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Life in New Guinea: The Inhabitants

by James Chalmers (1841-1901)

James ChalmersI love savages, not with a sentiment born of philanthropy or Christian zeal, but as the result of experience gained during many years of happy intercourse with them. Although they are unvarnished, and have many dark spots which the arts of civilisation would fain teach them to hide, I prefer real things; and a simple savage, if he seldom has noble traits, is intensely human and capable of sincere and enduring friendship.

It is often said, "Why not leave the savages alone in their primitive state? They only are truly happy." How little do those who thus speak know what that life really is. A savage seldom sleeps well at night. He is in constant fear of attacks from neighbouring tribes, as well as the more insidious foes created by his superstitious mind. Ghosts and hobgoblins, those midnight wanderers, cause him much alarm, as their movements are heard in the sighing of the wind, in falling leaves, lizards chirping, or disturbed birds singing. If midnight is the favourite time for spirit movements, there is another hour when he has good cause to fear the first-mentioned enemies. It is the uncanny hour between the morning star and the glimmering light of approaching day—the hour of yawning and armstretching, when the awakening pipe is lighted, and the first smoke of the day enjoyed. The following will show what I mean.

Some six years ago, the people of the large district of Saroa came in strong battle array, and in the early morning ascended the Manukolo hills, surrounded the villages, and surprised and killed men, women, and children, from the poor grey-headed sire to the infant in arms. About forty escaped to Kalo, but were soon compelled to leave, as Saroa threatened to burn Kalo if it harboured the fugitives. They pleaded for peace, but without avail. Saroa said, "Every soul must die." The quarrel began about a pig.

Here is another incident—alas! only one of many I could narrate—equally demonstrative of the dread fear attached by them to that early hour of day.

Paitana is a village situate on one of the creeks running from Hall Sound. It is surrounded by mangrove swamp, but in the village cocoa-nut, betel-nut, and breadfruit trees grow luxuriantly. The inhabitants have always been regarded as a treacherous crowd; but, having visited them, I hoped they would become more friendly. Returning several months after, I found that some had arranged during the first visit to have my head, and I now remember many things which then appeared very suspicious.

Several years ago two foreigners were killed in Hall Sound by the Paitana natives, and they have also killed people from Delena, Maiva, and other villages. The climax was reached in September, 1883, when they killed a man from Lese, who was visiting them as a friend. When the news of the murder reached Lese, the people there determined to wait until planting season was over, and then to take their revenge.

To the Papuan mind, the duties of friendship are of a sacred character, and this violation of them appeared the most flagrant transgression of their savage code of honour. For a long time the people of Paitana, fearing an attack, lived away from their village, but thinking that the Leseans had in their delay given up all thought of "payment," they returned to their home. Meanwhile the people of Lese were preparing revarevas (war canoes), and keeping very quiet about their intentions. The blow fell at last, and a terrible retribution it proved to be. Paitana fancied her peculiar position rendered her secure. The village lay far up a creek, and had to be approached through very long grass; it was surrounded by a thick mangrove bush. The sleeping inhabitants little dreamed of what the early morning would yield.

Twenty-four revarevas were prepared by Lese. These are made by lashing poles across two long canoes, and upon these poles a platform is erected. Men with paddles sit at the head and stern, whilst the platform is crowded with warriors in full war paint, armed with spears, bows, arrows, and clubs. This fleet started, and pulled all night. Arriving on the south-west side of Yule Island, they remained there until the following night. After sunset, when quite dark, they advanced up the creek, where they met a canoe with a man and two women in it, belonging to Lolo. They made the man a prisoner, saying, they did not wish to kill him, but to save his life and the women's, he must be their guide. To this he consented, and after leading them to the village, was allowed to return. The village was surrounded, and a strong party sent into the main street. All sat down quietly. The morning star was up, and soon there would be sufficient light for their dreadful work.

A native awakes, lights his baubau (pipe), has a smoke, a yawn, a stretch; then looking out, and seeing people in the village, calls out—"Who are you?"

"We are Leseans come to pay for our friend you killed. Long have we waited to see you punished for your murdering propensities, but all seem afraid of you. You have tried your hand on us, and now we will take the matter up."

In other houses the aroused natives are now in a state of confusion. Already the arrows fly in showers, and men, women, and children are wounded. Many fleeing are caught and clubbed. Others remain in their houses, hoping to be omitted in the general carnage. The houses are entered, everything valuable is carried away, and speedily the whole village is in a blaze, when the dead, the wounded, and the living are all burnt in the one great fire.

I asked a native who got through the environment how many were killed. He said, "It is impossible to tell the number of the dead, only ten who slept in the village that night escaped."

