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Suppression of matriarchal societies and population stability in Papua New Guinea 1960-1974

Inside is a video and transcript of an interview with Glen Marshall about indigenous population growth and self government before and after his time with the Australian government of Papua New Guinea. In it Mr Marshall describes the destruction of a matriarchal society in which population numbers were kept well under control, in part due to the fact that men and women lived within their own separate territories. The material totally contradicts much that is assumed about Papua New Guinea tribes - peoples who have lived in the area perhaps 60,000 years. Unfortunately it is a short interview edited from longer and unrelated discussions, but I hope it will inspire others to learn more from unusual sources about this extraordinary island and its struggle to conserve traditional land-tenure and self-government. See also "Glen Marshall, population and indigenous rights activist - obituary."

Note that this interview was recorded in Sea Lake Hospital on 5 February 2015, only 22 days before Glen succumbed to cancer after a battle that lasted close to two decades, during which time he remained outward-looking and interested in many things, especially science. In the interview, due to a growth in his throat, some of Glen's speech is hard to decipher and occasionally he seems to confuse words, such as using 'popularize' where he probably meant 'colonise'. He also at first thought I was making a euphemism for sexual congress out of 'cohabit', which he turns into a humorous verb, 'cohabitating'.[1]

At lunch nearly 20 years ago Glen told me of his observations on indigenous behaviour and population numbers in Papua New Guinea. He said that Europeans had nothing to offer the peoples of PNG, except perhaps technique for setting a broken leg. He said to me that breast feeding failed as a contraceptive in PNG after spouses began to cohabit as they were instructed to do by Christian colonisers. Prior to this they did not cohabit. Men and women had their own land and villages. A revelation to me, this information stuck in my mind and motivated my later research into Pacific Islander land-tenure traditions and their effect on population numbers in: Demography, Territory, Law: Rules of Animal and Human Populations, Countershock Press, 2015 .

Unfortunately, for reasons to do with Glen's growing deafness making phone calls difficult and his not remaining on the internet, especially after hospitalisation, I failed to question him more closely about the details of his time in Papua New Guinea. For instance, I should have asked him exactly where he was stationed and which tribes he was in contact with. Nonetheless, I hope that I have fulfilled his desire to tell the truth as he experienced it about Papua New Guinea and the impact of Australian governance and religious missions on it between 1960 and 1974.

Transcript from video:

GLEN: What interests me greatly is the number of primitive societies up and down the American coast and various other parts of the world and certainly in Papua New Guinea, it was distinctly matriarchal. Distinctly matriarchal! And it was so much so that when we, the 'lords of the manor', the white 'we', took over, we actually forbade the women to be luberised [1] - that means 'leader' - They were not allowed.

The leader was given a red cap. No woman was given a red cap. The 'funny jobe was'. It was a joke. That if a native person in PNG - a native man wanted a smoko, he had to ask the women for it. But they greatly respected it. One school which was mostly adults rather than children, one - he'd be about 20 years of age - said that, when a woman dies in the tribe, there's great mourning and the man could pass away with hardly any recognition.

Most of the tribes - when I first went there - the women were completely in charge. By the time I left, which was 14 years later, it was just the opposite. And that was enforced by legislation because the women... when we were having a school meeting, the women would make up their mind, and tell the men what to say, and that's how they got their point over. It was ridiculous, but it was encouraged by the authorities, unfortunately.

But previously, the Germans - see New Guinea was first colonised [said 'popularised' by mistake] by Germans, was New Guinea German, and then Papua was mainly British for a time bu they have the same - exactly the same thing. They were paternal or patriarchal.

QUESTION TO GLEN: Did men and women cohabit after marriage in New Guinea.

GLEN: Not particularly, no. But I'm going to qualify it. Every three months they had a sing sing. It was for everybody and they cohabited there completely and utterly and foolishly and in every other way. But they remained for the main part separate, yes.

QUESTION TO GLEN: Even after marriage?

GLEN: They only that just during the sing sing. Generally a whole weekend.

QUESTION TO GLEN: But when they married? Later? When a man married a woman, did they live together?

GLEN: Nowadays they live together. but once they didn't.

QUESTION TO GLEN: So, women had their own land and own villages?

GLEN: They owned their own trees and all sorts of things. We took that from them. And then we started to build habitations for them and they were all built on family living together. And that created a violence. Rightly or wrongly, it created a violence. They were not a violent people, but they became violent.

QUESTION TO GLEN: What about the population size - fertility - did that go up with cohabitation?

GLEN: It did, yes. Badly.

QUESTION TO GLEN: In 14 years, did you see that?

GLEN: It was very very obvious. There were four [?regions or religions] in Papua New Guinea. One was run by the Catholics. One was run by the Methodist Overseas Mission, administered from England. The other one was the German Church. [Lutheran] Seventh Day Adventist was the other one.

By the time I left there were no less than 34 disparaged religions.

I found that although you don't agree with everything in their pagan religion, there was one fundamental rule for all of their pagan religions. And that was to keep the village together. It was so obvious!

And yet the religious people would say, "God will forbid this!" I thought he would be very pleased about it.

QUESTION TO GLEN: What do you think of the Australian government thinking it can teach Pacific Islanders how to limit their populations?

GLEN: Oh, absolutely hopeless! They [PNG indigenous people] knew it already. They knew it in full. They knew it in full.


'luberize': I cannot find any examples of this word on the internet, however records are extremely sparse for New Guinea over this period, even sparser than for the preceding period, when volcanic eruptions and war apparently destroyed a lot.

[1] I met Glen in the mid 1990s when he cheerfully came down to Melbourne to have himself fitted for a coffin after he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. He knew that he had quite some time to live and was not overly upset by his diagnosis. We had lunch in the city and he gave me a pair of salad tongs in the shape of false teeth, saying that he could not afford the present I deserved, so offered the salad tongs as a light-hearted substitute. I still have the false teeth tongs and enjoy the memory of our first meeting, but maybe I should not mix this too prominently with Glen's more serious message. I sort of suspect that he wouldn't mind though.

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