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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom


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The present population of the globe is believed to be about fifteen hundred millions, of which seven hundred millions are nominally progressive and eight hundred millions are stagnant under the law of custom. It is difficult to choose terms that even approach scientific accuracy in these generalizations, for, as Mr. H. G. Wells has remarked, if we use the word "civilized" the London "Hooligan" and the "Bowery tough" immediately occur to us; if the terms "stagnant" or "progressive," how are the Parsee gentleman and the Sussex farm labourer to be classed? Nor can the terms "white" and "coloured" be used, for there are Chinese many shades whiter than the Portuguese. But as long as the meaning is clear the scientific accuracy of terms is unimportant, and so for convenience we will call all races of European descent "civilized," and races living under the law of custom "uncivilized." The problem that will be solved within the next few centuries is—What part is to be taken in the world's affairs by the eight hundred millions of uncivilized men who happen for the moment to be politically inferior to the other seven hundred millions?

For centuries they have been sleeping. Under the law of custom, which no man dares to disobey, progress was impossible. The, law of custom was the law of our own forefathers until the infusion of new blood and new customs shook them out of the groove and set them to choosing between the old and the new, and then to making new laws to meet new needs. This happened so long ago that if it were not for a few ceremonial survivals we might well doubt whether our forefathers were ever so held in bondage. With the precept—to do as your father did before you—an isolated race will remain stationary for centuries. There is, I believe, page viiiin all the history of travel, only one instance in which the absolute stagnation of a race has been proved, and that is the case of the Solomon Islands, the first of the Pacific groups to be discovered, and the last to be influenced by Europeans. In 1568 a Spanish expedition under Alvaro de Mendaña set sail from Peru in quest of the Southern continent. Missing all the great island groups Mendaña discovered the islands named by him Islas de Saloman, not because he found any gold there, but because he hoped thereby to inflame the cupidity of the Council of the Indies into fitting out a fresh expedition. Gomez Catoira, his treasurer, has left us a detailed account of the customs of the natives and about forty words of their language. And now comes the strange part of the story. Expedition after expedition set sail for the Isles of Solomon; group after group was discovered; but the Isles of Solomon were lost, and at last geographers, having shifted them to every space left vacant in the chart, treated them as fabulous and expunged them altogether. They were rediscovered by Bougainville exactly two centuries later, but it was not until late in the nineteenth century that any attempt was made to study the language and customs of the natives. It was then found that in every particular, down to the pettiest detail in their dress, their daily life and their language, they were the same as when Catoira saw them two centuries earlier, and so no doubt they would have remained until the last trump had not Europeans come among them.

If, as there is good reason for believing, the modern Eskimo are the lineal descendants of the cave men of Derbyshire, who hunted the reindeer and the urus in Pleistocene times, the changelessness of their habits is to be ascribed to the same cause—the absence of a stimulus from without to break down the law of custom.

In the sense that no race now exists which is not in some degree touched by the influence of Western civilization, the present decade may be said to be a fresh starting-point in the history of mankind. Whithersoever we turn, the laws of custom, which have governed the uncivilized races for count-page ixless generations, are breaking down; the old isolation which kept their blood pure is vanishing before railway and steamship communication which imports alien labourers to work for European settlers; and ethnologists of the future, having no pure race left to examine, will have to fall back upon hearsay evidence in studying the history of human institutions.

All this has happened before in the world's history, but in a more limited area. To the Roman armies, the Roman system of slave-owning, and still more to the Roman roads, we owe the fact that there is not in Western Europe a single race of unmixed blood, for even the Basques, if they are indeed the last survivors of the old Iberian stock, have intermarried with the French and Spanish people about them. An ethnologist of the eighth century, meditating on the wave upon wave of destructive immigration that submerged England, might well have doubted whether so extraordinary a mixture of races could ever develop patriotism and pride of race, and yet it did not take many centuries to evolve in the English a sense of nationality with insular prejudice superadded. Nationality and patriotism are in fact purely artificial and geographical sentiments. We feel none of the bitter hate of our Saxon forefathers for their Norman conquerors; the path of our advance through the centuries is strewn with the corpses of patriotisms and race hatreds.

Nor was the mixture of races in Europe the mere mingling of peoples descended from a common Aryan stock, for if that were so, what has become of the Persians and Egyptians, worshippers of Æon and Serapis and Mithras, who garrisoned the Northumberland wall; of the host of Asiatic and African soldiers and slaves scattered through Europe during the Roman Empire; of the Negroes introduced into southern Portugal by Prince Henry the Navigator; of the Jews that swarmed in every medieval city; of the Moors in southern Spain? Did none of these intermarry with Aryans, and leave a half-caste Semitic or Negro or Tartar progeny behind them? How otherwise can one account for the extraordinary diversity in skull measurement, in proportion and in colour which is found in the population of every European country?

