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Taken from 'Howitt and Fison' by J.G. Frazer, Folklore, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1909), pp. 144-180

ANTHROPOLOGY in general, and Australian anthropology in particular, has lately suffered two very heavy losses by the deaths of the Rev. Lorimer Fison and Dr. A.W. Howitt, two old friends and colleagues, who passed away at an interval of a few months, Mr. Fison dying in December, 1907, and Dr. Howitt in March, 1908. To their insight, enthusiasm, and industry we owe the first exact and comprehensive study of the social organisation of the Australian tribes; and the facts which they brought to light, together with the explanations which they gave of them, have not only contributed to a better understanding of the Australian aborigines, but have shed much light on the early history of institutions in general, and especially of marriage.

Lorimer Fison was born on November 9th, 1832, in the picturesque village of Barningham in Suffolk. [1] His father was a prosperous landowner there till the repeal of the Corn Laws diminished the value of his property. With the help of a steward he farmed his own land and also some adjoining land, which belonged to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The father was a man of great integrity and nobility of character with a kind heart and a genial manner, all of which his son inherited  from him to the full. As there was neither a great landowner in the neighbourhood, nor a resident rector, Mr. Fison ruled supreme in the little village, using his power both wisely and kindly. A man of deep piety, he was a friend of the Quaker, Joseph John Gurney, after whom he named one of his two sons. His sympathies were with that old school of Quakers in Norwich and also with the early Wesleyans, but he brought up his family in the Evangelical school of the Church of England. There is a beautiful window to his memory in the old village church. His wife was a daughter of the Rev. John Reynolds, whose translations of Finelon, Massillon, and Bourdaloue were well known in their day. Educated by her father, Mrs. Fison inherited from him his love of languages and his literary taste. She assisted in her sons' education, preparing the Virgil lesson over night with the holiday tutor whom she had engaged for the boys, and striking out all passages which she did not wish them to read. To her Lorimer owed much of his fine character. She was something of a Roman mother, and believed that the strong instinct of hero-worship in human nature should be fostered in children from their earliest years. Accordingly, while her children were gathered round the board at their simple meals, she, sitting at the head of the table and looking stately and beautiful, would tell them stories of great men, who with heaven's help had worked for the good of mankind. The seed dropped on receptive soil and bore fruit, though perhaps not always of the sort which the worthy lady desired; for Lorimer and his brother Joseph fought over their favourite heroes even in the nursery. The books she gave them to read were mostly the old English classics expurgated by her father's careful pen. The Faerie Queen was a living reality to the boys, and Lorimer personated its heroes with dauntless bravery. On the other hand, the virtuous hero of The Pilgrim's Progress was less to his taste; indeed it is to be feared that he found the foul fiend Apollyon the most attractive character in that edifying work; for, fired with emulation, he would "straddle quite over the whole breadth of the way," so far at least as his little legs allowed him to do so, and for lack of a flaming dart to hurl at Christian he would snatch a large gravy spoon from the nursery table and roar out in a terrible voice, "Here will I spill thy soul." When a righteous retribution overtook the counterfeit Apollyon for this or other escapades, his small brother and sister would stand one on either side of the sufferer and exhort him to fortitude, saying: "Be a Spartan, Lorry, be a Spartan!" And a Spartan, agreeably blent with the character of Apollyon, Lorry proved to be, for not a muscle of his little white face would twitch till the punishment was over. In the intervals between these heroic deeds and sufferings Lorry scoured the country round. There was not a stack of corn nor a tall tree in the neighbourhood on the top of which he had not perched; not a pond into which he had not waded to explore its living inhabitants. The old groom was kind to the children; but the steward frowned when Lorry and his young sister would gallop past with a clatter of hoofs at daybreak, mounted on forbidden horses, to ride five miles to the nearest post town for the joy of placing the post-bag before their father at breakfast.

