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A Pattern of Islands

Warning to Fiddlers

page 152

Warning to Fiddlers

The worst of interfering with the customs of simple peoples, all for their own good, is that it can end by leaving them bereft of their national will to live. The fiddler is a killer on a grand scale. There have been in the past some grim cases of depopulation – especially in Melanesia – due to the premature blotting out of interests that kept people alive in their environment. But from Melanesia also comes the classic example of how fundamental changes of custom, if unavoidable, should be brought about. Sir Hubert Murray, Administrator of Australian Papua, wanted to rid his territory of the bane of head-hunting. A lesser man might have thought himself justified in using force to suppress so murderous a habit; but not he. He took the trouble to inquire first what head-hunting really meant to the people. He found that a great structure of sane and beneficial social practices was based upon the cult of skulls, and would collapse if head-hunting were to be summarily abolished. His problem was therefore to keep the cult alive while doing away with the customary means of maintaining the supply of skulls. He discovered his solution in the fact that pigs, for a number of reasons, enjoyed among the Papuans a personal importance almost equal to that of human beings, Starting from that point, he set out to persuade the folk who lived nearest his capital to adopt pigs' heads instead of human heads for their skull-rituals. He succeeded. The new practice spread to neighbouring districts. There is today a large area of Australian Papua where human head-hunting has been eliminated not only without the use of force but also without damage to the delicately poised social fabric of which it was once the main foundation.

During my salad days as a District Officer, my closest friend Mautake-Maeke, Chief Kaubure of Tarawa and a member of the moon clan called Maerua, read me a sound lesson in what you might call the doctrine of compensating values or, alternatively, the anthropological approach to changes of native custom.

page 153

Walking one day on the ocean shore of Tarawa, I had chanced on a box-shaped arrangement of coral slabs about eighteen inches square half-buried in the tussocky grass at the beach-head. It looked, with its flat top, like the kind of seat the old pagans were fond of building in such lonely, treeless places for their various rituals to the rising sun. But, though it was three miles from any village, it might just possibly have been a shrine for an ancestral skull, so I lifted the lid to make sure before venturing to sit on it myself.

No skull was inside, but a heap of two-shilling pieces – perhaps thirty or forty of them. The coins lay within a circle of pebbles on the sandy floor. On top of them was a piece of knotted coconut leaf, obviously a rabu, or cover against pilfering. Thus protected, the money was indeed pretty safe from thieves, for Christian and pagans alike had a hearty dread of the curses that actuated these magical spring-guns. The rabu spells were not nicely worded:

Spirit of my rabu, Matakaakang (Eater-of-Eyes),
Spirit of my rabu, Mataoraora (Eater-alive-of-Eyes),
Thou shalt eat the man who steals my property.
What shalt thou eat of him? His hands, his feet.
What shalt thou eat of him? His head, his eyes.
Kill him — he is dead!
He is dead-o-o-dead!

Yet a solitary, exposed beach-head seemed a strange place for the owner to leave his money, guarded only by spirits. I felt, as I closed the lid again, that the man was simply asking for trouble. 'He must be warned,' I thought, 'that people aren't as credulous nowadays as they used to be,' and returned to the Native Government station simmering with excellent urges.

But when I spoke to Mautake-Maeke about it, he quickly disabused me of the notion that anyone needed my advice. 'The thing out there is not what you think,' he said. 'It is a thing made by the villagers for a certain old man named Tabanea. The rabu was put there by the people themselves to prevent anyone but him from taking the money.'

It appeared that Tabanea was a professional wizard famed page 154throughout the Gilbert Islands for 'the magic of kindnes-s'. He dealt exclusively in spells, amulets and potions that brought good luck and protection against enemy sorcerers. His love-potions in particular brought him clients from end to end of the group, but what Tarawa most valued him for was the singular efficacy of his protective spells. Whole villages at a time sought his services as a warder-off of the dreaded death-magic called te wawi.

'And so,' said Mautake, 'Tabanea sends a message before him when he is about to pass through a village: and the people bring gifts or money to the place you saw today; then Tabanea renews his bonota (protective spell) over their village, and everyone is happy.'

