Project Canterbury

The Mind of the Melanesian.

By John Manwaring Steward

From Southern Cross Log, Vol. 20(2), London, February, 1914, pp. 21-29; Vol. 20(3), March, 1914, pp. 44-46.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2012

It is a common-place of Missionary experience that the first step towards any effectual work for the people amongst whom one lives, is to get into sympathetic touch with them, to learn as far as may be, to understand their mode of thought; or, at the very least, to make [21/22] allowance for the difference in the standpoint from which they look at life, and that upon which our thoughts and actions rest.

There is certainly nothing more disheartening, than to find that one's ignorance of a man's way of looking at things has caused some kindly meant action to be ill-received; or some harmless joke taken as a deadly insult.

A very experienced Missionary once said: "The longer I live amongst these people the less I understand them;" that is, the more he realised the vast gulf separating their mentality from his.

One can, indeed, only hope to lift a corner of the veil that hides the Melanesian's mind from a European; but it may well be worth while to attempt even this partial revelation, because of the dangers that lie in wait for those who, seeking to measure the Melanesian by the standards of the European, may not only fail to mark his virtues, but even mistake them for vices to be eradicated.

Mr. Dudley Kidd utters a very necessary warning on this matter in the "East and West," for April, I909. He says: "I hold that the most insignificant and backward of the races of mankind has some unique thread to weave into the fabric of the Universal Church . . . There is a grave danger that, in our desire to impart to such backward races the benefits of our civilisation and religion we should . . . fail to recognise this thread of excellence owing to its unfamiliar appearance It is so easy to mistake the strangeness of racial custom for moral evil. Of all races on earth we Anglo-Saxons need to be on our guard in this matter; for we are notorious among the nations for our censoriousness, for our insularity, and for our suspicion of all things strange and unfamiliar."

One's failure even to recognise this "thread of excellence" in the Melanesian, is largely, if not entirely owing to our inability to understand the motive that lies beneath actions and habits that seem to one often foolish and undesirable, if not absolutely wrong or immoral.

An obvious example of how even a little knowledge entirely alters one's view of Melanesian customs, is to be found in the fact that to a new comer, the prohibition of any intimacy between brother and sister, or the apparent idleness of the men, and reduction of the women to mere beasts of burden, seem utterly wrong and immoral.

But a very slight acquaintance with Melanesian life away from the immediate neighbourhood of a Mission station, will suffice to shew that these customs rest on very sound and intelligible reasons, even if they seem to us to be carried to an unnecessary extent, and will teach a would-be reformer that any attempt to alter such habits and customs, may seem to the Melanesian to veil an attack on the moral foundations of which they are the result.

Bearing this in mind then, and not trying to draw too many conclusions from what can be but a comparatively speaking superficial [22/23] view of the Melanesian character, one may try to note the prominent features of the race in general, hoping thereby to obtain some degree of that sympathetic understanding of their fundamental disposition which is essential to any intelligent dealing with them.

And perhaps the Melanesian trait that is earliest and most frequently forced on a European's notice is his "inexactitude." The Melanesian mind does not grasp nice distinctions. He has had no logical training. His own sense of right and wrong is quite clear, but it is not always the European view, and though he is quite sure that he is in the right, he cannot explain his view and cannot grasp the other standpoint.

It is this lack of exactitude that leads to the very common charge of untruthfulness and dishonesty.

Two incidents will serve to illustrate this. A Missionary priest was undecided whether or no to visit a certain village on a certain day, and asked one of his native clergy if it would be possible to reach that village by a certain time. "No" was the reply, "It is too far away?" The Missionary was not quite satisfied in his own mind, and a few minutes after asked him again, "Are you sure it is too far away?" "Oh, no, it is quite near" was the reply he got this time.

Again, the same man had been away on a tour of visits, and left his house in charge of his "boy." On his return he saw a tin of meat from his private stores under the verandah. He asked what it was doing there. The boy, fancying he was suspected of having stolen it, burst into tears and declared he would not think of stealing his master's things, while all the time he was wearing a belt which he had taken from his master's bed room!

While confessing one's inability to understand the working of the minds of either of these two; this at any rate may confidently be asserted, that the one had no idea he had been untruthful, nor the other that he had been a thief.

Something of the same spirit undoubtedly lies at the bottom of the Melanesian's failure to understand the reason for, and consequent intense dislike of rules, especially of new rules. He has just as much difficulty in understanding the European mind as the European has in understanding his. He cannot understand Discipline, and dislikes it.

