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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXXII — conclusion

page 387

Chapter XXXII

It has been too readily assumed that the ancient system of the Fijians was wholly evil. The disposition of early explorers and missionaries is to describe the races with whom they came in contact as living in a state of savage anarchy, the motive of travellers being to excuse their own rapacity and cruelty; and of missionaries to vindicate their iconoclasm and to magnify their courage and self-sacrifice. "Nothing," says McClennan, "is more common in these old narratives than to find the peoples who were being sacrificed to European cupidity described as living in a purely animal state, without government, laws, or religion, and yet the student will sometimes be able to spell out from these very narratives themselves that the peoples so described were intensely religious, and that they dwelt under the constant pressure of a rigid body of customary law, and what we would call a highly developed system of constitutional government."1

It was so with the Fijians. In seeing how admirably adapted many of the old superstitions and tabus were for securing sanitation and moral and physical cleanliness, one is led to wonder whether they were survivals of a code brought by their ancestors from the land of their origin; the work of some forgotten law-giver, or merely a gradual evolution from experience coloured by superstition. So admirably were they, suited to the haphazard and indolent character of the people who obeyed them, that we can scarcely hope that any European system will take their place until the character itself is regenerated.

page 388

Let us consider three instances. What could better secure the sanitation of villages than the fear of ndrau-ni-kau, which taught the people to destroy or bury all offal and excreta for fear of affording an instrument for witchcraft to a secret enemy? The villages are no longer swept clean, for Christianity threatens the people with no immediate punishment for being dirty, and they have not yet come to believe that dirt produces the germs of disease.

How could the proper nourishment of young children in a country destitute of milk and farinaceous diet be provided for than by the fear that intercourse between the parents during lactation would impoverish the mother's milk and injure the child? In these days the custom of abstinence is decaying, and the mother is again pregnant before her child is fit to assimilate solid food, and she must either continue to nourish the child within her and the child at the breast, to the injury of both, or prematurely wean the latter to the certain injury of its health.

How could the sexual morality of the people be better guarded than by shutting up all the unmarried men at nightfall within the mbure-ni-sa, and placing all the girls under the protection of their parents; by training the young men in the emulation of arms and seamanship until they were old enough to marry; by making death the penalty of loss of virtue; by constituting the absence of virginity in a bride a sufficient cause for withholding the dowry, or even by holding up an unchaste bride to the ridicule of the community through the mutilation of the cooked pig presented by the bridegroom's people at the feast given after the marriage? But the mbure-ni-sa was a heathen institution, and boys and girls are now thrown together as they are in civilized communities; there is no more war or other spur to emulation among the young men, who now seek their excitement in sensuality, and the loss of virtue if discovered entails only consequences that can be borne with equanimity, so far at least as the men are concerned.

It would be unjust to blame the missionaries for the mutilation of the social system, for by the time they gained a page 389foothold in 1840, the native civilization—for such it is fair to call it—had been so marred by the influence of worthless Europeans and the introduction of firearms that the people groaned under a system of continual war, barbarity and oppression under which no people could increase. The ancient social system was mutilated; part of it was already broken down. During the first twenty years of the last century whole provinces had been swept by the powerful tribes fortunate enough to possess firearms, and their internal affairs were dislocated by the oppression of their conquerors. The early missionaries were no more far-sighted than others of their class, and their zeal was as narrow as the zeal of proselytizers is apt to be. They looked not for hidden causes of the customs they found. It was enough for them that they were in some way connected with heathen superstition; though often they were not incompatible with the acceptance of Christianity their existence interfered with mission work, and their discontinuance established a convenient line of demarcation between the Christian and the heathen. It would have been impossible to graft the principles, the refinements or the arts of modern civilization upon the ancient customs. Some of them had to go, and the criticism that occurs to the unbiassed historian is that the missionaries either destroyed too many of the ancient customs or not enough.

For the transition stage we now have is undoubtedly worse than what it has displaced. The Fijians have been slow to adopt foreign habits, and for more than a generation they have been crawling upon the stumps of their old customs propped by ragged fragments of European innovations. Civilized sentiments have not taken the place once filled by customary law. The Fijian, at all times the creature of circumstance has in the passing of things a pleasant feeling of lack of permanence which affects his whole family life and blunts his sense of responsibility for his children's welfare.

The apathy and indolence of the Fijians arise from their climate, their diet and their communal institutions. The climate is too kind to stimulate them to exertion, their food imparts no staying power. The soil gives the means of page 390existence for every man without effort, and the communal institutions destroy the instinct of accumulation. As Sir Henry Maine said of the native policy of the government of India, those responsible for guiding native races in Fiji, as elsewhere, are "like men bound to make their watches keep true time in two longitudes at once. Nevertheless the para-doxical explanation must be accepted. If they are too slow, there will be no improvement; if they are too fast, there will be no security." There is no reason to despair of the ultimate arrival of the Fijians at some degree of physical and moral prosperity. Our own forefathers in the time of Cicero seemed to the Romans no less unpromising, for, writing to his friend Atticus, the orator recommends him not to procure his slaves from Britain, "because they are so stupid and utterly incapable of being taught that they are unfit to form a part of the house-hold of Atticus."

1 Studies in Ancient History. London, 1896.