Flushed with victory, and weighted with loot, the Lesians returned to their revarevas, pulled down the creek and along the coast, with horns blowing and men and women dancing and singing on the platforms. Their return was celebrated with feasting and dancing; and again and again in the midst of the festivities the scenes of that morning were recounted with pride.

Ah! savage life is not the joyous hilarity some writers depict. It is not always the happy laugh, the feast and the dance. Like life in civilised communities, it is varied and many-sided. There are often seasons when tribes are scattered, hiding in large trees, in caves, and in other villages far away from their homes. Not long ago, inland from Port Moresby, a large hunting party camping in a cave were smoked out by their enemies and all killed but one. Once when travelling inland, I found the Makabili tribe in terrible weather living in the bush, under shelving rocks, among the long grass, and in hollow trees. The people at Port Moresby say that now for the first time they all sleep in peace, and that as they can trust the peace of God's word, they mean to keep to it. This is significant, coming from those who not long since were the most noted pirates, robbers, and murderers along the whole coast of the peninsula.

But I must hasten on to describe as succinctly as possible some of the traits in these interesting people.

Upon this immense island the two types of Malay and Polynesian seem to meet, and often to commingle. There is no homogeneous race forming a national transition from one to the other, like the Anglo-Saxon. The Malay, of medium height, slender build, small head, straight hair,and regular features, is found settled in many communities along large tracts of coast. These vary in colour from light slate to dark brown. The Polynesians are tall, muscular, hard-working people, very excitable; they range from dark brown to deep black in colour, and have the head large, with bushy crinkled hair often very long. There are also to be seen in small numbers among some of the hill ranges and on certain islands the remnants of a Negro race, in some respects but little above the aborigines of Australia, and possessing some striking resemblances to them. I believe this race to be the original inhabitants of the country, and that they have retired before the advances of superior tribes.

The Motu tribe is one of the most important at present known on the peninsula. They stand first both in energy and mental power. As they were once pre-eminent in wickedness, now that the Gospel is exercising its sway over them they are an example for good, enabling the missionary when speaking to other natives, to point out the great change wrought in them by its power.

Childhood is a happy period in New Guinea. Many of their games resemble those of English children, and rounders and skipping are just as much appreciated there as here.

Boys early learn the use of weapons, and miniature bows and arrows, spears and clubs are made for them by their fathers; whilst a girl is soon initiated into the arts of cooking, planting, weeding, manufacture of pottery, and other duties which are woman's lot in life. The people are usually of a very lively temperament. They love excitement, and revel in fighting and rows. Some tribes gesticulate much when speaking, and it is most laughable to observe them when excited. Their grimaces are remarkably expressive, and not a few possess great powers of mimicry. When bartering, they haggle very much, and depreciate the articles offered. A market is almost as noisy as a fight, and behind each long row of buyers or sellers stands a line of sentinels, spear in hand, ready to settle any dispute in the most summary fashion.

Parents are very fond of their children, and the affection is reciprocated with interest in the shape of a profound veneration which deepens with years. Lads of twenty will not engage for a few days' trip unless mother consents, and often a man of forty, while willing to be employed, will say, "Let me first go and hear what my mother and wife say, and if it be all right I shall be back in a few minutes." The trouble of maternity is comparatively a light one, and often on the coast a mother will immediately walk down to the sea and bath herself and new-born child. Families, as a rule, consist only of four or five children. Occasionally one with eight or nine is found. There is no infanticide in any of the tribes known to me.

The New Guinea woman does not think herself overwrought, and will not allow any interference in her own departments of work. Her cooking duties are not heavy. It is, however, right to remark on this point that the people are very hospitable, and their chief method of welcome is the readiness and promptitude with which they set to work to prepare food. They never seem weary of cooking for friends who come from a distance.

The food is usually cooked in earthenware pots, after the fashion of Irish stew. These pots are made only by certain tribes, and when war arises near the manufacturing districts, the pottery business is seriously hindered, much to the disgust of the makers, and the inconvenience of their customers.

A place for cooking is made of stones and earth in the center of the floor of the house. A circle of stones being formed, wood is placed within it and lighted, and upon that the pot stands. Inland, ovens are made by digging a trench, and filling it with wood and with hard stones. When the stones are brought up to a white heat, the remaining wood is withdrawn, the stones are spread out, and banana leaves placed upon them. On these is placed the food to be cooked; it is then all covered up with banana leaves, whilst on the top is heaped all the burning wood which remains. The chief foods are sago, bananas, bread-fruit, yams, and taro.

Inland from the coast, ginger is used with food and much relished with salt. I like green ginger and salt. They have a great distaste for the red pepper berries.

