particular) were reputed to be fierce warriors and notorious cannibals who terrorized many of their neighbors. Their trading relations with the islands of Fergusson, Amphletts, and Trobriands to the north, and with the peoples of Duau (Normanby Island) and Tubetube to the south, were conducted in parallel with local raiding enterprises. Contact history began in the mid-nineteenth century with brief visits by whalers and pearlers, and later, in 1884, by "blackbirders" who forcibly recruited a number of men and killed others. Dobu was visited in 1888 by Administrator Sir William MacGregor on his first official tour of the newly proclaimed British New Guinea, and in 1890 by the Reverend George Brown, secretary general of the Australasian Methodist church, who was seeking a headquarters for his mission. By this date copra traders had already settled in the area, steel tools and trade tobacco were in circulation, and European-introduced epidemic diseases were beginning to deplete the population. The arrival on 13 June 1891 of William Bromilow and his missionary party of sixty-three (which included thirty Polynesian evangelists) was probably the most consequential event of local history. Within a few years Bromilow claimed to have pacified the district, though it was more than forty years before the whole Dobu-speaking area was Christianized.


The "district" of Dobu Island contained about twelve "localities" or village clusters, each of which was constituted of a number of small, dispersed villages with an average population of about twenty-five persons. A typical village contains a circle of houses that face inward to a central, stone-covered grave mound, in which matriclan members of the village are buried. Paths skirt the village rather than passing through it, and the village is surrounded by coconut, betel nut, and other fruit trees. Houses are rectangular, traditionally with a steeply pitched roof; they are built on piles with a small front verandah. Walls and roof are made of sago-leaf thatch.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden horticulture is "the supreme occupation." The main crop is the yam and its cultivation dominates the Dobu calendar. People without their own yam strains are "beggars" and find it hard to marry. Other indigenous crops are bananas, taro, sago, and sugarcane. Sweet potatoes, manioc, pumpkins, maize, and other crops were introduced more recently. Fishing is an important subsistence activity, and in forested areas men hunt wild pigs, birds, cuscus, and other small game. Pigs, dogs, and chickens are kept for domestic use as well as for exchange. Since the earliest mission days, Dobuans have earned cash by making copra, but migrant labor on plantations and in gold mines was the most important source of money during the colonial era, and it became an essential rite of passage for young men. Today Dobuans abroad are to be found as clerks, public servants, businesspeople, physicians, and lawyers. The rural population continues to engage in subsistence horticulture with some cash cropping (mainly copra and cocoa). The area is served by several wharfs and two small airstrips.

Industrial Arts. Traditional technology was neolithic and typical of Melanesia. Obsidian and stone ax blades were imported, but most other tools and weapons (bamboo knives, black-palm spears, wooden fishhooks, digging sticks, etc.) were made locally, as were the seagoing canoes used on trading and raiding expeditions. Clay pots were imported from the Amphletts (more recently from Tubetube in the southern Massim), but coconut-leaf baskets, pandanus-leaf mats, and skirts were made by each householder. Craft specialization was rare, unless in canoe carving, net making, and the manufacture of arm shells. The most crucial specializations were magical.

Trade. The traditional ceremonial kula exchange (kune in Dobu), for which the Massim is ethnographically famous, continues today with many modifications. Dobu remains an important node in this vast interisland network of exchange partners through whose hands arm shells (mwali ) circulate to the south and shell necklaces (bagi ) to the north. Today, most kune voyaging is done by chartered motor launch instead of by canoe. This streamlines activities and obviates much of the traditional ritual; it also enables women to participate. Subsidiary, "utilitarian" trade is now negligible, though traditionally kune involved (in addition to shell ornaments) stone blades, obsidian, pottery, wooden bowls, pigs, sago, yams, betel nuts, face paint, lime gourds and spatulas, canoe hulls, and even human beings. Live captives could be redeemed by the payment of shell valuables, or they could be adopted by their captors to replace dead kin. Kune was thus intimately connected to warfare, marriage exchanges, and mortuary observances.

Division of Labor. The most crucial specializations were magical, and these had significant economic implications as, for instance, in the control of rain and the growth of crops and pigs, in maintaining the abundance of fish, and in curing diseases. A husband and wife cooperate in gardening but their separate inheritances of seed yams require separate plots. Gardens are cleared and planted communally, but after the village magicians have performed their rituals, the gardens are the private domains of men and their wives. Bush clearing is done by men and women together, the men cutting the heavier timber. Men fire the debris and later wield the digging stick; women insert and cover the yam seeds. Women weed and mound the plants as they grow; men cut stakes and train the yam vines to climb them. Women dig the harvest; men plant and tend banana patches. Both sexes fish and make sago; men cook on ceremonial occasions. Traditionally, only men traveled on kune expeditions, yet only old women were thought to possess the magic to control the winds.

