Trobriand Islands

The Trobriand Islands (today officially known as the Kiriwina Islands) are a 170 mi archipelago of coral atolls off the eastern coast of New Guinea. They are situated in Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea. Most of the population of 12,000 indigenous inhabitants live on the main island of Kiriwina, which is also the location of the government station, Losuia. Other major islands in the group are Kaileuna, Vakuta and Kitava. The group is considered to be an important tropical rainforest ecoregion in need of conservation.
The people of the area are mostly subsistence horticulturalists who live in traditional settlements. The social structure is based on matrilineal clans who control land and resources. People participate in the regional circuit of exchange of shells called kula, sailing to visit trade partners on sea-going canoes. In the late twentieth century, anti-colonial and cultural autonomy movements gained followers from the Trobriand societies. When inter-group warfare was forbidden by colonial rulers, the islanders developed a unique, aggressive form of cricket.
Although an understanding of reproduction and modern medicine is widespread in Trobriand Society, their traditional beliefs have been remarkably resilient, and the idea that in order to become pregnant women must be infused with spirits from the nearby island of Tuma (where people’s spirits go after they die) is still a part of the Trobriand worldview. In the past, many held this traditional belief because the yam, a major food of the island, included chemicals (phytoestrogens and plant sterols) whose effects are contraceptive, so the practical link between sex and pregnancy was not very evident.
The Trobrianders. whose culture traces family lineage through mothers rather than fathers. The Trobrianders eat alone, retiring to their own hearths with their portions, turning their backs on one another and eating rapidly for fear of being observed. (Both quotes from an excerpt from Jenefer Shute’s 1992 novel Life-Size in the book, Open Questions.)
Particularly interesting and unique to the Trobriand Islands are the linguistic aspect of the indigenous language, Kilivila. Dorothy D. Lee’s scholarly writings, drawing upon earlier work by Bronislaw Malinowski refer to non-lineal codifications of reality. In such a linguistic system, the concept of linear progress of time, geometric shapes, and even conventional methods of description are lost altogether or altered. In her example of a specific indigenous yam, Lee explains that when the yam moves from a state of sprouting to ripeness to over-ripeness, the name for each object in a specific state changes entirely. This is because the description of the object at different states of development are perceived as wholly different objects. Ripeness is considered a defining ingredient and thus once it becomes over-ripe, it is a new object altogether. The same perception pertains to time and geometric shapes.
The first European visitor to the islands was the French ship Esprance in 1793. The islands were named by navigator Bruni d’Entrecasteaux after his first lieutenant, Denis de Trobriand. In the early 20th century, as the British colonial regime extended its influence and control throughout Papua, the southern portion of New Guinea, Losuia station was established and remained an important center for colonial police officers, traders and missionaries. As World War I began, Bronislaw Malinowski came to Papua and ultimately to the Trobriands to begin an in-depth immersive study of a non-western culture. His descriptions of the kula exchange system, gardening, magic and sexual practices, all classics of modern anthropological writing, prompted many foreign researchers to visit the societies of the island group and study other aspects of their cultures. The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich drew on Malinowski’s studies of the islands in writing his The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality and consequently in developing his theory of sex economy in his 1936 work Die Sexualitat im Kulturkampf.
In 1943, troops landed on the islands as a part of Operation Cartwheel, the Allied advance to Rabaul. In the 1970s, some indigenous peoples formed anti-colonial associations and political movements.