Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXIV — traits of character

page 304

Chapter XXIV
traits of character

As the natural disposition with which a child enters this world, restrained though it may be by caution or fear of public opinion from expressing itself in acts, remains unaltered till he leaves it, so the character of natural man is untouched, even superficially, by the decay of his customary law. The surface of the lake is lashed into foam by the passing squall; but a fathom beneath the water lies untroubled.

Though the Fijian character has been described as full of contradictions, when it is examined by the light of their moral code, which differs vitally in some respect from ours, it will be found to be as consistent as our own. How, it may be asked, can a people addicted to cannibalism and to acts of ferocious cruelty be the most timid, polite and hospitable of mankind? To any one intimately acquainted with the people these facts are perfectly consistent, though it is a little difficult to reconcile them in cold print. Timidity, as Williams stated many years ago, is the key to the Fijian character. Beset by a myriad perils from the cradle-mat to the burial-cave, he went in terror of his life. On the one hand there were the Unseen Powers quick to avenge every infringement of a tabu, however unwitting; on the other was his own chief, quick to take offence, and beyond him the enemy, ever ready to waylay the unwary in a lonely part of the road. In such an atmosphere the cardinal virtues do not thrive, and it is not to be wondered at that the Fijian was suspicious, and held craft and adroit lying in high esteem. He was polite and hospitable, because, with so many enemies already, his instinct was always to convert every new potential page 305foe into an ally, or at least not to give him an excuse for thinking himself slighted. His cruelty also proceeded in part from timidity. "Moku na katikati" (Slay the women and children) was, as a Christian native once assured me, a sound maxim, for the object in war was to crush your enemy beyond the power of retaliation, and women and children breed avengers to harass your old age. The horrible cruelties inflicted on captives were in part propitiations to the War-god, and in part the same thoughtless love of mischief that moves English school-boys to tie a kettle to a dog's tail, because its sufferings are amusing to watch, and they do not understand.

The sympathies of the Fijian reached to the limit of his tribe and no further, but within that limit they were active enough. After torturing, mutilating, and devouring his helpless captives, the warrior washed off his war-paint, went home and played with his children, received his visitors with stately politeness, and performed his part in the ornate and elaborate ceremonial of social life. Both phases were custom, and to his mind not in the least incongruous.

In the matter of lying he drew a nice distinction. It was a crime to lie to his chief; it was, if not a virtue, at least a title to public admiration to display something cruder than the craft of Odysseus to an enemy, or to a person not a member of his tribe. The maxim "All is fair in love and war" was applied literally. To pretend alliance, and then treacherously to smite the ally from behind, as Namosimalua did to the people of Naingani, was more esteemed than barren courage. I have heard a young chief boast of having gratified his passion by compelling the lover of the girl he coveted to overcome her scruples while he hid in the dark behind him, so that at the last he might push him aside and personate him. In these days the European has dropped easily into the place formerly occupied by the extra-tribal man. By an administrative fiction the Governor of the colony is supreme chief over the natives, and the natives have fallen easily into the habit of paying him all the external marks of respect which are due to their own chiefs, even, rather incongruously, greeting him with the tama, or shout of respect which is due page 306only to the chief in whom is enshrined the ancestral spirit of the man who utters it. There have been governors who have been deceived into the belief that they really enjoy ex officio the prestige of a supreme chief, and that the natives will not dare to lie to them. In 1888 an European named Stewart was murdered on the Sambeto coast. Another European was arrested and tried for the crime, but the issue was confused by a number of native witnesses, who came forward with two wholly incompatible stories, both designed to fasten the guilt upon the accused man. One of these stones hung upon a letter said to have been written by a petty chief who in heathen times would have held an office akin to that of hereditary executioner. The governor interrogated this man, and, convinced from his knowledge of native character that the man would not dare to lie solemnly to his supreme chief, accepted the story, and placed the matter in my hands as Acting Head of the Native Office. Everything turned upon the question whether the man had himself written the letter, and I knew that he could not write, but since the Governor could not be convinced without proof, I induced him to send for the chief, and put my statement to the test. I could not help admiring the native's courage and persistence. Even when writing materials were put before him in the Governor's presence, and he was ordered to copy a verse from the Fijian Bible, he did not falter. For a full ten minutes he plodded away with an implement that he had never had between his fingers before, trailing a drunken zigzag across the paper like the track of a fly rescued from drowning in an inkpot. He took his unmasking with quiet dignity, however, and the murder remains a mystery to this day. To his own chief he would not have lied: the Governor of the colony was simply a foreigner to whom he owed no allegiance.

