- The Principal Wife of the Chief
(William Mariner, 1820)
- Elderly Parents and the Time to Die
(Charles Wilkes, 1845)
- Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives
(Thomas Williams, 1858)
- Tikopian Attitudes Towards Suicide
(Raymond Firth, 1967)
Papua New Guinea: Kiriwina/The Trobriand Islands:
- Suicide as an Act of Justice
Expiation and Insult: Jumping from a Palm
(Bronislaw Malinowski, 1916, 1926)
- The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death
(David R. Counts and Dorothy Ayers Counts, 1983-84)
- A Tale of Two Lovers: Tying Their Hair Together
- Sea Spirit Spasms
(Frank Joseph Mahony, 1950-1968, 1970)
- Group Rejection and Suicide
(Thomas Gladwin and Seymour Bernard Sarason, 1953)
- Who Will Go With Me?
(George Turner, 1884)
- The Love-Sick of Vavau
(Basil Thomson, 1886-1891, 1894)
- Traditions of Niue
(Edwin M. Loeb, 1926)
Pukapuka, Cook Islands
- After Defeat in Fighting: Burying Oneself Alive
(Ernest Beaglehole and Pearl Beaglehole, 1938)
Mangareva, Gambier Islands
- Cliff Suicide: The Privilege of Women
(Te Rangi Hiroa [Sir Peter H. Buck], 1938)
- The Maori Myth of Tane The Myth of Rakuru
(John White, 1887)
- Maori: Tupu and Mate
(J. Prtyz Johansen, 1954)
- The Spirit
(Frederick Edward Maning, 1922)
- The Dying Maori Chief and his Old and Young Wives
(Frederick Edward Maning, 1922)
- The Secrecy of the Bones of a Chief
(Laura C. Green and Martha Warren Beckwith, 1926)
Oceania, or the Pacific Islands, includes several thousand open-water islands in the Pacific Ocean. Oceania is traditionally grouped by the three principal regional categories of Melanesia (New Guinea and the islands northeast of Australia), Polynesia (the central and southeast Pacific including New Zealand and Hawaii), and Micronesia (north of Melanesia and west of Polynesia); Australia is occasionally included as a fourth zone. Of the three regions, Polynesia was colonized the most recently by Austronesian-speaking peoples and is the most culturally and linguistically homogenous; Micronesia and Melanesia include peoples with a wider diversity of cultural traditions in origin and antiquity, and are regarded by some scholars as primarily geographic regions rather than cultural zones. In New Guinea alone, some 800 languages are spoken. Both the land area and the population of Oceania are small, though the dispersal over the globe is huge: the total area of Oceania including Australia is more than three million square miles.
The first of many waves of human migration out of Asia to the Pacific Islands began in northern Melanesia at least 40,000 years ago. The migration of Austronesian-speaking peoples out of Taiwan and southern China began perhaps 6,000 to 8,000 years ago; modern Polynesians developed out of settlers in the Samoa-Tonga-Fiji triangle around 2,000 years ago. They moved southward and eastward, and north to Hawaii, traveling by boat and outrigger canoe and eventually inhabiting the major islands of the South Pacific by 750 A.D.
Before European contact (1521–1800 A.D.), Pacific Islanders lived in societies ranging from small communities on atolls to large, highly hierarchical chiefdoms on the larger islands. With many terrestrial animal and bird species soon eaten to extinction and the natural landscape of most islands largely free of edible plants, the islands that would support societies large or small had to be groomed to support human life; forests were initially cleared through shifting agriculture, and the island ecologies and landscapes were dramatically altered over successive generations for human cultivation. Regional trade was conducted extensively among the islands in specialized networks. Despite the progress made in agricultural technology throughout Oceania, disease, especially malaria, is thought to have been the cause of the very low population growth of Near Oceania (western Melanesia), with the exception of the New Guinea highlands, in contrast to Remote Oceania (Micronesia and the regions east of the Solomon Islands that were all colonized in a post-1200 b.c. expansion), which was relatively free of disease in comparison and much more densely populated at the time of European contact.
By the end of the 18th century, Europeans had explored most of the Pacific Islands and established a strong economic and political presence in the region with the effect of native decimation, largely through the introduction of disease; throughout the 19th century, Oceania was widely colonized by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States. European religious groups, especially Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists, mounted substantial missionary efforts, and by 1890, most of the indigenous inhabitants of Oceania had been at least nominally converted.
