The Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

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    Long before Magellan’s expedition in this sea, the inhabitants of its islands had already made extraordinary voyages covering thousands of miles. They did not have navigation instruments; instead, they relied on a deep knowledge of the world around them: the currents, the winds, the stars, the waves and also the shape and layout of the islands themselves. Often they would lie on the floor of their ships to feel the direction of the currents more accurately, they would learn songs which told about the position of the constellations or they would study the changes about to affect the wind by observing the movement of the reeds, the algae and other inhabitants of the waters. They were pushed to the sea by a deep trading desire, but also by a strong desire for knowledge. At the core of every journey we find everywhere the same anxiety pushing human beings: to understand, to know a bit more.

    At last the kula expedition gets started. The canoes face the first long leg; before them lies the Pilolu inlet which spreads between the Trobiands and the d’Entrecasteaux. This part of the sea is limited to the north by the Trobiand archipelago, that is, by the islands of Vakuta, Boyowa and Kayleuia, which continue to the west across the scattered belt of the Lousangay. To the east a large submerged reef spreads from the south end of Vakuta to the Amphletts, representing an enormous barrier for navigation but offering little protection from the winds and the south sea. In the south, this barrier meets the Amphletts, which together with the northern coasts of Fergusson and Godenough make up the south shore of Pilolu. To the west, Pilolu opens up to the waters between New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. In fact, what natives call Pilolu is simply the enormous bay of the Lousangay lagoon, the biggest coral atoll in the world. For the natives, the name Pilolu is full of emotional connotations from the world of myths and magic; it is also related not only to the experiences of past generations which tell about the old men sitting around the village bonfires but also to adventures lived personally.

    Soon after the daring kula seafarers set out under full sail, the shallow bottom of the lagoon of the Trombiands is left behind; the dirty green waters – stained with brown where the algae grow high and thick, and shiny here and there with emerald-like spots where the shallow sandy bottom shines through – are substituted by deeper waters of a darker green. The squashed strip of land which surrounds the Trobiands lagoon drawing a wide curve becomes thinner and vanishes in the mist, while the south mountains opposite rise higher and higher. On a clear day it is possible to see them even from the Trobiands. The neat silhouettes of the Amphletts seem minute, though firm and real, over the background of the high mountains. These look like distant clouds, with garlands of cumuli very often hooked to their summits. The nearest one, Koyatabu – the taboo mountain –, in the northern end of Fergusson island, a slim and slightly tilted pyramid, represents one of the most fascinating landmarks guiding seamen straight to the south. To its right, looking south-west, the enormous Kayabwaga mountain – wizards’ mount – points to the northwest end of the Ferguson island. The mountains on the island of Godenough are only visible on very clear days, and even so just very faintly.

    In a day or two these bare and misty shapes will turn into something that the Trobianders consider marvellous and enormous. They are going to surround the kula tradesmen with their solid walls of rocky cliffs and their green jungles scored by deep ravines and tumultuous streams. The Trobianders will sail across deep and sombre bays, resonant with the voices – unknown to them – of the waterfalls; the mysterious and disturbing noises of strange birds which never visit the Trobiands, such as the laughter of the Kookooburra (a giant kingfisher) and the melancholic call of the south sea crow. Once again, the sea changes its colour, turning pure blue, and under its transparent waters spreads a marvellous world of multicoloured corals, fish and algae, a world which, for some strange geographical irony, the inhabitants of the coral islands can hardly see in their places of residence and they have to come to this volcanic region to discover it.

    In this place they will also find beautiful compact stones of different colours and shapes, while back on their ground the only stone known is the insipid dead-white coral. Here they can see – along with many types of granite and basalt and volcanic tufa – samples of black obsidian with ragged edges and metallic sound, and soils rich in yellow and red ocres. Next to the great hills of volcanic ashes, they will observe the intermittent jets of boiling water. The young Trobianders have heard stories of all these wonders and they have seen samples brought to their land, and there is no doubt that for them it is a great experience to see them for the first time and that, later on, they take every chance they get to come back to Koya. Thus, the landscape before them is a sort of a promised land, a country referred to in almost legendary terms.

    And certainly, the stage, on the edge between two different worlds, is particularly impressive. Moving away from the Trobiands in my last expedition, due to the bad weather, I had to spend two days in a small sandbank, covered with a few pandanus trees, about half way between the Trobiands and the Amphletts. A dark sea stretched to the north, big clouds hung on what I thought to be the big flat island of Boyowa, in the Trobiands; to the south, under a clearer sky, the abrupt silhouettes of the mountains, sown across the horizon. The scenery seemed full of mythical and legendary tales, of strange adventures, hopes and fears of generations of native seafarers. They must have camped in this sandbank every time they needed a rest or the bad weather scared them. For there, to the west of the Amphletts, they can see the big Gaby Bay, where the crew of a small canoe fleet were once killed and eaten by the inhabitants of unknown hamlets when they were trying to practice Kula with them. People also tell stories about solitary canoes, drifted apart from their fleet and washed to the north coast of Fergusson Island, where the entire crew lost their lives at the hands of the cannibals. There are also legends about inexperienced natives who, while they were visiting the environs of Dayde’i and once they had arrived at the crystal-clear waters of the big stony bay, dived to find a terrible death in that almost boiling swimming-pool.

    However, while the dangers of remote shores can put natives off imagining and dreaming, the real dangers to the navigation are mucho more real. The sea in which they sail is full of reefs, sown with sandbanks and coral rocks just below the water. And even though they are not as dangerous for the canoes as for European ships in good weather, they are not completely harmless. Yet, what hinders native navigation most are the difficulties in the steering of their canoes. As we mentioned before, they cannot navigate against the wind and, therefore, they cannot tack. If the wind changes, the canoe must also change course and retrace their steps. All this is very uncomfortable, but not necessarily dangerous. However, if they wind drops and the canoe finds itself amongst strong sea currents moving at about three to five knots, or if it breaks down and drifts perpendicularly from its course, then the situation becomes dangerous. To the west lies the open sea and, once out there, the canoe will not have many chances to return. To the east spreads the reef, which in bad weather can wreck a native canoe. In May 1918, a canoe from Dobu that was coming back with a few days’ delay over the rest of the fleet was surprised by a strong wind from the south-east, so strong it had to come off its course and head north-east to one of the Lousancay islands. Right when it had been given up for lost, it returned taking advantage of the north-east wind. However, they were lucky enough to reach a small island. If they had been washed further to the west, they would have never found land.

    There are other stories about lost canoes and it is surprising that there had not been more misfortunes, taking into account the conditions in which they sail. They have to sail in a straight line, so to speak. Once they drift off their course, all sorts of dangers can arise. Not only that, they also have to sail between specific points on the coast because, and this refers obviously to the old times, if they had to land on a place which does not belong to the district of a friendly tribe, the dangers they would meet would be as terrible as the reefs and the sharks. If the sailors miss the friendly hamlets on the Amphletts and Dobu, anywhere else they will find their extermination. Even today, although the risk of death is smaller – though not at all non-existent – the natives feel very uncomfortable at the idea of arriving in a strange district, not only for fear of a violent death, but also and even more for the evil magic.

    The Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Bronislaw Malinowski.