Project Canterbury

Ten Years in Melanesia

By the Rev. Alfred Penny

London: W. Gardner, Darton & Co., 1888.

Chapter V. Native Customs

Agriculture-Fishing—Canoe Building—House Building—House and Canoe Inaugurating—Native Money—Dunning for Debt—Marriage—Dancing Parties.

I HAVE heard it suggested that tropical islanders live upon fish and the fruits of the earth which grow of themselves, and that their lives are spent in idleness. This may be true of some, but it certainly is not the case with the natives of the Solomons. They have to work, and work hard, to get a living.

The root crops consist chiefly of various kinds of yarns, to cultivate which systematic labour is required. This is conducted upon the "Bee" principle, and the method is something like this:

First the undergrowth is cut down; and this, when dry, is raked into heaps round the trunks of [74/75] the larger trees and set on fire. Then the trees are felled, and the branches lopped off, with which the garden is fenced; a second burning clears up the rubbish and consumes or chars the fallen trunks. The garden is now ready for cultivation. The men prize up the hard ground with long poles sharpened to a point, and the women plant the yams in the loosened earth. When the young shoots appear, canes are stuck in the ground for them to climb up, and their progress is attended to and checked from time to time if their growth is too rapid.

A curious custom used to be in vogue at Florida, which has now fallen into disuse, much to the relief of agriculturists. When the planting day a chief's garden arrived, the planters were obliged to sleep hard by the garden fence in shanties hurriedly made of boughs, or anything they could get hold of to form a shelter; and they were further compelled to work the next morning on an empty stomach till the job was finished; the reason for this asceticism being to prevent anyone on [75/76] his way to work in the morning, ignorantly, or with malice prepense against the chief, from treading upon forbidden (i.e. Tindalos) ground, and so provoking the wrath of one of the host of Agricultural Tindalos, whose displeasure would he shown by making, not only the day's work of the trespasser unproductive, hut the whole crop a failure. It is only fair to the chiefs to mention that a feast of all the delicacies of the season crowned the labours of the day.

A garden is not of much use the second year, and is of little or none the third and there is nothing to renew the energy of the soil hut to let it lie fallow for many years, till nature has done the work of restoration.

It is strange that I never heard of disputed titles to land; but everyone seems to know to whom it belongs, even though it has lain fallow for years and is covered with bush.

Fishing in some of the islands is a recognised trade: the fishermen do no other work, but sell their fish in return for garden produce. Nets of many kinds are in use made and handled with [76/77] considerable skill; and various devices are practised in the so-called gentle craft, such as kite-fishing and decoys. A small palm-leaf kite hovers astern of a canoe, kept up in a calm by the pace with which the canoe is travelling, while in a light breeze the fisherman need not add to his labours by paddling. From the tail of the kite, just bobbing along the surface of the sea, a ball of cobweb hangs. This is a deadly bait for the "Guard fish," in whose long, scissor-like jaws the glutinous morsel jams. When a suitable fish for the purpose has been caught by a hook and line, or other method, he is made to serve as a decoy. His jaw is bored below the teeth, and through the hole a fine line is threaded and made fast. The poor fish is now restored to his native element and swims about alongside the canoe. Other fish soon come to join their comrade, who, by skilful manoeuvring on the part of the fisherman, are brought within reach of a large-mouthed landing net, in which, with a dexterous sweep, they are enclosed.

There is nothing, however, which shows the ingenuity and taste of the Solomon Islander so [77/78] much as his skill in canoe building. In the New Hebrides the naval architecture is of the rudest description. There the natives coast along the shore in unwieldy logs, hollowed out, and steadied by a ricketty outrigger. In the Solomons they make long voyages, and fearlessly cross from island to island, fifty or more miles apart, in well-built, plank-made canoes.

