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Marriage Customs Of Melanesia And Polynesia

( Originally Published 1897 )



IN the Solomon Isles (Melanesia), a girl is not sought in marriage until her charms have been enhanced by the tattooer's art. The painful and tedious operation is performed by a medicine man, whose services are handsomely rewarded. It is considered necessary to employ musicians as well ; so he first engages a company of professional singers. The concert begins at sunset, and is kept up vigorously throughout the night. The poor child is kept awake by her friends in order to hear it all. At sunrise the man begins the operation, using only a sharp bamboo knife (bamboo is very hard, and frequently used for knives). Thus he makes curious and artistic network patterns on her face and chest. It is a painful process, but she suffers without a murmur, for all primitive races train up their young people to bear pain silently.

Next day all is forgotten in the joyful thought that she is now an eligible young woman ! From this time her parents keep a watchful eye over their daughter, and check any levity on her part.

Proposals follow before long, and her friends who have subscribed towards the expense of tattooing look forward to repayment when she is married. The higher her rank, the more her parents demand of the suitor ; consequently, needy young men often have to wait a long time for a wife. But if a swain is known to have " expectations," he may pay down a part of the purchase-money, and claim a girl as his fiancee, in which case she will not be given in marriage to another. The daughters of chiefs seldom marry early on account of the unreasonable demands of their fathers. A young man who dares to propose to the daughter of a chief and cannot pay the amount is liable to be heavily fined for his presumption !

Occasionally it happens that a chief's daughter remains in single blessedness until the death of her father, in which case she may be bought " for an old song," as the saying is, by some middle-aged widower, or an impecunious person who has been waiting many years for a partner.

When a young girl is betrothed, and her future husband has paid the amount in full, she goes and lives with his mother until the time arrives when she may become his wife. Soon after the purchase has been made her parents give a feast to those who subscribed towards the tattooing ; this is followed by another feast given by the bridegroom's parents, and there are no other ceremonies, either at betrothals or marriages.

Somewhat different customs prevail in one of the Solomon Isles known as Florida. Here the usual tattooing takes place, but there may be a delay of several months, or even years, before the young man's father pays down the full amount of the purchase-money. In order to transact this business, he pays a visit to the girl's home, and even when the payment has been made, and the visit has been prolonged for two days, the parents make a great fuss about giving up their daughter, interposing many imaginary difficulties. When at last the time of parting comes they demand further payment. This is called " the money to break the post near the door (used to take hold of in going in and out of the house), to finish her going in and out of the old home." This payment is made to the bride's female relations, who take her by the hand and give her up. The act of giving away the bride is rather curious ; she is lifted off the ground and carried out of the house on the back of one of the women, who delivers her to the bridegroom's father. For two or three months after this the bride stays in her father-in-law's house, until the necessary presents of pigs and food arrive. Not till then can the wedding be celebrated. And here we meet with a curious custom, rather suggestive of the ransom " paid in the Tyrol and elsewhere. During the morning of the feast, the boys of the village harass the bride's relations by playfully shooting arrows at them. So skilful is the youths' practice that they can safely send arrows whizzing past the ears of a guest, over his head, between his legs, or even through his hair ! These delicate attentions, however, become a positive nuisance ; and after many forcible expressions of disgust, the men gladly purchase immunity by paying ransom.

At Saa, in the large neighbouring island of Malanta, when children have been betrothed, the little girl, bringing food with her, comes on a visit to the home of her future father-in-law. In this way the young people get to know each other, for they have frequent opportunities of playing and conversing together. From time to time the visit is renewed, and at intervals the boy's father pays part of the purchase money, porpoise teeth being used as money. One advantage of the arrangement is that when the betrothed girl is grown up and her wedding-day has come, she shows none of the usual reluctance, either real or affected, to enter the bridegroom's house, or rather that of his father, where she feels already quite at home. Hence there is no necessity for carrying her away or lifting her over the doorstep.

