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Lecture 15 The Belief in Immortality Among the Natives of Southern Melanesia (New Caledonia)

Lecture 15
The Belief in Immortality Among the Natives of Southern Melanesia (New Caledonia)
Melanesia and the Melanesians.
IN the last lecture I concluded our survey of the beliefs and practices concerning death and the dead which are reported to prevail among the natives of New Guinea. We now pass to the natives of Melanesia the great archipelago or rather chain of archipelagoes which stretches round the northeastern and eastern ends of New Guinea and southward parallel to the coast of Queensland till it almost touches the tropic of Capricorn. Thus the islands lie wholly within the tropics and are for the most part characterised by tropical heat and tropical luxuriance of vegetation. Only New Caledonia the most southerly of the larger islands differs somewhat from the rest in its comparatively cool climate and scanty flora.1 The natives of the islands belong to the Melanesian race. They are dark-skinned and woolly-haired and speak a language which is akin to the Polynesian language. In material culture they stand roughly on the same level as the natives of New Guinea a considerable part of whom in the south-eastern part of the island as I pointed out before are either pure Melanesians or at all events exhibit a strong infusion of Melanesian blood. They cultivate the ground live in settled villages build substantial houses construct outrigger-canoes display some aptitude for art possess strong commercial instincts and even employ various mediums of exchange of which shell-money is the notable.2
The New Caledonians.

We shall begin our survey of these islands with New Caledonia in the south and from it shall pass northwards through the New Hebrides and Solomon Islands to the Bismarck Archipelago which consists chiefly of the two great islands of New Britain and New Ireland with the group of the Admiralty Islands terminating it to the westward. For our knowledge of the customs and religion of the New Caledonians we depend chiefly on the evidence of a Catholic missionary Father Lambert who has worked among them since 1856 and has published a valuable book on the subject.3 To be exact his information applies not to the natives of New Caledonia itself but to the inhabitants of a group of small islands which lie immediately off the northern extremity of the island and are known as the Belep group. Father Lambert began to labour among the Belep at a time when no white man had as yet resided among them. At a later time circumstances led him to transfer his ministry to the Isle of Pines which lies off the opposite or southern end of New Caledonia. A comparative study of the natives at the two extremities of New Caledonia revealed to him an essential similarity in their beliefs and customs; so that it is not perhaps very rash to assume that similar customs prevail among the aborigines of New Caledonia itself which lies intermediate between the two points observed by Father Lambert.4 The assumption is confirmed by evidence which was collected by Dr. George Turner from the mainland of New Caledonia so long ago as 1845.5 Accordingly in what follows I shall commonly speak of the New Caledonians in general though the statements for the most part apply in particular to the Belep tribe.

Beliefs of the New Caledonians as to the land of the dead.
The souls of the New Caledonians like those of most savages are supposed to be immortal at least to survive death for an indefinite period. They all go good and bad alike to dwell in a very rich and beautiful country situated at the bottom of the sea to the north-east of the island of Pott. The name of the land of souls is Tsiabiloum. But before they reach this happy land they must run the gauntlet of a grim spirit called Kiemoua who has his abode on a rock in the island of Pott. He is a fisherman of souls; for he catches them as they pass in a net and after venting his fury on them he releases them and they pursue their journey to Tsiabiloum the land of the dead. It is a country more fair and fertile than tongue can tell. Yams taros sugar-canes bananas all grow there in profusion and without cultivation. There are forests of wild orange-trees also and the golden fruits serve the blessed spirits as playthings. You can tell roughly how long it is since a spirit quitted the upper world by the colour of the orange which he plays with; for the oranges of those who have just arrived are green; the oranges of those who have been longer dead are ripe; and the oranges of those who died long ago are dry and wizened. There is no night in that blessed land and no sleep; for the eyes of the spirits are never weighed down with slumber. Sorrow and sickness decrepitude and death never enter; even boredom is unknown. But it is only the nights or rather the hours corresponding to nights on earth which the spirits pass in these realms of bliss. At daybreak they revisit their old home on earth and take up their posts in the cemeteries where they are honoured; then at nightfall they flit away back to the spirit-land beneath the sea there to resume their sport with oranges green golden or withered till dawn of day. On these repeated journeys to and fro they have nothing to fear from the grim fisherman and his net; it is only on their first passage to the nether world that he catches and trounces them.6
Burial customs of the New Caledonians.
