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Return to the Islands

Defenders of the Faithless

Defenders of the Faithless

It might well seem that the government's treatment of ordinary conjugal unfaithfulness, from the beginning, as a criminal offence instead of a civil wrong was just another piece of imperial arrogance as destructive as the banning of polygamy. But it didn't work out quite that way. The pagans approved of this particular dispensation as strongly as the Christian authorities did in the early days of British rule. Their argument started from the premise that death was the only proper sanction for 'rat's love'—except, of course, where the wronged husband allowed the seducer to comfort him with a large piece of real estate instead. The law having banned both private executions and expropriations of land for adultery, the least it could do now in the name of public decency, they said, was to prescribe heavy sentences of imprisonment for people who behaved like rodents.

I hesitate to claim that this excellent reasoning really counted for much in Downing Street. Nevertheless, the real motive behind the law was not entirely reasonless. The average villager, whether Christian or pagan, was apt to swing a very fast hatchet at a faithless wife and her seducer. Until his first page 110anger cooled, the island lock-up was the only safe refuge for the erring couple. There is not a shadow of doubt that within, say, the first thirty years of British rule, the summary imprisonment of the over-adventurous saved many hundreds of enraged husbands from committing murder and, in consequence, just about twice their number of guilty parties from figuring as sudden corpses on the beaches of their islands.

But though this life-saving, murder-preventing policy, considered in vacuo, was its own complete justification, the trouble in real life was that our prisons were handicapped as corrective institutions by having to administer only the puny punishments allowed by British regulations. In the result, the law succeeded in robbing adultery of all its ancient terrors without providing anything like an effective new deterrent for those inclined to stumble. As a contribution towards the 'improvement' of national sex morals it was, in fact, like the law which enforced monogamy, a failure.