Labour, Dwellings and Food in Oceania

Similarities and coincidences in labour and implements of labour – Hunting and fishing – Agriculture and its implements – Food and stimulants, betel, kava, tobacco – Architecture and plan of villages.

Similarities and coincidences in labour and implements of labour

Craftmanship – carving

As good wood-carvers the Micronesians surpass many of their kindred in the East Pacific Islands. They know the trick of patiently adding to their dishes coat after coat of resinous lacquer till a durable skin is formed. Their wooden ware consists .of plates, bowls, and great dishes, all painted a beautiful red, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl; flat plates and deep bowls are found in the very poorest abodes. The people of Fakaafo carved cylindrical boxes out of single pieces of wood, with covers or even close-fitting lids, in which they keep their fishing-tackle. In Pelew every native is expert in the handling of his little axe; but house and boat-building is carried out by masters in the craft. This multifarious dexterity of the Micronesians is the point where the introduction of European goods has caused the greatest falling off.

Wooden dish from Hawaii. (British Museum.)

But the productions of Polynesia also testify to great handiness, and expert craftsmen hold a good position. In Tonga and Samoa carpenters are regarded as artists, and form a guild with sacerdotal rank. The perfection of the methods of labour led to the division of labour. Thus in Hawaii there were builders and roofers, boat-builders and carvers, whose productions were articles of trade. Armourers and net-makers sometimes also formed separate trades. Cook notices the chiefs’ ava-cups as the most remarkable, pieces of carved work in “Owhyhee”; they are perfectly round, 8 to 12 inches in diameter, and beautifully polished, and have little human figures in various attitudes as supporters. Quite a peculiar style of execution appears in a Hermes-shaped idol from Hawaii, now in the Berlin Museum, made almost in life-size from the wood of the bread-fruit tree, with pegs of hard wood let in forming dots. It is quite a mistake to assert that the Polynesians have no pottery. The Easter Islanders are skilful at it. On Namoka, Cook found earthenware pots, which seemed to have been long in use, and the Tonga group produces porous vessels. In Micronesia, too, pottery has been known from early times.

Craftmanship – cloth and mat making

Of the mode in which the bark-cloth, known as tapa or gnatu, is prepared Mariner gives the following account: A circular cut is made with a shell in the bark above the root of the tree; the tree is broken off, and in a few days, when the stem is half-dry, the bark and bast are separated from it. The bastis then cleaned and macerated in water, after which it is beaten with the ribbed club on a wooden block. This beating enlivens a village in Tonga as threshing does in Europe. In half an hour the piece will have changed in shape from a strip almost to a square. The edges are snipped with shells, and a large number of the pieces are drawn separately over a semi-cylindrical wooden stamp, on which the pattern, worked in coco-fibre, is stretched and smeared with a fluid at once adhesive and colouring. On each a second and third layer is placed; and the piece, three layers thick, is coloured more strongly in the parts which are thrown into relief by the inequalities of the bed. Others are annexed to it both at the side and the end, until pieces a yard wide, and 20 to 25 yards long, are produced.

Mats from Tongatabu. (Vienna Ethnographical Museum.)

For printing their kapa (as they call it) the Hawaiians used sticks broadened at the end, and carved with figures in relief, and drew lines on the stuff with a wooden comb. Some of the most remarkable patterns of Polynesian tapafrom that portion of Cook’s collection which is now at Vienna, are represented on our coloured plate. The tints are black, white, and reddish brown; the patterns, with the exception of a dotted one which seldom occurs, are rectilinear. European influence has unluckily not improved them. Mats from the Gilberts and Marshalls show a special pattern for each island,1displaying a relatively good standard of taste. The women of Micronesia, in Ruk, Mortlock, and Nukuor, weave a fabric from the fibres of a Musa and a Hibiscus. The looms, or rather frames, are like those of the Malays. The Gilbert and Marshall Islanders are clever at weaving mats; the inhabitants of Ponapé sew their mats; the women of Ponapé understand basket-weaving, while the ropes which their husbands make from coco-fibre are famous. From the Gilbert Islands come charming covered baskets and fans of different sorts. The long tough fibres of the Phormium tenax, which grows from 6 to 10 feet high, stimulated the Maoris to the weaving of mats, affording a substitute for tapa of many and various descriptions. Bast mats with borders of feathers woven in are made in Samoa. Cook brought some of the prettiest plaited work from the Tonga Islands: pouches, wooden vessels covered with plaited work and the like; large mats are designed with stripes of dark-coloured bast and adorned with trimmings woven on. A characteristic Tongan object is the fly whisk, which is at the same time one of the king’s insignia. The fans of plaited bast also show pretty shapes; they belong to the toilet of Polynesians of all ages. A great variety of straw plaiting is produced at present in Hawaii. Interesting also are the netting needles, one of which exists in the Cook collection at Vienna, with a net of human hair still wound round it. A strong wooden needle, some 16 inches long, with an eye, was used for the same purpose.

Polynesian fan and fly-whisks, insignia of chiefs, probably from Tongatabu. (Cook Collection.)
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Craftmanship – ornaments

For ornaments, mother-of-pearl was the favourite material to work; it makes a particularly vivid impression when it is employed in glittering natural beads, or lies in broad plates on the breast. Tortoiseshell is split into discs of extraordinary thinness, while valuable chains and girdles are composed of the coloured opercula of certain shells. The laborious putting together of them from numerous small pieces is a particularly favourite task. Feather-weaving reaches its highest pitch in Hawaii. One might say that in the case of the hideous feathered idols of the Sandwich Islands the work is much too fine in comparison with their ugliness. The red feathered head shown in the coloured plate of Polynesian ornaments, with its wide skate’s mouth full of teeth and goggle eyes, is made of plaited reeds and string, into which thousands of little red and yellow feathers are so cleverly worked in tufts that they quite conceal the substratum. The red feathers on the Greek-shaped helmets are from Depranis coccinea, the yellow from Moho fasciculatus.

