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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom



The Fijian child begins life with a dose of medicine. As soon as it has been washed in cold water a little of the juice of-the candle-nut-tree (Aleurites triloba) is put into its mouth to make it vomit. Then a ripe cocoanut, or in some places a plantain, is roasted and chewed into a pulp, which is dropped into a cocoanut-shell cup. A piece of bark-cloth, shaped like a nipple, is dipped into this, and given to the child to suck. The mother's first milk, being considered unwholepage 212some, is drawn off, and for the first day, or, in the case of a chief's child, for the first three days, the baby is put to the breasts of a wet nurse, if its rank is sufficient to command her services. The wet nurse is strictly forbidden to bathe or fish in salt water, and there must not be too great a disparity of age between her own and her foster child. When the mother's breasts are full, her child is given to her to suckle, but now, as in the old days, the children of chiefs are suckled by more than one woman. In Tonga the mother suckles her child as soon as the milk comes.

In one respect only have the ancient customs relating to suckling children begun to break down; the missionaries have tried to discourage the employment of a wet nurse, probably because her own child is likely to suffer from neglect.

Among the common people it has always been the custom for two girls from the wife's and two from the husband's family to feed and tend the new mother, unless her rank is too lowly to entitle her to the services of more than one. The two grandmothers of the child, if living, also help to tend the mother. But at the tenth day they all leave her to the care of her husband. This custom fits into the waning practice of concubitous marriage, (q. v. ante), for if the husband and wife belong to different islands the wife's relations are unable to contribute their services to her support. During the first ten days the mother is confined to a vegetable diet. She is forbidden to eat what the native call ka ndamu (red things, i.e. fish, crabs, pork, or broths made therefrom), and is fed upon taro or breadfruit puddings (vakalolo), yams, taro, or spinach. At the end of ten days she goes about her housework, and if she cannot command the services of her relations to enable her to lay up for the bongi ndrau (hundred days), she resumes all her ordinary outdoor work except seafishing, for, as the natives say, "there is dambe in the sea, and if the mother wets her leg above the calf in salt water, her milk will be spoiled."

It is perhaps owing to their hard work and low diet that Fijian mothers so often suffer from a deficiency of breast milk, and that so many children die from matha na mena suthu page break
Women Fishing with the Seine.

Women Fishing with the Seine.

page 213 (drying up of the milk) and londo i suthu (privation of milk), i.e. from the death, absence, or neglect of the mother. When the mother's milk fails her breasts are oiled and steamed and painted with turmeric, and are kept warm by bandages of bark-cloth, while she eats spinach, mba vakoro (a mixture of spinach with shell-fish), and drinks fish soup and spinach water. Kava, which was absolutely forbidden to women of the last generation, is now drunk by both pregnant and nursing women under the belief that it induces easy labour and promotes a flow of milk when all other means fail. But if the flow of milk is re-established, the more nutritious diet is at once discontinued, for quantity is all that is aimed at.

When the milk fails or the mother dies the child's chances of surviving are slender indeed. Its grandmother will carry it from house to house imploring nursing mothers to give it suck. With one accord they all begin to make excuses. They have not milk enough for their own children; there are many other women more able to than they. In Thakaundrove a woman who is not nursing sometimes takes the place of the mother. She is fed on spinach, and is oiled and tended like the real mother, and in course of time, if the child continues to suck her breasts, the milk comes, and the child is reared. There is a well-attested case—and it is said to be by no means a solitary instance—in which the grandmother suckled the children during the mother's frequent absences from home. They were the children of her youngest daughter, and yet she contrived to induce a flow of milk for each of the four children in succession. It is not surprising that all the children died in infancy, for such milk could have little nutritive value.

Statistics show that, even counting the children that are fortunate enough to find a wet nurse to adopt them, in at least three cases out of four the death of the mother means the death of the child also, and that the mortality is only a shade lower in cases where the mother is deficient in breast milk. The father's absence from home is also a fatal condition, for the mother is then obliged to take her baby with her to the plantation, where it is left under a tree while its page 214mother works in the sun. Among the Motu tribes in New Guinea a sort of crèche is improvised in the corner of the field; every nursing mother goes to work with her child slung in a net bag. These bags are slung from the branches of a tree, and are guarded by one of the women told off for the duty in rotation. I remember coming suddenly upon one of these trees at a turn in the path. Its dead branches bore a round dozen of this strange fruit—fat brown babies fast asleep with their knees doubled up to their chins and their flesh oozing from the meshes of the net bags. Near the same village I saw a woman, who had probably lost her baby, doing her maternal duty to a sucking-pig and a puppy.

The only substitute for milk known to the Fijians is mba water, i.e. water in which the stalks of the taro (Calladium esculentum) have been boiled. It contains a large proportion of glucose, a little starch, a trace of albumen, some malic acid, a pinkish or pale violet colouring matter intensified by acids, water and cellulose, but no tannic or gallic acids. The microscope showed it to be free from oxalate of lime or other raphides. In the uncooked stalks and leaves there is a highly acrid oily matter, which, however, is completely dissipated by heat even below 200° Fahrenheit. Mba is not unlike boiled beet stalks, and the sweet and mucilaginous liquor must be a palatable and not unsatisfying food for a child in ordinary health, though it is far from being as nutritive as mother's milk. It is strange that the Fijians have never thought of adding to it the strainings of grated cocoanuts which abound in every village, though even so the food would still be deficient in proteids.

In Tonga, on the other hand, children are generally reared safely by hand upon a diet of cooked breadfruit made into a liquid with cocoanut-milk. I have heard of one instance of a child that was reared on sugar-cane. The Gilbert Islanders use a butter made of the fruit of the pandanus made fresh every day, and they also give their children young cocoanuts to suck through a hollow rush.