The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom
Chapter IX — family life
Among the tribes in Fiji, where Melanesian blood pre-dominates, the mbure-ni-sa, or unmarried man's house, was a universal institution. In the Lau group the strong admixture of Polynesian blood had in some degree broken down the social laws connected with this house, although in most villages the house existed. Amonger the purer Melanesian tribes of the interior of Vitilevu, after twenty-five years of Christianity and settled government, the mbure-ni-sa exists as a part of the social life of the village, as if obedience could still be enforced.
The mbure-ni-sa was usually the largest house in the village. It was the men's club in the day-time and the men's sleeping house at night. No woman could enter it without committing a grave breach of propriety. Young boys below the age of puberty went naked and slept with their parents at home; but, from the day that they assumed the malo, or perineal bandage, they removed to the mbure-ni-sa at nightfall, and slept there under the eyes of the elders who either had no home of their own or had adopted the mbure-ni-sa from choice. When the young man reached the age for marriage his mother chose a wife for him from among his concubitant cousins, i.e. the daughters of his maternal uncle; and immediately after the marriage he removed from the mbure-ni-sa to a house of his own, or to that of his parents. In parts of Vanualevu, where uterine descent was still recognized, he removed to the village of his wife's parents.
As soon as his wife was confined he was banished again to the mbure-ni-sa for the entire suckling period, which lasted page 176from two to three years. During the whole of this time, unless he had more than one wife, he was obliged to live a life of celibacy.
In the above description I am, of course, speaking of the ordinary middle-class Fijian. The higher chiefs, having several wives, provided a separate house for the confinement, and never saw the mbure-ni-sa again after their marriage. Men of the lowest rank had generally no wives at all.
The mbure-ni-sa thus served a double purpose, The girls of the tribe sleeping with their parents, and the young men being practically incarcerated every night under the eyes of their elders, there was little opportunity for immorality before marriage. With the duties of defence, of fighting, of providing food and of fishing, the young men had little time for philandering, and it is asserted by many of the elder natives that it was a rare thing for a girl to have lost her virtue before marriage. Such sexual immorality as took place was between the young men and the older married women.
But the chief value of the mbure-ni-sa undoubtedly lay in the separation of the parents of a child during the suckling period. Natives, when asked to account for the decrease in their numbers, have for years mentioned the breaking down of this custom of abstinence as the principal cause, asserting that cohabitation injures the quality of the mother's milk. Not understanding the true cause that lay behind this belief, Europeans, medical men as well as missionaries, have treated the opinion with contempt, without, however, shaking the natives' fixed belief. Within the last few years a missionary, the late Rev. J. P. Chapman, characterized this custom of abstinence as an "absurd and superstitious practice."
The Fijian word ndambe has been loosely applied to the custom of separating the parents while the mother is suckling her child. The word is really an adjective signifying the injury sustained by the child whose parents cohabit too soon after its birth. It becomes ndambe, that is to say, it shows symptoms of general debility, accompanied with an enlargement of the abdomen. The infringement of the rule of abstinence is described at Mbau by a slang word, nkuru vou. During the long period of suckling—varying from twelve to thirty-six months—the mother abstained from cohabitation from the fear of impoverishing her milk, a superstition which hid behind it a most important truth; namely, that a second conception taking place during the suckling period must cause the child to be prematurely weaned. While the mbure-ni-sa still existed, secret cohabitation between the parents was made the more difficult by the custom of young mothers leaving their husband's house and living with their relations for a year after the birth of a child; since the adoption of English family life, husband and wife no longer separate, but give their parole to public opinion to preserve the abstinence prescribed by ancient custom. The health of the child is jealously watched for signs that the parents have failed in their duty. If it fall off in condition it is declared to be ndambe, and the mother is compelled to wean it immediately, with an effect upon the child which varies with its age. If it suffers it is said to be kali ndole—prematurely weaned. The Fijians have no artificial food for their infants. There is nothing between the mother's milk and solid vegetable food, and until the digestive organs are fit to assimilate such foods the child must be kept at the breast. Among European women menstruation is rarely re-established during the period of suckling, and there is therefore no particular danger to the child in cohabitation during this period. At the worst, if conception takes place, the child can be brought up upon artificial diet. With Fijian women, however, menstruation page 178often recommences at the third or fourth month after parturition, and cohabitation, even at this early stage, often results in a second pregnancy. The mother is physiologically incapable of nourishing at the same time the fœtus within her and the child at her breast, and the symptoms of defective nutrition become evident in the latter very soon after the new conception has taken place. The child must be weaned at once, since it soon becomes too weak to undergo the strain of a change of diet; it becomes ndambe. An old Fijian midwife told me that the children of elderly men are less often ndambe than those of young men, because the older father, being less ardent, is, more likely to, observe the rule of abstinence.