In time these youthful delights came to an end. Lorimer and Joseph were sent to school at Sheffield, where they had the benefit of an able staff of Cambridge masters. After leaving school Lorimer read for a year in Cambridge with Mr. Potts of Trinity College, whose edition of Euclid is well known. He entered the University in 1855, being enrolled as a student of Gonville and Caius College. But the spirit of adventure was too strong in him to brook the tame routine of a student's life, and after keeping only two terms, the Michaelmas term of 1855 and the Lent term of 1856, he left the University without taking a degree, and sailed for Australia to dig for gold. He was at the diggings when the news of his father's death reached him unexpectedly. It affected him deeply. In his distress he was taken to a mission meeting held in the open air, and there, under the double impression of sorrow and of the solemn words he heard, he fell to the ground and underwent one of those sudden conversions of which we read in religious history. Accordingly he left the gold-diggings in or about 1861, and repaired to the University of Melbourne, where the terms which he had kept at Cambridge were allowed to count, though even then he did not proceed to a degree. At Melbourne he joined the Wesleyan communion, and, hearing that missionaries were wanted in Fiji, he offered himself for the service. The offer was accepted; he was ordained a minister, and sailed for Fiji in 1863. He had previously married a lady of the Wesleyan Church, who survives him, together with a family of two sons and four daughters.

Mr. Fison laboured as a missionary in Fiji from 1863 to 1871, and again from 1875 to 1884. During the first of these periods he was appointed to the mission stations of Viwa, Lakemba, and Rewa; his name and that of his devoted wife are still household words there. Afterwards he acted as Principal of the Training Institution for natives in Navuloa, and his lectures were highly esteemed and treasured in memory by his students long after he had left Fiji. His frank, manly, cheery nature, ready sympathy, quick intelligence, and sound common-sense won him the love and confidence of natives and Europeans alike. Governors such as Sir William MacGregor and Sir J.B. Thurston treated him as a friend; Government officials in every department of the service regarded him as a safe and trustworthy guide in all matters affecting the relations of the Government with the natives; and merchants and planters, some of whom at the outset had not been very friendly to the mission, greeted him affectionately and welcomed him to their homes, when his big burly form appeared in Levuka; for he was a man of genial manners and a ready wit, sometimes flavoured with a touch of sarcasm. The natives loved him because they knew that he loved them; and, while he faithfully reproved them for their faults, he was lenient to all mistakes which sprang from ignorance or errors of judgment. A few kindly words, blent with a judicious touch of ridicule and an appeal to common-sense, were often more effectual than a stern reproof or the rigid exercise of Church discipline would have been. This account of Mr. Fison's missionary work in Fiji I have borrowed mainly from an obituary notice by his old and intimate friend, the experienced South Sea missionary, Dr. George Brown, who says of him: "Dr. Fison and I were close friends for many years, and during those years I had the privilege of sharing in his joys and of knowing more of his trials and difficulties perhaps than any other man. He never "wore his heart upon his sleeve," and so his life often appeared to others to be easier and more free from trouble than it really was. He always kept a brave face to the world, and many even of his intimate friends never knew how hard a battle he had sometimes to fight. ... I knew him in the Mission field, and on board ship, in his home at Essendon, about which I cannot trust myself to write, and in my own home. I have met him in counsel, and in our own Conferences; have shared his joys and have been the confidant of his troubles and sorrows, and I always found him to be a devoted Christian, a man with a child-like heart in his relationship to God, a wise counsellor, a true and loyal friend, and one of the best missionaries whom God has ever given to our church." [2]

Among the features in Mr. Fison's character which commanded the respect of all who knew him were his transparent honesty, his readiness to acknowledge, indeed to proclaim on the housetops, any mistake which he had made, and, moreover, his absolute disinterestedness. When he lived as a missionary in Fiji he was repeatedly offered land by the natives, and he might easily have made large profits by accepting their offers and selling the land again to settlers. But he steadily refused to enrich himself by means which he regarded as injurious to the natives and inconsistent with his sacred profession. Once, as he was walking with a chief on the shore, the chief pressed him to accept land. Mr. Fison stopped, measured six feet or perhaps a little more (for he was a tall man) on the sand, and said: "If I die in Fiji, you may give me so much land. I will not take more." [3]  So he lived and died poor, but honoured.

Mr. Fison's intimate acquaintance with Fijian custom was of public service. When the Lands Commission was about to sit, he delivered a lecture at Levuka on the native system of land tenure in Fiji. The substance of it was published in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute, [4] and soon after by the British Government in a Blue Book. It was also translated into German, and published in one of the German official books at the time when the claims of German landowners in Fiji were under consideration. Many years later the Governor of Fiji, then Sir Henry M. Jackson, K.C.M.G., esteemed the treatise so highly that he caused it to be reprinted from Mr. Fison's manuscript in a fuller form at the Government Press; and in a despatch of July 31st, 1903, Mr.  Chamberlain, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, wrote to the Governor: "I have read this valuable treatise with much interest. I entirely approve of your action in causing it to be reprinted by the Government Press, and I consider that the colony owes Dr. Fison a debt of gratitude for his kindness in recopying the original manuscript."