The bodies of the dead are buried in shallow graves which are dug in a sacred grove. The corpse is placed in a crouching attitude with the head at or above the surface of the ground in order to allow of the skull being easily detached from the trunk at a subsequent time. In token of sorrow the nearest relations of the deceased tear the lobes of their ears and inflict large burns on their arms and breasts. The houses nets and other implements of the dead are burnt; his plantations are ravaged his coco-nut palms felled with the axe. The motive for this destruction of the property of the deceased is not mentioned but the custom points to a fear of the ghost; the people probably make his old home as unattractive as possible in order to offer him no temptation to return and haunt them. The same fear of the ghost or at all events of the infection of death is revealed by the stringent seclusion and ceremonial pollution of the grave-diggers. They are two in number; no other persons may handle the corpse. After they have discharged their office they must remain near the corpse for four or five days observing a rigorous fast and keeping apart from their wives. They may not shave or cut their hair and they are obliged to wear a tall pyramidal and very cumbersome head-dress. They may not touch food with their hands. If they help themselves to it they must pick it up with their mouths alone or with a stick not with their fingers. Oftener they are fed by an attendant who puts the victuals into their mouths as he might do if they were palsied. On the other hand they are treated by the people with great respect; common folk will not pass near them without stooping.7
Sham fight as a mourning ceremony.
A curious ceremony which the New Caledonians observe at a certain period of mourning for the dead is a sham fight. Father Lambert describes one such combat which he witnessed. A number of men were divided into two parties; one party was posted on the beach the other and much larger party was stationed in the adjoining cemetery where food and property had been collected. From time to time a long piercing yell would be heard; then a number of men would break from the crowd in the cemetery and rush furiously down to the beach with their slings and stones ready to assail their adversaries. These answering yell with yell would then plunge into the sea armed with battle-axes and clubs while they made a feint of parrying the stones hurled at them by the other side. But neither the shots nor the parries appeared to be very seriously meant. Then when the assailants retired the fugitives pretended to pursue them till both parties had regained their original position. The same scene of alternate attack and retreat was repeated hour after hour till at last the pretence of enmity being laid aside the two parties joined in a dance their heads crowned with leafy garlands. Father Lambert who describes this ceremony as an eye-witness offers no explanation of it. But as he tells us that all deaths are believed by these savages to be an effect of sorcery we may conjecture that the sham fight is intended to delude the ghost into thinking that his death is being avenged on the sorcerer who killed him.8 In former lectures I shewed that similar pretences are made apparently for a similar purpose by some of the natives of Australia and New Guinea.9 If the explanation is correct we can hardly help applauding the ingenuity which among these savages has discovered a bloodless mode of satisfying the ghost's craving for blood.
Preservation of the skulls of the dead.