At the Santa Cruz islands, also known as Queen Charlotte islands, we find the same custom of infant betrothal. The father seeks a bride for his son with-out telling him. Some time elapses before the boy is told that a girl is engaged for him. His parents do not say who it is, but only warn him that he must not go near a certain house—for it is not allowed for betrothed ones to meet. This is equivalent to informing him that his fiancee lives there. Sometimes youths show great reluctance to marry the brides thus chosen for them.

In various parts of Western Melanesia marriages are performed with religious ceremonies. Thus at Dorey, on Geelvink Bay, the couple join hands sitting before an ancestral image, and eat sago together, amid the exhortations and congratulations of their friends. The wife offers her partner tobacco, while he gives her betel nut. They must sit up all night while the relations partake of a solemn meal.

In the Northern New Hebrides it is only chiefs or other great people who betroth their children in youth. As in Malanta the betrothed child lives in the same house with her future husband, who very often is taught to regard the little playmate as his sister. Sometimes the boy, on growing up to manhood's estate, is quite shy on learning the relation in which they stand. Girls assume the petticoat when they arrive at a marriageable age. On the wedding-day guests arrive in large numbers to enjoy the good things provided for them. The bridegroom fixes a branch of a tree, or shrub, in the ground, and brings forward his gifts of pigs, food, and mats. The bride's father, or some special friend of the family, makes a speech—which is unusual for these parts—and exhorts the bridegroom to feed his wife properly and to treat her kindly. With such and similar admonitions he hands over, or " gives away," the blushing bride, gaily attired and wearing her new petticoat. At the feast which follows the bridegroom is saved the trying ordeal of a speech ; he merely strokes his father-in-law to show his gratitude and affection.

This is followed by a scene such as might be witnessed at an Arab wedding. A sham fight takes place, in which it sometimes happens that men are wounded. On the one side are ranged the bride's kinsmen, on the other those of the bridegroom. Should a brother of the latter be injured, compensation," in the form of a present, is required. When the bride's family consider they have made enough show of resistance to prove how highly they value their daughter's services, they allow her to be taken away. Accordingly she is dragged off by female friends to the bridegroom's house—sometimes with much reluctance, even to tears. It sometimes happens that a bride who is unhappy seeks the earliest opportunity of running away from her husband, and seeking a home with some man she likes better. In such cases, if her parents perceive that nothing will induce her to return to the injured husband, they offer him a pig, as solatium, to soothe his wounded feelings ; and there the matter ends.

In the Gilbert Islands a man can demand his wife's sisters in marriage he is also expected to take his brother's widows. Widows in New Ireland and New Britain are considered to belong to no one in particular. But if a widower wishes to marry again, the idea is at first opposed by all the ladies of his late wife's family ; at first sportively, by using every possible form of annoyance to make the man keep at a distance, and then in real earnest (if he carries out his intention), by destroying his house and all his goods !

In the Fiji Islands, when a young man wishes to marry a certain girl, he must obtain her father's permission. This having been granted, he makes her a small present. Shortly after he sends to her house some food prepared by himself ; this is the ceremony known as " Warming." For four days the girl enjoys a brief holiday, sitting at home arrayed in her best, and painted with turmeric and oil ; she is then taken to the sea by some married women, and all set to work to catch fish. As soon as the cooking of what they have caught is finished the young man is sent for, and the betrothed ones take a meal together. Some little interval follows, during which her future husband is busily occupied in building the new home, while the girl is being tattooed—a painful operation. On the completion of the house a great feast takes place, after which the bride and bridegroom settle down to married life. On her departure from home her friends and relatives make a great fuss, all showing their affection by kissing her.

The following account of the presentation of a bride in former days is interesting.

