Goodenough Island

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Goodenough Island

ETHNONYMS: Bwaidoka, Iduna, Kalauna, Morata, Nidula


Identification. Goodenough Island (Morata on the earliest maps) was named by Captain John Moresby in 1874 in memory of a British naval colleague. The earliest ethnography, by Diamond Jenness and Rev. A. Ballantyne, focused on coastal Bwaidoka in the southeast; the most intensive Studies, by Michael Young, concentrate on Kalauna, a mountain village in east-central Goodenough.

Location. Goodenough, at 9° S, 150° E, is the western-most of three rugged islands of the D'Entrecasteaux Archipelago of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. With mountains rising to 2,440 meters it is the highest island in the group, though with an area of about 777 square kilometers it is second to Fergusson in size. Rain forest is extensive on these islands and the higher mountains are uninhabited. Secondary forest and grasslands prevail on the coastal plains and lower slopes. The region is tropical, with high temperatures and humidity throughout the year. There are two main seasons: the cooler southeasterly winds (May-October) dominate the year, while the hot northwest monsoon (December-March) brings sudden squalls. Rainfall is within the range of 152-254 centimeters per annum according to location. Serious droughts occur once or twice a decade, hurricanes even less frequently.

Demography. At the 1980 census there were about 12,500 islanders in residence and another 1,000 abroad. More than half of them live in the southeast of the island with a density of about 38 persons per square kilometer; elsewhere the population density averages 10 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. The four languages of Goodenough (Bwaidoka, Iduna, Diodio, and Buduna or Wataluma) belong to the Milne Bay Family (or "Papuan Tip Cluster") of Austronesian languages. The dominant language on the Island is Bwaidoka, adopted as a lingua franca by the Wesleyan (Methodist) Mission at the turn of the century.

>History and Cultural Relations

The D'Entrecasteaux Islands have probably been inhabited for several thousand years, and some of the mountain-dwelling people of Goodenough yield blood-group markers that relate them distantly to mainland Papuans. Over the past two millennia Austronesian immigrants have decisively shaped the culture. Although the population is fairly homogeneous throughout the island, a subcultural distinction occurs between "people of the mountains" and "people of the coast." This distinction is blurred today because of the resettlement of many hill communities on or near the littoral, but all Goodenough communities claim their origin from Yauyaba, a "sacred hill" on the east coast, whence mankind emerged from underground. European contact began in 1874 with an exploratory visit by Captain John Moresby. Brief visits by whalers, pearlers, and gold seekers followed, and in 1888 Administrator William MacGregor visited the island on his inaugural tour of the newly proclaimed British New Guinea. Ten years later William Bromilow led the first Wesleyan Mission party from his headquarters in Dobu, and in 1900 a station was established at Wailagi in Bwaidoka. By that time traders had already created a regular demand for steel tools, cloth, and twist tobacco. A famine in 1900 forced many men into contract labor abroad, the beginning of a local tradition of migrant labor that earned for Goodenough Islanders the reputation of "the best workmen in Papua." Local warfare and cannibalism persisted in remote areas until the early 1920s, when the first census was conducted and a head tax introduced. World War II was traumatic: a small Japanese invasion force occupied the island in 1942, and after its extermination a massive Allied airbase was built on the northeast plain. After the war the Australian colonial administration resumed its benign neglect. Partly in response to an outbreak of cargo cults, a government patrol post was established in 1960, followed by a local government council in 1964. Since Papua New Guinea's independence in 1975, Goodenough Island (jointly with the Trobriand Islands) has elected a member to the national parliament. Nowadays two representatives are also elected to the provincial government of Milne Bay.


