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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XVI — epidemic diseases

page 243

Chapter XVI
epidemic diseases

While the great island groups of Tahiti, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, Tonga, and the Solomons had been known to Europe for many years—some of them for nearly two centuries —the Fijians lived their lives unconscious that there was another world beyond the reefs that encircled their islands. They planted food sufficent for their needs, they obeyed the rigid code of laws with which custom had bound them, they intermarried with their friends and fought their enemies, but without the carnage that followed the introduction of fire-arms. It is still unknown who was the first European to enter the group.1

For the evils innocently produced by the first visitors we must turn to native traditions, those irresponsible records that can lay claim to historical value in respect of their irresponsibility, recording what the historian would have forgotten, and omitting nearly everything to which written histories attach value.

The Rev John Hunt,2 writing in 1843, says:—

"The first white people with whom the Fijians had any intercourse were four or five shipwrecked mariners, one or two of whom were dressed something like ministers of religion: probably the master and a passenger. The vessel was wrecked on a reef near Oneata called Mbukatatanoa, and the party referred to were either killed at Oneata or Lakemba, and, I fear, eaten also. Shortly after their death a dreadful distemper scourged the natives. It appears, from the description given of it, to have been a very acute dysentery, or a form of cholera. Its progress through the group was fearfully rapid and destructive; in many places it was with the greatest difficulty that persons could be found to bury the dead. Those who were seized died in the most excruciating agonies."

1 See Chapter II.

2 Memoir of Rev. William Cross, missionary to the Fiji Islands, by Rev. John Hunt. London.

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The native version, given nearly fifty years later, one was that morning after a great gale from the eastward the men of Oneata, looking towards the islet Loa on the great reef Mbu-katatanoa, saw red streamers waving in the wind; strange beings, too, moved about among them. It chanced that some men of the Levuka tribe in Lakemba, off-shoots from distant Mbau, holding special privileges as ambassadors, who linked the eastern and the western islands, were visitors in Oneata. Two of these, bolder than the natives of the place, launched a light canoe and paddled near to Loa. The report they brought back ran, "Though they resemble men, yet must they be spirits, for their ears are bound about with scarlet and they chew burning sticks." After anxious discussion the double canoe Tai-walata was launched, and when they drew near Loa the spirits beckoned to them, and persuaded them to draw near and carry them to the main island. One of these they proved to be mortal as themselves for he was buried on Loa, being dead of violence, exposure, or disease. Here the tradition becomes confused. Muskets and ammunition were taken from the wrecked ship, but the men of Oneata knew nothing of their uses, else perhaps the native history of Fiji had been different. The powder they kept to be used as a pigment for their faces, and the ramrods to be ornaments for the hair. One warrior, relates the tradition, smeared the wet pigment over hair and all, and when it would not dry, but lay cold and heavy on the scalp, he stooped his head to the fire to dry the matted locks. There was a sudden flash, very bright and hot, and a tongue of flame leaped from the head and licked the wall, and the warrior sprang into the square with a head more naked than when he was born.

The red-capped sailors had scarce landed when a pestilence broke out among the people. Here is a literal translation of the poem that describes it:—

The great sickness sits aloft,
Their voices sound hoarsely,
They fall and lie helpless and pitiable,
Our god Ndengei is put to shame,
Our own sicknesses have been thrust aside,
page 245The strangling-cord is a noble thing,1
They fall prone; they fall with the sap still in them.

A lethargy has seized upon the chiefs,
How terrible is the sickness!
We do not live, we do not die,
Our bodies ache; our heads ache,
Many die, a few live on,
The strangling-cord brings death to many,
The malo round their bellies rots away,
Our women groan in their despair,
The liku knotted round them they do not loose,
Hark to the creak of the strangling-cords,
The spirits flow away like running water, ra tau e.

The strangers never left Oneata alive. One tradition ascribes their death to the pestilence, another to the vengeance of the men of Levuka, and as the natives believed them to have brought the scourge, we may accept the more tragic of the two. At any rate, though various strange plunder from the wreck was carried westward to Mbau, there is no record of any foreigner accompanying them.

