Position of Women

So far as it turns upon the distribution of labour, the position of the women, especially in the Polynesian region, is higher than among many other races. Where labour itself is more highly valued its distribution between the sexes is fairer. In Tonga almost all work, even that of cooking, fell to the men; the women only preparing tapa by way of entertainment among a circle of neighbours, accompanied by the men beating time. In Hawaii it was the same. Both work together in the fields, but fishing is the men’s affair; though women take part in diving for shells. Among the more needy tribes more is laid upon the woman, and with nomads she is the beast of burden. In New Zealand the women held formerly a higher position. They were not excluded from the discussion of public affairs, not even from councils of war; they even went with the men to battle. Husband and wife ate together, and the mother got as much obedience from her children as the father. Only in certain tribes destitution produced exceptions. Nothing in all this is altered where “mother-right” is valid; for though the children follow the mother, the father is still the head of the family, and his wedded wife does not belong to “his side of the house,” but remains “at the door.”

Princess Ruth of Hawaii. – (From a photograph belonging to Professor Buchner, Munich.)

As in affairs of daily life, so even in higher matters two views of the woman’s position are in dispute; and here too we find that the higher view is taken in some Polynesian groups. But even in the Melanesian Islands we meet with both not far apart. In the northern New Hebrides women seem freer than in the southern, and in some parts of New Guinea her position in the family is described as one of high esteem. But in Polynesia the notion that contact with her is defiling, excludes her from closer association with men at meals, at public worship, and at festivals. In Tahiti men and women have their separate priests; in other islands the women have none, and even a life in the next world is not allowed to them on the part of the men. In Melanesia the women may not enter the common houses of the men, nor the boat-houses, which are of the nature of temples. Yet again the Maoris ascribed prophetic gifts to the oldest woman of the tribe, while in Tonga there were priestesses who, after drinking ava, were possessed and prophesied. In Micronesia their social position has unmistakably risen. Here it is quite contrary to good manners for a husband to beat his wife or use insulting words to her in public.

In Pelew, if the woman insulted belongs to the Ajdit stock, the fine imposed is equal to that for homicide, and if it cannot be paid the culprit must fly the country. The greatest insult that can be offered to a married man is any ill word of his wife; and no one must mention the name of another man’s wife in public. A social organisation exists here for women corresponding to that of the men, and running almost parallel with it. Just as the chief of the men in Pelew must belong to the family whose seat is Ajdit, so the eldest woman of this family is the queen of the women. Beside her stand a number of female chiefs, with whom she keeps an eye upon the good behaviour of the women, holds her tribunal, and gives judgment without any man being allowed to interfere. So too the women are divided into leagues, called Klobbergoll. If these lack the important attribute of the male unions, – community of labour, participation in the wars, common dwelling in the bais, – they have the right to levy taxes at festivals and on the death of the military king. Among their duties are the management of the decorations at festivals, including the dances, of which the men openly admit that only the women understand the meaning. The men are strictly warned off the women’s bathing-places; exactly for which reason these spots are selected for lovers’ rendezvous. In this case the man is under the protection of the lady and her friends. A great auxiliary to these tendencies, which prevail in so many districts, towards giving a higher position to women, nay, even to the widespread “mother-right,” is that loosening of the marriage-tie which has progressed to the point of decomposing society.


No tie in the whole life of the Polynesians appears to be weaker than that of marriage. Small reasons are enough to undo it, and its undoing is taken very easily on both sides. This goes so far as to make the wife’s position one of simple thraldom, where she is regarded as the man’s property and no more. When Europeans in Polynesia wish to secure the favour of native women they have first to make a present to the husbands, who will hand over their wives, compulsorily if need be. In Hawaii a kind of incipient polyandry arises by the addition to the establishment of a “cicisbeo,” known as Punalua. Thus in Tahiti women of easy virtue could call themselves Tedua, which was also the name of ladies of the royal family. Very often the main object of matrimony appears to be not at all the procreation of children, but the husband’s comfort; or, at best, the guardianship of the wife, or some question of money. Besides this, not only the constraint of exogamy, but – at all events in the higher classes – political objects have to be considered.

Women of Ponapé in the Carolines. – (From the Godeffroy Album.)

