Ambae - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Locality, politics, and, to a lesser extent, kinship determine group membership. Moieties and clans are dispersed and noncorporate; affiliation in kinship groups larger than the extended family assumes most importance in the context of the mat displays and exchanges that accompany marriages and funerary feasts. In everyday life, the hamlet is the basic unit of cooperation. Hamlets join together into long-standing, largely endogamous alliance networks formed on the basis of affiliation with Christian denominations. Alliance networks, in turn, are subdivisions of named territorial units. There are ten such "districts" on Ambae, each of which claims a measure of cultural and linguistic distinctness. Residents of each district share an identity based on a sense of place and common culture. Districts are the electoral unit used to determine membership in the state-sponsored island government.

Political Organization. Big men on East Ambae are men of rank, titleholders in an elaborate social hierarchy consisting of grades scaled in terms of relative prestige. Prestige in the graded society or hungwe is allocated to individuals on the basis of their ability to accumulate and dispose of boars with tusks in particular stages of development. The man of highest rank in the community often serves as its designated leader on ceremonial occasions. Within groups of allied Hamlets, high-ranking men compete with each other for authority, prestige, and privilege. The alliance network is the largest Political unit on East Ambae within which a leader can exercise authority on a regular basis. Similarly, on West Ambae, Hamlets and groups of allied hamlets are the most important Political divisions but there the church rather than the rank association controls processes of recruitment to positions of political authority.

Social Control. High-ranking chiefs on Ambae at the turn of the century possessed the legitimate right to order an offender's execution. When the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides "pacified" the island in the 1930s, chiefs lost the power of life or death over their followers; however, the central government exercised little control over the internal political and legal affairs of the island throughout the Colonial era. Today, Ambae remains largely autonomous in conducting its legal affairs. Ambaeans process most disputes and a broad range of offenses in village and district courts. These courts use written legal codes that local people themselves devised. The courts impose fines that offenders pay in cash or in traditional valuables, specifically pigs and pandanus mats.

Conflict. The introduction of firearms almost certainly increased levels of violence on the island, although the true extent of conflict before contact is hard to judge with accuracy. However, all sources—European and indigenous alike—agree that 1870 to 1930 on East Ambae was an era of endemic raiding, "days of never-ending revenge," in which the political reputation of chiefs depended as much on their prowess in warfare as on their abilities in the graded society.

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