" She was brought in at the principal entrance by the king's aunt and a few matrons, and then, led only by the aunt, approached the king. She was an interesting girl of fifteen, glistening with oil, and wearing a new liku (waistband), and a necklace of curved ivory points, radiating from her neck and turning upwards. The king received from his aunt the girl, with two whale's teeth which she carried in her hand. When she was seated at his feet his Majesty repeated a list of their gods, and finished by praying that the girl might live and bring forth male children. To her friends, two men who had come in at the back door, he gave a musket, begging them not to think hardly of his having taken their child, as the step was connected with the good of the land, in which their interests, as well as his own, were involved. The musket, which was equivalent to the necklace, the men received with bent heads, muttering a short prayer. Tuikilakila then took off the girl's necklace and kissed her. The gayest moment of her life, as far as dress was concerned, was past ; and I felt that the untying of that polished ornament from her neck was the first downward step to a dreary future. Perhaps her forebodings were like mine, for she wept, and the tears which glanced off her bosom and rested in distinct drops on her oily legs were seen by the king, who said, ' Do not weep. Are you going to leave your own land ? You are but going a voyage soon to return. Do not think it a hardship to go to Mbau. Here you will have to work hard ; there you will rest. Here you fare indifferently ; there you will eat the best of food. Only do not weep to spoil your-self ! ' As he thus spoke he played with her curly locks, complimenting her on her face and figure. She reminded him of a sister of hers who had been taken to Mbau in years past."

The daughter of a chief is usually betrothed early in life. Should her intended husband refuse to carry out the contract, it is considered a great insult, and becomes the cause of a serious quarrel, sometimes leading to blows. Should the young man die before the girl is grown up (which is not unlikely, for he may fall in battle), then his next brother takes his place, and the child is betrothed to him.

Among chiefs and their families, or, as we should say, in high life," marriages are often the result of mutual attachment, being preceded by courtships and the exchange of presents. Young people may even be seen " walking out " arm-in-arm, as in England. But freedom of choice is not always allowed, even to a chief's daughter. A forced alliance sometimes leads to suicide. Some American travellers, a good many years ago, were told the story of the daughter of the chief of Ovolan, who jumped over a precipice because she had been married against her will. But among the lower classes of natives we find no such scruples. The usual price of a bride is a whale's tooth or a musket, and when this has once been paid she becomes the absolute property of her husband, and her life is in his hands. Until purchased, young women nominally belong to the chief, who may dispose of them as he thinks best. Elopements are not unknown. As in some other countries, when two young people have made up their minds to marry, and from difference of rank or other cause are forbidden to do so, they seek refuge in flight. Some neighbouring chief of a kindly disposition takes pity on them, and uses his best endeavours to effect a reconciliation with the parents.

In the Samoa, or Navigator Islands, now famous as the abode of the late Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, marriage transactions may be said to be merely speculations in fine mats, of which a bride's dowry consists. These are handed over to the husband's principal friend and supporter (" best man "), who arranges the match and provides the feast. Widows follow the law of the Levirate, and marry the husband's next brother. Each bride brings with her one or two handmaids, who may become secondary wives.

A young man must be tattooed before he can marry. Having made his choice from among the girls of the island, he sends his best man " to negotiate and make all the arrangements. The young woman usually has no choice, but is obliged to submit to the decision of her parents. They, on their part, must obtain the chief's consent. For a long time before the wedding takes place all the bride's relations help in getting in her dowry of fine mats and native cloths. The family of the bridegroom are likewise actively engaged in collecting property for him, such as cloth, pigs, canoes, &c. When the contracting parties are of high rank, the ceremony takes place in an open place of public assembly, surrounded by bread-fruit trees. Here the guests seat themselves in a circle cross-legged, glistening with oil and bedecked with plenty of beads and flowers. At first the bride remains seated in a house somewhere near, from which extends a carpet of native cloth reaching to the place of assembly. There the expectant bridegroom is seated at the further end of the long carpet. And now, all being ready, the bride comes forth. Needless to say, she is gaily bedecked with beads, flowers, and shells, and also girt round the waist with fine mats, some of which form a flowing train behind. Her maidens follow, all bearing mats. These they spread out before the bridegroom, and return to the house for more. This is repeated a good many times, until, in some cases, the number reaches two or three hundred. All these constitute the dowry collected by her relations. The bride takes her seat by the side of the bridegroom, and presently stands up to receive the applause of her assembled guests. It is now time for the husband to show his wealth, which he does with considerable display. The disposal of all these worldly goods is arranged by the parents (or brothers) on both sides.

