The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom
Chapter XVII — leprosy (Vukavuka or Sakukd)1
leprosy (Vukavuka or Sakukd)1
No less than one per cent, of the native population of Fiji are lepers, and, if native tradition is to be believed, the decay of customary law has not affected the people in this respect either for better or for worse. All the old men are familiar with the disease; they can diagnose it with surprising accuracy; and they generally concur in stating that it has neither spread nor decreased since heathen times.
1 The greater part of this chapter is drawn from an able paper contributed to the Folklore Journal, 1895, by Dr. Bolton G. Corney, Chief Medical Officer of Fiji, who has made a special study of the subject.
3 Manson, Tropical Diseases.
Among the Maoris, with whom it was formerly common, it has now died out. Their traditions relate that among the immigrants who arrived from Hawaiki in the canoe Tuwhenua there was a leper who infected all his companions. They landed at Te Waka Tuwhenua (Cape Rodney), a little to the south of Whangarei, and scattered among the immigrants of the Tainui and Ngapuhi parties. Leprosy is still called Tuwhenua in the Whangarei district, but whether the disease was called after the canoe, or the canoe after the disease, it is difficult now to determine. In other districts it is called Puhipuhi and Ngerengere.
1 Voyage aux iles du Grand Ocean, par. J. A. Moerenhout (Vol. ii, p. 156.) Paris, 1837.
Though there are lepers in Iceland, in the Aleutian peninsula and in Kamschkatka, leprosy may be said to be a disease of tropical and subtropical countries. With the exception of a few insignificant islands, no country in the tropic zone seems to be entirely free from it. In India—the Only large country in which accurate statistics have been taken—the proportion of lepers to the total population is estimated at 5 to 10,000, though errors of diagnosis and concealment have doubtless combined to make the estimate merely approximate. In China, judging from the numbers observed in the southern treaty ports, the proportion is probably higher, but both fall far short of the Fijian figure of one per cent., and the Hawaiian of one in thirty.
Nothing was known of the specific cause of leprosy until 1874, when Armauer Hansen isolated the Bacillus leprœ, a discovery which has cleared the way for formulating precise page 258ideas on the subjects of heredity and contagion, and the proper treatment of the leper as a public danger.
It is, of course, impossible for any organism, however small, to create itself de novo. It must come from some pre-existing germ whose habitat may be earth, air, water, beast or man, and since leprosy has never been found in any animal except man, nor in any virgin country to which a human leper has not had access, and since the arrival of a leper in such a country is followed by an outbreak of leprosy among those who have associated with him, there is little room for doubt that man acquires the germ of the Bacillus leprœ from man, and not from other animals, nor from local or climatic conditions. The most ancient, and, as it now turns out, the most correct belief, was that leprosy is contagious; the leper was unclean. Driven out from the society of men, he was compelled under heavy penalties to warn wayfarers of his approach by voice or bell. In comparatively recent times the belief arose that leprosy was hereditary, and even that it could be acquired from the soil of certain countries. The latter belief has been disproved absolutely by the behaviour of leprosy when introduced into virgin countries. The hereditary theory is also on the wane, although the Indian Commission on leprosy in the early nineties did not absolutely disprove it. If leprosy be hereditary, how explain the striking fact brought out by Hansen, the discoverer of the bacillus, that of the numerous offspring of 160 Norwegian lepers who emigrated to America none have developed the disease, or again the equally well-attested fact that children sometimes become lepers first, and their parents afterwards. Another strong argument against heredity is to be found in the fact that lepers become sterile at an early stage of the disease; unless, therefore, leprosy finds recruits in some other way than by heredity, the disease would inevitably die out in one or at the most in two generations. Moreover, leprosy is often developed quite late in life, and if the germ had been received into the system at birth, one would have to suppose that it had remained latent for thirty, forty, or even seventy years, a circumstance without parallel in pathology. In one respect, however, leprosy, like page 259tubercle, is hereditary; that is to say, it often shows a preference for the members of a single family, whose constitutions have some predisposing family characteristic, and who are living together, breathing the same air, and eating the same food.
The opinion of students of the disease is now almost universal—that leprosy is communicated by contagion, and by contagion alone, though it has not yet been determined how the contagion is communicated. Very few of the nurses and doctors in leper asylums acquire the disease, and, except in one doubtful instance, every attempt to inoculate man and the lower animals with the Bacillus leprœ has failed. It may be that the leper-germ is sterile except in certain phases of the disease, and that only in favourable conditions in the recipient's health, combined with intimate contact with the leper, can the disease take hold.