When the distinguished American ethnologist, Lewis H. Morgan, was collecting materials for his great work, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, he circulated a paper of questions very widely, and through the agency of Professor Goldwin Smith one of these papers reached Mr. Fison in Fiji. In answer to the questions he contributed a full and accurate account of the Fijian and Tongan systems of consanguinity and affinity to Morgan's famous book. The value and importance of this contribution were fully acknowledged by Morgan. [5] It speaks highly for Mr. Fison's scientific insight that he clearly perceived the far-reaching scope of Morgan's enquiries, and that accordingly, on his return to New South Wales in 1871, he set himself to investigate the systems of marriage and relationship of the Australian aborigines. In order to procure information on the subject he wrote to the chief Australian papers, inviting the co-operation of those who knew the natives. Some of his letters were published in The Australasian, and attracted the attention of Mr. A.W. Howitt, whose explorations both in Central and in South-Eastern Australia had brought him into close contact with the aborigines. Hence the two men met and formed a deep and loyal friendship, which only ended with their lives. They now entered jointly into a comprehensive investigation of the social organisation of the Australian tribes, prosecuting their enquiries as far as possible through personal intercourse with the natives, but also partly by correspondence; for they printed and circulated widely through the principal Australian settlements a list of questions touching the tribal organisation and systems of consanguinity and affinity of the aborigines. Thus they accumulated a large body of facts illustrating many phases of savage life, and some of the fundamental institutions of the Australian tribes. The results of these enquiries, carried on for some years, were published jointly by the two friends in their well-known work Kamilaroi and Kurnai (Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Brisbane, 1880), so named after the two tribes, one in New South Wales, the other in Victoria, to which the authors had paid special attention. This important work, for which Lewis H.N. Morgan wrote an appreciative preface, [6] unquestionably laid the foundations of a scientific knowledge of the Australian aborigines, and its value in setting forth the wonderful social system, seemingly complex, confused, and casual, yet really clear, logical, and purposeful, of these savages, can hardly be overestimated. Viewed both in itself and in the light of the subsequent researches to which it gave birth, especially those of Spencer and Gillen in Central Australia, Kamilaroi and Kurnai is a document of primary importance in the archives of anthropology.

Not that all its theories have stood the test of time. Mr. Fison himself, with admirable candour, announced publicly from his presidential chair at a meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, that an elaborate theory which he had propounded in that book was "not worth a rush." As the words in which he did so are not only highly characteristic of the man, but contain a warning of permanent importance to anthropologists, especially to those of them who study savages at a safe distance, and have never perhaps seen one of them in their lives, though they may possibly have watched their images dancing silently in a cinematograph or heard the echo of their voices chanting and whooping out of a phonograph, I will quote the passage entire for their benefit. Mr. Fison said: "In these investigations two things mainly are required--first, a patient continuance in the collecting of facts; and, secondly, the faculty of seeing in them what is seen by the natives themselves. We must ever remember that our mind-world is very different from theirs. It is not filled with the same images; it is not governed by the same laws. It is to theirs as the England of the present day is to the England of who shall say how many ages ago? The climate, the coast line, the watersheds, the flora, the fauna-in short, nearly all the aspects of nature-are changed. It is to all intents and purposes another land. As to the former of these two requisites, one's natural tendency, especially in the beginning of the work, is to form a theory as soon as one has got hold of a fact; and, as to the latter, we are too apt to look at the facts in savagery from the mental standpoint of the civilised man. Both of these are extremely mischievous. They lead investigators into fatal mistakes, and bring upon them much painful experience; for the pang attending the extraction of an aching double tooth is sweetest bliss when compared with the tearing up by the roots of a cherished theory. I speak feelingly here, because I can hold myself up as an awful warning against theory-making. To take one instance only. In Kamilaroi and Kurnai, the joint work of Mr. A.W. Howitt and myself, there is a long chapter containing a most beautiful theory of the Kurnai system, which I worked out with infinite pains. It accounts for that system so completely and so satisfactorily that the Kurnai ought to be ashamed of themselves for having been perverse enough to arrive at their system by a different road, which further inquiry showed us most conclusively that they did. Students of anthropology who have read our work, and who still survive, will please accept this intimation that the theory aforesaid is not worth a rush." [7]

