Category Archives: Oceanic Cultures


#10 Who Will Go With Me?
     (George Turner, 1884)

. . . In encouraging each other, on going to battle, they said, “Well, if we die, we shall not have to die over again. It is only the death we should have to die some other day.” Suicide was common. In a fit of anger they jumped from the rocks into the ocean and were seen no more.

. . . On the neighbouring island of Aneiteum it was common, on the death of a chief, to strangle his wives, that they might accompany him to the regions of the departed. The custom has been found in various parts of the Pacific. The poor deluded woman rejoices in it, if she has any affection for her husband, and not only shows us the strength of her attachment, but also her firm belief in the reality of a future state. An old chief will say as he is dying, “Now, who will go with me?” and immediately one and another will reply, “I will.” On the island of Aneiteum this revolting custom has entirely fled before the light of Christianity. By the common consent of the chiefs and people all over the island it is strictly forbidden, but, strange to say, it has found a refuge and a resting-place still in the group on Tana. About twenty years ago they commenced there to strangle the wives of a departed chief, and the custom spread over the island—another proof of the downward tendency of heathenism, and of its usual development in the increase of human wretchedness.

[#10] George Turner, “Who Will Go With Me?” Samoa: A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before (London: Macmillan, 1884), pp. 305, 324-25.

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#9 Group Rejection and Suicide
     (Thomas Gladwin and Seymour Bernard Sarason, 1953)

While the lineage or other kin group provides a large degree of economic and undoubtedly psychological security for the individual, the possibility of rejection by the members of such groups must be a source of very serious anxiety. We have seen this strongly implied in the marked desire for conformance to expected patterns of behavior and the suppression of any behavior which might result in a disruptive or hostile episode. This anxiety over being rejected by a kinsman reaches its most dramatic expression in suicide. The threat of suicide is often made in other situations and is frequently effective, as in the case of the thwarted lovers; Theodore finally forced acceptance of his resignation as chief by this means also. But in the four cases actually recorded (one of them observed) where a genuine attempt was made to commit suicide, the precipitating factor was always harsh and unkind words from a close relative. One man had a bitter argument with his wife, finally walked out of the house, down to the beach, and swam off into the open sea; this is a recognized means of suicide but at the same time appears to permit a maximum opportunity for rescue. In this case a “brother” and his wife’s father went out in a canoe and after a brief struggle hauled him aboard. A number of years ago my elderly informant was practicing fighting techniques with several of his “brothers” when another “brother” came up and asked to join in; he was told derisively that he did not know anything about it. He left abruptly, climbed a coconut tree, and jumped off, landing on a rock and breaking an arm and leg, although he did not die. In the remaining two cases the man climbed a coconut tree after a violent argument wit his parents; in the earlier of these episodes the would-be suicide landed on soft ground, barely missing several rocks, and was only slightly injured. The case observed involved Andy, who got into a trivial argument with his mother over the repair of a pillow. Voices rose and angry words were spoken; his father’s sister, Rachel, was present and accused him of being a bad son to his mother. With this he left the house with a look of almost hysterical desperation on his face; after picking up and dropping a steel bar he took a large stick and beat the side of the house a couple of times. Then he dropped the stick and ran quickly to the top of a fairly tall coconut tree, followed by my old informant who was distantly related. He was able to make Andy pause, but then Andy went on and reached out to swing himself onto a frond of the tree. At this point I abandoned my observer role and stood under the tree, a move I was justified in believing would prevent Andy from jumping. My informant withdrew and Andy remained for perhaps twenty minutes in the tree, sobbing openly, and was finally persuaded to come down by another older relative.

Although in none of these cases did the man die, there is little doubt that the effort, particularly on the part of those who jumped from coconut trees, was genuine. It is also interesting to note in respect to the relative security felt by men and women within their kin groups that all of these cases were by men; my informant, in fact, stated that women never respond by suicide to the harsh words of their relatives. The only possibility for suicide by a woman, then, is in company with her lover if they are refused permission to marry, and only one actual case of this could be remembered by any informant for all of Truk.

[#9] Thomas Gladwin and Seymour Bernard Sarason, Truk: Man in Paradise (New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1953).

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#8 Sea Spirit Spasms
     (Frank Joseph Mahony, 1950-1968, 1970)

One evening during my stay on Fano Island, another man was severely reprimanded by his mother on the suspicion that he had stolen some hoarded household funds and gambled them away. The noisy argument that ensued, which took place next door to my home on Fano, was the culmination of a long series of the mother’s complaints about what she felt was her son’s profligate behavior. On this occasion, after an exchange of shouting accusations, the young man stormed out of the house. Later that night he took a length of rope to the village church, and tried to hang himself from the rafters.