The labour and skill shown in the construction of these are very considerable. A tree will only split up into two planks, each half has to be reduced, first by adze-like tools, and then by rubbing with a hard, flat stone. When the ship-wright has made and fitted the planks he requires for his purpose, he bores holes with a drill along the edge of each plank, about the size, and nearly as close, as the lace holes in a pair of boots. The planks are then firmly laced together with a fine creeper-like plant, dried and prepared for the purpose, and the canoe is squeezed into shape by an outside frame, and the inside purchase of the ribs and thwarts. As the supple boards yield to the pressure, the lacing is gradually drawn tighter [78/79] till the planks meet as nearly as possible. The joints are now cemented with a substance they have ready to hand. This is a brown nut, round and smooth, as large as a lawn tennis ball, and holding a kernel the size of a walnut. This kernel is scraped into a reddish brown pulp, which is plastered over the joints and laces, and sets as hard as iron, so hard that the side of a canoe is often stove in, and a plank smashed, without the seams giving way. A canoe of the ordinary class is now complete; but a man of taste, who can afford to pay for it, will have his canoe ornamented with inlaid devices in mother-of-pearl. This inlaying process is a tedious job, as each piece of mother-of-pearl has to be rubbed into shape on a stone or filed, and then stuck into the cement while it is plastic. The rubbers and filers—files are in great request for this purpose—need not be skilled workmen. When a chief has a canoe built, he requisitions his dependants for these prepared pieces—1,000 or 2,000 per village—which the artist fashions into devices and patterns on the sides of the canoe. I have heard of 50,000 [79/80] of these pieces being used to inlay one canoe. This entails considerable expense in food and native money. But the owner is to some extent recouped for his outlay if he has a successful maiden trip with his canoe; the custom being, when a valuable canoe is launched, for the chief to whom it belongs to visit his friends with a chosen party, and send the hat round at each place.

There is great variety of size and shape in these canoes, hut they are all plank-built from the common Florida "Roko," which holds four or five men, to the fighting "Peko," the best builders of which live at Ysabel. These latter vary from the ordinary "Peko," which carries about twenty men, to those of extraordinary size; the largest I have seen was built for a crew of fifty, but canoes of even larger dimensions still are said to exist.

There are two kinds of houses, (without counting the Ysabel tree-houses),——the house built on the ground, and the raised house. The latter is, from our point of view, much the better. The platform on which the house is built is raised on [80/81] piles, the height varying, according to the taste of the builder, from two or three feet to eight or ten. It is made of strong joists resting on the piles, across which smaller poles are laid; these again are covered with the thick outer bark of a tree like that on which the betel nut grows. This bark is about half an inch thick, and very hard the tree itself is hollow. Strips of this bark will flatten down and form a good substitute for boards. On the flat surface thus formed a plaited layer of long leaves is laid from a tree of the palm type, and then the matted floor over all. This is made from small bamboos split open, with their joints carefully chipped away; these are plaited into a firm, close, and very neat flooring. The sides of the house are formed of larger bamboos laid lengthways; the uprights, which carry the roof, keeping them firm and in their place. The ends of the house in which are placed the door and windows, are made with the bamboos set perpendicularly. The roof, covered with a thatch, rests upon a ridge-pole supported by king-posts firmly embedded in the ground, [81/82] which rise up through the raised floor. The thatch is made of the leaves of the sago palm. Each long, ribbon-like leaf is doubled over a reed, and firmly pinned in its place with a short length of strong, brittle fibre, the backbone of the leaf of another kind of palm; a reed from six to eight feet long would be covered by from twenty-five to thirty palm leaves, their long stems and points doubled together extending a yard from the reed. These screens are made and stacked in readiness for the thatching day. The thatching is done by a working "Bee," and almost the largest house is thatched in a day, though weeks may have been spent in preparing the palm leaf screens. One of the last houses built for me required 3000 of these screens for the thatch. A ladder-like scaffold is made inside the house, on which the thatchers stand shoulder to shoulder, in a long line the whole length of the roof, while others are ready outside to pass up the screens; these are securely tied to the rafters, layer upon layer, the reeds being about an inch apart, till the ridgepole is nearly reached. A narrow space along [82/83] the top is left to be covered in by an elaborate structure, a work of art in itself, which finishes off the house. This long saddle is made whole, on a frame on the ground, the exact length required, and is hoisted up on the heads of the workmen, who ascend the roof by an outside stage. This is another day's work, and requires another working "Bee," after which the house-warming feast is given, not only to the workmen, but to the friends of the householder, who come from far and near for the occasion.

The description is not suggestive of horrors, but there is a barbarous custom in use on these occasions, where it has not been abolished by the influence of Christian teaching. It is called, so at least the phrase may be translated, "washing the house." It means adding éclat to the event, and prestige to the giver of the feast, by taking a life. I remember how, some years ago, I and my boat's crew might have afforded the necessary subject for this ceremony, if I had not profited by my knowledge of this national custom.