Europeans hold opinions regarding the honesty of Fijians according to their individual experience. There is no equivalent for the word in the language, though there is a word for theft. In the ancient moral code theft and cheating were virtues or vices according to whether they were practised upon a stranger or a member of the tribe and inasmuch as page 307the white man falls into the former category, and is possessed of priceless treasures to boot, it was not to be expected that the Fijian would regard cheating him as an offence against morality. It was an injury, and since to injure a man who had befriended you is a mean action, public opinion would mildly condemn the robbing of a friendly white man, Cheating and theft really date from the arrival of Europeans, for in the small communities of the old time it was well-nigh impossible to rob a fellow-tribesman without being found out, and to despoil an enemy was, as it is with us, legitimate.

In the matter of dishonesty it is, of course, the country storekeeper who suffers most, and it is therefore he who gives the Fijian the worst character. The native, from the highest to the lowest, will run into debt under the most solemn promises, and would never pay unless induced by cajolery, or compelled under the pressure of a refusal to give further credit. Even so he will display great ingenuity. A few years ago the Government, anxious to introduce copper coinage into a colony where a silver threepenny piece was the lowest currency, tried the experiment of paying a portion of the tax refund in copper. The natives showed a great unwillingness to accept it, but the late Roko Tui Lau, an old chief noted for his stately and dignified manners, won the gratitude of his people by including all the copper coins in his own share. On the following day, accompanied by his train carrying bags of money, he presented himself at the German store, where his credit had long been overstrained, and intimated that he had come to pay off his debts. The heavy bags were clapped on the counter, and the unsuspecting trader, believing the coins to be florins, pressed fresh supplies upon his illustrious client, who loaded his men with goods and departed. The trader's feelings (and, I suspect, his language) when he came to open the bags and found not a florin among the lot, need not be dwelt upon.

The commoner forms of dishonesty—putting white stones among the yankona, and watering the tobacco and the copra to increase the weight—are well-nigh universal, and there have been a few instances of childish attempts at forgery page 308among domestic servants, but when the Fijians are compared with Indian coolies, it must be confessed that pilfering is rare. I have myself lived for years in native districts without a door to my house, which has stood open night and day even in my absences, and I can only recall one theft of a few shillings. A Fijian servant will sometimes secrete a thing which he covets to see whether it is missed. If inquiries are made for it he will be most active in the search, and will eventually discover it in some unlikely place, hoping to acquire merit by his diligence, but deceiving nobody.

On the other hand, money is a temptation which few natives can resist, and it is to be feared that ew native magistrates or scribes have not at some time or other borrowed from the funds entrusted to them. They might well plead the excuse that their wants and the calls of hospitality have greatly increased, while their wretched salaries of from £3 to £12 a year have not. It is much to say for them that bribery is uncommon, and that though they may show partiality in the administration of justice they are not corrupt.

Considering what must appear to the Fijian as the fabulous wealth of the white man, unprotected save by a wooden wall and a crazy door, and so temptingly placed at the mercy of the village as is the native store, it is surprising that housebreaking is not more frequent. It is the belief of many Fijians that every white man has a chest of money in his house, and occasionally some restless spirit organizes a burglary among his chosen associates. I have related elsewhere1 how Kaikai robbed a store at Navua, set it on fire, and sank the safe in the bed of the river, but in order to show the school-boy light-hearted inconsequence of the burglars, I may repeat here the confession of one of them:—

"Sir, the root of the matter was Kaikai, He seduced us to do this thing. We therefore are innocent. It happened thus: Kaikai came into our house in the evening and said 'Eroni, let us have prayers.' So we had prayers. Then Kaikai said, 'How would it be to break open the white man's store?' And we said, 'It is well.' And when we came near the store, Kaikai said, 'How would it be to set page 309the store on fire, and then perhaps the white man will come out?' So we set the store on fire, and presently the white man did come out. Then Kaikai said, 'Let us trample him.' And so we did, and having put the chest of money in the river, we all went home."

