Biographical entry: 'Elota (1908 - 1973)



'Elota was born in about 1908 in the Kwaio area of east Malaita. That was a year before the first government station opened at Auki on the other side of the island, although the Kwaio had been involved in the labour trade since the 1870s. Missionaries had been visiting the area since the 1890s, and one, Frederick Daniels, was killed in east Kwaio while preaching in 1911. 'Elota grew up in a traditional, small inland hamlet, although he must also have been aware of the outside influences around him. His life is known to us through his autobiography, translated and edited by anthropologist Roger Keesing, who employed his intimate knowledge of Kwaio society alongside oral history collected from 'Elota. The picture that emerges is of a remarkable bigman closely involved in feast giving and leadership.

In 1925 'Elota enlisted as a labourer on a Guadalcanal copra plantation. His term of indenture was almost up when he received the news that District Officer William Bell (q.v.), along with his assistant, Cadet Kenneth C. Lillies, and thirteen police, had been killed in east Kwaio in 1927. He was nineteen when the avenging Protectorate expedition arrived, which wreaked havoc on the Kwaio and brought about many deaths and deprivations. 'Elota returned in 1928 to find that most of the powerful leaders of his youth were dead or had been taken to Tulagi prison.

'Elota married in his late twenties. The unfortunate relationship lasted barely one year due to his wife breaking taboos. Their child died in infancy and the marriage ended. 'Elota became involved in activities that saw him emerge as a skilled entrepreneur and feast-giver. Like many Malaitan men, he was also involved in pig theft and occasionally theft of shell valuables as part of his accumulation of wealth. He remarried, to Maerua, a young widow who became his life-long partner. He was involved in Maasina Rule (q.v.) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In middle age he developed chronic bronchitis, which began to sap his energy, and he died in 1973.

Keesing describes the complexity of 'Elota's life as he built up his reputation as an important leader. Malaitan leadership involves distribution (not accumulation) of wealth, which creates prestige and benefit for an extended family. 'Elota was the consummate Malaitan bigman, although without Keesing's account he would have slipped from memory. The book immortalises him and enables us to gain a clear picture of the life and times of a typical Malaitan male leader, although one who was born on the cusp of a period of immense change and survived into the last years of the Protectorate. (Keesing 1978c)

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Published resources


  • Keesing, Roger M., 'Elota's Story: The Life and Times of a Solomon Islands Big Man, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1978c. Details