FACT SHEETS

The Hiri

25.09.17

Stories of adventure and entrepreneurship suggest indigenous Australia was not isolated

With epic voyages into adulthood, risky encounters with head-hunters, innovative ship building, and countless generations of deep ritual, the story of Papua New Guinea’s hiri trading voyages reads like a swashbuckling adventure novel.

Every page in this exciting story reveals an elaborate Indigenous culture of enterprise and organised exchange. Hiri gives us insight into the complexities of Indigenous life in our region prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The hiri trading society — traditional trade voyages that formed a key part of the culture of the Motu people of Papua New Guinea (PNG), is an exciting component of a larger story that joins together New Guinea and Australia. It is part of a maritime social network that’s been coined “The Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere”, linking Southeast Asia and PNG with the Torres Strait Islands and Australia’s northern mainland.

Ongoing exploration by Prof. Ian McNiven and Associate Prof. Bruno David, archaeologists from Monash University, tells us there’s still a whole lot more to the story.

 

Motu women were highly skilled potters
STAGGERING SCALE
20 ships each 15-20 metres long would be laden with 30,000 clay pots and 600 men
A VITAL SKILL
PNG's Motu women were expert potters, and pottery was a mark of girls becoming women

"These are stories and traditions that families carry across the generations"

Was Australia isolated when Europeans first arrived?

History books tell us that Australia was, more or less, isolated at 1788, aside from visiting Macassan seafarers from Indonesia. For hundreds of years, they established seasonal camps along the coast of Arnhem Land and the Kimberley, catching and drying highly prized sea cucumbers – a sea slug delicacy and aphrodisiac – taking them back for the Chinese market.

“It’s really the only connection we find in the popular literature that connects Indigenous Australia with the rest of the world,” said Associate Prof. David.

Despite what’s written in the history books, archaeologists now know that prior to the arrival of Europeans, there were vast and complex systems of trade that interconnected the communities that ringed New Guinea’s coastline at Australia’s doorstep.

In breakthrough research, it’s now believed this two-way movement of people and their goods extended much further into Torres Strait and northern Australia itself.

How do archaeologists know this? By uncovering and analysing buried remnants of distinctive pottery, bones, rock art, and an oral history handed down through the ages.

Rock art of crab claw ship from Torres Strait

What is the hiri trade?

For at least the past 500 years, and possibly for as long as 2,900 years, the coastal Motu people (from what’s now the Port Moresby region of PNG) have embarked on treacherous sea voyages from the sandy beaches of their home villages up to the Gulf of Papua rainforests some 400km away.

Establishing and nurturing generations-old partnerships for trade of food and raw materials, the Motu pushed geographical boundaries and the limits of seafaring know-how to explore new opportunities along foreign shorelines. They exchanged skills, language, ideas and culture along the way. These journeys of social and material exchange were known as the hiri.

Hiri – meaning ‘tie’ or ‘fasten together’ – refers to the joined hulls of sailing vessels or lagatoi, the sailing ships that the Motu crafted. Their distinctive crab-claw shaped sails propelled the ships laden with trade goods, and people, across vast distances.

Although the hiri voyages ended in the 1950s, it seems fitting that still today, hiri symbolises ‘connection’ not just of the hulls but of whole communities of people themselves, remaining iconic in contemporary PNG.

What is the hiri trade?

For at least the past 500 years, and possibly for as long as 2,900 years, the coastal Motu people (from what’s now the Port Moresby region of PNG) have embarked on treacherous sea voyages from the sandy beaches of their home villages up to the Gulf of Papua rainforests some 400km away.

Establishing and nurturing generations-old partnerships for trade of food and raw materials, the Motu pushed geographical boundaries and the limits of seafaring know-how to explore new opportunities along foreign shorelines. They exchanged skills, language, ideas and culture along the way. These journeys of social and material exchange were known as the hiri.

Hiri – meaning ‘tie’ or ‘fasten together’ – refers to the joined hulls of sailing vessels or lagatoi, the sailing ships that the Motu crafted. Their distinctive crab-claw shaped sails propelled the ships laden with trade goods, and people, across vast distances.

Although the hiri voyages ended in the 1950s, it seems fitting that still today, hiri symbolises ‘connection’ not just of the hulls but of whole communities of people themselves, remaining iconic in contemporary PNG.

Motu People: Manufacturers of ceramic pottery and ship builders

In Motu villages, women were highly skilled potters with abundant resources of clay, extracted from nearby inland sources. Some also manufactured shell ornaments and jewellery, a valued currency that, when worn, marked social status, cultural affiliation and the ability to muster support and to pay for grievances.

Motu men were accomplished seafarers and boat builders, but they faced a conundrum.

Motu villagers had a poor local supply of suitable ship-building timber, for their trees were too small for the large hulls needed to construct the lagatoi’s hulls. Their trading partners in the Gulf of Papua, however, had abundant timber and sago palms. The trunks of the sago palms could be processed to produce vast amounts of starch, a treasured food across much of PNG.

How could the Motu trade their wonderful pottery and precious shells for sago flour without the raw materials to build their ships? How could they sail the vast distances to their trading partners, returning home safely with enough timber to rebuild for the following year’s journey?

Their solution was elegant.

“They dismantled the ships as they arrived in the Gulf of Papua, often in large fleets, and then sailed back with the rebuilt ships and trade load of sago flour. New logs were cut from the rainforest and made into multi-layered rafts upon which the upper parts of the ships were built” Associate Prof. David said.

The Motu had a clear vision of maintaining long-term, even cross-generational relations with peoples in distant lands.