Land Tenure. The use of gardens and village lands is governed by matrilineage membership. A man inherits land from his mother or mother's brother. A father may give some garden land (never village land) to his son, though after his father's death the son is prohibited from eating the produce of this land. Nowadays there is a tendency for fathers to transmit land bearing cash crops (especially coconuts) to their sons.


Kin Groups and Descent. The most important unit of Dobu social organization is the three-generation matrilineage (susu, "breast milk"). Each susu claims descent in the female line from one of several mythical bird ancestors of which the commonest are Green Parrot, White Pigeon, Sea Eagle, and Crow. The susu of a village putatively belong to a single matriclan, descendants of the same totemic bird. The matriclans of a locality are randomly associated and dispersed throughout the Dobu-speaking area.

Kinship Terminology. Iroquois-type cousin terminology is used while a father is alive, but after his death, Crow-type cousin terms are used (since a sister's son succeeds to his mother's brother's kinship status), and the dead man's son calls his father's sister's son "father."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is forbidden between the owning susu of a village and between cross cousins; thus villages are exogamous, though localities tend to be endogamous. Premarital sex is permitted and adolescent promiscuity is the norm, though the anthropologist Reo Fortune characterized Dobuans as prudish in speech and public behavior. A betrothed couple work hard for a year for their respective inlaws. Marriage is marked by a series of exchanges of cooked and uncooked food, pork, fish, and game between the contracting villages and by a gift of arm shells from the groom's to the bride's group. Intervillage exchanges also occur annually in the name of each married couple. Ideally, marriage exchanges balance in the long run. Monogamy was the norm and polygyny was practiced by only a few wealthy men (esa'esa ). Dobu is renowned for the practice of bilocal residence in which a couple live alternately, for a year at a time, in the village of each spouse in turn. Affines show great respect to village owners, but friction between the owning susu and incoming spouses gives rise to quarreling, village "incest," and attempted suicide. Fortune regarded the practice of bilocal residence as a compromise between the demands of the susu and those of the conjugal unit, though he judged it more destructive of the latter. Divorce is very frequent in Dobu. Bromilow listed twenty-two reasons for divorce (including "filthy language"), but Fortune accounted the commonest cause to be "cut-and-run adultery" with a village "sister" or "brother." Affines are feared as likely witches and sorcerers. In the revised edition of his book Fortune offered another interpretation of bilocal residence, stating that it is associated with an annual exchange of yams for arm shells between resident susu wives and their nonresident husbands' sisters.

Domestic Unit. The household normally comprises a married couple and their young children. Adolescent girls remain with their parents until marriage, but at puberty boys go to sleep elsewhere, usually with the girls of neighboring villages. After a man's death his children are prohibited from entering his village.

Inheritance. Village land, fruit trees, and most garden lands are inherited matrilineally. The corpse and skull of a person belong to the susu, as do personal names. Canoes, fishing nets, stone blades, ornamental valuables, and other personal property also descend within the susu. Magic, however, can pass from a father to one of his sons (as well as to his rightful heir), a practice that Fortune regarded as "subversive" of the susu.

Socialization. Both parents rear young children, and they are usually strict. Children avoid harsh treatment by taking refuge with their mother's sister and her husband, who are indulgent. Between ages 5 and 8, a boy has his earlobes and nasal septum pierced by his father or mother's brother, and about this time he is given a small garden plot of his own, and he may even be taught fragments of magic. At age 10 he is no longer struck for punishment, lest he (imitating his father) break his mother's cooking pots or (imitating his mother) behave cruelly to his father's dog. Boys of this age learn to throw and dodge spears, and by the time they are 14 they have begun to learn love magic and to sleep with girls. Fortune says little about the socialization of young girls.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The village (asa ) comprises between four and a dozen susu and is the most important social unit for the organization of marriage and mortuary exchanges. Between four and twenty villages form a named locality, which traditionally appears to have had a headman, probably one who had inherited much magic and was prominent in kune. The localities of a district (such as Dobu Island) were normally hostile to one another, though they sometimes combined for war making (and kune expeditions) under the leadership of a strong "war chief and standard bearer." Such was Bromilow's "friend" Guganumore, who had tallied eighty-six captives and whose position was reified in 1892 by his appointment as a government chief. Dobu Society is essentially egalitarian, and it lacks the ideology of hereditary rank found in Kiriwina to the north. In 1961 the Dobu Local Government Council was proclaimed, and today the Dobu area forms the constituency of an elected member of the provincial government. A number of Dobuans have also stood for national parliament, and their kune networks have proved effective in electioneering.

