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The Light of Melanesia
A Record of Fifty Years' Mission Work in the South Seas

By H. H. Montgomery, D.D.

New York: E.S. Gorham, 1904.

Chapter XII. Suqe--Charming

INSERT here a deeply interesting account by the Rev. L. P. Robin of the custom called Suqe as it obtains in this group. Here it is called "Huqa." "This is a kind of brotherhood to which all males above a certain age belong; women are rigidly excluded. As regards the Torres Islands, I am not aware of anything distinctly immoral in the rites of initiation or profession, but some are exceedingly nasty. During the rites, which last sometimes for eight or ten days, the people engaged confine themselves entirely to the village where the ceremony is going on, and to the sacred and secret spaces belonging to it. In cases of initiation the whole male population of the village takes part; but of course in those of progression to higher ranks, only those belonging to the higher ranks are present. After the separation of the sexes, the salient feature of the Suqe is the rigid laws regarding eating and drinking. In every village there are on one side of an open space the ordinary family huts; opposite to them on the other side is the gamal or Suqe hut. This is an immense hut some seventy or eighty feet in length. Inside it is divided into some eight or nine spaces, marked off by pieces of bamboo laid down at the divisions. In each space there are usually three native ovens or fireplaces. Down the centre lie long bamboos filled with water; each space has its own, supported near the open end by a forked stick. In or near each bamboo stand beautifully-polished cocoanut cups, from which the natives drink. Gea, which resembles the Fijian kava, though not prepared in the same way, is drunk. Near each fireplace is the heap of stones used in cooking. Overhead, upon cross-beams, lie the various dishes, oven-covers, etc., used in the preparation of the food. Stuck in the thatch are the finely-carved wooden and tortoiseshell knives with which the mashed food is cut up and distributed. Near at hand lie the pestles or mashers, also with carved handles. Everywhere, hanging within easy reach, or propped against the sides of the hut, are to be seen bows and numbers of deadly bone-tipped arrows. Such is the interior of a gamal in the Torres Islands. The space nearest the entrance is open to children and the uninitiated; after that each space marks a higher rank, till the highest of all is reached at the extreme end of the hut. Now the Torres Suqe law is that no man may eat anywhere except in that space and at that oven which belongs to his rank. He may not eat fruit in his garden. He may on no account, unless very seriously ill, eat food in his own house with his wife or family, or that has been cooked or even touched by them. He may not touch the food, drink, or utensils of any one of higher or lower rank than himself. He may not even obtain fire, or its materials, from any but one of the same rank. If in passing up the gamal to his own place, he inadvertently touches the utensils belonging to any space through which he passes, he pays a fine.

He may eat no food cooked in an oven other than that belonging to his rank. The same rules apply to drink. In his garden he alone digs his own yams for his meal and carries them home. The dishes, cups, etc., belonging to a man of very high rank may not be even seen by those of low rank. Outside the gamal it is proper to pay a certain deference to the head man. Thus a boy or man of low rank would never pass upright in front of a man of very high rank. They bow down. There is a kind of sanctity attaching to the head men--a sort of power supposed to be inherent in them by reason of their position, but which is not under their own control. In Torres this power, which is supposed to avenge any insult offered to the chief, is called the 'Her-hia.'

"Now, from the strictness of these rules, it was necessary to make the rejection or surrender of Suqe rank a condition of baptism. Because, since every baptized Christian must be potentially a communicant, this cutting off from eating in common was irreconcilable with the profession. And this was the chief difficulty with which we found we must deal at the outset. The man who broke the Suqe rules, and such was always extremely rare, was looked upon with contempt by the rest. He was considered a low fellow, no gentleman, and quite outside the pale. In fact, he lost caste, and could not recover his position. It was, therefore, a very critical test of a man's sincerity if he voluntarily threw up the Suqe to become a candidate for holy baptism. In the Banks Islands these rules are not nearly so strict, and no caste is lost by a man occasionally eating elsewhere than in his gamal place. But the secret ceremonies of initiation and the like are still carried on, and at times everything of a Church nature falls to the ground through the enforced seclusion of a whole village and their friends for some eight or ten days whilst these rites are being performed. With this trouble taking place in the Banks Islands, for a warning, I determined, if possible, to abolish the thing at Torres from the commencement. But it was of course no easy matter. However, in the first year seven men, headed by a man of the second rank, threw up the Suqe, and placed themselves under instruction for Holy Baptism. This good example was followed by others year by year, but no chief of the first degree could persuade himself to be the first to abrogate his position. And so there were four men in this rank, three of whom were very old, and from the first resolutely cut themselves off from all communication with us. The fourth, whilst friendly and professedly desirous to join us, insisted on two conditions being observed before he would himself take the decisive step; he stipulated (1) that all the natives of lower rank should break their Suqe before or at the same time as himself; (2) that the other chiefs of equal rank should do the same. His three fellow chiefs on the Island of Lo died. He and a remnant of some forty natives of second, third, and fourth ranks still held out.