One thing detrimental to marriage is the view that it is not seemly to display the wife to the world as being in confidential relations with her husband. Men never allow themselves to be seen on the highway with their lawful wives, though with a paramour they have no objection. If a stranger stays in the house the wife keeps out of the way. Even the number of children, which is kept as low as possible, is affected by this corrupting influence. It arises in great part from the tribal organisation with its union of men, involving necessarily the exclusion of the family; and even if the family exists beside it, it becomes corroded at the base. The more the system of men’s clubs develops, the weaker are family ties.

Women of Ponapé in the Carolines. – (From the Godeffroy Album.)

If a girl at ten or twelve years old has not found a husband, she goes as an armengol, or doxy, to a bai, and becomes the paramour of a man who keeps her. Until she can find some one to marry her – a matter of simple agreement – she can go from one bai to another. Often the opposed interests of the wives and the irregular partners lead to quarrels; and for this reason the paramour has a hut of her own built for her in the neighbourhood. Nothing, however, shows more clearly the way in which the superior force of social organisation breaks through the barriers of Nature than the fact that the married women do not object to maintain the girls of the bai, – another proof of the subordination of family to tribal interests which the mode of courtship has already exemplified. External life, too, is not family but village or tribe life. The Polynesians are sociable, but it is pre-eminently a masculine society; and domestic happiness is not unaffected by this. In this matter the Negroes are much better.

Similarities and coincidences in labour and implements of labour

Craftmanship – cloth

Bark-cloth is prepared in all the Melanesian groups. Besides the paper mulberry, which is cultivated, the following trees supply the bast: FicusprolixaF. tinctoria, and Artocarpus incisus. The loom is unknown; the woven stuffs from New Guinea found in our collections seem to be a Malay importation. In New Guinea they merely beat soft the bast stripped off the india-rubber tree; but Fiji produces pieces 150 yards long, of stuff coloured in patterns, by means of the blocks shown at `The more easterly islands’. It is hard to say how far to the westward the Polynesian and Fijian method of preparing tapa extends, since it is an article of trade. In New Britain the tapa is thicker, and obviously more coarsely manufactured; nor is it printed, but painted, so that, as in New Guinea, the patterns are larger and more continuous throughout the stuff, from being drawn and not impressed. The use of a rule, too, permits the designing of wonderfully regular squares.

Craftmanship – plaiting

Wickerwork (basket, pouches, and fly-whisk), from Tongatabu. (Cook Collection, Vienna Ethnographic Museum.)
[Click on picture for higher resolution]

The art of plaiting is diligently practised. For the coarser mats coco-nut fibre is employed; for the finer, pandanus leaves and rushes. An intelligent Fijian can always tell you from which island a mat came. The coarser kinds are used as floorcloths and hangings to the huts; the finer as sails, or sleeping-mats, or for children. Floor-mats are 5 to 8 yards in length, sail-mats 100 and more. Sleeping-mats are of two kinds – a thicker to lie on, and a thinner for covering; one of the most valued sorts has a pleat running through the middle of each strip of plaiting. Borders are worked on with designs in darker bands; white feathers and scraps of European stuffs are woven in. One of the prettiest productions of the art is the women’s liku, a girdle woven from strips of the bast of the wau-tree (a kind of hibiscus), with the fibres of a root that grows wild, and blades of grass. Soft mats are made by plaiting the stalks of a fibrous plant into one, and removing the woody portions by bending and beating. Bags and baskets are admirably woven; fans, too, are made either of palm leaves strengthened at the edge and vandyked, or woven from bast. But superior to all these are the string and the cables – the best from coco-fibre, the inferior kinds from the bast of the wau-tree. In the Fiji Islands these are tastefully made up into balls, ovals, spindles, etc. Comparison with New Caledonia shows how high East Melanesia stands in this art. One has only to look at a New Caledonia fan beside one from Fiji. But in New Guinea, again, very elegant woven articles of all kinds are produced.

Craftmanship – Wood-carving

Carved spatulas for betel-lime from Dorey in New Guinea – largest height approx. 210mm(Christy Collection.)

