From the myths characteristic of savage tribes, from their beliefs, their proverbs, their political and social regulations, it is here sought to gain some general estimate of their powers of intelligence and imagination, their moral ideas, and their religion; subjects naturally of much interest and inevitably of some dispute. For the reason that in savagery as in civilisation there are heights and depths, with more of light here, more of darkness there, it is quite impossible to bring the whole of savage life into focus at once, so that every general conclusion can only be taken as true within limits. The field to be studied is also so large and diversified, that no two minds can expect to derive from it the same impressions, nor to attain to more than partial truth about it. But since the savage can never hope to be heard in court himself, it is only fair to start with certain considerations
which he would be entitled to urge, and which deserve to weigh in any judgment made regarding him.
Statements of very low powers of numeration have been perhaps too hastily taken as indicative of a low state of intelligence; for not only have similar assertions concerning American and Tasmanian tribes by the earliest voyagers proved on subsequent investigation to be erroneous, but many savages have substitutes for our arithmetic which serve them perfectly well, the Loangese, for instance, expressing numbers in narration not by words but by gestures; and the Koossa Kaffirs—very few of whom are said to be able to count above ten—possessing the peculiar faculty of detecting almost at a glance any loss in a herd of cattle which may amount to half a thousand. In the same way the want of a written language is often supplied by symbolism. Puzzle as it might a person of education to read a letter, expressed by a bundle containing a stone, a piece of charcoal, a rag, a pepper-pod, and a grain of parched corn, this would be the way of saying in Yoruba, that, though the sender was as strong and firm as a stone, his prospects were as dark as charcoal; that his clothes were in rags; that he was so feverish with anxiety that his skin burned like pepper, even enough to cause
corn to wither. The Niam-Niam, again, who declare war by hanging on a tree an ear of maize, a fowl’s feather, and an arrow, thereby giving contingent enemies to understand that arrows will avenge any injury done to a single fowl or a single ear of maize, convey their meaning quite as clearly as the most politely framed ultimata of any Foreign Office in Europe.
Many of the beliefs attributed to savages are no fair test of their general reasoning capabilities; for there are degrees of credulity in savage as in civilised life, and reason everywhere struggles to exist. When Pelopidas, on the eve of the battle of Leuctra, received commands in a dream to sacrifice to certain shades a virgin with chestnut hair, there were not wanting soldiers, even in that army of Bœotians, who had the shrewdness to think and the courage to say, that it was absurd to suppose any divine powers could delight in the slaughter and sacrifice of human beings, and that, if there were such, they deserved no reverence. All stages of culture thus have their dissenters, their wicked reasoners. Among the Ahts only the most superstitious now burn the house of a dead man, with all its contents, for fear of offending his ghost. The Zulus, whose sole religion consists in ancestor-worship,
exhibited often in the most ridiculous ceremonies, begin to doubt the power and even the existence of their Amatongo, or dead ancestors, if, when they are sick, their prayers and sacrifices fail to effect a cure.
The Tongan king, Finow, often stated to Mariner his doubts about the existence of the gods, and expressed the opinion, that men were fools for believing all they were told by the priests; whilst his saying, that the gods always favoured that side in war on which there were the greatest chiefs and warriors, recalls the opinion of a far more famous potentate than Finow. The disrespect, indeed, that Finow showed to the Tongan religion was such, that his subjects explained violent thunderstorms as the dissensions of the gods in Bolotu about his punishment. On the other hand, savages are also subject to relapses of superstition, such as with us are dignified by the name of ‘movements;’ an American tribe who traced their origin to a dog were so firmly impressed by a fanatic with the sin of attaching their canine relatives to their sledges, that they resolved to use dogs no more, but women instead, for dragging their possessions.
Savage ideas of morality and of government seem to agree fundamentally with those of more advanced populations, the ideas of the latter differing, indeed,
from the barbaric much as a finished photograph differs from its earlier stage; that is to say, not as essentially different, but as having become ‘fixed’ after a process of development. The idea of the wrongfulness of certain acts starts with the fear of their consequences, that of murder, for instance, from the fear of revenge; nor are such ideas ever separable from the lowest levels of savage life. The sense of the sanctity of property begins with what an individual can make or catch for himself apart from tribal claims; nor is any state of tribal communism so strong as to recognise no private rights in the people or things a man takes in war, the game he kills, or the weapons he fashions. Respect for the aged is one of the best traits of savage life, for the tribes of whom it is asserted seem to outnumber those of whom it is denied. In Equatorial Africa young men never appear before old ones without curtseying nor pass them by without stooping; should they sit in their presence, it is ‘at a humble distance.’ Nor are cases of the abandonment of the aged and infirm conclusive proof of a deficiency of natural affection; one tribe who were accused of so acting are also known to have carried about with them for years a palsied man with great tenderness and attention. Truthfulness, again,
is recognised as a virtue outside the pale of the higher religions, for Mungo Park found it one of the first lessons taught by Mandingo women to their children, and he mentions the case of one mother, whose only consolation on the murder of her son ‘was the reflection that the poor boy in the course of his life had never told an untruth.’