About a year after the death when the flesh of the corpse is entirely decayed the skull is removed and placed solemnly in another burying-ground or rather charnel-house where all the skulls of the family are deposited. Every family has such a charnel-house which is commonly situated near the dwelling. It appears to be simply an open space in the forest where the skulls are set in a row on the ground.10 Yet in a sense it may be called a temple for the worship of ancestors; for recourse is had to the skulls on various occasions in order to obtain the help of the spirits of the dead. “The true worship of the New Caledonians” says Father Lambert “is the worship of ancestors. Each family has its own; it religiously preserves their name; it is proud of them and has confidence in them. Hence it has its burial-place and its pious hearth for the sacrifices to be offered to their ghosts. It is the most inviolable piece of property; an encroachment on such a spot by a neighbour is a thing unheard of.”11
Examples of ancestor-worship among the New Caledonians
A few examples may serve to illustrate the ancestor worship of the New Caledonians. When a person is sick a member of the family never a stranger is appointed to heal him by means of certain magical insufflations. To enable him to do so with effect the healer first repairs to the family charnel-house and lays some sugar-cane leaves beside the skulls saying “I lay these leaves on you that I may go and breathe upon our sick relative to the end that he may live.” Then he goes to a tree belonging to the family and lays other sugar-cane leaves at its foot saying “I lay these leaves beside the tree of my father and of my grandfather in order that my breath may have healing virtue.” Next he takes some leaves of the tree or a piece of its bark chews it into a mash and then goes and breathes on the patient his breath being moistened with spittle which is charged with particles of the leaves or the bark.12 Thus the healing virtue of his breath would seem to be drawn from the spirits of the dead as represented partly by their skulls and partly by the leaves and bark of the tree which belonged to them in life and to which their souls appear in some manner to be attached in death.
Prayers for fish.
Again when a shoal of fish has made its appearance on the reef a number of superstitious ceremonies have to be performed before the people may go and spear them in the water. On the eve of the fishing-day the medicine-man of the tribe causes a quantity of leaves of certain specified plants to be collected and roasted in the native ovens. Next day the leaves are taken from the ovens and deposited beside the ancestral skulls which have been arranged and decorated for the ceremony. All the fishermen armed with their fishing-spears repair to the holy ground or sacred grove where the skulls are kept and there they draw themselves up in two rows while the medicine-man chants an invocation or prayer for a good catch. At every verse the crowd raises a cry of approval and assent. At its conclusion the medicine-man sets an example by thrusting with his spear at a fish and all the men immediately plunge into the water and engage in fishing.13
Prayers for sugar-cane.
Again in order that a sugar plantation may flourish the medicine-man will lay a sugar-cane beside the ancestral skulls saying “This is for you. We beg of you to ward off all curses all tricks of wicked people in order that our plantations may prosper.”14
Prayers for yarns.
Again when the store of yams is running short and famine is beginning to be felt the New Caledonians celebrate a festival called moulim in which the worship of their ancestors is the principal feature. A staff is wreathed with branches apparently to represent a yam and a hedge of coco-nut leaves is made near the ancestral skulls. The decorated staff is then set up there and prayers for the prosperity of the crops are offered over and over again. After that nobody may enter a yam-field or a cemetery or touch sea-water for three days. On the third day a man stationed on a mound chants an invocation or incantation in a loud voice. Next all the men go down to the shore each of them with a firebrand in his hand and separating into two parties engage in a sham fight. Afterwards they bathe and repairing to the charnel-house deposit coco-nut leaves beside the skulls of their ancestors. They are then free to partake of the feast which has been prepared by the women.15
Caverns used by the natives as charnel-houses in the Isle of Pines.
