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.