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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Solevu (So-levu, i.e. Great Presentation)

The Solevu (So-levu, i.e. Great Presentation)

The solevu is the formal presentation of property by one. clan or sept to another. The ceremonial was much the same page 281whenever merchandise had to pass, whether as tribute, reward, or free exchange between equals. There were formerly many reasons for solevu. Help given by allies in war time entitled them to a solevu from the succoured; quarter given by a conquering army in the moment of victory placed the vanquished under a like obligation; the death of a high chief gave his relatives a claim upon the subject tribes; a marriage entitled the relations of the bride to a solevu from the bridegroom's people. Solevu celebrated under these circumstances, being in the nature of payment for services rendered, did not call for any return, though they brought about the circulation of property. But between tribes of equal rank that had no such excuse for demanding presentations from each other there was a form of solevu that was trading pure and simple. A tribe that owned salt-pans such as those at Nandi Bay wanted mats. It would send a formal messenger to one of the islands of Yasawa, asking permission to bring them a solevu of salt. Yasawa accepted. The solevu took place, both donors and recipients preserving a very accurate remembrance of the value of the present. After some months, or even years, Yasawa, having plaited a store of mats equivalent to their estimate of the value of the salt, would propose to return the solevu, and the score would be wiped off. If they seemed to hang fire, deft hints would be conveyed to them by the gossip-mongers, that they were fast becoming a by-word on the Nandi coast. If their offering fell short of the value due from them the formal gratitude of their entertainers would lose nothing of its correctness at the time. The speeches would be as complimentary as usual, the hand-clapping as hearty, but none the less would they be made to hang their heads with shame when they had returned to their own island, and heard from the gossip-mongers some of the caustic epigrams current in Nandi at their expense.

Technically, the merchandise of a solevu was presented to the chief, but the greater part of it reached the people whose labour had provided its purchase-equivalent. A good chief divided it out upon the spot among the septs composing the clan, who in turn assigned it to the individual heads of houses; page 282a selfish chief stored it away, and doled it out to such of his dependants or subject chiefs as chose to ask for it by kerekere, but he applied it to his own use at the cost of his popularity, and, therefore, of his power. So long as a chief felt that his position depended on the suffrages of his subjects he did not dare to indulge his greed, and the trade balance was preserved. He might, however, apply it to the common advantage of the tribe, to pay off allies, or to purchase a new alliance, in which case the consent of his advisers carried with it the consent of the whole tribe. A European, staying with a great chief such as the Vunivalu of Mbau, is astonished at the number of minor presentations. Several times, perhaps, during the course of the day the tama is shouted from without the house. The chief's mata looks out, and announces the arrival of some subject clan with an offering—a roll of sinnet, a bale of cloth, a turtle, and the inevitable root of kava. A few of the household step out to listen to the speech of presentation and clap their hands in the prescribed form, but the chief himself scarcely deigns to check his conversation to listen. The merchandise is carried to a storehouse, where in due course it will be doled out to some chief desiring it, for the use of his numerous dependants, or used in the tangled political negotiations on which the safety of the federation depends. These minor presentations are in reality public revenue, and their equivalent in England would be found if every landowner brought his income-or land-tax in kind to Windsor and laid it with due ceremony at the gate of the castle.

The ceremonial varied slightly according to the local custom and the cause for which the solevu was presented. The details of a marriage-gift differed from those of the obsequies of a dead chief; the ordinary trade solevu between equals followed a simpler ritual than that of an offering of a vanquished tribe to its victors. But the general form was the same. Upon the appointed day the donors carried their wares to the village of the recipients, and halted upon the outskirts while their herald approached the chief's house and tama-ed, asking permission for his people to enter. The notables of the village page 283being assembled in the square, the donors approached in procession, and were dismissed to the empty houses prepared for them, or, if the party was a large one, to the temporary shelters erected for their accommodation; To these they carried their merchandise, and they were scarcely settled when their entertainers filed in procession to the door, bearing the feast (mangiti) of cooked and raw yams, fish, hogs half-roasted and the ceremonial root of yankona. This having been presented and accepted according to the usual formula, the visitors were left to their own devices. In the evening individuals might visit their acquaintances in the village; the young men or women of the village, perhaps, entertained their guests with a night dance by the light of bonfires, but there was no general intercourse between the entertainers and the entertained. On the morrow, after the morning meal, the visitors removed their merchandise to the cover of the forest or the outskirts, and made ready their ceremonial entrance. There, the leaders wound many fathoms of native cloth about their bodies. The leading chief wore so cumber-some a cincture of it that his arms stuck out horizontally, and a man had to walk beside him on either side supporting its weight. The grown men blackened their faces and festooned the cloth about them until their bodies were entirely hidden, and they resembled turkey cocks with tails outspread. Armed with spears and clubs, bearing enormous turbans on their heads, they were ready for the great ballet that was to follow. The rest shouldered the salt or mats or pots, and the procession was formed. A warrior with blackened face led the way. With his spear poised he crept forward step by step as if about to launch it at his hosts, pausing every few yards with a sharp jerk of the elbow that set the point quivering. The chief and his elders followed, bending under the weight of their huge girdles. Then came others with a litter of boughs supporting a great bale of white bark-cloth, and many more followed with the rest of the merchandise, their hosts greeting them with shouts of "Vinaka! Vinaka!" (Well done! Well done!). In the centre of the square they halted, and laid down their burdens on a fast-increasing pile, each page 284retiring when his task was done. The chiefs unwound their girdles, a process that occupied many minutes, and stepped out at last, naked to their waist-cloths, leaving the cloth as a stiff rampart about the spot where they had halted. Mean-while some twenty of the bearers had seated themselves apart. They set up a chant, marking the time with a small wooden drum, and the boom of hollow bamboos struck endwise upon the earth. Then from behind the houses came the ballet, five or six deep, with a few paces' interval between each. With their black faces, their enormous turbans, their strange dress and their arms they were a terrifying spectacle. No ballet is so well drilled as this. Every gesture of the hands, the heads and the eyes is timed with a precision that months of practice would not achieve were there not an inborn dexterity to build upon. Little boys of four or five may be seen on the outskirts of the practice-ground swaying their limbs and bodies in elaborate contortions which Europeans after a prolonged gymnastic training would execute very clumsily. The words chanted by the band may either be traditional poems whose meaning is obscure, or the composition of the leader of the dance, for nearly every district has its poet, who retires to the forest for free access of the muse, and surpasses the mediaeval troubadours in that he sets his words, not only to music, but to action, and is poet, composer and ballet-master in one.

