35. Only Skin Deep: Social Order and the Body on Rotuma
(This paper was originally written in English as it appears here. It was translated into French and published as "Une Profondeur qui S'arrête à la Surface de la Peau: Ordre Social et Corps à Rotuma," in La Production du Corps, edited by Maurice Godelier and Michel Panoff. Éditions des Archives Contemporaines. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishing Association.)
The argument we wish to make in this paper is threefold: (1) that Rotumans pay much more attention to bodily surfaces than to internal bodily functions; (2) that this emphasis on bodily surfaces articulates well with a strong concern for appearances of social harmony; and (3) that a muted cultural focus on internal bodily functions is congruent with a strong current of autonomy in Rotuman culture.
Before presenting evidence to support the argument we make in this paper, some important caveats are required. We are dealing here with issues of cultural knowledge and belief, and feel obliged to make explicit our underlying assumptions concerning these issues. To begin with, we are suspicious of cultural accounts that reflect a high degree of uniformity and coherence. In our view, cultural knowledge, even in the smallest and most remote societies, is composed of a vast pool of propositions, many of which are contradictory to one another. From this pool individuals select propositions that suit their purposes in given circumstances, and may be quite inconsistent from situation to situation.
While some propositions are explicit and articulated, others are axiomatic and/or are not readily brought to consciousness. They may be embedded in symbolic structures such as myths and rituals, encoded in artistic productions and performances, or apparent in behavioral sequences. Such propositions have to be inferred by the analyst and may resist external verification.
Added to problems of inconsistency and verbal verification is the matter of belief. Belief is a complicated matter that includes multiple dimensions (see Howard 1992). People may state propositions they personally think to be false, or at least consider doubtful. They may accept a propostion's truthfulness under some conditions but not under others. Constructing a consistent cultural model therefore always involves imposing coherence on data that are inherently resistant.
Problems of propositional consistency and belief are further compounded when dealing with an extended time frame and a population that is geographically dispersed. In this paper we draw upon data covering a span of two hundred years, beginning with the observations of a British ship's captain in 1791 and ending with our own field work in 1991. During that span the total Rotuman population has grown from approximately 3,000 to more than 10,000, most of whom now live elsewhere. Indeed, less than one-fourth the total Rotuman population currently resides on the home island. The majority live in Fiji's urban centers, and sizeable Rotuman enclaves have developed in Australia and New Zealand.  A substantial proportion of Rotumans are well-educated, cosmopolitan individuals; many are in professional and quasi-professional roles. They are well-versed in the propositional pool that constitutes western cosmopolitan culture.
The cultural model we describe below therefore must be qualified. Firstly, it is restricted to that portion of the Rotuman population who have remained on the home island. Secondly, it represents only one of an increasingly diverse set of cultural models Rotumans use to make sense of their experience. Nevertheless, we believe the model we present had strong roots in Rotuman culture at the time of European intrusion, and though modified by Christianity, colonial administration and western education remains a prominent theme in Rotuman culture today. 
Notions of the Body: Inside and Out
In this section we present evidence for the proposition that Rotumans make a strong distinction between external and internal aspects of the human body, and that they pay much more attention to the former. We believe this is in large measure a reflection of the fact that body surfaces are discussed extensively in common discourse, leading to a systemization of knowledge about them, while interior functions are rarely discussed, resulting in unsystematic, idiosyncratic knowledge. To be sure, the human body is represented in other ways--for example in visual and performative arts, and rituals--but in Rotuma these, too, have focused on bodily surfaces, thus reinforcing the knowledge programmed by discourse.
Tattooing and Turmeric
Indications of the attention Rotumans paid to bodily surfaces during the early contact period (1791 to 1850) are provided by European visitors to the island. They remarked upon two customs in particular: tattooing, and smearing the body with turmeric.
