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Home > Articles > The Journal of the Antropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland > On Poisoned Arrows in Melanesia > Part 1
On Poisoned Arrows in Melanesia
By the Rev. R. H. Codrington, D.D.
From: The Journal of the Antropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
Vol. XIX, pp. 215-219. 1890.
Part 1 of 4

POISONED arrows are used in the Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz, the Banks' Islands, the New Hebrides. In parts of the Solomon Islands, and in parts of the New Hebrides the common fighting weapon is the spear; but the use of the bow and poisoned arrow is occasional. In the Torres Islands, and in Lepers' Island in the New Hebrides, arrows are used for fighting which are not poisoned, yet belong entirely to the same class of weapons with those that are. When the word poison is used it is necessary to understand in what sense it is applied. The practice of administering poison in food was certainly common among the natives. I very much doubt, however, whether what was used had ever more than a very little power of doing harm; whether anything used was poisonous in a proper sense of the word, before returning "labourers" from Queensland brought back arsenic with them. Certainly the deadly effect of what was administered was looked for to follow upon the power of the incantations with which the poison was prepared. In the same way the deadly quality of these arrows was never thought by the natives to be due to poison in our use of the word, though what was used might be, and was meant to be, injurious and active in inflaming the wound; it was the supernatural power that belonged to the human bone of which the head was made on which they chiefly relied, and with that the magical power of the incantations with which the head was fastened to the shaft. Hence the Torres Island and Lepers' Island arrows, which have no poison, were as much valued, trusted, and feared as the others; and in Lepers' Island both kinds were used.

I first examined and inquired about these arrows in the Banks' Islands in 1870, and I exhibit one from Santa Maria in that group. They do not differ materially from those made in the Northern New Hebrides, or from the very formidable weapons from Santa Cruz which are here. In construction and in the way of applying the poison they are identical, though different in ornamentation and weight.

There is a common structure of all the arrows which have the head of human bone, whether poisoned or not There is the shaft of reed, the foreshaft of hard wood (tree-fern or palm), and the point of human bone; one part let into the other, and firmly bound with fine string or fibre. This is well seen in one of the unpoisoned arrows from the Torres Islands.

There is a great difference in size and weight Santa Cruz arrows are uniformly nearly four feet long, and weigh about two ounces. The Banks' Island arrows are about 3 feet 9 inches in length, and weigh about an ounce. The Torres Island arrows are only 2 feet 10 inches long, and weigh three-quarters of an ounce. The bone point of a Santa Cruz arrow is 7 inches long, and the foreshaft of hard wood, which is curiously carved and coloured, is 16 inches long. The bone head of a Torres Island arrow is 12 1/2 inches long, and the foreshaft 8 inches, the reed shaft being 20 inches. The one is a heavy and powerful weapon requiring a large and powerful bow, and is by far the most formidable missile of the kind; the other is slight and weak, little more than the human bone fitted for the bow.

It is the human bone which in native opinion gives to the arrow its efficacy. The bone of any dead man will do, because any ghost will have power to work on the wounded man; but the bone of one who was powerful when alive is more valued.

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