[84] We were on our way from Ysabel to Gaeta; and as we passed a large village, we saw a great crowd of natives on the shore, and I remembered that Tambukoru, the chief of the district, had been for some months past engaged in building a house. My boat's crew were Ysabel men, and the relations between their country and Tambukoru's people were not then of a friendly character, Of this fact I was aware and so, though we were very tired alter being up all night, and though Tambukoru had always been civil enough to me, I determined not to land at his place. I was made the more cautious from two canoes coining out to us, one after the other, as we passed, with messages asking us to go on shore and join the party. When we had been at Gaeta a few days, we heard that my Ysabel fellows, who had been seen and recognised, were to have been killed if we had landed, to inaugurate the house. Their plan of attack was hastily laid when they saw us approaching, and three men were told off to hold me, whom they said they [84/85] did not intend to kill, while my crew were dispatched. But there is little doubt we should have all shared the same fate in the mélée. The moral of this story is, never visit people in company with their enemies. It seems a simple enough rule, and yet many of the white traders, who have been killed in these islands, have lost their lives because they have failed to keep it. The victim on these occasions is usually some poor creature who has been taken prisoner in war, or kidnapped, and who is kept alive by his captors, either to "wash" one of their own houses or canoes, or else to he sold for the same purpose to a neighbouring chief.

I have spoken several times of the native shell money. The process of its manufacture indicates considerable intelligence I will try to describe it. The money-makers inhabit a chain of islets fringing the shores of the large island of Malanta. They have no other industry save fishing, and they buy their food with money. The Floridas are separated from them by 30 miles of sea, and Ysabel by 50 or 60 miles. Mr. [85/86] Babbage's system of division of labour is strictly followed out in this native mint. The women dive for the pink and white shells, from which is made respectively the gold and silver currency. Another set of people break them into small pieces, which are passed on and rubbed smooth between two hard stones. Then more skilful workmen round them off and bore them through piece by piece. The drill used is of the whorle and spindle pattern, tipped with flint. The bits of shell, smooth, rounded, and pierced, are now strung in fathom lengths, and stretched upon a board. Two men, one at either end of the board, rub the string with a grooved stone till it is quite smooth and even, and about the thickness of a cedar pencil. Another party finishes off the strings with tortoise-shell ornaments, and makes them up into bunches of two, three, four, and up to ten strings in a bunch. The money is now made. When a sufficient quantity is prepared, a trading party sets out for the Floridas, Ysabel, or other islands, to buy food. The canoes they build for this trade are very large, [86/87] some large enough to ship two or three tons of cargo—pigs, yams, and cocoanuts, with which they will return home.

Custom has established a regular tariff for yams and cocoanuts, 50 of the former and 100 of the latter being the equivalent for a fathom of a single string of red money. The white will only buy half as much. In the pork market, however, there is considerable scope for bargaining, because the owner and the buyer, as is sometimes the case in other countries also, have each their own ideas of the value of a pig, which seldom exactly coincide. It is a noticeable fact that the Malanta men, from smartness acquired by long practice in this business, almost invariably get the best of the bargain. So much so, that when the money passes into circulation at Florida, it soon depreciates in value fully 50 per cent. Besides this shell money, porpoise teeth and dog's teeth are used as currency. Dog's teeth are the more valuable in the ratio of one to five. A porpoise tooth represents the smallest sum in use its equivalent value is ten cocoanuts. [87/88] A dog has only two teeth available for this purpose, those on the lower jaw immediately behind the large fangs. A proof, I think, of the antiquity of these islanders, is the fact that, though there are very few dogs, yet the teeth possessed by chiefs and rich people may be numbered by tens of thousands. They are pierced and strung, and made up into necklaces, which are handed down from generation to generation, as among the most coveted of a man's possessions.

Debt is recoverable by a legal process, which, though rough and ready, is simple, and, moreover, works well. If a man has a claim against another he "duns" him for the amount. I use the word "dun" as the best translation of the Florida word which expresses this practice. The claim may be for value received by loan, or purchase money not paid, or it may be for damages for loss or injury.

If public opinion, which the chief's voice largely influences, decides that the claim is a fair one, the plaintiff proceeds to "dun" the defendant.

[89] The first night a party of women come to the debtors door, and take up a position outside his house, prepared to sit in silence till the morning, if compelled to do so. The news soon spreads—"So-and-so is being dunned"—and friends and sight-seers collect. The practical question is now considered, the same that Mr. Mantalini asked under similar circumstances, What amount will they take and go?

Considerable delay, however, often happens at this stage. Messengers are sent to and fro between the chief, who is responsible for the legal process, and the debtor.

The chief is now very dignified and reserved, no ordinary person may speak to him. A professional pleader must be engaged, a man whose social position entitles him to address the chief on such an occasion, and whose forensic skill—inspired by a Tindalo—enables him to obtain for his client some modification in the terms demanded. The ordinary course, however, is to pay up at once, and not incur the cost of counsel's advocacy; experience going [89/90] to prove that this gentleman rarely reduces the damages by the amount of his fee, which is a certainty in any case, and must be paid, like a barrister's—at least so it is said—before he goes into court. When a chief duns another chief, the case is a more serious one, and the legal proceedings are longer and more costly.

