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The Path of Peace

Arts of Vanuatu Ed Bonnemaison, Huffman Kaufmann, Tryon. Published by Crawford House RRP $69.95

Author: Barry Craig | Book Review

One day near Longana a man by the name of Gasinamoli made a strange discovery. In the heart of a tree called 'Malauhi', he found a boy child. The malauhi is a valuable tree with very hard wood which is used to make house posts and weapons. Gasinamoli brought up the child he had found and called him Garobani; the child was as obstinate and tough as the wood of the tree in which he had been found.

As soon as he was grown up, Garobani became a formidable warrior. His delight in warfare knew no bounds, he provoked fights wherever he went and was responsible for the deaths of many adversaries. This fighting was troublesome to his father Gasinamoli who ... was very active in the traditional trade of tusked pigs ... Neighbouring villages, fearful of Garobani, refused to have any dealings with him.

Gasinamoli asked his son to stop the fighting but his son said 'I have too many enemies now; I am no longer able to stop the wars I have started.'

Gasinamoli went to fetch a sacred stone he used as a pillow, which had been consecrated according to sacred rites. He told his son to break it and to take a piece of it and a mambu pig's tooth to every village where he had killed a man. Garobani set off on a long journey of peace ... In every village he handed over the piece of stone which was to serve as the foundation of the new law of peace. This law was called 'Tamati vatu', in other words, the 'stone of peace' and it was as solid as rock. Whoever offended against the law of stone risked instant death.

So peace was established over north-west Ambae and Garobani was able to devote himself to trading in pigs ... He was as fervent a seeker after riches as he had formerly been a warrior. He bought ritual ornaments and costumes and lent them for grade-taking ceremonies. In exchange he was given the mats and pigs with curved tusks which enabled him to prepare to take the highest grades himself and buy more ornaments. These included the multicoloured strings of beads and shells which he went to Malo to obtain and which were worn as bracelets on the arms and wrists or as anklets, the mats made of long red fibres which are worn around the waist and reach down to the ground, and the headdresses reserved only for the men of the highest grades, which command a very high price and circulate from group to group and even from island to island.

Garobani very soon became a man of high rank; everyone honoured him and obeyed him; he lived in peace. One day he said to his father, 'The path of peace is better than the path of war; why didn't you tell me so before?' But Gasinamoli replied, 'Before it was as if you were mad, you were always running off and you thought of nothing but fighting; you would not have listened to me.'

Ever since, Garobani and his descendants have kept their word, and followed the law they set up. They have gone as far in the way of peace and trade as they had before in the way of war. (1)

I have quoted at length from Arts of Vanuatu because the story is one for our times and for all peoples, and because the details - references to war and trade, to grade societies and tusked pigs, to woven mats, shell valuables and headdresses - lie at the core of Vanuatuan cultures. These and many other aspects of the material and ceremonial life of Vanuatu people are admirably treated in this excellent book, which was edited by Joel Bonnemaison, Kirk Huffman, Christian Kaufmann and Darrell Tryon and published by Crawford House Press of Bathurst, NSW. The book is an indispensable companion to Ethnology of Vanuatu (1991, also Crawford House Press), the translated version of Felix Speiser's Ethnographische Materialien aus den Neuen Hebriden und den Banks-Inseln (1923).
Arts of Vanuatu brings together the knowledge of French, Swiss, English, Canadian, American, New Zealand, Australian and ni-Vanuatu scholars in a beautifully illustrated volume that anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, museum curators and those interested in Pacific cultures will find more than worth the price of (Aust.) $69.95. In particular, there are several contributions from Kirk Huffman who was the guiding influence at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre for around fifteen years. Huffman has a deep and detailed knowledge of Vanuatuan cultures, no mean achievement in an area made up of over 100 language groups, and had not previously published this information. One notable lack is a contribution from Jean Guiart, though there are many references to his published works.
The structure of the book is unusual. The large number of contributions are relatively short and to the point, and many brief notes, focussed on particular subjects, or types of objects, have been interspersed with the more substantive essays. All this has been organised into an introductory section and six 'chapters', followed by bibliography, photo credits, and details of the authors and of the objects shown in the figures. The first 'chapter' deals with the prehistory; the second with men's and women's arts; the third with languages, trading and canoes; the fourth with the men's grade societies, masks, architecture, slit gongs and other material expressions of power; the fifth with the historical and ethnographic processes of documentation; and the sixth with the transition of the New Hebrides into the contemporary world as Vanuatu.
The book was published to complement an exhibition of Vanuatuan objects drawn primarily from museum collections in Paris and Basel and from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Vila. The exhibition has been shown in Vila and in New Caledonia and is on its way to Basel before being shown in Paris.
There are inevitably, in such a complex work, a few typos and some minor errors; the reader should be aware that cross-references to other contributions may be out by a couple of pages and some of the references to the figures are incorrect (eg. p.49: fig.46=fig.73; p.51: fig.172=fig.211; p.96: fig.103c=fig.103a; p.174: fig.174=fig.208; p.202: ref. to fig.231 should be relocated to second paragraph p.208; p.207: fig.259=fig.302?; etc). But these are quibbles. Would we could have similar books for other regions in the Pacific. Look out for the forthcoming Ethnology of the Admiralty Islands by Sylvia Ohnemus, also from Crawford House.

1. As told by Moses Gnere of Lolopuepue, north-east Ambae - Arts of Vanuatu p.210.