Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Odd People

THE PEOPLE of Monomotapa, of whom I have written more than once, I have recently revisited; and I confess to an astonishment at the success with which they deal with the various difficulties and problems arising in their social life.

Thus, in most countries the laws of property are complex in the extreme; punishable acts in connexion with them are numerous and often difficult to define.

In Monomotapa the whole thing is settled in a very simple manner: in the first place, instead of strict laws binding men down by written words, they appoint a number of citizens who shall have it in their discretion to decide whether a man's actions are worthy of punishment or no; and these appointed citizens have also the power to assign the punishment, which may vary from a single day's imprisonment to a lifetime. So crimeless is the country, however, that in a population of over thirty millions less than twenty such nominations are necessary; I must, however, admit that these score are aided by several thousand minor judges who are appointed in a different manner.

Their method of appointment is this: it is discovered as accurately as may be by a man's manner of dress and the hours of his labour and the size of the house he inhabits, whether he have more than a certain yearly revenue; any man discovered to have more than this revenue is immediately appointed to the office of which I speak.

The power of these assessors is limited, however, for though it is left to their discretion whether their fellow-citizens are worthy of punishment or not, yet the total punishment they can inflict is limited to a certain number of years of imprisonment. In old times this sort of minor judge was not appointed in Monomotapa unless he could prove that he kept dogs in great numbers for the purposes of hunting, and at least three horses. But this foolish prejudice has broken down in the progress of modern enlightenment, and, as I have said, the test is now extended to a general consideration of clothes, the size of the house inhabited, and the amount of leisure enjoyed, the type of tobacco smoked, and other equally reasonable indications of judicial capacity.

The men thus chosen to consider the actions of their fellow-citizens in courts of law are rewarded in two ways: the first small body who are the more powerful magistrates are given a hundred times the income of an ordinary citizen, for it is claimed that in this way not only are the best men for the purpose obtained, but, further, so large a salary makes all temptation to bribery impossible and secures a strict impartiality between rich and poor.

The lesser judges, on the other hand, are paid nothing, for it is wisely pointed out that a man who is paid nothing and who volunteers his services to the State will not be the kind of a man who would take a bribe or who would consider social differences in his judgments.

It is further pointed out by the Monomotapans (I think very reasonably) that the kind of man who will give his services for nothing, even in the arduous work of imprisoning his fellow-citizens, will probably be the best man for the job, and does not need to be allured to it by the promise of a great salary. In this way they obtain both kinds of judges, and, oddly enough, each kind speaks, acts, and lives much as does the other.

I must next describe the methods by which this interesting and sensible people secure the ends of their criminal system.

When one of their magistrates has come to the conclusion that on the whole he will have a fellow-citizen imprisoned, that person is handed over to the guardianship of certain officials, whose business it is to see that the man does not die during the period for which he is entrusted to them. When some one of the numerous forms of torture which they are permitted to use has the effect of causing death, the official responsible is reprimanded and may even be dismissed. The object indeed of the whole system is to reform and amend the criminal. He is therefore forbidden to speak or to communicate in any way with human beings, and is segregated in a very small room devoid of all ornament, with the exception of one hour a day, during which he is compelled to walk round and round a deep, walled courtyard designed for the purpose of such an exercise. If (as is often the case) after some years of this treatment the criminal shows no signs of mental or moral improvement, he is released; and if he is a man of property, lives unmolested on what he has, and that usually in a quiet and retired way. But if he is devoid of property, the problem is indeed a difficult one, for it is the business of the police to forbid him to work, and they are rewarded if he is found committing any act which the judges or the magistrates are likely to disapprove. In this way even those who have failed to effect reform in their characters during their first term of imprisonment are commonly—if they are poor—re-incarcerated within a short time, so that the system works precisely as it was intended to, giving the maximum amount of reformation to the worst and the hardest characters. I should add that the Monomotapan character is such that in proportion to wealth a man's virtues increase, and it is remarkable that nearly all those who suffer the species of imprisonment I have described are of the poorer classes of society.

Though they are so reasonable, and indeed afford so excellent a model to ourselves in most of their social relations, the people of Monomotapa have, I confess, certain customs which I have never clearly understood, and which my increasing study of them fails to explain to me.

Thus, in matters which, with us, are thought susceptible of positive proof (such as the taste and quality of cooking, or the mental abilities of a fellow-citizen) the Monomotapans establish their judgment in a transcendental or super-rational manner. The cooking in a restaurant or hotel is with them excellent in proportion, not to the taste of the viands subjected to it, but to the rental of the premises. And when a man desires the most delicious food he does not consider where he has tasted such food in the past, but rather the situation and probable rateable value of the eating-house which will provide him with it. Nay, he is willing—if he understands that that rateable value is high—to pay far more for the same article than he would in a humbler hostelry.

The same super-rational method, as I have called it, applies to the Monomotapan judgment of political ability; for here it is not what a man has said or written, nor whether he has proved himself capable of foreseeing certain events of moment to the State, it is not these characters that determine his political career, but a mixture of other indices, one of which is that his brothers shall be younger than himself, another that when he speaks he shall strike the palm of his open left hand with his clenched right hand in a particular manner by no means commonly or easily acquired; another that he shall not wear at one and the same time a coat which is bifurcated and a hat of hemispherical outline; another that he shall keep silence upon certain types of foreigners who frequent the markets of Monomotapa, and shall even pretend that they are not foreigners but Monomotapans; and this index of statesmanship he must preserve under all circumstances, even when the foreigners in question cannot speak the Monomotapan language.