“They rebuilt the ships from the bottom up. The extra logs became spare hulls, to be used in future voyages.”

Coral Sea cultural interaction sphere

Epic voyages to the Gulf of Papua

When Europeans first arrived in PNG, they noticed ‘crab-claw’ sailing ships moving to the west at a given time of the year.

Motu village men sailed out with the Trade winds in October and November. They stayed in the Gulf of Papua villages for several months – sourcing logs and sago flour, repairing and rebuilding their ships with locally sourced logs from the rainforest. Lashing up to 14 spare logs to their hulls, the now much wider lagatoi would return months later, with the January monsoons.

The scale of the fleets and loads was staggering. One account from 1885 describes a large fleet of 20 lagatoi, 15 metres long and laden with 30,000 clay pots and 600 men sailing west, ready for trade.

Recipient villages in the Gulf of Papua served as ‘redistribution centres’ for people further west and inland, and pottery could eventually end up in even more distant villages.

 

 

A hiri ship, called a lagatoi
Motu villagers preparing for hiri expedition

Much more than trade, a voyage into adulthood

The hiri voyages weren’t just about obtaining food in lean times. Driven by more than trade, the voyages were a significant part of moving into adulthood. Motu villagers also had closer sources of sago and timber with trading partners nearby. And these maritime journeys were dangerous.

“Testimonies by old people who participated in the hiri expeditions all say that the hiri is a kind of journey where young people become men,” said Prof David. “This is a key dimension of the hiri emphasised by the elders.”

Likewise, the skill involved in the vital pottery-making activities was a mark of girls becoming women, and the status of those women in the community. 

Deep Ritual: Preparations for voyage

Oral testimonies tell us that when the women had produced an ample supply of pottery, a village man would seek supporters to help build the ships and sail with him. This initiator was known as baditauna and his first assistant doritauna. They were akin to the ‘captains’ of sea voyages that we are more familiar with.

During the ship-building phase, both Motu men and women practiced disciplined rituals involving fasting and abstaining from sex. The women would increase their pottery output until there was enough cargo. Once enough lagatoi were built to make a fleet, the village women danced and sang songs relating to the journey, to ensure a safe and speedy outcome.

During the voyage, the baditauna and doritauna would isolate themselves from the rest of the crew. They fasted and called on protection from ancestors. Each member of the voyage had a specific role in maintaining the lagatoi, employing rituals and magic along with manual sailing skills learnt from a life-time of seafaring.

“The wives of hiri crew would perform a range of rituals and observed taboos before and during the hiri voyage. When the men returned, it was celebrated with feasting, singing and dancing,” Associate Professor David said.

Oral tradition has handed down many stories around the hiri trade. Legend tells that by the end of the first long voyage, the men come back, and the women have remarried for they had thought their husbands perished!

Great Expectations: Generations of trade

The Motu were embarking on difficult voyages with fleets and loads of grand scale. We know they sailed not just for food and raw materials; rather as part of a complex culture intertwining coming-of-age, cultural exchange, and exploration, all bound in deeply established social rituals.

The hiri was usually an annual event. Motu individuals established life-long and inter-generational trading relationships and friendships with partners in chosen villages. And they’d keenly anticipate their return.

Sometimes villagers from the Gulf of Papua would sail back to Port Moresby with the Motu. Trade partners and their descendants would remember their trusted friendships for generations to come.

“Even if there’s a halt in the trade, down the track they can restart the process all over again … here are found the stories and traditions that families carry across the generations, telling stories of friendship, adventure and opportunities with traders who came from a long way away,” Associate Prof. David said.

"The hiri is an entrepreneurship. It’s not just a trade system in that narrowest sense of the word – it’s also an opportunity to expand one’s world.”

Hiri Trading voyages: Part of a larger trade complex

The hiri was just one of multiple trading networks in a chain of connections around the large continental island of New Guinea. Yet each of these networks faced its own resource dilemmas.

“The rainforest swampland where the sago grows is a vast world of mud; here rock does not appear, so how did people make the stone tools to process the sago palms to extract the starch, or to cut the rainforest trees?” Associate Prof. David said.

“The solution was to extend multiple trade routes, each with their own social connections across the land, or the seas. The Motu may have come across the seas from the east; but the stone tools came from 50 to 100 km to the north, closer to the inland spine of New Guinea in the mountain foothills where rock outcrops abound.”

“Those inland peoples knew nothing of the hiri, nor did the Motu know of the inland traders. But without each part, the whole could not have functioned.”

Further to the east again is another trading network with another group of interacting villages and sailing ships. And further east again comes yet another system, and so forth.

“So, as you go around New Guinea, there’s a network or ‘ring’ of trade and social connections, each connected at their edges.”

 

A language of trade

Another interesting aspect of this larger, inter-connected network of trade, is that each of the groups spoke its own distinctive language. This is especially so of the Motu versus the peoples of the rainforest to the west, where the languages were entirely unrelated, as different as English is to Japanese, for example.

So the hiri traders established a new kind of trade language by which to communicate.

“It’s called Hiri Motu – a simplified version of the language of the Motu who made the pots, with other words thrown in,” Associate Prof. David said.

Exchange of ideas and skills

Known as ‘reverse-hiri’, some communities along the PNG coast learnt or copied the shipbuilding skills of the Motu. They did this so they could transport their sago for trade under their own terms.

“Being able to transport oneself strengthened trade abilities and opened up new worlds, resources and opportunities. People were curious to explore and travel, just as we are ourselves today.”

“That’s why the hiri is an entrepreneurship. It’s not just a trade system in that narrowest sense of the word – it’s also an opportunity to expand one’s world.”

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