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.]

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