Return to the Islands
5 — —
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- deed 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.
But real life had its romances, too. A regal old lady of Tarawa, Nei Taaruru, surrounded by her great-great-grandchildren, once told me how she, as a girl of perhaps fifteen, had won happiness with the mate of her own undaunted choice. It was a drama eighty years old and more as she spoke, and death in faction warfare had robbed her of her man long since. But the triumph of it was still fresh for her. Her voice rang so full and proud in the telling, I could picture her still for the gallant, flaming thing she must have been those many years ago.
I had said something about the amazing power a wife had, in the last resort, to save her younger sisters from becoming the mere chattels of men.
"Yes," she answered with a smile, "it was a strong power. Here I sit alive to witness it, who would have died but for the prayer of a loving sister."
She paused to think a little and then said, "They are all dead now. None will be shamed if I speak. Listen … this was the way of it…
"I was the youngest daughter of my father. We were a large family of girls. So, when my eldest sister married, I was taken by her with two others into her husband's house.
"And when I came to puberty, my sister's husband arranged a marriage for me with a friend of his. That man was a toke (chief), very rich in land, and he was willing to pay a great price for me. But he was old; his first wife was dead, likewise his second; even his youngest child was older than I. I said to my sister, 'This man is too old to give me children.' She answered, 'Be quiet. He will pay a big price for you.' I said, 'I do not love him,' but she closed her ears to every word of mine. And so it went on until the season of my marriage drew near.page 92
"Then, because I could no longer bear my grief, I went to my sister, crying, 'I will not marry that old man. Let your husband kill me rather.'
"She looked into my eyes and whispered, 'You are in love with someone else. Tell me the truth. Who is it?'
"I answered, weeping, 'I love Tangaro and I will marry only him.'
"She did not scold me, but took me in her arms, saying, 'Tangaro … alas! he is very poor. When did he dare to speak to you?'
" I told her the truth: he had never spoken to me; but I knew he loved me, for our eyes had spoken to each other. It happened in the maneaba [meeting house] of our village, when I was brought out of my seclusion to lead my coming-of-age dance."
She meant by her seclusion the twelve months of segregation in the twilight of a triple-screened house, which every highborn maiden used to undergo as soon as puberty came to her. Protected there from all sunrays and carefully massaged three times a day with cream of coconut flesh, her body was gradually blanched from olive brown to the clear velvet gold of a peach. This was done to bring her complexion as near as might be to that of her people's hero ancestors, the fair-skinned, blue-eyed race of Matang, Land of Heart's Desire behind the sunset. And, while her skin was being made as smooth and white as a garfish's (so ran the island simile) she was taught the intricate gestures of a sitting dance composed for her coming-out. It was a dance which she herself was to lead one night in the huge meeting house of her village, seated in the torch-glare under the scrutiny, poor mite, of a thousand critical eyes, out in front of a triple crescent of seasoned dancers who took their time from her.
I thought, as old Taaruru spoke, that the young Tangaro's eyes must have shown very importunately to find and hold hers in the tension of that high ordeal. "Bon te rine, ngaia! [The pick of mankind, he!]," I prompted her.page 93
She leaned forward to lay a hand on mine: "Somebody told you that? Yes, the very crest of the tree of beauty. No man was ever so beautiful or kind as Tangaro. My eyes saw only him that night. Every gesture of my dance was made for him." She laughed: "My sister's husband praised me at the end for the excellence of my kateikai [gestures]. That made me happy, for my heart said, 'What this man tells me here, Tangaro is thinking too, alone there in his canoe-shed.'
"But alas! though my sister's heart was sore for me, she feared her husband's anger and would do nothing to help. Time passed. The day set for my marriage was the first full moon of the season of Rimwimaata [The Scorpion]. It was very close when I made my last prayer, and my sister's patience ended, and she slapped me, crying, 'You little fool! You know nothing of love. You don't even know if Tangaro really loves you. Now be silent for ever!'
"I ran out among the trees. I did not weep. I said to myself, 'Nobody will help me. But if I were no longer a maiden, and that old man knew it, he would refuse to pay the bride-price for me.' I sat among the trees, thinking, 'Even if my sister's husband killed me for that, it would be better to die so than marry anyone but Tangaro.' I said to myself at last, 'So be it. Come what may, I will go quickly and ask Tangaro to spoil me for that old man. Then I shall die happy, all his.'
"I knew that he slept alone in his canoe-shed; most of the young men did so in those days. So, that same night, when everyone was asleep, I crept from the women's house and came through the bush to where he lay. I said only, 'Tangaro!' It was very dark, but he knew me. He whispered, 'I was sure you would come to me one night.' He took me in his arms and for a long time there was no talk between us. How wonderful, that! After so much longing to speak, no speech at all was all heart's fullness for us then.
"Then, with my head lying over his heart, I told him the whole of my thoughts. As I spoke, I heard his heartbeats race; page 94I knew his thought was one with mine; I said to myself, 'Let them kill me after this. I shall have belonged to him.'
