The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folklore/Chapter 18



(1) Cannibalism. It may be safely asserted that in the Banks' Islands and Santa Cruz there has been no cannibalism, though the natives were not ignorant of the practice of it by others. When some fifty years ago a party of men from Tonga, as it is remembered, left the little island of Qakea, on which they had for a short time settled, the proofs that they had eaten those whom they had killed in the fighting which preceded their departure caused such horror and rage against them that a party returning a year after to the same place was immediately attacked. In the Solomon Islands it is strange that the practice has recently extended itself. It is asserted by the elder natives of Florida that man's flesh was never eaten except in sacrifice, and that the sacrificing of men is an introduction of late times from further west. The coast people of Bugotu say the same of themselves; but they freely accuse the inland people of the same island, with whom they have a good deal of free intercourse, and whose speech is not very different from their own, of being cannibals, and of killing men for the sake of eating them. A few years ago one Nunu, an inland chief, was believed to say that pig's flesh was bad and man's flesh sweet to him; a man who had mounted to his place and found himself in a sweat would sit down to cool before he showed himself; Nunu took the sweat as a sign of fatness, and would desire to eat him. In Ulawa, again, there is no eating of men; it is thought that the lio'a, the ghosts of power, do not like it; and at Saa it was not the old custom of the place, the elder men even now will have nothing to do with it. The younger men have taken to it, and eat the bodies of men killed in battle; they have followed the custom of men from the eastern coast who have lived with them, and of the Bauro men of San Cristoval whom they have visited. The natives of San Cristoval not only eat the bodies of those who are slain in battle, but sell the flesh. To kill for the purpose of eating human flesh, though not unknown, is rare, and is a thing which marks the man who has done it. This is a subject on which stories which come from traders are not very trustworthy. In the Northern New Hebrides there is no doubt cannibalism. I know nothing about it in Aurora, but have been told by an eye-witness of what is done in Pentecost. After a bitter fight they would take a slain enemy and eat him, as a sign of rage and indignation; they would cook him in an oven, and each would eat a bit of him, women and children too. When there was a less bitter feeling, the flesh of a dead enemy was taken away by the conquerors to be cooked and given to their friends. In the neighbouring islands, and at the back of his own island, said my informant, they kill for the sake of eating. In Lepers' Island they still eat men. It was not the common fashion, however, to eat enemies killed in fair fighting, it was a murderer or particularly detested enemy who was eaten, in anger, and to treat him ill; such a one was cooked like a pig, and men, elder women and boys ate him. The boys were afraid, but were made to do it. It is the feeling there that to eat human flesh is a dreadful thing, a man-eater is one afraid of nothing; on this ground men will buy flesh when some one has been killed, that they may get the name of valiant men by eating it. A certain man in Lepers' Island mourned many days for his son, and would not eat till he bought a piece of human flesh for himself and his remaining boy; it was a horrid thing to do, appropriate to his gloomy grief.

(2) Heads. Head-hunting is not practised by any of the natives eastwards from Ysabel; that is to say, they do not make expeditions for the sole purpose of obtaining heads. In Bugotu, the south-eastern extremity of Ysabel, the people have suffered and still suffer most seriously from the attacks of the head-hunters from beyond, whose expeditions, following the coasts from a great distance, and sometimes for months, have reached Malanta and Guadalcanar, in one most disgraceful instance the head-hunters being brought to Florida in an European vessel. The practice, however, of taking heads and preserving them as signs of power and success belongs to the Solomon Islands generally. The heads of enemies killed in fight are preserved as trophies, and set out on stages as in Florida, or hung up under the eaves of the canoe-house as in San Cristoval. When a chief in the exercise of his authority had a man killed for an offence, or had him murdered out of revenge or hatred, or for a sacrifice, he added the head to his collection; it was a sign of his power and greatness. Hence, as the more heads he could show the more his power was in view, he was ready on every opportunity and on any pretext to take a life and a head. When a chief had a man killed, he would keep the head, but sent the legs and arms to his neighbours, to shew what he had done. If, for example, an accused man got away from Mboli in Florida to Savo, the Mboli chief would send a request, backed by a present of money, to the Savo chief to have him killed; the Savo chief would keep the head and send a leg or arm to Florida, where the chief would hang it up to shew his power. The heads thus taken and preserved are distinct from those of deceased relatives, which are kept as memorials of affection. Skulls may be seen suspended equally at the entrance of a Solomon Island oha and a New Hebrides gamal, but the signification is, in all cases probably, distinct.