Modern opinion, therefore, holds that leprosy is contagious, and, in a sense, hereditary also in so far as it tends to cling about certain families whose members show a constitutional readiness to receive it. I have dwelt upon this opinion at some length in order to show that this is precisely the view which the Fijians themselves take of the disease. A man is said to come of a kawa ni vukavuka (leprosy-stock), which implies no disgrace except among the highest families, and if he develops the disease his misfortune is regarded as one of the family traits as inevitable as the shape of his nose. At the same time he is believed to have the power of infecting others (not necessarily by actual contagion), and he was generally made to live alone or with other lepers, at a distance from the village. In Tonga the contagious nature of leprosy was fully recognized, and the lepers were isolated on separate islets or uninhabited parts of the larger islands. It is there a grave breach of good manners to apply the word leprosy (kilia) to any one in polite society, and many ingenious shifts are resorted to in order to express the meaning without using the word. In the session of the native parliament of 1891, when a member of the upper house was discovered to be suffering from the disease, and a resolution to assign an island to him page 260as asylum was passed, I covered myself with shame by unwittingly pronouncing the forbidden word after other speakers had been skirmishing round it for fully half-an-hour after this fashion—"Havea's friends were pining for him at home, and therefore it was but right that he should be excused further attendance at the house; nay, more, to the westward lay many delightful little islands which Havea was longing to visit, where his every wish would be gratified, and where—well—the prevailing wind would blow pleasantly from them to him, and he would be supremely happy."
The Fijians are no exception to other primitive races in believing that neither death nor disease can overtake a man naturally. Their first reflection on seeing the condition of the patient is, "An enemy hath done this!" their second, that the enemy must be discovered and punished, and his malignity neutralized by counterspells. It is not a logical theory of infection, because in their simple creed it is generally not necessary that the infecting agent should himself be suffering from the disease. But in the case of leprosy, as in their laws for the sexual abstinence of parents and for securing the sanitation of villages, they arrive at right conclusions from wrong premises. Leprosy, they argue, is inherent in certain families, therefore the evil spirit of leprosy, which is their equivalent for contagion, is a sort of family retainer, ever obsequious to the commands of his hereditary masters. And, since a living spirit must live somewhere, certain stones in various parts of the country are pointed out as his shrines, and are hedged about with a tabu that is never in danger of infraction, inasmuch as to touch them is to meet Gehazi's fate. The existence of these stones was discovered by Dr. Bolton Glanvill Corney, C.M.G., the Chief Medical Officer of Fiji, who is not only the principal authority on all medical questions in the Pacific Islands, but has a very accurate knowledge of the Fijian language and character. He has visited and described the stones himself, and has elicited from their owners on the spot such traditions concerning them as they still remembered or cared to tell.
Until within the last few years there were three leper stones page 261on the river island of Tonga near the mouth of the Rewa river. One, called Katalewe, was vested in a family called Navokai, now living at Navasa village, but formerly of Nanka-voka (the Skull), a deserted entrenchment that lies back from the river-bank behind the present site of Mbulu village. Two miles distant is a second stone, called Toralangi, who is said to be still in situ, though Dr. Corney did not actually see him. The third stone, known as Ratu, was missing from his former position, the cleft between two buttresses of a ndawa tree, and, although to the consternation of the native by-standers Dr. Corney was bold enough to dig up the ground in the hope of unearthing him, he was not to be found. This is the less to be regretted since Ratu was a peculiarly active little stone. When the Notho warriors were storming Nankavoka village, one of them unwittingly dropped his masi, which lighted upon Ratu. It is said that he became a leper in consequence. The leper woman Mereani, wife of the chief of Navasa, who had her plantation within a few yards of Ratu, is said to have acquired the disease by working in his neighbourhood.
Katalewe was described to Dr. Corney as having been (for he exists no more) "about the size of a large orange or small shaddock, very round and smooth, ash-coloured, homogeneous in substance, and unlike any other stones in the neighbourhood," which, being soft alluvium deposited on old mangrove swamps, is singularly free from stones. So potent was he that the creeping stems of plants withered or turned aside as soon as they came within the radius of his poison, and a patch of ground surrounding him, about the size of a sponge-bath, was always destitute of vegetation. None knew whence he came. As long as tradition ran he had been vested in the Navokai family, now extinct but for Karolaini, a married woman about forty years of age, living at Lukia. This woman told Dr. Corney that her father, Totokea, long since dead, was a leper, and that she developed the disease in childhood. She had lost all the phalanges of three of the toes of her left foot, and had besides an extensive patch of anæsthetic skin on the right thigh. A "wise woman" of Bureitu had page 262treated her for leprosy, and she had observed tabus on and off for some years. By the time she was old enough to marry the disease had ceased to make any advance; the stumps of the toes were healed; she could walk without lameness; and the patch on the thigh had begun to regain its natural colour. After marriage there was no return of the disease. Dr. Corney examined her, and found sensation to be perfect all over the patch, and the left foot perfectly sound except for the loss of the toes. She was quite convinced that her leprosy was hereditary, and did not result from contagion, and that she would have died of it but for the ministrations of the "wise woman" of Bureitu. She had two children (the eldest about nine when Dr. Corney saw them), and both were healthy.