As with other oral cultures, views of the ethics of suicide among Oceanic cultures must be extrapolated from reports of cultural practices, anecdotes, sayings, and other material from Western observers, keeping in mind that both the antecedent convictions of these observers may have distorted what they saw and that the overlay of Western religion and political organization may have already influenced native attitudes by the time they were reported. The ethnographic reports of early explorers and missionaries are often presented with undisguised editorial comment, as, for example, in George Turner’s 1884 account (selection #10, “Who Will Go With Me?”) that attributes a sati-like practice in Samoa to “the downward tendency of heathenism,” and Thomas Williams’s account (selection #3) in the same year of voluntary regicide and uxoricide in Fiji as evidence of “the tyranny exercised by the devil over those who were so entirely under his control.”
Oceanic cultures exhibit many examples of institutionalized suicide that carry with them a strong social element. Charles Wilkes, recounting his observations of Fiji in 1840 in a narrative of his voyages published in 1845 (selection #2, “Elderly Parents and the Time to Die”), describes the suicides of unhappily betrothed young women and occasions of voluntary senicide. Aged parents, he observes, felt a sense of duty to have themselves killed at the appropriate time. Some elements of the customs Wilkes describes appear to involve voluntary choice: the parent informs his or her children when the time to die has come, not the other way around, and the parent is allowed to choose the manner of death (strangulation or burial alive) and the place where the grave is to be dug. That the parent is subject to such expectations, however, marks this variant of suicide as institutionalized and in this sense less than fully voluntary: it is what old people are supposed to do. This social expectation of voluntary senicide is found in many areas of the Pacific Islands, including the Maori cultures of New Zealand.
The voluntary or consensual death of widows at or around the time of their husband’s funeral—much like sati practices in India—was also found in Oceanic cultures, particularly among the Fijians, though it was generally restricted to rituals marking the death of chiefs, and thus an uncommon but socially important occurrence that served to heighten the expression of elevated status. Sometimes the widow begged to be strangled and buried with her deceased husband; at other times, the widow went to her grave with much less enthusiasm, though a surviving widow would be certain to face an unfortunate life of insult and discrimination, particularly since her refusal to accept death would be seen as an act of disrespect to her late husband, family, and friends. Both William Mariner’s 1820 report, “The Principal Wife of the Chief” (selection #1), and Thomas Williams’s “Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives,” based on his observations between 1840–53 (selection #3, expanded in the Archive), reflect the entrenched status of voluntary and consensual uxoricide in Fiji culture, but also describe institutional suicide practices involving regicide: it is the old king who is to die, and with him, his favorite wives. In Hawaii and many other places, servants were also sometimes killed voluntarily upon the death of their master. Similar and related forms of institutional suicide are reported in Turner’s account of Samoa and also in Green and Beckwith’s Hawaiian account (selection #20), “The Secrecy of the Bones of a Chief,” of two men, designated the kahu and the moe puu, who are entrusted with placing the bones of a deceased chief in a hidden cave, knowing they will pay for their crucial role in maintaining the secrecy of the location with their own lives.
Observers in Tikopian culture (e.g., Raymond Firth) also document the occurrence of certain “suicidal adventures,” particularly those of young men sailing alone far out to sea toward other lands—risky undertakings that often ended in death. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the voyage, some such adventures are seen as suicide attempts, while others are not (selection #4). Indeed, suicide practices in the Pacific Islands often exhibit the sharp gender differentiation characteristic of many forms of institutionalized or semi-institutionalized suicide. As in Firth’s account of Tikopia, suicide by drowning in the ocean is sharply differentiated by gender: females swim out to sea; males take a canoe. In the Polynesian culture of Mangareva, described by Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck) in 1938 (selection #15), the “privilege” of committing suicide by jumping off a cliff was reserved for women (men were expected to jump from coconut trees), and they were also segregated by social rank. One part of the cliff was reserved for women of high social rank, another for commoners.
Institutional suicide practices often involve not only gender differentiation, but a highly structured pattern for performance of the act. In Malinowski’s famous 1926 account of Kima’i’s suicide in Papua New Guinea’s Kiriwina Islands (formerly known as the Trobriand Islands) (selection #5, “Suicide as an Act of Justice; Expiation and Insult: Jumping from a Palm”), a characteristic suicide pattern is exhibited: the individual dons festive attire, climbs a tall palm tree, and announces his or her suicidal intention and the reasons for it (typically, the shame or insult that has been incurred) before jumping off. The pattern is well understood by both the person committing suicide and those watching from below; Malinowski comments on the social role such suicides play. Among the Kaliai of New Guinea, contemporary observations (selection #6, Counts and Ayers’s “The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death,” expanded in the Archive) examine the social roles of suicide and identify the rules—received in oral tradition, known to members of the community, and operative in practice—concerning the way in which a person should kill himself or herself. Other accounts of institutionalized suicide in Polynesia include a report from Pukapuka in the Cook Islands, “After Defeat in Fighting” (selection #13), that losers in warfare committed suicide by burying themselves alive.