The inhabited areas of Goodenough are found on the coast close to coral reefs, in the immediate hinterland, or in the foothills of the island's mountain spine. At contact Good-enough was divided into more than thirty geographical "Districts," each containing one or more villages. Certain districts were loosely affiliated through common dialect and a degree of intermarriage. Throughout the 1920s, government officers encouraged mountain communities to resettle at more accessible locations near the coast. Many communities amalgamated. The present-day successors of the districts are twenty-three census groups or "wards" of the local government council. The population of these village communities averages 500. The houses of a hamlet cluster around one or more circular sitting platforms constructed of stone slabs, Important symbols of descent-group continuity. Hamlets are surrounded by fruit trees: coconut, areca (betel nut), mango, breadfruit, and native chestnut. Houses are rectangular Structures built on piles and with gabled roofs; they usually contain two or three small rooms, including a kitchen. There are two main house styles: a warm, boxlike structure with pandanus1eaf walls, which is favored by the hill communities; and a cooler coastal style with walls of sago-leaf midrib. Both types have black-palm floors and roofs of sago-leaf thatch.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Gardening is the main economic activity. Yams are the principal crop and their swidden cultivation dominates the calendar. Taro is a close second in importance, and bananas (plantains) third. Magic is used to ensure the growth of these crops and coconuts. Other crops (many of recent introduction) include sweet potatoes, manioc, sugarcane, sago, arrowroot, pumpkins, pawpaws, maize, and beans. Reef fishing and hunting for pigs and wallabies were more important traditionally than they are today since reefs and bush have been depleted. Mangrove crabs, freshwater eels, wild pigs, birds, cuscus, and other small game are still caught, but the main source of protein remains domesticated pigs and fowls (in some villages dogs are also eaten). Copra is the only significant cash crop, but Transport and marketing facilities are poor. Since 1900 migrant workers have earned money abroad and remitted a share to kin. Wage labor became a mandatory rite of passage for young men, and to some extent it remains so, though many young islanders (including women) now work in towns as clerks and minor public servants.

Industrial Arts. Traditional technology included Polished-stone ax heads, obsidian and bamboo knives, black-palm spears and clubs, single-outrigger canoes, wooden fishhooks and digging sticks, twine nets for hunting and fishing, and fighting slings. Woven crafts included pandanus-leaf sleeping mats and coconut-leaf baskets. Except for canoes, hunting nets, and pottery, craft specialization was minimal.

Trade. Largely self-sufficient in resources and peripheral to the main Massim trade routes, the island's trade links were not extensive. Canoe technology was comparatively poor, and only a few communities made seagoing vessels. Most Villages relied on visiting traders from western Fergusson, the Amphlett Islands, Kaileuna in the Trobriands, or Wedau and Cape Vogel on the mainland. Among the commodities Exchanged were ax blades, clay pots, pigs, yams and taro, sago, betel nuts, arm shells and necklaces, nose shells, belts, lime gourds, baskets, and decorated combs. The wares from the pot-making villages in the north did not circulate as widely as did those of the Amphletts. There was also an institution of interdistrict ceremonial visiting, undertaken on foot or by newly completed canoes, to solicit gifts of pigs, yams, and shell valuables from hereditary trade partners. The gifts received had to be passed on to a third party, and ideally each expedition was reciprocated. This ceremonial exchange has obvious affinities with that of the kula.

Division of Labor. Husband and wife cooperate in gardening after the communal clearing of new plots. Clearing is done by men, though women help to plant and harvest crops and perform most of the regular weeding. Most domestic tasks are done by women, including cooking, washing, fetching water, child care, and pig rearing; women also gather shellfish. Men build houses, fish and hunt, butcher pigs, and cook in large pots on ceremonial occasions. Both sexes cut and carry firewood.

Land Tenure. The clearing and planting of virgin forest establishes a group's rights to that land in perpetuity. Garden and residential land is inherited patrilineally and is in theory inalienable. There is a hierarchy of corporate land rights within the clan, though the sibling set is operationally the most important land-owning unit, and sons inherit land and fruit trees directly from their fathers. Although a daughter inherits land and trees too, she is more likely to use her husband's. Her children may use her land only if their father pays a pig to her brothers. In some communities plots of land may be transferred following a death, as a form of payment to nonagnatic buriers. Such land may be reclaimed in the future after the true owners have performed a reciprocal burial Service. These devices allowed an equitable distribution of garden land between groups, though in recent generations the planting of coconuts as a cash crop has made the tenure system more rigid.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although the Massim is predominantly matrilineal, descent on Goodenough Island is patrilineal. The most important descent group is the unuma, a shallow patrilineage four to five generations in depth. On a sibling birth-order model, unuma are ranked according to genealogical seniority. The most encompassing descent group, comprising several unuma, is a localized, exogamous, named patriclan. The several clans of a community are distinguished from one another by different origin myths and unique "customs," such as secret magical formulas, designs, totem animals, taboos, and special artifacts. Every clan belongs to one of the ceremonial moieties.