Wood-carving again, of which we have seen specimens in the weapons, stands highest in East Melanesia, though the west can also [as seen in the image above] show remarkable work. Individual districts are poor in this respect: in the Banks Islands, for instance, hardly any carved human figures are to be seen. All the larger groups have their own subjects. The most wonderful fancy is shown in the appendages to houses and boats. In these simple artists there is a strong tendency to pass from imitation of Nature to conventionalised forms, so that this imitation is never very successful, especially where, as in Fiji and the New Hebrides, the human form is so rarely copied. One may see this in the representations of the human face, in which the nose appears as a line, falling downwards and forwards from the projecting forehead, with strongly distended nostrils, and ending in the mouth, a cross line sharply cut back. In some New Guinea masks this evokes a reminiscence of Ganesa and his proboscis. In Fiji this fancy is fused with the far better proportioned geometrical designs of Tonga. In San Christoval figures are better drawn than anywhere else, and in Isabel we find really artistic engraved work. We may notice also one characteristic production of Melanesian art: the ever-recurring grotesque heads of the New Caledonians. The carved head with large nose and a kind of bishop’s mitre on the top, [as shown on the right,] is a type which we find in a larger form by itself, as an idol. This religious sculpture shows a close affinity with idols from other parts of the South Seas, in connection with which we may recall the resemblance of the spear-heads to the knobstick of the Hervey Islanders as shown in the plate of “Polynesian Clubs.”

To the same branch of art we may refer the carved wooden masks. These are often trimmed round the lips with red beans, and fitted with wigs of real hair; and are carried at dances, dressed in feather clothing. All these carvings are executed with firm, strong cuts in palm wood. Lines in relief are coloured black, the general level red, and depressed parts are white. From New Ireland come examples of masks made by sawing off the face of a skull, just as in Peru; and with these are connected the ruddle-painted skulls of New Britain. The flexible tortoiseshell was formerly the favourite material in south-eastern New Guinea and in the Torres Islandsfor masks with wild arabesques and appendages like trunks and combs. Still earlier, indeed, it was much more worked, being used even for hats; now they have got to use tin masks in New Guinea, where formerly, in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Landparticularly, a vigorous style in masks used to prevail, corresponding with that of the carved woodwork generally.

Craftmanship – household utensils

Among the household utensils of the Hawaiians are pestles called penu, 5 to 8 inches high, made of basalt, smooth and beautifully worked, with a flat rubbing-surface and handles of various shapes. With these bread-fruit, taro, and bananas are ground, on a block having four feet and the upper side slightly hollowed. Primitive oil lamps are formed of conical bowls hollowed out in lava. Lastly, we must mention the preparation of the turmeric powder, to which is ascribed an importance amounting to sanctity as an embellishment for body, clothing, and utensils. In Nukuor the roots are ground by four to six women in special public buildings, they are then allowed to stand in water; on the following morning three young coconuts and three old soma nuts are offered by a priestess with prayer, after which the dye which has settled down in the water is collected, baked into cakes in coconut moulds, wrapped in banana leaves, and hung up in the huts till required for use.

Stone pestles from Hawaii – left hand pestle approx 160mm height. (Cook Collection, Vienna Museum.)

The industrial activity of the Melanesians is in some points behind, in many others in advance of that of the Polynesians. Weapons reach their highest development in the Solomon Islands; the artistically beautiful spears of Fauro have been spoken of with full justice. New Caledonia, parts of New Guinea, and the Admiralty Islands hold in many respects a lower position; while many natives of the southern and central Pacific have no knowledge of pottery. From New Guinea to the Fiji Islands vessels are freely made of clay mixed with sand. This art is absent in New Ireland and New Britain, but reaches its highest point in Fiji. Finsch mentions villages on Hall Sound in New Guinea, where one stock understands pottery and another does not. On the north coast Bilibili does a thriving trade as the centre of this industry in Astrolabe Bay by exporting its manufactures. In the New Hebrides the potter’s art must have died out; in Vate not one complete pot is now to be found, but only potsherds. This retrogression has been set down to the immigrating Polynesians, who have introduced the custom of cooking with hot stones. The highest points to which the earthenware industry has developed are found in New Guinea and the Fiji Islands, which are precisely the extreme points of its distribution. The Melanesians do not know the potter’s wheel, but they burn their vessels cleverly in the open with dry grass and reeds. The Fijian tools are a ring-shaped cushion (in New Guinea the upper part of an old pot), a flat round stone, and four wooden mallets. With this they make vessels which are quite as symmetrically formed as on the wheel. A shining glaze is given by rubbing them with resin while still hot. In New Guinea pots are painted black, white, and red, with figures of birds and fish; the shapes have extraordinary variety. The cooking vessels are simple but elegant urns, sometimes of considerable size.