While the beliefs and customs of the New Caledonians in regard to the dead bear a general resemblance to each other whether they belong to the north or to the south of the principal island a special feature is introduced into the mortuary customs of the natives of the Isle of Pines by the natural caves and grottoes with which the outer rim of the island to the distance of several miles from the shore is riddled; for in these caverns the natives in the old heathen days were wont to deposit the bones and skulls of their dead and to use the caves as sanctuaries or chapels for the worship of the spirits of the departed. Some of the caves are remarkable both in themselves and in their situation. Most of those which the natives turned into charnel-houses are hidden away sometimes at great distances in the rank luxuriance of the tropical forests. Some of them open straight from the level of the ground; to reach others you must clamber up the rocks; to explore others you must descend into the bowels of the earth. A glimmering twilight illumines some; thick darkness veils others and it is only by torchlight that you can explore their mysterious depths. Penetrating into the interior by the flickering gleam of flambeaus held aloft by the guides and picking your steps among loose stones and pools of water you might fancy yourself now in the great hall of a ruined castle now in the vast nave of a gothic cathedral with its chapels opening off it into the darkness on either hand. The illusion is strengthened by the multitude of stalactites which hang from the roof of the cavern and glittering in the fitful glow off the torches might be taken for burning cressets kindled to light up the revels in a baronial hall or for holy lamps twinkling in the gloom of a dim cathedral aisle before holy images where solitary worshippers kneel in silent devotion. In the shifting play of the light and shadow cast by the torches the fantastic shapes of the incrustations which line the sides or rise from the floor of the grotto appear to the imagination of the observer now as the gnarled trunks of huge trees now as statues or torsos of statues now as altars on which perhaps a nearer approach reveals a row of blanched and grinning skulls. No wonder if such places chosen for the last resting-places of the relics of mortality have fed the imagination of the natives with weird notions of a life after death a life very different from that which the living lead in the glowing sunshine and amid the rich tropical verdure a few paces outside of these gloomy caverns. It is with a shiver and a sense of relief that the visitor escapes from them to the warm outer air and sees again the ferns and creepers hanging over the mouth of the cave like a green fringe against the intense blue of the sky.16
While this is the general character of the caves which are to be found hidden away in the forests many of those near the shore consist simply of apertures hollowed out in the face of the cliffs by the slow but continuous action of the waves in the course of ages. On the beach itself sea-caves are found in which the rising tide precipitates itself with a hollow roar as of subterranean thunder; and at a point some way back from the strand where the roof of one of these caves has fallen in the salt water is projected into the air in the form of intermittent jets of spray which vary in height with the force of the wind and tide.17
Prayers and sacrifices offered to the dead by the New Caledonians.
With regard to the use which the natives make of these caves as charnel-houses and mortuary chapels Father Lambert tells us that any one of them usually includes three compartments a place of burial a place of skulls and a place of sacrifice. But often the place of skulls is also the place of sacrifice; and in no case is the one far from the other. The family priest who is commonly the senior member of the family may address his prayers to the ancestors in the depth of the cavern in the place of skulls or in the place of sacrifice whenever circumstances call for a ritual of unusual solemnity. Otherwise with the help of his amulets he may pray to the souls of the forefathers anywhere; for these amulets consist of personal and portable relics of the dead such as locks of hair teeth and so forth; or again they may be leaves or other parts of plants which are sacred to the family; so that a wizard who is in possession of them can always and anywhere communicate with the ancestral spirits. The place of sacrifice would seem to be more often in the open air than in a cave for Father Lambert tells us that in the centre of it a shrub always of the same species is planted and carefully cultivated. Beside it may be seen the pots and stones which are used in cooking the food offered to the dead. In this worship of the dead a certain differentiation of functions or division of labour obtains between the various families. All have not the same gifts and graces. The prayers of one family offered to their ancestral ghosts are thought to be powerful in procuring rain in time of drought; the prayers of another will cause the sun to break through the clouds when the sky is overcast; the supplications of a third will produce a fine crop of yams; the earnest entreaties of a fourth will ensure victory in war; and the passionate pleadings of a fifth will guard mariners against the perils and dangers of the deep. And so on through the whole gamut of human needs so far as these are felt by savages. If only wrestling in prayer could satisfy the wants of man few people should be better provided with all the necessaries and comforts of life than the New Caledonians. And according to the special purpose to which a family devotes its spiritual energies so will commonly be the position of its oratory. For example if rain-making is their strong point their house of prayer will be established near a cultivated field in order that the crops may immediately experience the benefit to be derived from their orisons. Again if they enjoy a high reputation for procuring a good catch of fish the family skulls will be placed in the mouth of a cave looking out over the great ocean or perhaps on a bleak little wind-swept isle where in the howl of the blast the thunder of the waves on the strand and the clangour of the gulls overhead the fancy of the superstitious savage may hear the voices of his dead forefathers keeping watch and ward over their children who are tossed on the heaving billows.18 Thus among these fortunate islanders religion and industry go hand in hand; piety has been reduced to a co-operative system which diffuses showers of blessings on the whole community.
