Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/July 1889/Kinship in Polynesia


By C. N. STARCKE, Ph. D.,


IN Polynesia, the distinct classes constitute a similar state of things to the family group in the peoples of Asia, since they form an exclusive organization, holding property in common. It is not very clear how these classes arose, but we may assume that they are connected with an earlier distribution into clans, so that the chief represents the eldest line of the posterity of their common ancestor. In some cases this ancestor is supposed to be of divine origin; but we lay no stress on such a supposition, since it probably arose after the chief's position was established. The people are usually in possession of small plots of ground, either as comparatively independent proprietors, or as serfs; the nobles are owners or rulers of small districts, and the king is ruler of the whole. The conditions are in many respects confused and indefinite, yet the type is undoubtedly that of the joint family, or village community.

The classes differ from clans in a natural way. The nobles of different clans belong to one class, and while the clan is usually exogamous, the class always tends to become endogamous. In Polynesia, the definition of the class depends upon the line of kinship, and the classes are not isolated with the exclusiveness of castes in India: marriages between the different classes are not absolutely forbidden.

The position of a child born from a marriage between persons of unequal rank may be decided in several ways. The child may either be always assigned to the superior or inferior class, or always either to the father or mother. Polynesia offers us examples of all kinds.

If the father or mother alone belongs to the ruling class, the child is, in the Caroline Isles, assigned to that class.[2] In the Tonga Isles, the highest class—the Egi, or nobles—inherits rank and property through the mother; the children of the common people (Mataboulas and Tuas) inherit from the father, but belong to the mother's class,[3] In Otaheite, the children of a marriage between a noble (Hui-Arii) and a woman of a lower class are set aside, unless numerous ceremonies are performed in the temple at the time of the wedding, so as to raise the rank of the inferior person.[4] Both among the nobles and in the intermediate class of landowners the father abdicates in favor of his new-born son, because the son has an additional ancestor, and is therefore of higher rank than his father.[5]

Marriages are dissolved in the Sandwich Isles at the wish of either party; only in the case of the chiefs there is no divorce, but they form a connection with other women, and their wives take other lovers. These are usually of inferior rank, and the children begotten of such marriages are almost always put to death, probably by the kinsfolk of the higher class, in order that their own importance may not suffer from intermixture with an inferior rank.[6] When we are told that in Hawaii the dignity of chief is inherited through the mother, it must be understood that preference is given to those of the chief's children whose mother is of the highest rank."[7] "The wife does not share her husband's rank. The rank of the child is decided by certain definite laws, generally by that of its mother, but also in some cases by that of the father. A woman of noble family who marries one of the common people loses her rank in the event of bearing children to him, in which case she and her children are degraded to her husband's class. The right of inheritance is not decided by priority of birth, but by the fact that the mother is of higher rank than the other wives."[8]

This is also the case at King's Mill and in New Zealand.[9] In the latter country, the man who marries into another tribe or clan takes up his abode in it, and is thenceforward reckoned with his wife's family. It is also usual for the wife to raise her husband to her own rank, while this is not done by the husband.[10] This fact has been regarded as a survival of a clearly established female line, and a sign of the earlier pre-eminence of the wife; but it seems to me to imply precisely the opposite. Only the prevalent custom of ascribing the child to its father would induce the kinsfolk of a woman of high rank to adopt her husband, in order not to lose their hold upon the children. If the female line were about to disappear, the growing claims of the husband would lead to the adoption of his wife by his own family.

