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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XV — sexual morality

page 233

Chapter XV
sexual morality

There is no point upon which primitive races differ more than in their regard for chastity. Among civilized peoples there has been an ebb and flow of sexual morality so marked that historians have had recourse to the explanations of the example of the Court, or the fluctuations of religious earnestness among the people, assuming that, but for Christianity and education, mankind would be sunk in bestial licence. Every traveller knows this to be a fallacy. In Africa, of two races in the same stage of social development and in constant intercourse with one another, the one may tolerate a system bordering on promiscuity, and the other punish a single lapse with death. If it were possible to generalize in the matter, one would say that the higher the civilization and the greater the leisure and luxury, the looser is the sexual morality; and the ruder the people and the harder the struggle against nature for subsistence, the weaker is its sexual instinct and the more rigid is its code. But there are more exceptions than will prove this rule. The Chinese, who were civilized before our history began, are not as a race addicted to lechery; the Fuegians, who have scarce learned to clothe themselves against the bitterest climate in the world, do not even seek privacy for their almost promiscuous intercourse.

Respect for chastity, in fact, is a question of breed rather than of law and religion. A full-blooded race may use law to curb its appetites, yet may break out into periodic rebellion against its own laws; a cold-blooded people, like the Australian blacks, may tolerate what appears to us a page 234brutish indulgence, and yet apply the most contemptuous epithet in their language to the man addicted to sensual pleasure.

There was nothing in the institutions of the two great races of the Pacific Islands to account for the remarkable difference in their regard for chastity. They were reared in the same climate, nourished with the same food; the same degree of industry sufficed to provide them with all that they required. The power of the aristocracy among the Polynesians should have been more favourable to social restrictions than the republican institutions of the Melanesians. If the influence of a strong central government tended in either direction, which the fact that sexual restrictions were the same in both the powerful confederations and the village communes of Fiji effectively disproves, the Polynesians should have been the more continent. And yet, with nothing save race temperament to account for the difference, the Polynesians were as lax as the Melanesians were strict in their social code. It was the licence of the Tahitian and Hawaiian women which tempted seamen to desert their ships, and so led to European settlements in the Polynesian groups while the Melanesian remained almost unknown. The prostitution that sprang up in the principal ports attracted whaleships, which sometimes took sides in native quarrels. The stories of their excesses brought the missionaries, and the destruction of such customary law as still survived was greatly accelerated.

The Melanesians, on the other hand, offered no such temptation to passing ships. They practised no open-handed hospitality; their fickle temper kept their visitors perpetually on their guard against attack; they generally kept their women out of sight, and the women themselves were not only ill-favoured, but also excessively shy of Europeans. Though ships have frequented Fiji for nearly a century, and the group has had a foreign population of several thousands for five-and-twenty years, professional prostitution among Fijian women is so rare that it may be said not to exist. Nevertheless, the decay of custom has by no means left the morality of the page 235Fijians untouched. Let us compare what it was with what it is.

In heathen times, as I have already said, there was a very limited form of polygamy. The powerful chiefs had as many wives and concubines as their wealth and influence would support, but the bulk of the people were monogamists. The high chiefs were an exception to the general rule of continence. They did not, it is true, often carry on intrigues with girls of their own station, but they could send for any woman of humble birth, particularly in the villages of their vasus or of their dependants by conquest. In this, as in other things, the chiefs were above the law, and many of them made a practice of asserting the privileges of their station. A low-born woman, whether maid or wife, received the summons as if it had been a divine command, however distasteful it might be to her. If she hesitated, and the chief condescended so far as to entreat her, sealing his entreaty by sniffing at her hand (rengu), refusal was impossible. This kiss of entreaty from a chief is, even now, so much dreaded by unwilling girls that they will use violence to prevent the nose of their wooer from touching their hand, for the Fijian kiss, like that of all oriental races, is a sharp inhalation of breath through the nostrils.

Considerable licence was tolerated at every high chief's court between the chief's retainers and the female servants of his wives. These were women taken in war, or good-looking girls from the vassal villages who had enjoyed the shortlived honour of concubinage. They did the rough work of his kitchen, and were lent to distinguished visitors who cared for that kind of hospitality. But the wives and daughters and favourites of the chief were inviolable, and the man who dared to meddle with them played with his life.

Boys and girls were allowed to associate freely during the day-time, and to play such games as veimbili and sosovi together, but they were kept apart during the night. The girls slept with their mother, and the boys, as soon as they had attained puberty, were compelled to sleep in the mbure-ni-sd, the village club-house, in which the unmarried men, the page 236village elders and strangers slept. The girls were so carefully watched that they seem generally to have retained their chastity until marriage, and the young men, fully occupied with the training proper to their age, had neither the opportunity nor the inclination for sexual intrigue.

