Taking a wife

“Marriage is nominally by capture. The word “to marry” means also “to fetch” and “to catch.”” – D.F. Bleek, The Naron: A Bushman Tribe of the Central Kalahari, 1928.

One of the benefits of reading 19th and early 20th century ethnographic accounts is learning about cultural traditions that, in many cases, either no longer exist, or are not commonly discussed by present-day anthropologists. Headhunting, men’s cults, ritual mutilation, and infanticide are some topics that I have covered previously. Bride capture is another practice that is highly prevalent in early ethnography, but has not been the subject of much systematic investigation by anthropologists today, so I figure it warrants further attention.

Sociologist Nguyen Thi Van Hanh offers a useful definition of the practice, writing that, “Bride capture, or bride kidnapping (also known as marriage by capture or marriage by abduction), is a form of forced marriage in which the bride is kidnapped by the groom.”

One aspect of bride capture that may surprise many readers is how prevalent the practice was among hunter-gatherer societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In The Bushmen of South West Africa (1920), ethnographer Louis Fourie described bride capture during intergroup conflict, writing that, “Women are never killed intentionally during the course of these feuds but it not infrequently happens that when one group overwhelms another the women are made captive and taken in marriage.” In 1930, anthropologist Isaac Schapera noted the regional pattern, writing that, “Among the North-Western Bushmen girls taken in war or found trespassing are also often held as wives by their captors.”

In 1928, anthropologist Dorothea Bleek made note of the practice of bride capture among the Naron hunter-gatherers of the Central Kalahari, writing that, “The women said, a man seizes a girl of another village, and takes her to his village, and thereby she is married, whether she likes it or not. He comes with an older man just to pay a visit and sits chatting without mentioning his purpose. They look out for a good opportunity and carry the girl off. The Bridegroom keeps watch on his bride at first, till she settles down.” Bleek described one failed attempt at bride capture:

One day, the Bushmen had collected in front of the house to give exhibitions of dancing for the purpose of photography. At mid-day we made a short interval. On coming out again, we found that all the men had gone; and were told that the huts were on fire and they had gone to put it out. We could see no sign of smoke or fire in the direction of the huts, and by and by some of the men began to trickle back, said it had been a bush fire, no huts were in danger. Later, when I was a lone with the natives, I was told what had occurred. One of the women had been at the huts with her young daughter and two Auen men from the north had turned up and tried to carry off the girl as wife for one of them. The mother lighted a fire to summon her men to her assistance. They arrived in time, and after a verbal quarrel, the would-be wife-stealer retired (Bleek, 33).

In The Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948), explorer E. Lucas Bridges wrote about the Ona hunter-gatherers of Tierra del Fuego, noting that, “Most of the marriages I knew amongst those primitive people were brought about either by conquest or by abduction.” Bridges describes one such case, where three brothers named Koh, Kaniko, and Tisico, were massacred by a neighboring band that they had previously been on good terms with, specifically because some of the men from that band wanted their wives. After they were killed and their wives were taken, Bridges writes that,

The numerous widows had cut their hair in mourning, but if the funeral and wedding bells were not intermixed, there had been hardly a pause between one and the other. The women of a party vanquished in a battue [hunt] would have been unwise to refuse to follow their new husbands when those victors had “blood in their eyes.” The fear would soon subside; women captives were wooed and made much of, to prevent them from running away. When badly treated, women took the first opportunity to give their captors the slip, though, if they were caught by their new husbands before they could get back to their own people, they ran the risk of being soundly beaten or arrowed through the legs with arrows from which the barbs had been removed—generally. A wife of long standing, if she obstinately refused to do her husband’s will, was just as likely to be thrashed or arrowed (Bridges, 223).

Bridges indicates that one of the wives may not have been entirely displeased with the outcome, however, having previously been a lower status wife to an apparently unattractive man:

Halimink, who had already had one wife, had gained a second from the massacre just described. She had been one of the wives of Koh—the third, I imagine—and her name was Akukeyohn (Afraid of Fallen Logs). I have noticed Halimink, with a mischievous grin on his face, lay unnecessary stress on the word koh [Koh, in addition to being a name, means “bone”] when speaking to Akukeyohn. She would put on a vexed, but coy, expression. Her anger was obviously only skin deep, for Halimink was a good husband to his favourite wife, and Koh had been by no means attractive (Bridges, 223).

