Basil Thomson.

The Fijians; a study of the decay of custom online

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_South Sea Yarns_
_The Diversions of a Prime Minister_
_A Court Intrigue_
_The Indiscretions of Lady Asenath_
_Savage Island_
_The Story of Dartmoor Prison_

(_In collaboration with_ Lord Amherst of Hackney)
_The Discovery of the Solomon Islands_

_Copyright, London 1908, by William Heinemann._


This volume does not pretend to be an exhaustive monograph on the
Fijians. Their physical characteristics and their language, which have
no bearing upon the state of transition from customary law to modern
competition, are omitted, since they may be studied in the pages of
Williams, Waterhouse and Hazlewood, which the author has freely
consulted. All that is aimed at is a study of the decay of custom in a
race that is peculiarly tenacious of its institutions - the decay that
has now set in among the natural races in every part of the globe.

The author lived among the Fijians with short intervals for ten years,
first as Stipendiary Magistrate in various parts of the group, then as
Commissioner of the Native Lands Court, and finally as Acting Head of
the Native Department. Much of the anthropological information was
collected for the Commission appointed in 1903 to investigate the causes
of the decrease of the natives, of which the author was a member, and of
that portion of the book his fellow-Commissioner, Dr. Bolton Glanvill
Corney, C.M.G., and the late Mr. James Stewart, C.M.G., should be
considered joint authors, though they are not responsible for the
conclusions drawn from the evidence.

To Dr. Corney, whose services to medical science in the investigation of
leprosy and tropical diseases in the Pacific are so widely known, his
special thanks are due. He also received valuable assistance from Dr.
Lynch, the late Mr. Walter Carew and a number of native assistants,
notably Ilai Motonithothoka, Ratu Deve, the late Ratu Nemani Ndreu, and
others. The late Mr. Lorimer Fison also helped him with many

The ideas expressed in the introduction were formulated in the author's
presidential address to the Devonshire Association in 1905: the marriage
system and the mythology were described in papers read before the
Anthropological Institute: some account of the "Path of the Shades" and
the fishing of the Mbalolo are to be found in others of the author's

The spelling adopted for native words may be displeasing to Fijian
scholars, particularly the rendering of _q_ by _nk_, but although
_wanka_ may not represent the Fijian pronunciation as accurately as
_wangga_, it is certainly less uncouth. Hazelwood's spelling, excellent
as it is for the purpose of teaching Fijians to read and write their own
language, is misleading to English readers, and the abandonment of his
consonants _c_ for _th_, _b_ for _mb_, _d_ for _nd_ and _g_ for _ng_,
needs no apology.

_London, 1908._


The present population of the globe is believed to be about fifteen
hundred millions, of which seven hundred millions are nominally
progressive and eight hundred millions are stagnant under the law of
custom. It is difficult to choose terms that even approach scientific
accuracy in these generalizations, for, as Mr. H.G. Wells has remarked,
if we use the word "civilized" the London "Hooligan" and the "Bowery
tough" immediately occur to us; if the terms "stagnant" or
"progressive," how are the Parsee gentleman and the Sussex farm labourer
to be classed? Nor can the terms "white" and "coloured" be used, for
there are Chinese many shades whiter than the Portuguese. But as long as
the meaning is clear the scientific accuracy of terms is unimportant,
and so for convenience we will call all races of European descent
"civilized," and races living under the law of custom "uncivilized." The
problem that will be solved within the next few centuries is - What part
is to be taken in the world's affairs by the eight hundred millions of
uncivilized men who happen for the moment to be politically inferior to
the other seven hundred millions?