In every community sexual laws were of slow growth; they were not the expression of a high ethical standard, for primitive races see no sin in sexual intercourse per se, but rather of a growing sense of public convenience; they were not the inspiration of a lawgiver, but the expression of the tribal conscience. The Seventh Commandment was an inscription upon tablets of a law that was already observed by the Hebrews. The Fijians had evolved their law from considerations that were purely practical. Women were chattels; a virgin was more marketable than a girl who had had adventures; an illegitimate child was a burden upon its mother's parents. And besides these primitive considerations, incontinence was an infringement of the Fijian marriage law which provided each individual woman with her proper partner, and maintained the equilibrium of exchange of women with the intermarrying tribe and a just interchange of marriage gifts. A people who can complain in such terms as, "They have had four of our women already, and we but two of theirs, and here they ask us for a fifth," was not likely to tolerate clandestine love affairs among their daughters. That a high moral standard was not the cause of their strict law was shown by the fact that the married women in heathen times practised a laxity of morals unknown to them before marriage. Adultery was punished by fine if the parties were of equal rank, and by death if the offender was of lower rank than the husband and the act could be interpreted into an insult. But the women went about their amours discreetly, choosing the times when their husbands were absent on war parties, and reflecting that "what the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve for."

With the introduction of Christianity there came a change. Sexual licence, formerly prevented, was now only forbidden. The missionaries' endeavours to inculcate "family life" on the page 237English plan produced a surprising result. The mbure-ni-sa was gradually deserted by all but the old men; the youths went to sleep in their parents' houses, and, when once the novel idea of unmarried men sleeping in the same house with women had been digested, the other houses of the village were open to them. Association of the sexes and emancipation from parental control did the rest. There were other changes. Education begat in the young a contempt for the opinions of their elders. Against the precepts of the old men, who had formerly controlled every detail of the village life, there were the opposing teachings of the missionary and the trader, both startling the young with echoes of a wider world than their own. While the elders stayed at home, the young made voyages to the European settlements of Suva and Levuka and tasted vice with the loafers on the beach; they served three years with the constabulary and the police, or worked a year on the plantations, revelling in their new-found freedom, aping the manners of half-castes and white men who talked evil of dignities, and would pass the highest chiefs, even the governor of the colony, without doffing their turbans. Their favourite topic of conversation is their amours, and they have the Gallic indifference to the good fame of the women who have yielded to them. Illicit relations extend far beyond the limits of the village. When young men are together in a strange village some one exclaims, "Me-nda-kari" (lit., "Let us rasp," i.e. shape to our will by repeated solicitation); and the inferiors in rank will immediately constitute themselves procurers to their chief—a rôle which suggests no taint of infamy in their minds. Sometimes they work through an old woman, sometimes through a young man of the place who is dazzled by the notice taken of him by such distinguished guests. The women are beguiled to the trysting-place, and yield rather from feebleness of will than from appetite for vice. It is this frailty of will that makes it difficult to believe in the charges of rape that are frequently tried in the courts. The Fijian woman seems rarely to yield willingly to any but her chosen lover. She is, moreover, so muscular that any real and sustained resistance would prevail against violence, but page 238whether from her habit of obedience or some psychological reaction of the sexual instinct, she cannot resist ardent solicitation. "He took me by the hand," a girl exclaimed to the court, when asked why she did not cry out, as if the accusation of violence was by no means weakened. If a woman cannot be brought to a tryst her lover resorts to vei-ndaravi (lit., crawling); that is to say, he will crawl into the house where she is sleeping with her companions and lie down beside her without awakening them, and profit by her frailty of will. I have known of cases where a young chief, personally distasteful to the woman he desired, has compelled her lover to do the wooing in a dark house, and has then taken his place without her discovery of the fraud. The lack of self-control seems to be more marked in low-born than in chief women. When Andi Kuila, the daughter of King Thakombau, had been reproving two of her women for levity of conduct, they replied, "It is all very well for you great ladies to talk, but as for us common women we cannot control ourselves" (keimami sa senga ni vosoti keimami rawa:" lit, "endure ourselves"). This speech did not imply that the sexual impulse was uncontrollable, for in the Fijian woman the contrary is the case, but that their power of resistance was weak.

Apud tribus quasdam quae regiones montanas habitant, dixit princeps Vaturemba, non fit coitus in modo assueto, saltern a senioribus. Mas, genibus nixus, crura feminae levat atque trahit donec nates in suis femoribus jacent, et sic fit coitus. In judicio quum senex virginis violatione accusatus est, testimonium puellae non fuit perspicuum utrum animum verum ad deflorationem habuerit accusatus necne. Interro-gavit ille princeps, qui judex fuit, "Crura tua levavit?" et quum negavit puella "Ergo, quamquam animum libidinosum habuit, non te deflorare voluit," dixit judex.

There is a mass of evidence to show that in heathen times the majority of girls were virgin until they married or entered into concubinage, because the law of custom allowed them no opportunities for secret amours; whereas, after fifty years of individual freedom, it is extremely rare for a girl to preserve page 239her virtue to the age of eighteen. The commonest age for seduction seems to be from fourteen to fifteen, and grown men are more often to blame than boys of the same age. On the other hand, many young girls give themselves to their ndavola (i.e. concubitant cousin), who, by Fijian custom, has a right to them, and their relations do not appear to resent this so far as to prosecute the man for fornication. The birth-rate being high, these early excesses cannot affect their prolificness, but it is quite possible that it may injure the viability of the children born after marriage.

