Oceanic people

This was one part of a carved frieze of frigate birds and tunoid fish at the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.  Though this was made by Pacific peoples, it reminded me of gannets diving off the Scottish coast.

In my teens, I was fascinated by a television documentary about cricket in the Trobriand Archipelago, in Melanesia.  Matches are played by teams of no fixed size with ritualised violence and dance accompanied by sexualised taunting, charms and incantations.  Under colonising powers and the influence of missionaries, cricket replaced warfare, but with a character unique to these islands.

My mother told me about Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish anthropologists who studied the Trobriand Islanders, sensationalising, for repressed Western European readers, their (often) female-led and polyamorous relationships as “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia”.  She told me that Malinowski’s description of matrilineal descent challenged Freud’s concept of the oedipal relationship between a boy and his parents: in the Trobriand Islands a young man resents and challenges his maternal uncle not his father, and these strained relationships are about power not sex.

I studied social anthropology as an elective year during my medical degree.  The great social anthropologists of the early twentieth century, like Malinowski, were creatures of their time and of colonialism.  Even so, Malinowski brought wisdom and insight to bear on his subjects of study.  Western economists believe in the paramount nature of money, linked to a founding myth about individuals making rational choices over resource use in an ancestral marketplace.   Anthropologists, by contrast, demonstrate the diversity of exchange systems and their purposes.  The photograph above shows a stick navigation chart showing seas and currents.  Malinowski first described the ritual exchange of trinkets between Melanesian peoples separated by hundreds of miles of dangerous ocean, dignifying these voyagers as the Argonauts of the Western Pacific.   Across a vast network, red shell disc necklaces were gifted clockwise and white shell armbands anticlockwise.  This exchange network was (is?) the foundation of political authority across the islands, the means by which a man gains and displays prestige, not by acquisition but by giving.  The Wikipedia entry on this Kula exchange network references later studies of which I had been unaware: Malinowski had neglected the economic and political power held by women in Trobriand society: renown won in the Kula network was balanced by the value of landed property held by women.

Many of the museum artefacts from Oceania were objects of great prestige given or exchanged freely.  In their very nature, though, perhaps it was never the intention that these treasures should leave the gifting network to find a resting place under glass.  Conversely, we have been gifted the privilege to be included in some way in that Oceanic culture.