The Hiri

The Gulf of New Guinea lies on the south side of the island, northwest of its capital, Port Moresby. The Indigenous people of the Port Moresby area, who called themselves the Motu, lived in a “symbiotic relationship” with members of the nearby Koita tribe, exchanging fish for their vegetables. The area is in a rain shadow of the Owen Stanley Mountain Range and receives only 40 in (100 cm) of rainfall per year. It suffers a long dry season from June to November due to the southeast trade winds that run parallel to the shore.

The Motu are people of Austronesian origin who, during the time of the Hiri expeditions, lived in stilt homes among seven villages in the water offshore. The men were fearless sailors and fishermen but also kept gardens onshore and harvested yams around April each year. By November, all their yams would have been eaten. Their hunger season would start, and their famous Hiri voyages in search of food would begin. The vessels used in the Hiri, called lagatoi, were multihulled proas large enough to carry up to forty crew members. They featured the famous lara,or crab-claw sails, made of plaited pandanus.

Preparation for the Hiri began much earlier in the season, when women in the villages began the heavy work of digging clay. From this the women made uro (cooking pots), tohe (sago storage pots) and hodu (water pots). They would often trade these pots for toea (arm-shell adornments). These articles of exchange were the same as those used in the Kula among the Trobriand and d’Entrecasteaux Islands, nearly 500 miles (805 km) to the east.

The arm shells were the principal money of the Motu, who would give them and clay pots to the crew on the Hiri. The crew would then trade these items for rabia (sago) at the Hiri’s Gulf destinations, the farthest being over 300 miles (483 km) to the northwest. Sago is a starch extracted from the spongy center of sago palm stems (Metroxylon sagu), and a single palm yields 800 lb (363 kg) of starch. These palms are ubiquitous in the western Gulf region of the Hiri’s destinations, where one pot would trade for one kokohara, a bundle of about 40 lb (18 kg) of sago.

Prehistory of the Hiri

There is some uncertainty as to how far back in Pacific prehistory the Hiri voyages go. Certainly, they were prevalent when John Moresby, a Royal Navy captain, arrived in 1873. Archaeologist Susan Bulmer’s studies suggest they certainly existed three hundred years before that. Others, including James Rhoads, suggest that although most archaeologists agree on around eight hundred years, even this “may be shortsighted by 1000 years.” Archaeologists have dated “the arrival of foreign products” in these same Gulf areas visited by the Hiri at 1800 years ago.

One problem, as archaeologist Jim Allen points out, is that “archaeologists do not really study trade; more accurately they document the presence of exotic … artefacts in their sites and attempt to pin down the most likely source(s) of the raw materials involved.” Since the Motu traded away nearly all such exotic objects for consumables, there is a dearth of them left at their village archaeology sites. We do know they traded so long ago they fostered the development of two separate “trading languages.” These languages, called Hiri Motu, derived from the Eleman and Koriki languages spoken in the Gulf estuaries where they traded, exist to this day.

The Hiri Legend

Many years ago, a man named Edai Siabo from Boera — a village near what is now Port Moresby — went fishing. While he was fishing, a great eel, a spirit, rose out of the sea and pulled him under. The eel directed him to build a lagatoi, fill it with cooking pots and follow the laurabada, a trade wind, to the west. Edai Siabo complied with the spirit’s request and built the first lagatoi, which he called Bogebada, or “sea eagle.”

He and his friends sailed northwest into the waters of the Gulf, where they traded the pots for sago. Before leaving, he told his wife to stay in the house, not to wash herself in the sea and to keep their fire burning. She was also to have the old women of Boera tattoo her skin. Upon his return, his wife bathed in the sea, put on her finest clothes and began dancing.

Cultural and economic importance of the Hiri

Tom Dutton, editor of The Hiri in History: Further aspects of long distance Motu trade in Central Papua, notes that the Hiri was important for two reasons: “the focus and purpose it gave to life, and the numbers of people involved, both directly and indirectly.” An elderly Motu man with “extensive experience with the hiri” said, “The school of life for Motu men was the lagatoi.”

Most Motu men crewed many times on the Hiri. Once or twice during their lives, men of prominent influence would commit themselves to becoming the baditauna. Although this word is somewhat equivalent to the word “captain,” we will soon see that this is only a rough translation.

The timing of this decision would depend on how a man’s garden looked to perform. Did he otherwise have the personal wealth to support the feasts needed to feed his relatives during lagatoi construction? The first feast the baditauna sponsored, called the lailasi,was for his close relatives. Its purpose was to announce his objective and seek their support in constructing the lagatoi.

Should the lailasigo well, should the baditauna successfully receive the necessary commitments, he would have to make an irrevocable decision on building a lagatoi by June. At that time, he would announce his intention to continue by stepping down from his house early in the morning with a torch of dried coconut leaves and “sitting in the street.” He would then hand out betel nut, lime, and tobacco to all who approached him. The baditauna would continue doing this until joined by a doritauna, a man who would volunteer to be second in charge. The doritauna thereby agreed to share all the responsibilities of the lagatoi construction and the voyage to the Gulf.

