Trobriand Islands - Orientation

Identification. The Trobriand Islands were named for Denis de Trobriand, the first lieutenant in one of D'Entrecasteaux's frigates when this group of populated atolls and hundreds of islets was sighted in 1793. Traditionally, Kiriwina—the largest and most heavily populated island—and three other neighboring islands—Kaileuna, Kitava, and Vakuta—were each divided into discrete, named political Districts. Although these divisions still exist, the islands now form a more unified political unit as parts of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea.

Location. The Trobriands (approximately 8°30′ S, 151° E) are situated about 384 km by sea from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, in the northern tip of the Massim. Kiriwina is 40 kilometers long but only 3.2 to 12.8 kilometers wide, and the other islands are much smaller. Except for Kitava, where cliffs rise sheer for 90 meters, the islands are relatively flat, crosscut by swampy areas, tidal creeks, and rich garden lands that abut rough coral outcroppings. Reefs may extend up to 10 kilometers offshore; anchorage is often dependent upon high tides and careful navigation. Temperatures and humidity are uniformly high. Rain showers, heavy but usually of short duration, average from 25 to 38 centimeters each month. Yet unexpected droughts can occur, causing severe food shortages.

Demography. At the beginning of this century, the population in the Trobriands was about 8,000, but by 1990 it had increased to approximately 20,000. Although many young people leave the islands to find wage labor or to attend technical schools or the University of Papua New Guinea, a large percentage of them eventually return to resume village life.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kilivila language belongs to the Milne Bay Family of Austronesian languages. Although Kilivila is spoken on a few other Massim islands, the major speakers are Trobrianders. Mutually understandable local dialects are used in which different phonological rules are employed without affecting the syntax. Since the time of first contact, many English words have been incorporated into the Kilivila lexicon. Tok Pisin is rarely heard, although, along with Motu, it is often learned by Trobrianders who have resided elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. English is taught in the local grammar schools as well as the high school on Kiriwina, but less than half of the young population attend school.

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