Friday, August 17, 2012

Kula Ring

Let me tell you a story....

It’s a warm summer day in 1968, and I am walking along a street in Cambridge with my friend Ian. We are first year students and on a road trip together.

A beautiful girl, dressed in a white hippyish cotton dress, with bare legs and feet, is sitting on the high wall of a Cambridge University College just above the pavement. She smiles at us and says ‘hello’. She jumps down and takes us to a café, where we are introduced to some of her friends.

Ian and I quickly feel outclassed by the conversation. The others talk about a book called ‘The Function of the Orgasm’.

It was love at first sight. I wanted a girl like that. I had better read that book for starters.

Wilhelm Reich was one of the post-Freudians. He was a radical. The book was an eye-opener, and helped me make sense of some of the mass of facts I was learning at medical school, as well as integrating left-wing political ideas that were swirling around at that time. 1968 featured the student revolution in Paris in May; in August the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, and there were major riots in Chicago. It was an exciting time to be a student.

One way in which Wilhelm Reich differed from Freud was that he thought the Oedipus Complex was a product of sexual repression, whereas Freud thought it was universal. Reich cited research done on the Trobriand Islands by an anthropologist called Bronisław Malinowski who published a book ‘The Sexual Life of Savages’ in the 1920s. The Trobriand Islands are just north of the eastern tip of PNG. The women there are unusually liberated and free. According to Reich, Trobriand Islanders didn’t have Oedipus complexes, and neuroses were rare. Reich basically believed that insufficient sex was the root of all evil.

At nineteen, that made perfect sense to me.

I continued to read Reich, and his ideas led to my reading other psychiatrists, like RD Laing. They all contributed to my later decision to become a psychiatrist.

Flash forward to 1993. I have been doing family therapy, and reading one of the gurus of the field, Gregory Bateson. He was a theoretician of systems thinking, influential in diverse fields such as arms control negotiation and dolphin communication. I read his biography, ‘Legacy of a Scientist’, and through that learned about his life as an anthropologist.

Flash back to Christmas 1932. Bateson is living on the Sepik River on the north coast of New Guinea studying a tribe called the Iatmul. They have a strange transvestite ritual called ‘Naven’. Bateson is from Cambridge, with a famous father, William Bateson, who founded the field of genetics. Gregory is alone.

Nearby a married couple of anthropologists are studying a different tribe. Margaret Mead and her second husband Reo Fortune, a Kiwi psychologist, are having a tough time with their research and their relationship. They decide to go on a boat-trip up the Sepik for Christmas.

The boat passes through the Iatmul area and Gregory gets on board. There follows an intense period in which these three isolated anthropologists have extended raves about their research methods, temperament, and sex-roles.

 Bateson, Mead and Fortune

In the midst of this, Gregory and Margaret fell in love. Later they married.

 Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson

Back in 1993, I read about these events and think it would make a great movie script. I wrote to a director at Movieworld with the idea. See the letter here. Not a lot appeared to come from it.

The beginnings of my 'movie treatment', and a review of a book of Margaret's letters from that period.

Flash forward again to 2001. George and her friend Bonnie visit me on the Gold Coast. Bonnie is a film producer. I tell them the story of my failed attempt to join the movie business, and Bonnie says she will run my idea past her director. A few days later I get an email ‘That film has been made!’

What?!! I rush to get it out from the video store. ‘In a Savage Land’ by Bill Bennett. Apparently it flopped. But there is a story of a married couple of anthropologists in the Trobriand Islands having a love triangle with a third party, while studying sex-roles in New Guinea in the 1930s. What a coincidence!

Now it is 2012. I come across Bill Bennett’s contact details on the internet and decide to ask him how he got the idea. At first he is cagey, and even declines to read my original 1993 letter. Later he takes the position that it is all a big coincidence. He had had the idea after reading Malinowski when he was at Uni.

Also in 2012, we meet a couple with a Seawind 1160 who are heading for Cairns to join a rally to the Louisiade Archipelego, another set of islands off the eastern tip of PNG. It sounds very interesting, and a possibility for us to do the same rally in 2013. I contact the organizer, and read some of his literature. There is a reference to the Louisiades being part of the ‘Kula Ring’ which includes various islands on the eastern end of New Guinea. If you want to know more, read Malinowski.

The magic of Kindle makes this easy. I download his book ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea’.

And it is fascinating. And it makes me want to go there.

Briefly, this is the story.

There are a mass of islands, stretching from the Louisiades in the east, to the D’entrecasteaux Islands close to Milne Bay, and Woodlark Island and the Trobriands slightly further north. On these islands, certain people belong to the Kula. They participate in an elaborate ritual, with ceremonies and magic that involve them passing ceremonial objects in a circle around these islands. The objects are quite specific; one is an arm-shell called ‘mwali’ made from a cone shell, and the other is a necklace made of spondylus shells, called ‘soulava’.

These objects are precious, but not kept as property. The key is to pass them on. So one man in the Kula who has a ‘mwali’ exchanges it with another man in the Kula who has a ‘soulava’.


 Mwali arm-band. Travels anti-clockwise round the Kula Ring


Soulava necklace. Travels clockwise round the Kula Ring.



The process involves a certain amount of magic and taboo. It is definitely uncool to hang on to a Kula object for too long, or to make a swap that is ungenerous.

Kula remains quite important in the cultural life of these islands. A report made in association with BHP and a logging company in the 1990s emphasized that:

It must be understood that Kula exchange is a powerful motivation for many men of Woodlark. Given the choice they would probably prefer to be successful in Kula than in 'business'. Certain personal qualities are essential for both: forethought and persistence, an entrepreneurial intelligence, an ability to charm and persuade by force of personality, and not least, an ability to lie convincingly and risk the possible consequences of death by sorcery. In short, Kula is a deadly serious 'game' which evokes the deepest passions, involves all of one's skills and many of one's material resources. The name of the game is local fame, and it can be said with confidence that any development project which is perceived as a threat to Kula will be sabotaged or neglected, no matter how appealing its financial benefits might seem.

The Kula process drives a lot of community activity, from canoe building, to village prestige. A Kula expedition might take months to prepare for. They build new canoes and renovate old ones. Much work preparing the logs and sails, plenty of magic to make the boat light and fast.

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