THE MURDER OF TWINS
By G. C. B. COTTERELL
WE still condemn people to death for their religious beliefs ; and perhaps with rather less excuse than mediaeval inquisitors could offer, for the intellectual gap between us and the objects of our enlightenment is broader. Our martyr-grilling forbears were at least more certain of their spiritual bearings than most of us are today. Yet when we sentence a pair of pagan parents to hang by the neck until they are dead because their animistic religion teaches them that twins are evil we seem to leave no room for doubt that we are right. The African custom of putting twins to death at birth we hold to be murder ; for we consider that the taking of human life is always unlawful—except when we feel justified in excusing it.
The penal codes adopted by our African dependencies are fundamentally the same in scope and are largely based on the Indian Penal Code, with local modifications where native custom is seen clearly to require specific provision,—mainly custom connected with sorcery, can- nibalism and the like. I have had to hang four men out of twelve who had killed and eaten a man ; two of them nevertheless had not been principals in the killing. In their case the law was amended, like the German criminal law in the Reichstag affair, after the event. Here the death penalty could only be regarded as fitting, for these men had eaten human flesh solely for food ; thus suffering, in Dr. R. R. Marett's charming phrase, no spiritual indigestion.
But in considering a practice such as twin-murder it must be remembered that we have recently learnt a great many things about savage mentality which were overlooked in the scurry of flag-hoisting in Africa fifty years ago. We are beginning to understand, dimly per- haps, and without full grasp of their real significance, many reasons underlying primitive doings ; practices' which to our Western minds 'seem as revolting as some of ours most certainly do to the savage. We begin to realize too that nearly all these practices are in fact precautions—an important advance in our approach to his standpoint.
One unpleasant but essential part of the twin-murder problem is the fact that women are of necessity involved. It is true that they are rarely hanged. But the mere fact of their inevitable share in the matter at once intensifies the argument that such killing is done under a religious sanction ; so that the motive and the intent actually conform to no Western definition of murder. For even a savage mother is not apt to destroy her offspring without supremely adequate reasons. She must feel, beyond all rational control of motives and intents, that what she is doing is her bounden duty ; her duty not to herself or to her husband but to her society. . .
The animistic African is almost universal in his antipathy to twins. Belief in their evil nature is not, however, without exception, and in certain tribes twin- bearing mothers are congratulated, and their children received by the community with acclamation. It would be interesting to investigate the comparative population and child-mortality statistics of tribes holding such opposite ,beliefs, in conjunction with facts concerning food production such as Dr. Audrey RichardS has so ably exploited in her book, Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe. So far as my own limited experience goes I have found the evidence pointing in no definite directiOn ; yet, as will be seen later, a connexion must exist. Where the antipathy is found it appears to be based on a common belief. This belief is the well- known theory of the " bush soul," which compels the savage to believe that to every human soul born into this world a counterpart, usually in animal shape, is born in the forest ; and that this • complementary soul is the evil or negative component of the dual entity of which the human infant is the good. How natural then that the appearance of two identical human shapes at one birth should lead him to think that the evil thing has this time been born in his own image ? But which of the two is it ? Better, he reasons, make quite sure, and dispose of both. The crime is committed. That is, the two morsels of humanity are carefully deposited in the " bad bush," home of all. unnatural things ; the unhappy mother undergoes stringent purifica- tion ; the husband performs the essential propitiatory rites, and gradually the stigma is removed. But it is not forgotten.
That is the religious aspect. There is another more practical theory which goes behind it and holds that the feeding of twins was seen by the priests to be too great a handicap to the mother's usefulness. To march out to the farms with a child at breast and a hoe in the right hand on the third day is only what is expected of her. With two infants to feed she must remain at home.
Two instances may serve to show how powerful are the religious ideas at work. I was sitting at breakfast before my tent in one of the more secret parts of the Nigerian rain-forest when a zealous Christian approached and laid two half-calabashes at my feet. Each con- tained a newly-born child ; one lively enough, the other dead. The father denied all knowledge that twins had been born to him ; with a pathetic loyalty the young mother sought to maintain that none of • the four mid- wives who admitted attending her knew anything about the birth. She declared further that the dead baby was stillborn. But so patent a pretence was too much. She stood there alone save for the interpreter. None of her own people was within earshot. It was then put to her that if she had been so wholly alone in her but as she said, and if one child was born dead, it would have been safe and easy to secure the life of the other by scraping a swift discreet hole in the mud floor and disposing of the dead one. The interpreter, a cynic quite unmoved, translated this suggestion. The effect on the girl was electrical. Flinging herself on the ground in a kind of fit she shouted, " Abomination oh ! oh, abomination ! "_ The use. of that word, reserved for the expression of sincere and extreme belief that sacrilege has been committed, is to me 'sufficient proof of the genuineness of the savage case. A higher court deprived her of liberty, though not of life itself.' Unfor- tunately the terms, to a creature of wildness, are inclined to be synonymous.
In the second instance twins were born to the pagan wife of a literate, intelligent and baptized member of the native constabulary ; born in barracks, in close contact with Western ideas. Steps were taken to watch their progress and positive warning was given. On the eighth day the children died of under-feeding. Nothing could be done about it, and life in the police barracks resumed the hectic secrecy which the presence of evil had uneasily disturbed.
There is one ray of light. Wherever missionary influence has been strongly established and feminine confidence won by European or American women, the inclination of the mothers to save their twins is plain. The risk they run is very great indeed ; but it is not uncommon for a woman to steal into a Mission com- pound by night and ask for sanctuary. It means that she must abandon everything and remain with the white people for years. Even then it is by no means safe for her to assume that her trouble has been forgotten.
Such, briefly, seems to be the circumstance of twin- murder today. An uncompromising dilemma confronts the African, parent._ Either he attempts to evade the tabu, in which case the matter is solved for him by the community ; or he satisfies convention and faces Pilate. And his decision means a choice between defying a fierce social pressure governed by grim religious sanction on the one hand ; and, on the other, a drop of seven or eight feet into Eternity.