It is to be hoped that this warning will be laid to heart by all who view savages through a telescope, whether from a club or a college window. If our glass be a good one and we apply our eye to the end of it steadily, undistracted by the sights and sounds about us, we shall see and hear strange things, things very unlike those which may be seen and heard either in Pall Mall and Piccadilly or in the grassy courts and echoing cloisters of an ancient university town. We shall not see the rush of cabs, omnibuses, and motors, nor be stunned by their long continuous roar; we shall not see the ivy-mantled walls lapped by the sluggish stream, the old gardens dreaming in the moonlight of the generations that are gone; we shall not hear the drowsy murmur of fountains plashing in summer days or the tinkle of the chapel bell calling to prayer, when the shadows lengthen across the greensward and in the west the stars begin to sparkle above the fading gold of evening. If we are really intent on knowing the truth, we must strive to dismiss or disregard these nearer, these familiar sights and sounds, whether harsh and ugly or beautiful and sweet, and to fix our thoughts on the strange and distant scene; and thus by long and patient effort we may come to see in the magic mirror of the mind a true reflection of a life which differs immeasurably from our own. Yet this reflection or picture must itself be pieced together by the imagination; for imagination, the power of inward vision, is as necessary to science as to poetry, whether our aim is to understand our fellow-men, to unravel the tangled skein of matter, or to explore the starry depths of space. Only we must remember that, if imagination is a necessary, it is not a perfect or infallible instrument of science: it is apt to take its colours from the eye that uses it, to tremble with every vibration that pulses along the nerves of the observer. These things cannot but trouble and distort the images which print themselves on our brain; yet they are inevitable, since we cannot get outside of ourselves and contemplate the world from the standpoint of a purely abstract intelligence. All we can do is to make allowance as far as possible for our individual upbringing, character, and surroundings, to calculate as exactly as we can the personal equation, and to correct our impressions accordingly. If we have done this, and if we are, like Mr. Fison, always ready to pull to pieces the old mental image, at whatever cost, and to build it up again on better evidence, then we have done all that is humanly possible to attain to the truth. When all is done, we may still be in error, but the error will be pardonable.

While Mr. Fison was pursuing his enquiries among the Australian tribes from 187I to 1875, he was also engaged in ministerial work in New South Wales and Victoria. Returning to Fiji in 1875, [8] he resumed his observations of native Fijian life, and contributed to The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland a series of valuable papers dealing with burial customs, land tenure, riddles, rites of initiation, and the classificatory system of relationship. [9] Many years afterwards Mr. Fison published a volume of Fijian stories with an introduction and notes illustrating some aspects of the native life and manners. [10]

From Fiji Mr. Fison returned to Victoria in 1884. Next year he resumed his ministerial duties, and continued to discharge them until 1888, when ill-health obliged him finally to resign them. In the same year (1888) he built, partly with borrowed capital, a house at Essendon, near Melbourne, where he resided with his wife and four un- married daughters to the end of his life. The house was built for a school, and his daughters, accomplished and industrious ladies, taught pupils in it until new rules adopted by the State of Victoria rendered the house, in which Mr. Fison had sunk some of his small savings, unsuitable for the purpose. Meantime Mr. Fison laboured hard at journalism. From 1888 to within about three years of his death he edited The Spectator, a Melbourne paper published in connection with the Wesleyan Church. To a weekly paper, The Australasian, he contributed a series of articles on "The Testimony of Fijian Words," the substance of some of which he appears to have afterwards embodied in the introduction to his Tales from Old Fiji. He was one of the first Fellows of Queen's College in the University of Melbourne, and for some years he acted as Secretary to the College Council. Indeed, he had been instrumental with others in founding the College. From an American university he received an honorary degree of Master of Arts in recognition of his services to anthropology." [11] In January, 1892, he presided over the Anthropological Section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at Hobart Town in Tasmania, and greatly enjoyed the fortnight's rest and the hospitalities he met with from the Governor, Sir Arthur Havelock (whom he had known in Fiji), the members of the Tasmanian Club, and others. It was the first holiday he had had for more than seven years, and even this he was only enabled to take through the liberality of a friend. Another pleasant break in his laborious life came in 1894, when he visited England once more, and attended the meeting of the British Association at Oxford as one of the representatives of Australian science. At the meeting he read a paper on the classificatory system of relationship, and made the acquaintance of a number of eminent men, including Max Muller and Professor E.B. Tylor. During this his last visit to England, Mr. Fison went to Chichester to see his good friend the Rev. Dr. R.H. Codrington, formerly a missionary of the Church of England to Melanesia, and one of the highest authorities on the language and customs of the Melanesians. He also came to Cambridge for a few days, when I had the privilege of making his personal acquaintance. His frank, manly, genial nature won me at once, and we were friends to the end of his honoured and useful life. He wrote me many letters in the clear, crisp, graphic style which made all his letters a pleasure to read.