"And what did you do then ?" asked the Court.

"Kaikai said prayers."

A similar case occurred in Vanualevu, while the Australian papers were of full of the exploits of the Kelly gang of bushrangers. Fired by the halting translation of the local storekeeper, three otherwise blameless youths, church-goers every one, resolved to take to the bush and make the world ring with the story of their crimes. They began tentatively by setting fire to an empty house, and waxing bolder, they waylaid an elderly German storekeeper in broad day, and by dint of yelling their tribal war-cry into his ears, put sufficient heart into themselves to cut him down with a hatchet. A couple of mission teachers, attracted by their shouts, put them to flight, and thereafter they seem to have lost heart, for a week later their dead bodies were discovered far up the mountain. They had perished like the Fijian widows of old. Two of them had strangled the third by hauling on the loose ends of a noose of bark-cloth; the first had then strangled the second by tying one end of the noose to a tree, and pulling on the other, and had then hanged himself, English fashion, from a bough.

Though naturally so timid, the Fijian has shown himself upon occasion to be capable of extraordinary courage and self-devotion, generally, however, when assailed by the forces of nature. There is no reason to doubt the truth of the story that a Kandavu chief, whose canoe capsized a mile from the Serua reef, when attacked by sharks, was protected by his men, who formed a ring round him as he swam. As man after man was dragged down, the rest closed in, until there were but three left to reach the shore. I myself questioned two girls, the survivors of a party of twelve, who had been picked up by a cutter off the mouth of the Rewa, after all their companions had been devoured by sharks, and they had been eight hours swimming in a rough sea. They described without a shudder how a huge shark, glutted with the body page 310of the last of their playmates, had rubbed himself along their naked backs as they swam, and had played about them until the moment of their rescue. Their fortitude seemed, however, to be due to a lack of imagination.

To the European the natives must always seem wanting in natural affection. Parents are fond of their children until sickness calls for sustained effort or self-sacrifice, but their love will not bear the strain of these. As with all races such affection as there is tends downward and not upward. The mother is fonder of her child than the child of his mother. In the old days the young man obeyed his father, because he was one of the elders, the repositories of tribal lore, not because he was his father; but when the father grew infirm he helped to bury him alive without a trace of emotion beyond the mourning which customary law enjoined. In these days of schools and Government employment the young man regards the opinion of his elders no more. A few years ago the senior Wesleyan missionary appealed to one of Thakombau's sons to mend his ways, saying, "What would the chief, your father, have said ?" The young man jerked his thumb contemptuously towards the tomb on the hill above them, and replied, "My father? Why, he's dead." While there is a certain comradeship between brothers and the first cousins who are classed as brothers, the customary law that forbids brothers and sisters to speak to one another is a bar to any affection between these. On the other hand, there is loyalty and fidelity between husbands and wives, though it is more perhaps the mutual regard of partners in the same firm than warm attachment. The only instance of demonstrative family affection that I can recall occurred in Lomaloma when a prisoner sentenced by the Provincial Court was being sent on board a vessel bound for Levuka. His aged mother caught hold of him, to prevent him from entering the boat, wailing and storming at the native policeman by turns. When they had been separated by force, and he was fairly afloat, she cast herself down on the beach, shrieking and throwing the sand over her head in utter abandonment of grief. Though not more noisy, this was a very different page 311exhibition from the ceremonial wailing at a death. At the funeral of Tui Nandrau, one of the last of the cannibal chiefs, I came upon two or three of the widows howling with dry eyes, like dogs baying the moon. Seeing me, one of them nudged her neighbour to point me out, and grinned knowingly, and then drowned her sister wives in a howl of peculiar shrillness and poignancy. During a cricket match at Lomaloma a canoe arrived carrying news of the death of the father of one of the bowlers. At the end of the over his aunt came over to the pitch to tell him, and I overheard the conversation.