(3) Castaways. A stranger as such was generally throughout the islands an enemy to be killed. Thus at Florida a stranger who had escaped from a wreck on to an islet was killed when seen, and spoken of as a cocoa-nut that had floated ashore. There was a common belief that a stranger would bring with him disease or some other mischief. But it was often a question whether a castaway was a stranger. If he were recognised as belonging to an hostile district, there was no doubt of his fate; but if he fell into the hands of those to whose division, kema or veve, he belonged, he would probably be saved. It is a not uncommon thing that canoes should be blown from Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands to Malanta and Ulawa; the men on board them were not wholly strangers, though personally unknown; they were men and from known lands, not strange beings like white men from without the world. They were therefore received as guests, sometimes establishing themselves after a while by marriage, sometimes waiting an opportunity to return. Many single canoes from time to time have been blown away from Polynesian islands, and have drifted to the Banks' Islands; in many cases the castaways have been kindly treated, and have added a strain to the native race. Within the last forty years men from Tikopia have twice been most kindly received at Mota.

(4) Slaves. There is no such thing as slavery properly so called. In head-hunting expeditions prisoners are made for the sake of their heads, to be used when occasion requires, and such persons live with their captors in a condition very different from that of freedom, but they are not taken or maintained for the purposes of service. In the same islands when a successful attack and massacre enriches the victors with many heads, they spare and carry off children, whom they bring up among their own people. Such a seka will certainly be killed for a head or for a sacrifice before any native member of the community, but he lives as an adopted member, shares the work, pleasures, and dangers of those with whom he dwells, and often becomes a leading personage among them. A refugee or a castaway is not a slave but a guest; his life is naturally much less valued than that of a man of the place, and useful services are expected from him, while he mixes freely and on equal terms with the common people.

(5) Burying alive. Nothing seems more inhuman than the practice of burying sick and aged people alive, yet it is certain that when this was done there was generally a kindness intended. It is true that sometimes the relatives of the sick became tired of waiting upon them, and buried them when they thought they ought to be ready for it; but even in such cases the sick and aged acquiesced. It was common for them to beg their friends to put them out of their misery. Some years ago a man at Mota buried his brother, who was in extreme weakness from influenza; but he heaped the earth loosely over his head, and went from time to time to ask him whether he were still alive. Of late years, though old people ask for it, their friends will not consent. Not long ago in Pentecost, a woman after a lingering sickness in a time of famine was buried, and was heard for three days crying in her grave. In Lepers' Island the patient was sometimes strangled, with his own consent[1].

(6) Burning alive. This has only been heard of at Araga, Pentecost Island. In fighting time there, if a great man were very angry with the hostile party, he would burn a wounded enemy. When peace had been made, and the chiefs had ordered all to behave well that the country might settle down in quiet, if any one committed such a crime as would break up the peace, such as adultery, they would tie him to a tree, heap firewood round him, and burn him alive, a proof to the opposite party of their detestation of his wickedness. This was not done coolly as a matter of course in the execution of a law, but as a horrible thing to do, and done for the horror of it; a horror renewed in the voice and face of the native who told me of the roaring flames and shrieks of agony.

(7) Heavenly Bodies. There is no appearance of a belief that any heavenly bodies are living beings; in the Banks' Islands the Sun and Moon are thought to be rocks or islands. In Lepers' Island the story is told that the Sun and the Moon quarrelled while the Sun was making a mash of wild yam, and that he threw the mess in a rage at the Moon's face, on which the splashes are to be seen; but this is told without any serious belief. It is commonly believed that there is a human being, male or female, in the Moon. The stories of Vulaninggela and Kamakajaku shew the belief in Florida and Ysabel that there is a person who goes with the Sun and whose name is Sun, rather than that the Sun is a person. In Florida the name of the Man in the Moon is Ngava; when the Moon rises full they cry 'There is Ngava sitting.' Every new moon is thought to be really new. No cause is supposed for eclipses, unless it be the magic of some weather-doctor; an eclipse is a wonder, a portent, bringing an appalling sense of danger, which finds expression in shouting, blowing conchs, and beating house roofs, with no very distinct purpose of driving the fearful thing away. Eclipses of the sun are not recognised as occurring at Mota. When a remarkable comet, called in the Banks' Islands a 'smoking star,' appeared in the year 1882, the Lepers' islanders blew conchs to drive it. away, or at least to divert the mischief. A falling star is the same sort of portent; some great man will die, there will be an attack of enemies. The appearance of two stars close together, warue in Lepers' Island, signifies war. The Solomon Islands people are more concerned about the stars than their Eastern brethren, perhaps because of their longer voyages; the Santa Cruz people and Reef islanders excel all the rest in their practical astronomy. The Banks' islanders and Northern New Hebrides people content themselves with distinguishing the Pleiades, by which the approach of yam harvest is marked, and with calling the planets masoi, from their roundness, as distinct from vitu, stars. In Florida the early morning star is called gama ni votu, the quartz pebble for setting off to sea; when it rises later it is gama ni ndani, the shining stone of light; the Pleiades are togo ni samu, the company of maidens; Orion's belt is the peko, the war canoe; the evening star is vaovarongo diva, listen for the oven, because the daily meal is taken as the evening draws on; stars are called dead men's eyes. At Saa the Southern Cross is ape, the net, with four men letting it down to catch the palolo, and the Pointers are two men cooking what has been caught, because the palolo appears when one of the Pointers appears above the horizon; the Pleiades are apurunge, the tangle; the Southern Triangle is Three men in a canoe; Mars is the Red Pig.