It is not certain that this was the only visitation of the epidemic called lila. The traditions are so confused, and the versions so different in detail, that there is some reason to believe either that there were two visitations or that infection travelled so slowly that the disease only reached the western portion of the group some years after it had decimated the islands to the eastward. The traditional poetry of every district records the disease, and there are several data that enable us to fix the visitation within the limits of a few years.

Most accounts refer to the appearance of a large comet with three tails, the centre tail coloured red and the outer white, that it rose just before dawn and was visible for thirty-seven nights in succession. Here is the native account of it:—

Sleeping in the night I suddenly awake,
The voice of the pestilence is borne to me, uetau,
I go out and wander abroad, uetau,
It is near the breaking of the dawn, uetau,

1 An allusion to the custom of strangling the sick.

page 246Behold a forked star, uetau,
We whistle with astonishment as we gaze at it, uetau,
What can it portend ? uetau,
Does it presage the doom of the chiefs? e e.

Now, as I have already said, the great chief of Mbau, Mbanuve, died of the lila, and was thereafter known as Mbale-i-vavalangi—the victim of the foreign disease. When the comet of 1882 appeared, the old men declared that it presaged the death of Thakombau, for that a larger comet had foretold the death of King Mbanuve, and a smaller one the destruction of Suva in 1843. We know that the successor of Mbanuve, Na-uli-vou, or Ra Mate-ni-kutu, was reigning in 1809, when Charles Savage, the Swede, arrived in the group. The only comet recorded about the beginning of the century—Donati's, which appeared in 1811, was too late for Mbanuve's death— was the comet of 1803, and this date corresponds exactly with the other traditions we have of Na-uli-vou's reign, which we know lasted until 1829.

It is perhaps worth noting that on the day of the installation of Na-uli-vou, while the sickness was still raging, there was a total eclipse of the sun. "The birds went to roost at high noon, thinking from the darkness that night had fallen." In the same year, says the tradition, there was a hailstorm that broke down the yam-vines, followed by a great hurricane which flooded the valley of the Rewa, swept hundreds of the sick out to sea, and purged the land of the pestilence. I have already given reasons for identifying this eclipse with that of February 1803. There seems to be evidence enough for the belief that a great epidemic was introduced by a vessel wrecked on the Argo (Mbukatatanoa) reef in 1802-3.

And now for the symptoms. Mbanuve, it seems clear, died of acute dysentery, but tradition also speaks of a lingering disease with headache, intense thirst, loss of appetite, stuffiness of the nose, and oppression of the chest. The second visitation, if indeed the two were not raging together, seems to have been a very acute form of dysentery.

"Before white men came," says the oldest of the natives, "no one died of acute diseases; the people who died were page 247emaciated by lingering infirmities. Coughs came with white men; so did dysentery, for Ratu Mbanuve died of a foreign disease resembling dysentery soon after it was brought here. This we have always heard from our elders." In attributing the diminution of their race to infectious diseases introduced by foreign ships, the Fijians do not limit their meaning to such illnesses as measles, whooping-cough, or other zymotic epidemics, but they include diseases now endemic among them, such as dysentery and influenza—not a specific influenza which has overspread the world since 1889, but the annual recurrent febrile catarrh or severe cold in the head and chest which is now one of the commonest ailments in the country, and which often terminates fatally in the case of the aged, infants, and those already affected by pulmonary disease.

Fijians are not the only islanders who assert that dysentery and influenza have been introduced among them by foreigners. The late Dr. Turner1 of Samoa says that this is the general belief of the natives of Tanna and most other Pacific islands. Writing of Tanna in the New Hebrides fifty years ago, he says:—

"Coughs, influenza, dysentery, and some skin diseases, the Tannese attribute to their intercourse with white men, and call them 'foreign things.' When a person is said to be ill, the next question is, 'What is the matter ? Is it Nahac (witchcraft), or a foreign thing?' The opinion there is universal that they have had tenfold more diseases and death since they had intercourse with ships than they had before. We thought at first that it was prejudice and fault-finding, but the reply of the more honest and thoughtful of the natives invariably was, 'It is quite true; formerly here people never died until they were old, but now-a-days there is no end of this influenza, coughing, and death.'"