Pork is very seldom used, and pig-killing affords an opportunity for inviting many friends to partake. Annual feasts and house building are occasions for such display. They all like fish, especially in times of sickness, when they have a failing appetite. The species caught on that coast are mullet, roach, cod, etc., together with many kinds of shell fish.

They have no intoxicating drink, and very little water or cocoa nut milk is drunk at any time. This is very significant when the great heat is considered, and can only be accounted for by the quantity of water contained in their usual articles of diet.

One meal a day is the universal rule, and that is taken in the afternoon. Father and sons eat together, and the mother and daughters do the same in another place. Children at certain ages can only eat particular kinds of food. When the husband is tabooed, his wife must not cook food for, or hand it to him, neither may she speak to or even look at him. His daughter, niece, or other female relatives may do it. Men tabooed can only eat certain kinds of food, and will have no other sort. I have been troubled often with my boat's crew and carriers in order to secure food for those who were tabooed for any particular reason.

In the Gulf cannibalism is of old standing, the habit of many generations. It is scarcely sixty years since it was introduced into the East end of the peninsula. But human flesh cannot be said, in the most inveterate cannibal districts, to be a staple article of food. The Motuans when amongst the cannibals will not use the pots of the latter, lest they should have been used for cooking human flesh. An old chief who was much attached to Mrs. Chalmers brought her a very dainty bit, the breast of a man, as a proof of his affection. It was laid at her feet. She spoke kindly to her cannibal friend, gave him a present, and asked him to take with him that which he had apportioned as her share, saying that we never partook of such, and hoped he would soon give it up. I do not think the old man again tasted human flesh until the day of his death, which happened some years after.

In speaking of native dress you touch upon a slender topic, so slight indeed that it almost eludes description. Everywhere the women wear a grass petticoat, varying in length and thickness according to their tribal custom. The only exception I know of on the coast is that of some of the old women in the Elema district, who are content to wear only a flat white shell. At the east, in the Milne Bay and Dahuni districts, the men make a maro from the young sago palm leaf, and are well covered. I do not think they require much more dressing; what they wear they attend to well, and it becomes them. Others have a narrow strip of native cloth, but in the districts further west the men only sport a string. "Attention to dress" or otherwise consists in the varying degrees of slackness or tightness with which the string is worn, and in a slight increase or diminution in the width of the cloth. In all the districts where the string is used it is amusing to see the care they take in adjusting it, and they would as soon think of being without it as more civilised nations would of going without their trousers or kilts.

The women are the burden-bearers, both on the coast and inland. When travelling I have seen them with loads piled high on the head, and with infants on the top, climbing 1600 feet apparently with as much ease as they would walk along a good road.

In many tribes the women are tattooed on the face and body, some in lines and in a Z pattern, others in a style something like a Maltese cross.

The men do the fighting and hard work of planting, such as clearing the ground, first planting and fencing, fishing, house-building, canoe-making, and weapons of all kinds.

Most tribes tribes build their houses on posts about eight or ten feet from the ground. The poles which support these structures are of varying size, and set at irregular intervals in the ground. The roughly hewn floor is very uneven, and large gaps often occur between the planks. They are made in the shape of a parallelogram with "the entrance at one end. In front of the doorway is a platform which is shaded by the overhanging roof, and upon this they sit and talk. Inside a fire always burns. Sometimes I have seen in large houses four or five fires, and cooking done at each. Around the walls are hung spears, bows, arrows, and clubs, while in the low doorway some nuts are hung which rattle when moved, so that no one can enter without attracting attention. The natives sleep on mats which are laid upon the floor wherever fancy dictates. They usually lie near the fire.

The roofs of the houses appear like canoes turned up at both ends, the front being a little higher than the back; others are like canoes turned bottom up. At Kalo the streets are nicely laid out with small patches of tropical plants in front of each house.

Some villages which are placed in the sea or in swamps, have even a higher elevation, whilst a few villages belonging to broken down or vassal tribes are built upon the ground. Although the primary motive for elevated houses is one of safety, there may be an instinctive desire to live above the malaria which everywhere prevails, and is especially dangerous at night-time. There is a great difference in the size and construction of the houses, but all belonging to a tribe are much alike, the variation being between those of one tribe and another. The Kalo houses are the finest I have ever seen; they are strongly built and very large. "When one of her Majesty's ships of war visited there to administer punishment for the murder of some native teachers, it took a large party of bluejackets and marines four hours to destroy a chief's house with the assistance of saws, ropes, and gun powder.

Their dubus, or temples, are fine buildings, sometimes two hundred feet long by thirty feet wide, and tapering from eighty feet in height at the front down to about ten at the rear.

