Savage memories recorded by tame descendents.

 A review of “Savage Memory ”, a documentary on the legacy of Bronislaw Malinowsi, the founder of modern cultural anthropology, produced and directed by Zachary Stuart, his great grandson, with Kelly Thomson. (Sly Productions, 2012).

A carefully posed photograph of Malinowski with a group of informants on Kiriwina.


Bronislaw Malinowski,(1884 – 1942), who is widely acknowledged as the Father Of Modern Cultural Anthropology, (an honour he shares with Franz Boas), was born in Poland, established his reputation in England and consolidated it in the USA. His major contribution to anthropology is the participator-observer method of anthropological research, with outcomes focussed on cultural functionalism and the way social and cultural institutions served human needs.

As Harvard anthropologist Robert A. LeVine explains in the film, before Malinowski studies of native cultures were usually based on a brief field trip which was written up back home, while Malinowski, trapped by WW1, spent years in the Trobriands on his first trip there, lived in a hut in the village and learned the language. (Compare this to Alfred Haddon’s famous study of the Torres Straits in 1898, which lasted for a year, during which the scientists lived apart from the natives – a practice disparaged by Malinowski as “tent anthropology”.

His fame rests on his fieldwork work in the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea between 1914 – 1918 and the seven books he wrote about Trobriands culture, of which the two best known are “Argonauts of the West Pacific” and “The Sexual Life of Savages”. “Argonauts of the West Pacific”, his first book, described the epic kula trading voyages – long sea-going voyages in large outrigger canoes which looped around far flung archipelagos of what is now called the Massim area of PNG, seeking to trade surplus goods (clay pots or any other commodity) while at the same time exchanging ceremonial valuables with permanent trading partners, thus creating a complex web of mutual obligations which supported these underlying trading activities. Based on his four years of close observation ”Argonauts” is a source of detailed information on building and sailing ocean going canoes, the voyages themselves, and the protective and weather magic that were seen as being vital to its success. No earlier researcher had ever provided such depth.

“The Sexual Life of Savages” caused a sensation when it was published in 1929 largely because of the supposed prurience of its subject matter and Malinowski’s only surviving daughter claims that sales of the book paid for her education. It was, in fact, sub-titled An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage, and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea and set out to demonstrated that sexual and family life there, far from being a continual debauch, was as controlled by mores and conventions as it was in the western world.

Malinowski was trapped in the Trobriands in 1914 because the war broke out and he could not return home to Britain as he was a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – an enemy alien. The British therefore agreed to finance his research if he stayed put in the Trobriands, which he did for the next 4 years. It is suggested in the film that the reason for this hospitality on the part of the British was that the Governor, Sir Hubert Murray, found Malinowski bumptious and arrogant, and in effect banished him to the Trobriands to keep him out of his hair. If this is true, the Governor’s dislike of Malinowski may have resulted in the invention of modern anthropology.

The presentation of Malinowski’s work in this film is good and consists largely of commentary over fascinating field photographs taken of Malinowski at work in the Trobriands or of tribal life and personalities, juxtaposed with quotes from his books, comments from contemporary anthropologists and interviews with modern Trobriand Islanders. It soon becomes clear that Malinowski’s name still resonates with modern Trobriand Islanders, even though it is doubtful that there is anyone still alive who actually met him (though one old informant claims that he did so as a child). They take pride in the fame he brought to their homeland and appreciate the fact that had his books never been written, they would not have a record of their past culture in what is today a very Christian society.

So far so good, but we still have to deal with the director’s reason for the making of this film – the attempt by a great grandson to assess the impact of having a famous ancestor on his descendants. Sadly, only one of Malinowski’s living descendants has anything of interest to contribute to this discussion – his youngest and only surviving daughter in England, who has created an archive of his life and has vivid memories of her father and mother. Everyone else is removed by one or two generations and has little or no knowledge of Malinowski or his work, while several have a definite dislike of him.

Malinowski was certainly not a perfect father or husband by today’s standards and the family feud arises mainly out of two events. The first is Malinowski’s decision to move his wife, who was dying of MS, and his three young daughters to a house in Italy, while he returned to his research in PNG. The second was to remarry some years after her death to a woman who was not very maternal and who outlived him. According to the family she stole the family silver as soon as he was dead and abandoned his three motherless daughters to be brought up by strangers.

These negative events are discussed and re-discussed for at least 50% of the film in a series of repetitive and self indulgent interviews which, to me, had all the charm of my childhood memories of being dragged to the homes of relatives and family friends to view the slide slows and 8mm home movies of their recent holidays. Fascinating for their producers, less fascinating for the audience.

There is, however, one dark moment of interest in the second part of the film – the posthumous publication of Malinowski’s personal diary by his second wife in 1967 under the title “A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Word”. I do not believe for a moment that Malinowski would ever have published the diary if he had lived – or at least not without thoroughly editing it. It is very personal and unguarded and includes racial slurs about the native peoples he studied and admissions of sexual feelings for the young island women. These ugly revelations show that Malinowski was all too human, and also that he had no one with whom he could vent his everyday frustrations in English except for his diary, but it is a pity it survived or was ever published.

Savage Memories is a film with major flaws, but also many interesting moments for the tribal art aficionado, and I would suggest watching it on CD with a finger hovering over the fast forward button. One annoying feature for me (given his family history) was the director’s ignorance of Trobriands culture. At one point he asserts that the Trobriands that Malinowski describes has been totally obliterated by Christianity, blithely unaware that the kula trading voyages described in Argonauts of the West Pacific are still taking place, even though some kula vessels have engines as well as sails. Culture is surprisingly resilient.

And the best bit for me? The elderly gentleman who was regularly interviewed by an American anthropologist in the 1970s. He explains that she always wanted to ask him about his magic knowledge, but he never told her very much simply because she never ever offered to pay him for it – and he certainly wasn’t going to degrade himself by asking for money. Oh those white savages, will they never learn how to behave properly!

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