Earthenware vessels from the Fiji Islands. (Godeffroy Collection, Leipzig.)

Ornamented covers are not uncommon, handles at the side are never found. Among the smaller drinking vessels are found some made of two or three fastened together, with separate spouts, and having also a common spout in the hollow handle [See also coloured plate]; also oval and spindle-shaped flasks with one opening, and boat-shaped ones with two. The decoration consists of impressed dotted or zig-zag lines and ribs, which Finsch, from his observations in New Guinea, states to be trade marks. Pots the size of casks are used there to keep sago. The wonderful wealth of forms is based not so much on recollection of the very similar South American shapes as on immediate imitation of Nature. Here, as among almost all races, the task of making pots is left to the women, and it is only the wives of fishermen and sailors who appear to devote themselves to it. May we see in this a case of migratory industrial tribes resembling the smiths of Africa?

Courtship and Weddings

In Melanesia circumcision usually takes place on the appearance of the beard. On attaining puberty, or sooner, the youth leaves the parental hut and avoids his mother and sisters, sleeping in the common hall, which, except at marriage festivities, no woman may enter. The ceremonies at the initiation of the nubile girls are simple, in Samoa no more than a feast with presents. The whole course of life is different where girls are betrothed from their birth, and are brought up from childhood in the house of their intended. In Isabel it is even the custom for a girl to live in the bridegroom’s family till she is full-grown. In Fiji, when that time has arrived, the bridegroom comes to the house of the parents, offers some whales’ teeth as a present, and takes the long-engaged bride to be his wife.

Tongan ladies. (From the Godeffroy Album.) [Click on image for higher resolution]

Here, as in the Banks Islands, any anticipation of his marital rights is jealously guarded against. If the girl goes wrong she is severely punished, even put to death; and her seducer, if he is caught, shares the same fate. A custom hard to explain is found in the Solomon Islands, in New Britain, and New Ireland – that girls on reaching puberty are locked up for some months in little huts of their own, entrance being allowed only to old women.

The ceremonies of courtship are conducted on the familiar lines. The courting is done on the young man’s behalf by relations or friends, who bring the symbolic presents to the house of the girl. These are in Samoa food, in New Britain heavy strings of money, carried on spears. The acceptance of these signifies a favourable disposition; but as this form of courtship is addressed not to the family but to the tribe, the final decision rests with the tribal chief. At the wedding an exchange of gifts takes place, the settlement of which often gives rise to some hard bargaining. The bridegroom gives a boat, weapons, pigs; the bride mats and bark-cloth.

In Samoa both tribes used to assemble for the wedding festivities in the public place of the village. The bride, followed by her friends and playmates, well oiled, carrying flowers and dressed in their best mats, walked along a mat-strewn path to the middle, where sat the bridegroom awaiting her. She took her place facing him, on a snow-white mat, while the young women brought the wedding presents, singing as they went. In the days when the chiefs still took a pride in the virtue of their daughters, inquiry into this followed; and great was the applause which greeted chief and tribe if no stain could be shown on her character. The bridegroom’s friends then escorted the bride to her future home, where she passed some days in seclusion.

This first solemnity would seem to have been only provisional, and the next five or six months a period of probation, since at the end of that period a second festive gathering was held, and the marriage sealed by a renewed exchange of presents. In Melanesia too this exchange but thinly concealed the purchase of wives. The price advanced by the father is repaid by the son; and in the Solomons a widow is at the absolute disposal of her deceased husband’s relatives, in the event of her marriage-price not being refunded. The necessity of refunding this is often the only ground of abstention from hasty divorces.

Among the better-to-do classes of the more advanced stocks, like the Fijians, cases occur, though exceptionally, of marriage of inclination. The acquisition of wives by capture still occurs, and the capture can be made good by the payment of an indemnity to the relations, in case the woman is content with her husband. Fights of a “pretence” kind, however, take place between the bride’s and the bridegroom’s friends, even where there is no trace of compulsion; and a slight resistance on the bride’s part is regarded as good manners.