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If we except the inhabitants of remote islands probably there has never been an unmixed race since the Palæolithic Age. Long before the dawn of history kingdoms rose and fell. Broken tribes, fleeing from invaders, put to sea and founded colonies in distant lands. Troy was no exception to the rule of the old world that at the sack of every city the men were slain and the women reserved to be the wives of their conquerors. Doubtless it was to keep the Hebrew blood pure that Saul was commanded to slay "both man and woman, infant and suckling" of the Amalekites, the ancestors of the Bedawin of the Sinai peninsula.

It may be argued that the laws of custom have been swept away by conquering races many times in the world's history without any far-reaching consequences—those of the Neolithic people of the long barrows by the warriors of the Bronze Age; those of the British by the Romans; those of the RomanoBritish by the Saxons; those of the Saxons by the Normans. But there was this difference: in all these cases the new customs were forced upon the weaker race by the strong hand of its conquerors, and as it had obeyed its own laws through fear of the Unseen, so it adopted the new laws through fear of its new masters. It was a rough, but in the end a wholesome schooling. We go another way to work: we do not as a rule come to native races with the authority of conquerors; we saunter into their country and annex it; we break down their customs, but do not force them to adopt ours; we teach them the precepts of Christianity, and in the same breath assure them that instead of physical punishment by disease which they used to fear, their disobedience will be visited by eternal punishment after death—a contingency too remote to have any terrors for them; and then we leave them like a ship with a broken tiller free to go whithersoever the wind of fancy drives them, and it is not surprising that they prefer the easy vices of civilization to its more difficult virtues. In civilizing a native race the suaviter in modo is a more dangerous process than the fortiter in re.

The law of custom is always interwoven with religion, and is enforced by fear of earthly punishment for disobedience.

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This fear is strongest among patriarchal races whose religion is founded upon the worship of ancestors. To depart from the customs of the ancestors is to insult the tribal god, and it is therefore the business of each member of the tribe to see to it that the impiety of his fellow-tribesmen brings no judgment down upon his head. In such a community a man is only free from the tyranny of custom when he dies. As in the German's ideal of a well-governed city, everything is forbidden. Hedged about by the tabu he can scarce move hand or foot without circumspection. If he errs, even unwittingly, the spirits of disease pounce upon him. In Tonga almost every day he performed the Moe-moe, an act of penance to atone for unconscious breaches of the tabu, and in the civil war of 1810 it was the practice to open the bodies of the slain to discover from the state of the liver whether the dead warrior had led a good or an evil life.

Among the races held in bondage by custom there were, of course, rare souls born before their time in whom the eternal "Thou shalt not" of the law of custom provoked the question "Why?" But they met the fate ordained for men born before their time; in civilized states the hemlock, the cross and the stake; in uncivilized, the club or the spear. Perhaps the real complaint of the Athenians against Socrates was that an unceasing flow of wisdom and reproof is more than erring man can endure, but the published grounds for his condemnation were that he denied the gods recognized by the State, and that he corrupted the young. This, as William Mariner tells us, is what men whispered under their breath when Finau, the king of Vavau in the Friendly Islands, dared to scoff at the law of tabu in 1810, and he was struck down by sickness while ordering a rope to be brought for the strangling of his priest. In fact the reformers of primitive races never lived long: if they were low-born they were clubbed and that was the end of them and their reforms; if they were chiefs, and something happened to them, either by disease or accident, men saw therein the finger of an offended deity, and obedience to the existing order of things became stronger than before.

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The decay of custom, which may be fraught with momentous consequences for the civilized races, is proceeding more rapidly every year. It can best be studied by examining the process in a single race in detail, and for this purpose the Fijians, who are the subject of this volume, are peculiarly suited, because by their isolation through many centuries no foreign ideas, filtering through neighbouring tribes, had corrupted their customary law before Europeans came among them, and so decay set in with startling suddenness despite their innate conservatism. What is true of the Fijians is true, with slight modifications, of every primitive society in Asia, Africa and America which is being dragged into the vortex of what we call progress. The fabric of every complete social system has been built up gradually. You may raze it to the foundations and erect another in its place, but if you pull out a stone here and there the whole edifice comes tumbling about your ears before you can make your alterations. It is the fashion to assert that native races begin to decline as soon as Europeans come into contact with them. This arises from our evil modern habit of making false generalizations. The fact that some isolated races suddenly torn from the roots of their ancient customs begin by decreasing rapidly is so dramatic that we eagerly fasten on the generalization that weaker races are doomed to wither away at the coming of the all-conquering European, forgetting the steady increase of the Bantu races in Africa, and of the Indians and Chinese up to and even beyond the limit of population which their country can support.

