On the function of the maternal uncle in Torres Straits

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On the function of the maternal uncle in Torres Straits  (1901) 
by W.H.R.Rivers
Man, Vol. 1, (1901), pp. 171-172


In the western tribes of Torres Strait descent is at the present time strictly paternal, and yet customs exist among these people which show that in some respects the relationship between maternal uncle and nephew is regarded as nearer than that between father and son. The system of kinship is of the kind known as ‘classificatory,’ and the customs to be described apply not only to the brothers of the mother, in the strict sense, but to all those males of the clan of the same generation as the mother whom the latter would call brother.


A man will cease fighting at once when told to do so by his maternal uncle. The power of the uncle is so great that a fight between the natives two hostile islands (Mobuiag and Moa) might be stopped if a man on one side saw his sister’s son among his enemies. This power of stopping a fight is not possessed to the same extent by the father or mother, and a man may continue to fight even after the father or mother has given certain indications of the nearness of the bond between them and the son. The maternal uncle, on the other hand, stops a fight by a mere word. The brother-in-law (‘‘imi’’) has also the power of stopping a fight, but in this case it is the duty of the man who has been stopped to make a present to the brother-in-law. No such present is made to the uncle.


Another indication of the closeness of the relationship between maternal uncle and nephew is that the latter may take, lose, spoil or destroy anything belonging to his uncle (even a new canoe, probably the most valuable possession a man can have) without a word of reproach from the latter. I was told that, even if the nephew was quite a small boy, he could do what he liked in his uncle’s house- could break or spoil anything of his uncle’s property, and the uncle would say nothing.


As the boy grew up he went about more with his uncle than with his father, and I was told that he cared more for his uncle. At the ceremonies connected with the initiation of the boy into manhood it was the maternal uncles who had especial care and complete control of the boy, and imparted to him the traditions and institutions of the tribe. When the boy married the father provided the necessary presents; but the actual payment was made by the maternal uncle, to whom the presents were given by the boy’s father.


One point of interest in these customs is that they are found in a tribe in which descent is now paternal, and must probably be regarded as vestiges of a previous condition in which descent was maternal, and the brothers of the mother were regarded as nearer kin than the father.


Another point of more special interest is to be found in the similarity between one of these customs and the ‘vasu’ institution of Fiji. This institution which has been spoken of as the ‘keynote of Fijian despotism,’ may be regarded as an extreme development of the custom which in Torres Strait permits a nephew to take anything belonging to his maternal uncle. In Fiji this custom has grown to such an extent that the nephew of a king may be ‘vasu’ to all his uncle’s subjects, and may with impunity, despoil his uncle’s subjects of all their most valued possessions.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1922, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.