For centuries they have been sleeping. Under the law of custom, which no
man dares to disobey, progress was impossible. The law of custom was the
law of our own forefathers until the infusion of new blood and new
customs shook them out of the groove and set them to choosing between
the old and the new, and then to making new laws to meet new needs. This
happened so long ago that if it were not for a few ceremonial survivals
we might well doubt whether our forefathers were ever so held in
bondage. With the precept - to do as your father did before you - an
isolated race will remain stationary for centuries. There is, I
believe, in all the history of travel, only one instance in which the
absolute stagnation of a race has been proved, and that is the case of
the Solomon Islands, the first of the Pacific groups to be discovered,
and the last to be influenced by Europeans. In 1568 a Spanish expedition
under Alvaro de Mendaña set sail from Peru in quest of the Southern
continent. Missing all the great island groups Mendaña discovered the
islands named by him Islas de Saloman, not because he found any gold
there, but because he hoped thereby to inflame the cupidity of the
Council of the Indies into fitting out a fresh expedition. Gomez
Catoira, his treasurer, has left us a detailed account of the customs of
the natives and about forty words of their language. And now comes the
strange part of the story. Expedition after expedition set sail for the
Isles of Solomon; group after group was discovered; but the Isles of
Solomon were lost, and at last geographers, having shifted them to every
space left vacant in the chart, treated them as fabulous and expunged
them altogether. They were rediscovered by Bougainville exactly two
centuries later, but it was not until late in the nineteenth century
that any attempt was made to study the language and customs of the
natives. It was then found that in every particular, down to the
pettiest detail in their dress, their daily life and their language,
they were the same as when Catoira saw them two centuries earlier, and
so no doubt they would have remained until the last trump had not
Europeans come among them.

If, as there is good reason for believing, the modern Eskimo are the
lineal descendants of the cave men of Derbyshire, who hunted the
reindeer and the urus in Pleistocene times, the changelessness of their
habits is to be ascribed to the same cause - the absence of a stimulus
from without to break down the law of custom.

In the sense that no race now exists which is not in some degree touched
by the influence of Western civilization, the present decade may be said
to be a fresh starting-point in the history of mankind. Whithersoever we
turn, the laws of custom, which have governed the uncivilized races for
countless generations, are breaking down; the old isolation which kept
their blood pure is vanishing before railway and steamship communication
which imports alien labourers to work for European settlers; and
ethnologists of the future, having no pure race left to examine, will
have to fall back upon hearsay evidence in studying the history of human

All this has happened before in the world's history, but in a more
limited area. To the Roman armies, the Roman system of slave-owning, and
still more to the Roman roads, we owe the fact that there is not in
Western Europe a single race of unmixed blood, for even the Basques, if
they are indeed the last survivors of the old Iberian stock, have
intermarried with the French and Spanish people about them. An
ethnologist of the eighth century, meditating on the wave upon wave of
destructive immigration that submerged England, might well have doubted
whether so extraordinary a mixture of races could ever develop
patriotism and pride of race, and yet it did not take many centuries to
evolve in the English a sense of nationality with insular prejudice
superadded. Nationality and patriotism are in fact purely artificial and
geographical sentiments. We feel none of the bitter hate of our Saxon
forefathers for their Norman conquerors; the path of our advance through
the centuries is strewn with the corpses of patriotisms and race

Nor was the mixture of races in Europe the mere mingling of peoples
descended from a common Aryan stock, for if that were so, what has
become of the Persians and Egyptians, worshippers of Æon and Serapis and
Mithras, who garrisoned the Northumberland wall; of the host of Asiatic
and African soldiers and slaves scattered through Europe during the
Roman Empire; of the Negroes introduced into southern Portugal by Prince
Henry the Navigator; of the Jews that swarmed in every medieval city; of
the Moors in southern Spain? Did none of these intermarry with Aryans,
and leave a half-caste Semitic or Negro or Tartar progeny behind them?
How otherwise can one account for the extraordinary diversity in skull
measurement, in proportion and in colour which is found in the
population of every European country?