Strange contradictions abound in savage life, extremes of barbarity sometimes co-existing with habits of some refinement. The Ahts, who occasionally sacrifice one of their number to the gods, and till lately deserted their sick and aged, without the excuse of scarcity of food, keep small mats of bark strips for strangers to wipe their feet with, and after meals offer them water and cedar-bark for washing their hands and mouths. They have also a strict etiquette regulating their reception of guests; they observe public ceremonies with extreme formality; their men of rank vie with one another in politeness. The Niam-Niam are generally cannibals, but when several of them drink together ‘they may each be observed to wipe the rim of the drinking-vessel before passing it on.’ The Bachapins, among whom it is said that a murderer incurs no disgrace, yet measure a man’s merit by his industry, and despise a man who does
not work, that is, hunt, for his living. The Aztecs, with their constant and frightful human sacrifices, were so afraid of incurring divine wrath for the blood they spilled in the chase, that they would always preface a hunt by burning incense to their idols, and conclude it by smearing the faces of their divinities with the blood of their game. To turn back from the procession which accompanied the sacrifice of young children to the gods of rain and water rendered a man infamous and incapable of public office; yet death was the penalty for drunkenness in either sex, and ‘it was considered degrading for a person of quality to touch wine at all, even in seasons of festival.’ Similar inconsistencies are common in social regulations, especially in those relating to marriage, stringent laws of prohibited degrees and the strictest etiquette often affording no further evidence of purity of manners. The most barbarous marriage ceremonies are frequently attended with absurd forms of prudery, which it is perhaps impossible to trace to their origin. The instance of the Aleutian islanders, who with the grossest vices connect such notions of propriety as that either a husband or a wife would blush to address the other in the presence of a stranger, is one among many similar illustrations of a side of savage life
which but for parallels in our own social usages might present itself as an inexplicable anomaly.
Better experience has in so many cases dissipated original assertions of an absolute want of religious ideas among savages, that the strongest doubts must be felt of all similar negative propositions. Theology in one of three grades seems rather to be the universal property of mankind, appearing either harmless, as at the beginning or end of its historical career, or in its second and middle stage as identical with all that is abominable and cruel. The classification of mankind on such a basis of division, though it could never aspire to scientific exactness, would afford at least a standard of practical discrimination, by which the relations between Christian and non-Christian communities might to some extent be adjusted; for, by considering any people under one of these three aspects, it would be possible to form some estimate of their aptitude for, or need of, our theology, and of the advisability of our seeking to force it upon them.
Should the principle ever meet with the acceptance it deserves, that missions, like charities, ought to be discriminate, it is not difficult to perceive the direction in which such a truth will be likely some day to receive practical recognition.
For wherever native theology takes the form of cannibalism, sutteeism, human sacrifices, or other rites directly destructive of earthly happiness, there the teaching of missionaries affords the only hope of a speedy reform, the only acquaintance possible for savage tribes with a culture higher than their own, save that which is likely to come to them through the medium of the brandy-bottle or the bayonet. But to send missions to countries like Russia or China, where there exist established systems of religion undefiled by cruelty, violates the first principle of the faith so conveyed, disturbing the peace of families and nations with the curse of religious animosity. When the Jesuits entreated the Chinese Emperor, Young-tching, to reconsider his resolution to proscribe Christianity, there was some reason in the imperial answer: ‘What should you say if I sent a troop of lamas and bonzes to your country, to preach their law there?’ The Taeping rebellion, or civil war, which devastated China for about fifteen years,
desolating hundreds of miles of fair towns and fertile fields, and fought out among massacres, sieges, and famines, of quite indescribable cruelty and horror, owed its impulse distinctly to the working of Christian tracts among the more ignorant classes, followed by a fanatical endeavour to substitute a travesty of Christianity for the older religions; yet the seeds of all this misery are still sown in China, in the name and by the ministers of a religion of Peace, a religion that has for its first and final rule of life the duty of so dealing with others as we should wish them to deal with ourselves.
