From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, June 4, 2012

The Accidental Ethnographer (2e)—Ocean and Isle: The Tongan Archipelago

One year ago on Round and Square (4 June 2011)—Living and Learning: Rules and Regulations 
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The Accidental Ethnographer." (Coming Soon)
Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7
[a] Tonga RF
I gave a lecture at the Doylestown Historical Society on June 1st, as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's big bicentennial celebration. The subject was the American explorer and evangelist William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). This is part of a larger project that I am working on this summer in Doylestown with the help of Beloit College anthropology major Megan Nyquist '14. As I did a few weeks ago in preparation for another lecture (on another subject), I am posting some of Geil's own writings. This was enormously helpful to me the last time I tried it, and I think it is worth another try. I will, over the course of my summer research, post my lecture and some of the early results of the research Megan and I are doing. In the meantime, though, I want to start the "Accidental Ethnographer" series with William Geil's own words. I will post two or three readings from each of Geil's dozen books over the course of May and June.

[b] Shoreview RF
William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.

He wrote about it all, and he took pictures. The former is not without problem; the latter is easily his legacy. It is all a fascinating picture of an American abroad in a peculiarly resonant time in American history—from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the end of World War I. This series will grow as my research does, but let's get started with Geil's own words—a little from each of his published books.
 ***  ***
                                      He should be studied in his native haunts, and not described in a 
                                      situation in which he was never intended by nature to cut a figure.  
                                      To do so is misleading.[1]
[c] Repeatedly RF
Wow. William Edgar Geil is never more compassionate and understanding—although, to be sure, some passages equal the tone of this—than in the last paragraphs of today's snippet from his second big book, Ocean and Isle.[1] As I have stated repeatedly in these posts—and in public lectures from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania—William Edgar Geil was complicated. One moment, he seems to be propping up tired institutions and racial images that were problematic even in his own day. The next moment, he is urging us to look at (for example) the Tongans in a way that is easily as compassionate and understanding as any early twenty-first century anthropologist might urge.

You see (don't worry; you will hear this often on these "pages") William Edgar Geil was complicated. Every human life is pretty complex. Geil's was especially so. Why that might be is still a question to be pursued on the topical screens of "The Accidental Ethnographer." Let's take a look at Geil's description and defense of the Tongans and their archipelago.

Ocean and Isle—The Tongan Archipelago
William Edgar Geil (1902) 
[d] Islandreef RF
The one thing that seems to have impressed itself on the minds of the natives was the visit of Captain Cook. Though not the discoverer of Tonga, yet his visit seems to have been the dawning of a new era. Many hold the Friendly Islander to be of Asiatic origin, and offer as proof their customs—having cities of refuge, circumcision, and many of the hygienic regulations of the Holy Scriptures. The population of Tonga was evidently much greater in days that are gone than at present, the remains of numerous towns and graveyards testifying to the fact, and not only so, since Captain Cook's time they have decreased one-third. The cause of the recent decrease was no doubt due to the introduction of European diseases and epidemics, the whooping cough, influenza, and measles carrying off hundreds and hundreds. But the scourge in the islands is pulmonary diseases. Infantile mortality has been great, numbers have been carried off by zymotic diseases caused by unwholesome food, and another great cause has been the intermarrying. Strange to say, in times of scarcity the population seems to have increased. This is all concerning the past. At the present time the population of Tonga is increasing, and there is reason to believe that much of the above has been partially or entirely overcome. From 1860 to 1880 very wonderful changes were wrought in the government of the kingdom and in the whole fabric of the laws. The king at first issued a short code of laws copied after the Mosaic laws of Tahiti, the missionaries appointing certain chiefs as judges, but as their pay was the prisoners they got, little could be said of the justice they administered. The king, on the advice of the missionaries, set his people free, and to do so drew up a short constitution. This led to the first political battle in Tonga between the king and the people versus the chiefs...

[e] Tongafloral RF
There was also established a complete system of education, free and compulsory. It was made compulsory for every boy and girl up to fourteen years of age to attend school, and then could only quit after passing certain examinations. This is reasonable, for the Tongan alphabet has but seventeen letters. The Tongans are splendid mathematicians, but poor linguists, both in speaking and learning a language. The visitor is constantly being surprised from the time he comes in sight of Nokulofa, the capital of the kingdom, and while the large ship is tying up to a splendid wharf running out to deep water, and right through his stay. The progress made here has been simply marvelous, and there is evidence enough to lead one to conclude that in coming years still greater advancement will be made. The good king, under whom so much of this progress was made, is referred to by saint and sinner alike as a noble Christian man, having some faults I suppose like most everybody except the destructive critics, but altogether a right-meaning and a right-doing native prince of extraordinary sagacity, and the suggestions made by the missionaries were largely carried out.