Returning to Australia he settled down again to the routine of journalism at his desk. How hard he worked to support his family may be partially gathered from one of those charming letters which down to the last he wrote to the sister who shared the dear memories of the happy youthful days at Barningham in Suffolk. In the same letter in which he tells his sister of the commendation bestowed by Mr. Chamberlain upon his treatise on the Fijian land system, [footnote, which asks readers to see above] Mr. Fison writes thus: "There is no particular news; and even if there were, I have no time to tell it. I never was so hard wrought in my life as I have been of late. Sluicing on the diggings was hard enough, for you had to keep the sluice boxes full while the water was running; but it was over for the day when sundown came. My present work has no sundown." When Mr. Fison wrote thus he had nearly completed his seventy-first year. Not long afterwards his health, which under the pressure of hard work and domestic anxieties had been failing for some time, broke down completely. An affection of the heart necessitated absolute repose, and for the few remaining years of his life Mr. Fison was in body, though never in mind or spirit, a shattered invalid. Happily the country whom he had served so well and so loyally did not forget him in his poverty and old age. In the spring of 1905, at Mr. Balfour's recommendation, His Majesty the King was graciously pleased to recognise Mr. Fison's services to his country and to science by granting him a pension of £I50 a year. So there was light at the evening-tide of a long and strenuous day. [12]

Though he could no longer work at the things he loved most, his interest in them never flagged to the end, and I still received from time to time letters written in his now tremulous hand, which proved that the keen intelligence was not blunted nor the warm heart grown cold. There was even an apparent slight recovery in his health. About a week before his death he and his beloved wife, herself an invalid for many years, were well enough to leave the house and attend a public gathering, where friends crowded round them and congratulated them on their appearing once more in their midst. But it was the last flicker of the expiring taper. Perhaps the excitement, combined with the great heat of the weather, for it was now the height of the torrid Australian summer, proved too much for his strength. He was taken suddenly ill, and lingered between life and death for some days, surrounded by his family and remaining conscious and calm. Sundown, the sundown for which in the gathering shadows he had longed, came at last on Sunday, December the 29th, 1907, when the labourer entered into his eternal rest. 

... [see here for the section about Howitt] ...

In personal appearance, and to some extent also in manner, no two men could well differ more widely than the fast friends, Fison and Howitt. Fison was a big burly man, powerfully and heavily built, with a jolly good-humoured face, a bluff almost jovial manner, tender-hearted but bubbling over with humour, on which the remembrance of his clerical profession, as well as his deep, absolutely unaffected piety, perhaps imposed a certain restraint. Howitt was a small man, with a spare but well-knit frame, light, active, and inured to exposure and fatigue. His features were keen and finely cut, with deep-set eyes and a penetrating look. It was a hawk's face; and his brisk alert manner and quick movements added to the resemblance. I remember that, when he stayed in my house at Cambridge, he used not to walk but to run upstairs like a boy, though he was then in his seventy-fifth year. When the two old men met for the last time, "Howitt," said Fison, "do you never feel the infirmities of old age?" "What are they?" he answered. While habitually graver than his friend, Howitt was by no means devoid of dry humour, and could tell old stories of the bush with admirable point and zest. On the subject which perhaps occupied their thoughts more than any other, the social organisation of the Australian tribes, the two men were in fundamental agreement. On questions much deeper and more perplexing their views differed widely, but the difference never affected their friendship, as indeed such differences need never affect the friendship of honest men alike animated, as these two unquestionably were, by a single-hearted disinterested devotion to truth. They loved each other like brothers in life, and they were not long divided in death. Such were Fison and Howitt as I knew them in their writings and in the flesh. I am proud to have known two such men, and to have numbered them among my friends.