If we except the inhabitants of remote islands probably there has never
been an unmixed race since the Palæolithic Age. Long before the dawn of
history kingdoms rose and fell. Broken tribes, fleeing from invaders,
put to sea and founded colonies in distant lands. Troy was no exception
to the rule of the old world that at the sack of every city the men were
slain and the women reserved to be the wives of their conquerors.
Doubtless it was to keep the Hebrew blood pure that Saul was commanded
to slay "both man and woman, infant and suckling" of the Amalekites, the
ancestors of the Bedawin of the Sinai peninsula.

It may be argued that the laws of custom have been swept away by
conquering races many times in the world's history without any
far-reaching consequences - those of the Neolithic people of the long
barrows by the warriors of the Bronze Age; those of the British by the
Romans; those of the Romano-British by the Saxons; those of the Saxons
by the Normans. But there was this difference: in all these cases the
new customs were forced upon the weaker race by the strong hand of its
conquerors, and as it had obeyed its own laws through fear of the
Unseen, so it adopted the new laws through fear of its new masters. It
was a rough, but in the end a wholesome schooling. We go another way to
work: we do not as a rule come to native races with the authority of
conquerors; we saunter into their country and annex it; we break down
their customs, but do not force them to adopt ours; we teach them the
precepts of Christianity, and in the same breath assure them that
instead of physical punishment by disease which they used to fear, their
disobedience will be visited by eternal punishment after death - a
contingency too remote to have any terrors for them; and then we leave
them like a ship with a broken tiller free to go whithersoever the wind
of fancy drives them, and it is not surprising that they prefer the easy
vices of civilization to its more difficult virtues. In civilizing a
native race the _suaviter in modo_ is a more dangerous process than the
_fortiter in re_.

The law of custom is always interwoven with religion, and is enforced by
fear of earthly punishment for disobedience. This fear is strongest
among patriarchal races whose religion is founded upon the worship of
ancestors. To depart from the customs of the ancestors is to insult the
tribal god, and it is therefore the business of each member of the tribe
to see to it that the impiety of his fellow-tribesmen brings no judgment
down upon his head. In such a community a man is only free from the
tyranny of custom when he dies. As in the German's ideal of a
well-governed city, everything is forbidden. Hedged about by the tabu he
can scarce move hand or foot without circumspection. If he errs, even
unwittingly, the spirits of disease pounce upon him. In Tonga almost
every day he performed the _Moe-moe_, an act of penance to atone for
unconscious breaches of the tabu, and in the civil war of 1810 it was
the practice to open the bodies of the slain to discover from the state
of the liver whether the dead warrior had led a good or an evil life.

Among the races held in bondage by custom there were, of course, rare
souls born before their time in whom the eternal "Thou shalt not" of the
law of custom provoked the question "Why?" But they met the fate
ordained for men born before their time; in civilized states the
hemlock, the cross and the stake; in uncivilized, the club or the spear.
Perhaps the real complaint of the Athenians against Socrates was that an
unceasing flow of wisdom and reproof is more than erring man can endure,
but the published grounds for his condemnation were that he denied the
gods recognized by the State, and that he corrupted the young. This, as
William Mariner tells us, is what men whispered under their breath when
Finau, the king of Vavau in the Friendly Islands, dared to scoff at the
law of tabu in 1810, and he was struck down by sickness while ordering a
rope to be brought for the strangling of his priest. In fact the
reformers of primitive races never lived long: if they were low-born
they were clubbed and that was the end of them and their reforms; if
they were chiefs, and something happened to them, either by disease or
accident, men saw therein the finger of an offended deity, and obedience
to the existing order of things became stronger than before.

