A familiar trope in both American and European anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century was the discussion of the ‘extinction’ of the savage tribes. It was taken as a kind of gospel that while civilized races in the modern world would increase, “savage” and “primitive” races would diminish and decline over time. Of course, there were those who believed that modernity was not beneficial to modern man, but even though who considered modern conditions to be degenerate, also underscored that “savage” tribes were quickly declining. For the emerging social sciences, the true problem in the early years of the 20th century was not the existence of the decline, but its causes.
In the early 20th century, the decline of savage peoples was bound in theories of population generally, which, as with most turn of the century anthropology, has not invited critical commentary. Everyone had a theory concerning the decline of “savages” “primitives” or “natives.” Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), to take one example, was a German geographer. He is known today if at all for influencing the Nazi expansionist ideology of lebensraum. Ratzel underscored that civilization advanced and progressed as population increased, as societies neared each other, they would benefit from the commerce of ideas, the commerce of commerce and increased competition. This means that somewhat paradoxically, Ratzel was both a proponent of modernization and an advocate “free space” for ethnic development. As societies grew in complexity and refinement, those societies would too have their populations increase. As importantly, Ratzel addressed the nearly ancient problem of the interconnection between luxury, commerce and the vitality and nations. Unlike a number of early modern and enlightenment theorists, Raztel underscored that the advancement of society away from a kind of agrarian, marital virtue and social structure, would not be the death of that society, but the reason for its flourishing.
If, in the minds of many anthropologists, modern societies could benefit from the increase in population, modernity was however not treating “savages” well. As Ratzel explained (in a translated excerpt in the Source Book for Social Origins, an early and important compendium of anthropological texts for students), savage peoples “offer examples of shrinkage and retrogression” (pg. 46.) These populations were the victims of famine and warfare. Ratzel continued that the thinness of the population itself was the reason behind its decline: “their smaller numbers are more readily brought to the point of dwindling or vanishing,” with each individual in these small communities rapidly depleting his energies. An individual at a “lower stage of civilization” did not have the advantages of a diversified economy; he was frugal and often visited by dearth. Thus, it was no accident that primitive peoples were disappearing. It was not simply contact with “superior races” which lead to the extinction of barbarous peoples. More specifically, Ratzel detailed, it was a combination of warfare and self-destruction. The two were often connected: warfare, murder and kidnappings lead to imbalances between the sexes, with individuals in the state of nature not having any of the benefits of modern sanitation, leading to a constant diminution of their numbers (pg. 46-7.)
This discussion achieved a new urgency with the disappearance and the diminution of the populations of primitive peoples in the south Pacific and elsewhere. William Fremont Blackman (who became an American university president) bemoaned that among the indigenous Hawaiians the laws of Malthusian population did not hold. Even with a plentiful food supply, the numbers of indigenous still decreased (The Making of Hawaii: A Study in Social Evolution) due to war and infanticide, cannibalism and human sacrifice (210-11.) Important too were the birth and death rates, with the birth rate low and the death rate high among the Hawaiians, with many indigenous having few or now children (212.)
Henry Ling Roth accounted for the disappearance of Tasmanian aborigines (which contemporary aborigines of Tasmania would point out is incorrect; they have not disappeared) due to the genocidal warfare of extermination undertaken by Europeans. This was known to Roth even in the 1890s: “the war between the two races was considered by the colonists to be one of extermination” (The Aborigines of Tanzania, pg. 170 and following. ) Ling continues that “one European had a pickle tub in which he put the ears of all the blacks he shot,” with colonists organizing large hunting parties for aborigines. Other settlers systematically enslaved and abused the rest. The “Black War” and other such conflicts have been the topic of considerable discussion among contemporary historians and journalists in recent years, as it has become clear that aborigines remain (and continue to suffer discrimination) and that revisionist historians and politicians are now trying to revise in order to erase past genocidal acts.
Beginning in the 1890s, there was a considerable disturbance in the anthropological community over the depopulation of the Melanesian islands as well, more than likely connected to the widespread anxiety over the disappearance of “primitives” “natives” and “savages” generally. It is here that W.H. R. Rivers and the Cambridge Mind becomes significant.