In the history of the science of man the names of Howitt and Fison will be inseparably associated. It will be for others in future, better informed and perhaps more impartial than I am, to pronounce a final judgment on the value of their work as a whole. Here I will single out only what appears to me to be their most important contribution to knowledge--that is, the light which they have thrown on the systems of marriage and relationship prevalent among the Australian aborigines. These systems are of extraordinary interest not merely in themselves, but in their bearing on the history of marriage in general. For the systems agree fundamentally with those practised by races in many other parts of the world; and, though they present peculiarities which have not been discovered elsewhere, these peculiarities themselves appear to be only special developments of the general principles which underlie all the systems in question. Perhaps the most striking feature of the Australian systems is their apparent complexity combined with a logical, almost mathematical precision and regularity. Enquirers have long been divided on the question whether this feature is the result of accident or design; whether the Australian aborigines have stumbled on their systems by chance, or have gradually evolved them by conscious reflection and deliberate effort. Most of those who know these savages only by reading about them in books appear to be of opinion that their social systems, for all their appearance of complexity combined with exactness and regularity, are the result of accident, that they grew up through a fortuitous train of circumstances without any prevision or purpose on the part of those who practise them. On the other hand, most of those who are best acquainted with the Australian aborigines, not through books but through personal intercourse, appear to be of opinion that their social systems are the fruit of design, and that they were deliberately devised to ensure the results which they unquestionably achieve. The latter was the opinion of Fison and Howitt, and it is the opinion of their distinguished friends and disciples, Spencer and Gillen.

In the broadest outline, omitting details and minor differences, an aboriginal Australian tribe is divided into two, four, or eight exogamous classes; that is, it consists of two, four, or eight divisions with a rule that no man may marry a woman of his own division, but may only take a wife from a single one of the other divisions. Thus, if the tribe is divided into two exogamous classes, a man is forbidden to choose his wife from among, roughly speak- ing, one-half of all the women of the tribe; if the tribe is divided into four exogamous classes, then three-fourths of the women are forbidden to him; and if the tribe is divided into eight exogamous classes, then no less than seven-eighths of the women of the tribe are forbidden to him. So strictly are these rules enforced that in the old days breaches of them were commonly punished by putting both the culprits to death.

With regard to descent, when a tribe is divided into two exogamous classes, the children are always born into the class either of their father or of their mother, the custom in this respect varying in different tribes; for in some tribes the children always belong to their father's class, and in others they always belong to their mother's. When a tribe is divided into four or eight exogamous classes, the children are born into the class neither of their father nor of their mother, but always into another class, which is, however, determined for them without variation by the particular classes to which their parents belong.

It will hardly be denied that these systems, particularly the rule of the four-class or eight-class organisation, that children can never belong to the class either of their father or of their mother, have at least a superficial appearance of being artificial; and the inference that they must have been deliberately devised, not created by a series of accidents, that they are a product of reason, not of chance, is confirmed by a closer examination. For it can easily be shown that the effect of dividing a tribe into two exogamous classes is to prevent the marriage of brothers with sisters; that the effect of dividing a tribe into four exogamous classes, with the characteristic rule of descent, is to prevent the marriage of parents with children; [9] and that the effect of dividing a tribe into eight exogamous classes, with the characteristic rule of descent, is to prevent a man's children from marrying his sister's children-that is, its effect is to prevent the marriage of some, though not all, of those whom we call first cousins. As all the marriages which these rules actually bar are abhorred by the Australian aborigines, it is natural to infer that the effect which the rules produce is the effect which they were designed to produce; in other words, that the rules, which have certainly the appearance of being artificial, are really so, having been devised to accomplish the very object which in point of fact they do very successfully achieve. If this inference is sound, the deliberate institu- tion of the Australian marriage system may be taken as proved.

The objections raised to this view by those who know the Australian natives only or mainly through books resolve themselves, roughly speaking, into two. First, they deny that the Australian savages are capable of thinking out a marriage system at once so complex and so regular. But this objection is outweighed by the testimony of those who best know the Australian aborigines personally, such as Dr. Howitt and Messrs. Spencer and Gillen, [10] in whose opinion the natives are quite capable both of conceiving and of executing the system in question. That the natives understand their complex system perfectly, and work it smoothly and regularly, is certain. Why, then, should they not have originated it? Would they be more likely to understand and work it, as they do, without any serious hitch, if they had drifted into it by accident than if they had thought it out for themselves ?