Kinship Terminology. Hawaiian-type terminology is used, though sibling/cousin terminology is characterized by a double mode of classification, according to sex or relative age.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Postmarital residence is patrivirilocal, which ensures a core of male agnates in each hamlet. Marriage is forbidden within father's and mother's clans. There are no preferential rules, though certain matches are favored: between exchange partners and between distant cognatic kin traced through outmarrying women. Infant betrothal used to occur, but free choice between partners of the same age is nowadays the norm. Most communities are large enough to sustain local endogamy, and about 85 percent of marriages are Between partners belonging to the same village. Marriage is signaled by the bride and groom sharing their first meal in the boy's parental house. The bride lives there while her husband's kin work her hard to test her endurance; meanwhile the groom performs arduous bride-service for his affines. Exchanges of game, fish, and cooked food legitimate the Marriage soon afterwards, but bride-price payments (of a pig, a few shell valuables, and a sum of money) are nowadays delayed for months or even years. They are eventually given to the bride's unuma for distributionif the marriage survived the stressful early years. About one in three marriages ends in divorce: the usual complaints are of neglect, laziness, or infidelity. If weaned the children remain with their father, for they belong to his group. Remarriage is simple, though a new husband must repay the first husband his bride-price. Widow remarriage is a more delicate affair, and the new husband must make generous gifts to the dead husband's kin to allay any suspicion of complicity in his death. Monogamy is the norm, but a few instances of polygyny occur in most communities despite eighty years of missionary disapproval of the practice.

Domestic Unit. The householdthe basic economic and commensal unitis usually composed of a married couple and their children, including any they are fostering. Adolescents, widows, and widowers may occupy small houses of their own, though they usually join other households to work and eat.

Inheritance. All property (including magic and clan paraphernalia) is inherited patrilineally. Certain statuses such as exchange partnerships and traditional enemies are also inherited patrilineally, as are a father's exchange debts and credits. An eldest son normally inherits his father's land and trees and items of wealth not disbursed as death payments. This patrimony should be divided among his siblings according to need. Ritual property (magical knowledge in particular) is more jealously guarded and less likely to be shared equally among brothers. If a man is without close agnatic heirs he may choose to transmit his magic (as well as his land or other property) to his sister's sons, though this is apt to cause contention in the following generation. Women can own land, trees, pigs, and some ritual property, though their control or disposal of them is usually subject to the approval of their closest male agnates. As in most Melanesian societies, the dispersal of personal wealth at death prevents the accumulation of inherited wealth which could be converted into rank or class.

Socialization. Infants are breast-fed on demand and weaned fairly abruptly at about two years. Children are frequently handled by parents, grandparents, and older siblings. The mother's brother is also important in a child's upbringing, and makes regular gifts of food with the expectation of being repaid (in cash earnings or bride-wealth) when the child reaches maturity. The children of a hamlet form play groups of peers. From an early age they accompany their Parents to the gardens where they are encouraged to make toy gardens. Although parents are indulgent they readily strike their disobedient children, with an open hand or whatever they happen to be holding. Children are taught early to Control their appetites, though they are permitted, and even encouraged, to chew betel nuts as soon as this desire arises. Traditionally there was no formal initiation of boys or girls, though nowadays school itself serves to weaken a child's bonding to its parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The typical village community comprises several local patriclans occupying one or more adjacent hamlets and consisting of a number of genealogically ranked patrilineages. Clans are linked by marriage and exchange partnerships; there may be further crosscutting ties based on traditional enemy relationships. The village is also divided into ceremonial, nonexogamous moieties, which form the basis of a reciprocal feasting cycle, though nowadays such festivals tend to be promoted purely as memorials for dead leaders.

Political Organization. Large-scale feasting is intrinsically competitive and in the postcontact era it has assumed Political functions hitherto associated with local warfare and revenge cannibalism. A ramifying system of pig and vegetable food debts loosely integrates the neighboring communities that attend one another's feasts and exchanges. Leadership on Goodenough takes several forms. Warrior leaders were prominent traditionally and sometimes became tyrannical despots. At the clan and hamlet level, leaders are ideally the most senior men of their groups, but there are many opportunities for younger sons to achieve prominence if they are productive gardeners, capable organizers, and good orators. Competitive food exchanges, whether held between whole villages or between contending clans within a village, are an important political institution, one that has been elaborated greatly since pacification and the availability of steel tools. Despite the egalitarian ethos of Goodenough society, there are hints of hierarchy in many communities; e.g., the possession of ritual means of prosperity (and conversely, the coercive threat of famine) makes the leaders of certain clans unusually powerful. In heavily missionized communities, However, such ritual village "guardians" do not exist, and village leaders there tend also to be church leaders.