Fortunately he was cut down by a passerby shortly after, and his life was saved.

The following day three of the woman in the young man’s lineage, the only females with small babies, all arranged to have their infants treated with the medicine for “Sea spirit spasms.” Since the young man’s attempted suicide had frightened and upset the mothers, according to the theory, their children’s lives were endangered. By taking this action the members of his lineage were not only protecting the children; they were also informing the young man that he was not responsible to himself alone. His foolish action constituted a threat to the continuity of the entire lineage, and to the health and lives of its members.

When I talked to the young man about his suicide attempt a few days later, he observed that it had been a very stupid thing for him to do and indicated he would never do anything like that again in the future.

[#8] Frank Joseph Mahony, A Trukese Theory of MedicinePh. D. Dissertation, Stanford University, 1969.

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#7 A Tale of Two Lovers Tying Their Hair Together
     (Freycinet, 1819)

The nobles were strictly forbidden not only to ally themselves with the mangatchang girls, but even to take them as concubines. Still, instances of the breaking of that rule are cited. In such a case, though, the matua who was guilty took great pains to conceal himself from his own family, who, if they knew of the situation, would have inflicted capital punishment on him. In reality, the delinquent noble had no alternative, if he wished to avert pursuit, but to renounce his rank and class and to join another group, as an atchaot. It is interesting, incidentally, that the lowborn girl received no punishment at all. We were told that, after the arrival of the Spanish on Guam, a certain matua of the village of Gnaton fell in love with a young and pretty mangatchang girl and fled with her. He found no asylum among another native group, however, as he refused to part with her. Pursued by his relatives, the young lovers wandered for some time in the most inaccessible woods and rocky areas; but so precarious and wretched an existence reduced them to despair. Determined to put an end to it, they built a tomb of stones and placed in it the infant that was the sad fruit of their love. Then, lost and distracted, they climbed to the very summit of a high, steep-sided peak beside the sea. Binding themselves together by the hair, and clasping one another, they cast themselves from that peak into the waves below. The cape in question has since been named, by the Spanish, Cabo de los Amantes (Lovers’ Cape).


[#7] Freycinet, Louis-Claude de, trans. Glynn Barratt, [“A Tale of Two Lovers Tying their Hair Together”], An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819 (Saipan: N. M. I. Division of Historic Preservation and the RTF Micronesian Area Research Center University of Guam, 2003) pg. 126-127.

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#6 The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death
     (David R. Counts and Dorothy Ayers Counts, 1983-1984)

A good death—or a bad one—may be either voluntary or involuntary. Volition is not enough in itself to be definitive. Involuntary deaths, like those that have an external cause, may be either good or bad, while, with the exception of suicide, voluntary deaths are good ones. Widows who were ritually killed, for instance, died voluntarily and were considered to have had good deaths.

The quality of death is determined by the related conditions of whether the process of dying takes place slowly enough to permit the dying person and his or her kin to control the situation and prepare for the break, and of whether the death results in social disruption. Ideally, a person who perceives death approaching begins, in concert with kin and friends, to bring closure to the set of social relations that entangle him or her in the society of the living. The person has time to terminate ongoing business, to take leave of loved ones, and to withdraw from active participation in mundane life. He or she controls the beginning of the transition from the category of living being (iavava), to the category of recently dead ghost which may be seen by and interact with human beings (anunu), to the most remote category of spirit being, distant ancestors who may not be seen by humans and who seldom become involved in human affairs (antu). When a dying person does not have the opportunity to set in motion this process of withdrawal and transition, it must be done for him or her ritually by the survivors, and it is especially important that the termination of relationships with the living be completed through elaborate and dramatic mortuary ceremonies.

In general terms, for the Kaliai a good death is not socially disruptive. It is foreseen, there is time for the dying person and his or her kin to prepare for it and to publicly conclude any outstanding business, and there is public participation in the first stage of the transitional process that is death. If, however, the death is socially disruptive, the survivors suffer the agony of unanticipated parting, and they react with anger and a desire for vengeance. There is no peace either for the living or for the dead, for the spirit of the person who dies a bad death wanders and appears to his or her kin until the death is avenged. If the death was a suicide, the spirit never joins ghostly society but remains eternally separate and alone, perhaps to become the familiar of a conjuring sorcerer.. . . .  

. . .Obviously suicide is not a good death for the Kaliai. It is a death which permits neither the dead person nor his relatives peace, it is untimely and unforeseen by the community, it is socially disruptive, and it results in the eternal alienation of the suicide’s spirit from the society of the dead as well as of the living. Why, then, would a person voluntarily choose such a death?