"The sequel is most striking. The chiefs ate themselves out of the Suqe. Curiously enough they have made a rule about it, namely, that any one intending to do so, shall descend grade by grade, eating in each place, and at each oven till he reaches the space near the door, where the little boys who have not been initiated eat. Then a great feast takes place outside with the women. During my visit, Teqalqal, with a number of others who joined him as he reached their grades, did this. I always made a point when possible of attending both the last meal at the entrance space in the gamal, and also of course the great feast outside. On the occasion of Teqalqal's last gamal meal (the gradual descent of course took several days), after all was over we got up, and every one together gave a great, shout, making the welkin ring indeed. Then three cheers started by myself, and then a succession of the Torres whoop, which for penetrating powers, loudness, and hideousness, rivals any sound I know, including an Australian's coo-ee and a syren-whistle.

"Is there not something inexpressibly touching and also wonderful in this quite literal illustration of our blessed Lord's words, 'Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'? What but the Holy Spirit could have inspired these men to thus humble themselves to the very ground before their people, ay, and amid the sneers and scoffs of many who would not join? Truly it was an awe-inspiring thing to see, for one seemed to feel the breath of God about one, and to hear the still, small voice speaking to the heart of this man and his friends. And besides the setting aside of his rank, there was more. By his high position the chief is supposed to be endued with some sort of special power and to be sacred, but over this power he himself has no control; but if it, in his person, is insulted, the people fear some punishment. Consequently they besought him, for his sake and theirs, not to do this thing lest they should all suffer for it. But in faith he did it, and many took courage and followed him; and on such a rock as that are the foundations of Christ's Church laid at Tëgua."

So interesting are Mr. Robin's observations, that I give the account of another custom in his words.

"Very different from the Suqe and death customs was another which it was necessary strenuously to oppose and, if possible, to eradicate from the outset. Charming, that is, at least, the intention to inflict death or disease upon an enemy, I found to be rife in Torres. The manner in which it is done is briefly this. A quarrels with B. A makes a charm. He takes a piece of a certain kind of wood, about two inches long. On each side of it he places a piece of a human rib. He binds the three tightly together; then he goes out, and conceals it very carefully in a path along which he knows his enemy is coming. B comes along and unsuspectingly passes over the hidden charm. A, who has concealed himself in the bush near at hand, comes out as soon as B has gone by, takes up the charm and goes home. He then waits for an opportunity of sending the charm away to a wizard. He is careful to send it to one on another island. An opportunity occurs, and A sends the charm to the wizard C, telling him to inflict death or disease upon B. C sets to work; fasts almost entirely from food for forty days, drinks nothing, and conducts his actual operations on the charm with the utmost secrecy. The process differs, of course, according to the punishment desired to be inflicted. But there are two main divisions, those meant to inflict death, and those meant to inflict disease. The disease charm is carried on uninterruptedly, and consists in winding the charm up in numerous layers of coarse cobwebs, leaves of particular plants, and here and there the long sharp thorns of the Tomago, which are fastened in with intention to inflict pains in particular parts of the victim's body, according to their position in the charm and the special incantations used in their insertion. The death charm, on the other hand, is worked on more slowly and at regular intervals; the object being apparently not to cause death too quickly, but to waste the victim away by two or three attacks upon his health first. This charm is also made with greater care. Only the very finest cobwebs are used; it is never allowed to get cold; in the intervals of working it is placed in a small piece of bamboo together with some powdered human bone, and hung over a fire which is never allowed to go out. Did the charm once get cold, the power in it would be lost. There are various stages in the working of the charm, which it would take much too long to enumerate and detail in this paper, and of which also I am myself not very well informed; the whole business being carried on with such secrecy that even where it is discontinued, it is excessively difficult to hear anything about it. As to whether there is a power exercised by these men, I give my own opinion for what it is worth; reminding you of what I said at the beginning of this paper, that many years are necessary to gain a definite knowledge of the intricate customs of the natives; also that it is extremely difficult to ascertain and certify given dates and coincidences. Yet I will say there is something quite incomprehensible to me in the charming, and quite irreconcilable with any theory of the death or illness being caused by fear. I see no cause to disbelieve, in fact, it seems to me reasonable, that Satan, in whose bond they are as heathen, should be able to bestow a hurtful power upon some of them. And I am emboldened to say this, since I heard Mr. Baring Gould say publicly in a lecture in England that the powers of the Zulu wizards are utterly inexplicable on any other theory than that of diabolical possession, or the co-operation of evil spirits. In any case, the practice is, on the face of it, a wicked one; and it is at least suggestive and hopeful that it does not seem difficult to convince the natives that it is so. It is now entirely discontinued at Lo, and I think at Tëgua also. The other two islands are comparatively untouched as yet.

"In conclusion, let me say that it is, I feel sure, most necessary to realize that these customs constitute the religion of the natives and of their forefathers. In endeavouring, therefore, to eradicate or supplant them, one should try to deal gently, gradually, and with tact, concerning them. The more delicately one handles such subjects, the more sympathetically one treats those whose manners and customs they are, the sooner will the natives learn to twist one, and the more easy will it be to persuade them in time to give up all those things which are either directly contrary to God's law, or obstacles in the way of a consistent following of it."

In 1903 I find that Simon Qalges had been stationed in this group as the native clergyman. The best native teacher has, however, been kidnapped by a French labour ship and taken to Noumea. There is some prospect of a white teacher or a clergyman being stationed in this group again.

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