By LISE M DOBRIN and ALEX GOLUB
A CENTRAL figure in Papua New Guinea’s transition from Australian territory to independent nation, Bernard Narokobi was a jurist, philosopher and poet.
He is best remembered for making ‘the Melanesian Way’ an important theme –if not the guiding ideological principle – in the discourse of independence in Papua New Guinea.
In their introduction to the 2013 Journal of Pacific History special issue on the topic of decolonisation in Melanesia, Helen Gardner and Christopher Waters argue that it is time ‘to begin the task of drilling down into the history of decolonisation in Mel anesia using detailed case studies’.
Their point is not to directly query the success of decolonisation from a presentist
perspective given the cynicism we might feel in light of decolonisation’s incompleteness (as in New Caledonia or West Papua), nor to express dissatisfaction with the governance and economy of independent Melanesian countries.
Rather, Gardner and Waters call for historians to focus anew on what decolonisation meant to those who were making it happen by seriously exploring ‘the excitement generated for the new nations of Melanesia and their citizens’as a result of the decolonisation process that was actively underway in the1970s.
This special issue on the life and legacy of Bernard Mullu Narokobi answers Gardner’s and Waters’ call for a history of decolonisation in Melanesia in three ways.
First, it documents and contextualises Narokobi’s life and thought in detail.
A central figure in Papua New Guinea’s transition from Australian territory to independent nation, Narokobi was a jurist, philosopher, and poet who is best remem bered for making ‘the Melanesian Way’an important theme –if not the guiding ideological principle –in the discourse of independence in Papua New Guinea.
Second, in looking closely at Narokobi’s biography, the collection also contributes to a growing body of work on political life writing in the Pacific, part of a long tradition of biographies and biographical essays on historically significant Pacific Islander leaders.
Third, the collection answers Kabutaulaka’sc all for the elaboration of a new discourse of ‘Melanesianism’ which builds a positive cultural identity for Melanesians by moving beyond racist tropes of savagery and darkness.
Kabutaulaka argues that features like shared music and shared language (i.e., closely related varieties of Melanesian Pidgin) unite Melanesians. We hope to demonstrate here that decolonisation gave Melanesians a philosophy that is still highly relevant today.
Bernard Narokobi was not just a political actor in the decolonisation moment, but a theorist of Melanesianism and Melanesian modernity more broadly.
By ‘drilling down’ into his biography, we hope to show that he deserves a place alongside two other great theorists of Melanesian identity: Epeli Hau‘ofa, the peripatetic trickster-theorist of Oceanic modernity, and Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the main theorist of New Caledonia’s struggle for Kanak independence.
In this introduction we give a brief summary of Bernard Narokobi’s biography and say a few words about his style of thought. We then compare him to Tjibaou and Hau‘ofa, concluding with an orientation to the essays that follow.
A brief biographical sketch
The most thorough overview of Narokobi’s life and work remains Greg Bablis’s biographical article on Narokobi as ‘A Melanesian Icon’.
Here we present a highly synoptic version of his biography in order to provide the reader with some basic orientation.
Bernard Narokobi was born in around 1943 in the Arapesh village of Wautogik in the Prince Alexander Mountains of what is now East Sepik. While the exact date of his birth is not certain, we know he was born during the Second World War.
Narokobi estimates that he started primary school at the age of 12 and finished university when he was 28.
Growing up in Wautogik, he attended primary school at the Dagua Mission Station and later went to Brandi High School in Wewak where Michael Somare, who was to become the first prime minister of Papua New Guinea, was his teacher in 1959.
Because he began primary school relatively late and was able to attend school near his village, Narokobi grew up immersed in his home culture and traditions at the same time that he was receiving a Western education. As a result, his childhood was not characterised by the traumatic separation and excruciating longing experienced by other Pacific intellectuals such as Albert Wendt and Epeli Hau‘ofa who were sent away to boarding school.
Narokobi also took his religious training seriously, following his father in becoming a devout Catholic.
In 1960 Narokobi left home to attend Kerevat School in New Britain. Kerevat was founded in the late 1950s as one of the first government-run schools in
the territory that educated Papua New Guineans at high levels. Narokobi attended the school between 1960 and 1965, during which time he crossed paths with many future leaders of Papua New Guinea, including Rabbie Namaliu, another future prime minister.
Narokobi’s interest in law dates back to his time at Kerevat. During the Christmas season of 1964 Narokobi took his first trip to Australia, where he went to ‘see the law courts and attend conferences in procedure’.
Already at that time, one teacher remembered, Narokobi expressed interest in becoming a lawyer. He was encouraged in his professional ambitions by the Australian Judge William Prentice, who supported his efforts to attend university in Australia.
Narokobi was granted a scholarship to study law at the University of Sydney, and he moved to Australia around 1966, eventually receiving his LLB and becoming a barrister in 1972, having been taken under Prentice’s wing.
Upon graduation, Narokobi returned to Papua New Guinea, where he joined the Public Solicitor’s Office or ‘Pubsol’. In this capacity he travelled throughout the country with the Supreme Court defending accused parties, often in capital cases involving serious crimes such as homicide and sorcery.
As a judge later on, Narokobi would often hear similar cases. This was a period of intense intellectual excitement as it was becoming clear that PNG was moving towards independence. Yet Narokobi was somewhat peripheral to this movement, having spent his university years in Sydney and not at the recently established University of Papua New Guinea.