There is no clear answer to this question. Kaliai informants almost always explained that a person who killed him or herself either had suffered intolerable shame or had been enchanted by sorcery. Another explanation given was that by controlling his or her death, the suicide re-establishes some control over the social environment. . . .

. . .It is recognized in anthropological literature that suicide may be committed to punish someone else. This kind of suicide, termed revenge suicide or samsonic suicide by Jeffreys, is part of the cultural pattern of Kaliai.

. . .While suicide is not an everyday happening, it has great emotional impact on the community when and where it occurs. It is also a recurrent theme in the oral literature of northwest New Britain. Whether it takes place in story or in fact, the pattern is the same. Both men and women kill themselves during a period of strife between sexual partners or cowives, or directly following an episode in which they were shamed or abused by their affines. The act follows known rules and can be expected to have predictable results within the community where it happens. Customarily, suicides choose one of two methods; they either hang themselves or drink tuva, ‘fish poison’ made from the derris plant. When the Kaliai speak of self-killing they say ipamatei ‘he killed himself’; they describe the method by which death was caused (he hanged himself; he drank tuva); or they attribute responsibility for the death—tipamate eai ngani posanga “they killed him with talk.”

A person who contemplates suicide has the reasonable expectation that his or her kin and neighbors will respond to this act in certain predictable ways. The phrase “they killed him with talk,” and the cry of Agnes’s father “why did you kill my child?” are evidence that the Kaliai consider self-killing to be a form of homicide, an act for which another party is culpable. A person may expect kin and friends to hold someone else responsible for his or her death. The suicide places on his or her kin the obligation to avenge the person, and they expect that his or her spirit will continue to appear to them (as does the spirit of any victim on homicide or sorcery) until the obligation is met. There is no notion that the spirit itself has any malevolent power. In death, as in life, the suicide must wait for others to act on his or her behalf.

Revenge suicide is a political strategy available to otherwise powerless persons because of the element of culpability associated with it. The suicide makes certain that others know why he or she has taken his life and who is to be held responsible for the unbearable situation. Once they are apprised of these facts, the suicide may expect that his or her shamed, grieving, angry kin will avenge the death upon the tormentor. Note that the kin of the suicide are themselves shamed by the death. . . .


[#6] David R. Counts and Dorothy Ayers Counts, “The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death”, “Aspects of Dying in Northwest New Britain,” Omega 14(2), 1983-84, pp. 101-110.

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#5 Suicide as an Act of Justice; Expiation and Insult: Jumping from a Palm
     (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1916, 1926)

Suicide as an Act of Justice

There are three classes—death as the result of evil magic, death by poison, and death in warfare. There are also three roads leading to Tuma, and Topileta indicates the proper road according to the form of death suffered. There is no special virtue attached to any of these roads, though my informants were unanimous in saying that death in war was a “good death,” that by poison not so good, while death by sorcery is the worst. These qualifications meant that a man would prefer to die one death rather than another; and though they did not imply any moral attribute attached to any of these forms, a certain glamour attached to death in war, and the dread of sorcery and sickness seem certainly to cause those preferences.

With death in warfare is classed one form of suicide, that in which a man climbs a tree and throws himself down (native name, lo’u). This is one of the two forms of suicide extant in Kiriwina, and it is practised by both men and women. Suicide seems to be very common. It is performed as an act of justice, not upon oneself, but upon some person of near kindred who has caused offence. As such it is one of the most important legal institutions among these natives. . .


Expiation and Insult: Jumping from a Palm

. . .One day an outbreak of wailing and a great commotion told me that a death had occurred somewhere in the neighbourhood. I was informed that Kima’i, a young lad of my acquaintance, of sixteen or so, had fallen from a coco-nut palm and killed himself.. . .

I hastened to the next village . . .I found that another youth had been severely wounded by some mysterious coincidence. And at the funeral there was obviously a general feeling of hostility between the village where the boy died and that into which his body was carried for burial.

Only much later was I able to discover the real meaning of these events: the boy had committed suicide. The truth was that he had broken the rules of exogamy, the partner in his crime being his maternal cousin, the daughter of his mother’s sister. This had been known and generally disapproved of, but nothing was done until the girl’s discarded lover, who had wanted to marry her and who felt personally injured, took the initiative. This rival threatened first to use black magic against the guilty youth, but this had not much effect. Then one evening he insulted the culprit in public—accusing him in the hearing of the whole community of incest and hurling at him certain expressions intolerable to a native.