Considering that many of the foundation anthropological and ethnological studies were done on the Torres Straits, this caused early social scientists no considerable amount of embarrassment. Such period studies do display a certain sensitivity, but there is a fair degree of ethnocentrism, parochialism and bias, as would be expected. Many British (and some American) anthropologists knew of the areas around Australia, the Torres Straits and Papua New Guinea (the latter also being subject to intense anthropological study by British anthropologists before the First World War, with initial excursions into the interior occurring in the 1910s. This lead to interesting work by Robert Wood Williamson and others)
A compendium of sorts was published in 1922 Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia. The collection underscores that the area described had been until fifteen years ago little touched by outside European influences. But there was no doubt that outside influences had had an “so destructive an effect upon the native culture and upon the welfare of the people” (Essays, pg. 2) and to suggest remedies for improvement.
Felix Speiser (1880-1949), an acknowledged expert in “Pacific cultures” who attempted in his study of native cultures to adjudicate the discussion between diffusionists and their detractors (“In Memoriam Felix Speiser”), spent much time blaming the Melanesians themselves. Some anthropologists viewed “primitives” as mostly causing their own decline through destructive practices (such as the “killing of widows”) as well as “decadence.” Speiser detailed, “Much harm has resulted from the fact that latterly not only the chiefs’ wives were killed, but all widows. It is evident that this custom, by embracing all ranks, jeopardized the race before the arrival of the first missionaries” (32.) However Speiser underscored that contrary to the opinions of many ethnographers, vices such as infanticide, inbreeding and prostitution were not the cause of the decline in the numbers of Melanesians.
Speiser observed that Melanesians married out enough so as to avoid inbreeding: “It is very rarely indeed that the bounds are crossed, and when they are, the irregularity is recognized and the offenders are treated as outcasts” with the considerable pressures of social selection having developed against “consanguineous” pairings (pg. 35.) Neither was primitive warfare been the cause of the diminution in the native population, as the island was densely populated before the arrival of white colonists. Only with the introduction of non-native weapons, such as rifles, did warfare among villagers become truly deadly (37.)
Likewise, much damage was done by white settlers who did much to destroy, through their carelessness, the belief systems and the values of the natives. . Accordingly, “he entered with impunity the most holy places; he was present at the most awful ceremonies, and handled the most sacred objects, which hitherto only natives of the highest ranks had been allowed to see — and he always came out unscathed. He proved himself superior to the religious system of the people on every occasion” (38.) As a consequence, belief systems crumbled. This lead to after contact with white settlers, a marked increase in prostitution, immorality and other degenerate behaviors, as social solidarity diminished. This was Rivers’ point as well. In the Melanesian communities, “all the cords which had united the people into a community and a tribe under a recognized head were snapped” (39.) Speiser observed that such was the influence of white colonists that among the greatest effects (and the reasons behind the depopulation of Melanesia) were not the natives themselves but the dissolution of group and community adhesion brought about by whites.
W.H.R. Rivers approached the problem of the depopulation of Melanesia along the same lines. Rivers began his essay by relating in some detail the sorrow of the ravages of disease, particularly dysentery and to (in one case a volcanic eruption) (see pgs. 85 to 87.) Rivers did not support the thesis that the depopulation of Melanesia was due to the failures of the natives own culture. Instead of an “original decadence” (in the form of polygamy or “cross-cousin” marriage (meaning marriage between the children of a brother and sister) Rivers proposed that the population was greatly weakened by the diseases brought by white settlers, to which they had no natural immunity (90.) Another reason for the decline in the population was the introduction of so-called “social poisons” by white colonists such as opium and alcohol. However among the true reasons for the decline in the population were the destruction of the Melanesian way of life by the European colonists, through such measures as the introduction of European-style clothing and the introduction of European style dwellings (88-90). More important than even these changes were the revolution in the culture of the Melanesians brought about by their new European overseers.