On visiting the Chief, Ipaivaitani, in the Gulf, I found a town built in a swamp on the banks of a creek. There were large and well built houses, with great figures in front painted on native cloth. Streets were formed by laying logs of trees; every where over the smaller creeks bridges of wood were built. The people appeared healthy, hearty, and happy. I landed on a tolerably well-built wharf, and walked along a bridge to the chief's dubu. He led me down the long dark aisle to the small sacred chamber at the end where the gods were kept. I have an impression that I was presented to them, and that the reception was of a friendly nature.

Hereditary possession in land is held equally by sons and daughters. No chief has any power over another's land. In some districts, such at Aroma, Hula, Sogeri, Lolo, and Elema, large tracts of land taken from others are held by the power of arms by those who now occupy it. Land is let and sold among the various tribes.

Many tribes have some artistic capabilities. The designs of their tatooing are often very pretty and effective. All along the south-east coast the natives display a great aptitude for carving. Some of their ornaments, canoes, houses, chunam spoons and lime calabashes are really wonderful, when it is remembered that their only implements were flint and shells until the introduction of iron, when nails were substituted. Large and small nails are much sought after and carefully sharpened, so that they may be used as chisels. A large quantity of hoop iron is used cut into lengths of seven and eight inches. These when sharpened at one end and fastened to a bent piece of wood, are made into rude tomahawks. An immense amount of work is done by these small hoop-iron tomahawks.

Smoking is regarded as the principal luxury of life, and men, women, and children indulge in the weed.

The pipe is simply a joint of bamboo with a hole at the imperforated end, and another at the side near the top, where a piece of leaf containing the tobacco is inserted. The smoke is drawn by suction from the perforated end, and when the bamboo is full, the leaf with the tobacco is withdrawn and the smoke taken into the mouth. The natives smoke at all times; often when eating, a man will smoke with his mouth full of food. If a present of tobacco is made to them, when smoking they will call out the name of the giver or "Beritanic" (British).

The luxury which holds rank next to smoking in their esteem, is that of chewing betel nuts. This fruit has an acidulated taste, and causes a copious flow of saliva. Some tribes add to their pleasure by taking a small quantity of lime after chewing the nut. Their mouths and teeth become dyed a dark red colour through this practice.

Sneezing is regarded as a good sign. If one is sick it is taken as a sign of life. On ordinary occasions, it is looked upon as presaging the arrival of a canoe from a distance, or of the approaching visit of friends.

When the new moon is first seen, all shout and clap the mouth with the hand and wishes of all kinds are indulged in.

In New Guinea as elsewhere, every rich family is closely attended by its poorer relatives. It seems to be a universal tendency in human nature to hang on to any relative who is well to do. My old friend Grannie, of Port Moresby, has many relatives because of her wealth; but it is true that only a few have much more property than the rest, and the majority are upon the same level.

In New Guinea the affections play a prominent part in the lives of young people. Sometimes a young couple, much attached to each other, but whose friends are not agreeable, will run away to another village or into the bush, and await in dilatory happiness until the parental wrath has subsided.

Children are sometimes betrothed before or immediately after their birth. The boy's parents will continue to give presents to those of the girl, and the latter will take wood and water in return. When the children grow up they may not care for one another, and the girl will probably go off with some other young man. The boy's friends will then indulge in a fiendish uproar, and demand payment, which will be made. In other cases they will separate soon after marriage. In every case where the woman goes off with another man payment must be made to the husband and his friends. In this respect they manage things more promptly and satisfactorily to those concerned than is done in England. Adultery is punished with death or heavy payment, and the destruction of the man's plantation.

Girls being marketable articles are well watched over by parents and friends, for should a young girl be known to be unchaste she will be depreciated and despised. Amongst all the tribes of New Guinea with only one exception the women are more moral than in Eastern Polynesia, and as a rule the girls are chaste and modest. All travellers should be careful in their looks and gifts, and on no account even speak familiarly or in a friendly way to any woman under fifty years of age. Even a look may mean death in the midst of such an excitable people.

On the coast girls marry when about sixteen, and inland at about eighteen or nineteen years of age. Young men marry from sixteen to eighteen, and a little older among the inland tribes.

Girls are paid for in armshells, necklaces, and food. A bride on going to her husband will receive from her parents as dowry spears, bows and arrows, a fishing net, a wallaby net, a pot to boil food in, a chatty for water, a dish for holding food, and two petticoats. The spears and bows and arrows are to give to her husband to fight with, to defend her or to get a wallaby for her. The net is to get fish for her and her friends. A wallaby net also is given that he may have many such for their own use and also for friends.