Following the first recorded European visit to Rotuma, on August 8th, 1791, Captain Edward Edwards of H.M.S. Pandora wrote that the Rotumans were “tattooed in a different manner from the natives of the other islands we had visited, having the figure of a fish, birds and a variety of other things marked upon their arms” (Thompson 1915:64-66). George Hamilton, who was also aboard the Pandora, wrote that “Their bodies were curiously marked with the figures of men, dogs, fishes, and birds, upon every part of them; so that every man was a moving landscape. These marks were all raised, and done, I suppose, by pinching up the skin” (Thompson 1915:138-139).
According to René Lesson, a naturalist who visited Rotuma in 1824 aboard the Coquille:
Gardiner, who visited the island in 1896, reported that the men were always tattooed with a pair of drawers reaching from the waist to just below the knee. Typical designs on men’s shoulders included the perero, representing a strong-smelling flower commonly given to one’s sweetheart; the moiera, a common bush; stars, circles, crosses and other geometrical designs. Women’s tattoos were confined to the arms and consisted of circles enclosing designs (Gardiner 1898:414-415).
That tattoos were individualized is suggested by A.M. Hocart who was told in 1913 that if a man died in war, his identity could be determined by his tattoos:
One man tattooed one part and not another, and they recognized him thus. One would leave a blank space on belly, another over his knees, and they knew him by it (Hocart 1913:4768).
Gordon Macgregor, an American anthropologist who visited Rotuma in 1932, includes in his field notes drawings very similar to those of Gardiner. He reports that the patterns “are irregular and said to be made out of the operators’ minds.” According to one of Macgregor’s informants, men who were tattooed were considered properly dressed and might appear modestly without a sulu [wraparound skirt]. This same man told Macgregor that only women who had their arms and hands tattooed could make kava, and that an untattooed man could not make fekei ‘pudding’ (Macgregor 1932).
Although no information survives concerning the social significance of tattoo patterns, there are good reasons to suppose that they were important symbolic devices, involving local and family variations at the very least.  We therefore suspect they encoded significant information concerning an individual's placement in Rotuman society.
The custom of tattooing was prohibited by the European missionaries who established themselves after mid-century, and when Howard first visited Rotuma, in late 1959, none of the old people were tattooed. Nowadays, a number of young men are tattooed, especially those who have spent some time as sailors, but there are no practitioners of the art on Rotuma.
In addition to tattoos, early European visitors commented on the ubiquitous use of turmeric and coconut oil as a body ointment, not only on ceremonial occasions such as weddings, funerals and chiefly installations, but generally. Lesson wrote:
Lucatt, who arrived 17 years later, in 1841, gave a similar account:
A more favorable impression was reported by Bennett, a physician-naturalist who reported after a visit in 1830 that Rotumans “are cleanly both in their persons and habits;” and that “the custom of rubbing their bodies with scented coco-nut oil, as well as the aromatic smell of the turmeric, gives to them an agreeable odour” (Bennett 1831:475).
There is much evidence to suggest that turmeric was used ceremonially to mark transitions from one social status to another, e.g., from fetus to baby, single to married, commoner to chief, living to dead. However, we believe a case can also be made that an ointment of turmeric and coconut oil was thought to protect the surface of the body from intrusion and injurious penetration, especially the spilling of blood. It likely also was used medicinally following traumas to bodily surfaces. Thus Elisapeti Inia, a knowledgeable Rotuman elder, reports that cuts and wounds, as well as various skin diseases, were treated with such an ointment (personal communication).
Although the use of turmeric was given up with missionization, Rotumans substituted scented talcum powder in many contexts that formerly would have involved turmeric. When honoring people for any reason, for example, it is customary to douse them with talcum, as well as with liquid perfumes.  Bennett’s remark about personal (body surface) cleanliness remains as true today as it was in the past; Rotumans are nearly obsessive in their bathing habits, often taking several baths a day.
Illness and Injury
To the extent that vocabularies reflect a population’s concern for phenomena, Rotumans manifest a preoccupation with symptoms that affect body surfaces. Thus Howard (1979) identified 22 separate lexemes describing skin conditions, including eruptions of various kinds, discoloration, swellings, itching, etc. A second set of lexemes describes visible eye conditions. Between them, words for skin and eye conditions account for nearly half of the entire Rotuman illness lexicon.