The badituana and doritauna do not sail the lagatoi

In The Hiri in History, John Gwilliam notes that both the baditauna and the doritauna engaged in “rigid self discipline in matters of sexual relationships, food consumption, and spiritual meditation.” They each supplied a son below the age of puberty called a udiha. These “sexually innocent” boys would go with them on the voyage. These four were also called the udiha. The successful outcome of the entire expedition, the Motu believed, depended upon these four people carrying out their responsibilities with strict obedience. The baditauna did not take part in the lagatoi construction or indeed in its sailing. Rather, his duty was to sit on his mat and meditate through the entire voyage.

Those building the lagatoi would gather materials, cane and vines, and then put together and bind the hulls. Sail preparation involved collecting and plaiting pandanus leaves and stepping the masts, which fathers would hand down to their sons. The Hiri “conferred prestige” upon those who took part, and those constructing the lagatoi ate food grown in big gardens that had been planted by the baditauna.

The crew would embark at the waning of the southeast trade winds. Once the lagatoi was ready, they brought the mats of the baditauna and the doritauna from their homes. They also brought a flame from each home to a lean-to house at the center of the craft. This place, called the irutahuna, was where the four members of the udiha sat and meditated during the voyage. At the top of each mast was hung an ornamental basket of cowrie shells. Mast captains and sail captains undertook the tasks required to run the lagatoi.

The Namau trading brothers

The Motu term for the people of the Gulf was Namau. In the words of one Motu, “The Motu and Namau peoples loved each other, just like they were from the same mother and father.” On Motu beliefs, Gwilliam notes “that the spirits of the departed proceeded to the Gulf of Papua where they would forever dwell in the midst of plenty of food and betel nuts, and spend their days and nights in endless enjoyment, eating, chewing (betel nut), and dancing.…The Motu honoured the Gulf ‘gods’ by visiting their temples especially upon arrival in the Gulf and prior to departure for home.”

Nigel Oram, an anthropologist and ethnologist, writes that “safe anchorage” at their destination was an important factor with respect to where the Motu traded. And most of his informants who had sailed on the Hiri said they stopped where they had a “good trading partner.” Once they had anchored and people had emerged from a village onshore, the baditauna would speak to their leader and then ask, “Do you have pigs?” A Motu informant explained, “The crew would be very hungry for pig meat after their trip and they relish the thought of consuming large quantities of nice pig meat with the … delicious taste and the thought of the grease running down from the lips.” 

Occasionally, the Motu’s hosts would tow the lagatoi to their village, where the bauditauna and the doritauna would trade arm shells for the villagers’ dogs or pigs. The Motu would then unload and count the pots. If in comparison, one trading partner was less generous than the other, he would be embarrassed and would repay the perceived debt in the future. The visitors would build and live in huts on the shore, and during their stay, it was the responsibility of the Namau to feed them.

The return voyage

The Motu’s return voyage was much more dangerous and depended on favorable lahara west winds. The lahara season produces heavy seas and the risk of severe storms, and the lagatoi did not sail upwind. As well, the sago weighed considerably more than the pots they had delivered. Collectively, the Motu traded perhaps thirty thousand pots for perhaps six hundred tons (544,311 kg) of sago. The Motu also traded for more canoe hulls and would add an additional four or five of them to the usual four hulls of the lagatoi used for their maiden voyage.

The return voyage could wait till March or April although nearly all lagatoi returned in February. Upon safe arrival, the crew would first throw the bauditauna and the doritauna into the sea and then oblige them to steer the vessel. “Now is the time for you to do some work,” they would joke. Per custom, back on shore, the women of the village would take the baditauna’s wife from her house to bathe in the sea for the first time in months.

For up to weeks after returning from the Hiri, the traders would dance and feast. The crew gave sago to the women who had entrusted pots to them and traded with the Koita and others for vegetables. Thus, after a few months of living high, the cycle began anew.

The Hiri Moale Festival

The Hiri voyages continued until the late 1950s, when a heavily laden and storm-damaged lagatoi foundered, with heavy loss of life, off Boera village. The colonial authorities forbade further voyages, and the inevitable hand of “progress” stinted the cultural and economic basis of this remarkable cyclical tradition. Upon independence, Papuans started the Hiri Moale Festival to preserve and celebrate their cultural history. The festival coincides with the national Independence Day celebrations. It features traditional dances, a Hiri Queen contest, local lagatoi sailing, canoe racing, musical presentations, and an art and crafts exhibition.

Dutton, Tom, ed. The Hiri in History: Further aspects of long distance Motu trade in Central Papua. Canberra: The Australian National University, 1982.

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