For this there was only one remedy; only one means of escape remained to the unfortunate youth. Next morning he put on festive attire and ornamentation, climbed a coco-nut palm and addressed the community, speaking from among the palm leaves and bidding them farewell. He explained the reasons for his desperate deed and also launched forth a veiled accusation against the man who had driven him to his death, upon which it became the duty of his clansmen to avenge him. Then he wailed aloud, as is the custom, jumped from a palm some sixty feet high and was killed on the spot. There followed a fight within the village in which the rival was wounded; and a quarrel was repeated during the funeral.

…Let us now pass to suicide. Though by no means a purely juridical institution, suicide possesses incidentally a distinct legal aspect. It is practised by two serious methods lo’u (jumping off a palm top) and the taking of irremediable poison from the gall bladder of a globefish (soka); and by the milder method of partaking of some of the vegetable poison tuva, used for stunning fish. . . .

The two fatal forms of suicide are used as means of escape from situations without an issue and the underlying mental attitude is somewhat complex, embracing the desire of self-punishment, revenge, re-habilitation, and sentimental grievance. . . .

. . .Two motives must be registered in the psychology of suicide: first, there is always some sin, crime or passionate outburst to expiate, whether a breach of exogamous rules, or adultery, or an unjust injury done, or an attempt to escape one’s obligations; secondly, there is a protest against those who have brought this trespass to light, insulted the culprit in public, forced him into an unbearable situation. One of these two motives may be at times more prominent than the other, but as a rule there is a mixture of both in equal proportions. The person publicly accused admits his or her guilt, takes all the consequences, carries out the punishment upon his own person, but at the same time declares that he has been badly treated, appeals to the sentiment of those who have driven him to the extreme if they are his friends or relatives, or if they are his enemies appeals to the solidarity of his kinsmen, asking them to carry on a vendetta (lugwa).

Suicide is certainly not a means of administering justice, but it affords the accused and oppressed one—whether he be guilty or innocent—a means of escape and rehabilitation. It looms large in the psychology of the natives, is a permanent damper on any violence of language or behaviour, on any deviation from custom or tradition, which might hurt or offend another. Thus suicide, like sorcery, is a means of keeping the natives to the strict observance of the law, a means of preventing people from extreme and unusual types of behaviour. Both are pronounced conservative influences and as such are strong supports of law and order.


[#5] Bronislaw Malinowski, “Suicide as an Act of Justice,” in “Baloma; the Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 46 (London: 1916). Republished by Forgotten Books, 2008, pp. 9-10; “Expiation and Insult: Jumping from a Palm,” Crime and Custom in Savage Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1926), pp. 77-78, 94-98.

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#4 Tikopian Attitudes Towards Suicide
     (Raymond Firth, 1967)

Tikopia attitudes toward suicide are closely connected with their attitudes toward death in general. Summarily stated, these attitudes express regret concerning death rather than fear of it; . . .the timing of the moment of cessation of bodily functioning is not necessarily treated as a matter of critical importance. To take one’s own life is merely to anticipate the inevitable end. In some circumstances, death has an aesthetic attraction. . . .[T]he normal Tikopia ways of committing suicide are three, differentiated broadly according to age and sex; hanging (mainly by middle-aged and elderly people); swimming out to sea (women only, especially young women); putting off to sea by canoe (men only, especially young men). Hanging (noa na, tying the neck) is usually fatal.. . . . . .In swimming out to sea (kau ki moana), the women, though good swimmers, soon seem to be overcome by heavy seas or by sharks that are common off the coast, and mortality from such suicide attempts appears frequent. … the fate of many unmarried young women. . . .But resort to putting off to sea in a canoe (forau) is more difficult to interpret. The Tikopia term in general indicates a sea voyage, and any canoe voyage from Tikopia is a hazardous undertaking. Tikopia is a mere dot in 40,000 square miles of ocean, with the nearest land, Anuta, equally isolated—only half a mile across and 70 miles away; larger land is more than 100 miles away and in some directions many hundreds of miles. With the alternation of storm and calm, especially in the monsoon season, to try to make landfall from Tikopia is a great risk. . . .In many cases it is difficult to separate an attempt to escape from Tikopia to see the world, with a serious chance of not surviving, from an attempt to escape from Tikopia society with an intent to perish or an attitude of not caring whether one perishes or not.

