The King and people of Fiji

Thakombau, Chief of the Fiji Islands, 1817-1883

The king and people of Fiji: containing a life of Thakombau (Chief of the Fiji Islands, 1817-1883), with notices of the Fijians, their manners, customs, and superstitions, prior to the great religious reformation in 1854. The author, a missionary, befriended the Vunivalu (war and executive chief) Cakobau (Thakombau), whom he converted to Christianity. Subjects covered range from general descriptions of court politics and etiquette to analyses of religious practices that led to the tragic killing and cannibalistic consumption of war captives and some widows. Also covered are mythology, community organization, and specific features of inter-island warfare and hosting guests, including…

Chapter One – First Blood

City of Bau in 1855
City of Bau in 1855 | Image: Supplied

The shore of Muala — an island which might be taken as a type of many others in the Fiji group, with its central mountain sloping in the richest luxuriance of verdure down to the strand to meet the bright water, which rested within the encircling shelter of the coral-reef, through gaps in which the native craft found a passage into the open Pacific, or entrance into the quiet harbours frequent along the indented coast; on the beach of this Muala, one day, about the year 1822, a man was wandering carelessly and idly along. He was evidently a chief of rank. His long trailing girdle of native drapery; his club resting with dignity on his right shoulder; his long, narrow comb, formed of ribs of the cocoa-nut leaf, fixed boldly in the front part of his bushy and carefully dressed hair; and a waterproof fan, made out of the leaf of the umbrella tree, held in his left hand; all proclaimed his freedom from the oppressive restrictions of the tabus that burden the Fijian peasantry.

He was not alone. At a respectful distance, two men followed, clothed in the usual narrow strip of native cloth, about two inches wide, passed around the body and between the legs. Their very physiognomy proclaimed their slavish grade. Their stoop, as of “a strong ass couching down between two burdens,” and their manner of trailing the heavy club, which is the native’s constant companion, declared them to be serfs.

The sudden appearance of a large war canoe, sailing, towards the island, ended the saunter of the idlers. The chief stood still, looking inquiringly at the approaching sail. His minions crouched down on their haunches, maintaining perfect silence. At length, their master spoke: ” Tis the Bau canoe.  Go, one of you, tell your lady and let all our people prepare to entertain our guests. Cook the turtle; grate the pudding nuts; dig the kava. New mats in the large house for the chiefs.” The younger of the two slaves respectfully clapped his hands, and saying, “I go, sir,” arose and ran, yet stooping, until he was sufficiently distant from his liege to feel war-ranted in assuming a more manlike gait. It was not long after his departure that the chief sent his remaining attendant to hurry the household in their preparations. The canoe was at hand, having long been concealed by the haze which frequently announces the coming of easterly winds.

The chief then turned his face towards home but proceeded slowly. What a change has come over him! His eyes strike fire and his bosom heaves with passion, as he says within himself, ” I will be revenge!  They shall call me the Avenger of his son! “

Furnishing himself with a reed, he hurries to the temple of his god. It is empty. He enters boldly, although assuming the attitude and demeanour becoming one who has come to propitiate the gods and supplicate favours at their hands. Removing his turban, he presents his reed, and prays: ” Ye gods! acquaint ye with my wrongs! Take knowledge of my sufferings! By this reed, I pledge myself to fill this temple with riches. Ye gods! avenge my son!  Destroy his murderers! So be it! “

The Son-avenger now hastens to his busy dwelling.  It is a large house, like a lofty barn, forming one great room, about sixty feet long, and twenty-five wide, with the roof pitch some twenty feet from the floor., Hung midway from the ground are sundry shelves, well laden with the property; and all along, at the upper end of the hall, is a row of well-polished spears and clubs. The floor is spread with mats; and those at the upper end, appropriated to the chief himself, are, of fine quality. Here sits also the principal wife, who is a fine-looking woman, with a pleasing face and dignified manners — although unclothed, except with the very narrow fringe which the Fijian woman wears. The chief speaks rapidly to this lady, who hands him a string of white cowry- shells, with which he adorns his neck. Leaving his club behind him, he proceeds to that part of the beach where the vessel is anchoring. Anxious to conciliate the visitors, and to secure their friendship, he scrupulously attends to all the forms of Fijian etiquette. ” My chiefs of Bau” land; and their host, bending in their presence, conducts them to the town.

In the town, there are two clans. That which is stronger in numbers has recently killed the young chief belonging to the other family; and, fearing retribution, is at this time actually planning the extermination of its rivals. Deeply did that clan regret the arrival of the Bauans, as it compelled them to defer the execution of their bloody scheme.

As the evening advanced, the more youthful of the travellers retired to rest. After an amusing conversation, and perhaps the recitation of an entertaining romance, they fell asleep, one after another.  The young men also had just disposed themselves for sleep, when a Bau chiefs messenger approached them by stealth, and said, ” Young men ! the chiefs wish you to prepare kava for the priest, that they may consult the gods.” Unwillingly they obeyed, and for hours were they thus engaged. The necessary ceremonies were performed before the Bauan priest, who accompanied the expedition; and the weary ones were ordered back to their mats.

The next morning the two town clans were to unite in presenting cooked provisions to their noble guests. The children of the town, and the young boys belonging to the war canoe, played together on the beach; whilst the food was being conveyed to the front of the house occupied by the visitors.

Suddenly the children were alarmed by hearing a shout. A young Bauan then approached them and addressed in the most respectful form the boy of the greatest rank, a mere child of five or six summers, who had arrived with the other visitors in the Bau canoe. ” Sir,” said he, *’ let us keep together: the club is in circulation.” ” How so? ” inquires the child Seru. ” Our chiefs, together with the Avenger-of-his-son, are killing off the clan who lately murdered the young chief,” was the reply.

As food was being served up to the Bauans, the Ayenger-of-his-son had given a preconcerted signal; and his followers, joined by their warlike guests, fell upon their unsuspecting victims, and murdered them in cold blood. Pretty girls and handsome women alone were saved. Fifty able men soon lay stretched on their mother earth/

One more scene in this savage and bloody drama hag is yet to be described. A party descends to the beach. Some of the boys, now orphans, are seized and cruelly put to death. One lad, about eight years old, is dragged to where there sits the boy-chief, Sera, in whose sports he has just been joining. The victim is held down, while Seru clubs him with all the force his little arms can put forth until the boy is stunned, and at last, after repeated blows, lies dead at the feet of his young murderer. This is noted here as the first deed of blood done by him who afterwards became the redoubtable Thakombau, whose history is here given. The boy-chief puts aside his heavy weapon to gaze on his first sacrifice to the customs of his people. Thence he departs to wash his hands, and partake of food; feeling himself every inch a man.

Some respectable members of the murdered clan fled but were not permitted to escape. Messengers were sent after them to the various towns where they sought refuge, and some were clubbed; whilst others, being entitled by rank to a more honourable death, were strangled.

The Avenger had made but one stipulation with his butchers: they were not to eat his unfortunate friends! It was an act of self-denial too great for cannibals, and the Avenger was compelled to allow his visitors a little liberty in the gratification of their unnatural appetite.

After a few weeks of recreation, the war canoe, laden with valuable property and beautiful females, shaped its course for the ” God-land,” Bau

Video: The Legend of Ratu Cakobau by the Social Plug
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