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Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga

Chapter IX — Byways of Custom

page 133

Chapter IX
Byways of Custom

Among those who had made speeches to us after the dancing was the headman of Hakupu village, whose features had been destroyed by the ravages of lupus. The roof of his mouth being also involved, his speech was hardly intelligible even to Mr. Lawes. "I am afflicted, as you see," he said, "yet could I not bear to let this day pass without bidding you welcome to Niué-Fekai." I questioned Mr. Head about the diseases of the natives. He said that yaws (Frambæsia, so called from the strawberry-like appearance of the eruption), and phthisis, coughs and colds were quite unknown before the arrival of the Samoan teachers. The people, when he first arrived on the island, generally died of old age. The diseases of that time were makulokuli, an urinary trouble, lupus and scrofula. Since intercourse with ships has become common, there has been ample justifi-page 134cation for the policy that earned for the Niuéans from Cook the title of Savage Islanders. Nowadays every child has yaws as a matter of course, though, being a contagious disease, it might easily be stamped out by isolation. Whooping-cough has never left the island since its introduction. Measles, brought in two years ago by a labourer returning from abroad, occasioned about one hundred deaths, but though it lasted twelve months, so efficient was the native quarantine of infected villages that Tuapa escaped it altogether. The worst form of contagious disease, unknown thirty-four years ago, is said now to be common in the tertiary stage, especially among infants. As its name, tona Tahiti (Tahitian yaws), implies, it was introduced from Tahiti during the sixties. There is not much ophthalmia, and deformities are rare. There are a few cases of insanity—our friend, the Admiral's sister, is fast qualifying to rank among them—and the people do not treat them kindly.

Serious illness is still regarded as possession by the spirit of some dead person, and a necessary part of the treatment is to evict the spirit in possession. I have already told how a mother destroyed her daughter's grave by fire in order to burn the spirit that was afflicting her. Nearly page break
From a photograph byJ. Martin, Auckland.A Grave in TongaMade of coral, white sand, and polished black pebbles. The garlands worn by friends are suspended above as a mark of affection

From a photograph byJ. Martin, Auckland.
A Grave in Tonga
Made of coral, white sand, and polished black pebbles. The garlands worn by friends are suspended above as a mark of affection

page 135all the old women are medical practitioners. The number of herbal decoctions that they administer to a sick person is incredible. If one fails in working a cure before their eyes, they administer another, and if the patient persists in dying after drinking them all, as is not uncommon, they lay the blame upon the spirit, and their practice suffers no injury. The best known of these native doctors exact heavy fees in kind for their services, but their faith in their own nostrums must be rather slender, for they themselves, when taken ill, resort to the Mission dispensary. Mr. Lawes and Mr. Head, who both dispense medicines for the natives, are agreed in finding that the natives are more susceptible-to-the action of drugs than Europeans, and require smaller doses.

Families are large. Five or six children are quite common, and there is more than one woman now alive who has given birth to sixteen children. There used to be no barren women, though now childless women are not unknown. These generally adapt children, whom they treat with the same affection as if they had borne them. The marriage of first cousins is not popular as in Fiji, though there is a trace of the sentiment that has produced the curious custom of concubitancy practised by the Fijians. The offspring of two page 136sisters are absolutely forbidden to marry, but the children of two brothers, or of a brother and sister, may do so without shocking the sentiments of the community. In the case of the offspring of two sisters the prohibition dates from a time when a man who married one member of a family had a right to marry all her sisters, and it was never certain that the children of sisters had not the same father. The population of 4,576, as will be seen in the returns in the appendix, is now stationary.

Relationships are traced back for four or five generations. The people seem to be in a transition state between Patriarchy and Matriarchy. A grown-up son inherits his father's house and land, but the daughters seem to have claims upon their mother's brother, and though these claims are universally recognised, there is nothing approaching the extraordinary rights of the Fijian vasu.