In some circumstances, the practice of bride capture seems to be at least partially voluntary, with the potential bride herself choosing her putative captor. Though, this sort of voluntary elopement, ostensibly by capture, can cause much friction between different groups. In Life Amongst the Native Race (1884), John T. Hinkins described how one such conflict between two Australian tribes was dealt with:

A blackfellow of the Murray tribe had stolen a lubra (i.e., woman) from the Goulbourn tribe, though quite with the lubra's consent. This created a great commotion among the two tribes, and such a scene took place as I never before witnessed, nor am I likely to see again. The chief and friends of the captive girl, who was remarkably pretty, came to demand her from the hands of her captor. A meeting took place between the two tribes on a plain not far distant from my hut, and, owing to the influence my child had over them, I was permitted to attend this gathering, as they had especially invited her to be present, and I had positively refused to let her go unless I accompanied her. On arriving at the plain we found that upwards of a hundred of the two tribes had met. They placed us in a good spot for seeing all that was going on amongst them. As far as I could understand their "yabber" (talk) it was decided that the young lubra was to be given up to her friends, unless the captor, her intended husband, could stand an "ordeal " of six of her friends—her nearest relatives—endeavouring to wound or even kill him by throwing a certain number of each of their war instruments at him. He was to use no weapons to defend himself against these attacks but a shield. This ordeal seems to have been customary with them on such occasions. Six able young men were chosen, and each of them was supplied with a certain number of "spears," "nulla nullas," a kind of club, "boomerangs," and other implements of war. The captor was to stand, as far as I could judge about fifty yards distant from the warriors, and these instruments were hurled at him one at a time by the six men. If he was either killed or wounded the young lubra was to return with her friends to her own tribe, but if by his dexterity her would-be husband was able to evade all their weapons he would then rightly claim her as his bride, and she would be delivered up to him accordingly. Prior to the contest this young fellow had completely smeared himself with opossum fat till he shone like a mirror. This was no doubt, as he thought, to cause the weapons to glide off from him and also to give suppleness to his limbs. A greater sight of agility and cleverness on the part of this young aboriginal I never witnessed. Every weapon was hurled at him with unerring aim, but he cleverly disposed of them all by turning them off with his shield, stooping down or stepping aside, lifting an arm or a leg, showing how good and steady his sight must have been. One "nulla nulla" was thrown with such force that it broke his shield, which was made from the bark of a tree. He was immediately supplied with another, for they would have scorned to take advantage of his undefended state, and then with the same success he avoided all the rest of the weapons that were cast at him, not receiving a single wound. There was a great shout raised for the victor, and he was allowed to carry off his prize, who seemed greatly pleased, for she had evidently been watching the scene anxiously. Indeed, all parties appeared completely satisfied, and her friends returned home (Hinkins, 68).

In other cases, however, the practice is described as being wholly coercive and violent. In 1798, David Collins, Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of New South Wales, which was the first European settlement in Australia, described the practice of capturing wives among some native hunter-gatherer societies in the region, writing that, “[wives] are, I believe, always selected from the women of a tribe different from that of the males…and with whom they are at enmity.” Collins offers an extended description of the practice:

Secrecy is necessarily observed, and the poor wretch is stolen upon in the absence of her protectors; being first stupified with blows, inflicted with clubs or wooden swords, on the head, back, and shoulders, every one of which is followed by a stream of blood, she is dragged through the woods by one arm, with a perseverance and violence that one might suppose would displace it from its socket; the lover, or rather the ravisher, is regardless of the stones or broken pieces of trees which may lie in his route, being anxious only to convey his prize in safety to his own party, where a scene ensues too shocking to relate. This outrage is not resented by the relations of the female, who only retaliate by a similar outrage when they find it in their power. This is so constantly the practice among them, that even the children make it a game or exercise; and I have often, on hearing the cries of the girls with whom they were playing, ran out of my house, thinking some murder was committed, but have found the whole party laughing at my mistake.

Collins adds that, “The women thus ravished become their wives, are incorporated into the tribe to which the husband belongs, and but seldom quit him for another. “

In Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934), anthropologist George Murdock, who helped create many of the cross-cultural databases we still use today, such as the Human Relations Area Files, the Ethnographic Atlas, and the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, described many bride capture practices across societies all over the world. Murdock noted that:

Among Tasmanian hunter-gatherers, “When a man was of age to marry, he usually seized a women by stealth or force from another tribe. In other words, marriage was exogamous and by capture.” (pg. 9)

Among Aranda hunter-gatherers of Australia, “A man may take a wife -- from another man -- by capture, elopement, or magic. The capture of a woman from another group usually follows the murder of her husband in blood-revenge.” (pg. 38)

Of the Crow Native Americans, Murdock writes that, “The Crows often marry women captured from hostile tribes, and under certain circumstances the stealing of women is permitted even within the tribe. The approved mode of marriage, however, is by purchase." Murdock adds, however that, "Marriages are easily terminated.  A woman may desert a husband whom she dislikes, and a man may send away his wife for infidelity or incompatibility, or even for being “cranky.”” (pg. 274)

Among the Ganda farmers of Uganda, “Although wives may be obtained by inheritance, by gift from a superior or a subordinate, or by capture from the enemy in wartime, the most usual and honorable mode of marriage is by purchase.” (pg. 538)

Among Samoan horticulturalists, Murdock notes that during warfare, “Male prisoners are slain, unless held as hostages. Sometimes, as the acme of revenge, they are cooked and certain parts of their bodies eaten. Women, however, are usually spared and distributed among their captors.” (pg. 64)

Even where bride capture is no longer conducted, elements of the practice may continue in more symbolic or ritualized form. In describing the prevalence of bride capture in Indo-European history and literature, Ruth Katz Arabagian writes that, “Like the theme of cattle raiding, the theme of bride stealing in Indo-European heroic literature appears to reflect actual practice. It is noteworthy that this practice catches the imagination so powerfully that echoes of it persist in ritual even when the actual practice is no longer sanctioned by society.”

