New Lives for Old

In 1953 Margaret Mead returned to Manus and lived among some of the same people she had studied more than twenty years prior. Many of the stilts upon which the village of Peri had stood were still standing in the lagoon, but the houses themselves had long since vanished. She told the story of what happened in her book New Lives for Old.

World War II had changed many Pacific islands. Japanese pillboxes haunted many jungles. The last flights of warplanes were memorialized on beaches and lagoon bottoms. These relics marked the passing of a great conflict the likes of which Pacific Islanders had never seen before.

To this day, they welcome change in their lives much the way we in the West do — as inevitable as the passing of time itself. Yet, few of us have had the opportunity to sit in a circle to discuss and decide which less-desirable parts of our culture we must discard and which new models we will embrace to achieve greater tranquility. Fewer still of these circles have invited an anthropologist to sit among them and record what they decide. This is the incredible true story behind Mead’s book.

Deciding to adopt the Catholic faith

Mead began New Lives for Old by pointing out that the Manus, back in 1929, were deciding whether to adopt the Catholic faith — a faith, as opposed to several other choices the foreign missionaries had brought them.

The functioning of traditional Manus religion had always revealed a practical attitude. People’s lives, ruled by the skull and finger bones of the most recently deceased males, required prescriptive actions. Pleasing these spirits was a way of healing from or preventing illness. It was also a method of obtaining protection for warfare and dangerous journeys, and a way to ensure success in harvesting food, catching fish or carrying out a successful trade.

The Manus chose Catholicism for equally practical reasons. The priests spoke to them in pidgin English, which was useful to learn. They did not collect as much money as the Protestants did, and confession was before a single priest rather than before the congregation at large.

At the Catholic school, their children would learn to read and write and keep accounts. This last was the most important, for the Manus needed the ability to deal with large numbers and lacked a record-keeping method at that time. Learning how to keep records would enable them to settle their affairs without endless bickering and verbal abuse. Arithmetic would reduce the need for anger. Writing would help them deal with white men, whom the Manus imagined wanted to get the better of them at the trade store or in court.

Of course, the church hated the materialistic culture of the Manus. In the following years, the Manus decided that everyone would throw out the skulls of their dead at once. They thought that, in this way, they could simultaneously eliminate the danger each household faced upon losing the protection of the ancestor spirits.

Losing their boys

At that time, from the late twenties through the thirties, a second trend was developing. Though the Manus had the fewest natural resources, they were the richest, proudest people on the south coast of Manus Island. They had the most material things and the best diet because they supplemented their supplies of fish with purchased foodstuffs. Yet they were losing their boys, who would typically leave home to work at the age of fifteen or younger, to the lure of working for wages. They were seeking the adventure of sailing the seas in European ships. They liked working with engines and driving motor vehicles in Rabaul. Sometimes they just worked on old coconut plantations, originally planted by Germans then sold to Australians after World War I.

After a year or two of work, these boys would periodically return to their Manus villages, only to have their earnings confiscated by “big men.” These same boys — knowing that men without wives were men without prestige, without houses of their own — faced the prospect of years of servitude to these same big men for financing their marriages. The boys didn’t rebel at the idea of marriage. They rebelled at not being able to choose their own wives and at the prospect of working for years to repay their debts.

True, the pull of the village was strong, even though the boys knew their lives there would be hard. Made harder by their dependence on these financial backers and, later, by the restless goading of their ancestor spirits to put out an ever-increasing economic effort. Many of these young men returned to work abroad, postponing a decision not easily made.

World War II

Then the war intervened. Manus became one of the largest American bases between Pearl Harbor and Guam. Over a million Americans poured through the Admiralty Islands during the war, bringing the most highly developed technical equipment the world had ever seen. They packed miles of shore with barracks, built with local wood sawed in mills set up in the bush. The Americans flattened mountains, blasted channels, smoothed islands for airstrips and cleaned the bush — all with their incredible machines.

Perhaps the biggest marvel to the Manus was that the Americans treated them like brothers, not like “boys,” as the Europeans had. The Americans, who called Manus men “Joes,” were a people whose relationships with each other were casteless. American culture made it possible for the Manus and the Americans to stay together as one people. They treated each other and the Manus with whom they came in contact “like brothers” and worked together with them as such.

