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The Tolai are the indigenous people of the Gazelle Peninsula and the Duke of York Islands of East New Britain in the New Guinea Islands region of Papua New Guinea. They are ethnically close kin to the peoples of adjacent New Ireland and are thought to have migrated to the Gazelle Peninsula in relatively recent times, displacing the Baining people who were driven westwards.
The Tolais almost universally define themselves as Christian and are predominantly Roman Catholic and United Church. Christianity was introduced to the island when Methodist ministers and teachers from Fiji arrived in the New Guinea islands region in 1875. However, in 1878 when some of the tribespeople ate four of the missionaries, the Englishman who led the missionaries, George Brown, directed and took part in a punitive expedition that resulted in a number of Tolais being killed and several villages burnt down.
In August 2007, the descendants of Tolai tribespeople who ate a Fijian minister and three Fijian teachers in 1878 publicly apologized for the incident to Fiji's High Commissioner, Ratu Isoa Tikoca. The apology was accepted. At the event, Papua New Guinea's Governor-General Paulias Matane told the crowd he appreciated the work of the early Fijian missionaries in spreading Christianity in the islands region.
Notwithstanding the Christianization of the Tolais for more than a century, old beliefs and traditions still persist, e.g., the belief in the female spirits of the Tubuans with secret ceremonies performed by initiates of the Duk-Duk society as well as the belief in sorcery to either gain someone's love or to punish an enemy.
The Tolais are divided into two moieties. Membership is determined by matrilineal descent. Sexual intercourse with someone from one's own moiety is strictly forbidden, and it used to be severely punished. The culprits were eaten before the advent of Christianity and, even today, if a Tolai boy and a Tolai girl from the same moiety fall in love, their only chance is to elope and settle where they are unknown.
- Sir Ronald Tovue (former premier of East New Britain)
- Sir Alkan Tololo (First citizen chancellor of UPNG & Unitech, later Vudal)
- Sir Rabbie Namaliu (former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea)
- Sir Paulias Matane (Governor General of Papua New Guinea)
- Sir Henry ToRobert (former Governor of the Bank of Papua New Guinea)
- Sir John Kaputin (Secretary General of ACP-EU - 2005 to present)
- George Telek (King of Tolai Rock)
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