Significantly, the main technique for treating ailments of all kinds, including those perceived as affecting internal organs, is massage (sarao). In a study of illness and curing strategies conducted by Howard in 1960, massage was selected as the most appropriate curing strategy for a variety of ailments 51% of the time. External treatments consisting of medicinal leaves or bathing with special preparations was selected 27% of the time, with internally taken concoctions selected in only 23% of instances (Howard 1979:265-267). The difference between external medicine (turu) and internal medicine (vai) is clearly delineated in Rotuman, and in describing the human body Rotuman informants drew sharp distinctions between surfaces and interiors. In fact this was one of the few areas of general agreement when Rotumans were asked to describe the human body and the functions of various organs. Each person asked presented a coherent, systematic image of bodily functioning, but no two portrayals were the same. This suggests to us that (internal) bodily functioning has not been a topic of discourse in Rotuman culture, and that each person has been left to make his or her own inferences. In contrast, bodily surfaces are a definite focus for discourse.
In monitoring the course of an ailment, Rotuman informants expressed a great deal of concern that symptoms be confined to bodily surfaces. Rashes, sores and lesions are not regarded as serious as long as they remain confined to the skin, but if infections result in fever, or other symptoms suggestive of internal malfunctions, concern escalates dramatically. Internal ailments are also more likely to be seen as supernaturally caused. This in part, at least, may reflect the lack of culturally shared knowledge about bodily functioning. Not having a coherent model on which to rely, Rotumans experience increased anxiety levels, and resort to a supernatural-ritualistic mode of problem solving. Most distressing of all is the shedding of blood, which for Rotumans is the prototype of danger.
The shedding of blood almost always requires a ritual to restore a sense of order. If another person is the cause of blood being spilled, either purposefully or accidentally, a ritual apology is required from the perpetrator, along with the presentation of a baked pig, fine white mat and kava root. In serious cases the offender is expected to make amends by symbolically offering his own life. On occasions where blood is shed as a result of accidents involving no one but the victim (and nowadays following an operation in the hospital), a ceremony called hapagsu is held. Ritual foods, including sacrificial animals, are prepared and consumed along with prayers to placate the spirits (‘atua) that may have caused the occurrence.
Our thesis is that whereas bodily surfaces are well-known, and associated with a firm sense of cultural order, bodily interiors are ill-defined culturally and associated with disorder and anxiety. To put this into a Levi-Straussian equation:
body surface:culture:order::body interiors:nature:disorder
In support of this equation is the fact that the hapagsu ceremony, which traditionally was only performed when blood was shed, is now performed when a prisoner is released from jail. This suggests that spilling blood is equivalent to crime insofar as each is indicative of disorder. In both instances the hapagsu ceremony aims ritually to restore order and to implore that the actions which brought about disorder not be repeated.
The reverse expression of the equation between bodily interiors and social disorder is the fact that interpersonal conflicts are presumed to cause serious (internal) ailments. The mechanism of causation is generally attributed to ancestral spirits, angered over social disruptions, rather than to sorcery. 
On the positive side, notions of health and beauty focus on external bodily appearances--on skin color and tone, but most importantly on body size. The word haharagi means at once: fat, youthful, healthy, nubile. Portly individuals are presumed to be healthy and happy, while those who are slender are likely to be asked repeatedly about their health and happiness. The state of a person's ata ('life force', 'soul') is said to be reflected in the state of their body's appearance.
We would like to point out at this juncture that Rotuman society, though physically non-violent, is by no means free from conflict. Indeed, in a recent article Howard (1990) has described Rotumans as “disputatious.” We therefore interpret the Rotuman focus on bodily surfaces as consistent with a concern for outward appearances of social harmony rather than as indicative of a conflict-free social order.