In various parts of West Melanesia marriage is celebrated with ceremonies of a religious character. Thus at Dorey, on Geelvink Bay, the couple join hands sitting before an ancestral image, and eat sago together under the exhortations and congratulations of their friends; she offers him tobacco, he presents her with betel. During the first night the newly-married pair must sit up together while the relations partake of a copious and solemn meal; after which the young husband takes his wife home. In New Britain the couple are sprinkled with coconut milk, the nut being broken above their heads. The wedding revel with music and dancing is seldom forgotten.

Old Tongan woman. (From the Godeffroy Album.)

A man frequently takes two wives, or more, if his establishment allows. Among poor tribes like the Motus, on the other hand, monogamy is universal; but divorce is so easy that a kind of “Successive polygamy” arises. When the wife is done with she is laid aside or bartered away. In the Gilberts a man can demand the sisters of his wife in marriage, and is expected to marry his brother’s widows. The overplus of women among the Naiabeis of New Guinea decides the point, no less than does in other cases the more usual overplus of men. Peculiar family organisations not uncommonly show traces of polyandry. In the New Hebrides, for example, there is a kind of convention in cases of widowhood, that two widowers shall live with one widow; the children belonging to both. Dearth of women has lately given rise to something similar in the villages of labourers in Fiji, reminding us of the limitations of permitted marriages caused by the veve or veita system to be mentioned presently. In New Ireland and New Britainwidows are claimed as common property by all the men. But the re-marriage of the widower is opposed by all the female relations of the deceased wife: at first sportively, by using every possible form of annoyance to make the man keep at a distance, and then in earnest, if he does marry again, by destroying his house, goods, and crops.

Generally speaking, in the simpler conditions of Melanesia, morality stands in many respects higher than in Micronesia. Finsch says of New Britain: “The exemplary modesty and respectable demeanour of women and girls strikes the traveller coming from Micronesia in a specially pleasing way; and seems hardly compatible with the universal nudity.” In some islands, as Florida, the chief maintains public women, whose earnings go to him; but elsewhere nothing of the kind is known. Adultery is in many islands punished with death, or (in more recent times) with a fine. Jealousy is a great cause of contention, both public and private. But at certain seasons an ancient custom relaxes every tie. At the Nanga festival in Fiji the women are the willing prizes of whoever can catch them in a race; and at the same time all taboos of articles of food are taken off.

Tattooing and painting

The tattooing in Melanesia is only in isolated instances of the artistic character found among the Polynesians. It has more affinity with the Australian type of cicatrised wounds than with the Polynesian punctures, and it is often not applied until the age of maturity. Among the light-skinned Motus of New Guinea we find tattooing in patterns recalling those of Micronesia. On the south coast of New Guinea Miklouho-Maclay found even the shaven scalps of the women covered with tattooing. Where there are indications of a mixture of Melanesians with Polynesians, it has been thought that the races may be distinguished according to their respective methods of tattooing. For example, in the islands off the eastern point of New Guinea, in the Solomon Islands (where the cicatrised tattooing has been observed only in Bougainville, Isabel, and the Southern Islands), and in New Ireland. Men and women are often differently tattooed: in girls tattooing indicates that they have reached nubility; in men, the slaying of a child is one of the things announced by the tattooing of the breast on one side. In tattooing, also, East and West Melanesia represent the extremes which in the central parts are mingled.

In Fiji the puncturing with the four or five-toothed instrument is limited to women, and in them to particular parts – the lower part of the body and the thigh, the corner of the mouth, and the finger. It has a religious suggestion, and is enjoined by Ndengeh. But here, too, cicatrices appear in conjunction with it, produced as a rule by means of shells. In certain localities of West Melanesia the other kinds of tattooing are almost excluded, or at all events reduced to a minimum. Among other mutilations of the body, we get distinct reports of circumcision only from New Caledonia, the southern New Hebrides, and Fiji, which appears to have been the starting-point in comparatively recent times of its extension westward. In Finsch Harbour it is performed with much festivity, the women being banished into the forest until their boys’ wounds are healed; afterwards the patients go to live there. The custom of cutting off joints of the finger in times of mourning or sickness is almost universal. To go with the whole or half of the face and the breast painted with red clay is a practice usually confined to men, as also is that of blacking the body with a kind of earth which gives a lustre like black lead. Old women also are occasionally seen blacked; among the Motus this is said to be a sign of mourning. In warlike enterprises face and body are painted in stripes of white, yellow, red, and black; in Fiji this custom has been brought to a high point of art; the not very cleanly Maclure Papuas are reported to smear their bodies with clay.