The dernier ressort behind the action is the secret of its power. If the claim is not settled the first night, the female bailiffs are again dispatched—this is equivalent to the second "going" of the auctioneer—for the third night the men come and set fire to the house, seize the pig, smash the canoe, and destroy everything belonging to the defendant upon which they can lay their hands.

Matters are very seldom pressed to this bitter end.

The marriage customs vary very considerably in the different islands of the Solomon group. At Ysabel wives are cheap, at Florida very expensive, but everywhere a girl is a property of more or less value to her father and friends.

[91] The marriage customs begin with tattooing. This adornment is absolutely indispensable to the girl's prospect of being sought in marriage. A serious process is involved in the operation. The tattooer, or taxidermist, belongs to the medical profession; he is distinctly a speciality man. He possesses a Tindalo, whose "mana" enables him to operate painlessly. Fancy what a practice a dentist who possessed such a Tindalo would soon acquire! This man's services command a very considerable fee. He sets about the operation in the following manner. He first engages a company of professional singers—soloists and chorus; in the case of a chief, still greater expense is incurred by the necessity of furnishing the vocalists with an entirely new répertoire of songs composed for the occasion. The concert begins at sunset, and is kept up with unflagging energy all through the night. To this the poor child who is to be tattooed is compelled to listen; her friends nudge her to keep her awake if tired nature asserts itself in sleep. With sunrise the taxidermist sets about his work; and, with considerable [91/92] skill, judging from the after effect, carves or scratches with a bamboo knife, a network pattern on the girl's face and bosom. It is considered a point of honour to bear, with Spartan fortitude, the pain of this operation. The Tindalo, however, gets the credit of its painlessness; at least his reputation, and that of the specialist who possesses him, suffers if the patient gives utterance to her feelings by sob or cry. After the operation, sleep comes to the rescue, and when the child awakes, nothing more serious is the matter than a little smarting and stiffness—-a trifling discomfort, and small in comparison with the pleasing consciousness that she is now eligible for a matrimonial offer. From this time her friends keep a watchful eye over her movements, and check any symptom of levity on her part, or the slightest approach to familiarity with anyone of the opposite sex.

I am describing the rule, there are exceptions, but I need not refer to them with more than this passing notice.

Honourable proposals follow in the course of [92/93] time, and then dawns a day of good things for her friends. All who have subscribed for the tattooing now expect to receive back their subscriptions with interest; and the amount demanded from the suitor varies directly with the girl's rank, and the number and social position of her friends. I remember a case where a sum of native money was demanded by a chief for his daughter, which would have cost £50 worth of trade to buy.

Young men who have no rich friends, or are too lazy to make friends by their readiness to work, sometimes wait for years for a wife. But where a suitor has reasonable hopes of ultimately raising the sum required for a particular girl, he can lodge a certain amount on account with her father, and so engage the object of his choice. This precaution secures him from the danger of being cut out by a wealthier suitor.

A chief's daughter seldom marries young, because the avaricious parent demands such an exorbitant price for her hand that few men are rash enough to even contemplate the thought [93/94] of becoming her suitor. The large sum I have mentioned was demanded by Takua, the Mboli chief, for his eldest daughter and the luckless wight whose vanity led him to commit the folly of allowing his people to make the matrimonial overtures, was mulcted in a heavy fine for his presumption, when his inability to raise the required sum became known. It often happens that a chief's daughters do not marry till their father dies then they are bought for an old song by some middle-aged widower, polygamist, or impecunious person who has waited in vain for many years to obtain a partner. The whole system is bad and, as may be inferred, is the cause of a host of troubles, often involving bloodshed, for the moral code of the natives is very severe—though, perhaps, that is not quite the way to express the case, because the idea of property seems to occupy a place in the native aspect of the question. I believe that the establishment and progress of Christianity will introduce a thorough reform in the native marriage customs. I have [94/95] the more confidence in saying this because indications are not wanting of changes in the right direction having already begun.

When her price had been paid, the girl is handed over to the care of her future husband's friends. She lives with her mother-in-law until such time as the bride and bridegroom are permitted to live together as man and wife. A short time after the money has been paid, the receivers provide a feast for the subscribers. A large portion of the purchase-money has to be spent in this way. A second, a return feast, is given to the girl's people, and then the ceremonies are at an end. A wife's friends are, however, never quit of their responsibility for her actions. If she quarrels with her husband, he refuses to eat anything she cooks, and her friends have to make up the quarrel by sending the sulky husband a present. One of Takua's wives accidentally set fire to his new canoe-house, which was burnt to the ground, and the new canoe inside. The woman's unlucky friends had to pay a large fine, which Takua demanded [95/96] for his wife's carelessness. This seems to be the one privilege a Florida man enjoys, as a set-off to the long price he has to pay for his wife. There is another privilege enjoyed by the native of Ysabel, at least I have heard it considered as such: all communications between him and his mother-in-law are strictly forbidden.