. . .social factors are clearly apparent both in the choice of method and in the attendant circumstances. In suicide at sea, an almost complete sex differential is manifested: a woman swims to her death, a man takes a canoe. Yet Tikopia men in ordinary circumstances swim as well and as freely as do women. Again, by report a curious fastidiousness is sometimes displayed in committing suicide. A person dying by hanging, it is said, excretes freely. If the deed is committed without premeditation, the interior of the house is in a mess: in the person’s dying struggles mats and the interior of the house become covered with excrement. People coming to release him are disgusted, and before mourning begins women must clean up the disorder. For this reason, I was told, a person who is thinking of suicide by hanging may refrain from food for a day or so, in order “that his excrement may not be laughed at’. It may seem to us unnecessary to be so finicky about the manner of dying, yet this has a crude logic. If part of the reason for destroying the body is to preserve the social personality intact—by safeguarding it from disintegrating despair or shame—then the person does not want his reputation to suffer by his death. Suicide in Tikopia is thought to merit certain dignity.


[#4] Raymond Firth, “Tikopian Attitudes Towards Suicide,” Tikopia Ritual and Belief (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 120-124.

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#3 Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives
     (Thomas Williams, 1858)

When a chief is either dead or dying, the fact is announced to his various connexions; and should he be of supreme power, the principal persons in his dominions come to pay their respects, and offer a present to him. . .I have heard the dead questioned in a style which has prevailed among every people where similar modes of lamentation have been observed. “Why did you die? Were you weary of us? We are around you now. Why do you close your eyes upon us?” Sometimes these wailings continue through the night, and their dreary, dismal effect cannot be imagined by any one who has not heard them. The tones are those of hopeless despair, and thrill through “nerve, and vein, and bone.”. . .

. . .The next step is the preparation of the loloku. This word expresses anything done out of respect for the dead, but especially the strangling of friends. This custom may have had a religious origin, but at present the victims are not sacrificed as offerings to the gods, but merely to propitiate and honour the manes of the departed. It is strengthened by misdirected affection, joined with wrong notions of a future life. The idea of a chieftain going into the world of spirits unattended, is most repugnant to the native mind. So strong is the feeling in favour of the loloku, that Christianity is disliked because it rigorously discountenances the cherished custom. When the Christian chief of Dama fell by the concealed musketry of the Nawathans, a stray shot entered the forehead of a young man at some distance from him, and killed him. The event was regarded by many of the nominal Christians as most fortunate, since it provided a companion for the spirit of the slain chief.

Ordinarily, the first victim for the loloku is the man’s wife, and more than one, if he has several. I have known the mother to be strangled too. In the case of a chief who has a confidential companion, this his right-hand man, in order to prevent a disruption in their intimacy, ought to die with his superior; and a neglect of this duty would lower him in public opinion. . . .

            Choosing to Die

…In the case of a chief drowned at sea, or slain and eaten in war, the loloku is carefully observed, as well as if the deceased had died naturally, and been buried in a strange land. But in these instances the grief of the survivors is more impassioned, and their desire to manifest it by dying is more enthusiastic.

When Ra Mbithi, the pride of Somosomo, was lost at sea, seventeen of his wives were destroyed. After the news of the massacre of the Namena people at Viwa in 1839, eighty women were strangled to accompany the spirits of their murdered husbands.

Before leaving this dark subject, it demands more full and explicit examination. It has been said that most of the women thus destroyed are sacrificed at their own insistence. There is truth in this statement; but unless other facts are taken into account, it produces an untruthful impression. Many are importunate to be killed, because they know that life would thenceforth be to them prolonged insult, neglect, and want. Very often, too, their resolution is grounded upon knowing that their friends or children have determined that they shall die. Some women have been known to carry to the grave the mats in which they and their dead husbands were to be shrouded, and, on their arrival, have helped to dig their own tomb. They then took farewell of their friends. . .

If the friends of the woman are not the most clamorous for her death, their indifference is construed into disrespect either for her late husband or his friends, and would be accordingly resented. Thus the friends and children of the woman are prompted to urge her death, more by self-interest than affection for her, and by fear of the survivors rather than respect for the dead. Another motive is to secure landed property belonging to the husband, to obtain which they are ready to sacrifice a daughter, a sister, or a mother. Many a poor widow has been urged by the force of such motives as these, more than by her own apparent ambition, to become the favourite wife in the abode of spirits.. . .

. . . As it affects the children, this dreadful custom is fearfully cruel, depriving them of the mother when, by ordinary or violent means, they have become fatherless. Natural deaths are reduced to a small number among heathen Fijians, by the prevalence of war and the various systems of murder which custom demands…


[#3] Thomas Williams, “Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives,” Fiji and the Fijians (London: Alexander Heylan, Vol. 1, 1858; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1870), pp. 160-176.