The land is the common property of the septs, represented by their heads. The present boundaries are not of old standing, for in fighting times the braves (toa) ignored all rights, and seized upon any land they thought themselves strong enough to hold, and some of this spirit still survives. But there is land enough for all page 137and to spare, and the junior members of a sept come to their laird whenever they are in need of land to plant on. There is individual ownership in a sense, because a title can be acquired by cultivation, and the sons inherit their father's land; but no landowner can demise his holding to anyone outside the limits of his sept, and, in default of heirs, the land reverts to the head of the sept for assignment to other members of it. The headman, receives a sort of rent in the form of labour and produce, and the firstfruits, formerly offered to the gods, are sometimes presented to him. Last year the Pacific Islands Company applied for a lease of two hundred acres in the interior for a plantation, and as there were no native plantations on the land, they considered that the refusal of their application was due to mere obstruction. As King Tongia had laid great emphasis upon one of his laws which prohibited the sale of land to foreigners, I thought it possible that he did not understand the difference between a lease and a sale, and I was at some pains to explain that the company was not asking him to do anything contrary to the spirit of the law. But he replied that the refusal rested upon other grounds. The persons who had expressed their willingness to lease were in fact page 138not the exclusive owners. Every member of several different septs would claim a voice in granting the lease, and the boundaries of this unoccupied land were so ill-defined that the division of the rent would lead to endless bickering and dispute. Moreover it might well happen that the poorer members of some of the septs would be left landless, on the excuse that the lease of so large an area had eaten up the land for which they might have applied. He satisfied me that the boundaries would have to be settled by some sort of commission before it would be prudent to grant leases for plantations.

Like all the Polynesians, the Niuéans are possessed by an earth-hunger that nothing will satisfy. Most of the jealousy between villages has its root in land disputes, and the land question is daily becoming more complicated through the system that allows titles to be acquired by cultivation, because the entanglements can no longer be cut periodically by the sword, or rather by the paddle-shaped club. The planting of plantains or of yams by leave of the owner confers no title, but the planting of cocoanuts and other fruit trees does so. In Fiji it is not uncommon for one man to own the land and another the trees growing upon it, but in Niué the trees page 139carry the land with them. Thus, there being no boundary marks, encroachment by tree-planting is a continual source of friction. It presses particularly hard upon widows and orphans, whose protests against tree-planting are unheeded, and who are frequently robbed of land inherited from their dead husbands and fathers in this way. The excuse usually given for this injustice is that widows and orphans are in wrongful possession, for their connection with the dead man's sept ceases with his death, and they should go back to their own kin for land to plant on; but that this argument is regarded as sophistry is shown by the fact that the majority of natives condemn the practice.

I have purposely refrained from touching on the flora and fauna of Niué because they are subjects that are better left by the passing traveller to the specialist, who is certain sooner or later to visit so promising a field as a solitary island originally destitute of domestic animals. Unlike human customs, which change with the old order, the fauna of an island is not affected by the fictions of human statecraft; the birds and the lizards and the land-shells will continue to breed their kind under the Union Jack as they did when the Pulangi Tau swayed the destinies page 140of Niué-Fekai. But I must make an exception in favour of the Musca Domestica, the common house-fly. All the later visitors agree in describing the swarms of flies as an Egyptian plague. The bodies of the men who came off to ships were black with them, and I knew of them by reputation long before we arrived at the island. We were prepared for the worst when our royal pilot boarded us, and we were astonished to find that he came on board unattended. One of our first questions was, "Where are your flies?" and we found that the Europeans on shore shared our surprise. At Christmas, 1899, they had been as bad as ever: then came February and March, unusually wet months, and the flies entirely disappeared. During our stay not a fly was seen. Those are the facts: entomologists must explain them. The house-fly, as most people know, takes something under fourteen days from the laying of the egg to the hatching of the pupa. The voracious larvae are supposed to earn their living by scavenging, but the Niuéans have dispensed with their services for some months without being one penny the worse. Their satisfaction will be short-lived: a new breed will be introduced by the steamers, and Niué will be fly-blown again.