Island home – island prison.

Manus Island, over 270 km north-east of the New Guinea’s mainland, was recently brought to our attention via the manoeuvrers of Australian politicians. Attempts to bury social and racial problems by setting prison camps on the islands are not new. The deportation of Tasmanian Aborigines to Flinders Island in the 1830-40s and Queensland Aborigines to Palm Island in the 1920-60s are the outstanding examples. And so are Christmas Island and Nauru where asylum seekers were and are imprisoned – to punish people-smugglers.

Remote islands by their nature fortify the intensity of imprisonment, but also provide a veil of secrecy – a condition where human rights are more likely to be abused and ignored. The prison on Manus Island is enthusiastically endorsed by many Australians and held unacceptable by others. However Manus Island is a home to indigenous people whose life will be disrupted and altered, yet again, as a number of inmates could quickly grow to 10 or more percent of the entire native population of about 20,000 people.

From the late 19th through to the mid-20th century, Manusian people suffered, in turn, German and Japanese occupation, the heavy hand of Australian administration, a presence of a large American naval base – reaching about one million military personnel at its peak, and long years of neglect in health services, education and economic opportunities. Now, with a financial incentive, Australia is setting a large prison camp in an attempt to outsource our political problems to a community with modest means and a traumatic history during the colonial era.

Manusian people speak several languages of the large Austronesian language family, as well as Pidgin English. Traditionally they make their living by fishing and exchange-trade in contrast to the people of the Papuan mainland, who were viewed as predominantly food growers. Manusians are people of the sea and for them maintaining regular contact with other people scattered in the hundreds of islands of their province and beyond was and is a vital part of their life.

Early European visitors to the island were impressed with the intelligence, independence of character and the physical robustness of the people. ‘They were quick to learn the white man’s ways and quick too to reject them.’ It was on Manus Island where Margaret Mead, a legendary American anthropologist, conducted her seminal study on the imagination and cultural attainment of children in 1929. The resulting book Growing up in New Guinea analysed human development in culture-specific, non-western context and, importantly, put to rest one of the popular but mistaken beliefs that ‘primitive’ people are like children.

It is ironic that native Manusians – an exemplary boat people of Melanesia – are to accommodate a prison camp for foreigners – an incidental boat people uprooted from their own homelands by wars and violent persecution.

Additional information:

Margaret Mead assembled a collection of artefacts on Manus Island - some of these artefacts are at the Australian Museum.