(8) Months and Seasons. The moon is naturally the measure of time; there is no native notion of a year as a period of fixed time; the word, tau or niulu, which corresponds most nearly to the word year, signifies a season, and so now the space of time between recurring seasons; thus the yam has its tau, its season of five moons from the planting, when the erythrina is in flower, till the harvest after the palolo has come and gone; the bread-fruit has its tau during the winter months; the banana and the cocoa-nut have no tau, being at all times in fruit. The notion of a year as the time from yam to yam, from palolo to palolo, has been readily received; it is very doubtful if such a conception is anywhere purely native. It is impossible to fit the native succession of moons into a solar year; months have their names from what is done and what happens when the moon appears and while it lasts; the same moon has different names. If all the names of moons in use in one language were set in order the periods of time would overlap, and the native year would be artificially made up of twenty or thirty months. The moons and seasons of Mota in the Banks' Islands may serve as an example. The garden work of the year is the principal guide to the arrangement, the succession of (1) clearing garden ground, uma; (2) cutting down the trees, tara; (3) turning over and piling up the stuff, rakasag; (4) burning it, sing; (5) digging the holes for yams, nur, and planting, riv. Then follows the care of the yam plants till the harvest, after which preparation for the next crop begins again. At the same time the regular winds and calms are observed, the spring of grass, the conspicuous flowering of certain trees, the bursting into leaf of the few deciduous trees. When a certain grass, magoto, springs, the winter as it must be called is over; when the erythrina, rara, is in flower it is the cool season; magoto therefore and rara are names of seasons in native use, and answer roughly to summer and winter. The strange and exciting appearance of the wellknown annelid, the palolo, un, sets a wide mark on the seasons. The April moon coincides pretty well with the time of the magoto qaro, the fresh grass; clearing, uma, of gardens goes on, the trade wind is steady. This is followed by the magoto rango, the withered grass; both are months of cutting down trees in the gardens, vule taratara, and in the latter the stuff is burnt. In July the erythrina, rara, begins to flower, it is the nago rara, the face of winter; gardens are fenced, it is a moon of planting yams, vule vutvut. Planting continues into August, when the erythrina is in full flower, tur rara, the gaviga Malay apple flowering at the same time; the south-east wind gauna blows; the yams begin to shoot, and are stuck with reeds. In the next month the erythrina puts out its leaves, it is the end of it, kere rara; the yam vines run up the reeds and are trained, taur, upon them; the reeds are broken and bent over, ruqa, to let them run freely; the ground is kept clear of weeds; the tendrils curl, and the tubers are well formed. Then come the months of calm, when three moons are named from the un palolo, first the un rig, the little un, or the bitter, un gogona, when at the full moon a few of the annelids appear. It is now the tau matua, the season of maturity; yams can be eaten, and if the weather is favourable a second crop is planted. The un lava, great palolo, follows, when at the full moon for one night the annelid appears on the reefs in swarms; the whole population is on the beach taking up the un in every vessel and with every contrivance. This is the moon of the yam harvest; the vines are cut, goro, (in old days this was done with a shell), and the tubers very carefully taken up with digging sticks to be stored. A few un appear at the next moon, the werei, which may be translated the rump, of the un. In this moon they begin again to uma, clear the gardens; the wind blows again from the west, the ganoi, over Vanua Lava. It is now November or December, the togalau wind blows from the north-west; it is exceedingly hot, fish die in the shallow pools, the reeds shoot up into flower; it is the moon of shooting up, vule wotgoro. The next month is the vusiaru, the wind beats upon the casuarina trees upon the cliffs; the next again is called tetemavuru, the wind blows hard and drives off flying fragments from the seeded reeds; these are hurricane months. The last in order is the month that beats and rattles, lamasag noronoro, the dry reeds; the wind blows strong and steady, work is begun again, they rakasag, to dry the rubbish of their clearings, and make ready the fences for new gardens. By this time the heat is past, the grass begins to spring again, and the winter months return.