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#2 Elderly Parents and the Time to Die
     (Charles Wilkes, 1845)

…a belief in a future state is universally entertained by the Feejeeans. In some parts of the group, this has taken the following form, which, if not derived from intercourse with the whites, is at least more consistent with revealed truth than any of those previously recorded. Those who hold this opinion, say that all the souls of the departed will remain in their appointed place, until the world is destroyed by fire and a new one created; that in the latter all things will be renovated, and to it they will again be sent to dwell thereon.

This belief in a future state, guided by no just notions of religious or moral obligation, is the source of many abhorrent practices. Among these are the custom of putting their parents to death when they are advanced in years; suicide; the immolation of wives at the funeral of their husbands, and human sacrifices.

It is among the most usual occurrences, that a father or a mother will notify their children that it is time for them to die, or that a son shall give notice to his parents that they are becoming a burden to him. In either case, the relatives and friends are collected, and informed of the fact. A consultation is then held, which generally results in the conclusion, that the request is to be complied with, in which case they fix upon a day for the purpose, unless it should be done by the party whose fate is under deliberation. The day is usually chosen at a time when yams or taro are ripe, in order to furnish materials for a great feast, called mburua. The aged person is then asked, whether he will prefer to be strangled before his burial or buried alive. When the appointed day arrives, the relatives and friends bring tapas, mats, and oil, as presents. They are received as at other funeral feasts, and all mourn together until the time for the ceremony arrives. The aged person then proceeds to point out the place where the grave is to be dug; and while some are digging it, the others put on a new maro and turbans. When the grave is dug, which is about four feet deep, the person is assisted into it, while the relatives and friends begin their lamentations, and proceed to weep and cut themselves as they do at other funerals. All then proceed to take a parting kiss, after which the living body is covered up, first with mats and tapa wrapped around the head, and then with sticks and earth, which are trodden down. When this has been done, all retire, and are tabooed, as will be stated in describing their ordinary funerals. The succeeding night, the son goes privately to the grave, and lays upon it a piece of ava-root, which is called the vei-tala or farewell.

Mr. Hunt, one of the missionaries, had been a witness of several of these acts. On one occasion, he was called upon by a young man, who desired that he would pray to his spirit for his mother, who was dead. Mr. Hunt was at first in hopes that this would afford him an opportunity of forwarding their great cause. On inquiry, the young man told him that his brothers and himself were just going to bury her. Mr. Hunt accompanied the young man, telling him he would follow in the procession, and do as he desired him, supposing, of course, the corpse would be brought along; but he now met the procession, when the young man said that this was the funeral, and pointed out his mother, who was walking along with them, as gay and lively as any of those present, and apparently as much pleased. Mr. Hunt expressed his surprise to the young man, and asked how he could deceive him so much by saying his mother was dead, when she was alive and well.

He said, in reply, that they had made her death feast, and were now going to bury her; that she was old; that his brother and himself had thought she had lived long enough, and it was time to bury her, to which she had willingly assented, and they were about it now. He had come to Mr. Hunt to ask his prayers, as they did those of the priest. He added, that it was from love of his mother that they had done so; that, in consequence of the same love, they were now going to bury her, and that none but themselves could or ought to do so sacred an office! Mr. Hunt did all in his power to prevent so diabolical an act; but the only reply he received was, that she was their mother, and they were her children, and they ought to put her to death. On reaching the grave, the mother sat down, when they all, including children, grandchildren, relations, and friends, took an affectionate leave of her; a rope, made of twisted tapa, was then passed twice around her neck by her sons, who took hold of it, and strangled her; after which she was put into her grave, with the usual ceremonies. They returned to feast and mourn, after which she was entirely forgotten as though she had never existed.

Mr. Hunt, after giving me this anecdote, surprised me by expressing his opinion that Feejeeans were a kind and affectionate people to their parents, adding, that he was assured by many of them that they considered this custom as so great a proof of affection that none but children could be found to perform it. The same opinion was expressed by all the other white residents.

A short time before our arrival, an old man at Levuka did something to vex one of his grandchildren, who in consequence threw stones at him. The only action the old man took in the case was to walk away, saying that he had now lived long enough, when his grandchildren could stone him with impunity. He then requested his children and friends to bury him, to which they consented. A feast was made, he was dressed in his best tapa, and his face blackened. He was then placed sitting in his grave, with his head about two feet below the surface. Tapa and mats were thrown upon him, and the earth pressed down; during which he was heard to complain that they hurt him, and to beg that they would not press so hard.

Self-immolation is by no means rare, and they believe that as they leave this life, so will they remain ever after. This forms a powerful motive to escape from decrepitude, or from a crippled condition, by a voluntary death.

