Going with the breeze
The legends behind the Hiri Moale Festival
Motuan seamen would sail their giant canoes north-west, several hundred kilometres across the Gulf of Papua, to exchange pottery for sago.
Acry goes up. Sails have been sighted. A runner is dispatched to confirm the identity of the sailing canoe, called a
lagatoi, and after confirmation is made the village springs into action.
Kundu drums are fetched, headdresses brought out, faces painted. Women, adorned in traditional costume, get ready to greet the
lagatoi with fanfare and celebration when it reaches shore.
In years gone by, this would have been the scene at the end of every Hiri trade voyage, customary along the shores of the Motuan coastline.
Today, the scene is played out at the Hiri Moale Festival in Port Moresby. The festival pays tribute to the traditional Hiri expeditions.
Hiri researchers say that the voyages significantly shaped the lives of the local people of Port Moresby, because without them “the Motuans would not have subsisted” because of frequent droughts in the area.
According to F.R Barton, who published a detailed account of the Hiri in 1910, the institution had existed for many generations, as it was a feature of life when the first English missionary settled in Port Moresby in 1874.
About October or November, before the southeast trade winds die, Motuan seamen would sail their giant canoes north-west, several hundred kilometres across the Gulf of Papua, to exchange pottery made by Motuan women for sago produced in the west. In late December or January, the expedition would return, aided by the north-west monsoon.
Much planning would go into a voyage, perhaps starting a year before. A man wishing to lead an expedition would cultivate large gardens to provide food for the feasts required during the construction of the lagatoi. In April or May, he would summon his relatives to a small feast at which he would announce his intention and enlist their support. This was given to him soon after, in the form of additional canoe hulls, arm shells and other traditional currencies.
About June, the voyager would go public. He did this by leaving his house in the early morning and sitting by a fire in the street. He stayed there until he was joined by a deputy, a mast man and sail man, and the rest of the crew. Barton records the average number of crewmen at 29, aged between 20 and 40.
Construction of the vessel involved collecting vines and cane, assembling and binding the hulls, and stepping the masts, which were heirlooms handed from father to son.
These tasks were supported by supplies of food from the large gardens, cooked by the wives of the leaders.
Meanwhile, the village women set about making the pots. Women dug the clay, ferried it home, made and fired the pots. The pots came in three types – cooking, water storage, and bowls.
As for the lagatoi, its design and properties were so well thought out and built that the vessel could withstand the rigours of the sea and carry the crew for weeks.
The hull comprised dugouts, held together by vines and a network of bamboo poles. A typical
lagatoi had four dugouts, although it has been reported that one had more than 25 dugouts, which made the vessel as wide as it was long.
The hull became the storage area for the cargo and was crammed with banana leaves to prevent water from seeping inside.
Upon the hull was placed flooring material that became the deck. Built in the middle, were two separate cabins – one for the captain, called the
baditauna, and the other for his co-pilot, known as the doritauna. Between the cabins were the two masts, upon which the sails were fastened. The area between the cabins was the
irutahuna, the sacred place reserved only for the two expedition leaders and their errand boys.
Hiri custom dictated the inclusion of young pre-pubescent boys – usually the sons or nephews of the captains – on the trip to run errands for the leaders.
The baditauna and the doritauna were the spiritual leaders of the voyage, observing all the spiritual protocols that governed their daily routine. While the mast and sail men attended to the physical running of the vessel, the two principals took care of the spiritual needs of the expedition.
Upon arrival in a Gulf village, the barter occurred according to the value system designed for Hiri. The return was always a very happy occasion. Much feasting took place and debts owed were repaid to those who took care of the families of crewmen during their absence.
The Hiri flourished until 1941, when World War 2 disrupted traditional customs, although few Motuan villages tried to revive the interest after the war. But in 1958, the Australian colonial administration banned expeditions, after a returning lagatoi capsized outside of Port Moresby, killing everyone on board.
Motuans say the major function of Hiri was economic. They also valued the institution for its maintenance of links with partners and neighbours. Hiri also provided the opportunity for festivities, and conferred prestige on those who participated.
Today, the last surviving sailors are in their 80s and the practice of clay pot-making has died.
The Hiri Moale Festival relives the tradition by having young men schooled in lagatoi
construction skills and young women groomed in womanhood according to the ways of Hiri.
The festival includes a Miss Hiri contest and coincides with Papua New Guinea's independence on September 16.
Keeping up traditions ... a lagatoi (sailing canoe) at the annual Hiri Moale Festival (left); the real deal (above); the Miss Hiri contest is part of the festival (right).