Dressing of the hair

In Melanesia all hair is sedulously plucked out from the body, while the treatment of the hair of the head with caustic lime is quite as general as in Polynesia, at times carried even further. In Fiji the crisp black hair is towzled up, and great pains are expended upon colouring it with charcoal or lime; then it sometimes surrounds the head in a strong turban-like pad, or else reminds the observer of a full-bottomed wig, as also in New Guinea; while at times it hangs down in the form of numerous thin strands or wisps. On the other hand, in the Anchorite and Solomon Islands the hair is in some cases shaven, in others plaited into top-knots stuck together with gum, and often coloured red, black, yellow, or white, but constantly adorned with feathers, flowers, shells, or tastefully ornamented cones of bamboo. White parrot’s feathers stuck on the top of the head are signs of rank; in Malicollo the hair is dressed in porcupine fashion, wisps as thick as the quill of a pigeon’s feather being wound round with the bast of a kind of creeper; artificial wigs are also prepared from the coloured fibres of plants.

Fiji warrior in a wig. (From the Godeffroy Album.)

In Fiji, persons of eminence have private hair-curlers, who are occupied for hours every day in the preparation of the wigs. The geometrical accuracy of the individual details, the rounded softness of the outlines, the symmetrical dyeing with shiny black, dark blue, grey, white, red, yellow, have often been mentioned with eulogy.

Head-dress like an eye-shade from New Guinea – approx. 300mm length. – (British Museum.)

Beside hairdressing, head-dresses of various descriptions occur; the Hattams of New Guinea wear a little cowl with coloured feathers woven in, and Cook found among the naked New Hebrideans small caps of woven mat. In Fiji a turban of white masi, from which a piece of cloth falls down at the back, or two lappets over the ears, is indispensable for a man of rank. Open-work caps made of a piece of matting adorned with strips of dark bast are customary in New Ireland and New Hanover; woven eye-shades are found in New Guinea.

Melanesian Gods of Olympus and Hades

The fancy of the Melanesians did not soar to such grand achievements in the decoration of their Elysian fields; but it furnished the road thither with many and various obstacles. The Fijian name Mbulu points to the TonganBolotu; and even the Hawaiian ball-game is reproduced in New Caledoniaas a game played with oranges by the souls at the bottom of the sea. The first thing on the road to Hades is a city through all the houses of which the souls roam, for which reason the doors all open the same way. Then they have to pass in front of a giant, who tries to get them all with his great stone axe. Those who are wounded have to haunt the mountains as ghosts for ever; those who escape the giant, after being acquitted by Ndengei, get permission to enjoy the odour of the human sacrifices. Souls of unmarried men come off worst. Nangga-Nangga lies in wait for them, and as soon as he has caught them, heaves them up in both hands and throws them down upon a rock, where they are broken in two. For this cause it was usual among the tribes in Fiji to strangle widows, because the god regards male ghosts, who come without women, as bachelors. If the wife is the first to die, the husband cuts off his beard, and lays it under the left armpit of the corpse as proof of his existence.

The fighter who guards the entrance to the next world is met with elsewhere in Melanesia. In the Hades of the Vate Islanders Salatau tries to hit those who enter on the head with a club. No doubt it is the same spirit who in Fiji, under the name of Samujal or Suma, and Ravujalo, lies in wait for souls to eat them with his brothers. The souls of common people succumb, those of nobles get to Mbulu. These go to the upper part of a mountain, and find at the top of a precipice a father and a son with a paddle in their hands. If they question them, they are thrown over, and have to reach the next world by swimming. Why the paddle, if the souls have to swim after all? The meaning of the ferryman of souls has been forgotten; though it is not so in Fiji, where the souls’ places of embarkation lie to the north-west, and where it is believed that the rustle of the west wind can be heard all the way from Galongalo, the place of the swimming. After the death of their king the three eldest men of the tribe go with cloths in their hands to the bank of the river to escort the soul. There they call aloud for the ferryman, and wait till they see an extra large wave roll in upon the shore, the token of the invisible canoe. Immediately they turn away their faces, and cry: “Go on board, lord.” Then they hasten thence with all speed, for no living eye may look on the embarkation. The corpse is buried in the usual way.

