IASH Workshop

The End of Witchcraft Persecution: Comparisons and Connections between Early Modern Europe & the South Pacific

After yet another attack on accused ‘witches’ in Papua New Guinea, The Guardian ran the following headline: “Papua New Guinea ‘Witch’ Murder is a Reminder of our Gruesome Past” (20 February 2013). The article’s headline reflects a popular belief today, namely, that certain forms of violence in Melanesia in the present mirror European witchcraft-persecution in former times. In the article, as elsewhere, both the existence and possible nature of such a connection is generally implied rather than examined. Similar connections are also made by the social scientists, development workers and political elites most directly involved with preventing ‘witchcraft-related violence’ in Melanesia and elsewhere. For several participants at the UN Experts Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights in Geneva in 2017, for example, Europe provided a historical model for how to end today’s ‘witch craze’ in many parts of the world. But without any historians present at the workshop, their claims about the past remained largely untested.

Historians, for their part, have been slow to engage with conversations about current witchcraft-related violence—even when Europe’s past is explicitly evoked. They have played only a very minor role, if any, at ongoing regional and international workshops that seek to address widespread incidences of ‘witchcraft-related violence’. There are perhaps some good reasons for this: historians are typically methodologically averse to condensing the complexity of the past into a series of policy-relevant ‘lessons’. Moreover, historians rightly balk at the colonial overtones of suggestions that ‘their’ present corresponds with ‘our’ past. Within European colonial discourses, the term ‘witchcraft’ (and its variations) functioned to freeze non-western subjects in pre-modern time (Masquelier 2004). Nevertheless, stories about why witchcraft persecution ended in Europe play an important role in framing debates today about how best to prevent witchcraft-related violence around the world. And governments, such as in Papua New Guinea, are putting significant resources towards addressing this serious issue. At the very least, it is incumbent upon historians to articulate why—whether for methodological or substantive reasons—early modern European witchcraft cannot be compared to today. But perhaps there may also be lessons to learn. 

This one-day workshop provides an opportunity for historians to engage with these debates. It will bring together historians and South Pacific scholars to discuss what lessons—if any—we might draw from the historical literature in light of witchcraft-related violence today. The discussions will chiefly focus on the end of witchcraft-related violence and persecution.


Hosted by Dr Daniel Midena and Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar.

This event is by invitation only.