Most of us had never heard of Kwaiawata Island until early 2013 when it was reported that the Japanese cargo vessel MV Asian Lily had run aground there en route from New Zealand to the Philippines. The danger of the oil spill and potential damage to the coral reef and fisheries brought this small - 3 km long island - to our attention. Kwaiawata is in the Marshall-Benett Group in Milne Bay Province which includes about 160 islands off the southeast coast of the Papua New Guinea mainland.

The waters of Milne Bay provide a convenient connecting route via Jomarad Passage from the Coral Sea to the north. Nearly 1000 ships pass through these waters each year carrying goods between the Australian east coast and North Asia. Yet the waters are difficult to navigate. The complex and extensive reef system, numerous islands and one of the most rapid sea currents in the world makes the shipping hazardous.

Kwaiawata supports an indigenous community of about 300 people whose subsistence living relies greatly on fishing. These people of very modest means reside right on the route of the main transport line, where the international cargo of wealth flows constantly to power major economies of the world and to make billionaires smile.

Splash Board - Canoe Model, Kwaiawata Island: E12947 D
Splash Board - Canoe Model, Kwaiawata Island: E12947 D Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

The livelihood of the islanders is in danger every time large cargo vessels steer through Jomarad Pass. Yet people have lived on this island for ages. They knew their way through the complex maze of reefs and treacherous sea currents. They had cleverly built a canoe with an outrigger designed for stability. Such canoes allowed them to fish in deep waters and use the abundant resources of the sea. It also allowed them to visit communities on other islands in the extensive network of neighbours in the archipelago. These contacts, like fishing, are vital for maintaining the long-term viability of village life on the island.

People on Kwaiawata Island speak Muyuw, which is part of the ‘Papuan Tip Cluster’ of languages – a branch of the big family of Austronesian languages. Milne Bay area with its 500 islands and the south-eastern tip of the Papuan mainland share this linguistic cluster and maritime culture called Massim. The area with a distinctive style of decoration is known also for its extensive exchange network, which through customary links and obligations support the life of individual communities as well as cultural cohesion of the larger social complex.

In 1904, early in his career, anthropologist Charles Seligman explored this region. He named it Massim and collected various artefacts, including a canoe model - made by the people of Kwaiawata Island - now kept in the collection of the Australian Museum. He obviously appreciated the singular importance of the canoe in community life – economic, social and spiritual. Ten years later, Seligman’s student Bronislaw Malinowski visited this province and conducted one of the seminal anthropological studies on the exchange network cantered on the Trobriand Islands.

At the end of the 20th century people from Kwaiawata still exchanged traditional shell ornaments with neighbours, and probably continue doing so for reasons that transcend subsistence or economic needs.