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The social state of the natives of the Pacific Islands presents a most curious study. Their character as depicted by the early discoverers is contradictory. This however is largely true of all savages. At times they appear as gentle, kindly, hospitable and peaceful, at other times as fierce, treacherous, vicious and murderous. That they were mostly cannibals is beyond doubt, yet they generally lived under conditions affording abundant and varied food supplies. They tilled the soil, raised pigs and fowls and in most parts recognized individual ownership of the soil. Though scattered over numerous islands distant thousands of miles from each other, the people appear to be of one race and their language and customs are surprisingly similar from Hawaii to New Zealand. The ignorance of Europeans of their ideas and superstitious observances of the laws of taboo have doubtless led to many exhibitions of fierceness by the natives, the reason of which has not been understood by Europeans. The violation of a taboo by taking a sacred thing or invading a sacred place aroused the otherwise peaceful islander to murderous frenzy. Kingly authority, class distinctions and slavery appear to have been general in their system, which is spoken of by some as based on castes.
In some respects they are, according to European ideas, to be classed as among the lowest types of mankind. They went naked and ate human flesh. Yet they recognized governmental authority and rights of property. These were upheld by intricate religious or superstitious observances of taboos, which made sacred to the use of the king all things which he touched and, lest the property of the subject should become so, forbade him to use anything but his own. With them, as with all savages in moderate climates, the body was disfigured for ornament, and the idea of making clothing for comfort does not appear to have suggested itself. Owing to the small size of the islands and the distance of one from another, the authority of a king seldom extended far and the number of people under one soereign was necessarily small in comparison with even the larger African despotisms. Still it was not uncommon for a king to rule a whole group of islands. New Zealand affords a comparatively wide field, but does not seem to have developed a higher type of government. Numerous chiefs having little real power led the people in their wars. Having no money there were no taxes, but there were slaves. Having no knowledge of the use of letters they had no written laws, but their customs and superstitions, taught orally, were quite complicated. There was little basis for commerce, as the products of all the neighboring islands were substantially alike, and the fish of the sea were equally accessible to all. Manufacturing was mostly limited to building huts, boats and making weapons and fishing tackle. The similarity of the people and their customs on so many islands, so remote from each other, is very striking. While on the continents tribes differing radically in language, customs, character and appearance are often found in close proximity to each other, the people of Hawaii and New Zealand, though separated by sixty degrees of latitude, seem clearly of the same race.
As with nearly all the lower races the women bore the heaviest burdens. The taboo prohibited her from partaking of the flesh of pigs and fowls and from feasts of human flesh. Enforced by superstitious fears as well as physical force, the taboo operated as a powerful aid to the authority of the ruler and exercised a wide influence on the conduct of the people. It was in effect a most peculiar system of laws, having little similarity to anything found in continental regions. The taboo of the king or chief rendered not only his person and property sacred but even his name. This was a recognition of his divine right far surpassing that of European kings. The idea of the sanctity of priests, churches and sacred places is similar only in a slight degree to the idea of absolute exclusiveness imposed by the taboo. As applied to the matrimonial relation the wife was taboo to all but her husband. For savages this was quite a close approximation to the idea of the sacredness of the marriage relation.
MEXICO The governmental systems of the inhabitants of the Mexican plateau differed, not merely in degree of development, but radically in character, from the tribal organizations and confederacies of the wild races of the north. The Tlascalans seem to have retained more of the traits and characteristics prevailing among northern tribes than their more numerous neighbors. Prescott speaks of Tlascala as a republic, but, if such, it was of a most peculiar sort. The principal authority was vested in four chiefs, each of whom had his separate district, parcelled out among sub-chiefs, who held by a tenure similar to that of the feudatory vassals of Europe, and were bound to render military service to their chiefs, as well as to supply their tables. The affairs of the general government were settled by a council consisting of the four principal chiefs and the inferior nobles. The domains of the sub-chiefs were parcelled out among their retainers, who were bound to render them like service as that they gave their superiors. The bond of union appears to have been very firm and was well maintained. In the city, order was preserved by a municipal police. Military prowess was the source of greatest distinction, and a rank corresponding with knighthood was conferred on those exhibiting especial merit. The lowest order of people appear to have been held in a condition not unlike the European peasants of feudal times.
The darkest aspect of Aztec life was the bloody and gloomy religion, the cruel rites of which constantly characterized the deity as savage, remorseless and devoid of love or pity. The custom of eating human flesh is only reconcilable with the otherwise high state of civilization attained, as an ordinance of their horrible superstition. Their war god, like the war gods of all people in all times, taught lessons of cruelty and forbade all exhibitions of pity or kindness toward enemies.
The government of the Aztecs was an elective monarchy. The sovereign was selected from the brothers of the deceased monarch or in default of them from his nephews. The choice was made by four of the principal nobles, designated for that purpose by their own order in the preceding reign. This system appears far better calculated to place a meritorious prince on the throne than the prevailing system in modern Europe, which places the crown arbitrarily on the eldest son of the deceased monarch without regard to merit. It also avoided the necessity for a protector ruling in the name of an infant king, for among those eligible there would seldom fail to be an adult.
The electors, taken from the leading men of the nation, were familiar with the character of all the princes and in a position to make the best possible selection. This system is doubtless due to the democratic ideas which prevailed among the aborigines of America, and to their settled custom of awarding power and leadership only to such as exhibited capacity for it. The results fully demonstrated its wisdom, for their kings were men of conspicuous ability. The king was not only the chief executive and commander-in-chief of the army, exercising direct authority over the principal nobles, who were required to render him personal service at his palace and in his body guard, but he also exercised the legislative function. This he did in a manner far in advance of the methods of African and many Asiatic despotisms. The laws promulgated were registered and exhibited to the people in picture writings. They were of course adapted to the conditions of the people, and show evidences at the same time of enlightened policy and savage cruelty. Murder and adultery were punished with death. Thieves were either enslaved or put to death. Among capital offences were numbered removing the boundaries of anothers land, altering the established measures, and misconduct of guardians in dealing with the property of their wards. Prodigals and drunkards were severely punished. The marriage relation was clearly comprehended and its sacredness recognized and protected. Divorces could only be obtained by decree of a court having jurisdiction solely of domestic affairs, after a full and patient hearing of the parties.