Volume 97 1988 > Volume 97, No. 4 > Obituary, Ralph Neville Hermon Bulmer, p 369-370
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- 369
Illustration
OBITUARY: RALPH NEVILLE HERMON BULMER M.A., PH.D. 1928-1988
Kua mate te rangatira! The Big Man is dead!
Kua hinga te tootara i roto In the forest of Taane
I te wao nui a Taane The Red Pine has fallen
Kua riro te manu Koorero And the talking bird
I runga i te pae. Has fled from the perch.

Born in Herford, England, “Rafe” Bulmer, after army service in Germany, read Anthropology and Archaeology at Clare College, Cambridge University, taking a first in 1953. In 1951 he had done field work among the Lapps of northern Sweden and Norway. In 1954 he began Ph.D. Study at the Australian National University and undertook 17 months of field work in the Western Highlands of New Guinea among the Kyaka Enga of the Baiyer River. From 1958 to 1967 he lectured in Anthropology at the University of Auckland, then took up the Foundation Chair in Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea. He returned to Auckland as Professor of Social Anthropology in 1977. He served several terms on the Council of the Polynesian Society, published a number of papers in our Journal and was Editor during 1966 and 1967.

Bulmer undertook more intensive fieldwork in remote areas than most anthropologists. With his imposing physique (he stood six foot six in his socks), his English dignity and reserve, and his occassional outbursts of anger, he impressed New Guinea Highlands big men and colonial administrators alike. His intense interest in and knowledge of all aspects of the New Guinea natural environment and his ability to empathise with New Guinea people ensured that he was never bored during the long months of field research. Indeed he spoke of his field work in the Kaironk Valley as - 370 “some of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of his life”.

His moral and physical courage was never in doubt. On one occasion he raised with the Administration the questionable conduct of a Patrol Officer when others who should have done so thought it politic to remain silent; on another he was dropped by helicopter and left alone with hitherto uncontacted tribesmen. He was always concerned for the disadvantaged, as many of his students who received extra attention and assistance could tell. He believed that anthropology had a special role in combatting racism by promoting knowledge of and aspect for other ways of life; accordingly he designed special courses for school teachers who would be in a position to spread the message.

What was to become his major theoretical orientation had its genesis in 1960 when he began his research among the recently contacted Kalam people in the Bismarck and Schrader ranges on the border of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The interests of the scientific naturalist married with the Kalams' intensive knowledge of their local environment to produce a unique contribution to the field of ethnoscience. One of the Kalam, Saem Majnep, collaborated with Ralph Bulmer to write three books on the birds, the animals and the plants of the Kalam country, the last of which was being completed when, after a heroic struggle against cancer, Bulmer died.

Some measure of Bulmer's contribution to the branch of anthropology known as ethnoscience is provided by the overwhelming response to an initiative to compile a festschrift, which will now become a memorial honouring him. Obituaries have already appeared in The London Times, The Guardian, and Auckland University News.

His “last night” was spent at Waipapa, the Auckland University marae, as a token of respect for his constant and unfailing support for Maori Studies as an academic discipline. Until the not-so-early hours of the morning, the University community shared with his friends their memories of him. He was buried next morning on the shores of the Manukau Harbour, a spot where the godwits he loved to watch end their long migration from Siberia.

Kuaka maarangaranga Godwits on high
Kotahi i tau ki te taahuna One lands on the spit,
Tau atu, tau atu e-e. They settle and settle.

Bruce Biggs