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Return to the Islands



It would, however, be difficult to claim a universal moral rightness for all the old Gilbertese ideals of sex behaviour. Very few Europeans of my day felt any sympathy for the practice of tinaba, for example, or saw aught but good in the penalty of two years' hard labour that the law prescribed for it.

Tinaba was the reciprocal relationship between a young man's wife and his uncles, both maternal and paternal. The page 101obligation which it imposed upon the young woman was one of unfailing akoi (loving-kindness) towards the uncles, extending even to the courteous loan of her person from time to time.

'From time to time' are meaningful words here. Two powerful restraining factors ensured that the ultimate surrender would be but sparingly demanded. First, there was public sentiment, which accepted the tinaba relationship only as a means of enabling a clever young wife to earn gifts of land for her husband from his senior kinsmen. An uncle-in-law who so lacked the quality of akoi that he attempted to make a personal romance of her dutiful solicitude towards him was in for a very bad time with his fellow islanders. Nothing stayed secret for long in the villages (except, of course, from strangers, white or brown). And, second, there was the ineluctable rule that the petition for her ultimate charity must never be addressed to the person one might have thought most concerned, namely, the woman herself, but to her husband. A wife suspected, in olden days, of entertaining private avuncular approaches, or even of knowing in advance that her husband was going to receive them, might suddenly find herself being strangled without the benefit of a trial. All this guaranteed her lord the chance of considering each application, as it came to hand, serenely uninhibited by the young woman's personal reactions. Custom gave him full liberty to refuse if he wanted to, and he would do so unless he saw excellent reasons for seeking or retaining the favour of the applicant. The lady had not a word to say either way; or if, in practice, she had several, the ages have left them unrecorded.

Tinaba was possibly an inheritance from remote ancestors whose ruling class commanded first concubitant rights over all the community's girl children, and therefore also the sole power to dispose of these in marriage. It was not uncommon, among primitive Oceanic societies, for political ascendancy to carry just such rights with it. If the ruling class I have guessed at consisted of neither kings, nor chiefs, nor even old men, but page 102simply men of fighting age—which is another way of saying men of the generation of fathers and uncles among their fellows—the conditions basic to the practice of tinaba would be established. A young man's parents would naturally turn to their own brothers, his uncles, for backing when they wanted a wife for him; the uncles, on their side, would help them to secure the release of the desired girl from the women's house to the young men on condition that their own concubinary rights over her remained intact.

The next step would be the supersession of the original ruling class by conquerors of different culture; invaders, for example, like the latest known Gilbertese forefathers, the Breed of Matang from Samoa, whose chiefs never claimed common proprietary rights over the community's girl children. The advent of such rulers would put an end to the old system of tinaba as a matter of common law, so to speak, but by no means as a matter of domestic practice among the conquered population. In other words, the custom of uncle-right would persist privately, though its original, political raison d'être was no more. As time went by, its forms would begin to adapt themselves to the social conventions of the dominant race. The end product of such a process in the Gilbert Islands would be just what is found there—or, rather, was found in my day— that is, a system which had transferred all the real initiative from the uncles to the young husband, and which enjoyed the backing of public sentiment, mainly because it seemed a gracious and sensible way of getting elders, while still alive, to pass some of their wealth on to young married kinsmen.

It was impossible for a white officer to get to know his district intimately without becoming aware that none but a handful of truly devout Christians—perhaps five or six per mil of his parishioners at most—ever honoured the law against tinaba except in the breach. The same was true also of the gentler practice of wife-exchange. But custom gave a wife the right to withdraw from an exchange agreement whenever she liked, and, by blankly refusing to participate, on occasion she page 103might even win merit in her husband's eyes. This put the ethics of it in a different category from those of tinaba. I was never in the least degree tempted to insist that the government's ban upon wife-exchange should be rigidly enforced, provided that nobody concerned in the arrangement was unhappy about it. This resulted not in making a dead letter of the law, but in confining the operation of its sanctions to cases in which undue pressure had been brought to bear upon an unwilling wife.