Turner himself, with every member of his Mission, was obliged to flee from Tanna because an epidemic of dysentery was ascribed to his presence. A worse fate befell the missionary family of Samoans living on the neighbouring island of Futuna for the same reason; others were killed at the Isle of Pines and at Niué, and the Mission teachers on Aneiteum were threatened with death.

On May 20, 1861, the Rev. G. N. Gordon and his wife were

1 Nineteen Years in Polynesia, by Rev. George Turner. London, 1861.

page 248murdered by the natives of Eromanga in consequence of an outbreak of measles which had been introduced by a trading vessel.
Referring to Samoa, Dr. Turner writes that:—

"Influenza is a new disease to the natives. They say that the first attack of it ever known in Samoa was during the Aana War in 1830, just as the missionaries Williams and Barth with Tahitian teachers first reached their shores. The natives at once traced the disease to the foreigners and the new religion; the same opinion spread through these seas, and especially among the islands of the New Hebrides, has proved a serious hindrance to the labours of missionaries and native teachers. Ever since, there have been returns of the disease almost annually … in many cases it is fatal to old people and those who have been previously weakened by pulmonary diseases."

At Niué, the natives, whose demeanour earned for them from Cook the designation of Savage Islanders, persistently repelled strangers who attempted to land among them. Captain Cook1 says: "The endeavours we used to bring them to a parley were to no purpose; for they came with the ferocity of wild boars and threw their darts."

Dr. Turner, who visited Niué in 1848 and again in 1859, says:—

" Natives of other islands who drifted there in distress, whether from Tonga, Samoa, or elsewhere, were invariably killed. Any of their own people who went away in a ship and came back were killed; and all this was occasioned by a dread of disease. For years after they began to venture out to our ships, they would not immediately use anything obtained, but hung it up in the bush in quarantine for weeks."

He had great difficulty in landing a teacher. A native of Niué, whom he had found and trained in Samoa, could not be left, as armed crowds rushed upon him to kill him. The natives tried to send back his canoe and sea-chest to the Mission ship, saying that the foreign wood would cause disease among them. John Williams, a missionary, during his memorable voyage in 1830, recruited two Niué lads and subsequently brought them back to their island; but influenza breaking out a short time after their return the two men were accused of bringing it from Tahiti: one of them was killed,

1 A Voyage towards the South Pole and round the World, by James Cook, Book iii, chapter i. London, 1779.

page 249together with his father, and the other escaped on board a whaler with a man who returned to the island in 1848.

Dr. Turner states that in 1846 an epidemic broke out in the island of Lifu in the Loyalty Group. Towards the end of 1846, the teachers who had just arrived were accused of having brought it. "Kill them," said their enemies, "and there will be an end to the sickness."

In New Caledonia, as elsewhere, the natives believed white men to be spirits of the dead and to bring sickness; and they gave this as a reason for killing them.

The Tahitians accused the Spaniards of introducing a disease like influenza during the visit of a Peruvian ship in 1774-5. In Tonga there is a tradition of a destructive epidemic breaking out shortly after Cook's first visit in 1773. The only symptom now recorded was a severe headache resulting in death after a few days' illness, and the native name for the disease, ngangau, is the word used for headache. It does not appear, however, that the Tongans associated this visitation with the arrival of Captain Cook's ships.