The main cause of the sudden decrease of a race is the introduction of new diseases which assume a more virulent aspect when they strike root in a virgin soil, but we are now beginning to learn that this cause is only temporary. For a time a race seems to sicken and pine like an individual, but like an individual it may recover. In the decrease from disease there seems to be a stopping-place. It may come when the race has been reduced to one-fifth of its number, like the Maoris, or to a mere handful like the blacks of New South Wales, but there comes a time when decay is arrested, page xiiiand then perhaps fusion with another race has set in. The type may be lost, but the blood remains.

It is against the attacks of new diseases that the law of custom is most helpless. The primitive theory of disease and death is so widespread that we may accept it as the belief of mankind before custom gave place to scientific inquiry. The primitive argument was this: the natural state of man is to be healthy, and everything contrary to Nature must be the doing of some hostile agency. When a man feels ill he knows that an evil spirit has entered into him, and since evil spirits do not move unless some person conjures them, his first thought on waking with a headache is "An enemy hath done this." Out of this springs all the complicated ritual of witchcraft, fetish and juju, which by frightening natives into destroying or burying all offal and refuse that might be used against them by a wizard, achieves the right thing for the wrong reason. The "Evil spirit" theory of disease is thus not so very far removed from the bacillus theory: in both the body has been attacked by a malignant visitor which must be expelled before the patient can recover. It is in the methods adopted for making the body an uncomfortable lodging for it that the systems diverge. In all ages the essential part of therapeutics has been faith in the remedy, whether in the verse of the Korân swallowed by the Moslem, in the charm prescribed by the medieval quack, in the "demonstration" of the Christian Scientist, in the prescription of the medical practitioner. Mankind survives its remedies as well as its epidemics. England has a population of nearly forty millions, even though, less than a century ago, as we learn from Creevy's memoirs, blood-letting was regarded as the proper treatment for advanced stages of consumption.

It is, I think, safe to assume that in the centuries to come there will be representatives even of the smallest races now living on the earth, and that the proportions between civilized and what are now uncivilized peoples will not have greatly altered, though the political and social ideas which underlie Western civilization will have permeated the whole of mankind. It is therefore important to inquire whether the uncivilized page xivraces are really inferior in capacity to Europeans. Professor Flinders Petrie has expressed the view that the average man cannot receive much more knowledge than his immediate ancestors, and that "the growth of the mind can in the average man be but by fractional increments in each generation." In support of this view he declares that the Egyptian peasant who has been taught to read and write is in every case which he has met with "half-witted, silly and incapable of taking care of himself," while the Copt, whose ancestors have been scribes for generations, can be educated without sustaining any mental injury. I venture to think that there are more exceptions than will prove any such rule. In New Zealand it has been found that Maori children, when they can be induced to work, are quite equal to their white schoolfellows. Fijian boys educated in Sydney have been proved to be equal to the average; Tongan boys who have never left their island write shorthand and solve problems in higher mathematics; Booker Washington and Dubois are only two out of a host of negroes of the highest attainments.

Australian aborigines, and even Andaman Islanders, have shown some aptitude when they have overcome the difficulty of a common language with their teacher; New Guinea chil-dren do very well in the mission schools. The Masai are the most backward of all the East African tribes, yet Mr. Hollis, the Government Secretary of Uganda, employs two Masai boys to develop his photographs. It is, in fact, doubtful whether there is any race of marked mental inferiority, though, as among ourselves, there are thick-witted individuals, and these may be more common in one race than in another. Certainly there is no race that suffers mental injury from teaching. In all uncivilized people there is a lack of application, and any injury they sustain arises from the confinement necessary for study. It is character rather than intellect that achieves things in this world, and character is affected by education, by climate, and by pressure of circumstances. There are now in almost every uncivilized race individuals who are defying the law of custom to their material profit, though not to their entire peace of mind, for they have begun page xvto understand that the riches of the European may be dearly purchased, and that in anxiety about many things happiness and contentment are not often found.

But though all peoples are teachable there are racial idiosyncrasies which we are only beginning to discover. Why, for instance, should the Hausa and the Sudanese have a natural aptitude for European military discipline while the Waganda find it irksome? Why do the Masai, whose social development is Palæolithic in its simplicity, make trustworthy policemen and prison warders, while the Somalis have been found utterly worthless in both capacities? Why are the Maoris and Solomon Islanders natural artists in wood-carving while the tribes most nearly allied to them are almost destitute of artistic skill? These natural aptitudes suggest what these races may become when we have struck off their fetters of custom and have forced them to compete with us.

Cheap and rapid means of transit are sweeping away the distinctions of dress, of custom, and, to some extent, of language, which underlie the feeling of nationality, and the races now uncivilized will soon settle for themselves the vital question whether they are to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water for the white man, or whether they are to take their place in free competition with him. The "Yellow Peril," which implies national cohesion among the Mongolians, may be a chimera, but it is impossible to believe that a white skin is to be for ever a sort of patent of nobility in the world state of the future.