Human figure of shells and hermit-crabs,
used as a temple-ornament in New Ireland
Approx 1300mm height. (Berlin Museum)
[Click on picture for higher resolution]

Human figure of shells and hermit-crabs

Souls which are excluded from the next world, either perish or come back to wander restlessly about the earth, like those who were wounded in the fight mentioned above. The same fate awaits those who cannot hit the tree of Takivelajawa with the whale-tooth that is buried with them for the purpose, and according to Fijian legend, untattooed women also, and avaricious people. This dangerous way of souls is moreover divided into stations, at each of which the soul dies once again. In the belief of the Solomon Islanders, the avaricious, murderers, and other sinners undergo a purification by being turned into ugly reptiles, snakes, toads, and the like. Similar traces of dim notions about future rewards and punishments are to be found everywhere. But it was certainly no original conception of the Fijians that souls have to come before Ndengei’s judgment seat.

Usually souls go with the sun into the ocean, to reach the next world at his rising on the following day. This is why the promontories whence they venture their leap into the darkness, lie on the west of the islands.

Where two souls were distinguished in every man and every object, as was the case among the Fijians, namely the shadow and the reflection, it is the dark one only that goes to the lower world, while that which is compared to a reflection remains about the grave; in this way the return of the dead in dreams is explained. Another conception sets a limit to the soul even in the next world, since it makes annihilation follow upon the highest stage of the life in Mbulu. But this annihilation is personified, and in another tradition assumes the character of the chief of the souls in Mbulu, who is thus probably conceived as a soul-eating god. Others, however, make the souls remain in their place until the earth has been destroyed by fire and renewed.

The Melanesian doctrine of ghosts and gods is in its main features very like the Polynesian. It is not too much to say that the foundation of Melanesian mythology is woven of Polynesian threads; only peculiar features are woven in, and often rest upon a weakening-down of threads and colours already in existence. Considering the great variety of gods in the oceanic regions, little importance can be assigned to the pre-eminence of any one. Name and dignity of the supreme god change from one island to another. It is only in the tales of the creation and of the nether world that more stability is to be observed. In Fiji the recognised chief of all gods and men is Dengeh, Tengei, or Ndengei. He is said to have at first moved about freely, but then in the form of a snake to have grown into the earth with his ringed tail. In that he resembles the Tongan lord of the place of spirits and Dianua the lord of spirits in New Caledonia. Since then he has become the god of earthquakes, storms, and the seasons. They say that whenever Ndengei shakes himself fertilising rain will fall, delicious fruits hang on the trees, and the yam fields yield an excellent crop. But Ndengei is also a god of wrath who declares himself in terrible fashion. He punishes and chastens his people, now by destroying the crops, now by floods; he could indeed easily wipe out mankind from the earth, for since he has lived in the bowels of the earth he has been tormented with so insatiable hunger that he would like to take in and swallow the whole world.

The gods in Fiji fall into different classes according to the degree of their relationship to Ndengei. As in Polynesia, people speak of the divine family – father, son, and daughter. Mautu-Maui, Ndengei’s assistant in creation, is called the “bread fruit” and “the son of the supreme god.” Ndengei has several sons besides who receive prayers on his account; his grandchildren are territorial gods, his distant relations subordinate tribal gods. Among them are symbolisations of properties or endowments, reminding one in their crude luxuriance of India; mechanical dexterity with eight arms, wisdom with eight eyes, Waluwakatini with eighty stomachs. The two ferrymen of souls also, and Rokomutu, born from his elbow, are mentioned as Ndengei’s children, for whom the legend of creation and the deluge offer the more obvious foundation.

Legends of migrations

Traditions are not kept alive by memory only. Political and social relations follow to this day the lines of old connections which link together island groups far distant from each other. Legends of migration survive in individual villages and families, where the old home is still remembered, and the connection with it often bound closer by special reverence. The Tonganswere long in the habit of respectfully greeting the people of Tokelau, as being their ancestors. Men from Ulie in the Carolines, who visited the island of Guam in the Mariannes in 1788, followed the roads from old descriptions preserved in songs; since then the intercourse has become brisker, and at the present day the Caroline islanders collect coco-nuts in the Mariannes on behalf of foreign traders.


Thakombau, the last king of Fiji. (From a photograph in the possession of Herr Max Buchner.)