Prayer posts.
As it is clearly impossible even for the most devout to pray day and night without cessation the weakness of the flesh requiring certain intervals for refreshment and repose the New Caledonians have devised an ingenious method of continuing their orisons at the shrine in their own absence. For this purpose they make rods or poles of various lengths carve and paint them rudely wind bandages of native cloth about them and having fastened large shells to the top set them up either in the sepulchral caves or in the place of skulls. In setting up one of these poles the native will pray for the particular favour which he desires to obtain from the ancestors for himself or his family; and he appears to think that in some way the pole will continue to recite the prayer in the ears of the ghosts when he himself has ceased to speak and has returned to his customary avocations. And when members of his family visit the shrine and see the pole they will be reminded of the particular benefit which they are entitled to expect from the souls of the departed. A certain rude symbolism may be traced in the materials and other particulars of these prayer-posts. A hard wood signifies strength; a tall pole overtopping all the rest imports a wish that he for whose sake it was erected may out-top all his rivals; and so on.19
Religion combined with magic in the ritual of the New Caledonians.
Sacred stones endowed with special magical virtues.
The “stone of famine”
We may assume with some probability that in the mind of the natives such resemblances are not purely figurative or symbolic but that they are also magical in intention being supposed not merely to represent the object of the supplicant's prayer but actually on the principle of homoeopathic or imitative magic to contribute to its accomplishment. If that is so we must conclude that the religion of these savages as manifested in their prayers to the spirits of the dead is tinctured with an alloy of magic; they do not trust entirely to the compassion of the spirits and their power to help them; they seek to reinforce their prayers by a certain physical compulsion acting through the natural properties of the prayer-posts. This interpretation is confirmed by a parallel use which these people make of certain sacred stones which apart from their possible character as representatives of the ancestors seem to be credited with independent magical virtues by reason of their various shapes and appearances. For example there is a piece of polished jade which is called “the stone of famine” because it is supposed capable of causing either dearth or abundance but is oftener used by the sorcerer to create or at least to threaten dearth in order thereby to extort presents from his alarmed fellow tribesmen. This stone is kept in a burial-ground and derives its potency from the dead. The worshipper or the sorcerer (for he combines the two characters) who desires to cause a famine repairs to the burial-ground uncovers the stone rubs it with certain plants and smears one half of it with black pigment. Then he makes a small hole in the ground and inserts the blackened end of the stone in the hole. Next he prays to the ancestors that nothing may go well with the country. If this malevolent rite should be followed by the desired effect the sorcerer soon sees messengers arriving laden with presents who entreat him to stay the famine. If his cupidity is satisfied he rubs the stone again inserts it upside down in the ground and prays to his ancestors to restore plenty to the land.20
Stones to drive people mad.
Again certain rough unhewn stories which are kept in the sacred places are thought to possess the power of driving people mad. To effect this purpose the sorcerer has only to strike one of them with the branches of a certain tree and to pray to the ancestral spirits that they would deprive so-and-so of his senses.21
Stones to blight coco-nut palms
Stones to make bread-fruit trees bear fruit.