The decay of custom, which may be fraught with momentous consequences
for the civilized races, is proceeding more rapidly every year. It can
best be studied by examining the process in a single race in detail, and
for this purpose the Fijians, who are the subject of this volume, are
peculiarly suited, because by their isolation through many centuries no
foreign ideas, filtering through neighbouring tribes, had corrupted
their customary law before Europeans came among them, and so decay set
in with startling suddenness despite their innate conservatism. What is
true of the Fijians is true, with slight modifications, of every
primitive society in Asia, Africa and America which is being dragged
into the vortex of what we call progress. The fabric of every complete
social system has been built up gradually. You may raze it to the
foundations and erect another in its place, but if you pull out a stone
here and there the whole edifice comes tumbling about your ears before
you can make your alterations. It is the fashion to assert that native
races begin to decline as soon as Europeans come into contact with them.
This arises from our evil modern habit of making false generalizations.
The fact that some isolated races suddenly torn from the roots of their
ancient customs begin by decreasing rapidly is so dramatic that we
eagerly fasten on the generalization that weaker races are doomed to
wither away at the coming of the all-conquering European, forgetting the
steady increase of the Bantu races in Africa, and of the Indians and
Chinese up to and even beyond the limit of population which their
country can support.

The main cause of the sudden decrease of a race is the introduction of
new diseases which assume a more virulent aspect when they strike root
in a virgin soil, but we are now beginning to learn that this cause is
only temporary. For a time a race seems to sicken and pine like an
individual, but like an individual it may recover. In the decrease from
disease there seems to be a stopping-place. It may come when the race
has been reduced to one-fifth of its number, like the Maoris, or to a
mere handful like the blacks of New South Wales, but there comes a time
when decay is arrested, and then perhaps fusion with another race has
set in. The type may be lost, but the blood remains.

It is against the attacks of new diseases that the law of custom is most
helpless. The primitive theory of disease and death is so widespread
that we may accept it as the belief of mankind before custom gave place
to scientific inquiry. The primitive argument was this: the natural
state of man is to be healthy, and everything contrary to Nature must be
the doing of some hostile agency. When a man feels ill he knows that an
evil spirit has entered into him, and since evil spirits do not move
unless some person conjures them, his first thought on waking with a
headache is "An enemy hath done this." Out of this springs all the
complicated ritual of witchcraft, fetish and juju, which by frightening
natives into destroying or burying all offal and refuse that might be
used against them by a wizard, achieves the right thing for the wrong
reason. The "Evil spirit" theory of disease is thus not so very far
removed from the bacillus theory: in both the body has been attacked by
a malignant visitor which must be expelled before the patient can
recover. It is in the methods adopted for making the body an
uncomfortable lodging for it that the systems diverge. In all ages the
essential part of therapeutics has been faith in the remedy, whether in
the verse of the Korân swallowed by the Moslem, in the charm prescribed
by the medieval quack, in the "demonstration" of the Christian
Scientist, in the prescription of the medical practitioner. Mankind
survives its remedies as well as its epidemics. England has a population
of nearly forty millions, even though, less than a century ago, as we
learn from Creevy's memoirs, blood-letting was regarded as the proper
treatment for advanced stages of consumption.

It is, I think, safe to assume that in the centuries to come there will
be representatives even of the smallest races now living on the earth,
and that the proportions between civilized and what are now uncivilized
peoples will not have greatly altered, though the political and social
ideas which underlie Western civilization will have permeated the whole
of mankind. It is therefore important to inquire whether the
uncivilized races are really inferior in capacity to Europeans.
Professor Flinders Petrie has expressed the view that the average man
cannot receive much more knowledge than his immediate ancestors, and
that "the growth of the mind can in the average man be but by fractional
increments in each generation." In support of this view he declares that
the Egyptian peasant who has been taught to read and write is in every
case which he has met with "half-witted, silly and incapable of taking
care of himself," while the Copt, whose ancestors have been scribes for
generations, can be educated without sustaining any mental injury. I
venture to think that there are more exceptions than will prove any such
rule. In New Zealand it has been found that Maori children, when they
can be induced to work, are quite equal to their white school-fellows.
Fijian boys educated in Sydney have been proved to be equal to the
average; Tongan boys who have never left their island write shorthand
and solve problems in higher mathematics; Booker Washington and Dubois
are only two out of a host of negroes of the highest attainments.