Cases of the third class, where the state of religious belief is so rudimentary as to be innocuous, are unhappily few; but where such belief has not advanced to the detriment of the general welfare, it would seem the kindest policy not to inspire men, whose lives are spent in the constant perils of the woods or waves, with fears of more malignant spirits than those their own fancy has created for them, nor to teach them the doctrine that, hard and black as this world often proves to them, there is a yet harder and blacker one beyond. There is also some charm in that variety of belief and custom against which we wage unremitting war; and only a tasteless fanaticism can think with pure joy of
the time, when sectarian chapels shall stand on every island of the seas, and Tartarus be taught wherever the sun shines. Rites and beliefs lose the interest which cling to them in their native home as soon as it is sought to transplant them elsewhere, just as flowers lose their fragrance and beauty when once they have been separated from the plant on which they grew. For this reason Puritanism has but little charm out of England; and though it should please our love of uniformity to read (as we may) of a Tahitian chief carrying his Sabbatarian scruples so far as to ask whether, if he saw ripe plantains by his garden-path on Sunday, he might pick and eat them; or of another abstaining from turning a pig out of his garden on Sunday, preferring to let his sugar-canes be devoured; such facts are yet no proof that we make Christians of savages; they only prove that, with some trouble, we may make them imbeciles.
It would be difficult, indeed, to pay too high a tribute to the unselfish efforts of missionaries, now and in past times, directly for the benefit of mankind and indirectly for that of science; yet the question, besides its speculative interest, derives some justification from the general results of missions over the world, and from the melancholy disproportion between
their actual and their merited successes: Whether the welfare and improvement of savage tribes would not be best left to themselves and to time? That they are not incapable of independent improvement there is abundant evidence to show. Sometimes it arises in a tribe from imitation of some neighbouring tribe, more powerful but less barbarous than itself; sometimes from the initiative of some reforming chief of its own. Thus the Comanche Indians of Texas, among whom ‘Christianity had never been introduced,’ abolished, in consequence of their intercourse with tribes less savage than themselves, the inhuman custom of killing a favourite wife at her husband’s funeral. Mariner was himself a witness of the abolition on the Tongan Islands of the custom of strangling the wife of the great Tooitonga chief at his death. It is said, again, to be an indisputable fact, that the Monbuttoos of Africa, whose ‘cannibalism is the most pronounced of all the known nations of Africa,’ have, ‘without any influence from the Mahometan or Christian world, attained to no contemptible degree of external culture.’ Finow, the Tongan king, was a genuine reformer; and there have even been kings of Dahome who have wished the abolition of human sacrifices. Bianswah, the great Chippewya chief, put a stop, by
a treaty of peace with the Sioux, to the horrible practice of burning prisoners alive; and, though the peace between the tribes was often broken, their compact in this respect was never violated. In other instances the modification of older usages points to the operation of reformative tendencies. Thus the Nootka Indians, who used to conclude their hunting festivals with a human sacrifice, subsequently changed the custom into the more lenient one of sticking a boy with knives in various parts of his body. The Zulus abolished the custom of killing slaves with a chief, to prepare food and other things for him in the next world; so that now it is only a tradition with them that formerly when a chief died he did not die alone: ‘when the fire was kindled the chief was put in, and then his servants were chosen and put in after the chief; the great men followed—they were taken one by one.’
It is moreover certain that in some instances savages have arrived spontaneously at no contemptible notions of morality, and that they have often lost their native virtues by their very contact with a higher form of faith. The African Bakwains declared that nothing described by the missionaries as sin had ever appeared to them otherwise, except polygamy; and
the Tongan chiefs (if Mariner may be trusted), when asked what motives they had, beyond their fear of misfortunes in this life, for virtuous conduct, replied, ‘as if they wondered such a question should be asked:’ ‘The agreeable and happy feelings which a man experiences within himself when he does any good action and conducts himself nobly and generously, as a man ought to do.’ The natural virtues attributed to the same people include honour, justice, patriotism, friendship, meekness, modesty, conjugal fidelity, parental and filial love, patience in suffering, forbearance of temper, respect for rank and for age. The Khonds of India, much more savage than the Tongans (their chief virtues consisting in killing an enemy, dying as a warrior, or living as a priest), yet account as sinful acts the refusal of hospitality, the breach of an oath or promise, a lie, or the violation of a pledge of friendship. The virtues the Maoris now possess they are said to have possessed before we came among them, namely honesty, self-respect, truthfulness; and the belief that these virtues are even ‘fading under their assumed Christianity’ recalls the tradition of certain American tribes, that their lives and manners were originally less barbarous, the Odjibwas, for instance, actually tracing the increase of murders, thefts,
falsehood, and disobedience to parents, to the advent of the Christian whites.