The other objection often brought against the theory of the deliberate institution of the Australian marriage system is that, if the system was designed to prevent the marriage of brothers with sisters, of parents with children, and of a man's children with his sister's children, it greatly over- shoots the mark by simultaneously barring the marriage of many other persons who stand in none of these relationships to each other. This objection implies a total misconception of the Australian system of relationships. For, according to the classificatory system of relationship, which is universally prevalent among the Australian aborigines, the terms father, mother, brother, sister, son, and daughter are employed in a far wider signification than with us, so as to include many persons who are no blood relations at all to the speaker. The system sorts out the whole community into classes or groups, which are variously designated by these terms; the relationship which it recognises between members of a class or group is social, not consanguineous; and though each class or group includes the blood relations whom we designate by the corresponding terms, it includes many more, and for social purposes a man does not distinguish between the members of a group who are related to him by blood from those members of the group who are not so related to him. Each man has thus many "fathers" who never begat him, and many "mothers" who never bore him; he calls many men and women his "brothers" and "sisters" with whom he has not a drop of blood in common; and he bestows the names of "sons" and "daughters" on many boys and girls, many men and women, who are not his offspring.

Now, "if we assume, as we have every right to do, that the founders of exogamy in Australia recognised the classificatory system of relationship, and the classificatory system of relationship only, we shall at once perceive that what they intended to prevent was not merely the marriage of a man with his sister, his mother, or his daughter in the physical sense in which we use these terms; their aim was to prevent his marriage with his sister, his mother, and his daughter in the classificatory sense of these terms ; that is, they intended to place bars to marriage not between individuals merely but between the whole groups of persons who designated their group, not their individual, relationship, their social, not their consanguineous, ties, by the names of father and mother, brother and sister, and son and daughter. In this intention the founders of exogamy succeeded perfectly. In the completest form of the system, the division of the tribe into eight exogamous classes, they barred the marriage of group brothers with group sisters, of group fathers with group daughters, of group mothers with group sons, and of the sons of group brothers with the daughters of group sisters. Thus the dichotomy of an Australian tribe in its completest form, namely, in the eight-class organisation, was not a clumsy expedient which overshot its mark by separating from each other many persons whom the authors of it had no intention of separating; it was a device admirably adapted to effect just what its inventors intended, neither more nor less."

"But while there are strong grounds for thinking that the system of exogamy has been deliberately devised and instituted for the purpose of effecting just what it does effect, it would doubtless be a mistake to suppose that its most complex form, the eight-class system, was struck out at a single blow. All the evidence and probability are in favour of the view that the system originated in a simple division of the community into two exogamous classes only; that, when this was found insufficient to bar marriages which the natives regarded as objectionable, each of the two classes was again subdivided into two, making four exogamous classes in all; and, finally, that, when four exogamous classes still proved to be insufficient for the purpose, each of them was again subdivided into two, making eight exogamous classes in all. Thus from a simple beginning the Australians appear to have advanced step by step to the complex system of eight exogamous classes, the process being one of successive bisections or dichotomies. The first bisection, as I have said, prevented the marriage of brothers with sisters; the second bisection, combined with the characteristic rule of descent, prevented the marriage of parents with children; and the third bisection, combined with the characteristic rule of descent, prevented the marriage of a man's children with the children of his sister; in other words, it prevented the marriage of some, but not all, of those whom we call first cousins." [11]

But, if the system was devised to prevent the marriage of brothers with sisters, of parents with children, and of a man's children with his sister's children, it seems to follow that such marriages were common before the system was instituted to check them; in short, it implies that exogamy was a deliberate prohibition of a former unrestricted practice of incest, which allowed the nearest relations to have sexual intercourse with each other. This implication is confirmed, as Messrs. Howitt, Spencer, and Gillen have shown for the tribes of Central Australia, by customs which can be reasonably interpreted only as a system of group marriage or as survivals of a still wider practice of sexual communism. And, as the custom of exogamy combined with the classificatory system of relationship is not confined to Australia, but is found among many races in many parts of the world, it becomes probable that a large part, if not the whole, of the human race have at one time, not necessarily the earliest, in their history permitted the practice of incest, that is, of the closest interbreeding, and that, having perceived or imagined the practice to be injurious, they deliberately forbade and took effective measures to prevent it.