A description of one of these dances given by the mountaineers of Bemana at the Great Council of Chiefs held in Nandronga in 1887 will serve for all. The dancers marched into the great square in twenty ranks of ten, and squatted down with spears poised. In their crouching posture the festoons of their draperies took on the symmetry of haycocks, each surmounted with a heavy knob for ornament, for their enormous turbans almost hid the blackened faces. Their sloping spears swayed like a thicket of bamboos swept by a breeze. And now the chant quickened to a sinister rhythm, and there was a menace in the stillness of the dancers. One huge fellow, detached from the rest, began to mark the exciting drum-beat by fluttering the enormous war-fan he carried in page 285his left hand; the rest seemed motionless unless you looked into the shadow of the turbans, where their restless eyes gleamed unnaturally white from the soot that besmeared their faces. As the chant grew in shrillness and the drums beat a devil's tattoo that set the muscles of the vast concourse of spectators twitching with excitement, the dancers became unnaturally still, not a spear wavered in its slope.

The spell was broken by a shout, deep-toned and mighty, from a hundred warriors' throats. A third of the band leaps up, and, with spears poised aloft, marches straight and compact to the further end, turns about and retreats to its place. But ere the foremost are within touch of their companions another third springs up and joins them, and together they repeat the manæuvre. Another shout and the whole body is in motion. The earth trembles with its tramp; the rattle of its stiff trappings drowns the whine of the singers. This time they do not return. The first rank is within a pace of the line of spectators when the leader—he of the war-fan—gives the signal. They are down now, with bodies bent low, and spears poised for stabbing or hurling. Their legs are like bent springs, so lightly they leap as they take open order. The leader flirts his huge fan, and runs swiftly up and down, shouting orders that need never have been shouted. For every movement, of body, head, arm or foot, is executed as if one wire moved the whole two hundred. They pursue, they flee, they stab a fallen enemy, they dodge his blows by a sideways jerk of the head, they run at topmost speed, and the earth shakes at the tramp of their running, though they do not advance an inch, and their running feet strike always in the same spot Their eyes blaze and their teeth grin with fury, the sooty sweat courses down their skin, the loops of stiff drapery clash about them. In other dances some luckless dancer commits a fault not to be detected by European eyes, and excites the loud derision of the spectators, but here all the dancers are perfect in their parts and the crowd is awed by the verisimilitude of the piece. At the outset a few ribald spirits of the coast tribes applauded the terrific appearance and gestures of the warriors in obvious irony, but presently, when the play seemed to settle to sober page 286earnest, a fearful silence fell upon them all. The evolutions of the dancers gave occasion. Retiring step by step before an imaginary foe to the further end of the square, they would dash forward in compact phalanx upon the bank of spectators, checking their onset with a suddenness that seemed to defy the laws of momentum. If this was but the image of war, surely the reality must be less terrible. To sit still unarmed while two hundred untamed devils charge over one with their stabbing-spears is not courage, but foolhardiness—so, at least, thought the men of Mbua who faced the dance. And so, when the grass was strewn with the fragments of the trappings, and the dancers were struck to stone in the midst of their most furious onslaught, the solid bank of spectators broke and fled. Only when the warriors had walked tamely off to add their finery to the heap of presents did they begin to slink back one by one, looking the more foolish for their heroic efforts to join in the laugh against themselves.