'Shell friends' as far away as the island of Kiwai off the Papua New Guinea coast, other coastal villages and islands of Torres Strait, were made possible through the voyage to Mer of the culture heroes Malo and Bomai from far away in the northwest. While they have usually been depicted as formalised travel routes, they were in reality flexible and changing.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, vast changes wrought by outside forces led to the ending of the old sea voyages. Meriam religious institutions were intentionally fractured and shattered by the London Missionary Society (LMS) pastors who arrived at Mer in 1872. Meriam beliefs and practices had provided a framework of meanings for the sea-borne gift exchanges which brought former enemies together 'closer than brothers'. In 1898 most of their religious symbols were removed to the Cambridge University Museum, making up perhaps the finest collection of artefacts belonging to any Indigenous people. After about 1905 'canoe traffic', as officials termed the voyages, came to a virtual ending following government restriction of travel between Australia and New Guinea.
Keywords: Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, London Missionary Society, Malo, Papua New Guinea, sea routes, seafarers, trade, 1875-1905
Sources: David Moore, 'The Torres Strait Collections of AC Haddon', 1984, British Museum Press; D. Lawrence, Customary Exchange Across Torres Strait, 1984.
Author: Sharp, Nonie