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.
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.
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.