THE DAILY BARBARIAN supplement
FIFTH ESTATE, #298, June 19, 1979
That’s one of my most favorite quotes. Just in itself it says a lot about the recent history of the people it describes. In this case, it’s used by the Columbia Encyclopedia to explain, in a nutshell, what’s happening to the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, with a population of approximately two million, is located off the northern tip of Australia; like so many pacific islanders of the 19th century, its tribespeople had the misfortune of falling under the “civilizing” influence of the British Empire.
But bringing civilization to such lost souls as the Mud People (a name given to Papua Ghost Dancers by the British) was no easy task. For thousands of years, the Papua tribes had lived well without such luxuries as Kings, Queens, politicians, government, money, work, centralisation of society, electric blankets, toasters and osterizer blenders; and to top off their reluctance to give in to the “historical process” of civilization, many New Guinea tribes were either cannibals or head hunters. Consequently, they were fierce protectors of their way of life and unlike the more docile tribes who had become farmers and realised the benefits of civilization, showed their feelings towards this “historical process” by eating the Christian missionaries who were sent to convert them.
But as we all know, time heals all wounds and after many years of invasion by missionaries and western society (there’s plenty of gold and oil on the island) many of the people broke down in the defense of their culture and began to submit to ever-advancing civilization, and, consequently, to more than a century of dominance by Britain and Australia.
Several years ago, New Guinea was given political independence by the ailing British government. Since that time, the more “progressive” thinkers have realised that some of the tribes have, as the Horizon Book of Vanishing Primitive Man puts it, “still to succumb fully either to the sermons of the missionaries or to the instructions of the government officers seeking to educate and prepare the Melanesians for political independence.” (1)
For that reason, the American legal scholar Karl Warden has gone to Papua New Guinea to help that nation catch up on 20,000 years of jurisprudence and civilization. In an article that appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (“From Stone Age to Law and Order,” November 17, 1978), Warden, a Vanderbilt University law professor, said, “For years and years, one of my favorite day dreams….is, “I’d love to know what it was like in the Neanderthal Age.” A period which the Star-Bulletin says, “was an age when man’s only law was nature’s, a time of perfect liberty, when reason was man’s sole restriction
Well, Warden must have thought his little escape into the past was more a nightmare than a dream; since he’s decided to carry on where the British left off and bring 20th century civilization to the last of the Papua holdouts.
Employed by the Port Moresby government (Port Moresby is the capital of Papua New Guinea), Warden will attempt to bring modern judicial institutions to the island in hopes of shaping a nation ordered by a single system of law.
Selecting 16 young New Guinea men (literate in English, of course), he and the government have begun training them to be judges, and the first supreme court judges are to be drawn from the class of ’79 (institutionalized education is already well entrenched on the island) They will work territories as magistrates, spreading the uniform practice of law.
The Star-Bulletin ended its article by stating, “Warden compares the task before Papua New Guinea with what the United States faced 200 years ago—building a new culture.” At the cost of the old, of course (which they don’t state ), but there are always “excesses” in the historical progression of civilization!
1. In this case, the term “political independence” is directly interchangeable with the word “civilization.”