Rivers noted that many customs which were thought to be totally amoral (such as head-hunting) were banned without any thought to the consequences, “the vast place it took in the religious and ceremonial lives of the people” (93.) In Fiji, to take another example: when missionaries mandated that men and women sleep in the same dwellings, as the native practice of sleeping apart seemed to be contrary to the Christian doctrine of the family, it had the effect of a deep and dangerous shift in the morality of the Melanesians. This too occurred with the destruction of the cults of the dead ancestors: “in forbidding or discouraging without inquiry, they were destroying institutions which had the most far-reaching ramifications through the social and economical life of the people” (94.) Melanesians, Rivers noted further, like all natives, “give up the ghost” rather easily. This seems to be their one chief failing. “A native who is ill”, Rivers commented, “loses heart at once” (95.) Melanesians will likewise die within hours if they consider themselves the object of a taboo of some kind. Through these circumstances and others Rivers concluded that among native peoples the mind had an “enormous influence” on the body.
And it is here where we begin to see the influence of the ‘Cambridge Mind’, in Rivers’ account of the role of instinct and feeling in the life of the savage. Ethnologists, anthropologists and other writers (including Alfred Marshall, Herbert Spencer, William McDougall, Edward Westermarck), reaching in some ways back to Thomas Malthus, Henry Buckle and Walter Bagehot, all considered ‘primitives’ and savages to be in the thrall of custom and of their instincts. Natives in the writing of Rivers and others were all subject to whims and the tyranny of instincts. Primitives were under the sway of their passions; savages were never reasoned individuals; they were frequently overcome by sentiment.
It is also not without interest the Rivers’ seminal engagement with Freud and the unconscious in Instinct and the Unconscious (1920) was brought out in a second edition in 1922, the same year as his essay on depopulation. In this text, Rivers underscored how instinct and intelligence were not only only different by degree, but that man, due to his psychological make-up, could act (and did act) in an irrational fashion; secondly, that one’s psychological make-up could and indeed did influence one’s well-being. Rivers underscored that not all wounds were physical, that the psyche played an enormous role in health and well-being. The psyche was for Rivers medically relevant, for returning soldiers from the First World War, as well as for natives undergoing the trauma of integration with European society. Rivers was adapting his experience with wounded soldiers and shell-shock to the experience of natives who had had their culture destroyed. I state these connections without a fully assessment of Instinct, but will do so later.
For Rivers, furthermore, the decline in the population of Melanesia, was not about an increase in the death-rate, but an increase in the birth-rate. In consequence Rivers noted that number of children among Melanesians had been declining in recent years according to the available figures (pg. 97ff.) Specifically, Rivers underscored that the factors which writers typically reasoned were behind declines in population were absent in Melanesia: “Tubercle and dysentery, the two most deadly diseases in Melanesia do not appear to be, or to have been, especially active; and though both the chief forms of venereal disease exist in the island, they do not seem to have done any great amount of mischief” (101.) The decline in birth rate as well as the increase in the death-rate of Melanesians was a product of the lack of enthusiasm which the native population had with their own lives.
However, with the outlawing of headhunting by the British government, the native Melanesians, Rivers reasoned, had no purpose. Head hunting especially, Rivers continued, “formed the centre of a social and religious institution which took an all-pervading part in the fives of the people” (101-2.) Headhunting was essential to not only the social and religious life of the people but had an economic dimension as well, as headhunting was so important, it had its own rather large economy, centered around the planning and the rituals associated with headhunting (such as the building of canoes.)
Thus, the reasons the decline in the Melanesian population was plain. The natives did not wish to bring up children in which their lives would simply be working for “the white man.” With such prospects, Rivers continued “measures which, before the coming of the European, were used chiefly to prevent illegitimacy have become the instrument of racial suicide” (104.) In the face of this possible remedies were the partial restoration of older customs and traditions which had given the community its spiritual force.
Thus, Rivers’ discussion of the decline of the population of Melanesians was not in a vacuum, but part of a very wide-ranging conversation (which included the genocide of the aboriginal Tasmanians) of the reasons behind population decline. This wide-ranging discussion trafficked in stereotypes (that natives were emotional and easily swayed by sentiment) but also displayed in some instances a kind of sensitivity to the destruction of native traditions. For Rivers, most interestingly, the native Melanesians was an exemplar of the working of the unconscious, the “savage” analogue to wounded soldiers and an exemplar of the psychopathology of everyday life.