Discovering Rabaul: A personal project about family and healing.
It’s becoming increasingly important to me to reconnect with my cultural, ancestral roots, as my parents – my only link to these roots now – are getting older. The Volcanic island home of my forebears is rapidly changing, and my cousins (on my mother’s side – it’s a matrilineal society) have done the hard work in order to register our common traditional lands under law. Meanwhile, I am literally just beginning to sense how much the complex, multi-layered spiritual and cultural legacy of my people was eroded by European colonialism and enforced Christian conversion (which eradicated many Indigenous spiritual practices). Now, I will never be the person to say that the colonisation of Papua New Guinea was all bad – what happened happened, and everything that came before made this moment – and my FREEDOM – possible. I love where I am, and being who I am, right now. Nonetheless, I know it robbed my people, the Tolai people of Rabaul, East New Britain, unnecessarily of some traditions and practices that were enriching and beautiful.
I know this because my friend artist Lisa Hilli, also of Tolai descent, is currently doing a fascinating research project within the Australia Museum on Tolai Breastplates, being mentored by Yvonne Carrillo – the Pacific Cultural Collection Officer from the Australia Museum in Sydney. Lisa is going through really old records, unearthing documents and photographs that haven’t seen the light of day in quite some time. Many of the artefacts that she has re-discovered my own parents have never heard of – for example, they didn’t even know we made breastplates (both my parents were raised in the Methodist Church). A lot of these things – and the spirituality that made them significant to the people who created them – were likely banned by the Colonizers (the Germans, and afterwards the Commonwealth).
I’m fascinated rather than angered by this rediscovery of unknown artefacts, because I believe that spirituality is never “lost” – it cannot be. Rather, we gravitate to streams that speak to us. For example, I have my own very individual/universal/eclectic sense of spirituality. But I also feel a strong connection to my maternal grandfather, who was a deeply benevolent, Christian Methodist Minister, and my great-maternal grandfather, who was widely known and feared as a Sorcerer (one who died in spectacular circumstances – he was sitting in a canoe fishing in the Rabaul Harbour in 1937 and was literally exploded/expelled into the air by an underwater volcanic eruption… a fitting way for a sorcerer to go out). Both forebears embodied different energies in their lives, and the Storyteller in me is getting more and more curious about them, the societies they grew up in, and the culture/society that preceded both… pre-European Rabaul. The great unknown.
Unearthing these stories and histories is going to be a lifelong personal project/self-education for me (because that’s how long it’s going to take, with my schedule!). I’m going to start with recent known political and societal history, as well as family histories, and will be recording interviews with my parents, as well as documenting in hard copy the mental maps older Tolai women (including my Mother) all carry: the family trees of every branch of every village. My brother has discovered a few really old books at the State Library containing compelling accounts of Rabaul in the early 20th century, including, of course, during World War II. Because of the climate and volcanic nature of Rabaul, things are constantly decaying and being overtaken by the natural environment. It is hard to picture that the things described in these history books were actually there once.
So, this is another one of my weird (previously secret) hobbies now. I’m writing about it here to hold myself to account, I guess – once you tell someone about your intent to do something it becomes harder to slack off! If I do it properly, the material I will collect and compile will be a great record and resource for my nieces and nephews to inherit, and pass on when they start having their own babies. I have no plans to have babies of my own so this is for them… and me, of course. I need to find the missing pieces of my own foundation. Despite being very individualistic, evolving and eclectic, something in me is calling me to do this.
Here are some photos I found on the internet of Rabaul. One of the things that totally pisses me off is that as much as people bragged about the beauty and symmetry of Rabaul town before the 1994 twin volcanic eruption, no one, it seems, ever took any decent high-def photographs!!! Somewhere in the world, someone is hoarding the good ones in their private collections… I must track down these people…
[Rabaul has many volcanoes, and the harbour itself is a caldera – my ancestors certainly picked a hot spot to settle down in. I call it “jack and the beanstalk” land, because the soil is extremely fertile – you could throw seeds out the window and have a plant growing there in a month, no kidding. In 1994, two volcanoes, Tavurvur & Vulcan – the latter being on and near my mothers village – errupted, a few months before our family holiday. My sister was living and working in Rabaul with her fiance at the time, and went through the experience of evacuation, staying in makeshift care centres, etc. as did all my other relatives. My sister still lives & works there, with her family… who will be arriving here in Melbourne tomorrow!!! The ’94 family holiday was interesting to say the least – Tavurvur was – and is – still errupting daily, so we were sweeping ash off the verandah every morning and evening and experiencing after-quakes. You’ll notice in every photo of Rabaul, Tavurvur expelling ash and smoke. It hasn’t stopped billowing crap since 1994, but the people just carry on with their lives… they’re used to having an active volcano over them.]