From J. Stanley Gardiner (1898), "The Natives of Rotuma," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:407-410.
III. PHYSICAL AND MORAL CHARACTERISTICS.
Physically the people are scarcely a fine race, though many of them would compare favourably with the Samoans. The average height of twenty men, whom I measured, was 5 feet 7 inches, and of a similar number of women 5 feet 4 1/2 inches. It was, however, noticeable that the older men as a rule were bigger and taller than the younger. Muscularly many of the men are well developed, but few have the large and well-shaped limbs of the Samoan. Hands and feet are generally noticeably small. Faces vary commonly, but all possess characteristically overhanging eyebrows, and thickish lips are not an unusual feature. The mouth is large, and the cheek-bones are often somewhat prominent. The nose is usually rather flattened and broad, while the forehead is as a rule high. The hair is black, straight, and somewhat lank; there is very little of it, though, about the face and body. The colour of the skin is a light brown, varying in tint according to exposure to the sun; under the sulu, or loin-cloth, the colour is exceedingly light, and might be called a sunburnt white. The men for the last fifty years have left the island in great numbers as sailors, usually at a very early age. Indeed, it was, and is, considered a disgrace not to have been furou, or foreign. Possibly this has given them a round-shouldered appearance and a very bad walk, as both are absent in the oldest men. The men, too, vary far more than do the women, who when young have noticeably round, soft, full, smiling, and pleasing countenances. They have a tendency to stoutness, but never the grossness of the Samoan, and their necks are well set on their shoulders. Their breasts are large, but only get slightly pendulous after childbirth. The pelvis is conspicuously broad, and the legs are muscular. After the age of thirty this appearance goes off; and at fifty they have sunken cheeks and eyes, shrunken breasts, and are often appallingly thin, while the men retain their good looks to the last, and, if anything, improve on their appearance as they grow older.
Here and there individuals could be picked out typical of Samoa and Tonga; but I have seen none, save direct descendants of Fijians, that had curly hair or any appearance approximating to that of the Melanesian. On the other hand, in features some come very near to the Chinese and Japanese, but they are always far more muscular and bigger in body. They more nearly approximate to the Gilbert islanders than any other people that I have seen, but the expression of their countenances is more open, bright, and less cunning.
In character they are gentle and kind to one another as well as to strangers. Their kindness and attention to all children is extraordinary. Nothing is too good for them or too much trouble to do. Castigation is unknown; their sole method of correction is by laughing and making fun of them. The old, as long as they don't get ill, are well taken care of, but if they were ill, were formerly much neglected and even allowed to die without any notice being taken of them. They are keenly sensitive to ridicule and sneering. The greatest punishment that can be inflicted is ridicule; I have seen natives slink into the bush to avoid such, when people were about to pass them. If they are telling a story or legend, the least sneer will stop them at once, or make them bring it to an abrupt close, and they cannot, as a rule, be induced to continue in the sneerer's presence. There is no mean with them; they like well and hate well. If a chief is liked, they will do whatever he wants, without treating him with too much respect; if he is not, he will be treated with every mark of respect to his face, but as soon as he is gone will be laughed at, and nothing will be done. Fairness and justice in all dealings will be respected. Such a man they will not try to cheat; but if they are once cheated, they think themselves dishonoured until they have cheated their cheater still more in return.
They have the faksoro. If a man, say, wants a pig for a feast, he goes to another who has plenty and asks him for one. He cannot well refuse, but in his turn is entitled to ask for something at some future time. The custom, fortunately, is seldom abused. I was once asked for a sovereign in this way; I gave it at once, and as the old man had been very good in telling me stories, did not intend to ask for a return. Shortly before I left he reminded me, and asked why did I buy a pig for a certain feast, which I gave, when I should have sent to him for one. I told him I wanted nothing, but shortly before I left received a fine Rotuman mat. Presents are seldom given now except some return is expected; real spontaneous generosity among themselves is quite unknown, but the beggar is never refused.
They are honest to a degree. If a man should pluck a cocoanut off another man's land, he will always tell him of it. The origin, I fear, of this is the superstition that if a person touches or eats the food of another, the other has the power to kill him, if he knows of it, by its means. As a rule they are good-tempered, but, when cross, get surly. Lying is a fine art among them; they try to say what they think you would like, and thus I have accepted no legend from less than three sources. The people got to learn this as I roundly accused them of it, and one man who had told me, in company with another white man, a long story, came presumably deliberately to me the following day and told me he had made it up. On inquiry, too, I found out that such was really the case.
Morality cannot be judged by our laws. Till they were married they could do what they liked. After sixty years of missionary enterprise it is much the same. Indeed, the old men informed me that the stern laws and fines of the missionaries did no good, but really accentuated the evil. Then, they say, adultery was unknown, but now it is common with both sexes. They must have been, indeed, a really moral race, as prostitution for money or gifts was, according to all white men, quite unknown. The grosser forms of immorality were unheard of, and are looked upon with the greatest abhorrence.
Faith they had not; their own religion was founded merely on fear of the atua, who had to be propitiated; their good spirit was entirely neglected. Now their religion is founded merely on the fear of hell; it is continually preached, to the exclusion almost entirely of the love of God. They subscribe liberally to it, but this is due to vanity, and that alone. Among the Roman CatholicsÑin justice be it saidÑthere are no subscriptions, and instances of single-mindedness are by no means rare. They were really a brave people, in war the two sides coming to pitched battles, and not merely depending on their cunning. They swim from infancy, and there is an instance on record of two men diving through the surf in a strong undercurrent and for over an hour supporting a white man. When he was at last picked up, they had to be themselves hauled into the boat, both much bruised and absolutely exhausted. Ambition, jealousy, and miserliness, with the crimes that they give rise to, are practically unknown. The people are clever and sharp at learning anything, but have little inventive faculty. They show considerable skill in imitating any object, but the invention of any neat contrivance, however small, is out of the question. Their habits are cleanly in the extreme. Both sexes daily wash themselves all over with fresh water and soap. The women wash themselves, in addition, morning and evening in the sea. Formerly, they used a red earth, which lathers slightly with water. It was a not inconsiderable source of profit to the islet of Uea, where it is quite abundant. Bathing in public without the kukuluga, or sulu, round the waist is absolutely unheard of, and would be much looked down upon.
The people are generally very sociable, and do not care to do anything alone; thus they combine readily for fishing, planting, or feasting. Ordinarily after a meal of some sort in the morning the men go to the planting grounds, where they remain till about 3 p.m., when they come home, each with a couple of baskets of food, which they then proceed to cook. The women fetch the water from the wells, look after the children, and perhaps go fishing on the reef, or join together in the making of mats. Much of their time is spent in gossip. After the evening meal the old men very generally meet in one another's houses and talk or tell stories till the early hours, while the young play various games on the sand, when the moon is in its second and third quarters, but in the other quarters meet and sing or dance their own maka in each other's houses.