History teaches us that there can be no middle course. Either race antipathy and race contempt must disappear, or one breed of men must dominate the others. The psychology of race contempt has never been dispassionately studied. It is felt most strongly in the United States and the West Indies; a little less strongly in the other British tropical colonies. In England it is sporadic, and is generally confined to the educated classes. It is scarcely to be noticed in France, Spain, Portugal or Italy. From this it might be argued that it is peculiar to races of Teutonic descent were it not for the fact that Germans in tropical countries do not seem to feel it. page xviIt is, moreover, a sentiment of modern growth. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Englishmen did not regard coloured people as their inferiors by reason of the colour of their skin. It appears, in fact, to date only from the time of slavery in the West Indian colonies, and yet the Romans, the Spaniards, and the Portuguese, who were the greatest slave-owners in history, never held marriage with coloured people in contempt. The only race hatred in the Middle Ages was anti-Semitic, and this was due to the Crusader spirit. The colour line, as it is called, is drawn more firmly by men than by women, and deep-seated as it is in the Southern States just now it may be nothing more than a passing phase of sentiment, a subconscious instinct of self-preservation in a race which feels that its old predominance is threatened by equality with its former servants. If you analyze the sentiment it comes to this. You may tolerate the coloured man in every relation but one: you may converse with him, eat with him, live with him on terms of equality, but your gorge rises at the idea of admitting him to become a member of your family by marriage. In the ordinary social relations you do not take him quite seriously; if he is a commoner you treat him as your potential servant; if a dusky potentate you yield him a sort of jesting deference; but in that one matter of blood alliance with him you will always keep him at arm's length. That is the view even of the Englishman who has not lived in a black man's country, and upon that is built the extraordinary race hatred of the Southern States, where a white man will not consent to sit in a tramcar with a negro, though the white man be a cotton operative and the negro a University professor.

If this race contempt were a primitive instinct with the white race the future of mankind would be lurid indeed, for it is impossible to believe that one half of humanity can be kept for ever inferior to the other without deluging the world with blood. But it is not a primitive instinct. Shakespeare saw nothing repulsive in the marriage of Desdemona with a man of colour. Early in the sixteenth century Sieur Paulmier de Gonneville of Normandy gave his heiress in marriage to page xviiEssomeric, the son of a Brazilian chief, and no one thought that she was hardly treated. It may not be a pleasant subject to dwell upon, but it is a fact that women of AngloSaxon blood do, even in these days, mate with Chinese, Arabs, Kaffirs, and even Negroes despite the active opposition of the whole of their relations. History is filled with romantic examples of the marriage of European men with native women, to cite no more than de Bethencourt with the Guanche princess; Cortes with his Mexican interpreter; John Rolfe with Pocahontas.

It is the fashion to describe the half-caste offspring of such mixed marriages as having all the vices of both races, and none of the virtues. In so far as this accusation is true it is accounted for by the social ostracism in which these people are condemned to live. Disowned by their fathers, freed by their parentage from the restraints under which their mothers' people are held in check, it could scarcely be otherwise, but those who have lived with half-castes of many races will agree that in intellectual aptitude and in physical endowment they are generally equal to the average of Europeans when they have the same education and opportunities, and that there is no physical deterioration in the offspring of the marriages of half-castes inter se.

At the dawn of this twentieth century we see the future of mankind through a glass darkly, but if we study the state of the coloured people who are shaking themselves free from the law of custom, we may see it almost face to face. Race prejudice does not die as hard as one would think. The Portuguese of the sixteenth century were ready enough to court as "Emperor of Monomotapa" a petty Bantu chieftain into whose power they had fallen; and the English beachcomber of the forties who, when he landed, called all natives "niggers" with an expletive prefix, might very soon be found playing body-servant to a Fijian chief, who spoke of him contemptuously as "My white man." In tropical countries the line of caste will soon cease to be the colour line. There, as in temperate zones, wealth will create a new aristocracy recruited from men of every shade of colour. Even in the page xviiigreat cities of Europe and America we may find men of Hindu and Chinese and Arab origin controlling industries with their wealth, as Europeans now control the commerce of India and China, but with this difference—that they will wear the dress and speak the language which will have become common to the whole commercial world, and as the aristocracy of every land will be composed of every shade of colour, so will be the masses of men who work with their hands. In one country the majority of the labourers will be black or brown; in another white; but white men will work cheek by jowl with black and feel no degradation. There will be the same feverish pursuit of wealth, but all races will participate in it instead of a favoured few. The world will then be neither so pleasant nor so picturesque a place to live in, and by the man of that age the twentieth century will be cherished tenderly as an age of romance, of awakening, and of high adventure. The historians of that day will speak of the Victorian age as we speak of the Elizabethan, and will date the new starting-point in the history of mankind from the decay of the law of custom.