Wives are often strangled, or buried alive, at the funeral of their husbands, and generally at their own insistence. Cases of this sort have frequently been witnessed by the white residents. On one occasion Whippy drove away the murderers, rescued the woman, and carried her to his own house, where she was resuscitated. So far, however, from feeling grateful for her preservation, she loaded him with abuse, and ever afterwards manifested the most deadly hatred towards him. That women should desire to accompany their husbands in death, is by no means strange, when it is considered that it is one of the articles of their belief, that in this way alone can they reach the realms of bliss, and she who meets her death with the greatest devotedness, will become the favourite wife in the abode of spirits.

The sacrifice is not, however, always voluntary; but, when a woman refuses to be strangled, her relations often compel her to submit. This they do from interested motives; for, by her death, her connexions become entitled to the property of her husband. Even a delay is made a matter of reproach. Thus, at the funeral of the late king, Ulivou, which was witnessed by Mr. Cargill, his five wives and a daughter were strangled. The principal wife delayed the ceremony, by taking leave of those around her; whereupon Tanoa, the present king, chid her. The victim was his own aunt, and he assisted in putting the rope around her neck, and strangling her, a service he is said to have rendered on a former occasion, to his own mother.

Not only do many of the natives desire their friends to put them to death to escape decrepitude, or immolate themselves with a similar view, but families have such a repugnance to having deformed or maimed persons among them, that those who have met with such misfortunes, are almost always destroyed. An instance of this sort was related to me, when a boy whose leg had been bitten of by a shark was strangled, although he had been taken care of by one of the white residents, and there was every prospect of his recovery. No other reason was given by the perpetrators of the deed; than that if he had lived he would have been a disgrace to his family, in consequence of his having only one leg.

When a native, whether man, woman, or child, is sick of a lingering disease, their relatives will either wring their heads off, or strangle them. Mr. Hunt stated that this was a frequent custom, and cited a case where he had with difficulty saved a servant of his own from such a fate, who afterwards recovered his health.

Formal human sacrifices are frequent. The victims are usually taken from a distant tribe, and when not supplied by war or violence, they are at times obtained by negotiation. After being selected for this purpose, they are often kept for a time to be fattened. When about to be sacrificed, they are compelled to sit upon the ground, with their feet drawn under their thighs, and their arms placed close before them. In this posture they are bound so tightly that they cannot stir, or move a joint. They are then placed in the usual oven, upon hot stones and covered with leaves and earth, where they are roasted alive. When the body is cooked, it is taken from the oven, and the face painted black, as is done by the natives on festal occasions. It is then carried to the mbure, where it is offered to the gods, and is afterwards removed to be cut up and distributed, to be eaten by the people. Women are not allowed to enter the mbure, or to eat human flesh.

Human sacrifices are a preliminary to almost all other undertakings. When a new mbure is built, a party goes out and seizes the first person they meet, whom they sacrifice to the gods; when a large canoe is launched, the first person, man or woman, whom they encounter, is laid hold of and carried home for a feast.

When Tanoa launches a canoe, ten or more men are slaughtered on the deck, in order that it may be washed with human blood.

Human sacrifices are also among the rites performed at the funerals of chiefs, when slaves are in some instances put to death. Their bodies are first placed in the grave, and upon them those of the chief and his wives are laid.

The ceremonies attendant on the death and burial of a great chief were described to me by persons who had witnessed them. When his last moments are approaching, his friends place in his hands two whale’s teeth, which it is supposed he will need to throw at a tree that stands on the road to the regions of the dead. As soon as the last struggle is over, the friends and attendants fill the air with their lamentations. Two priests then take in each of their hands a reed about eighteen inches long, on which the leaves at the end are left, and with these they indicate two persons for grave-diggers, and mark out the place for the grave. The spot usually selected is as near as possible to the banks of a stream. The grave-diggers are provided with mangrove-staves (tiri) for their work, and take their positions, one at the head, the other at the foot of the grave, having each one of the priests on his right hand. At a given signal, the labourers, making three feints before they strike, stick their staves in the ground, while the priests twice exchange reeds, repeating Feejee, Tonga: Feejee, Tonga. The diggers work in a sitting posture, and thus dig a pit sufficiently large to contain the body. The first earth which is removed is considered sacred, and laid aside.

