May 24 - 30, 2015: Issue 215



By George Repin

First visited by a French ship, Espérance, in 1793 the Trobriand Islands are an archipelago of low lying coral atolls off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea in the Milne Bay Province. They are very different from other nearby areas of the province, such as Rabaul, which are of volcanic origin.  The islands remain hot and humid throughout the year.

Most of the indigenous population of about 12,000 people lives on the main island of Kiriwina.

Left: A typical village

The people are mainly subsistence horticulturalists living in traditional settlements with a social structure based on matrilineal clans, which control land and resources. Yams are used as currency and the number of yams accumulated reflects wealth and power. Yam exchanges, in a traditional pattern of behaviour, have a major place in societal interactions.

Right: Young boys in a canoe.

Each year, a man grows yams for his sister – and his daughter if she is married.  The husband does not provide yams for his wife.  

The more yams a woman receives, the more powerful and rich she is. Rituals during the yam season, including the display of yams and the processes associated with their storage in specially built yam houses are important elements in the society’s customs and communal life, and there is a relationship between yams and sexuality.


                                  Another view of a village

Trobriand children start playing erotic games with each other from an early age and in their young teens begin to pursue sexual partners which they change frequently.  Women are as active as men in pursuing and rejecting lovers. 

The relationship between sexual activity and pregnancy is not recognised because the yam, the major food of the islands, includes phytoestrogens and plant sterols whose effects are contraceptive. The practical link between sex and pregnancy, therefore, is not immediately apparent. 

A Trobriand woman is thought to become pregnant through an ancestral spirit entering her body and leading to conception.  “Even after a child is born it is the mother’s brother, not the father, who presents a harvest of yams to his sister so that the child will be fed with food from its own matrilineage, not the father’s.” 

Because the customs of the Trobriand Islanders are in many respects very different from those of other indigenous people in the area they have been the subject of a number of extensive anthropological and ethnographic studies.

Possibly the best known is the collection of work of a Pole Bronislaw Malinowski who lived in the islands during World War I.  His book Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) attracted considerable popular interest.

Pictures by George Repin in April, 2015     


Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea - (1932 Edition) Available to read online or download - Here


Previous Reflections by George Repin 

The Nineteen Thirties  Remembering Rowe Street  The Sydney Push  Saturday Night at the Movies  Shooting Through Like A Bondi Tram  A Stop On The Road To Canberra  City Department Stores - Gone and Mostly Forgotten  An Australian Icon - thanks to Billy Hughes  Crossing The Pacific in the 1930s  Hill End  The Paragon at Katoomba  Seafood In Sydney  How Far From Sydney?  Cockatoo Island Over The Years  The Seagull at the Melbourne Festival in 1991  Busby's Bore  The Trocadero In Sydney  Cahill's restaurants  Medical Pioneers in Australian Wine Making  Pedal Power and the Royal Flying Doctor Service  Pambula and the Charles Darwin Connection  Gloucester and the Barrington Tops  A Millenium Apart  Have You Stopped to Look?  Gulgong  Il Porcellino Olympia  Durham Hall  Sargent's Tea Rooms Pie Shops and Street Photographers The Ballet Russes and Their Friends in Australia  Hotels at Bondi  Alma Ata Conference - 1978 Keukenhof - 1954 The Lands Department Building and Yellowblock Sandstone  The Goroka Show - 1958  A Gem On The Quay  Staffa  The Matson Line and Keepsake Menus Kokeshi Dolls  The Coal Mine At Balmain  The Hyde Park Barracks  The Changing Faces Of Sydney From Pounds and Pence to Dollars and Cents Nell Tritton and Alexander Kerensky  Making A Difference In Ethiopia William Balmain  J C Bendrodt and Princes Restaurant Azzalin Orlando Romano and Romano's Restaurant Waldheim  Alcohol in Restaurants Before 1955  King Island Kelp  The Mercury Theatre  Around Angkor - 1963  Angkor Wat 1963  Costumes From the Ballets Russe Clifton at Kirribilli  Chairman Mao's Personal Physician  The Toby Tavern The MoKa at Kings Cross The Oceaographic  Museum in Monaco  The Island of Elba Russian Fairy Tale Plates Meteora Souda Bay War Cemetery Barrow, Alaska Cloisonné Tripitaka Koreana Minshuku The Third Man Photographs and Memories Not A Chagall! Did You Listen? Did You Ask? Napier (Ahuriri, Maori) New Zealand Borobudur  Ggantija Temples Plumes and Pearlshells Murano  University of Padua Ancient Puebloe Peoples - The Anasazi  Pula  The Gondolas of Venice Cinque Terre  Visiting the Iban David The Living Desert Bryce Canyon National Park  Aphrodisias  The Divine Comedy Caodaism  Sapa and local Hill People  A Few Children Cappadocia  Symi Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre  Aboriginal Rock Art on Bigge Island  ANZAC Cove (Ari Burnu) 25 April, 1997 Hotere Garden Oputae 

Copyright George Repin 2015. All Rights Reserved.