In Micronesian folklore, probably the most famous of all stories is the Two Lovers Leap story, a kind of Romeo and Juliet story though without the mistaken assumptions about each others deaths found in Shakespeare. This tale does not appear to have institutionalized features suggesting that the dual suicide is controlled by social expectations; it more closely resembles a common tale of young lovers thwarted by social practices. The cliff from which the lovers leapt is now one of Guam’s most famous tourist destinations. Another famous spot, Suicide Cliff in Saipan, honors the spot where, in the waning days of World War II, Japanese families—told that the invading Americans were particularly bloodthirsty—would line up to plunge over the cliffs.
Particularly in Polynesian cultures, anger may play a significant role in suicide. Even today, according to Don Rubinstein, suicide is characteristically triggered by a perceived rejection from a close relative; killing oneself is the expression of loss at a ruptured relationship, rather than a response to anger per se. Edwin Loeb, writing in 1926, “Traditions of Niue” (selection #12), says that suicide occurred “upon slight provocation.” Shame, jealousy, frustration, aggrievement, and many other emotional responses to specific situations might play a role, though anger is described as principal among them.
Suicide also played a role in the mythological and ritualistic character of some Oceanic cultures. In a Maori origin legend called the Myth of Tane, retold by John White (selection #16), the daughter of the god Tane, Hine-i-tauira (meaning “model daughter”), kills herself after learning of her own incestuous relationship with her father. After this act, her name is changed to “daughter of defiance” and in the world of spirits and darkness where she comes to reside, she is known as “great daughter of darkness.” In another Maori legend recounted by White, available in the Digital Archive, the first thief, Rakuru, steals a magic fish-hook; he too commits suicide out of shame when his theft is discovered (selection #16, in the Archive).
Among Pacific Islanders and in other oral cultures, some deaths defy Western classification as homicide or suicide. As in Fiji, the voluntary or consensual killing of widows is such an instance; while suicide itself is frowned upon and those who commit it are believed to be isolated in the next world, the voluntary funeral death of widows is encouraged. Many observers have explored connections between Pacific Islanders’ attitudes toward death in general and various suicidal practices. Among the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands, for example, the overarching attitude toward death is said by Raymond Firth to be regret rather than fear: to commit suicide is to actualize an already inevitable end (selection #4). The contemporary analysis pursued in “The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death” (selection #6) attempts to identify what distinguishes between “good” and “bad” deaths in another Melanesian culture; the key, apparently, is whether it does or does not cause social disruption. In most traditional Oceanic cultures, there do not appear to be conceptions of an afterlife punishment for suicide, as distinct from isolation, although Handy (selection #14) reports that Marquesan women who killed themselves out of jealousy were believed to be able to return as malevolent spirits to haunt their husbands and their husbands’ lovers. In the Marquesan myth that Handy records, a young woman commits suicide out of loneliness when her husband is away; performance of a ritual is able to bring her back to her husband and children, but only as a spirit, and she is able to stay with them only until her oldest child is grown.
Finally, overall worldviews may affect the ethics of suicide as well. Among the indigenous Maori population of New Zealand, Johansen (selection #17) shows how cultural conceptions of psychology and religion play into the concept of suicide. The Maori see themselves in a world that swings between periods of growth, called tupu, and periods of weakening or decay, called mate. According to Johansen, the Maori see their world holistically: a weakening in the emotional or spiritual life will also include a diminishment in the physical dimensions (e.g., health may be lost). Mate, which is often caused by insult or shame, often causes a flight from life and society. Suicide is the extreme form of flight and is thus related to the concept of weakening. In the Niue language, as “Traditions of Niue” (selection #12) points out, mate is the word for death itself. Indeed, mate and cognate forms mean dead/death throughout Oceanic languages generally.
No comprehensive account for all Pacific Island cultures can be provided for the significance of death, the meaning of life, the relationship between the individual and society, or many other matters of background culture relevant to the ethics of suicide, so varied are these cultures. Furthermore, the earliest available accounts, including those provided here, are filtered through a European mindset and a constellation of biases clearly hostile to the practices they report; it cannot be assumed that the descriptions, perceptions, and sentiments are fully authentic. Under the broad influence of Christianity in the Pacific today, many people now regard suicide as sinful and believe that there is an afterlife punishment for it; but it is clear that certain forms of institutionalized suicide and suicidal responses to interpersonal reactions have been widespread in the past and were an apparently “normal” part of these cultures.