The persons who have dug the grave also wash and prepare the body for interment, and they are the only persons who can touch the corpse without being laid under a taboo for ten months. The body after being washed is laid on a couch of cloth and mats, and carefully wiped. It is then dressed and decorated as the deceased was in life, when preparing for a great assembly of chiefs: it is first anointed with oil, and then the neck, breast, and arms, down to the elbows, are daubed with a black pigment; a white bandage of native cloth is bound around the head, and tied over the temple in a graceful knot; a club is placed in the hand, and laid across the breast, to indicate in the next world that the deceased was a chief and warrior. The body is then laid on a bier, and the chiefs of the subject tribes assemble; each tribe presents a whale’s tooth, and the chief or spokesman says: “This is our offering to the dead: we are poor and cannot find riches.” All now clap their hands, and the king or a chief of rank replies: “Ai mumundi ni mate,” (the end of death) ; to which all the people present respond, “e dina,” (it is true.) The female friends then approach and kiss the corpse, and if any of the wives wish to die and be buried with him, she runs to her brother or nearest relative and exclaims, “I wish to die, that I may accompany my husband to the land where his spirit has gone! love me, and make haste to strangle me, that I may overtake him!” Her friends applaud her purpose, and being dressed and decorated in her best clothes she seats herself on a mat, reclining her head on the lap of a woman; another holds her nostrils, that she may not breathe through them; a cord, made by twisting fine tapa (masi), is then put around her neck, and drawn tight by four or five strong men, so that the struggle is soon over. The cord is left tight, and tied in a bow-knot, until the friends of the husband present a whale’s tooth, saying, “This is the untying of the cord of strangling.” The cord is then loosed, but is not removed from the neck of the corpse.

When the grave is finished, the principal workman takes the four reeds used by the priests, and passes them backwards and forwards across each other: he then lines the pit or grave with fine mats, and lays two of the leaves at the head and two at the foot of the grave; on these the corpse of the chief is placed, with two of his wives, one on each side, having their right and left hands, respectively, laid on his breast; the bodies are then wrapped together in folds of native cloth; the grave is then filled in, and the sacred earth is laid on, and a stone over it. All the men who have had any thing to do with the dead body take off their maro or masi, and rub themselves all over with the leaves of a plant they call koaikoaia. A friend of the parties takes new tapa, and clothes them, for they are not allowed to touch any thing, being tabooed persons. At the end of ten days, the head chief of the tribe provides a great feast (mburua), at which time the tabooed men again scrub themselves, and are newly dressed. After the feast, ava is prepared and set before the priest, who goes through many incantations, shiverings, and shakings, and prays for long life and abundance of children. The soul of the deceased is now enabled to quit the body and go to its destination. During these ten days, all the women in the town provide themselves with long whips, knotted with shells; these they use upon the men, inflicting bloody wounds, which the men retort by flirting from a piece of split bamboo little hard balls of clay.

When the tabooed person becomes tired of remaining so restricted, they send to the head chief, and inform him, and he replies that he will remove the taboo whenever they please; they then send him presents of pigs and other provisions, which he shares among the people. The tabooed persons then go into a stream and wash themselves, which act they call vuluvulu; they then catch some animal, a pig or turtle, on which they wipe their hands: it then becomes sacred to the chief. The taboo is now removed, and the men are free to work, feed themselves, and live with their wives. The taboo usually lasts from two to ten months in the case of chiefs, according to their rank; in the case of a petty chief, the taboo would not exceed a month, and for a common person, not more than four days. It is generally resorted to by the lazy and idle; for during this time they are not only provided with food, but are actually fed by attendants, or


[#2] Charles Wilkes, “Elderly Parents and the Time to Die,” Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Vol. III. (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845), pp. 92, 94-100.

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#1 The Principal Wife of the Chief
     (William Mariner, 1820)

A man may have several wives; but the greatest chief, that is, she who is of the best family, is the principal wife; and in respect to her, — if her husband die first, she must be strangled on the day of his death, and afterwards buried with him…[T]here was a certain chief, a native of Fiji, who about that period fell ill and died: his wife, who was also a native of Fiji, in accordance with the religious notions in which she was brought up, considered it a breach of duty to outlive him; she therefore desired to be strangled. All her Tonga friends endeavored to dissuade her from what appeared to them so unnecessary and useless an act; but no! she was determined, she said, to fulfill her duty, in defect of which she should never be happy in her mind,–the hotooas of Fiji would punish her; and thus; by living, she should only incur fresh miseries. Her friends, finding all remonstrances in vain, allowed her to do as she pleased: she accordingly laid herself down on the ground, by the side of her deceased husband, with her face upwards; and desiring a couple of Fiji men to perform their duty, they put a band of gnatoo round her neck, and pulling at each end, soon ended her existence. In the evening they were buried together in the same grave, in a sitting posture, according to the Fiji custom.

[#1] William Mariner, “The Principal Wife of the Chief”, An Account of the natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean. Compiled and arranged from the extensive communications of Mr. William Mariner, several years resident in those islands. By John Martin (Boston: Charles Ewer, 1820), p. 295.

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