Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter IX — family life

page 175

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 teaching of the missionaries, who believed that the only perfect social system was to be found in the English mode of family life, and the example of the Europeans settled in the group, have broken down the custom of the mbure-ni-sa in all parts of the islands, except the mountain districts of Vitilevu. The example of the native teachers, one of whom is to be found in every village, was in itself enough to discourage a custom which the men had long found irksome, page break
The Mbure-ni-sa (Club House).

The Mbure-ni-sa (Club House).

page 177and the natives assert that a large number of infant deaths might have been prevented if public opinion still sufficed to keep the parents apart.

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

It is proper here to notice traces of the couvade, not perhaps indicating that the couvade itself was ever practised as a custom, but showing rather how widely spread are the ideas underlying that custom. In the province of Namosi, where children were suckled for three years, there is a belief that if the father, when separated from his wife, has an intrigue with another woman his child will fall off, showing the symptoms of ndambe. The sickness is called there by the suggestive name of veisangani tani (lit., "alien thigh-locking"). Dr. R. H. Codrington3 says of Mota (Banks Islands): "When a child is born, neither father nor mother eats things, such as fish or meat, which might make the children ill. The father does not go into sacred places which the child could not visit without risk. After the birth of the first child the father does no heavy work for a month lest the child should be injured." Mr. Walter Carew says of the district north of Namosi: "I have frequently observed a father abstain from certain articles of food from fear of affecting the child, born or unborn; and I have often joked the people about it. Once I persuaded a man to break the tabu and eat some fowl. Unfortunately, the child died some time afterwards, and the father more than half believed me to have been the cause of its death." In discussing this belief as a trace of the couvade, Starke quotes

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.

page 180Dobizhoffer's remarks upon the Abipones: "They comply with this custom with the greater readiness because they believe that the father's rest and abstinence have an extraordinary effect on the well-being of unborn infants, and is indeed absolutely necessary for them.… For they are quite convinced that any unseemly act on the father's part would injuriously affect the child on account of the sympathetic tie which naturally subsists between them, so that in the event of the child's death the women all blame the self-indulgence of the father, and find fault with this or that act."

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

This widely extended custom of prolonged suckling among non-pastoral peoples seems to show that Nature intended the human mother to suckle her offspring until it had developed the teeth necessary for masticating solid food. Civilization, ever driving Nature at high pressure, has found artificial food for infants, leaving the mother free to bear the stress of a second maternity. To meet this increased strain the civilized mother is nourished and tended with a care that is never bestowed upon her savage sister. Barbarism followed the law of Nature and supported it by a customary law of mutual abstinence, but the customary law of the Fijians has been mutilated and has left them between two stools, not yet adopting the conveniences of civilization and obliged, nevertheless, to do the high pressure work of the civilized state without help. The reproductive powers of the Fijian woman of to-day are forced, though her body is no better prepared by a generous course of food to meet the strain than when she was allowed to follow

1 British Central Africa, by Sir H. H. Johnston.

2 Ibid., p. 415.

page 181the less exacting course of Nature for which only her body is fitted. And to make matters worse, the Fijians, recognizing the evils of too frequent conceptions, drink nostrums to prevent them, probably injuring thereby the. child at the breast.

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.