Social Control. Traditionally the redress of wrongs was a matter of self-help by kin groups. Islanders are still reluctant to appeal to external authorities, and it is the local government councillor's task to attempt the settlement of disputes at the village level. Traditional sanctions remain in use; most notable are public harangue, ridicule, ostracism, and revenge sorcery. Among the most important and effective sanctions is food-giving-to-shame, which in the postcontact era has served as a dramatic mode of conflict resolution. It displays many features of traditional warfare; hence the idiom, "fighting with food."

Conflict. In the nineteenth century small-scale warfare and cannibalism were endemic on Goodenough. Because the ultimate indignity to an enemy was to eat him or her, an escalating revenge cycle could ensue from a single act of cannibalism. Not all the clans of a community were enemies of all the clans of a neighboring community, and relations of alliance and hostility could crosscut district boundaries. The very size and compactness of modern communities exacerbate minor conflicts, making Goodenough people seem fractious and hypersensitive to slight. Food and women remain the sources of most conflict, though land disputes are becoming increasingly frequent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Goodenough has been missionized for almost a century, and village churches (United or Catholic) are ubiquitous. Most elements of the traditional religion survive, however, and the world view remains magical and animistic, including a great variety of anthropomorphic spirits. Ancestral spirits as well as immortal demigods are invoked in magical spells. Gardening is accompanied at all stages by Rituals and taboos, and magic exists for every human activity, from love and war to birth and death. Each group has its own secret magic of appetite suppression and food conservation, the obverse of which is the sorcery that brings famine by inducing insatiable hunger. A dominant principle of the indigenous cosmology derives from a fatalistic and anthropomorphic application of the emotion of bitter resentment. A modern projection of this principle can be seen in the local cargo cults that blend Christian dogmas of sacrifice with traditional hero myths.

Religious Practitioners. The main ritual experts are those with inherited magical systems employed for the communal control of human appetite, the most important food crops, and the elements. All leaders make some use of garden magic on behalf of their groups, and most men and women possess a few inherited spells of their own.

Ceremonies. All life-crisis ceremonies involve the distribution of cooked and uncooked food. Other occasions of ceremonial feasting are harvests, housewarmings, canoe launchings, and other inaugurations. A feature of all such ceremonies is that the initiator or food-distributing sponsor may not eat. An important ceremony in the past was manu-manua, a periodic ritual of prosperity, in which the magicians sat absolutely still for a day reciting myths and spells to banish famine.

Arts. Traditional wood carving (of bowls, drums, combs, lime gourds and lime sticks, war clubs, house boards, and canoes) was done in typical Massim curvilinear style. The arts of singing and dancing were highly developed, and mouth flutes were used in courtship. Rhetoric and storytelling are important skills, and there are oral traditions of myth and folktale.

Medicine. Most illnesses are attributed to sorcery, broken taboos, attack by ancestral or other spirits, misfiring magic, or malicious gossip. Curers, who almost invariably are also sorcerers, employ incantation, rubbing the body with doctored leaves, and spitting chewed ginger on the patient's head. Since the ultimate cause of many illnesses is believed to lie in disturbed social relations, curing may also require divination and the public confession of grievance.

Death and Afterlife. Burial customs vary across the island, with interment in side-chambered graves practiced in most communities but secondary burial of bones in caves occurring in the north. Elaborate washing ceremonies and food taboos are general but vary locally in detail, as do the sequences of mortuary feasts. For the majority of islanders nowadays the afterlife is a vague notion of the Christian Heaven. However, burial rites continue to acknowledge the traditional belief that spirits of the dead journey first to Wafolo, a point on northern Fergusson Island, and from thereguided by a spirit who dwells in hot springsthey travel north to the island of Tuma in the Trobriands.

See also Dobu, Maisin, Trobriand Islands


Jenness, Diamond, and Rev. A. Ballantyne (1920). The Northern D'Entrecasteaux. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Young, Michael W. (1971). Fighting with Food. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Young, Michael W. (1983). "Ceremonial Visiting in Goodenough Island." In The Kula: New Perspectives on Massim Exchange, edited by J. Leach and E. R. Leach, 395-410. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Young, Michael W. (1983). Magicians of Manumanua. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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Goodenough Island

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