I didn't feel so easy about tinaba in my early years as a district officer. Though the law against it was a silly and dangerous mistake, nevertheless the implications of the custom—the idea of a husband having unconditional power to trade his wife for a price, even if only within a narrow family circle of bidders— seemed to me too repugnant to be altogether winked at. It wasn't until I tried to lecture old Moantau about it that I began to see things in a different perspective.

Moantau was a retired village policeman of seventy or more; a towering, bony old man as rugged of mind as of body, a staunch member of one of the Christian churches, and renowned throughout his island for the shattering honesty of his speech. It was chiefly on account of his bluntness that I chose him as a consultant: backed by his Christian convictions, he must surely give me some dynamic new ideas for the better control of tinaba, I thought.

I was, in fact, beginning to play with the notion of becoming an imperial meddler all on my own account; but Moantau, good old man, wasn't playing with me. Before I was half-way through my piece, he leaned forward from where he sat at my feet, seized my hand and began to chuckle. The chuckle grew louder as I tried to talk it down until, at last, it became a kind of asinine bray. I stopped and waited in furious silence for him to remember who I was. But he wasn't playing that game, either; he just went on braying and squeezing my hand until it suited him to dry his eyes on the sleeve of a white coat he was courteously wearing in my honour. "Sir," he quavered at page 104last, "you make me laugh!" as if he imagined the fact might possibly have escaped my notice.

When he deigned to explain, I gathered that there were two things about me that amused him. One was my childish ignorance of what the women of his race felt for tinaba. Did I imagine, he asked, that the custom could possibly have gone on all these years, bang up against the law, without the constant collaboration of wives as well as husbands? Well, if I did, he, as an old policeman, was there to teach me better. And the other thing he found so killingly funny was the way I dared to say that all white people were shocked and disgusted by tinaba. Shocked? Ha ! Ha ! Disgusted? Ho ! Ho ! What words … what marvellous words … to hear from a race of men who themselves indulged in the indescribably filthy practice of brother-sister marriage! He proceeded to be contorted upon his guest mat with the joke of it.

I bit back my crushing denial until he was in a state to listen. But he recovered only to rob me of my thunder. He knew what I wanted to tell him, he said: the usual stuff about some kinds of brothers and sisters (he meant, of course, cousins) not being so much of one flesh as other kinds.

Not that he wanted to be unreasonable here, he added before I could get a word in. His own people had always permitted the marriage of cousins in the fourth generation of descent from a common ancestor, provided they were descended into different totem groups; but never, never, never between cousins, however distant, of the same paternal clan. Whereas we white men … we even married the daughters of our own fathers' womb-brothers! We pretended to think the flesh was different. But we must know in our hearts that words could make no real difference to flesh. Nothing but the lapse of generations could change the sameness of the skin, the hair, the blood, the bone, or the nature of the fearful sin of incest. So what sort of warrant had I, or any other member of a race so lost to sexual shame as mine, to come preaching to him, page 105Moantau, about being shocked and disgusted at a Gilbertese custom as modest as it was useful.

I am glad to remember having apologized heartily for my indiscretion before asking what his mission authorities thought of his views. Pressing my hand in silent forgiveness of the liberty, he replied without hesitation to the enquiry. "I do not share my thoughts about tinaba with the village pastors," he said sturdily, "for that is a family matter between me and my God. I am very sure that my God's heart and mine are at one in this thing." Which was, after all, not a bit more presumptuous than what we English (by which I don't necessarily mean Scots, Irish or Welsh) were continually thinking and saying in those days about the same God and our moralities, not to speak of our right to own an Empire.

So then there was nothing left to do but go and find a cure for my ignorance of what Gilbertese women (or most of them) really thought of tinaba. Old Taaruru of Tarawa was the one to help me there. She had told me her own love story a year or so before, and I knew from it that, even at past ninety, she still dwelt proudly on the happiness her long dead Tangaro had given her. My only worry, seeing how kind he had been, was that he had probably never dreamed of forcing her into any relationship that she disliked. And, in a way, I was right: he never had; only it had never occurred to either of them to dislike the tinaba relationship.

I chose the mid-morning hour to go to her mwenga in the village. She was always alone then, the children at school, the men and women out at their family tasks. That was a necessary discretion; but, seated alone on her guest mat, I knew her limpid and innocent candour well enough not to mince words. I can still see the astonishment of her vivid old face when I asked her outright if women who loved their husbands didn't hate the idea of tinaba. "Why, whatever should they hate about it?" she said, examining my features with care, as if for signs of mental disorder.