Australian aborigines, and even Andaman Islanders, have shown some
aptitude when they have overcome the difficulty of a common language
with their teacher; New Guinea children do very well in the mission
schools. The Masai are the most backward of all the East African tribes,
yet Mr. Hollis, the Government Secretary of Uganda, employs two Masai
boys to develop his photographs. It is, in fact, doubtful whether there
is any race of marked mental inferiority, though, as among ourselves,
there are thick-witted individuals, and these may be more common in one
race than in another. Certainly there is no race that suffers mental
injury from teaching. In all uncivilized people there is a lack of
application, and any injury they sustain arises from the confinement
necessary for study. It is character rather than intellect that achieves
things in this world, and character is affected by education, by
climate, and by pressure of circumstances. There are now in almost every
uncivilized race individuals who are defying the law of custom to their
material profit, though not to their entire peace of mind, for they have
begun to understand that the riches of the European may be dearly
purchased, and that in anxiety about many things happiness and
contentment are not often found.

But though all peoples are teachable there are racial idiosyncrasies
which we are only beginning to discover. Why, for instance, should the
Hausa and the Sudanese have a natural aptitude for European military
discipline while the Waganda find it irksome? Why do the Masai, whose
social development is Palæolithic in its simplicity, make trustworthy
policemen and prison warders, while the Somalis have been found utterly
worthless in both capacities? Why are the Maoris and Solomon Islanders
natural artists in wood-carving while the tribes most nearly allied to
them are almost destitute of artistic skill? These natural aptitudes
suggest what these races may become when we have struck off their
fetters of custom and have forced them to compete with us.

Cheap and rapid means of transit are sweeping away the distinctions of
dress, of custom, and, to some extent, of language, which underlie the
feeling of nationality, and the races now uncivilized will soon settle
for themselves the vital question whether they are to remain hewers of
wood and drawers of water for the white man, or whether they are to take
their place in free competition with him. The "Yellow Peril," which
implies national cohesion among the Mongolians, may be a chimera, but it
is impossible to believe that a white skin is to be for ever a sort of
patent of nobility in the world state of the future.

History teaches us that there can be no middle course. Either race
antipathy and race contempt must disappear, or one breed of men must
dominate the others. The psychology of race contempt has never been
dispassionately studied. It is felt most strongly in the United States
and the West Indies; a little less strongly in the other British
tropical colonies. In England it is sporadic, and is generally confined
to the educated classes. It is scarcely to be noticed in France, Spain,
Portugal or Italy. From this it might be argued that it is peculiar to
races of Teutonic descent were it not for the fact that Germans in
tropical countries do not seem to feel it. It is, moreover, a sentiment
of modern growth. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Englishmen
did not regard coloured people as their inferiors by reason of the
colour of their skin. It appears, in fact, to date only from the time of
slavery in the West Indian colonies, and yet the Romans, the Spaniards,
and the Portuguese, who were the greatest slave-owners in history, never
held marriage with coloured people in contempt. The only race hatred in
the Middle Ages was anti-Semitic, and this was due to the Crusader
spirit. The colour line, as it is called, is drawn more firmly by men
than by women, and deep-seated as it is in the Southern States just now
it may be nothing more than a passing phase of sentiment, a subconscious
instinct of self-preservation in a race which feels that its old
predominance is threatened by equality with its former servants. If you
analyze the sentiment it comes to this. You may tolerate the coloured
man in every relation but one: you may converse with him, eat with him,
live with him on terms of equality, but your gorge rises at the idea of
admitting him to become a member of your family by marriage. In the
ordinary social relations you do not take him quite seriously; if he is
a commoner you treat him as your potential servant; if a dusky potentate
you yield him a sort of jesting deference; but in that one matter of
blood alliance with him you will always keep him at arm's length. That
is the view even of the Englishman who has not lived in a black man's
country, and upon that is built the extraordinary race hatred of the
Southern States, where a white man will not consent to sit in a tramcar
with a negro, though the white man be a cotton operative and the negro a