It seems unreasonable and useless, and is therefore unappreciated.

His language, except in certain matters, shews the same strange inexactitude. He will introduce you to, as you understand him, two or three of his Mothers, or will tell you that such and such a one died this morning but is alive now.

He would see nothing strange in Mark Twain's famous saying that the report of his death was "greatly exaggerated."

His customs seem utterly inexplicable to us. He fights according to "Rules" that irresistibly remind one of the Rules of [23/24] Battle observed by the White and Red Knights in "Alice through the Looking Glass," but at the same time the customs of Europeans are as great a mystery to him, and he draws conclusions from what he sees of them, as ridiculous as many that Europeans draw from their often very superficial knowledge of him.

A case of immorality was being tried by two Missionaries. The evidence did not seem to them sufficient for a decision either way, and they dismissed the case. A Melanesian commenting on the matter to another Missionary, said "Of course we understand that you do not consider certain indecent actions wrong, but we do."

Again, a Missionary sent a penny change from some trifling debt, in a note to one of the Mission ladies. He was supposed to be sending love-tokens! Of another it was said "He talks so much that I suppose he wants to get married."

The sequence of thought is not obvious here, to say the least of it, to the European, but no doubt it was quite clear to the Melanesian mind of the speaker.

Another matter in which this inexactitude or wide manner of thought is shewn is in the matter of property.

The Melanesian has a conception of personal property, very different from that of the European. He is the true Socialist. He is perfectly ready to share his possessions with another, and expects other men to hold the same views. He considers it a matter for shame to refuse a request.

And this is at the bottom of the characteristic so often remarked on by Europeans. His so-called ingratitude.

As Professor Spencer has said of the Australian Aborigines, "He does not thank you for a gift, because it never enters into his head that you need thanks. He is always ready to give whatever he has to his neighbour if he needs it, and it does not dawn on him that you are not the same. It seems to him the most natural thing in the world to give or to receive."

Here strangely enough, the two extremes meet. The European with his strong sense of personal property despises the "cadger." So does the Melanesian, but that is not because the cadger is always asking, but because he is never giving away.

One teaches a Melanesian to say thank you, and thinks that he is teaching him gratitude and manners.

Perhaps the Melanesian is really being taught selfishness.

Perhaps he is really learning to put an overdue value on personal property. Can it be that in shewing him (as he very likely understands it), how high a value a European puts on his property, by making so much of a trifling gift, demanding a verbal recognition of its worth, he has been taught to be niggardly in giving to the Church, or in offering personal services, that older Missionaries say he used to [24/25] give freely, and for which he now demands a pretty high rate of pay?

How, if the Melanesian had a lesson to teach the European in practical Christian fellowship, while all the time the European full of his own inborn preconceptions fancied that he was the teacher, the "poor benighted heathen" the learner?
Once more; how often does one hear it said that the Melanesian cannot love, and has no word for it in his language?

The European loves a few, likes some more, dislikes a good number, and is indifferent to the vast majority of his fellow men.

The Melanesian has a general brotherly feeling towards all his neighbours. Which of the two is practically nearest the Christian ideal?

It seems quite possible that here is one of those unexpected "threads of excellence," not merely unrecognised, but perhaps in danger of being eradicated as actually a moral evil.

The same broad-minded, or as Europeans are tempted to call it, casual view of things, marks the Melanesian conception of time, and leads the European to exclaim against his laziness, and the impossibility of making him hurry. "Why do to-day what you can quite well put off till tomorrow?" seems to be the Melanesian's motto.

It is quite foreign to the mind of the European born and brought up in the rush of the modern times and competitive ideas, but that is a very different matter from being morally wrong.

We call him "feckless," improvident, but again one may well pause to ask whether the European anxiety to make preparations for the future, to "lay by for a rainy day," is not merely the result of his environment, and not ipso facto a moral virtue; and whether under other circumstances it might be, not only unnecessary, but even perhaps undesirable. Certainly on the face of it, the Melanesian view seems nearer the Gospel precept: "Take no heed for (do not worry about) the morrow."

Again, with very few exceptions, the Melanesian has no caste, no class distinctions. This is probably very often at the bottom of the accusations of insolence and impertinence that are freely levelled at him.

"He thinks himself as good as his master." No he does not. He does not think about the matter at all, and does not expect anyone else to think about it either.

The European is so accustomed to a distinct "servant class," the Australian to "coloured labour," that he instinctively expects the corresponding attitude from his house boy or boat's crew. He rather likes to be called" Sir," and it undoubtedly jars on him to hear some respected elder on the Mission staff, or amongst the Government officials spoken of, or even addressed, by his surname alone, without any prefix of honour. It seems so disrespectful, but it is not.