The crew of the brig Chatham, wrecked on Penrhyn Island in 1853, were the first Europeans to land on the island. Some three months after their arrival an epidemic, accompanied by high fever and intense headache and generally ending fatally, broke out among the natives. Mr. Roser, one of the survivors, has assured me that none of the crew were suffering from the disease when they arrived, but that some of them caught it in a milder form from the natives afterwards. Besides this fever an epidemic of sores had previously broken out among the natives shortly after the wreck, but this the Europeans attributed to the unaccustomed animal food which they had obtained from the ship. Speeches were made against the visitors. "Why had we come to their land? They had never any sickness like this before we came, and if we remained we should be bringing them other complaints to carry them off. Better for us to leave. They would furnish us with canoes and we must return to our own land."1

1 Wild Life in the Pacific Islands, by H. E. Lamont.

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The islanders of the Kau Atolls, named on the charts the Mortlock or Marqueen Group (lat. 40 45'S., long. 1560 30' E.), when the epidemic was prevalent on shore disinfected, or disenchanted, the crew of the barquentine Lord of the Isles while parleying with them at sea. One man in each canoe had a handful of ashes done up in leaves, which he scattered in the air when closing the interview.1

In October 1888, when the present writer was with the Administrator of British New Guinea in his exploration of Normanby Island in the D'Entrecasteaux Group, the natives in one of the bays would not consent to hold intercourse with the party until the old men had chewed a scented bark and spat it over each of the visitors and his own following.

The people of the island of St. Kilda charge visitors from Scotland with bringing disease, and call their ailment the "stranger's cold" or "boat cough."

Instances might be multiplied of the intercourse between different races resulting in mysterious epidemic disease from which neither were suffering before the meeting. The Pacific Islanders, believing that all disease is due to the malevolence of an enemy, often resorted to the one effective method of quarantine, and murdered their visitors; and it is probably to this instinct of self-preservation that many of the hostile receptions of visitors, for which they have been from time to time severely punished, was due. In the matter of skin diseases we know as a fact that European ships introduced tinea desquamans into Fiji from the Tokalau Islands in the persons of native passengers, and that yaws was carried to these islands from Fiji and Samoa about the year 1864, within the recollection of Europeans still living there.

The Fijians recognize the infectious nature of some diseases, though they have hardly learned as yet to separate the idea of physical contagion from that of supernatural agency— the mana, or occult influence of the disease. If it be true that dysentery, colds and coughs were unknown until foreign ships visited the islands, their opinion that these diseases were

1 Official Journal of Government Agent on Lord of the Isles, 1882.

page 251imported by Europeans would have a strong probability to support it. Modern bacteriological research tends to show that almost every acute disease results from infection. This law may apply to fluxes and catarrhs. Dysentery is well known to be capable of spreading by contagion, varying, of course, with the conditions of the place and people, but still sufficiently catching to be sometimes a distinct epidemic traceable to contagion derived from persons or excreta. "Dysentery," says Gliezgra,1 "is an inflammatory infection of the large intestine, due to specific virus. The exact nature of the virus is unknown, but it is probably bacterial. The infection is epidemic, endemic, or sporadic in its occurrence." In quite recent times a bacterium of dysentery has actually been isolated, and we have evidence enough both in Fiji and in Futuna (New Hebrides), where in February, 1893, the Empreza, a labour ship from Queensland, landed a child suffering from dysentery, and caused the death of nearly a third of the population by dysentery during the following six months,2 to show that dysentery is highly contagious.

To those who may contend that tropical dysentery is a malarial disease, and therefore unlikely to be conveyed across the wide stretch of ocean which ships must traverse to reach these islands, the case of Mauritius may be cited. Malarial fever was there unknown until the year 1867, when an epidemic of that nature ravaged the island to such an extent that the price of quinine rose from 21s. to £40 per ounce. Malarial fever has remained endemic there ever since.