Though the girls do not appear to fear suspicion of their chastity, they do fear the disgrace which follows the discovery of their pregnancy. It is to avoid such exposures that they resort to means to procure abortion, though habitual profligacy seems to be so seldom followed by pregnancy that this fear does not act as a deferrent. Vitienses credunt nullam feminam ex uno coitu gravidam fieri, ultroque hymenem ruptum sarciri posse herbis quibusdam maceratis et immissis. Itaque virgines, quum ad coitum solicitantur, facilius concedunt. Some Fijians also believe that girls who have been deflowered before puberty retain their youthful appearance long after the usual period. There is also a widespread belief that when a woman has been cohabiting with more than one man before conception the paternity of her child is shared equally by all her paramours.

When the morality of unmarried women is compared with that of the married the position is reversed, for whereas in heathen times married women were lax, they are now less accessible. This is due, no doubt, to the state of espionage in which the married woman now lives. Formerly the husband and his relations only were concerned with her behaviour, and if they were indifferent, she was free to follow her inclinations; but since the Missions have branded adultery as a crime, and the law has made it a criminal offence, every person in the village makes it his or her concern to bring the offenders to justice. Probably half the acts of adultery that take place are committed by the wife to avenge herself upon the husband for his infidelity or unkindness.

page 240

The Fijian is not naturally a hot-blooded or lascivious race, in spite of all that I have said. Its growing profligacy has been called in to fill the place of the forms of excitement that formerly contented it. Yet in certain directions the sexual appetite is easily aroused. The act of tokalulu (spying upon women bathing) is reprobated by the tribal conscience, but is nevertheless exceedingly common among the young men, and the women exhibit their contempt for it in a remarkable manner. Slightly clad as they are, Fijian women are as particular about absolute nudity as their European sisters. A Mbau girl of rank who was bathing in the river discovered a young mountaineer spying upon her from behind a clump of reeds. Instead of concealing herself, as her instinct prompted her, she allowed him to see that he was observed, and came out of the water before him in puris naturalibus. Having passed him proudly by, she dressed herself leisurely and returned home to announce what she had done. The man never held up his head again in that village, for he caught the meaning of the action—that he was of no more account to her than a pig who had strayed down to the bathing-place. To the Fijian mind no explanation was necessary.

Dancing in the meke appears to be a strong stimulus to passion in the women. At a big meke on the Ra coast one young man surpassed all his fellows in the war-dance, and as the torchlight gleamed on his oily limbs a young woman, unable to contain herself, rushed into the middle of the dancing ground, and clutching him, took his loin-cloth in her teeth. This terrible breach of decorum became the gossip of the district, and when she came to her senses she would have taken her own life for shame if her friends had not prevented her.

I must touch lightly on certain horrible forms of sexual exaltation provoked by carnage. The corpses destined for the oven were received by the women with indecent songs and dances which were only ceremonial in part. At the sack of a fortress the corpses of young girls were subject to outrage, vaginâ cadaveris fructu bananae cocto immisso calefactâ.

page 241

Some forms of sexual perversion exist, but are not common. They are held to be contemptible rather than criminal and horrible. Offences against nature seem to be confined to the inland tribes of Western Vitilevu, who have been the least affected by intercourse with Europeans, and they have there, no doubt, been occasionally practised from very remote times, though, curiously enough, they are there called "white man's doings" (valavala vavalangi). In one lamentable case of a European addicted to such vice, Thakombau ordered him to leave the group, and he was afterwards killed in the New Hebrides.

The nervous system of the Fijian is curiously contradictory, and it is at least probable that the premature excitement of the sexual instinct in the women has an injurious effect upon their fecundity. In sexual matters they are certainly neurotic. I have met with several cases of what is called ndongai, which corresponds with what is called "broken heart" in Europeans. Two young people who have come together once or twice, and who have been suddenly separated, sicken and pine away, and unless their intrigue can be resumed, they do not recover. It is not regarded as a psychological or interesting malady, as love-sickness is with us, but as a physical ailment for which but one remedy is known.

The causes of the growing laxity of morals lie too deep for the efforts of the Wesleyan missionaries to check it. They have prohibited tattooing (veinkia), hair cutting and hairdressing by persons of the opposite sex, and the old swimming games. But, on the other hand, certain church festivals have innocently tended in the opposite direction. All the older natives are agreed in saying that the dances of school-children (meke ni wilivola), which bring together the young people of several villages, are made the occasion for dissoluteness as soon as the native teachers' backs are turned. The early missionaries failed to see that in breaking down the mbure system, and inculcating family life on the English plan, they were leaving the native to follow his own inclinations. Inter-tribal peace and the possession of boats to make travel easy did the rest. Nevertheless, the Fijians as a race practise less page 242sexual licence than many races which are not decreasing, and if it were not for the frequent attempts to procure abortion on the part of unmarried girls in order to conceal their shame, it would have but little influence upon the vital statistics of the race.