The other aspect of the Moi way of life that seems to have created the greatest impression upon those who have studied them is that, although, by occidental standards, crimes are few, the conceptions of right and wrong seem to be quite incomprehensible to them. In their place, and incidentally governing conduct by the most rigid standards, are the notions of what is expedient and what is inexpedient. The Moi is concerned rather with policy than justice. Piety and fervour have no place in his ritual observations. Contrition is meaningless. There is no moral condemnation in Moi folklore of those who commit anti-social acts.
All this as well as the elaborate ceremonials accompanied by their ritual drunkenness is explained by the Moi conception of a universe dominated by a number of powerful spirits who, together with the manes of their own ancestors, control their destinies. The relationship is a contractual one; the spirits and the manes appearing rather in the light of strict and exacting creditors. Broadly speaking there is nothing either particularly benevolent or hostile in the attitude of these ghostly auto¬crats towards their human feudatories. All they claim are their just debts – the ceremonies. No more and no less than these. As long as they are scrupulously paid, all goes well with the individual, the family and the tribe. Drought or deluge, ‘the bad death’, epidemics – in fact, misfortunes of all kinds are merely indications that the rites have been violated, and the only remedy lies in finding the offender, and compelling him to put the matter right by providing the prescribed reparation.
The view taken of human conduct and its effects is totally opposed to the religious teachings of the West, which accept that the wicked man prospers and that the moral debts of those who break all but the eleventh commandment are settled in another existence. Among the Moi’s re¬tribution is swiff and terrestrial. The wicked – that is, the ritually negligent man – is quickly ruined. If he continues to pile up spiritual debts he is certain of a sudden death – the invariable sign that the ghostly creditors, becoming impatient, have claimed his soul for non-payment.
The thing works out in practice much better than one might expect. Crimes against the individual, such as theft or violence, are viewed as contravening the rites due to the plaintiffs ancestral manes. The aggressor, however, is seen as no more than the instrument of one of the spirits who has chosen this way to punish the victim for some ritual inadequacy. The judge, therefore, reciting in verse the appropriate passage of common law, abstains from stern moralisation. Both sides are in the wrong, and rather illogically, it seems, the aggressor is sentenced to make material reparation and also – what is regarded as far more important – to provide the animals and liquor necessary for the ritual reparation to be paid to the offended spirits. The ritual reparation, of course, takes priority, and in cases of hardship may be paid for in instalments. The offender is compelled by law to take part in this feast which provides as a secondary function the means of reconciliation of the two parties.
There is no distinction among the Mot’s between civil and criminal law and no difference is made between intentional and unintentional injury. If a man strikes another in a fit of temper or shoots him acciden¬tally while out hunting, it is all the work of the spirits and the payment to be made has already been laid down. No eyebrows are lifted. It is just another human misfortune to be settled by a drinking bout at which the whole village gets tipsy. The Moi’s do not apply the death penalty, since otherwise the community would expose itself to the vengeance of the ghost of the executed man. Two of the greatest crimes are the theft of water and of rice, which are under the protection of powerful spirits. Owing to the sacrilegious nature of such an offence, which exposes the community to the resentment of the spirits involved, the offender in this case is banished for life.
The white colonist, in his treatment of the Moi’s, has been at once both sentimental and predatory. The smaller administrators, disinterested – since they have nothing to lose whether the Moi’s work or not – tend to regard them as delightful children. An outstanding example of this attitude was the celebrated Sabatier who refused to allow missionaries in his territory, had the bridges demolished when he heard that a high official was on his way to investigate the labour problem, and is said to have married three Moi’ wives.
After seeing the first effects of white encroachment in the Moi country, he went even further than this, advocating complete withdrawal and allowing the Moi’s to live their lives in their own way. But the government found it impossible to refrain from meddling, from suppressing tribal warfare, judging, counting, taxing and above all – and fatally – making labour compulsory for the requirements of Europeans. It was the action of the planters who were determined to have labour for their plantations that defeated Sabatier.
The planters are a very small group of men; a few families who possess Indo-China’s richest fortunes. Their attitude towards the Moi’s is probably identical with that of any of the old slave-owning aristocracies towards the producers of their wealth. It is one of utter contempt; without which effective exploitation would probably be impossible. In the past they have employed labour recruiters, paying high premiums for each man who could be induced or tricked into signing on for three or five years – a period of indenture which the labourer rarely survived. Coolies were kept under armed guard and thrashings were liberally administered. Some¬times they were re-sold and transported to the Pacific Islands. Recent attempts to temper these conditions have met with the most resolute opposition, the planters asking, pertinently as they believe, what after all is the purpose of a colony?
Thus the conflict between administrator and planter continues, and whatever mitigations of the Moi’s’ lot may have taken place, the principle of compulsion persists. For the privilege of having the white newcomers in his country each adult male pays a tax in rice and must give up a number of days annually for labour on the plantations or roads. It is the infringement of the Moi’s liberty which is the fundamental vexation. For fifty days he is prevented from performing the rites, therefore com¬promising him heavily with the spirits, who demand to be repaid. There enters also the factor that in a finely balanced economy the loss to him and his family of this amount of time may make the difference between sufficiency and ruin. Moi society recalls that of Islam or the pre- Columbian civilisation of America in that every action of the individual from birth to death is rigidly controlled. It is a tightly unified system which has shown itself fairly successful in dealing with the internal life of the tribe, but brittle and without resistance to external shock. Moi’ customary law and the rites deal with every eventuality, and take into account every situation but one. The Moi has not been permitted the initiative to meet an attack from an unexpected quarter. If someone offends the village’s tutelary spirit, the thing can be put right without much trouble. But if a timber-cutting company with a concession comes along and cuts down the banyan tree that contains the spirit, and takes it away, what is to be done? It is the end of the world.