"Here is a painful thing," she said; "Wiliame is dead. Pita has just landed and brought the news."

"O Veka!" exclaimed the boy.

"How then? Shall we wail now, or after the game is finished?"

They discussed the point for a few moments. There were, it seemed, only three female relations on the ground, and if the others were sent for it would make a braver show. The boy decided the point. "Send for them," he said, "and let us finish the match first; then we can weep."

As soon as the last wicket was down I was startled by a piercing shriek from the scoring tent: the wailing had begun. The aunt and half-a-dozen old crones were howling "Oo-au-e-e" with a peculiar long-drawn wail, ending in a sob, while real tears coursed down their wrinkled cheeks. It was difficult to believe that the grief was only simulated.

The reasoning power of the Fijian is not easy to classify. He is extraordinarily observant, and in respect of natural phenomena he shows a high power of deduction. He is an acute weather-prophet; he knows the name and the nature of every tree and almost every plant that grows in his forest; he is a most skilful gardener. A broken twig, a fallen berry, are enough for him to assert positively where a wild hog has its lair; he knows by the look of the weather where the fish are to be found. He will tell you correctly from a footprint in the sand which of his fellow-villagers has passed that way and when, and whether he went in haste or leisurely, for he knows the footprints of his people as he knows their faces, page 312and will swear to them in court. He will probe the secret motive that lay behind every action of one of his own people, and he is beginning to draw deductions even from the manner of Europeans.

"Mr.—," a Fijian once said to me of a colleague of blunt manners, "is from Scotland. I suppose that Scotland is a 'bush' village!"

When justice has to be defeated he is remarkably acute in the story he will concoct. Assembling the false witnesses into a house by night, he will cunningly dissect it, dictating to each witness the part he is to tell, repeating it over and over until the man has it by heart, even interpolating some trifling discrepancy, so as to render it more life-like. It is only by showing in cross-examination that none of the witnesses will budge an inch beyond his original narrative that the fraud can be detected.

Fijian boys, educated at an European school, are probably quite equal in capacity and intelligence to European boys of the same age, but, though there has hitherto been no case in which their education has been continued beyond boyhood, there is no reason to think that this equality would not be maintained through manhood. In early boyhood they show some talent for arithmetic, and an extraordinary power of learning by rote. Those who had been sent to school in Sydney speak English with but little foreign accent. For drawing, for science, and for mechanics they do not appear to have much aptitude. As might be expected from a people to whom oratory comes easily, they write with ease, and their letters and articles for the native newspaper, Na Mata, show close reasoning, and sometimes scathing satire. One contributor, Ilai Moto-ni-thothoka, displayed both imagination and literary talent.

In education, however, the Fijian has never had a fair chance. The Wesleyan and Roman Catholic Missions support native teachers in every village in the colony, and every child learns something of reading and writing. The teachers themselves are educated at training schools, where more attention, naturally, is paid to fitting them for their duties as page 313local preachers than to giving them secular education. The two Government enterprises, the technical school and the school for native medical students, have not been a marked success. The boys leave the technical school with a fair knowledge of carpentry and smithing, but as soon as they return home the fecklessness of village life crushes all the enterprise out of them. Either a powerful chief expects them to work for him without pay, or relations swoop down upon them, borrow their tools, and force them back into the daily round in the village community to which they were born. Therein lies the secret: Custom again asserts herself. The native hereditary matai (carpenter), whose labour and remuneration were alike prescribed by Custom, plies his adze with profit to himself: Custom never contemplated a Government-taught carpenter; she intended the boy to take his turn at yam-planting and hut-thatching, and she revolts. She treats the native medical practitioner in the same fashion. During his three years' training at Suva Hospital he may have shown great aptitude; he may know by rote the uncouth Fijian version of his Pharmacopoeia, in which tincture is tinka-tura, and acid is asiti; he may even have acquired some skill in diagnosis. But no sooner is he turned adrift in his district with his medicine chest than complaints begin to come in. He has demanded from the chief four pprters to carry his chest without payment; he is behaving like a chief, demanding food wherever he goes, and interfering with the customs of the people; and, at last, he is doing nothing for his pay, and his chest is rotting in an outhouse. He has his own tale to tell: the porters dropped his box and broke the bottles; the chief stole all his masima Episomi (Epsom salts), the most popular of his drugs, and what is a doctor to do who has nothing but belusitoni (blue-stone) with which to treat his patients? It was not many months before Dr. Corney, the Chief Medical Officer, who had trained them with so much care, was fain to confess that the native medical practitioner was a failure.