[26] The Melanesian, of course, has no term corresponding to the European "Mister." His familiar term of address is "Friend" or "Brother," and though the European feels at first a secret thrill of pride when addressed or referred to as the Chief or the Great one, he soon learns that these honorific titles are very freely bestowed, and the Dignitary of the Church feels rather at a loss when, having explained that he is a man of importance to some unpleasant looking evil-doer, he is met with the reply, given in all sincerity, "Well, so am I."

The European soon learns that the only title worth obtaining from the Melanesian's lips is that of My Father. This means respect, and when given from the heart, means also trust and affection.

It is very dangerous to draw conclusions from a native language, but a race that uses "my friend" or "my brother" as the ordinary form of address, and whose sole title of honour worth a moment's consideration is "my father," is, may be, not so very far from the Kingdom of God.

It would seem likely that this inexactitude of mind is the ultimate cause of most of the Melanesian's characteristics. He does not stop to argue, he does not seek for the reason of things, it does not occur to him that there are two sides to any question, but he simply takes things for granted.

This would largely account for his unreasoning conservatism, and his equally unreasoning adoption of novelties. He attempts to combine the outward signs of civilisation with his ingrained prejudices and preconceptions.

It shows itself sometimes in ludicrous forms. He will add a child's hat to an otherwise correct European dress. He will even proudly wear one trouser-leg. It shews itself often in very sad forms. From under a covering of Christianity and civilised habits, deep enough to deceive the most careful notice, there will suddenly appear some utterly un-Christian trait, hitherto hidden but not killed. One judges him a hardened hypocrite, but it is not so. He has not, probably cannot as yet, distinguish properly.

Both Christian and heathen mode of thought are genuine, he has not yet realised that they cannot exist together.

It shews itself in annoying forms. He has not learnt to distinguish between what is fitting and what is unfitting in dealing with those, whom the nature of his change from native life into an ordered Christian community, has put over him.

He will answer back rudely, above all, he will treat you exactly as you treat him.

Nor does he see the difference between what is fitting and what is unfitting in the ways of the Europeans with whom he is brought in contact, he will adopt both alike, or either indifferently.

[27] But he means nothing by his seeming rudeness. He does not even know that it is rude or unmannerly. The unspoilt Melanesian is nearly always a gentleman.

The man who replied to the question, "Did any missionaries ever visit you in Queensland?" with the words, "No Boss, no—missionary ever come alonga our place," had no idea that his speech lacked courtesy or refinement.

The old man who abstracted 'a cigarette from the lips of a missionary, smoked it for a few moments, wetting it well in betel-nut stained saliva, and returned it to the missionary that he might finish it, saw nothing unpleasing in the act; it was merely, from his point of view, a sign of friendly good will.

"From his point ef view." Here lies the crux of the whole matter. It has not yet dawned on at any rate the vast majority of the Melanesian race, that there may be another point of view. His ludicrous misjudgements of the European come from the fact that he judges him by Melanesian standards. He may, he should he excused much; for it has never occurred to him that different lands have different customs. But this excuse cannot be claimed by the European. He knows that each race differs from another, and, especially if he be a Missionary, pledged to help and uplift the Melanesian, cannot hope to avoid disastrous mistakes, and has no right to plead ignorance as an excuse for such mistakes, if he persists in measuring the Melanesian by his own individual ideas of what is right and fitting.

He must not only make continual allowances, but if, and when misunderstandings arise, he must be ready always to acknowledge that the probability is that he has misjudged the Melanesian, who has offended quite unconsciously, or else that he himself has unwittingly offended against some deep-seated custom, or ingrained prejudice of the race.

One has neither wished nor tried to describe the character of the Melanesian race, but rather, as far as possible, to search out the fundamental attitude of mind that leads to the visible results, a summary of which would give a picture of the Melanesian character and disposition.

One special feature of the Melanesian, as noticed and commented on by nearly all who have ever come into contact with him, may be dealt with in some detail, though it has already been touched upon.

Almost the first criticism one hears of the Melanesian, is that he is untruthful, and seems to have absolutely no idea of Truth as an abstract virtue; and though, no doubt, exceptions to this failing may be found, one is forced to acknowledge that untruthfulness is, to say the least, a most prevalent fault amongst these people. In trying to find the root-cause of this shortcoming, one should notice first, his [27/28] amazing credulity. No rumour is too wild, too absolutely absurd on the face of it, to gain credence.