Besides the great epidemics of dysentery and lila there is a tradition of a less serious disease about the year 1820, called by the natives vundi-thoro, from the fancied resemblance between the skin of the patient and a scalded banana. This visitation does not appear to have caused many deaths. There have been several smaller epidemics in various parts of the

1 Text-book of Pathological Anatomy and Pathogenesis (English edition). London, 1885.

2 Letter from Dr. William Gunn, Presbyterian missionary at Futuna, dated September 14, 1893.

page 252 group since 1820, but none of these approached in importance the terrible visitation of measles in 1875.1 The measles were introduced by H.M.S. Dido in the persons of Rata Timothe, the Vunivalu's son, and his servant returning from Sydney, and was communicated to the members of a great native meeting that had assembled in Lavuka to welcome the Dido. They scattered to their own homes with the seeds of the disease upon them and spread it broadcast through the country. The people at that time numbered about 150,000, and it is recorded, probably with fair exactitude, that 40,000 persons died from measles, and the famine and dysentery that followed, within the space of four months. The great mortality was due partly to the suddenness with which the infection spread. Unprotected by any previous attack, every person was susceptible to infection; whole communities were stricken down at the same time, there was no one left to procure food and water, to attend to the necessities of the sick, or even in many cases to bury the dead. Many, therefore, died of starvation and neglect, of disregard of the simplest nursing precautions, of apathy and despair. They became what is so well expressed by their own word "tankaya" overwhelmed, dismayed, cowed—incapable of any effort to save even their own lives. So deep an impression did the measles leave upon the race that it has become their principal date mark; whether it left behind it physical effects in lowering the stamina of the survivors is a matter for conjecture.

Since the measles the principal foreign epidemics to which the natives have been exposed are whooping-cough in 1884 1890, 1891; dengue, 1885; cerebro-spinal meningitis, 1885; influenza, 1891-2.

Of these whooping-cough has proved the most fatal, being now permanently domiciled in the colony. It appeared in Samoa in 1849, but eventually died out there.2 It is worth recording that in 1893 the measles reached Samoa and Tonga

1 Parliamentary Paper C. 634, and Transactions of the Epidemïological Society of London, N.S., Vol. iii, 1884.

2 Nineteen Years in Polynesia.

page 253from New Zealand, and destroyed nearly one-twentieth of the Tongan population; but although the disease was raging in every port from which steamers sailed for Fiji, the Government succeeded in preventing it from being communicated to those on shore by a rigid system of quarantine.

Many Fijians believe that the white race always brings death to coloured people, saying that they have heard it from Europeans. When the Commission on the native decrease was sitting in August, 1893, I received from a native of Thithia the following letter, accompanied by a rude sketch of a Fijian grasping a Bible and retreating before a European from whose body were drawn a series of radiations to indicate his pernicious influence.


"The decrease of the natives.

"I wish, sir, to make a few remarks. There has been much consideration and discussion on this matter. There appears to me to be only one reason for the decrease of the natives: it is the white chiefs living among us. It is this:—

"(1) They blight us—they are blighting us, the natives, and we are withering away. It is not possible for a chief to live with his inferiors, to wear the same clothes, to use the same mat or the same pillow. In a few days the neck or the belly of the low-born man will swell up and he will die; his chief has blighted him. It is so with the white chiefs and us the natives. If we live near them for long, we, the natives, will be completely swept away.

"(2) They are great and we are insignificant. A plant cannot grow up under the great Ivi tree, for the great Ivi overshadows it, and the grass or plant beneath withers away. It is thus with the chiefs from the great lands who live among us. This is the reason why we Fijians are decreasing. 'Let us move gently: we stand in the glare of the light' (Fijian proverb): let us practice religion."

"Josefa Sokovangone".

Such a belief must naturally be accompanied by bitter feelings, and for Europeans to foster this belief is cruel, and not devoid of danger for the future. There is proof enough that the first contact of voyagers with indigenous people or peoples who have been isolated for generations is fraught with danger for the latter, and it is natural enough that even without such promptings the Fijians should blame the Europeans of the present day for the harm that has resulted from page 254the introduction of foreign epidemics; but to remind them of this, as some Europeans are fond of doing, is not only to afford them an excuse for neglecting all efforts of sanitary reform, but to give them justification for feeling a resentment that may some day take the form of reprisals.