'But, Mautake,' I exclaimed, the young fiddler within me suddenly aroused at all this talk of trading in sorcery, 'this thing must be stopped at once.'

He looked at me blankly: 'How?' he said, 'I don't understand.'

'The thing must be stopped,' I repeated.


'Because the man's levying a kind of tax on the villagers.'

'He levies no tax,' Mautake replied firmly. 'The people want his help, and pay for it in advance. What he does makes them happy.'

'But do you believe that they are any the safer for his spells?'

'What I believe or you believe is of no account,' was his notable reply: 'They believe. Only that matters. They believe and so they are happy, and because they are happy they are safe.'

'But,' I protested, 'most of the villagers are baptized Protestants or Roman Catholics. Why should so great a majority be forced to pay Tabanea a tribute just because a few pagans still fear the wawi?'

He smiled: 'The Christians want Tabanea's protection as much as the pagans. Nobody is obliged to pay anything; nor is it known who pays or who refuses; yet the money of Christians is always in that box. The Christians say that their own prayers cannot save them from wawi. They as well as the pagans will die of fear if you take Tabanea's bonota away from the villages.'

'I don't want to do away with the bonota,' I said fretfully: 'That's no affair of mine; but the money part of the business is, page 155and it has to be straightened out somehow. Tabanea is, in the end of things, levying a toll on the villages.'

'And the missionaries?' Mautake questioned, and paused. 'Well? What about them?'

'Only this. The missionaries bring us their prayers and their schools, and they ask for gifts in return. We think that is just; we are happy to have them among us; so we give them much money. And then? Does the Government step in to prevent us? Does the Government measure the gifts we give? Does the Government accuse the missionaries of levying a tax upon us?'

While I was still digesting that one, he continued, 'Tabanea brings comfort to the villages which the missionaries cannot bring. What is his sin in this? Is it that he is a pagan and not a Christian? And will you say to the people, "You are not being taxed when you club together to make gifts to the missionaries; but you are indeed being taxed when you club together to make gifts for protection against the wawi?" If you say this, they will answer, "Alas! are we no longer free to buy comfort and peace as we will?" and if you punish Tabanea for accepting their gifts, they will say, "Where shall we any more find safety from the sorcerers who work in the dark," and they will die of fear in their villages.'

And then, without waiting for my reply, he turned to the general question. The Christians, he claimed, stood even more in need than the pagans of the professionals who dealt in the magic of kindness. Every pagan still had his own private spells for good luck, long life and so forth, inherited from the lore of his fathers. But the children and grandchildren of Christians had no such cheerful heritage, because the actual practice of magic rituals, whether cruel or kind, had been abandoned in all good faith by the earliest converts.

'And so, he continued, 'if you punish those who are willing to sell tabunea (spells) for good luck, what must the Christians do then? Where will they go to find magic for good eating and good sleeping, for excellent fishing and success in love, for being favoured by their masters or their friends, for happiness in their dwellings and their work, for blessings upon their canoes and land and cooking ovens, for finding out their lucky days and their unlucky days, for making their wives fruitful and their page 156children strong, for all the comforts between dawn that the magic of kindness brings them?'

His words meant in effect that the magic of kindness filled the life of his people, Christians and pagans alike, with a mass of daily interests for the sudden loss of which nothing that the white man gave or sold could properly compensate them. He was specific on the point of compensating values: 'If the government or missionaries could give them something to keep their hearts alive night and day even as the magic of kindness does, perhaps they could be happy without Tabanea and his like,' he said. 'But if you cannot give them an equal thing in return, you will kill their hearts by robbing them of their loved wizards.'

Of course he was right. His wisdom saved me from an error I should never have ceased to rue. I did nothing whatever about Tabanea except to seek his acquaintance. He was a fine, kindly old gentleman, whose contribution to the easier passage of his people through the psychological darkness between paganism and Christianity I learned to appreciate deeply. Some years after Mautake-Maeke had given me his 'Hands off!' warning, I returned to England and sat for a while at the feet of that colossus among anthropologists, W. H. R. Rivers, who told me out of the modesty of his greatness that his school of thought was only just catching up with Mautake's private theory of compensating values.