1 [So to this day many Alpine valleys have their own pattern for home-spun and home-woven cloth, recognised sometimes even in quite remote districts.]

Mental qualities of the Melanesian population

Drum from Pigville,
in New Guinea
Approx. 840mm high
(Christy Collection)
Spatula for betel-lime
from New Guinea
Approx. 240mm long

Dull and barren stupidity does not characterise the mental endowment of the Melanesians. German observers have drawn special attention to the capacity of the Bismarck Islanders for education. In judging of their intellectual nature we must overlook neither the acuteness of their senses nor their inventive faculty. These “savages” find tools, twine, packing materials, where the white man is at a helpless standstill. To their keen practical eye Nature seems a storehouse of useful articles, where what they require at the moment is constantly at hand. Figurative language is everywhere in use; and by means of obsolete or borrowed words it has attained the position of a regular poetic dialect. In the Banks Islands almost every village has its poet or poetess, whose performances do not remain unrewarded. Death is often referred to as “sleep,” and fluids that have become set as “sleeping”; they speak of dying as a sunset, and denote ignorance by “the night of the spirit.” For modesty they employ the term by which they indicate the gentle half-tones of evening light. To reef the sail is to fold the wing. If their feeling for Nature is less than might be expected when we look at their noble landscapes and their beautiful flowing seas, their poetry and their art make free use of these in description and picture.

Drums from Amboyna in the New Hebrides
(after Codrington).

Apart from its didactic, proverbial, brief terms of phrase which betray keen observation and wit rather than fancy, Fijian poetry finds its most characteristic expression in the so-called Meke, a name which implies both song and dance. To only a few elect is it given to invent these; and those allege that they are carried in their sleep to the spirit-world, where divine beings teach them a song with the appropriate dance. The ideal of the Fijian poet is regular measure and every verse ending with the same vowel. This he seeks to obtain by arbitrary abbreviations and lengthenings, by the use of expletives, omission of articles, and other poetical licenses. Seldom, however, is a poem achieved like that recorded by Mr. Williams, consisting of eighteen verses all ending in au. In the historical and legendary ballads the disposition towards exaggeration often takes a grotesque form; nor are interpolations often lacking, to bring in some quite irrelevant bit of coarseness which for the general public constitutes the main attraction of the poem. The ballads are chiefly sung at night, with the inevitable dances; but so great is the love of the Melanesians for song that they sing at their field-work or when rowing or walking about. As a rule one sings a verse and the chorus repeats it.

Musical instrument from New Ireland. Approx. 180mm long
(Godeffroy Collection, Leipzig.)

Melanesian music on the whole resembles Polynesian. Musical instruments are absent only from the smallest islands. The prevalence of the drum in all forms reminds us of Africa. A small drum, made from a bamboo with a slit in it, and beaten with a stick, is carried especially by the women, in order to announce their approach on occasions at which they are excluded. From New Ireland we have a peculiar wooden instrument from which a vibrating tone is extracted by drawing the flat hand along it. The people of New Britain had pan-pipes varying in size and number of pipes; Solomon Isles. There, too, on festive occasions, bands composed of twenty men perform, more than half of whom play wind instruments, reeds fastened twenty-three in a row, and straight flutes of bamboo some 3 feet long by 2½ inches thick, from which they extract two or three tones with chords of thirds or fifths. The others beat large bamboo drums with a stick. The principle of the Melanesian drum is a bamboo cane or a hollow stem with a narrow slit on the thin edges of which it is beaten. Each of these drums is one size smaller than the next, and gives a note different by an octave from that of the next. The flute is forbidden to women, – indeed superstition says that they die if they see it, and the same with the bull-roarer. Among the Tugeri a signal whistle is found, made from a small coco-nut, with several holes bored in it.

The dances often agree even in details with those of the Polynesians. At funeral festivities they dance round a drum with a human countenance to represent the departed. Sometimes the dancers consider themselves to be ghosts; dancing is also a diversion of ghosts. The individual movements consist of bowings and swayings, or jumping up and down; but they also have mimic war-dances, executed by two ranks of men armed with spear and shield. Masks are worn at these, and if they are beast masks we get an idea very like that of the Dance of Death.

Carved coco-nut from New Guinea – Approx. 100mm high. (Christy Collection)

The Melanesians are often spoken of as among the races who cannot count beyond three or five, but numerals for ten are found everywhere, and in New Britain the money reckonings extend to sums which would make us look for numbers higher than a hundred. A kind of knotted cord-writing and similar aids to notation are also not absent here.

Bit of etched design on a coco-nut, from Babel in the Solomons. (After Codrington.)

In the calculation of time and the observation of the heavens, some groups of the Melanesians have much the same knowledge at their command as the Polynesians have. In New Guinea the year is divided by the changes of the monsoon; months and longer periods are distinguished according to the labours of the field; but we find also a division according to the position of the Pleiads, the reappearance of which in the northern heaven betokens the return of spring. A large number of constellations denoted as the Boat with its Outrigger, the Bow-bender, the Bird, the Hunting Brothers, serve to obtain bearings in navigation, and to indicate the time of night. We have already spoken of the navigation of these races at The Races of the Pacific and Their Migrations.

New Hebridean ornament (enlarged)


Of writing we know only traces, in the picture-writing as scratched by the New Caledonians on bamboo, or engraved by the Fijians as well as the Tongans in the shape of little figures among the ornamentation of their clubs.