Freedom through taboo

Port Moresby – Puri Puri, November 1929

Colin Ross admires the New Guinea natives’ submission to the law of taboo, a concept that figures prominently in his popular-philosophical writing as well.

Arriving in a remote, native settlement on the island of New Guinea, Ross contacts the village policeman. This official’s function, he explains, is not police work in a narrow sense. Rather, such policemen serve as the colonial authorities’ local liaisons, who pass along orders and report back when they are not obeyed.

From there, Ross switches to a more general consideration of the lack of indigenous authorities, which so astonished the British when they came to colonize New Guinea. The native population, Ross claims, is able to maintain social order without authorities, because it submits to the strict law of taboo. We may have laws too, he opines, “all too many of them—but no ‘law’, meaning simple, clear commandments that rule everyday life and the extraordinary alike for the individual and the community, and that are so self-evident, so deeply rooted that their observance needs neither administration nor policing.” [p. 169]

While Ross concedes that many of the laws included in taboo may be arbitrary (like the prohibition for women to speak in a canoe), he admires their unequivocal stance, claiming that submission under the law of taboo has made the native people of New Guinea “one of the freest peoples in the world” [p. 170]. This adulation for the taboo bespeaks a deep skepticism of a European civilization deemed too confusingly pluralist and noncommittal in its norms. Ross elaborated on this cultural criticism in the book he published right before Haha Whenua - das Land, das ich gesucht. In Der Wille der Welt (1932), taboo—prominently explored by Sigmund Freud, among others before—figures as one of the central concepts, indicative of “primitive peoples’” grasp of the laws of being that modern man has lost.

Joachim Schätz

Colin Ross. Tabu. In: Haha Whenua - das Land, das ich gesucht. Mit Kind und Kegel durch die Südsee. 4. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1933; 165–70, 200 recto top.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: Oceania-Asia trip 1928-30

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