Katalewe's owner (taukei ni vatu), that is to say, the senior member of the Navokai family, could harness the power of the stone to his own needs if he had an enemy to injure, or to his own profit if other people had enemies and were willing to pay for his services. It was not necessary that the doomed person should himself be made to touch Katalewe; it was enough if the victim's clothing, or hair, or scraps of food he had been eating were laid against the stone with suitable prayers by the taukei ni vatu. The victim would then develop leprosy, but the mode of operation was not the same with all the leprosy stones, as will presently appear. It remains to relate the fate of Katalewe, who has now lost all power to harm. There came to Mbulu a pious enthusiast to represent the Wesleyan Church, a certain Sayasi, a native of another village. "Hors de l'eglise; point de salut," was his motto, and, Katalewe's natural protectors having died out in the direct line, he laid violent hands upon the unprotected stone, and carried him home in derision for his wife to use like a paper-weight for keeping down the mats she was plaiting. When not in use he was thrown with the other weights into the fire hearth, where he fell a prey to the consuming element and crumbled away to powder among the yam-pots. He did not leave the indignity unpunished. The poor iconoclast not long afterwards had his mind racked by page 263the indiscretions of his wife, divorced her, and found himself ostracized by his fellow-pastors in consequence, and finally, a broken man, he relinquished his cure, and returned to his native village, where death soon afterwards put an end to his sufferings. From this tragic story one fact is patent-that Katalewe was made of limestone, and since there are but two kinds of limestone in Fiji, coral and dolomite, and coral would have been immediately recognized by the people of Tonga village, it is evident that Katalewe must have been a fragment of dolomite washed down from the head-waters of the Rewa river, and polished smooth by the action of the water. A stone so unusual in the delta would naturally be an object of remark; it might be taken to decorate the grave of a dead leper, and, when time had obliterated all other traces of the grave, tradition would still cling about the stone—the one feature of the forgotten grave that would survive to catch the eye of successive generations. As the graves of ancestors are the vested property of their descendants, so the leper stone, and together with the Djinn that was believed to inhabit it, would belong to the seed of the original leper for ever.
In Noikoro, near the chief village of Korolevu, almost in the centre of the great island of Vitilevu, Dr. Corney found another leprosy stone, called simply Na Vatu-ni-Sakuka (the Leper-stone), a large basaltic rock having upon it natural markings in which the natives see a resemblance to the leprous maculœ on the human skin. Among the Vunavunga people to whom it belonged, and who formerly lived near to it, there are several bad cases of leprosy. The stone was vested formerly in one Mbativusi (Cat-tooth), a leper, but on his death it passed into the hands of Rasambasamba, his vasu, e.g. a man whose mother belonged to Mbativusi's family, and to his children. Their family is called Nakavindi, and the elder of the Nakavindi family, being ex officio proprietor of the stone, is held to have the power of conferring leprosy upon whom he wishes. His dreadful powers are, of course, invoked secretly: the offended person comes to him with a root of yankona, whale's teeth, bark-cloth, or mats, praying him to impart the disease to his page 264enemy. The leper-priest lays them on the stone with incantations (veivatonaki) for a successful issue. Then, returning home, he drinks yankona, and in blowing the dregs from his lips and moustache, cries as his toast—"Phya! Uthu i au!" which, being interpreted, is "Phya! May his face be as mine!" i.e. leprous; and speculation would run high as to who was the object of the curse. When the curse failed there was, as in all similar public impositions, an easy way out. No doubt Elijah slew the priests of Baal because he knew that in five minutes they would have been ready with a plausible excuse for their failure to call down fire from heaven. The leper-priest could always plead the inadequacy of the offering (which, of course, became his perquisite), and ask for more, or decline to make a second trial. All the leading men of the Nakavindi family, which, be it remembered, is only a collateral branch of the original proprietors of the stone, have leprosy in its most terrible form.
