Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Couple of Cargo Cults

     Cargo cults! They spring up like weeds in Melanesia, and mutate like flu viruses. They would be amusing, except that they all lead to futility, and many of them to tragedy. Not that they are really unique to Melanesia. They represent one aspect of the sort of movements which eventuate when primitive societies come into contact with sophisticated ones. The American Indian Ghost Dance had cargo cult features. So did the terrible cattle-killing movement in South Africa, which left thousands of people dead. It has also been pointed out that Westerners beset by the same ignorance of economics tend to go in for socialist utopias. But the particular mindset of Melanesia makes it the centre of the full cargo cult phenomenon.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Indian Picture Writing

     I had completely forgotten about this until I recently started digitalising my old slides. I took this photo in January 1983 in the Casa de la Libertad ("Freedom House") in Sucre, the old capital of Bolivia. A sheet of paper covered with local Indian picture writing has been pinned to the wall, and it is intended to be read in an unusual style, called in Greek, boustrephon, or "ox-turning". Essentially, the human characters are pointing in the direction of reading. It starts at the lower left, and moves left then, like an ox ploughing a furrow, turns right, then left again, and finally right again, ending with the two vertical lines at the top right. Can you work out what it depicts?
     It is the Lord's Prayer.

 If you want to see some more humourous signs taken during my travel, click here.

At Least He Wasn't Prejudiced!

     I don't know why Australian schoolchildren are never taught about the sterling work their country did in governing Papua New Guinea. Nothing in my schoolboy history mentioned it, and the same was the case with my wife, Esther, who was actually born and educated there. And no-one performed greater service in the field than Sir Hubert Murray, Lieutenant-Governor of Papua from 1908 to 1940, and now largely forgotten by his ungrateful country.
    But it is not the purpose of this post to sing his praise, but rather to recall a somewhat humorous occurrence during his reign. Needless to say, part of his job was to ensure that native workers were properly treated, and not to allow anyone of bad character to recruit them. I shall quote from his biographer, Lewis Lett, in this case, largely dependent on Murray's own unpublished autobiography.

Friday, 13 September 2013

A Submarine Mail Service

     First there was mail carried by horse, then surface sea mail, then air mail, but would you believe, submarine mail? And why, you may ask, would they use a submarine to carry the mail through the Panama Canal, which is full of locks? Well, basically, it was a gimmick. But it did happen. I shall quote the philatelic section of a once popular magazine published in December 1919.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Burying the Rhinoceros Head

     In 1974 I moved to Sydney and joined the School of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University as a postgraduate. And the first organization I met was a group of very earnest undergraduates called (I think) the Biological Sciences Club. I never joined in any of their projects, but I remember that the first one for the year was "Burying the Rhinoceros Head".
     To understand this, you must know that the school contained a small museum, which the curator was determined to make into a comprehensive museum. Indeed, at one point my studies took me to the rear (non-public) areas of the Taronga Park Zoo, and upon my return, I informed the curator that I had just seen a newly deceased pygmy hippopotamus there. Almost overcome with joy, the curator immediately got on the phone and asked the zoo if he could have the body. The zoo wondered how on earth the news had got out so quickly.
     Anyway, the museum had earlier obtained the head of a rhinoceros, which the Club immediately adopted as their project, carrying it to a remote beach somewhere in the vicinity of Sydney, and burying it in the intertidal zone. This is not such a bizarre activity as you might think. When you visit a museum, and view the whitened bones of the specimens on display, you probably never thought to ask how the flesh was removed. Do you imagine some hapless museum worker painstakingly scrapped and picked it clean? The most common method is to feed it to a special colony of flesh-eating beetles, who will get into every narrow nook and cranny, and do their job. In the absence of such minuscule servants, an alternative is to turn it over to the worms and crustacea which inhabit the sand between high and low water mark.
     So, a few months later, a new project arose: "Digging Up the Rhinoceros Head". Would you believe, they couldn't find it!
    Who knows? One day, perhaps after a heavy storm, you will read a news report of a mysterious rhinoceros skull turning up on a beach near Sydney, and everyone will wonder where it came from. When that happens, remember: you read it here first.