It has been supposed that the strongest proof of the female line is to be found among the Fiji Islanders, but here also the spirit of mature criticism is wanting. We are told that the king is succeeded by his brother, and by his eldest son only in the event of his leaving no surviving brother. The mother's rank and some other circumstances may, however, cause this rule to be violated, so that the younger is preferred to the elder brother.[11] The chief's practice of extensive polygamy makes it desirable to establish the child's rank by a reference to its mother.[12] The female line can not be deduced from these customs, but a stronger proof is afforded by the institution of the Vasu, which is described as follows: "prominent among the public notorieties of Fiji is the Vasu. The word means a nephew or niece, but becomes a title of office in the case of the male, who, in some localities, has the extraordinary privilege of appropriating whatever he chooses belonging to his uncle, or those under his uncle's power. Vasus are of three kinds: the Vasu taukei, the Vasu levu, and the Vasu; the last is a common name, belonging to any nephew whatever. Vasu taukei is a term applied to any Vasu whose mother is a lady of the land in which he is born. The fact of Mbau being at the head of Fijian rank gives the Queen of Mbau a pre-eminence over all Fijian ladies, and her son a place nominally above all Vasus. No material difference exists between the power of a Vasu taukei and that of a Vasu levu, which latter title is given to every Vasu born of a woman of rank, and having a first-class chief for his father. Vasu taukei can claim anything belonging to a native of his mother's land, excepting the wives, home, and land of a chief. . . . However high a chief may rank, however powerful a king may be, if he has a nephew he has a master, one who will not be content with the name, but who will exercise his prerogative to the full, seizing whatever may take his fancy, regardless of its value or the owner's inconvenience in its loss. Resistance is not thought of, and objection only offered in extreme cases. Thokonauto, a Rewa chief, during a quarrel with an uncle, used the right of Vasu, and actually supplied himself with ammunition from his enemy's stores."[13]

It can not be denied that this great power of the sister's son is very remarkable, and at the first glance it seems only possible to explain it by assuming that there was a peculiar sanctity in the tie of kinship between the man and his sister's son. The extent of the claim is astonishing—a claim which no son would venture to put forward; and this is the more remarkable since the sister's son is not the uncle's heir. In all other cases in which the female line divides father and son, in order to tighten the bond between the mother's brother and sister's son, the analogy with the male line is maintained; that is, the uncle exerts his authority over the sister's son, whereas in this instance their positions are reversed. This arouses a suspicion that ideas unconnected with the female line may have produced the Vasu rights.

On examining more closely the whole institution of the Vasu, we are first struck by the fact that no legitimate rights belong to the common Vasu. These claims can only be made by the Vasu whose mother's brother possesses people and land. It may be assumed that the power of the Vasu in its extreme development was first directed against the mother's brother after it had become an integral part of the political machinery of Fiji, since we are told that the Vasu right becomes an instrument in the king's hand for ruthlessly plundering the land. The king makes use of the Vasu, and shares the plunder with him.[14] There can be no doubt that the institution of Vasu arose out of the natural reverence with which the subjects regarded the king's sister's son when he visited his uncle. They honored the king through his kinsfolk. The king and his sons ruled after no gentle fashion, and the ruler was entitled to commit all sorts of acts of violence. In this way the honor paid to the king's sister's son enabled him to rob the people freely. The Vasu right was gradually transformed into a fundamental institution, and that which was at first serviceable to the king was now turned against him. It certainly affords no indications of a mystical and religious belief in any special sacred bond between the mother's brother and sister's son.

The Russian observers of the solar eclipse of August 19, 1887, have expressed the conclusion that the corona has a real existence, and is not merely an optical phenomenon; it having maintained its shape during the whole of the eclipse at each spot where it was observed, and also at spots as far as six thousand miles apart.
  1. From "The Primitive Family," by Dr. C. N. Starcke, "International Scientific Series," vol. Ixv, just published by D. Appleton & Co.
  2. Chamisso, vol. ii, p. 241.
  3. Martin, vol. ii, p. 101. Rienzi, vol. iii, p. 45. Morgan, "Systems," p. 659.
  4. Ellis, vol. iii, p. 98.
  5. Ibid., vol. iii, p. 100. Cook, vol. i. Hawkesworth, vol. ii, p. 243.
  6. Ellis, vol. i, p. 256; vol. iv, p. 411.
  7. Varigny, p. 14.
  8. Chamisso, vol. ii, p. 275.
  9. Wilkes, vol. v, p. 85. Rienzi, vol. iii, p. 142.
  10. Thompson, vol. i, p. 176. Brown, p, 84.
  11. Williams and Calvert, p. 18. Appendix xxvi. Rienzi, vol. iii, p. 286. Morgan, "Systems," p. 582; "Ancient Societies," p. 375.
  12. Williams and Calvert, p. 26. Appendix xxvii.
  13. Williams and Calvert, p. 27.
  14. Ibid., p. 27. Appendix xxviii.