Dr. Corney found another leper stone lying in the silt of a small stream, Nasova creek, about a mile and a half from the village of Nankia, in the Sawakasa district. Part of its surface was rough, and the smooth portion was interrupted with three ripplings or corrugations which the natives called vakalawarikoso. The village where the family to which the stone belonged was living proved to be a leprous centre from which the disease appeared to be radiating to the other villages in the neighbourhood. As this stone appears to have neither history nor malign influence, it is possible that it owes its name to its macular markings and its situation near a leprous centre.
Near Walá, a village about three miles from Fort Carnarvon on the opposite bank of the Singatoka river, is another stone, or rather collection of stones, for they are described as forming a miniature cairn of red stones like jade. As the cairn stands within the burial-ground of part of the Walá village, it may be actually a grave. The natives are very reticent about it; I lived for more than a year in almost daily intercourse with the Walá without hearing of it, and Dr. Corney, who went to see it after hearing of it from the Mbuli of the dis-page 265trict, was adroitly put off the scent by his native guides. He learned its history under somewhat dramatic circumstances. Being called one day to examine a number of native prisoners recently admitted to the prison in Suva, he found that one of four lepers among them gave Walá as his native village. With the permission of the Superintendent of Prisons, he took the young man to the hospital in order to question him at leisure, and there, with the unknown terrors of prison discipline before his eyes, his reticence gave way. The gist of his replies to Dr. Corney's questions as taken down at the time was as follows:—"My name is Namanka; I come from Walá, but my family belongs properly to Talatala in Vaturu. They left Talatala in heathen times when Vaturu was burned out by the enemy, and took refuge at Sambeto, but my father and mother fled to the hills and settled at Walá, where we have lived ever since. I have one brother older than myself, and he, my father, and my mother are all lepers. My father was Kuruwankato; he died a few months ago at Keyasi, whither he had gone for treatment for leprosy. His hands were withered and contracted, there were ulcers and blisters upon them, he had lost his fingers and toes, and had patches upon him that had lost all feeling. He had no brothers; I have no uncles, and no leprous relations except my father, mother and brother. My father was the first to show symptoms. This was the way of it. On a certain day, several years ago, we all went out into our plantation, and left the house empty. Not even a child was left to keep the house. I was but a small boy at the time, but I often accompanied my parents to the plantation. When we returned in the evening we saw that the Sakuka (the Leprosy) had crossed our threshold. He had entered by the end door, and had crawled to the hearth, and there in the ashes of the hearth we saw the prints of his hands and his feet, the prints of leper hands (mains-en-griffe) and toeless feet like hoofs. Thus we knew that the Sakuka had put his mark upon our house, and wondered which of us was to be the first. We knew that we should be lepers, being thus marked for it by the Sakuka, and my father was the first, my mother next, and I was last of all. page 266The Sakuka is a stone, red like a patch of leprosy, red like red paint. It is in five or six pieces, heaped together. Sometimes a piece is missing from its place at Navau. I have been at the burial-ground myself when a piece was missing, and have seen that it was so. Vasukeyasi is proprietor of the stone; he is not a leper, but Kaliova, who also has a vested right in it, is. Vasukeyasi is priest of the stone, and he can move it to infect a person with leprosy, and so compass his death. I do not know what forms or ceremonies he uses when he would do this, but it is a sort of kaitha (witchcraft). When I said that the Sakuka marked our hearth I meant the spirit of the stone which is obedient to Vasukeyasi. The thing is true; there is no doubt about it. I do not know the origin of the stone; it is an ancient institution. I have told you all that I know about it."
In this grisly story we have the essence of the belief in leper stones. The cairn of strange red stones set up in a burial-ground can be none other than a tomb, probably the tomb of a leper. The spirit of the dead man haunts the site of the grave, and his eldest descendant is his priest. His priest can conjure him forth in corporeal shape to crawl into the house of a person whom he has foredoomed to leprosy. This, of course, is no explanation of the main-en-griffe in the ashes on the hearth. That episode may have been a coincidence or it may have been a lie; but that a family of healthy aliens came to live in the neighbourhood of a leper stone, and were infected one after the other by means which every native believed to be the malignant ministrations of the priest, was indubitable fact. And if we smile at his theory of infection, let us remember that it is logical reasoning as compared with our own in his eyes, and that he can point to more lepers in support of his plan of infection by incantation than we can adduce as the result of inoculation with the bacillus leprœ.