Some years ago it was required of every statesman that he should, for at least so many times in any one year, extravagantly praise the virtues of these foreign merchants, and particularly allude to their intensely unforeign character; but this custom has recently fallen into abeyance, and silence upon the subject is the most that is demanded.

A further social habit of this people which we should find very strange and which I for my part think unaccountable is their habit of judging the excellence of a literary production, not by the sense or even the sound of it, but by the ink in which it is printed and the paper upon which it is impressed. And this applies not only to their letters but also to their foreign information, and on this account they should (one would imagine) obtain but a very distorted view of the world. For if a good printer prints with excellent ink at five shillings a pound, and with beautiful clear type upon the best linen paper, the statement that the British Islands are uninhabited, while another in bad ink and upon flimsy paper and with worn type affirms that they contain over forty million souls, the first impression and not the second would be conveyed to the Monomotapan, mind. As a fact, however, they are not misinformed, for this singular frailty of theirs (as I conceive it to be) is moderated by one very wise countervailing mental habit of theirs, which is to believe whatever they hear asserted more than twenty-six times, so that even if the assertion be conveyed to them in bad print and upon poor paper, they will believe it if they read it over and over again to the required limits of reiterations.

No people in the world are fonder of animals than this genial race, but here again curious limits to their affection are to be discovered, for while they will tear to pieces some abandoned wretch who beats a llama with a hazel twig for its correction, they will see nothing remarkable in the tearing to pieces of an alpaca goat by dogs specially trained in that exercise.

Generally speaking, the larger an animal is, the warmer is the affection borne it by these people. Fleas and lice are crushed without pity, blackbeetles with more hesitation, small birds are spared entirely, and so on upwards until for calves they have a special legislation to protect and cherish them. At the other end of the scale, microbes are pitilessly exterminated.

Divorce is not common in Monomotapa. But such divorces as take place are very rightly treated differently, according to the wealth of the persons involved. Above a certain scale of wealth divorce is only granted after a lengthy trial in a court of justice; but with the poor it is established by the decree of a magistrate who usually, shortly after pronouncing his sentence, finds an occasion to imprison the innocent party. Moreover, the poor can be divorced in this manner, if any magistrate feels inclined to exercise his power, while for the divorce of the rich set conditions are laid down.

I should add that the Monomotapans have no religion; but the tolerance of their Constitution is nowhere better shown than in this particular, for though they themselves regard religion as ridiculous, they will permit its exercise within the State, and even occasionally give high office and emoluments to those who practise it.

We have, indeed, much to learn in this matter of religion from the race whose habits I have discovered and here describe. Nothing, perhaps, has done more to warp our own story than the hide-bound prejudice that a doctrine could not be both false and true at the same time, and the unreasoning certitude, inherited from the bad old days of clerical tyranny, that a thing either was or was not.

No such narrowness troubles the Monomotapan. He will prefer—and very wisely prefer—an opinion that renders him comfortable to one that in any way interferes with his appetites; and if two such opinions contradict each other, he will not fall into a silly casuistry which would attempt to reconcile them: he will quietly accept both, and serve the Higher Purpose with a contented mind.

It is on this account that I have said that the Monomotapans regard religion as ridiculous. For true religion, indeed (as they phrase it), they have the highest reverence; and true religion consists in following the inclinations of an honest man, that is, oneself; but "religion in the sense of fixed doctrine," as one of their priests explained to me, "is abhorrent to our free commonwealth." Thus such hair-splitting questions as whether God really exists or no, whether it be wrong to kill or to steal, whether we owe any duties to the State, and, if so, what duties, are treated by the honest Monomotapans with the contempt they deserve: they abandon such speculation for the worthy task of enjoying, each man, what his fortune permits him to enjoy.

But, as I have said above, they do not persecute the small minority living in their midst who cling with the tenacity of all starved minds to their fixed ideas; and if a man who professes certitude upon doctrinal matters is useful in other ways, they are very far from refusing his services to the State. I have known more than one, for instance, of this old-fashioned and bigoted lot who, when he offered a sum of money in order to be admitted to the Senate of Monomotapa, found it accepted as readily and cheerfully as though it had been offered by one of the broadest principles and most liberal mind.

Let no one be surprised that I have spoken of their priests, for though the Monomotapans regard religion with due contempt, it does not follow that they will take away the livelihood of a very honest class of people who in an older and barbaric state of affairs were employed to maintain the structure of what was then a public worship. The priesthood, therefore, is very justly and properly retained by the Monomotapans, subject only to a few simple duties and to a sacred intonation of voice very distressing to those not accustomed to it. If I am asked in what occupation they are employed, I answer, the wealthier of them in such sports and futilities as attract the wealthy, and the less wealthy in such futilities and sports as the less wealthy customarily enjoy. Nor is it a rigid law among them that the sons of priests should be priests, but only the custom—so far, at least, as I have been able to discover.

~Hilaire Belloc: from First and Last

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