Richard Lee notes that among the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, “The Ju/'hoansi marriage ceremony involves the mock forcible carrying of the girl from her parents' hut...In fact, the “normal” Ju marriage has many aspects of marriage-by-capture.” Even though they do not practice bride capture today, these ritualized elements may represent a holdover from a previously practiced tradition. This is speculative, but it would not be surprising considering how prevalent the practice was among other Bushmen societies in the Kalahari in the past.

In The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains (1952), anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel writes that, among the Comanche, “It was a normal pattern for a man to take as wives the younger sister or sisters of his first wife and any women he might have captured or girls who grew up as captives in the tribe.” In addition, elements of the Comanche ritual Eagle Dance also show similarities with bride captures practices:

When the smoking was over, the leader arose and, followed closely by the dancers, sneaked silently to a near-by camp to “capture” a girl. Spectators remained some distance apart. In the old days the girl had to be a captive. The girl's family made a pretense of defending their camp against the attacking party, but the "victorious raiders" carried the "captured" girl to their own camp where preparations had been made for the remainder of the ceremony…During the dance, the warriors of the girl's people rushed up and made a sham attempt to recapture her. In actual practice they rushed in and recited some coups of their own…After the "failure" of the girl's relatives to recapture her, they brought in presents, which they deposited before her in a circle (Hoebel, 205).

Of course, the abduction of wives is not exclusive to small-scale societies of the past. Sociologist Nguyen Thi Van Hanh notes its existence in larger, historical and contemporary nations as well, writing that bride capture,

is practiced in the Caucasus region (e.g., Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia), in Central and Southeast Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China, among the Hmong community in Vietnam, Laos, etc.), in some nations in Africa (e.g., Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya), in South America (Chile, Mexico),and among the Roma community in Europe. In all of these areas, bride capture may be practiced throughout the country but is most common in the rural areas and in ethnic minority communities. Normally, young girls (often under 25, even as young as 8–12-years-old in some cases) are victims of bride capture. Bride capture was widely practiced throughout history and continues to be in some parts of the world today.

   The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women   (1574–82) by Giambologna.

The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women (1574–82) by Giambologna.

In Albion’s Seed (1991), historian David Hackett Fischer mentions the practice of bride abductions among the border counties of Scotland, Ireland, and England, and how this practice continued when many ‘borderlanders’ came to America,

Marriage customs among the people of the backcountry also derived from border roots. An ancient practice on the British borders was the abduction of brides. In Scotland, Ireland and the English border counties, the old custom had been elaborately regulated through many centuries by ancient folk laws which required payment of "body price" and "honor price." Two types of abduction were recognized: voluntary abduction in which the bride went willingly but without her family's prior consent; and involuntary abduction in which she was taken by force. Both types of abduction were practiced as late as the eighteenth century. It was observed of the borderlands and Ulster during this period that “abductions, both 'under the impulse of passion and from motives of cupidity,' were frequent.”

The border custom of bridal abduction was introduced to the American backcountry. In North and South Carolina during the eighteenth century, petitioners complained to authorities that "their wives and daughters were carried captives" by rival clans (Fischer, 367).

Fischer also writes that, “Even future President of the United States Andrew Jackson took his wife by an act of voluntary abduction,” providing an extended description:

Rachel Donelson Robards was unhappily married to another man at the time. A series of complex quarrels followed, in which Rachel Robards made her own preferences clear, and Andrew Jackson threatened her husband Lewis Robards that he would “cut his ears out of his head.” Jackson was promptly arrested. But before the case came to trial the suitor turned on the husband, butcher knife in hand and chased him into the canebreak. Afterward, the complaint was dismissed because of the absence of the plaintiff--who was in fact running for his life from the defendant. Andrew Jackson thereupon took Rachel Robards for his own, claiming that she had been abandoned. She went with Jackson willingly enough; this was a clear case of voluntary abduction. But her departure caused a feud that continued for years (Fischer, 367).

To conclude, if you have read some of my previous articles: in particular, The Behavioral Ecology of Male Violence, On secret cults and male dominance, and my post on Yanomami warfare, the prevalence of bride capture practices across cultures should be wholly unsurprising to you. Further, the decline of these sort of practices in small-scale societies – why you don’t see them as often today – should be equally unsurprising if you’ve read my piece on The sad and violent history of ‘peaceful’ societies, and my post on The Complicated Legacy of Colonial Contact. If not, I’d recommend you check those pieces out, as I think they help flesh out the historical, evolutionary, and ecological logic behind the ebb and flow of bride capture practices, and other similar institutions.