George J. Aditjondro – Notes for ASWA (Anthropological Society of Western Australia) Seminar
Series at University of Western Australia, Perth.
Monday, 10 April 1995.
Why is the concept of “Melanesia” problematic? First of all, the
conceptual inconsistency of dividing the three largest island groups in
the Pacific or Oceania, namely into “Melanesia”, “Polynesia”, and
“Micronesia”, has bothered me for a long time. The way to “name” those
three island groups is inconsistent. “Melanesia” refers to the islands
of the “Black” (melanos) people, while “Polynesia” refers to the
“plentiful” (poly) islands, and “Micronesia” to the “small” (micro)
islands. So, on one hand you have a racial concept, while on the other
hand you have two geographical concepts.
Secondly, there is the cartographic problem. In placing the
boundaries of those three island groups on the Oceania map, there always
seems to be a “Berlin Wall” between the island of New Guinea, and the
islands west of it, namely Maluku as well as the Timor-Flores island
group. This “Berlin Wall” is inconsistent with the reason for calling
“Melanesia” Melanesia, which is the skin colour of its inhabitants.
Because, the indigenous peoples of Maluku and the Timor-Flores island are
also dark-skinned. At least, from the islands east of Sulawesi and
Lombok, there is a gradual darkening, of the skin colour of the
indigenous peoples. So, should the boundaries of “Melanesia” then be
drawn further westwards, to include Maluku and the Timor-Flores islands?
The third problem I have in reading the literature of the Oceanic
cultures, are the anthropological stereotypes of “Melanesia”. The first
stereotypical concept is that the most typical leadership pattern in
Melanesia, which is epitomized or symbolized by the New Guinea highlands,
is the “big-men” system. On the other hand, the typical Polynesian
leadership system is the (hereditary) chief. This typology, or should we
say, “dichotomy” is misleading, since in Irian Jaya or West Papua as some
of its inhabitants might call it, anthropologists have noted at least
four different leadership systems, namely the Big-men of the highlands,
the warriors (Mambri) system of the Biak islands, the Ondoafi (hereditary
clan-chief) system of the Jayapura lowlands, and the Raja system in the
Fakfak-Raja Ampat islands, off-shore at the Bird Head region.
Some people may argue, that the “big-men” system is the “oldest”
or the most “original” leadership system in Melanesia. However, if we
accept that argument, then we might question how far backwards in time
should anthropology, or anthropologists go, and then, whether
anthropology should “freeze” the development of the subjects they are
The second anthropological sterotype of “Melanesia” is that it is
ridden with “cargo cults”, or, to be more accurate, “millenarian
movements”, thereby overlooking the occurance of similar movements in the
other Oceanic archipelagoes, such as “Indonesia”, “Polynesia”, and
“Micronesia”. West of New Guinea, for instance, it has been argued that
the Pattimura rebellion against the Dutch in Maluku could also be seen as
a millenarian movement. In fact, in the old indigenous language of
Seram, “Pattimura” means simply the “just king”. Or, should the
occurance of millenarian movements in Maluku be another argument to
include those 1000 islands into the realm called “Melanesia”?
The next problem comes with the acceptance, or rather, popular
usage of “Melanesia” as a political concept, to include the
nation-states, territories, and colonies from New Guinea eastwards, which
are inhabited by black peoples. However, if one’s racial background can
be a political virtue or political asset, such as in the Black Movement
in the US, or Leopold Senghor’s negritude movement in Senegal, why are
the black peoples of what I call “Western Melanesia” or “Indo-Melanesia”
Apart from East Timor and West Papua, the indigenous peoples
of Maluku, Flores, and West Timor are rarely seen as Melanesians.
Probably, because one tends to look for (complete) correspondences or
overlaps between race and territory. But if that is the case, how could
Fiji still be seen as a Melanesian nation, now that the Kanaks have become
a minority in their own homeland?
Finally the term “Melanesia” has been appropriated by linguists
to label the speakers of the languages in and around the big New Guinea
island, to label the languages which they classify as belonging to the
Malayo-Polynesian, or “Austronesian” languages. On the other hand, the
non-Austronesian languages have also been called the “Papuan” languages,
thereby creating a dichotomy between “Melanesian” and “Papuan” peoples.
So, based on all those problems, I propose that the name
“Melanesia” should be addressed New Guinea and all the islands east as
well as west of it, which is inhabited by indigenous peoples of the
Negroid race, regardless of whether those indigenous peoples are
currently a minority or a majority in their own homelands. This means
that the geographical realm called Melanesia should include Maluku and
the Timor-Flores islands. This also means that a political movement to
enhance or uplift the right of the Melanesian people should also focus
its attention on the West-Melanesian people in Maluku and the
Timor-Flores islands, in addition to West Papua and East-Timor.