Bodily Control and Social Relations
In contrast with many of their Polynesian cousins, Rotumans often appear as sullen and unfriendly to strangers. Indeed, with strangers, their decorum is generally restrained to a marked degree. Facial expressions and body language are muted, suggesting shyness and a reluctance to engage. Until their dispositions are clearly known, strangers are seen as potential threats. Correspondingly, Rotumans tend to cover up more of their skin surfaces in the company of strangers. On formal public occasions involving many communities, and hence many people who are not well known, women in particular dress to cover almost all of their skin surface. Congruent with this emphasis on public modesty is the expectation that people passing through a village will be properly covered; men, for example, are expected to wear shirts in such public places. (While this emphasis on modesty in dress is clearly a post-missionary development, its particular manifestation, i.e., the way it is adapted to specific contexts, is distinctively Rotuman).
With intimates, however, skin plays an important communicative role. Not only are bodies far more expressive and mobile in the presence of friends and close kin, but physical contact is eagerly sought. Intimates are generally seen walking hand-in-hand, sitting with arms resting on one another, or pinching and poking one another while telling jokes. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of touching in Rotuman culture. It is as central to Rotuman communication as gestural language is to southern Italians.
It is no accident that the favored healing strategy is massage. This laying on of hands, often for extensive periods, signifies intimacy and caring, especially when performed in the presence of friends and kinsmen. Massage in such contexts condenses symbolism associated both with restored health (bodily order) and relationships (social order).
Still another internal/external distinction worthy of attention centers on emotions, particularly disruptive emotions like jealousy, envy and anger. These are considered to be chaotic internal states that threaten social harmony. Anger in particular is hypocognized. We have never known Rotumans to admit to anger, even under circumstances of great provocation and frustration. When asked how they feel they are likely to use terms that can be translated as “disappointed,” or “sad.” This is premised on the cultural assumption that anger results in a loss of self-control, in behavior that will cause regret for everyone. It is conceived as an internal state powerful enough to burst through one’s metaphorical social skin, threatening to produce disorder. Just as shedding blood requires appropriate rituals to restore order, outbursts of anger generally require ritual apologies and forgiveness if social harmony is to be regained.
Power, Autonomy and Control of Bodies
Michel Foucault, Mary Douglas and others have argued convincingly that there is a strong link between the exercise of political power and disciplining of the body. Where political control is overarching and autocratic, social control is often extended to control of the body. Particularly in socialization contexts, powerful autocracies (like the United States Marine Corps) tend to impose tight controls on bodily expression. Thus a high degree of bodily discipline is often indicative of high levels of domination and subordination. In contrast, a low degree of bodily discipline suggests low levels of political domination and subordination. We would argue further, following Foucault, that the social intrusion into internal bodily functions (including the psyche) marks the strongest form of political tyranny. It follows that social autonomy is congruent with a lack of discourse or shared knowledge about, and less control over, internal bodily functions. We believe this to be the case for Rotuma.
Social autonomy is a strong undercurrent in Rotuman culture. It operates at all levels: individual, village, district, island. The underlying assumption is that one cannot impose one’s will on another, that voluntary compliance is required for order. Attempts to impose one’s will against the wishes of others is thought to generate anger, which threatens to produce social chaos.
The autonomy principle can clearly be seen in socialization patterns. Children are often given commands by parents, but they are rarely punished for disobeying. When punishment is administered for inappropriate behavior it tends to be mild--a light slap on the behind or leg. As they mature children report choosing to do things to please their parents out of a sense of obligation and gratitude rather than a sense of fear or physical threat.
The manner in which mothers bathe their infants is indicative. Mothers hold infants in a basin of water and manipulate their bodies as necessary to get the job done, but pay close attention to the child’s body movements and focus of attention. If the infant thrusts in a particular direction the mother does not resist, even though it may cause a temporary inconvenience. Diversions of the infant’s attention are likewise indulged. It is clear from repeated observations (and video recordings) that the individual’s autonomy is recognized and valued, even during infancy.
