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Marriage Customs Of Autralasia

( Originally Published 1897 )

AMONG the the wild aborigines of South Australia and other parts of the continent there are no marriage rites at all, and a wife is obtained either by purchase from her father or brother, or else carried off by main force. As in China, men and women having the same family name are not allowed to marry. In accordance with customs not yet fully understood, girls are betrothed to certain men as soon as they are born. This engagement is considered so binding that a woman breaking it is killed (and often eaten) ; while a man who offends in the same way is punished by being severely wounded with a spear. A married woman is the mere slave of her husband ; it is her duty to provide him with an ample supply of roots and other kinds of vegetable food. Hers is indeed a hard lot ; when game forms part of her lord's dinner, she receives nothing but bones and refuse. When ill, or seriously injured, she is left to die without the smallest compunction, and, on the slightest pretext, is liable at any time to be cruelly beaten or speared. Few women are free from frightful scars on the head or marks of spear wounds on the body, while some are completely covered with marks and ugly gashes ! One would think that such degraded creatures as these men are would be quite incapable of appreciating female beauty, but that is not the case. Good-looking girls are much admired, and consequently frequently stolen away. A young woman at all celebrated for her beauty usually under-goes a series of captivities to different masters, and meets with cruel treatment. She never stays long with one man because others endeavour to steal her away. It is her sad fate to be a wanderer amongst strange families, where the other women are jealous of her, and to be the cause of many a fight, and to receive many severe wounds. Those of the men who are in a position to maintain more than one wife do so. If in any particular tribe there is a scarcity of women, they make a raid on some neighbouring tribe and carry off as many women as they can (see the Author's " Primeval Scenes," Scene xv.—Methuen & Co.).

In New Zealand the Maoris sometimes betroth children at an early age, but that is exceptional. A little girl thus pledged to some man is as strictly bound as if she were actually married. They seldom have more than one wife, who always expects to be consulted by her husband in every important matter. Hence Maori women are treated with more respect and consideration than in many other countries. Marriages take place when the bridegroom is about seventeen, and the bride rather younger. As soon as a young man considers that he is in a position to support a wife, he begins to look around, if he has not already done so, for a suitable partner. We find no " match-makers " here ; the young people prefer to choose for themselves, though, we are sorry to say, there is usually not much liberty of choice for the girls. They can, and frequently do, refuse offers of marriage from men who do not take their fancy ; but for all that, the young man generally gets the girl he wishes for in the end, however much she or her friends may object to the marriage. Occasionally, it happens that a maiden is courted at the same time by two men, whose claims are pretty nearly equal. In such a case the father, refusing to arbitrate between the rivals, leaves them to fight it out between themselves and his daughter. They do not, however, actually come to blows ; but each one taking her arm, endeavours forcibly to persuade her to come and live with him. So severely do they handle the object of their affections, that her arms are often dislocated, and always so severely strained as to be useless for some time. In old times, according to several travellers, actual combats took place between the men, and these sometimes had a fatal result. A young man whose offer has been refused sets to work and contrives somehow to capture the girl who has taken his fancy. Her relations and friends make preparations against a sudden attack ; and when, sooner or later the raid " is planned, a severe struggle takes place, in which clubs and other weapons are freely used. Instances are known of the girl being killed in spite by one of the losing side !

The island of New Guinea is inhabited by three races —Malays, from the Malay Peninsula, Polynesians, from neighbouring islands, and Papuans. The latter people received their name from the Malays, who called them " frizzly-haired " (Pua Pua, or Papuas).

Among the Papuans, when a young man is grown-up," that is to say, when he is about twenty years of age, he looks out for a wife. But there are difficulties in the way of marriage ; and when the future partner has been selected, the would-be husband may have to wait a long time. Wives cannot be got for nothing, and so the lover must make the best use he can of his time and get together no small amount of worldly goods wherewith to buy his wife from her parents, or, if they are dead, from her relatives. The payment usually consists of pigs, food, ornaments, pearl-shells, calico, and beads, or other European articles of manufacture if such have found their way to his village. But there is a great variety in the presents received by a bride from her husband, as the following account will prove: Among other curious sights, we were shown the price, or dowry, of a wife, heaped upon the platform of one of the houses. It consisted of a quantity of all kinds of New Guinea goods and chattels, pots, earthenware, wooden weapons, bird-of-paradise plumes, baskets of yams, bunches of bananas and other produce. Among the articles were two pigs tied up underneath the house. The bride herself sat, all smiles, on the verandah above, over her earthly treasures, with as much pride as any white sister might feel on exhibiting her trousseau."

The pig, or pigs, must on no account be omitted. As a rule, a woman, on her marriage, is deprived of all her hair and ornaments. But at Maiva the bride retains her pretty hair and the ornaments. As a sign to all that she is now married her face is tattooed ; young girls are tattooed all over the body, their faces only excepted. On the day of the wedding a great feast is held, at which the company devours yams, bananas, betel nut, and the fatted pig. Presents are brought by the invited guests, and these consist chiefly of contributions such as can be eaten. Bride and bride-groom are dressed in all their best garments and decked out in feathers, shells, and bright leaves of plants. No priest is called in to tie the knot, and, as soon as the feasting is over, the young couple settle down to married life. Some of the Papuans, not content with one, marry three or four wives, buying each in the usual way. The marriage tie is not considered very binding, and it is no uncommon occurrence for a woman to leave her husband three or four times during their married life. Under these circumstances domestic life can hardly be said to present a pleasing picture ! Often it is the other way, and the husband is the offender. These unfortunate affairs lead to frequent conflicts.