"But when I had said my say, he was silent. He lay so long saying not a word that I cried, 'Tangaro, what is it?' Then, suddenly he sat up and pushed me away. His voice was angry when he spoke: 'Woman, you are mad! They will kill you if I do this thing to you.'
"So then I lied to him: 'Foolish Tangaro ! no one will kill me. My sister has promised to intercede for me. It is quite certain I shall not be killed. Now take me for your own, and after a while, when nobody is angry any more, you shall buy me with a small piece of land. This is the way to win happiness in the end.'
"He only laughed at that. 'You are the foolish one, not I. Why, I have nothing but two pieces of land—one big, one small—no price for a chief's daughter.' And when I told him that nothing would buy me once he had made me worthless, his anger came back: he shouted, 'You are mad, you are wicked.' So at last I was angry and shouted too: 'You do not love me. You wish only to see me married to that old man. You refuse me because you already desire another woman.' At that he began to tremble; I heard his voice shaking as he spoke: 'Woman, I will not do this thing. It would be your death. But go quickly now lest I kill you myself for words you did not mean. Hurry.'
"I ran away weeping. But see! when I came near the village dawn was breaking. The women were already at work among the trees. They all saw me as I ran. They called my name. I knew then that I was as good as dead already. Who would believe that I had crept out like a rat in the night to return a maid? But I was not afraid; I was glad; I wished for nothing but death. I only wanted to make sure of being killed before anyone discovered that I was still worth the old chief's bride-price.
"So I said to myself, 'I will run straight to the old man's house-place. I will shout my shame there first of all, so that his page 95people will try to catch and beat me. But I will escape from them and lead them to the house of my sister's husband. And we will all arrive at his door together. He will be so angry, he will kill me at once; and Tangaro will know that I chose death for love of him, and remember me with grief for ever.'
"Things fell out just as I had planned. I came to the old man's house-place. Men and women were standing round the house. I called to them from thirty paces off; I shouted, I screamed my shame. They ran towards me, crying angrily, 'Who did this thing to you?' I answered, 'A rat, but a better rat than your old chief,' and fled before anyone could take me.
"I led them to the house of my sister's husband. He stood outside. My sister and a crowd of people were gathered near him. They had been searching for me from before sunrise. Some people ran forward to hold me, crying, 'Alas! where have you been?' I shouted, 'I have been among the trees with my lover. He has loved me all night.' My sister's husband heard it. I called to him, 'Kill me now, for you will never get your bride-price.' Then the old man's people came running. They bawled, they screamed, they told of the shame I had done their chief. My sister's husband stood before me. He took my neck in his hands. 'Who is your lover?' I answered, 'A rat,' and spat in his face. He stopped my breath with his thumbs. A blackness rose up before my eyes. Then he let the breath come back. He said again, 'Who is your lover?' 'A rat, a rat'—I whispered, for my voice was sick. 'You die then,' he said and stopped my breath until the darkness closed over me.
"But behold now my sister, the brave, the tender-hearted! She sees me hanging from her husband's hands. I am nearly dead. She runs. She lies before him in the dust to make her prayer. Her head is between his feet. The head of a chief's daughter! His feet will trample it. How terrible that shame before the watching crowd—so terrible they hide their eyes; their hearts turn over for wonder and pity; they weep; they cry to her husband, 'Grant her prayer, we beg you, lest she page 96die for shame in the dust beneath your feet. Grant her the life of her sister.' And he, for pride of her love and shame of her shame, cannot deny her. His rage dies. He lets me fall to the ground. He lifts my sister, saying, 'It is enough. This woman lives. But take her out of my sight, for she is worthless.' And they carry me away to my house above the eastern beach.
"My sister was sitting beside me when I woke. 'Alas, Taaruru ! Why did you lie?'—these were her first words, and I knew she knew I had belonged to no lover. I was afraid. I tried to speak, but my voice was dead in my throat; I could only beg her with my lips, 'Don't tell, don't tell!' She took my hand in hers, saying, 'Sleep now. I will not tell.' She gave me water. My heart was at peace. I slept until the next day's sunset. And when I could speak, I told her how Tangaro had driven me away that night, and she wept with me saying, 'That is a noble heart! If only I too could have found such a husband.' And after that …"
The old woman paused for so long, smiling at her memories, I had to touch her arm: "And after that, Taaruru?"
She took my hand in hers: "After that there were goings and comings and whisperings in secret for a year and a month; but set all that aside; Tangaro bought me in the long run. He could have had me for nothing, for all the value my sister's husband put on me; but he said I was worth his big piece of land, and I said the land I had from my father was enough for both of us. My sister's husband was so pleased at that, he made a friend of Tangaro for life. And so, at last, we were all at peace together."