Political connection, again, is often bound up with objects that have been either left behind or brought along. The Uluthi Islands are subject to Yap, because a great destruction, by means of an inundation of the sea, would take place if an axe belonging to one of the gods, which is buried in the latter island, were to be dug up. When these lines of attraction or attachment intersect, quarrels cannot be far off. Thus the Samoans relate that one of their chiefs fished up Rotuma and planted coco-palm on it. But in a later migration the chief Tukunua came that way with a canoe full of men and quarrelled with him about the prior right of possession. The Maoris found another ground for quarrelling: having come from little islands where land was scarce, every man laid claim to estates in New Zealand that were too large.

The scantiness of migration legends in Melanesia has been regarded as only a part of the general dearth of tradition which is a Melanesian characteristic. Fiji offers us unwonted examples of legends of inland migrations, directed from the north-west towards the south-east, which in still later times was uninhabited. No doubt this bears upon the fact that the home of souls lies across the sea, and that all the spots whence souls go, that is swim, to the next world, face north-west.


If, out of all these innumerable wanderings to and fro to which various causes have given rise, one group stands out by reason of the great extent of its ethnographic operation – that, namely, which has occupied the region between New Zealand and Hawaii, Fiji and Easter Island, with a strikingly homogeneous population – that is but part of the result of the great migratory movement in the Pacific. It is quite wrong to regard this as a single event, or as an exception. It is rather one case of the rule; for none of these races was ever at rest. They wandered far and near, colonising consciously and intentionally, like any Greeks or Phoenicians.

In any case this last series of great migrations and settlements is a single existing fact belonging to that stage in the development of culture which we call the stone age. For that reason it is not easy to understand; we have no means of comparison with similar achievements. The area which this colonising activity has rendered productive far exceeds the empire of Alexander or of Rome. In the domain of annexation it was the greatest performance previous to the discovery of America.

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.

The History of Mankind – The Races of the Pacific and Their Migrations

The taking of proper bearings is of double importance in this ocean, in which the individual islands are often so far apart and so low-lying that one is astonished that they were ever found. Many islands in the Pacific were discovered for the first time in the present century. The islanders are keen observers of the stars, and have names for a good list of them. They distinguish eight quarters of the heaven and winds to match.

In their conception of the world the ocean is imagined as being everywhere full of islands, which helps to explain their daring voyages. They even inscribe their geographical knowledge upon maps, but while on these the bearings are to some extent correct, the distances are given very inaccurately. In the Ralick group the preparation of maps from small straight and bent sticks, representing routes, currents, and islands, is a secret art among the chiefs. The Marshall Islanders also possess a map of their own, made up of little sticks and stones, showing the whole group.

Stick chart from the Marshall Islands. (Godeffroy Collection).

On their greater enterprises they go to sea in a thoroughly systematic way; the longer voyages of from 500 to 1000 nautical miles are undertaken only in squadrons comprising at least fifteen canoes, commanded by a chief who has one or more pilots to advise him. Without compass, chart, or lead, and with but limited knowledge of the stars, these men contrived to make their distant point. On their voyages they steadily observe the angle made by the canoe with the run of the sea caused by the trade wind, which, north of the equator, blows steadily from the north-east. The use of this run, which remains constant even with shifting winds, has been brought by the native pilots to great refinement. The ocean currents are also no less well known to them by experience, so that they are able to take this also into consideration in laying their course.

As a general rule, in order to get the largest possible field of view, the squadron proceeds in line in which the individual canoes are so widely separated that they can only communicate by signal. By this progress on a wide front they avoid the danger of sailing past the island they are looking for. During the night the squadron closes in. This whole style of navigation contradicts the supposition that before the invention of the compass only coasting voyages were undertaken.

Polynesians and Micronesians often ship on board European vessels, where they prove themselves, apart from their limited physical strength, excellent seamen. The Hawaiians or Kanakas, who are often tried in the whale fishery, are, according to Wilkes, skilful men, but not suited for service on board a man-of-war. They are more serviceable in small than in large parties, being very fond of putting their work upon some one else. They are timid about going aloft. Their best place is at the oar, but even so, when going through the surf, they prefer to jump overboard and swim. On board a man-of-war they find difficulty in accustoming themselves to the word of command, but, on the other hand, in whaling ships they show themselves willing, hard-working, and fearless.