Social Control. In the absence of adjudicating authorities, dispute settlement and the redress of wrongs were matters for self-help. Sanctions were social (shame, ridicule, admonishment), supernatural (especially witchcraft and sorcery), or based on reciprocal response (revenge killing, sorcery feud, attempted suicide). The threat of sorcery was an effective means of enforcing economic obligations. Public harangues by the village headman were effective in shaming delinquents. Fruit trees were protected from theft by charms (tabu ) believed to cause disease or disfigurement. Many of these sanctions still operate, somewhat modified by Christian ethics. Modern Dobu is served by a magistrate's court, though it is one of the local government councillor's tasks to settle disputes at the village level.

Conflict. Fortune represented Dobu as a society permeated by jealousy and suspicion. At its troubled heart was the syndrome of susu solidarity, marital antagonism, bilocal residence, and the ubiquitous fear of witchcraft and sorcery. Warfare was endemic in the nineteenth century, and the locality was the war-making unit. Furtive raids rather than pitched battles were the norm. Intermarriage between enemies was rare, though captives were sometimes adopted.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. As the site of intensive missionary activity since 1891, the Dobu area is now thoroughly Christianized and village churches (run by local lay preachers) are an important focus of community life. Sundays and holy days of the Christian calendar are observed, and commemorative dates of the Dobu mission are celebrated (notably the anniversary of Bromilow's arrival), when gifts of money are made to the church. Many Dobuans have become ministers and are found in communities throughout the Massim. Elements of the traditional religion survive, however, and beliefs in magic, witchcraft, and sorcery remain pervasive. Yam gardening is still accompanied by rituals, taboos, and magical incantations; the dogma persists that yams are "persons" and must be treated properly lest they abandon their owner's garden for another. Every woman is a potential witch (werebana ) and every man a potential sorcerer (barau ); as such their spirits are most active during sleep. Immortal spirit beings, commemorated in myth, validate magical systems and explain the Dobu world of "contending magical forces." The most important are Kasabwaibwaileta (the hero of kune or kula) ; Tauhau (creator of the White man, his goods, and his epidemic diseases); Yarata (the northwest wind); and Bunelala (the first woman to plant yams). Others are less anthropomorphic, such as Nuakiekepaki, the moving rock-man who sinks canoes. Many supernaturals are exemplars whose secret names are invoked in the incantations used to control them. Yabowaine was another supernatural who "watched over" war, cannibalism, and kune. He was believed to form the fingers and toes of unborn children, and on account of this creative function the first missionaries appropriated his name for "God," thereby immeasurably inflating his traditional role.

Religious Practitioners. Although there are ritual specialists as well as renowned diviners, most men and women use magic of their own inheritance. The uses of magic in gardening, in love, and in kune are highly competitive: "The ladder of social ambition is that of successful magic," Fortune wrote. The social distribution of magic thus coincides with the distribution of wealth and power.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremonies are periodic exchanges and feasts associated with marriage and death.

Arts. A rich mythology contains many legends that validate magical spells. Decorative art of the pleasing curvilinear style typical of the Massim was largely confined to houses and canoes. The bamboo flute and Jew's harp were used in Courtship, and dancing to hand drums accompanied feasting. Many of the dance songs translated by Fortune are remarkable for their pathos and poetic beauty.

Medicine. Illness is almost invariably attributed to sorcery, witchcraft, or the breach of taboo; curing involves the settlement of grievances. Ginger is the most common magical prophylactic and curing agent. Many other plants and herbs are used, but their pharmacological efficacy is doubtful.

Death and Afterlife. Death and mourning continue the cycle of affinal exchanges and feasts. The surviving spouse's village gives yams, arm shells, and a pig (previously, a human captive) to the village of the dead spouse, who is buried by his or her own susu. After a year the latter release the widow or widower from mourning, and following this rite he or she may never again enter the village of the deceased. Large feasts (sagali ) are held periodically in honor of the collective dead of a village, at which pigs and yams are distributed to other localities. The spirits of the dead went to Bwebweso, an extinct volcano on Normanby Island ("Bwebweso" means "extinguished") . Its portals were guarded by Sinebomatu (Woman of the Northeast Wind) who exacted a payment of betel nuts from each new arrival. The diseased and the deformed were consigned to a swamp at the foot of Bwebweso. The spirits of those slain in war also had a separate afterworld.

See alsoGoodenough Island,Trobriand Islands


Bromilow, W. E. (1910). Some Manners and Customs of the Dobuans of S. E. Papua. Brisbane: Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.

Bromilow, W. E. (1929). Twenty Years among Primitive Papuans. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Fortune, Reo F. (1932). Sorcerers of Dobu. London: George Routledge & Sons. Rev. ed. 1963. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Young, Michael W. (1980). "A Tropology of the Dobu Mission." Canberra Anthropology 3:86-104.