It is perhaps the strength of the Fijian race that education makes so slight an impression upon his habits and character. page 314The esteem of his own people is more to him than that ot strangers, and, if he has been brought up by Europeans in English dress, he will revert to the national costume as soon as he is back in his native village. Ratu Epeli, the late Roko Tui Ndreketi, insisted on wearing the sulu even in Calcutta, and cared nothing for the notice he attracted. The Tongans, on the other hand, and the other Melanesian races love nothing better than to dress up as white men. Most of the chiefs will dine with you with perfect decorum, and use a knife and fork as if they had been born to them, but in their own houses they will sit upon the ground and eat with their fingers as their fathers did. They have adopted such of our inventions as are better than their own—our boats, our lamps and our dishes—merely for convenience, but they care nothing for contrivances that entail a change of habit. The native carpenter, whose only tool is the adze, will buy a Sheffield blade, but he will mount it on the same handle as his fathers used in the age of stone, and will explain, with some reason, that the movable socket, which enables him to cut a surface at right angles to the handle, is an invention that we should do well to adopt.

Though they have a considerable body of traditional poetry, the Fijians cannot be said to have much literary taste. The mekes are mythological and historical, and in the latter the fiction of exaggeration is freely mingled with fact. Without a native commentator they are difficult to translate, being often cast in the form of a dialogue without any indication of a change of speaker. In descriptions of the deaths of heroes the dirge is put into the mouth of the dead hero himself. Boating songs, lullabies, love songs and descriptions of scenery are not to be found in the native poem. In their indifference to the beauty of nature they are in sharp contrast to the Tongans, whose songs are full of admiration for flowers, running water and lovely scenery.

They judge the merit of a poem by the uniformity of metre and the regularity with which every line in a stanza ends with the same vowel or diphthong. This is secured by a plentiful use of expletives, by abbreviating or prolonging page 315words, by omitting articles, and other poetic licence, but in very few is this. kind of rhyme carried out consistently. Some bards profess to be inspired. Others make no such pretensions, but set about their business in the prosaic manner of a literary hack. They teach their compositions to bands of youths who master every detail of the poem in a single evening. It is then as permanent and un-alterable as if it had been set up in type. I had a curious instance of the remarkable verbal memory of Fijians in a long poem taken down from the lips of an old woman in 1893. The poem had been published by Waterhouse twenty-seven years earlier, and on comparison only one verbal discrepancy between the two versions was found. Repeated from mouth to mouth, a popular poem will travel far beyond the district in which its dialect is spoken, and thus one may often hear mekes whose meaning is not understood by the singers. English popular songs, heard once or twice, will thus run through the group corrupted into Fijian words that have the nearest sound to the English ones. The common yankona meke conveys no meaning whatever to the modern Fijian, but it is not necessarily very ancient, for it may be the corruption of a poem composed in a local dialect.

The popularity of an historical meke is not often more than sixty years; those that are older survive only in fragments. The Mission schools have enormously increased the output of trivial and ephemeral poetry; at every annual school feast the children perform mekes, celebrating petty incidents of village life, composed by their native teacher, and the old tragic historical poetry has fallen upon evil days and may soon be heard no more.

1 The Indiscretions of Lady Asenath.