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Return to the Islands

Pleasures of Polygamy

Pleasures of Polygamy

In the days before British rule came to the Gilberts, the son of a freeborn island family would usually take himself a wife when he was about twenty and she fifteen. It was part of the normal marriage contract that some of the ceremonial bride's younger sisters—or, if she had none, perhaps a chosen cousin or two— would accompany her as confidantes and helpers into her new home. In principle, their duty of loving-kindness towards her extended, when they reached maturity, as far as helping her to give nightly comfort to her lord and bear him children as he willed.

In practice, however, the average husband's initiative in this direction was severely crippled by his wife's. Not that she could blankly refuse him if, after several years of marriage, he proposed to elevate one of her companions to the honourable and permanent status of secondary wife in his household; only it was she, not he, who did the choosing, and her nomination ordinarily went to the least attractive of her sisters.

Gilbertese humour of old made much of this situation. The phrase 'a wife's selection' came into popular use to denote any young woman sadly lacking in charm, and the comedy of a page 89disappointed husband's reactions, when confronted by a wife he feared with the lady of her choice, was a pet theme for the rollicking mime burlesques of the islanders. It made far richer slapstick than our own popular mother-in-law theme of Victorian days.

But the wife's choice was not, as a matter of fact, inspired by anything so unpredictable as female cussedness. On the contrary, it was dictated to her by centuries of sensible usage. The ugly duckling of any group of unmarried girls was obviously the one least likely to make an independent match of her own. She, therefore, was the girl to be endowed as soon as possible with a permanent, official share of her eldest sister's domestic felicity. Her more attractive companions could afford to wait— and were preserved at mint value, so to speak, by this arrangement —for offers of ceremonial marriage from outside. It was not until these reached an advanced stage of spinsterhood (say, at twenty years old, when all hope of their achieving primary alliances was lost) that their elder sister allowed them to become the secondary wives of her own husband.

The husband's function, in short, was to hang about in the background of the marriage market, faithfully fattening his wife's entourage of surplus females and steeling himself, honest soul, to cater personally for their fulfilment as women whenever Fortune or his wife might decide that nobody else wanted them. This again was a situation eagerly seized upon by the old burlesques. The scene mimed was usually that of a husband running around loaded with two absurdly shaped chunks of wood, which represented his wife's sisters, in a last wild bid to get rid of them in marriage to his rich friends. The comedy turned upon the gradual beating down of the bride-price from a fine piece of land to a single coconut and, finally, its conversion into a rich reward for anyone kind and courageous enough to take over the burden.

The only unqualified relief that custom offered a husband in the long run was the right to refuse secondary wifehood to any wife's sister who had ceased to be a maiden. The chastity of his page 90bride's companions was his peculiar perquisite from the start. Cheated of this asset, he had no hope of marrying them off to rich friends in exchange for desirable freehold properties. It seemed to him unreasonable that any young woman who had rendered herself unmarketable by private adventure should expect him, the chief loser, to reward her in the end with a position of dignity on his own permanent establishment. In- Woman with beach in the backgrounddeed usage gave him the theoretical right to kill her out of hand if—to borrow the Gilbertese phrase—she 'squandered' his vested interest in her virginity. But here again his wife had the last word, if only she hurried to intercede at once for her sister. Custom not only prescribed a form of abject prayer for her use in such an extremity, but also forbade her husband for shame and pity to deny it. The island romancers of old delighted in tales of beautiful girls, daughters of chiefs, who, risking all for true love's sake, and saved from death by the pleading of devoted sisters, won through by this dangerous page 91road to wifehood at last with swains of humbler birth, to live happily ever after.