Dr. Corney heard of two other leper stones—one at Navitiviti in the Mbure district, Ra province; the other near Mbukuya, fifteen miles north of Fort Carnarvon. There may be others in Vanualevu and elsewhere.page 267
Two instances of stones sacred to other diseases have been met with by Dr. Corney. One of these is situated near Narokovuaka, on the Wainimbuka branch of the Rewa river, and the other in the Tonga district, the home of Katalewe, the leper stone. They are both called vatu-ni-bukete-vatu (dropsy stones). Abdominal dropsy is generally termed mbukete wai (water pregnancy), but when very tense it becomes mbukete vatu (stone pregnancy). The latter term is also applied to abdominal tumour, which, though a rare disease among the Fijians, is occasionally met with. In neither case does the stone appear to take an active part in imparting the disease to which it is sacred. Probably it was the menhir of some chief who died of the disease, or some fancied similarity to the symptoms of the disease was noticed in its shape.
It must not be supposed that the natives as a whole have as matured a theory to account for the dissemination of disease as might be gathered from the foregoing account of the leper stones. Few of them have turned their thoughts to the subject; even the youth who described the visit of the "Sakuka" had not speculated upon what motive the proprietor of the stone could have had in letting loose his horrible familiar upon the unoffending family. His reasoning went no further than this: that they had leprosy, and he supposed that it was the leper stone that did it. It was only when Dr. Corney asked the question that the youth remembered that the leper-priest had the power of conferring the disease, and that he thought of connecting the fact with his own case. So with the doom that overtook the iconoclast teacher; the natives related his destruction of Katalewe and his subsequent fate as totally unconnected episodes. The occult powers of Katalewe were so much a commonplace of their lives that, when Dr. Corney translated his notes to them, they were astonished that any one should think it worth while to collect the scattered fragments of information they had given him into a connected narrative.
It is, therefore, scarcely correct to say that they hold decided views upon the manner in which leprosy is transmitted. Most of them would say that they had never thought page 268about it, and if pressed for an opinion, would point to its prevalence in certain families as a reason for thinking it hereditary. Natives of places where there are leper stones believe it to be the heirloom of the family connected with the stone, or the work of the leper-priest when the disease appears in other families for the first time. But among the coast tribes there seems to be a strong suspicion that lepers breed contagion, since in many districts lepers are compelled to live by themselves in the bush. This has long been the belief of the Tongans, and it is possible that Tongan immigrants have impressed their views upon Fijians, since it is more marked in the Lau Islands, where the Tongan influence is strongest.
A painful case came to my notice in 1887 at Lakemba. A leper had been driven out into the bush, and his wife had been in the habit of taking food to him daily. Her relations, having failed to dissuade her from what they regarded as a practice dangerous to themselves, told her at last that she must choose between their society and his, for that if she persisted in visiting a leper, she would be debarred from ever returning to the village, but must live thenceforth in the woods like a wild animal. The poor woman refused to abandon her husband, and the relations came to me to ask whether she could not be legally restrained from thus cutting herself off from all that makes life worth living to a native. She was brought before me, and as soon as I had satisfied myself that she was acting of her own free-will I forbade any one to interfere with her liberty of action. The husband was described as suffering from nodular leprosy. He had been isolated, not from horror at his appearance, for men afflicted with lupus in as revolting a form were allowed to live in the village, but from fear of contagion.
In places where isolation is usual lepers conceal their condition as long as possible, and it is not uncommon to hear that so-and-so is strongly suspected of leprosy because he will never take off his shirt to work, and avoids bathing in company.
There are, as most people know, two kinds of leprosy, page 269nerve and nodular. Nerve leprosy is manifested by patches of discoloration on the skin in which all sensation is destroyed, and the Fijians suffer so much from scrofulous affections that this symptom may be easily passed over. Nor is nerve leprosy, at any rate in its early stages, revolting in appearance. Nodular leprosy, on the other hand, which often attacks the face, and is far more horrible in appearance, is unmistakable, but it is less common in Fiji than nerve leprosy or a mixture of the two.
The isolation enforced by the Fijians appears to correspond with the practice of the Hebrews and Philistines, who drove the pauper lepers without the city gate, but let the high-born leper alone. Ratu Joseva, Thakombau's son, like Naaman, still maintained a household of retainers. The lot of the isolated leper in Fiji is not a very hard one while he has strength to move about A hut is built for him in the bush; firewood is abundant; wild yams are to be had for the digging, wild fowls and pigs for the trapping; he can pick the best land for his plantation. But when the poor wretch loses the use of his legs an awful fate may await him. A horrible story is told of a leper on the Tailevu coast who had lost all sensation in his feet. Waking by his fire one morning he noticed a smell of roasting flesh, and wondered for some moments whence it came, until, when he moved himself to look out of the doorway, he noticed that the logs in the fireplace stirred, and saw that his own feet had been lying in the fire, and were burned to cinders.