Even after returning to PNG following law school, his time was spent travelling with the court instead of being settled in Port Moresby. As a result, Narokobi became involved with the move towards independence relatively late in the process.
Around 1974 Narokobi was appointed to serve on the Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC), which was tasked with writing the new country’s constitution.
As Sam Kari has demonstrated, much of the work of composing the constitution was done by non-Papua New Guinean experts, and was influenced by the independence experiences of new nations in Africa.
But Narokobi and a small group of other Papua New Guineans –mostly Catholics from New Guinea, like him, such as the Bougainvillean politician and Catholic priest John Momis and the political activist and MP John Kaputin –were responsible for writing the Preamble of the Constitution of Papua New Guinea (henceforth the Preamble).
Narokobi once joked that he did not have a hand in writing the constitution, but that he did have a finger. That may be right, but Narokobi’s finger is important.
The Preamble is the most distinctive, aspirational, and widely known section of the document. In his role on the CPC Narokobi again travelled throughout the country conducting research for the constitution writing process and raising awareness about the forthcoming political changes.
He said that at that time people had so little conception of what was transpiring that some understood themselves to be preparing not for self-government but for sel-kambang (Tok Pisin for ‘lime powder’), and that others thought they would soon be receiving not independence but underpants.
After independence, between 1975 and 1978, Narokobi served as the first chair of the Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission (LRC), the body empowered by the constitution to provide draft legislation to PNG’s parliament. The goal was to continue the independence process by purging the law of racist colonial legislation and undertake the sort of progressive legislative reform projects happening across the world in that time.
Narokobi saw the work of the LRC as the principal means for replacing the British common law that PNG inherited from its colonial past with a distinctly Papua New Guinean body of law.
But what would it mean for the law–or anything else –to be distinctly
Papua New Guinean? Throughout this period Narokobi wrote newspaper columns exploring this question which were later compiled into his best-known book, The Melanesian Way.
In addition to addressing PNG’s public sphere in this way, Narokobi also published regularly in Point and Catalyst, journals of the non-denominational Christian think tank the Melanesian Institute.
There, in articles such as ‘What Is Religious Experience for a Melanesian?’, Narokobi pursued the religious dimension of his overarching question about what being a citizen of a Papua New Guinean nation might mean.
Along the way Narokobi also wrote books addressing the contemporary political climate, such as Foundations for Nationhood (1975) and Life and Leadership in Melanesia (1983).
The other key work in his corpus besides The Melanesian Way is Lo Bilong Yumi Yet (1989), which attempts to answer many of the questions regarding the distinctiveness of Melanesian culture that he was criticised for evading in The Melanesian Way.
In 1980 Narokobi served for a year as an acting judge and used the opportunity to produce judicial opinions that demonstrated how the bench could shape the common law to be more appropriate for Papua New Guineans. Ultimately, many of his more innovative decisions were overturned, but scrutinising his decisions during this period is key for understanding his thought.
After this short period as an interim judge and practising lawyer, Narokobi became a parliamentarian, being elected to the Wewak Open seat in 1987. He was returned by Wewak in 1992 and again in 1997.
During his time in parliament, Narokobi served as Minister for Justice among other positions, including Parliamentary Speaker (apparently, he even served as acting governor general), and he played an active role in the diplomacy around the Bougainville conflict. When he eventually lost his seat in 2002, he was serving as Leader of the Opposition.
Narokobi’s greatest achievement of this period, in terms of disseminating his philosophy, was the passage of the Underlying Law Act (2000), which finally made official the policy he had pursued earlier as a member of the LRC and as a judge.
The last official position Narokobi held after stepping down from politics was high commissioner to New Zealand (2005–08). Although no longer a member of parliament, he remained active in public life, organising peace talks in Bougainville and helping to establish a Melanesian Studies centre at the University of Goroka. But after his wife died in 2006 his verve for life waned, and he died in 2010 of complications from diabetes.
Melanesia cannot be Australia
In his writings on the Melanesian Way, Narokobi returned repeatedly to the need for people in the emerging nations of Melanesia to actively hone a new, culturally self-aware postcolonial subjectivity to help guide their approach to economic development, governance, and social change.
Narokobi addressed many topics from the standpoint of this synthetic, ancient, yet forward-looking Melanesian Way. Among them were development; race relations; women’s rights; the involvement of the state in local conflict resolution; the rise of individualism and its tensions with communitarian values; land use policy and food security; the need to protect the natural environment; the emergence of social class divisions; international relations and foreign aid; and the social role of modern institutions like churches, media, and the civil service.
Narokobi writes about these matters of culture and development in a remarkable stylistic voice. The awareness that he was living through times of profound historical transformation evoked deep feelings in him that one often can find reflected in the literary quality of his writing:
“Some Melanesians hold to the view that the only way to be acknowledged as a person with worth is to negate his or her ancestral past and adopt the Western life style externally as well as internally.
“In effect they deny a significant part of their identity. They live in a world of fantasy, without a link to the past and a foggy connection with the future …It is disappointing that the people of Papua New Guinea have not realised what tremendous heritage they possess.”
- Abridged from the much longer article published by ResearchGate