Nearly half the Fijian children born die within the first year. In many cases, no doubt, death is caused by premature weaning owing to a second conception, but there is no doubt that a number of weakly children are brought into the world through the physical incapacity of the Fijian mother for bearing healthy children in quick succession. This incapacity may proceed from some inherent racial defect, or from improper or insufficient food. Under the old wise system of abstinence, the forces of the mother had time to recuperate before she was again called upon to bear the strain of maternity, but with the early death of her child she is at once pregnant. The birth-rate is increased by the production of a weak offspring that will go in its turn to swell the death-rate; in other words, a lower birth-rate would tend to increase the population.
In Tonga and in the Gilbert Islands the separation is rigidly enforced. In the latter group ndambe is called ngori. The relations of the mother exercise extreme vigilance to prevent the couple from cohabiting, and the husband who infringes the rule is scolded by his wife's relations and sent for the future to sleep with the young men.
Lieutenant Matthews, who visited the Sierra Leone River between 1785 and 1791, says of the Mandingoes: "Mothers never wean their children until they are able to walk and carry a calabash of water, which they are instructed to do as soon as possible, as cohabitation is denied to them while they page 179have children at the breast" Even in Japan, where there is artificial food for infants, prolonged suckling is still the rule. Sir Edwin Arnold1 says: "Japan is of all countries, except England, that where fewest children die between birth and the age of five years; albeit a point in favour of Japanese babies is that they are nursed at the breast until they are two or even three years old."
The Pitcairn Islanders, who possess goats, but are otherwise as ill provided with artificial food for infants as the Fijians, were found by Beechey in 1831 to be suckling their children for three and even four years." 2
1 Some Pictures from Japan, by Sir Edwin Arnold.
2 Beechey's Voyage, p. 128.
3 Notes on the Customs of Mota (Banks Islands), by the Rev. R. H. Codlington, M.A.
Among the Lake Nyassa tribes the husband ceases cohabitation as soon as his wife announces her pregnancy, and does not resume it until the child is weaned. If he has no other wife "he will strive to remain chaste in the fear lest, if he commit adultery, his unborn child will die."1 Among the Atonga, in the same region, the husband has no relations with his wife for five or six months after the child's birth. If he has access to any other woman during this period, the popular belief is that she will certainly die.2
1 British Central Africa, by Sir H. H. Johnston.
2 Ibid., p. 415.
If the missionaries, as is said, are responsible for breaking down these customs of abstinence, and still regard it as "absurd and superstitious," it is a pity that they did not recognize another important difference between European and Fijian society—the irregular and insufficient nourishment for the women and the lack of artificial food for infants—and devote their efforts to reforming this before they discouraged a custom so admirably adapted to meet the evils of a lack of cereals and milk-yielding animals. It is too late now to go back. The Fijian husband will never again consent to enforced separation from his wife. Rapid conceptions and a high birth-rate must be reckoned with, and the only feasible remedy is to improve the diet of the nursing mother, and induce the people generally to keep milk-yielding animals for their children. Cattle thrive in Fiji, but the efforts of the Government to convert the Fijian agriculturist to pastoral pursuits cannot be said to have been successful.