Socialization of bodily functions such as urination and defecation are correspondingly relaxed. The emphasis is less on controlling one’s bodily functions than on avoiding embarrassment or offending someone else by confronting them with “dirt.” Here, too, it is the appearance of order that is emphasized rather than a need to discipline the body to create and maintain order.
The subdued use of power by parents in relation to children is duplicated in relations between chiefs and their subjects. Rotuma is divided into seven districts, each headed by a titled paramount chief (gagaj ‘es itu‘u). Districts are subdivided into clusters of households (ho‘aga) that work together on communal tasks. Each ho‘aga is headed by a sub-chief (fa ‘es ho‘aga) who may or may not be titled. In addition, some men hold titles even though they have no authority outside their own households. They do, however, receive privileged treatment at ceremonial gatherings.
Chiefs at every level have little coercive power. If people from a household have chronic disagreements with their fa ‘es ho‘aga they simply stop co-operating with him, or may join another group. If a sub-chief has a serious conflict with the district chief he may withhold his support for projects headed by the district chief, and gather support for his own projects.
The autonomy of bodies in the presence of chiefs is easily seen on occasions when speeches are being given at ceremonial events. When chiefs are giving speeches, people keep right on talking, walking about, eating, and doing other things. If ability to constrain physical activity is an indicator of coercive power, it is quite clear at such functions that Rotuman chiefs have little of it.
Our argument is that this lack of coercive power on the part of chiefs, and the corresponding personal autonomy enjoyed by Rotumans, is consistent with the emphasis on bodily surfaces as distinct from bodily interiors. By focusing attention on the outside of the body--on the skin--Rotumans appear to be communicating to one another, including their chiefs, that they are willing to accept the social order up to a point, but that the insides of their bodies are out-of-bounds to social intrusion.
Bodily Substance and Cannibal Chiefs
In Rotuman myths, chiefs are sometimes portrayed as cannibals who eat their own people (Churchward 1938-39). The portrayal appears to be metaphoric, however. The core idea involved is that chiefs who are overly harsh, who demand more than a reasonable share of the people's food crops, are like cannibals (Howard 1986). This is premised on the Rotuman notion, shared by many other Pacific peoples, that a person's basic essence is composed by the food that nourishes them as well as by their genealogical inheritance (socially rather than biologically conceived). Key to Rotuman thinking is the importance of ancestral lands on which staple foods like yams and taro are grown. Lands are made fertile by ancestral spirits, who have a stake in the survival and flourishing of their descendants. Food from ancestral lands thus contributes vitally to the substance of personhood. Correspondingly, land is at the core of Rotuman notions of kinship. Indeed, tracing ancestry to a named block of land is the most common idiom Rotumans use in reference to kinship. At the extreme, kinship ties can be created by extensive sharing of food from the same land, even when there are no known genealogical connections.
Given this background, it becomes clear why confiscation of food from ancestral lands is equivalent to cannibalism in Rotuma. Cannibalism can be conceived as a form of behavior in which other people's vital essences are consumed in order to enhance the vital essence of the consumer. In cultures where a person's vital essence resides in the heart, liver or brain cannibalism focuses on the ritual consumption of those organs. On Rotuma, where the main source of vital essence comes from food, depriving people of that food is to eat their vital essence, and hence to cannibalize them. It is also important to note that this is a form of cannibalism that remains external to the human body; the body's interior is left untouched.
The relationship between chiefly authority, cannibalism and the emphasis on body surfaces is clearly evident in the Rotuman myth, Kirkirsasa. To summarize:
In his interpretation of this myth, Vilsoni Hereniko (1995), a Rotuman playwright-scholar, suggests that the giant symbolizes males, chiefs and kings, while Kirkirsasa symbolizes females, commoners and the land. Her tattoos reinforce her association with culture and domesticity, according to Hereniko, in contrast to the giant who is not tattooed and therefore wild and uncultured.
The giant symbolizes oppression in Hereniko's view. He is asleep during the day, signifying laziness, and his fiery red teeth suggest gluttony (and cannibalism). The word for giant, mam'asa, also translates as 'cruel' and 'monster'. By pelting the giant's teeth the maid-servants denounce and challenge his oppressiveness.