It was stated above that Samoan girls usually are compelled to submit to the arrangements made by their parents, but elopements are not altogether unknown. If the young man whose offer was refused by the parents should be a chief,' his companions (in order to show their resentment as well as his) gather together in the evening, and walk through the settlement singing his praises and coupling his name with that of the young woman who ran away with him. Should the course of their love run smooth, the chances are that a reconciliation will take place with the parents sooner or later, and then the event is celebrated by feasting and exchange of presents.

The people who inhabit the Hervey or Cook Islands (between Samoa and the Society Islands) have a remarkable custom. Here they are not content with mats where-with to make a pathway for the bride to walk along. But should she be the eldest girl, the members of her husband's tribe lie down flat on the ground, while she walks lightly over on their backs. This " street of human bodies," called in the native tongue ara tangata, extends from the bride's house to that of the bride-groom and should the distance be so great that enough people cannot be found to make the pathway, then those on whom the bride has already stepped get up and quickly run on ahead, so as to lie down again and fill up the rest of the path. A curious custom certainly, but one may perhaps safely argue thereupon that women (and especially brides) are held in greater honour than in many other parts of the world, such as China. This ceremony takes place a few days after the wedding. The husband, on the day of his marriage, goes through a similar ceremony, walking on the backs of the people of the tribe to which his wife belongs. On that occasion the bridegroom's friends walk on each side of the human pathway, clapping their hands, and singing songs in his praise, not omitting to mention his ancestors.

Marriage customs in these islands may also be illustrated by the following story, which a traveller heard from the natives. There was war between certain tribes, and Uriitepitokura, one of the defeated tribesmen, remained in hiding. This enterprising young man occupied his time in making fish nets and valuable dresses, the latter being composed chiefly of the feathers of birds which he contrived to catch. There was a pathway running down to the sea, and looking through a little hole in the rock he could see the people going down to the shore. In this way he one day saw a young woman of some rank who had escaped the watchful eye of her grandmother. Akamarama was her name, and to her he made himself known, entreating the damsel to afford him her protection and to become in time his wife. Of course he did not for-get to mention those treasures which he had so skilfully made with his own hands. He was handsome and young, but that alone would not have enabled him to win the fair one's hand and heart. The nets and dresses were the chief cause of his conquest. She hence-forth rejected all offers of marriage, and refused to undergo the fattening process which is customary in those islands. Her parents, suspecting some previous attachment, inquired of her if there were any man whom she would be inclined to marry, whereupon she revealed her secret. Next day they arranged matters with the young man, who bestowed his feather garments and nets on the father and uncle of the bride, and some more nets on the chief, so as to ensure his protection. On the wedding-day Akamarama wore a splendid head-dress of feathers made by the bride-groom, and sat by her husband on a white cloth to receive the presents of their relations. They then par-took of food together, and entered forthwith into the married state.

In Tahiti and others of the small Polynesian Islands wives do not appear to be purchased. That is one way in which their marriage customs differ ; but here is another, and a curious one too. The young girl who has been betrothed, as she grows up is zealously guarded from contact with the outer world, and this is effected by keeping her railed up on a high platform in the home. Food is brought, and nearly everything is done for her. Only very occasionally is she allowed to go out, and then she must be accompanied by one of her parents.

