The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom
Chapter VIII — polygamy
From the writings of early travellers it might be inferred that the Fijians practised polygamy to the same extent as the Arabs and other Mahommedan nations, but a moment's reflection will show that this was impossible. The high chiefs, it is true, were accustomed to cement alliances by taking a daughter of every new ally into their households, and these women with their handmaids, who were also the chief's potential concubines, swelled their harems inordinately; and as travellers were always the guests of the chiefs, and described things as they found them, these exceptional households were taken as fair samples of Fijian family life. But inasmuch as the Fijians could not draw upon other races for women, and the sexes of the children born throughout the group numbered about the same, to say nothing of the practice of female infanticide, it is obvious that for every addition to the chief's harem, some commoner had to go without a wife.
This view is borne out by the missionary, James Calvert, who, in defending the abolition of polygamy by the missionaries, says: "Polygamy is actually confined to comparatively few. It is Only the wealthy and powerful who can afford to maintain such an expensive indulgence."
The actual facts were these: The highest chiefs had harems of from ten to fifty women, counting concubines, according to their rank and importance; the chiefs of the inland tribes had five or six wives, who cultivated their plantations for them, and were more agricultural labourers than wives; the chiefs of tributary tribes had seldom more than two wives, and the bulk of the people were monogamists. Young men page 173of the lower orders married rather late in life for a primitive race, rarely, it appears, before the age of twenty-five. Under these conditions it might be expected that there would have been some form of prostitution, but in fact there was nothing of the kind. The nearest approach to it was to be found in the chief's kitchen, where the women in attendance on the chief's wives, especially those nearing middle age, were wont to sit and gossip with their lord's male retainers. In the tributary villages the young men were too well watched in the mbure, and the girls in the houses of their parents, for there to have been much philandering. Thus, if it comes to a question of fact—and the terms are to be applied in their most literal sense—the Fijians have a better title to be called monogamists than the men of civilized Europe.
The action of the early missionaries in breaking down polygamy did not result in as much hardship as might be supposed. Their policy is set forth in the following instructions from the Society to its ministers: "No man living in a state of polygamy is to be admitted a member, or even on trial, who will not consent to live with one woman as his wife, to whom you shall join him in matrimony, or ascertain that this rite has been performed by some other minister; and the same rule is to be applied in the same manner to a woman proposing to become a member of the Society." The chiefs seem to have made little difficulty about this. They were married to their principal wife, and the rest went home to their friends, where they had not long to wait for husbands, since there was a certain prestige in marrying a woman who had belonged to a high chief. The discarded wives rarely complained of their dismissal, for their lives in the harem had been unenviable. Exposed to the jealousy and tyranny of the chief wife, they were subjected to daily mortification, and if they had the misfortune to displease the great lady, they were set upon and beaten and ill-treated by her attendants.
At the time of annexation in 1874 the Mission order quoted above had been sufficient to stamp out the custom everywhere but in the hill districts of Vitilevu, where the older chiefs still had from two to four wives apiece. The page 174Government wisely resolved to recognize all these wives as legally married,1 but not to allow any more polygamous marriages, and in a few years the custom died out of itself. In the polygamous households with which I came into contact the wives were all stricken in years, and they lived harmoniously together, dividing the labour of wood-cutting, water-carrying, and tilling their husband's garden between them.
I do not think that the abandonment of polygamy has had any effect upon the vitality of the race, for the simple reason that its practice was very limited in extent. Then, as now, practically all the women were appropriated. The evils arising from polygamy among the natives in South Africa, cited by the Commission appointed in 1882 by the Governor of Cape Colony to inquire into native customs—namely, idleness of the men, enforced work by the women, immorality of young wives wedded to old men, forced marriages of girls, strife and jealousy among the wives leading to the practice of witchcraft and the sale of young girls—were not prevalent in Fiji; nor had the reasons there adduced in its favour—that polygamy is a provision against old age, since the children of the young wives maintain their parents when the older children have left the home—any application in the Pacific Islands.
1 Native Regulation 12 of 1877 provided that "all marriages performed and confirmed according to Fijian customs before the passing of this Regulation" should be legal and binding.