Again there is a stone which they use in cursing a plantation of coco-nut palms. The stone resembles a blighted coco-nut and no doubt it is this resemblance which is supposed to endow it with the magical power to blight coco-nut trees. In order to effect his malicious purpose the sorcerer rubs the stone in the cemetery with certain leaves and then deposits it in a hole at the foot of a coco-nut tree covers it up and prays that all the trees of the plantation may be barren. This ceremony combines the elements of magic and religion. The prayer which is no doubt addressed to the spirits of the dead though this is not expressly affirmed is purely religious; but the employment of a stone resembling a blighted coco-nut for the purpose of blighting the coco-nut palms is a simple piece of homoeopathic or imitative magic in which as usual the desired effect is supposed to be produced by an imitation of it. Similarly in order to make a bread-fruit tree bear fruit they employ two stones one of which resembles the unripe and the other the ripe fruit. These are kept as usual in a cemetery; and when the trees begin to put forth fruit the small stone resembling the unripe fruit is buried at the foot of one of the trees with the customary prayers and ceremonies; and when the fruits are more mature the small stone is replaced by the larger stone which resembles the ripe fruit. Then when the fruits on the tree are quite ripe the two stones are removed and deposited again in the cemetery: they have done their work by bringing to maturity the fruits which they resemble. This again is a piece of pure homoeopathic or imitative magic working by means of mimicry; but the magical virtue of the stones is reinforced by the spiritual power of the dead for the stones have been kept in a cemetery and prayers have been addressed to the souls of the departed.22
The “stone of the sun”
Again the natives have two disc-shaped stones each with a hole in the centre which together make up what they call “the stone of the sun.” No doubt it is regarded as a symbol of the sun and as such it is employed to cause drought in a ceremony which like the preceding combines the elements of magic and religion. The sun-stone is kept in one of the sacred places and when a sorcerer wishes to make drought with it he brings offerings to the ancestral spirits in the sacred place. These offerings arc purely religious but the rest of the ceremony is purely magical. At the moment when the sun rises from the sea the magician or priest whichever we choose to call him (for he combines both characters) passes a burning brand in and out of the hole in the sun-stone while he says “I kindle the sun in order that he may eat up the clouds and dry up our land so that it shall no longer bear fruit.” Here the putting of fire to the sun-stone is a piece of pure homoeopathic or imitative magic designed to increase the burning heat of the sun by mimicry.23
Stones to make rain.
On the contrary when a wizard desires to make rain he proceeds as follows. The place of sacrifice is decorated and enclosed with a fence and a large quantity of provisions is deposited in it to be offered to the ancestors whose skulls stand there in a row. Opposite the skulls the wizard places a row of pots full of a medicated water and he brings a number of sacred stones of a rounded form or shaped like a skull. Each of these stones after being rubbed with the leaves of a certain tree is placed in one of the pots of water. Then the wizard recites a long litany or series of invocations to the ancestors which may be summarised thus: “We pray you to help us in order that our country may revive and live anew.” Then holding a branch in his hand he climbs a tree and scans the horizon if haply he may descry a cloud be it no larger than a man's hand. Should he be fortunate enough to see one he waves the branch to and fro to make the cloud mount up in the sky while he also stretches out his arms to right and left to enlarge it so that it may hide the sun and overcast the whole heaven.24 Here again the prayers and offerings are purely religious; while the placing of the skull-shaped stones in pots full of water and the waving of the branch to bring up the clouds are magical ceremonies designed to produce rain by mimicry and compulsion.
Stones to make or mar sea-voyages.
Again the natives have a stone in the shape of a canoe which they employ in ceremonies for the purpose of favouring or hindering navigation. If the sorcerer desires to make a voyage prosperous he places the canoe-shaped stone before the ancestral skulls with the right side up; but if he wishes to cause his enemy to perish at sea he places the canoe-shaped stone bottom upwards before the skulls which on the principles of homoeopathic or imitative magic must clearly make his enemy's canoe to capsize and precipitate its owner into the sea. Whichever of these ceremonies he performs the wizard accompanies the magical rite as usual with prayers and offerings of food to the ancestral spirits who are represented by the skulls.25
Stones to help fishermen.
The natives of the Isle of Pines subsist mainly by fishing; hence they naturally have a large number of sacred stones which they use for the purpose of securing the blessing of the ancestral spirits on the business of the fisherman. Indeed each species of fish has its own special sacred stone. These stones are kept in large shells in a cemetery. A wizard who desires to make use of one of them paints the stone with a variety of colours chews certain leaves and then breathes on the stone and moistens it with his spittle. After that he sets up the stone before the ancestral skulls saying “Help us that we may be successful in fishing.” The sacrifices to the spirits consist of bananas sugar-cane and fish never of taros or yams. After the fishing and the sacrificial meal the stone is put back in its place and covered up respectfully.26
Stones to make yams grow.