A story was going round one of the Solomon Islands not so very long ago, about Bishop Wilson, to the effect that he had gone on board a foreign man-of-war, the Captain of which was a Roman Catholic, and had there been told that he and his teaching were not wanted there; and had thereupon, without further preliminaries, been thrown overboard into the sea! There are certain inherent improbabilities in this story; Captains of men-of-war do not generally treat their visitors in this manner; moreover, no such man-of-war had even been in the neighbourhood. But these small details did not suffice to prevent teachers of the Melanesian Mission from listening to the report, and paying so much heed to it, that they gravely reported it to their Missionary-in-charge, and asked if it were true or no.

Almost equally ludicrous examples of their credulity might easily be multiplied, and these, too, drawn from cases concerning not only the dealings of the more or less incomprehensible European, but from those of Melanesian, with Melanesian; and it seems reasonable to suppose the existence of some inherent defect, which, while it makes the Melanesian apparently incapable of distinguishing the truth in others, also renders him unable to recognise it in his own person.

There are also secondary causes for his untruthfulness, if this mental characteristic may be granted as the primary cause. His inexactitude has already been commented on, but there is also a misguided form of politeness, that undoubtedly leads him to say what he fancies will be gratifying to his hearers.

The Melanesian witness who, in a case of the wounding of a native by a white man, not only described the affair as an eye-witness, but also showed on a plan the exact spot where he was sitting in the boat from which the shot was fired; while from further enquiries it became evident that all the time he was below deck on board the vessel from which the boat had put off—would seem to have been a case in point; while it is only too probable that an enquiry into the character of anyone, will only result in a criticism adapted to the supposed animus of the enquirer. Examples of this are only too common, but for obvious reasons it might be undesirable to cite actual instances. They are also not always easily distinguishable from cases where the motive has been actual hostility to the person concerned.

For the Melanesian, realising that the employment of actual violence is practically impossible now-a-days, does not scruple to employ slander deliberately as a weapon to obtain revenge for some real or fancied injury; or to secure the removal of some unpopular individual. A Missionary had been accused of neglecting his district to spend "days together" with a neighbouring settler. Enquiry, however, revealed two facts: first, that in spite of the kindest hospitality [28/29] continually offered, he had hardly found himself able to spend even one night at long intervals with his neighbours, and then only to give them Services; secondly, it was revealed that he was a poor linguist, and his sermons incomprehensible.

In another case a serious charge of immorality was brought against a Missionary by one of his teachers. Witnesses in corroboration were offered, and it was only by questioning witnesses other than those provided by the accusers, that the utter lack of foundation for these charges was ascertained; while it was eventually made practically certain that the real, and indeed only cause of this attack was, some trifling changes in ritual and practice, which were, however, not understood and so bitterly resented.

So much then for the attempt to look into the depths of the mind of the Melanesian, and discover there the motive force that finds expression in his outward habits and characteristics.

But before one tries to sum up the results of this search and seeks to distinguish the good to be fostered, and the evil to be eradicated, there are three other points that should have a brief consideration.

First of all, two apparently fundamental characteristics. The Melanesian is of all men, one of the most easily offended. It would seem hardly possible that one could find a race so touchy anywhere else; and to the ordinary observer, any attempt to decide what will hurt a Melanesian's feelings and why, seems utterly hopeless, though in parenthesis, one may utter the warning that an elderly man finds it unspeakably galling to be treated, by a man half his own age, as a little child, even though he may belong to one of the "child races."

However to return to the point. A wholesale strike of workers at some mission buildings, was hardly averted, when a carpenter in charge commenting on the energy shewn by some of the women who had helped to carry materials up to the site of the building, said "I see that here too, the grey mare is the better horse." "He has called all the women horses," was the indignant outcry of the workers. "We cannot work for one so regardless of our most sacred feelings," or "words to that effect."

But yet one had heard these very people comparing one another to "Captain Cow," the Mission bull, and cheerfully submitting to be called after almost every denizen of the animal kingdom by their Priest- in-Charge, so long as he remembered that dog, pig, and monkey, were terms of unpardonable insult; so much so indeed, that unfortunate swains have been driven to recruit in a training vessel because the maid to whose hand they had aspired, had applied the latter shameful epithet to them!

Again the Melanesian when once he considers that he has a real ground of complaint against a man, never forgets it, and never forgives. He will wait years for his revenge, but in the end he will obtain it.

(To be continued).