It is also remarkable that in several instances savages have of themselves hit upon those very helps to the maintenance of virtue which all Christian Churches have found so efficacious. For we find existing among them as religious and moral observances not only Fasting and Confession, but occasionally even Sermons. In the Tongan Islands fonos, or public assemblies, were held, at which the king would address his subjects, not only on agriculture but on morals and politics; and the lower chiefs had fonos also for the similar benefit of their feudal subordinates. In America, also, some tribes observed feasts at which the young were addressed on their moral duties, being admonished to be attentive and respectful to the old, to obey their parents, never to scoff at the decrepit or deformed, to be charitable and hospitable. Not only were such precepts dwelt on at great length, but enforced by the examples of good and bad individuals, just as they might be in London or Rome. Such considerations, indeed, prove nothing against the additional good that missionaries may do; but they add some force to the thought that had a tithe of the energy, the devotion, the suffering, the money, that has
been lavished on coaxing savages to be baptized, been spent on promoting international peace in Europe, wars might by this time be as extinct, belong as purely to a past state of things, as judicial combats, the thumbscrew, or the knout.
The vexed question, whether savage life represents a primitive or a decadent condition, whether it represents what man at first everywhere was, or only what he may become, has throughout the following chapters been avoided, that controversy being regarded as ‘laid’ by the exhaustive researches of Mr. Tylor and other writers. But whilst the state of the lowest modern savages is taken as the nearest approximation we have of the primitive state from which mankind has risen, it is not pretended that the state of any particular tribe may not be one to which it has fallen. As the low position of many Bushmen tribes is quite explicable by their long border-warfare with the Dutch, and the consequent cruelties they were exposed to, or as the state of many Brazilian savages may be traced to similar contact with the Portuguese, so any case of extreme savagery may be the result of causes, whose operation has no historical or written proof to attest them. The gigantic stone images on Easter Island, or the
great earthworks in America, are among the proofs, that but for such material traces of its existence it is possible for a whole civilisation to vanish, and to leave only the veriest savages on the soil where it flourished. As we know that Europe was once as purely savage as parts of Africa are still, and can conceive the cycle of events restoring it to barbarism, so in the depths of time it may have happened in places where no suspicion of such a history is possible. As the surface of the earth seems subjected to processes of elevation and subsidence, land and sea constantly alternating their dominion, so it may be with civilisation, destined to no permanent home on the earth, but subsiding here to reappear there, and varying its level as it varies its latitude.
As the practical infinity of past time makes it impossible to calculate the influence exercised in different parts of the world by migrations, by conquests, or by commerce, except within a very limited period, so it precludes any definite belief in ethnological divisions, and relegates the question of the unity of the human race, like that of its origin, to the limbo of profitless discussion. No characteristic has yet been found by which mankind can be classified
distinctly into races; and with all the differences of colour, hair, skull, or language, which now suffice for purposes of nomenclature, it remains true that there is nothing to choose between the hypothesis that we constitute only one species and the hypothesis that we constitute several. The world is so old as to admit of divergences from a single original type quite as wide as any that exist; whilst, on the other hand, similarity of customs (such, for instance, as that Tartars in Asia, Sioux Indians in America, and Kamschadals should all regard it as a sin to touch a fire with a knife), fail us as a proof of a unity of origin, in the face of our ignorance of prehistoric antiquity.
That the works which have treated before, and better, of the subjects included in the following chapters should have exercised no deterrent effect in treating of them again, must find its excuse in the general interest which those works have produced for the studies in question, and of which the present work is but a sign and consequence. The reader has only himself to blame, if, having read the works on the same or similar subjects by Mr. Tylor, Mr. Spencer, and Sir John Lubbock, or those in German by Peschel, Wuttke, or Waitz, he troubles himself
with yet another book which seeks rather to illustrate than to exhaust the many interesting problems connected with savage life; but the present writer, whilst under the deepest obligations to the labours of his predecessors—without which his own would have been impossible—has not studied simply to recapitulate their conclusions, but has sought rather to arrive at such results as the evidence forced upon him, independently as far as possible of existing theories or of the authority upon which they rest. Should he have succeeded in making anyone think better than before, with more interest and sympathy, of those outcasts of the world whom we designate as savage, something at least will have been done to claim for them a kindlier treatment and respect than in popular estimation they either deserve or obtain.