Lastly the natives of the Isle of Pines cultivate many different kinds of yams and they have a correspondingly large number of sacred stones destined to aid them in the cultivation by ensuring the blessing of the dead upon the work. In shape and colour these stones differ from each other each of them bearing a resemblance real or fanciful to the particular species of yam which it is supposed to quicken. But the method of operating with them is much the same for all. The stone is placed before the skulls wetted with water and wiped with certain leaves. Yams and fish cooked on the spot are offered in sacrifice to the dead the priest or magician saying “This is your offering in order that the crop of yams may be good.” So saying he presents the food to the dead and himself eats a little of it. After that the stone is taken away and buried in the yam field which it is designed to fertilise.27 Here again the prayer and sacrifice to the dead are purely religious rites intended to propitiate the spirits and secure their help; while the burying of the yam-shaped stone in the yam-field to make the yams grow is a simple piece of homoeopathic or imitative magic. Similarly in order to cultivate taros and bananas stones resembling taros and bananas are buried in the taro field or the banana grove and their magical virtue is reinforced by prayers and offerings to the dead.28
The religion of the New Caledonians is mainly a worship of the dead tinctured with magic.
On the whole we may conclude that among the natives of New Caledonia there exists a real worship of the dead and that this worship is indeed the principal element in their religion. The spirits of the dead though they are supposed to spend part of their time in a happy land far away under the sea are nevertheless believed to be near at hand hovering about in the burial-grounds or charnel-houses and embodied apparently in their skulls. To these spirits the native turns for help in all the important seasons and emergencies of life; he appeals to them in prayer and seeks to propitiate them by sacrifice. Thus in his attitude towards his dead ancestors we perceive the elements of a real religion. But as I have just pointed out many rites of this worship of ancestors are accompanied by magical ceremonies. The religion of these islanders is in fact deeply tinged with magic; it marks a transition from an age of pure magic in the past to an age of more or less pure religion in the future.
Evidence as to the religion of the New Caledonians furnished by Dr. G. Turner.
Thus far I have based my account of the beliefs and customs of the New Caledonians concerning the dead on the valuable information which we owe to the Catholic missionary Father Lambert. But as I pointed out his evidence refers not so much to the natives of the mainland as to the inhabitants of certain small islands at the two extremities of the great island. It may be well therefore to supplement his description by some notes which a distinguished Protestant missionary the Rev. Dr. George Turner obtained in the year 1845 from two native teachers one a Samoan and the other a Rarotongan who lived in the south-south-eastern part of New Caledonia for three years.29 Their evidence it will be observed goes to confirm Father Lambert's view as to the general similarity of the religious beliefs and customs prevailing throughout the island.
Material culture of the New Caledonians.
The natives of this part of New Caledonia were divided into separate districts each with its own name and war perpetual war was the rule between the neighbouring communities. They cultivated taro yams coco-nuts and sugar-cane; but they had no intoxicating kava and kept no pigs. They cooked their food in earthenware pots manufactured by the women. In former days their only edge-tools were made of stone and they felled trees by a slow fire smouldering close to the ground. Similarly they hollowed out the fallen trees by means of a slow fire to make their canoes. Their villages were not permanent. They migrated within certain bounds as they planted. A village might comprise as many as fifty or sixty round houses. The chiefs had absolute power of life and death. Priests did not meddle in political affairs.30
Burial customs; preservation of the skulls and teeth.