(9) Narcotics. The use of the areca nut mbua, chewed with the betel leaf, with the addition of coral lime, is universal in the Solomon Islands and Santa Cruz, and extends to Tikopia; to the eastward it is unknown. Solomon islanders on their way to Norfolk Island look wistfully at a species of areca-palm in the Torres Islands, the nuts of which the natives of that group sometimes chew to quiet hunger, but which will not do for those who know the mbua, and they can replenish their stock of betel leaves in the New Hebrides, where that pepper grows naturally, but they feel that they have passed into a foreign region. In the Banks' Islands and New Hebrides they drink the infusion of the root of the Piper methysticum well known as kava, called gea at Mota, malowo in Aurora. This is in the Banks' Islands so recent an introduction that the use of it had not spread to Santa Maria a few years ago. The difference in the mode of preparation seems to point to two distinct sources or times of introduction. In the Banks' Islands drinking the gea is called woana; the root is chewed by the drinker; when the fibres are separated a little water is taken into the mouth to assist in squeezing out the saliva, water is added again in the cocoa-nut-shell cup, and the fibres being removed and well squeezed over the cup the potion is ready. In Aurora the malowo is pounded with a rough coral pestle and mortar. The moderate use of this narcotic has no bad effect; excess, which is more common perhaps in the New Hebrides, makes a man listless and stupid. The plant used is not indigenous; there is indeed a pepper of the same species very common, but it will not do for the woana. There is a certain sacred character about the plant, as has been shewn, and the use of it is confined to men. The introduction of tobacco into common use in the Northern New Hebrides and Banks' Islands is quite recent, but the people are now given up to the use of it. Smoking was universal in the Solomon Islands, at Florida, Ysabel, and San Cristoval, thirty years ago, with men, women, and infant children, and the tobacco was grown and prepared by the natives; yet it was not known at Saa at that time, where it has since been introduced from Arosi in San Cristoval, and the elder men at Florida remember when it was a new thing in their childhood. There has been for many years a good deal of intercourse with whalers at San Cristoval; they have no native name for tobacco there, and I believe never grew it; its introduction then is readily accounted for. In Florida the native-grown tobacco, now discarded for the far stronger tambaika, was called vavuru and the dried leaves were made up in twists; the pipe, formerly made of a shell and a reed in evident imitation of the European pipe, is still pipiala; the old people say that the seed had come from a ship[2].

(10) Counting. Measures. The systems of numeration in use among Melanesians might well here be exhibited and explained, but I have treated the subject elsewhere. It will be however reasonable to say something as to methods of counting. The fingers are the natural counters; in the use of them there is curious variation. In the Banks' Islands the right thumb is turned down first, and is followed by the fingers of the right hand and then of the left, both hands with closed fists being held up together to shew the completed ten. It is the number of fingers turned down that is to be noticed, not of those that stand up. In Florida they begin with the little finger. In Lepers' Island they begin with the thumb, but having reached five with the little finger they do not go on to the other hand, but throw up the fingers they have turned down, beginning with the forefinger and keeping the thumb for ten. The use of the cycas leaf for counting (page 272) is common to the Banks' Islands and New Hebrides. A string with knots to mark the days is used in the Solomon Islands. In Florida stones and canarium shells are used to help in counting; at a feast a man will go round with a basket, and every one present will put some small thing into it, that so the number entertained may be known. At Saa when yams are counted two men count out each five, making ten, and as each ten is made they call out 'one,' 'two,' and so on. A man sits by, and when 'ten' is called making a hundred, he puts down a little yam for a tally.

The natural measure of length may be said to be the fathom, the width of the outstretched arms, the Florida goto, Mota rova. Examples of more particular measurements may be taken from Mota; the taut fathom, rova togtogoa, is the line stretched as far as possible with the arms thrown back; rova ate lue, the fathom of looking out, is that of a line stretched away as far as possible by the left hand, but held by the right upon the shoulder, where the face turns round to meet it; another is avawo sus, from the outstretched left hand to the right nipple; alo masale pei, at the watercourse, from the left hand to the breast bone. Lesser measurements are, alo vivngai, from the arm pit; alo maluk, from the hollow of the elbow to the fingers' end; sogo siwo, from wrist to finger end.

