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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.