The Manus saw that Black American soldiers had the same status and received the same treatment as white soldiers did. Here were Black men like themselves being treated like everyone else, with friendly respect and dignity. The Americans believed it was better to let machines do the heavy work. They saw no advantage in human labor that tired the body and drove men to an early death. The Manus learned from the Americans that, while material things are expendable, human beings are irreplaceable.

And the Americans were willing to give most things away. When a unit pulled out, popular Manus helpers were all given valuable objects. For example, GIs who worked in machine shops gave their favorite “Joes” tools to take home to their villages.

Paliau Maloat and the “new way”

During the war, young Manus men working in Rabaul and elsewhere behind the Japanese lines were away from home for many years. They shared a culture and had naturally stuck together, not only due to the impact of the war but also to share plans for how they would change life in their villages once the war was over. The parts of their culture they wanted to get rid of were the old-style marriage system and its corresponding prolonged period of indebtedness to their “big man” uncles and cousins. However, these young people — knowing that the “big men” would perceive such changes as against their interests and would resist them — began referring to these ideas as a “new way.”

After the war — not from among the young Manus men but above them — grew a leader they could follow and respect. Paliau Maloat was a sergeant in charge of 280 policemen when the war broke out. He had been born on Baluan Island, in the Admiralties, in 1907. Both his parents had died when he was seven, and his uncle and aunt were busy with bridal-exchange activities. So, he followed other children in his age group and shared meals in their homes.

Searching for a new way

Paliau had entered the workforce at seventeen, working for one Chinese businessman after another. At the end of his contracts, he had returned to his home island of Baluan from Rabaul. There, his uncle — who had designs on becoming a “big man” — distributed all his earnings to relatives. In 1928, at age 21, Paliau had joined the police force and served on mainland New Guinea. Each time he returned home, his uncle, who was making a name for himself, distributed his earnings.

After this, Paliau stayed away from his village for a few years. He visited other islands in the Admiralties, wanting to see if what his uncle had done to him was practiced elsewhere. He found that it was. In 1935 he set up a fund with his earnings and explained to his people that he had placed the fund under the care of the local luluai (administrator). He also told them that it could be used, if necessary, to cover the head tax that every man was supposed to pay. Although this fund eliminated the threat of jail, borrowers would have to pay back the amount they borrowed in time. They could also contribute to the fund, which they did. It eventually grew to £2,000 (New Guinean pounds), a modest though astounding amount, considering its source.

Paliau’s political influence

Paliau served in Rabaul from 1935 through to the end of the war, working for the Japanese. In 1946 he returned to his village with a well-thought-out plan and a desire to develop a new social system based on self-reliance. This system, he felt, required greater respect for women and a complete break from the old ways. He called this new concept Nupala Pasin (New Way). The old ways, he suggested, were preventing people from properly carrying out the requirements of the Australian colonial administration. The administration wanted the people to keep their villages cleaner, build new houses with toilets and pay their taxes. The new way was a religion of sorts, based on the people’s existing Catholic faith.

Mead met Paliau just before she had to leave Peri village. It was time to complete her second round of research there. She considered him to be a “untutored genius,” and it seems likely that, from abroad, she would have followed his political career over the years, until her death in 1978.

Served in the first House of Assembly

Paliau served as president of the Baluan Native Council until 1967 and went on to represent the people of the Admiralty Islands for two terms in the first House of Assembly of Papua and New Guinea from 1964. He also became a founding member of Michael Somare’s Pangu Pati party and served as a member of the House of Assembly until 1972.

In 1975 Manus and other provinces got their own provincial governments, and by that time, Paliau’s vision — that his people achieve the goals of modern health, education and the comforts of the white man — had, for the most part, materialized.

Paliau was recognized for his lengthy public service. In 1970, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (the Queen’s Birthday Honours), and before he died in 1991, he was granted a Knight Bachelor.

After his death, the movement he had founded continued on under new leadership. Although Paliau deliberately did not specifically groom his successor, the movement continues to this day, urging its followers to embrace self-sufficiency and self-determination in their daily life and political affairs.


Fitzpatrick, Phil. “Paliau Maloat – how one man changed Manus forever.” PNG Attitude (blog). March 17, 2014.

Mead, Margaret, New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation—Manus, 1928–1953 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001).

1 Comment

  1. Paliau Maloat’s legacy lives on, but with almost all the leaders gone, the remnants are in need of funding to correct a lot of mis leading teachings and misinformation by holding a public forum. Benny Komet wants to talk anyone that can help. He is the current Chief Clerk of the a government system left behind by Sir Paliau.

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