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.