Tuesday, July 8, 2008

William Ellis on an "affecting instance of infanticide"

A thoughtless thought-experiment

From William Ellis, Polynesian Researches, ch. 13 (http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-EllPol-EllPol4-c13.html):

"We have long known that the Sandwich Islanders practised infanticide, but had no idea of the extent to which it prevailed, until we had made various inquiries during our present tour. . . . The Society Islanders buried the infants they destroyed among the bushes, at some distance from their houses; but many of the infants in the Sandwich Islands are buried in the houses in which both parents and child had resided together. In the floors, which are frequently of earth or pebbles, a hole is dug, two or three feet deep, into which they put the little infant, placed in a broken calabash, and having a piece of native cloth laid upon its mouth to stop its cries. The hole is then filled up with earth, and the inhuman parents themselves have sometimes joined in treading down the earth upon their own innocent but murdered child."

The principal grounds were apparently:
  1. "to satisfy hunger,"
  2. as a sacrifice to marauding sharks,
  3. out of "idleness" (because a child hinders their nomadic lifestyle or is sickly or cries too much).
Ellis continues his thoughtless thought-experiment: "The bare recital of these acts of cruelty has often filled our minds with horror, while those who have been engaged in the perpetration of them have related all their tragical circumstances in detail with apparent unconcern."

The tragical foibles of casual parents, ae? Who could imagine I would end up thus: interred in a "broken calabash," cries smothered with "native cloth" . . .

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