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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XIV — the insouciance of native races

page 228

Chapter XIV
the insouciance of native races

If we were called upon to name the one invention that stands between savagery and the growth of civilization we might fairly choose the timepiece of sundial. Fixed routine in daily life is unknown to primitive man, whose functions are controlled only by the impulse of the moment. Even among civilized races the most stagnant are those who have never learnt to put a value upon time, and who, like the Spanish, give an honourable place in their vocabulary to the word mañana, or its equivalent. Few, if any, of the natural races have made any provision in their vocabulary for any division of time less than the day; they have no word for hour, minute, or second, nor would they have any for day, if Nature had not divided the one from the other by intervals of darkness. Only three divisions of time were known to the Fijians: the year (yambaki), so named from the heathen harvest home (mbaki); the lunar month (vula); and the day (singa). He identifies any greater divisions of time by naming the reigning chief of the period, or by saying, "When so-and-so was so high," indicating some aged man in the party and marking his height at the time of the occurrence in the air with the hand. He will indicate the time of an event in the immediate past or future by the yam crop—"When the yams are ripe," or "At last planting time"; about the remote future he never troubles himself.

The Fijian eats when he is hungry, or when the sight of cooked food whets his appetite; he bathes only when he would cool his body; he sleeps when he is disinclined to work or when darkness has made work impossible; regular page 229hours for all these functions are quite unknown to him. His nearest approach to regularity is his observance of the season for yam planting, but this is because tradition has taught him that if he fails to plant his yams when the drala-tree is in flower, he will lack food in the following year. On one day he will work in his yam patch from sunrise till evening, and bathe at five o'clock and sleep the whole night through after a heavy meal. On another he will return from work at noon, and slumber away the hot afternoon, spending the night in feasting and dancing. He is improperly fed, not because food is scarce, but because he is incapable of the routine of regular meals or of any moderation. In times of plenty his diet is not improved, because he wastes his surplus in prodigal feasting. In times of scarcity he suffers because he will not husband his resources. System of any kind is peculiarly irksome to him. The Rev. W. Slade, a Wesleyan missionary, gives a good instance of this characteristic in the case of the mother of a seven-months child born in the neighbourhood of his mission station in 1893. "The woman herself cannot supply sufficient nourishment to the child, and has been told to come to the house twice a day for fresh cow's milk. She came for a few days and then ceased. Upon inquiry I found that, although the child was dying of starvation, she found it irksome to apply for the milk. Her maternal affection failed under the strain of walking one hundred yards twice a day." In the few instances in which a Fijian has attempted to keep cattle he has shown that he would rather let his beasts die of thirst than be bound by the necessity of giving them water at stated intervals. He cannot use dairy produce because he would fail to milk his cows regularly and to wash the utensils in which the milk was kept. The law of custom knew these defects in his character and provided for them. In the days of intertribal warfare if a village was to exist at all it must have food stored against a siege. There was a season for planting yams, and the soil would yield nothing to the slovenly planter. Public opinion took care that no man in the community shirked his work. The pigs and poultry thrived because they required neither feeding nor tending at page 230regular hours. The canoe was kept under shelter, and the matsail stripped from the yard on the first threat of a downpour of rain, because their owner knew that he would have to pay the carpenter for repairing them in food planted by his own hand. But the law of custom has made no provision for innovations. The sailing-boat, the one possession in which the Fijian takes the greatest pride, is allowed to decay almost past repair before he will think of refitting it, although he is well aware that a regular supply of paint and rope would have made much of the expense unnecessary. He is still passably energetic about his ancient pursuits of planting and fishing, but this fishing, which might be turned to profitable account in the supply of the daily market, is a mere desultory sport pursued because it provides an ever-varying succession of excitement. The desultory habit of mind which defers to the morrow all that does not appeal to the impulse of the moment affects all his surroundings, makes his house squalid, his diet irregular, and his village insanitary.

His insouciance, which was kept in check by the law of custom, had its root, like most other evils, in selfishness—a quality which is quite as much at home in a communal as it is in a civilized state of society, where defrauding the commonwealth is looked upon as a venial offence provided that it is not found out. In a communal state of society the instinct of the individual is to do and to give as little as possible. When the law of custom is breaking down, as among the Fijians, discovery entails but little disgrace. In being selfish the Fijian is only being what white men are. He has no patriotism and no nationality; he does not regard Fiji as his country, for Fiji is the whole world as he knows it. The pride that he once took in his own little tribal cosmos is dying out now that he no longer has to fight for it, and he concerns himself less about the natives of the twelve provinces besides his own than an ordinary Englishman troubles about the Andaman Islanders. So that the enjoyment of his lands in his own lifetime is not interfered with, the Fijian does not feel called upon to avert the total extinction of his race by any measures that demand from him the slightest exertion.

page 231

The want of the maternal instinct in the Fijian women is no new quality, but the law of custom took it into account and provided against it. The tribes that reared most male children had the most fighting men, and they alone could hold their own. A tribe of habitually neglectful parents was wiped out mercilessly, and within the limit of the tribe the old men and women who had grown-up sons were the last to suffer from want or insult. These incentives to the care of children may not have been constantly before the minds of Fijian parents in the old days, but they moulded the daily life of the community, and gave each member of it an interest in the welfare of his fellows. Under the Pax Britannica a tribe has no longer any interest in being numerous except the fear of losing possession of its communal land, and this fear is tempered by the knowledge that if the land is leased to planters the rent money will go further among few than among many. Parents no longer look to their children to support them in old age. The law protects them from aggression, and they have none of the fear, which besets members of civilized communities, of destitution in their declining years.

Instances of the absence of the maternal instinct in Fijian mothers might be multiplied. They love their children in their own casual way; so long as they are not called upon to make the slightest self-sacrifice for them they are foolishly indulgent to them. One cannot spend a single night in a native village without realizing how immeasurably inferior the Fijians are in this respect to Indian coolies or even to the Line Islanders. When questioned on this subject an old Line Island midwife remarked, "We Tokelau love our children; the father loves them quite as much as the mother." Therein lies the greater part of the difference; the Fijian mother would look in vain to her husband for any sympathy or assistance in the upbringing of her children. In the old days when the safety of the tribe demanded as many boys and as few girls as possible, female children were often destroyed, but it does not appear that any protest or resistance was ever made by the mother. The case I am about to page 232relate is not to be taken as a fair example of Fijian women, because instances quite as revolting have been recorded among women of civilized communities. Some years ago, a woman in the Rewa province, noticing that the dark corners of her house were much infested by mosquitoes, kept her two-year-old child naked, and forced it to stand in the corner until its body was covered with the insects, which she then killed by slapping it. She set this awful mosquito trap so often that the poor child died of its injuries. It is fair to say that natives speak of this revolting story with disgust, for the sins of Fijian mothers are sins of omission rather than of commission. A learned work has lately been written to prove that the key to evolution is the development of maternal instinct, which varies enormously in strength, not only in different species of mammalia, but in individuals. Struggle for existence tends to develop the instinct, since those who possess it will perpetuate their offspring to the exclusion of those who do not.

The Fijians are in a transition stage between two systems of struggle for existence—the physical struggle of intertribal war, and the moral struggle of modern competition. It is vain to hope that the maternal instinct can be artificially implanted in them, but if they are ever moved to take up the "black man's burden," and set themselves to compete against the motley population that is pouring into their islands, natural affection, which is now kept down by the savage's dislike of all restraint and routine, may be born in them.