The Silent Missiles of Guadalcanal: Magic as Rhetoric in the Sandline Controversy



In February of 1997, Sir Julius Chan, then Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, hired mercenaries from the Sandline Corporation to help fight the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. This act would create a distinct controversy in PNG, with the firing of the head of the PNGDF, General Singirok, a threatened coup d'etat, followed by public protests in Port Moresby and the eventual resignation of Chan. While these events were taking place, I was conducting field work in neighbouring Solomon Islands, specifically in Guadalcanal. The Vaturanga, among whom I lived during this period, took an especial interest in this controversy. They even believed that they themselves were playing a part in it, through forms of magic or sorcery, known locally as riana pupuku and poke sosolo. Guadalcanal has been renowned for its sorcery for many decades. But with modernization and its attendant institutions and patterns, these and other forms of magic have been reinterpreted by the Vaturanga and used as a sort of commentary about the economic, social and political changes they have experienced. This work explores the transnational aspects of the Sandline Controversy from the perspective of Guadalcanal Islanders and probes how this consciousness would play a role in the emergence of conflict in Guadalacanal eighteen months later.