(11) Salutations. People living in small communities and always in view of one another have little need for salutations, and there is little to be said upon the subject in regard to Melanesia. If any one passes through a village he will be asked whence he comes, and bid to go on, as a kind of salutation; he will say on leaving, 'You stay'. There is, however, in the Banks' Islands a friendly action called varpis; two men insert each the middle finger of his right hand between two of his friend's fingers, grip them tight together, and then quickly pull them asunder with a crack. This is a greeting, a mark of fellowship and of approval. Kissing is not indigenous; to punpun is analogous to it, snuffing with the nose, not rubbing noses, and this is not thought proper or becoming to be done except to children. Rubbing noses is practised in the Polynesian settlements only. It is not the custom to say anything by way of thanks; it is rather improper to show emotion when anything is given, or when friends meet again; silence with the eyes cast down is the sign of the inward trembling or shyness which they feel, or think they ought to feel, under these circumstances. There is no lack of a word which may be fairly translated 'thank'; and certainly no one who has given cause for it will say that Melanesians have no gratitude; others probably are ready enough to say it.

(12) Wild Men. In Florida they believe that on the mountains of Laudari, the part of Guadalcanar upon which their own island looks out, there are wild men whom they call Mumulou. They are men, and have language; the hair of their heads is straight and reaching down their legs, their bodies are covered with long hair, and they have long nails; they are large and tall, but not above the size of men. One was killed not long ago, the coast people of Laudari say, and so they know very well what they are like. They live in caves in the mountains; they plant nothing, and eat snakes and lizards. They eat any coast man they can catch; they carry on their backs bags filled with pieces of obsidian, with which to pelt men whom they see, and they set nets round trees to catch men who have climbed them; they use spears also. In Saa they say there are Mumu in the forest, human, very small in stature, but very strong and swift; they have very long hair, and long nails, with which they tear the coast men to devour them; they go about in threes, a male, a female, and a child. Lastly, Saa men who have been in the 'thief-ships' have seen the Australian natives like the Mumu. In the New Hebrides, similar creatures are seen basking on the rocks of the slopes of the great volcano of Ambrym; even in the little island of Mae they used to be seen—for they are now extinct—on the Three Hills. In Lepers' Island the wild men are called Mae; they have long hair, long teeth, they dwell in caves, carry off pigs, and if they meet a man alone will seize and eat him. In the night they are heard crying in the valleys, and it is then said that the Mae is washing her child. The name shows some connexion with the superstition described (page 188), but they call no snake a mae, and these are men. However much these stories vary, the belief may be said to be general from Ysabel to Mae, just as stories of wild men have been current in New Zealand. Descriptions very much like these have their place in grave treatises on mankind. It may be said to be certain that the Melanesian belief has no foundation in present fact in the existence either of ape-like men or man-like apes; it may be a question whether the belief is founded on the memory of large simians in former seats of the Melanesian people. To myself, so far as it has any foundation at all in fact, it appears to be a fanciful exaggeration of the difference, which the coast people are much disposed to exaggerate, between themselves and the men of the uta, the inland tracts, who have no canoes and cannot swim, the true 'orang utan' or man of the woods, the 'man-bush' of pigeon-English.

  1. In the same island, in the bush country, there was a great man who had a poor brother. In a time of famine the poor man stole food, not asking food from his brother, or taking it from him. The chief buried his brother alive, in spite of his own wife's entreaties, and the poor man's supplications; he bound him, dug a grave, put mats in it, threw him in and buried him. The act was shocking to the opinion of the islanders, but it marked a great man who would do what he chose.
  2. Logana at Florida, whom I should not take to be more than 60 years old, was grown up when he first saw a ship. The first he saw had two masts; the people on board traded well and fairly, giving a piece of iron for a big yam, a hatchet for a cockatoo. This was probably the Southern Cross. The name given at first was ungaungau, not vaka as now. Ships were thought to belong to tindalo ghosts, and to portend a famine; those who saw them ran away and hid themselves in their houses. Tobacco appears to have been introduced to Florida and Bogota by Europeans who were not whalers; their pipe in form and perhaps in name, does not allow of a connexion with the tobacco-smoking of New Guinea.