[44] ( Concluded),

Instances, well nigh innumerable, might be cited of Melanesians who having left their homes in fear of death for some offence against tribal custom, or personal quarrel, have spent ten or more years working in Australia or Fiji, and returned at length only to fall victims to the long delayed vengeance, in some cases even before the vessel that landed them had passed out of sight.

And probably no small percentage of the outrages on Europeans are acts of vengeance for some injury, real or fancied, perpetrated, perhaps, many years ago, by some other member of their race. Indeed, tradition has long held this spirit of long deferred revenge for a wrong done by another, to have been the cause of Bishop Patteson's death.

In the third place, as to religion. This is not the place for research into the Melanesian religions; but this much may be confidently stated: The Melanesian is naturally religious; prayer, sacrifice, Sacraments, a future life, the ministry of angels, a Creator and a ruling Divine Father, are truths and practices by no means foreign to his mind.

He strikes an observer as exactly fitting St. Paul's description. He is groping after a true God, if haply he may find Him.

In dealing with his religion, one has not so much to combat a preconceived theology, as to purify and guide into the right course a religious sentiment, that hitherto has found its outlet chiefly in debased and sometimes cruel superstitions. The soul is there, but it wanders about in darkness, and it is ours, not to blame, nor to mock, but to enlighten and direct.

And for this purpose every missionary should try to obtain as clear a conception as possible, of the old-time beliefs and practices of his people, that he may see whither they pointed, and whither, if rightly directed they may still lead. Indeed, without at least some knowledge of their religion, the mind of the Melanesian will in many things remain a sealed book to the Missionary.

Summing up then, the result of this enquiry, one finds, as indeed might have been expected, that the virtues and vices of the Melanesian are what may be called" child vices" and" child virtues."

[45] A thoughtlessness, a careless open-handed generosity, that does not always perhaps, distinguish between one's own possessions and another's, a disregard of social conventions, leading sometimes to unintentional rudeness and lack of respect to those to whom respect is due, and a carelessness of the truth.

But is it not very often the case in the actual training of children that in eradicating the child vices, one destroys the child's virtues? That with more discrimination as to generosity, the generosity itself is endangered; with the instilling of lessons of politeness and respect, the sense of social distinctions gains an exaggerated value?

So, in actual dealings with Melanesians, the greatest care must be exercised to retain this cheerful spirit of generosity and good fellowship, while one strives to correct its present errors of expression.

His disregard of social distinctions is emphatically not morally wrong, and it is a matter for serious consideration how far it is even a practical evil.

There must be give and take in all dealings. The European must not consider that his preconceived opinions, suited perhaps to a complex civilisation, are of necessity to be transplanted into a very simple state of society.

As to his rudeness, it is worth remembering that one must never judge of a Melanesian's meaning by the tone of voice in which he speaks. The Melanesian's intonation in speaking is so entirely different from the Europeans, that it is sure to mislead, any but an accustomed ear.

His touchiness must be most tenderly and sympathetically recognised, and while making all allowances for it, the greatest care must be observed lest unconsciously, by word or action, one offends one of these least of God's children.

His untruthfulness must be recognised and guarded against from the earliest age. Here great opportunities and corresponding responsibilities lie before those who have the training of the children. For in their hands, humanly speaking, is the one influence that may make the Melanesian truthful, and wipe away this great reproach from the race.

And if one great Christian virtue, that of Mercy, seems almost non-existent amongst these people, it is no excess of caution, but a real conviction that leads one to utter the warning, that in striving to implant the virtue of Mercy, the greatest care be taken not for a moment to neglect its great sister virtue of Justice.

This paper has already far exceeded the limits intended at its inception, but one may perhaps be allowed to add a word or two as to practical considerations.

Enough has been said to shew how difficult a task it may be to deal wisely, and yet sympathetically with the Melanesian, but in [45/46] addition there is one trait most marked in this race that remains to be mentioned. An unusual susceptibility to personal influence.

A man known and liked by the people may do and say things that from one comparatively strange to them, or less popular, would cause serious offence and misunderstanding. From this and all the foregoing, one is led to deduce the absolute axiom, that in addition to all his home-training, no newly enrolled member of a Mission such as that amongst the Melanesians, should be allowed the oversight of any work, unless, and until, he has had some additional, real, personal training under some Missionary known to be liked by, and to have a knowledge more than superficial of, the people, their character, habits, and prejudices.

Thereby he will obtain an introduction, not only to their nature, but also to the people themselves, that will go far to obviate the danger of misunderstandings, and their consequences, enormously increased difficulties, or even possibly failure.

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