The hermit crab is the armorial design on the coat of arms of the Tongan Wesleyan Institution—Tobou College. (The hermit crab never has a shell for its own, but can go into any shell and adjust itself to the surroundings.) The motto is: "The Tongaman's castle is his mind." In everyone of the 130 or more villages of the Friendly Islands is a church and schoolhouse, and some have two each. These are the proudest, most energetic, and most war-like of all the Polynesians. I may also say the most mathematical native race I have yet met. The Tongan youth will swallow a book of Euclid as promptly and I venture to say as thoroughly, as the average student in the American institutions. In the bounds of the Protestant congregations there is neither poverty nor illiteracy. One must be ready for surprises when visiting this horseback riding, warrior race, for, of the Tongans, one in every forty writes shorthand. Now tell me where can a similar condition of things be found, and let us see the visage of the modern literary scamp who will spend four hours in such an archipelago while his boat is shifting cargo and then insert in the permanent form of a so-called book a disparaging account of the habits and doings of the most intellectual of all the South Sea islanders...

[f] Ardent RF
The Tongan is not lazy. Some people have an idolatrous worship for money. The Israelites had a golden calf; the Greeks a golden Jupiter, but not so the Tongans. Men often go on toiling and moiling, eager to get rich, and then as ardent to get richer. Not so the Tongan, for money he will sell his surplus cocoanuts, fish, yams, bananas, the results of honest toil. Not simply sufficient coin for their personal needs, but they will work hard beyond that for money to give for charity. These twenty thousand all-told islanders have given as much as 100,000 dol. for philanthropic objects in one year. And regularly give into the thousands about 20,000 a year. The elder Cato made money by buying young half-fed slaves at a low price, then, after fattening them and training them to work, sold them. Brutus, in the Isle of Cyprus, loaned money at 48 per cent. interest, but these Tongans give, give, give. Are they less civilized then we Americans who have a world-wide reputation for "loving the almighty dollar," we of whom it is truthfully said,
                                                                                     "Mammon has led them on,
                                                                Mammon, the least erect of all the spirits
                                                                That fell from heaven."
When the Tongans has enough for needs and gifts he stops and maybe sings. He surely does not get drunk to use up his leisure hours.... 

There is little doubt but that the professing of Christianity by a majority of the Polynesian leads the vicious and careless to give erroneous accounts of them.

[g] Where's Slotho? RF
Look at that singular South American animal, the sloth. I venture to conjecture it would neve have been given that name had it been properly observed in its native element first. But, taken from the trees, where nature insists it shall live and die, and placed upon the ground, it makes but slow and tedious progress, and cries out constantly with pain. Having no soles to its feet, and the limbs not formed to support the body on its feet, the belly drags on the soil, the poor thing in that unnatural attitude is in constant misery. Like the albatross, the legs of which bled on the deck when brought aboard the "Monowai," crossing the Tasman Sea, so the sloth cannot be fairly judged by its movements when out of its element. Look at it in its own dominion and you will see it hanging on the limbs of trees, the long claws of the feet serving admirably for that purpose. It will pass along rapidly, both up and down, and from tree to tree. When asleep, he supports himself from a branch parallel to the earth. In his wild state the sloth spends his whole time in the trees, there he lives, and there he dies. There is a singularity about his hair, different from that of all other animals; thick and coarse at the extremities and gradually tapers to the roots, where it becomes fine as a spider's web.

[h] Zwei-toe RF
Even to get a drink he is not accustomed to leave the trees, but will dexterously descend toward the outer edge of a carefully selected branch until it bends down to the water's edge, whereupon he quenches his thirst, still hanging on to the underside of the limb. He should be studied in his native haunts, and not described in a situation in which he was never intended by nature to cut a figure. To do so is misleading. The chameleon I, in Western Asia, placed on a section of bright red cloth, did not turn that color, for there is in nature no object of that hue sufficiently large for it to rest on; it turned mottle green, ground, and bark-color, but it was never made to satisfy the desires of novelty-loving travellers, nor to display antics for their amusement; now to declare from the red cloth experiment that the creature fails to change color according to what it is on might be a very misleading statement, and unfair to the animal. Chas. Wateron says, "The sloth is as much as a loss to proceed on its journey upon a smooth and level floor, as a man would be had he to walk a mile in stilts upon a line of feather beds."

They Polynesian is not to be judged fairly unless in his native element. Let him be among his cocoanuts, yams, bananas, and chimneyless homes and churches; give him the advantage of his accustomed environment, and he will be found active and industrious. To transplant him to Wall Street and then hesitate to commend him because he fails to arouse enthusiasm for his stock gambling qualities, is to be what Carlyle terms an "entire blockhead." Let none have the insolent address to assert the Tongans, Samoans, or Fijians lazy. They are a modest, sober, affable, domestic folk, not tardy in hospitality, in the lavishments which suggesting that virtue as displayed by the Romans in the early days, before the love of gambling and inordinate show started and finally consummated the decay of the nation. In the Roman lack of appreciation of merit or misfortune, or the stranger who was rewarded with generosity, lay the seeds of disintegration and decay—those destroying forces are not visibly at work in Tonga.[2]

Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7 
[1] William Edgar Geil, Ocean and Isle (Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902), 139.
[2] Ocean and Isle, 131-140.

Geil, William Edgar. Ocean and Isle. Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902.
[i] Visibly at work RF

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