That is the great generalisation reached by L.H. Morgan from his discovery of the classificatory system of relationship. It is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Fison and Howitt first, and of their disciples Spencer and Gillen afterwards, that their researches among the Australian tribes have not only lent powerful support to the conclusions of the American ethnologist, but have given us an insight into the machinery by which the great social reform was effected. The machinery was, indeed, simple; it consisted merely in the bisection, whether single or repeated, of the whole community into two exogamous classes. In Australia the application of this machinery to effect this purpose is seen more clearly than in any other part of the world, because in many Australian tribes the bisection has been repeated oftener than anywhere else, or, rather, oftener than it is known to have been repeated elsewhere; for it is possible that among other races of men similar secondary and tertiary subdivisions have occurred, though they seem now to have vanished without leaving a trace. The oldest social stratification, so to say, of mankind is better preserved among the Australian aborigines than among any other people of whom we have knowledge. To have obtained an accurate record of that stratification before it finally disappeared, as it must very soon do, is an achievement of the highest importance for the understanding of human history; and we owe the possession of that record, now safely deposited in the archives of science, mainly to the exertions and the influence of Howitt and Fison.


Notes [the original footnotes provided by Frazer]

[1] For the facts of Mr. Fison's life I am indebted mainly to his sister, Mrs. Potts (14 Brookside, Cambridge), and his daughter, Miss Fison (Essendon, Victoria, Australia). In addition to her own reminiscences Mrs. Potts has kindly given me access to some of her brother's letters, from which I have extracted some of the facts mentioned in the text.

[2] "Lorimer Fison," by the Rev. George Brown, D.D., Australasian Methodist Missionary Review, Sydney, February 4, 1908, pp. 1, 3. 

[3] Mr. Fison's opinion and practice in this matter were shared by the great majority of his fellow-missionaries in Fiji. Only three out of forty-three bought land. See The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. x. (188i), p. 352 (note).

[4] "Land Tenure in Fiji," The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. x. (I88i), pp. 332-352.

[5] L.H. Morgan, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, p. 568 (Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, vol. xvii., Washington, 1871).

[6] Mr. Fison had previously contributed information to L.H. Morgan's last book, Ancient Society (London, 1877), pp. 51, 403, etc. From one of Morgan's references to him (op. cit., p. 40o3, note 1), it appears that Mr. Fison had been at one time resident at Sydney. 

[7] Report of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Hobart, Tasmania, January 8, 1892, Section G. Anthropology, Address by the President, the Rev. Lorimer Fison, M.A., Queen's College, University of Melbourne, pp. 9 et seq. With reference to Kamilaroi and Kurnai, Mr. Fison adds in a note that "it is only bare justice to Mr. Howitt to note that nearly all the labour of collecting the Australian facts fell to his share, and that he did this work after the manner in which he does all other work undertakenby him. No higher praise could possibly be expressed." 

[8] When Mr. Fison left Australia in 1875 to return to Fiji, the Wesleyan Conference of Australia passed unanimously the following resolution: "In view of the Rev. L. Fison's receiving an appointment in Fiji from the Missionary Committee, this Conference takes the present opportunity of expressing its regret that his state of health is depriving the colonial work of so valuable a minister and pastor. It assures him of its confidence and affection, and of its admiration of his exposure and denunciation of the so-called Labour Traffic in the South Sea Islands, and it commends him and his family to the care of Almighty God."

[9] "Notes on Fijian Burial Customs," The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. x. (1881), pp. I37-149; "Land Tenure in Fiji," ibid., pp. 332-352; "On Fijian Riddles," ibid., vol. xi. (1882), pp. 406-410; "The Nanga, or Sacred Stone Enclosure, of Wainimala, Fiji," ibid., vol. xiv. (1885), pp. 14-31; "The Classificatory System of Relationship," ibid., vol. xxiv. (1895) pp. 360-371.

[10] Tales from Old Fiji, London, 1904.

[11] This is mentioned by Mr. Fison in a letter written from Oxford, 18th October, 1894. He does not mention the name of the university which bestowed on him this well-earned honour.

[12][NB from here the footnotes diverge in number from the original as the original footnote 12 just referred readers to earlier in the article] Perhaps without a breach of confidence I may be allowed to quote a fragment of one of Mr. Fison's letters which has been placed in my hands by his sister: "... looking than she was in her youth. She has been a good wife to me, and I thank God for her every day of my life. If we only had a small competence, we should toddle down the rest of the decline hand in hand with gladsome hearts." The beginning of the first sentence is lost.

Transcribed by AP August 2013.


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