The love of dancing seems to be strongly developed in the mind of the black man. This taste he shares with the European, but the two styles are widely different. The dances of the South Sea Islanders resemble rather the elaborate evolutions of a pantomime ballet, than the exercise as it is practised socially amongst our selves.

The natives of the New Hebrides are far in advance of the Solomon Islanders in their skill as dancers. I was present some years ago at a public dance at Mota, and I was much struck by the ingenuity shown in the various figures of the dance, and the knowledge of their parts displayed by the dancers. The whole spectacle was an admirable specimen of native design, carried out [96/97] by careful preparation and long practice. We have nothing in the Solomon Islands to compare with the sight I then saw. Dancing, however, is made a more paying business in the Solomons, and the principle is more generally recognized that the chief pleasure is conferred upon the spectators, for which it is only reasonable that the dancer should be paid. The New Hebrides dancer is paid, but not so highly as the Solomon Islander, though his performance is worth more money.

When a chief contemplates getting up a dancing party, he and his advisers first choose the dance, after which they select the dancers from a host of applicants, and the whole performance is put in rehearsal. A year or even longer is a very ordinary time of preparation for one of these dances. Of the five or six in common use I will try to give some description of one, a "Sonruka."

Thirty-six dancers are required, who take up their position in a wedge-like phalanx. Four ranks of fours, four of threes, and four of twos, one rank behind the other; the big men are placed in [97/98] the front, and the smaller men and boys tail off in the rear.

The dancers pipe for their own dancing, and the dancing consists in wriggling the body, bent double, swaying the head, arms, and legs, and marking time with the feet strings of dry nutshells bound round the ankles, emitting the sneezing sound of cymbals as the dancers stamp. The leaders play the melody on pan-pipes, to which less skilled musicians put in an accompaniment with bamboo trumpets of different lengths. The music changes with the figures of the dance, and marks the time and change of the steps—one, two, three, right; one, two, three, left. There are two noteworthy peculiarities in the music, the frequent occurrence of fifths, and syncopated time in the deep notes of the accompaniment.

As every gesture has been rehearsed, and the heads, legs, arms, and feet move as if by clockwork in time to the music, the general effect is very pleasing.

The chief who owns the party, like an enterprising manager, spares no expense to enhance [98/99] the spectacular effect of his dance. Strange devices in white cockatoo's feathers, in shape not unlike the plumes on the head of a hearse-horse, are held in the hand unoccupied with the pan-pipes; gaudy coloured waist cloths, dog's and porpoise' teeth necklaces, and ornaments of every kind, are in requisition to bedeck the dancers. When the performers are ready, and the time is arranged so as to coincide with the calm season of the year, the party is brought together and a start is made.

The final act of preparation used to consist in a solemn function, placing the dancers under the protection, and in communication with some potent Tindalo, whose "mana" made their movements agile, their music inspiring, and generally conduced to the success of the enterprise. The fortunate functionary who had presided over the Tindalos mysteries and performed the ceremony, received a heavy fee for his services. But the chief was wise enough to let this stand over till the final division of the profits at the end of the tour, so that the amount [99/100] varied with the supposed success of his spells. Besides the dancers there is a mixed multitude, whose numbers add to the dignity of the proceeding. I met last year a party from Olevuga which numbered 350, and manned a fleet of thirty canoes of various sizes, But I have heard of dancing parties where the numbers were considerably greater.

The round of visits generally occupies three months. At each place visited several performances are given, after which the spectators supply their entertaining visitors with food, and the chief contributes so much money. The amount varies with the dignity of the visitor, and the general approval accorded to the efforts of the dancers.

These dancing parties are among the most harmless of the native customs, and latterly we have been able to utilize them to the spread of Christianity. At first the Christians held aloof because of the Tindalo influence upon the dancers, and because they would have to give up school and prayers during the tour. But [100/101] when their numbers came to be considerable, the idea occurred to some of us, to let a Christian party go attended by a teacher as Chaplain, if the chief would consent to forego the Tindalo part of the business. On several occasions this has been done. A large dancing party started three years ago from Gaeta with a contingent of fifty Christians, and went the round of the Floridas. Each night and morning those men met together for prayers, and though at first they had to encounter ridicule, the ridicule in time gave way before their pertinacity.

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