At death they dressed the corpse with a belt and shell armlets cut off the nails of the fingers and toes and kept them as relics. They spread the grave with a mat and buried all the body but the head. After ten days the friends twisted off the head extracted the teeth to be kept as relics and preserved the skull also. In cases of sickness and other calamities they presented offerings of food to the skulls of the dead. The teeth of the old women were taken to the yam plantations and were supposed to fertilise them; and their skulls were set up on poles in the plantations for the same purpose. When they buried a chief they erected spears at his head fastened a spear-thrower to his fore-finger and laid a club on the top of his grave31 no doubt for the convenience of the ghost.
Prayers to ancestors
“Their gods” we are told “were their ancestors whose relics they kept up and idolised. At one place they had wooden idols before the chiefs’ houses. The office of the priest was hereditary. Almost every family had its priest. To make sure of favours and prosperity they prayed not only to their own gods but also in a general way to the gods of other lands. Fishing planting house-building and everything of importance was preceded by prayers to their guardian spirits for success. This was especially the case before going to battle. They prayed to one for the eye that they might see the spear as it flew towards them. To another for the ear that they might hear the approach of the enemy. Thus too they prayed for the feet that they might be swift in pursuing the enemy; for the heart that they might be courageous; for the body that they might not be speared; for the head that it might not be clubbed; and for sleep that it might be undisturbed by an attack of the enemy. Prayers over arms ready and equipped with their relic charms they went off to battle.”32
“Grand concert of spirits”
The spirits of the dead were believed to go away into the forest. Every fifth month they had a “spirit night” or “grand concert of spirits.” Heaps of food were prepared for the occasion. The people assembled in the afternoon round a certain cave. At sundown they feasted and then one stood up and addressed the spirits in the cave saying “You spirits within may it please you to sing a song that all the women and men out here may listen to your sweet voices.” Thereupon a strange unearthly concert of voices burst on their ears from the cave the nasal squeak of old men and women forming the dominant note. But the hearers outside listened with delight to the melody praised the sweet voices of the singers and then got up and danced to the music. The singing swelled louder and louder as the dance grew faster and more furious till the concert closed in a nocturnal orgy of unbridled license which but for the absence of intoxicants might compare with the worst of the ancient bacchanalia. The singers in the cave were the old men and women who had ensconced themselves in it secretly during the day; but the hoax was not suspected by the children and young people who firmly believed that the spirits of the dead really assembled that night in the cavern and assisted at the sports and diversions of the living.33
Making rain by means of the bones of the dead.
The souls of the departed also kindly bore a hand in the making of rain. In order to secure their co-operation for this beneficent purpose the human rain-maker proceeded as follows. He blackened himself all over exhumed a dead body carried the bones to a cave jointed them and suspended the skeleton over some taro leaves. After that he poured water on the skeleton so that it ran down and fell on the leaves underneath. They imagined that the soul of the deceased took up the water converted it into rain and then caused it to descend in refreshing showers. But the rain-maker had to stay in the cavern fasting till his efforts were crowned with success and when the ghost was tardy in executing his commission the rain-maker sometimes died of hunger. As a rule however they chose the showery months of March and April for the operation of rain-making so that the wizard ran little risk of perishing a martyr to the cause of science. When there was too much rain and they wanted fine weather the magician procured it by a similar process except that instead of drenching the skeleton with water he lit a fire under it and burned it up34 which naturally induced or compelled the ghost to burn up the clouds and let the sun shine out.
Execution of maleficent sorcerers.
Reincarnation of the dead in white people.
Another class of magicians were the maleficent sorcerers who caused people to fall ill and die by burning their personal rubbish. When one of these rascals was convicted of repeated offences of that sort he was formally tried and condemned. The people assembled and a great festival was held. The condemned man was decked with a garland of red flowers; his arms and legs were covered with flowers and shells and his face and body painted black. Thus arrayed he came dashing forward rushed through the people plunged from the rocks into the sea and was seen no more. The natives also ascribed sickness to the arts of white men whom they identified with the spirits of the dead; and assigned this belief as a reason for their wish to kill the strangers.35