She fell silent again. I thought her tale was done and began to thank her, but she reproved me. "Patience! This is my sister's story as well as mine. There is better still to tell. Tangaro and I were able to repay her in the end for all her kindness. Her husband died before she had borne him a child. We took her into our house then, so that she and I could be Tangaro's wives together. What happiness for all of us in that page 97sharing! He gave her children of her own, for love of both of us, so that her sons were mine and mine were hers, and we were one in him forever, and he was undivided in us until he died."
Monogamy was forced on the Gilbertese by British law at the turn of the century, when Protestant missions had been at work in the islands for about fifty years, and the local administration for a decade more or less. There was no popular demand for it. On the contrary, except in one or two southern islands, tremendous pagan majorities still clung to the polygamy of their ancestors and the strictly controlled system of sex conduct that went with it. But nobody spoke for the pagans; the page 98petition of the sectarian minority went through to London backed by the administration (so much must be said in fairness to the Colonial Office of the day), and that was abysmally that.
As soon as the new law came into local force, a multitude of women who had enjoyed the honourable status of secondary wives under the old system found themselves suddenly converted into potential adulteresses. That is to say, the criminal code of the day allowed of no distinction between the situation of a sub-wife and that of any ordinary breaker-up of homes: she could be brought to trial before her island court and imprisoned for common adultery if anything so contumacious as pagan love or loyalty tempted her still to cling to the father of her children. By the same token, the rising Christian generation was taught from village pulpits to call her children bastards, and did so, freely.
The pagans liked and admired the white man: not even this treachery could shake their incredible loyalty to him; so there was no attempt anywhere to rebel against the law. Only, after lifelong partnerships, hundreds of secondary wives were put away in shame by their men, while as many women, whose mates would have held them despite everything, returned to their villages rather than stay and be placarded as harlots. There were many suicides among the middle-aged.
A quarter of a century after the event, I talked with a pagan friend of Tabiteuea whose mother had preferred death by her own hand to living on, either in unlawful concubinage with his father or in desolation without him. Though she was only a sub-wife, she happened to love both her man and his ceremonial bride, her elder sister.
So she said one evening to her son, who must have been about twenty at the time, "Your father will be happy with my sister, and she will always be good to you for my sake. As for me, I shall be better out of the way, since the law has made a shameful woman of me. I go now. Tell them I died loving them."page 99
The boy took her words for nothing but a cry of grief more bitter than usual. He put his arms round her, saying, "Neiko [Woman], we shall have each other. I will go and live with you in your father's village."
She smiled at him: "You are a good son," she said, returning his embrace. "Stay here and be a joy to your father." Then she walked out into the bush and hanged herself.
The next day, his father and aunt hanged themselves to the same tree. They doubtless felt, with his mother, that life was no longer worth living in a world of memories that the law had dishonoured for ever.
Looking back at the tragedies of depopulation caused by interference with the native custom in other groups of the Pacific, one is amazed at the vitality that enable the Gilbertese as a race to survive the murderous shock of compulsory monogamy. It is, indeed, true that the population figures showed a steady annual retrogression through the first dozen years of the new century; but the tide had already turned by 1915 and there has been a sustained forward movement ever since. I believe that this dramatic recovery was due to the unquenchable humour of the average pagan villager, which, as time went on, inspired him to escape from heavy new realities not by running away from them, but by using them, in the spirit of the old mime burlesques, as stuff for his Rabelaisian laughter. I have seldom seen a funnier piece of burlesque than one dating from the earliest 1900's (revised for my delight at Tarawa in 1925) in which a resident commissioner and a missionary, renowned both for their grimness and their intransigent dislike of each other, were mimed in the joint act of purloining forty odd sub-wives from the High Chief of Abemama and having them locked up for adultery—because they wanted the ladies for themselves. It was, of course, as untrue as it was indecent, but it left me feeling that nothing less than an angle of light could have inspired the gallant resilience of spirit which, under the very hammer-stroke of national disaster, had risen to make fun of the strikers.page 100
Then again, the villagers soon realized that the law was an ass in action. Though it had formally banned a number of sex courtesies between 'in-laws' which pagan custom had honoured, its powers of prevention in practice were strictly limited. What its minatory clauses could and, very quickly, did do was to destroy the stern code of reciprocal duties—the moralities, in short—which conditioned the ancient sex-exchanges. These duties were too many and varied for their faithful observance to pass unnoticed, so they were jettisoned. But the sex-relations themselves were more easily kept secret, and the spice of danger added to them by the law's threats acted as a strong challenge to adventurous minds. Such affectionate mutual courtesies as the temporary exchange of wives between brothers or close friends were stubbornly maintained for many years after they became criminal offences. A new success-value was added to the villagers' lives—the psychological fulfilment of beating the ogre of the law in pursuit of love within the ancient pattern—and this compensated happily for the loss of the older values. It certainly drove them farther and farther away from the Christian ideal of sex restraint which (one must suppose) the law as well as the missions had in view; but it contributed as I believe, more vitally than any other single factor towards the rebirth of their interest in life among the ruins of their ancestral system, and so also, in the end, towards the survival of their race.
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.