Revenge takes the malicious form of destroying cocoa-nut trees and vegetable gardens. Some of the people live in little huts constructed near the tops of trees, like so many birdsnests ; one wonders what the result is when husband and wife fall out ! " Possibly the situation has its advantages ; for the woman, being the weaker, might be afraid of seeking a quarrel, as a fall to the ground would certainly prove fatal.

Among the Nufoor Papuans, i.e., the people who inhabit Long Island, which is not far from New Guinea, the woman is little more than the slave of her husband. A wife must cook the food, draw water, make pottery and fibre baskets, and submit to much ill-usage. Children are betrothed at an early age ; and as soon as the marriage has been agreed to, the parents of the future husband pay the other family a part of the price stipulated, or, to put it in very modern English, pay so much " on account." A childless wife is dismissed. Ac-cording to a curious custom, the bride-elect and her near relations are compelled to keep out of the way of the boy to whom she is betrothed, and all his people, until the marriage takes place. It is difficult to see any reason for a custom so inconvenient and unnatural. It may, however, be a case of " taboo." Such betrothals are not binding, consequently the boy, when he becomes a man, may refuse to fulfil the contract. In some other islands it is exactly the other way, and the bargain must be carried out.

The bridegroom, on the day of his marriage, goes to the bride's house preceded by a crowd of women, each carrying in her hand a small present. A room is set apart for the ceremony ; the young couple are placed back to back, the guests meanwhile taking up their position around them—men on one side and women on the other. The oldest relation is chosen to perform the simple but curious ceremony. Joining the right hands of the bride and bridegroom, he spurts a mouthful of water over them, with these words—" May no enemy kill you, and no evil spirit affect you with sickness ! " Sago is brought, of which both partake, and afterwards the guests.

After marriage certain remarkable customs are observed. The husband and wife must sit up all night ; should they appear for a moment to fall asleep, their friends, who sit up with them, immediately arouse them. These attentions, however, are well-meant, for the people have a firm belief that only in this way can a long and happy life be ensured ! It is some-times easy to suggest explanations of savage customs, but always unsafe. Maybe they hope thus to drive away evil spirits, but who can say ? This sitting up continues for four nights. Sleep is permitted by day to the bride, while her husband stays away. On the fifth day they are allowed to meet alone, and then only by night.

There is little or no ceremony when widows are married. The chief thing appears to be to make sure of driving away the ghost of the late lamented" husband. With this important object in view, the bride and bridegroom walk into the jungle or forest, attended by some widow, or married woman, who breaks twigs off the trees to pelt the bride. A small present is given to the woman who renders this valuable service, and the widow, now once more a wife, changes her old garment for a new one.

Among Papuans, the men, being warriors, look down upon their women-folk, whom they regard as labourers—at least to a certain extent. The wives, however, are not, as a rule, badly treated, and are by no means mere slaves. They contrive to have a voice in the management of affairs, both domestic and public. As in Europe in the time of Julius Caesar, so here, it is often the women who incite the men to war, or perhaps to deeds of murder and plunder. They have been known to arouse the fighting instinct in men by rushing wildly into their midst and addressing them in terms such as these : What, you are afraid to do this ; and yet you call your-selves men and warriors ! Out upon you ! you have not the hearts of men ; you are more like a pack of old women ! You ought to put on the grass petticoat, stay at home and do the cooking ! " Taunts such as these, it is almost needless to say, usually have the desired effect. On the whole these people appear to travellers to be a bright and merry race, for Nature supplies nearly all their wants.

The people of New Britain, east of New Guinea, have somewhat different customs. A young man contemplating matrimony confides the secret to his parents, or if he is an orphan, to the chief of the tribe he belongs to, informing them at the same time who is the maiden that has won his heart. The would-be husband is then sent off into the bush, in order, we may suppose, to be out of the way while his father, or the chief, as the case may be, goes to the girl's relations to arrange about the dowry, or purchase money, over which there is much haggling On the wedding-day a feast is held at the bridegroom's house, with the usual accompaniments of music and dancing. The bride does a good deal of dancing herself. Meanwhile the unfortunate husband is still in the bush. The parents at last send some one to bring him in. The person deputed for this purpose may have greatly difficulty in finding him, for young men, on these interesting occasions, frequently wander away for many a mile—with the idea of escaping from the power of departed spirits, who are supposed at such times to exercise an evil influence ! These excursions into the " forest primeval " are not unattended with danger ; for there is the risk of the bridegroom being killed by some hostile tribe on the war-path.

As in some other places marriages are even arranged for women before their birth. Thus, should a chief desire to be allied by marriage to some particular family, he buys a child beforehand. Should it prove a boy, the money is returned ; if a girl, she becomes absolutely his property, although living with her parents until old enough to become the chief's wife. When married,there is no limit to the power of her lord and master. He can even take her life. There is a horrible story of a chief who lived on the shore of Blanche Bay. This man's unfortunate young wife used to cry and beg to be allowed to return to her own people ; moreover, what was worse in the eyes of her brutal husband, she refused to do any work. This he could not endure, and flying into a furious passion, told her that, since she was of no use as a wife, he would make use of her in another way. Seizing a spear, this inhuman monster killed his wife on the spot, cooked her body, and called his friends together for a feast.

On another occasion a man and his wife were taken by surprise in the bush, and made prisoners. The chief who captured them gave orders for the man to be killed ; this was done, and the wife became his property forth-with. So little do they regard a woman's feelings that at the marriage-feast the new wife saw the body of her late husband served up.

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