Histoire Générale Des Antilles

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Date: 1667

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THE COUVADE

The following account is given by Du Tertre of the Carib couvade in the West Indies. When a child is born, the mother goes presently to her work, but the father begins to complain, and takes to his hammock, and there he is visited as though he were sick, and undergoes a course of dieting which would cure of the gout "the most replete of Frenchmen. How they can fast so much and not die of it," continues the narrator, "is amazing to me, for they sometimes pass the five first days without eating or drinking anything; then up to the tenth they drink ouycou, which has about as much nourishment in it as beer. These ten days passed, they begin to eat cassava only, drinking ouycou, and abstaining from everything else for the space of a whole month. . . . Through the space of six whole months he eats neither birds nor fish, firmly believing that this would injure the child’s stomach, and that it would participate in the natural faults of the animals on which its father had fed; for example, if the father ate turtle, the child would be deaf and have no brains like this animal, if he ate manati, the child would have little round eyes like this creature, and so on with the rest. . . ."1

[Similarly, Dobrizhoffer reports from the Abipones of South America that a Spanish official offered snuff to a native cacique] "who came up to pay his respects, having just left his bed, to which he had been confined in consequence of his wife’s recent delivery. But seeing the savage refuse it, contrary to custom, he thought he must be out of his mind, for he knew him at other times to be greedy of this nasal delicacy; so he asked me aside to inquire the cause of his abstinence. I asked him in the Abiponian tongue . . . why he refused his snuff today? ’Don’t you know,’ he answered, ’that my wife has just been confined? Must not I therefore abstain from stimulating my nostrils? What a danger my sneezing would bring upon my child!’ No more, but he went back to his hut to lie down again directly, lest the tender little infant should take some harm if he stayed any longer with us in the open air. For they believe that the father’s carelessness influences the newborn offspring, from a natural bond and sympathy of both. Hence if the child comes to a premature end, its death is attributed by the women to the father’s intemperance, this or that cause being assigned; he did not abstain from mead; he had loaded his stomach with water hog; he had swum across the river when the air was chilly; he had neglected to shave off his long eyebrows; he had devoured underground honey, stamping on the bees with his feet; he had ridden till he was tired and sweated. With raving like this the crowd of women accuse the father with impunity of causing the child’s death, and are accustomed to pour curses on the unoffending husband."2 . . .

The fasting observed in South America and the West Indies is not general; repose, careful nursing, and nourishing food being the treatment usual for the imaginary invalid. Venegas mentions this kind of couvade among the Indians of California; Zucchelli, in West Africa; Captain Van der Hart, in Bouro, in the Eastern Archipelago. The country of Eastern Asia where Marco Polo met with the practice of the couvade in the thirteenth century, appears to be the Chinese province of West Yünnan, so that the widow’s remark to Sir Hudibras is true in a geographical sense:

"For though Chineses go to bed, And lie-in in their ladies’ stead."

. . . To the districts mentioned in the first edition of this work, I have to add another, South India. The account, for which I have to thank Mr. F. M. Jennings, describes it as usual among natives of the higher castes about Madras, Seringapatam, and on the Malabar Coast. It is stated that a man, at the birth of his first son or daughter by the chief wife, or for any son afterwards, will retire to bed for a lunar month, living principally on a rice diet, abstaining from exciting food and from smoking; at the end of the month he bathes, puts on a fresh dress, and gives his friends a feast. . . .

In Europe, the couvade may be traced up from ancient into modern times in the neighborhood of the Pyrenees. Above eighteen hundred years ago, Strabo mentions the story that among the Iberians of the north of Spain the women, "after the birth of a child, tend their husbands, putting them to bed instead of going themselves"; and this account is confirmed by later mentions of the practice. "In Biscay," says Michel, "in valleys whose population recalls in its usages the infancy of society, the women rise immediately after childbirth, and attend to the duties of the household, while the husband goes to bed, taking the baby with him, and thus receives the neighbors’ compliments." It has been found also in Navarre, and on the French side of the Pyrenees. Legrand d’Aussy mentions that in an old French fabliau the King of Torelore is "au lit et en couche" when Aucassin arrives and takes a stick to him, and makes him promise to abolish the custom in his realm. And the same author goes on to say that the practice is said still to exist in some cantons of Béarn, where it is called faire la couvade. Lastly, Diodorus Siculus notices the same habit of the wife being neglected, and the husband put to bed and treated as the patient, among the natives of Corsica about the beginning of the Christian era.1

1 , 2: 371 ff. (1667).

2 Dobrizhoffer, M., Historia de Abiponibus, 2: 231 ff. (1784). [The editors of the English translation of Father Dobrizhoffer’s Latin text (An Account of the Abipones, 3 vols.) were apparently interested mainly in political history and did not include this passage on the couvade. The German translation contains it.]

1 Tylor, E. B. n/a, Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, 292–295; 300–302.

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Chicago: "Histoire Générale Des Antilles," Histoire Générale Des Antilles in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed May 23, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7RSKJC4UVUNTUFC.

MLA: . "Histoire Générale Des Antilles." Histoire Générale Des Antilles, Vol. 2, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 23 May. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7RSKJC4UVUNTUFC.

Harvard: , 'Histoire Générale Des Antilles' in Histoire Générale Des Antilles. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 May 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7RSKJC4UVUNTUFC.