On the wedding-day an altar is set up in the house, on which are displayed the relics of her ancestors—their weapons, skulls, and bones. The presents she receives are usually pieces of white cloth. If bride and bridegroom are related to the reigning family, the party repair to the temple of two chief idols of the country in order to procure their blessings. If not so related, prayers can be offered up at home. In the former case bride and bridegroom put on wedding garments, which become sacred ever after, and when they have taken places assigned to them the bride-groom is asked the following question—" Wilt thou cast away thy wife ? " The bride is addressed in a similar manner, and both answer " No." They receive a blessing, and prayers are offered up for them. Then the relatives spread out a piece of white cloth on the floor ; the bride and bridegroom step on to it, and take each other by the hand. Sometimes the skulls of ancestors are here brought out, no doubt in order to represent their spirits, with the idea that they may take part in such an important affair of the family. This reminds us of the Chinese custom of informing the ancestors and worshipping their tablets. The bride's relatives then take a piece of sugar-cane, wrap it up in the branch of a certain sacred tree, and place it on the head of the bridegroom, and then lay it down between the now wedded pair who are still holding each other by the hand. The relatives on both sides consider that the two families are now for ever united. Finally, another cloth is produced and thrown over bride and bridegroom by the relatives. This cloth, as well as the wedding garments, is considered sacred. The day ends in much feasting. A good deal of dancing takes place on the day before the wedding.

Mr. William Ellis, a missionary, who wrote on Polynesia,' describes the arrangements made for a marriage in the island of Huahine, one of the Society Isles, where he was stationed at the time, in the year 1822. The bridegroom was Pomare, the young chief of Tahaa, and the bride was Amiata, the only daughter of the late king of Tahiti, not far off. They met at Huahine, which was midway between the islands to which the respective families belonged. More than a week before his intended bride arrived from Tahiti, Pomare sailed from Tahaa and landed in Huahine, where he was entertained with due regard to his rank by the chiefs of the island. It was not, however, supposed at the time that his consort would become queen of Tahiti, because her brother was then living, and Amiata arrived on a brig belonging to the king, and was introduced to her future husband, who wore an English beaver hat, but otherwise was dressed in full native costume. He took his seat and awaited with gravity the appearance of Amiata. Presently she and her friends arrived and took their seats near the young chief. But Pomare continued motionless, neither rising to welcome : his guests nor taking off his hat. The princess, who sat by the side of her mother, occasionally glanced at her future husband, who sat like a statue before her.

The interview was a singular one, considering that the two had never met before. Not a single word was exchanged between them. After about twenty minutes the queen and her daughter and companions rose and went off to the house prepared for them, while Pomare and his friends returned to their encampment. Shortly after this meeting they were publicly married with Christian rites and afterwards removed to Tahiti. The bride was sixteen years of age, and her husband not much older.

Occasionally real courtship takes place, and there are instances of brides being only won after a great deal of wooing. There was a case of this in the same island, according to Mr. Ellis. It was a young chief, tall and powerfully built, with pleasant manners, who fell in love with the niece of another chief, and tendered proposals of marriage. Her family had no objection, but the young lady refused to accept his oft-repeated offers, although no means to gain her consent were left untried. The unhappy young man gave up his ordinary occupations and took up his abode in the house where the object of his affections lived, in order to devote himself to her constant service, which he did with great zeal, although subject to the deepest melancholy. Kind friends interested themselves on his behalf, and his sad fate became for a time the topic of general conversation. But in time the fair one relented, the two were married and lived together very happily.

After this a case of the opposite kind occurred. A party of five or six men arrived at the island of Huahine in a canoe from Tahiti, and remained there some time, the guests of a certain chief. A good-looking girl, one of the belles of the island, who belonged to the house where the men were being entertained, fell deeply in love with one of them. It was soon intimated to him that she would have no objection to becoming his wife ; but, alas ! there was no love on his side, although the unhappy girl endeavoured in every possible way to obtain his affection. She followed him about every-where. Things went on like this for some time, until the enamoured one, becoming very unhappy, declared that, if he continued indifferent to her, she would either strangle or drown herself. In the end, however, the young man relented, and married her. In this case the marriage proved an unhappy one, for the wife before long took a violent dislike to her husband.



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