The girls' plea to Kirkirsasa that she not get angry is significant to Hereniko. He writes:
Thus, the myth presents Kirkirsasa as the very essence of cultural control. Her interactions with the giant prior to his submission follow the rules of etiquette to the letter, suggesting that compliance with cultural rules has a potency of its own (as contrasted with the maid-servants' rude behavior, which was ineffective).
Hereniko acknowledges the obvious equivalence in the myth between tattooing and cooking, and further observes that the rubbing of hot stones over the giant's body is reminiscent of sarao (massage). All of these operations--tattooing, cooking and massage--have symbolic associations in Rotuman culture with the domestication of uncultured, wild, and unrestrained forces. The epitome of such an uncultured state for Rotumans is a cannibal, who therefore must be cooked, tattooed and/or massaged to bring him under cultural control. It is significant for our argument that all three of these processes are confined to the giant's exterior.
Tattooing on Rotuma therefore can be interpreted as a means of binding a person's inner, wild nature (as epitomized by a cannibal's gluttony, anger and cruelty) for the protection of society. Turmeric can be understood as a means of protecting the person from externally induced harm or chaos--from insects, accidents, or marauding spirits. Both practices disappeared with Christianization, but substitutes persist. Today clothes serve to signify constraint on interior disorder, while powders and perfumes are used in place of turmeric, symbolizing life over decay and death. The appearance of social order and concern for personal (interior) autonomy remain strong themes in contemporary Rotuma. Though one may think of Rotuman culture as only skin deep, it is a skin that has proved tough and tenacious. It has served the Rotuman people well.
Bennett, G., 1831. A Recent Visit to Several of the Polynesian Islands. United Service Journal 33:198-202, 473-482.
Douglas, M., 1970. Natural Symbols. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Foucault, M., 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Penguin Press, London.
Gardiner, J. S., 1898. Natives of Rotuma. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:396-435, 457-524.
Hereniko, V., 1995. Woven Gods: Female Clowns and Power in Rotuma. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
Hocart, A. M., 1913. Field Notes, Rotuma. Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Howard, A., 1979. The Power to Heal in Colonial Rotuma. Journal of the Polynesian Society 88:243-275.
Howard, A., 1990. Dispute Management in Rotuma. Journal of Anthropological Research 46:263-292.
Lesson, R., 1838-9. Voyage Autour du Monde . . . sur . . .”La Coquille.” Pourrat Fréres, Paris.
Lucatt, E., 1851. Rovings in the Pacific, 1837-49 . . . by a Merchant Long Resident in Tahiti. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, London.
Macgregor, G., 1932. Rotuma Field Notes. Bishop Museum Archives, Honolulu, Hawaii. SC Macgregor.
Thompson, B., 1915. Voyage of H.M.S. Pandora. Francis Edwards, London.
 After Rotuma was ceded to Great Britain in 1881, the British decided to administer as part of the Colony of Fiji. When Fiji was given independence in 1970, Rotumans consented to be part of the new country. Therefore the opportuntity for Rotumans to migrate to Fiji has been unrestricted (for an account of Rotuman migration and its implications for the home island see Howard and Rensel 1992). [back to text]
 Data for this paper were collected by Howard during a field expedition in 1959-61 and by Howard and Rensel during five separate field trips during 1987-91. Additional information was obtained from published and archival sources. [back to text]
 The art of sinnet tying in house building provides a suggestive parallel example. Each expert in this craft had his own signature design, which was associated with his particular locality. For someone from another locality to use his design was a serious breach of etiquette that could result in conflict. [back to text]
 As Howard has argued elsewhere (n.d.), Rotumans associate sweet smells with life, foul smells with decay and death. Hence dousing someone with sweet-smelling substances is symbolically equivalent to offering them life-protection. [back to text]
 Curses of immanent justice may be invoked by aggrieved parties, but they are presumed to have no force independent of concerned spirits. In modern times this includes the Christian God. [back to text]