I tried to explain. But, under the scrutiny of those searching page 106old eyes, it was difficult to put the case as clearly as I had intended. I gave it up in the end, because she began to laugh, though not so loud as Moantau had done. "How wonderful are white folk!" she exclaimed indulgently at last, as if she were talking to a child, "So wise and kind in many things, so ignorant and cruel about family love!"

She fell silent, thinking, I believe, how best to make my dull mind grasp her people's point of view. Then she went on earnestly, "You talk to me of women. I cannot speak of others, but I can speak of myself. Perhaps if my heart is open to you, you will know the hearts of all my sisters too. Listen, then…

"I loved Tangaro, my husband, and I was very sure he loved me. But if he had never sent me to the sleeping mat of a tinaba, I should have died of shame; for, look you, it would have meant he judged me too ill-favoured to give pleasure to his elders, therefore loved me no more himself. Alas, also, I should have known myself useless to him—for what wife who gives no pleasure to her tinaba can earn gifts of land for the husband she loves and the children he had begotten upon her?"

"Yes … but, Taaruru," I remember arguing, "I'm talking of nowadays, not old times. No wife of today is allowed to earn those gifts of land, the wages of tinaba, for her husband. That's one side of the custom the law really had managed to suppress."

She smiled at me gently: "Sir, perhaps it is not as dead as you think. The tinaba gift can be called by any other name when the law is seen to be listening. Or it need not be a gift of land at all. Canoes, money, food… these are happy things too for a wife to earn for a husband, if there is love between him and her… and the law keeps no track of them."

I went on hurriedly to the next question: "But what if she bears a child to her tinaba?" I felt sure that in this at least she must see stigma.

But the European idea of domestic disaster just wasn't hers: page 107"The thing sometimes happens, indeed," she replied serenely, "and then the husband is happy above happiness, for the child belongs to him, being hers. The child also is lucky, because the mother receives for its heritage a special piece of land from her tinaba."

She told me then how, often, to avoid all danger of the law's suspicion, the child's real father would formally adopt it before the native court as his tibu, or grandchild—a thing anyone was entitled to do any day of the week. In this way, his gift of land to the mother would be made to look like an ordinary adoptive gift, and all the world would be happy, the brown men in their knowledge, the white in their ignorance.

I did manage to smile at that; but I hadn't quite got over the temptation to meddle. My mind was still looking for some ultimate insult to human dignity in the custom, and I thought the situation of an unloved wife really did show it up. I put the idea to Taaruru: a woman certain of her husband's love was one thing; but what of the woman who knew herself not loved? To be ordered out like that … no better than a slave … the fearful abasement … what bitterness of shame for her.

I thought I had made quite a case of it, for she did not reply at once. But there was something like scorn in her voice when she did speak: "Shame? A slave? Sir, you speak in white men's riddles." She checked herself and went on in a lower voice, once more as if I were a child. "There is shame when a wife goes out to deceive a husband—yes, even a husband who scorns her—for that is to become a rat. But how should she feel shame when she obeys a command from her toka [lord]; and when the flesh he sends her to meet is no stranger's, but his own; and when the words she speaks on that other sleeping mat are not secret love-talk, but the words of kindness that custom approves? These things make no slavery, no rat's work, for us. They make the duty of a wife who honours her husband. Do white men see shame for me and my sisters in that?"

Whether the likes of me saw shame in it or not struck me of a page 108sudden as utterly of no account any longer. The only things that seemed to matter were her code of wifely obedience, austere and proud above the grasp of what I liked to call my civilized understanding, and, beyond that, the unshatterable integrity of mind that guarded her so safe from the petty physical shames of my imagination. "I see no shame for you, Taaruru, now that you have shown me a light," I told her.

She smiled into my eyes and then, in the swift absorption of the aged, forgot me for the work that lay across her knees. Her agile fingers, wrung by the rack of years, went racing through the countless strands of a new mat she was plaiting. I left her as her great-great-grandchildren came shouting home from morning school.