The old man who wished to initiate Mrs. Chalmers into cannibalism was very anxious that I should really be a chief, and said I could not be so until I had more than one wife. He brought his daughter as a first instalment, saying to Mrs. Chalmers, "You are queen, all the others will simply be secondary and do your work; other chiefs will bring their daughters and then 'Tamate' will be a very great chief." He received a present, and took his daughter back, but thought it very strange that we would not consent to become really great in that particular way. He once travelled with me, and on starting said, "You will see I am a great chief, as in all the villages we visit I have a wife and home." At one village he presented me with a splendid snow-white cuscus and would take no return present for it saying, "it was his wife's pet and she was so glad to see him with a great white chief that she was anxious I should have it."

They have no light at night save that of the family fire or fires, and have a great dislike to going about after dark. When they do they usually carry a fire stick with them.

When asleep they say that the spirit leaves the body and travels, hence dreams. The visions of the night are thus regarded as actual occurrences by them. In one journey the old chief who acted as leader thought me mad, because I insisted on going forward after he had had a fearful dream of disaster. One of the party becoming very ill, he turned savagely on me, and said: "I told you before we started what would happen."

When any general sickness prevails in a village, just after sundown a crowd will assemble beating gongs and striking on the floor of the house with sticks, shouting and throwing fire-sticks to try and frighten the sickness away. This is usually done at the time of the new moon. They are not acquainted with the medicinal properties of the herbs of their country and have no native medicines peculiar to themselves. If a person is sick a sorcerer is sent for.

Sickness is supposed to be caused by some one having a spite against them, or by an enemy, or for a breach of taboo. If they are travelling and tired, or sick and pained, the nettle is used very freely until the body is covered with small blisters and the counter-irritant is said to give relief. The natives are capital bone setters.

About twenty-two years ago smallpox devastated the tribes, some being obliterated altogether. Fevers are very prevalent and severe. Last year hundreds died from a very severe epidemic. Some suffer from rheumatism; and elephantiasis prevails, but only on the river banks. Leprosy is very prevalent, it is of a hereditary nature and not contagious. On the eastern part of the peninsula the natives suffer from skin disease: it is a kind of ringworm which covers the whole body, and is very irritating and occasionally breaks out into sores which are very difficult to heal. I have tried tar, sulphur, and carbolic acid, but the difficulty of getting natives to attend perseveringly to instructions is so great that I have not observed any beneficial results from such treatment.

"Boys and girls mature very early, the former at about fifteen, and the latter from thirteen to fourteen years of age. They also grow old quickly, especially women after their first child. In the Gulf many aged people are to be seen, a few being about seventy and some several years older than that.

Their grief at the death of near relatives is most painful to witness; the women wail, tear their hair, and scratch the skin off their face and body until the blood flows freely and they are exhausted. They mix the juice from the dead body with wood-ashes, and besmear themselves as a sign of mourning. "When all the juice has exuded, the remains are placed in the roof over the smoke of the fire, and after some months a great feast is given, when the dried remains are placed away in a small hut in the bush, and mourning ceases. In some tribes widows will bear signs of mourning for many years.

The Papuan's notion of the future state is that of thorough enjoyment, according to their present ideas on the matter, so that he hopes to eat betel nuts and lime for ever; to dance and feast for aye, and in the land of spirits upon their lovely blue mountains to dwell to all eternity in peace and plenty. In forming an opinion of the Papuan people we must not be misled by our horror of their disregard of human life or by the cannibalism of some of the tribes. It should be remembered that they are savages of the purest type; that they are in the stone age and consequently in a most primitive state of life. For thousands of years they have been cut off from the rest of the world, and only during the last three centuries has the rumour passed among them of a people white in colour who had sailed across their seas in floating islands large and strange; but until my colleagues and myself went to reside among them white people were virtually unknown...

One characteristic is the liveliness and extreme excitability of their temperament. They are also kind and affectionate, and when they become attached to you are firm and trustworthy friends.

Marked traits of character are individually exhibited, and also tribal peculiarities are very noticeable. Indeed it is easier to trace the personal distinctions of a naked savage than of a people who are clothed alike. His every motion and bearing can be more easily noted. He is not trained to hypocrisy; he has nothing to gain by maintaining the outward appearance of a high moral state; and his real character and peculiarities are well known to all his friends. I may therefore iterate with emphasis my statement without being guilty of undue prejudice, "I prefer real things," and would much rather work as a missionary among these savages than hold a similar position amidst a people already familiar with the truths of Christianity.

From The Sunday at Home: Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading. London: Religious Tract Society, 1887.

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