Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XX — trade

page 280

Chapter XX

The necessity for bartering commodities, which is one of the earliest needs of primitive society, was met by the Fijians in an original manner. Nomad tribes, who are perpetually at war with their neighbours, and are not self-supporting, satisfy their wants by raiding and plunder; settled agricultural tribes in the same condition invent some artificial condition under which combatants may exchange their goods to their mutual advantage. Thus, in south-eastern New Guinea there are settled markets on the tribal frontier fitted with counters of saplings on which the women of either side may lay their goods and barter them without fear of molestation by the warriors, for the ground is strictly tabu, and neither side would dare to commit the sacrilege of striking a blow within its precincts.

In Fiji the natural productions of the country led to localizing of industries. No tribe, however wide its territory, was entirely self-supporting. Salt came only from the salt-pans in the mangrove swamps; cooking-pots from the clay-pits on outlying islands; the painting of gnatu was an art peculiar to a few; the carving of bowls and the building of canoes were the craft of the carpenter clans and no other. The comfort, if not the existence, of a tribe depended upon barter, and the form of barter devised by the Fijians accorded exactly with their passion for formal ceremonial.

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.

The Solevu in Decay

With the arrival of the trader who, all unconsciously, was set to teach the natives an entirely new system of trade based on currency, all need for the solevu vanished, and each native product immediately acquired a recognized place in the scale of values, either in money or calico. Nothing shows the extraordinary conservatism of the Fijians better than the fact that they did not at once abandon the solevu in favour of an informal sale of native products to one another. The two systems continued to flourish side by side, the native carried his produce to the trader and took cash or groceries in exchange on the spot, but he continued to manufacture large quantities of goods intended for ceremonial presentations to his neighbours and to trust to receiving the equivalent at some time in the uncertain future. For a time the solevu was encouraged by the Government upon the ground that it would form a substitute for commerce until the natives should become accustomed to money as a medium of exchange, and that it was inseparable from the native social system, which for politi-page break
A War Dance.

A War Dance.

page 287cal
reasons it was convenient to retain. It was felt that without the solevu the manufacture of mats, pottery, salt, bark-cloth, sinnet, wooden bowls, etc., would fall into disuse, and that the material comfort of the people would be affected for the worse. Therefore it became usual for the solevu to take place at every half-yearly Provincial Council at which each district became in rotation the entertainers of the others. Upon the entertainers fell the burden of building new houses, a very salutary provision, of providing food for a vast concourse of people for several days, and of manufacturing an immense quantity of mats of native cloth to be presented to the visitors. In return the entertainers would theoretically be entitled to a share of the property presented by the guests on their arrival, and of that given at other councils when the part of playing host fell to others. This would have been well enough if the presentation had been kept within bounds, and the spoil had been properly divided, but the emulation of the chiefs to outdo one another in hospitality led them to bring pressure to bear upon their people, and the chief burden fell upon the women, whose principal duty was to produce the things required for the solevu. Moreover, less of the property reached the producers than formerly, the lion's share being appropriated by the chiefs who attended the council. Being a distortion of the real native custom, the solevu began to lose much of its native character.

At Ndeumba, where the natives earn considerable incomes from growing bananas, the property given consisted exclusively of European commodities, such as kerosene, tins of biscuits and calico, purchased in Suva, while at Rewa a cutter, filled to the hatches with tins of kerosene, formed the contribution of the Tonga district. The solevu had thus grown to be an intolerable burden. They were far larger and more frequent than in the old days, they were given and received by the wrong people. As long as a single tribe or joint family was concerned, every householder or head of family got his fair share according to his rank. It was not custom that the group of tribes that form the modern district should receive a presentation in common, and, as usual, the native mind could devise no new law to meet the new emergency. Accordingly, page 288in June, 1892, the Government formally forbade the interchange of property at Provincial Councils. By the people at large the order was welcomed, and as a means of commerce the solevu may now be said to have ceased to exist.

But one evil resulting from the mutilated custom still survives. In the old days a single district or village was rarely called upon to feed large assemblages of people; now, every Provincial Council is made the excuse for immense profusion and waste. At some of them as many as one hundred and sixty pigs and turtle and six thousand yams and taro are consumed in two days, and at the Annual Meeting of the Chiefs the food provided by the entertainers reaches more than ten times that amount. It is not all eaten, of course. Several tons of cooked food are thrown to rot on the seashore, but the Government is probably right in not interfering to check this prodigality. The necessity of planting large reserves of food secures the people against an unexpected famine, caused by flood, hurricane or droughts; if they lost the fear of being reproached for being niggardly it is more than probable that they would cease to plant sufficient food for their bare needs.

When the solevu of the Provincial Councils was abolished the Governor laid before the chiefs the proposal to establish a system of intertribal barter in the local markets, which is a Melanesian and Papuan custom; this ought not to have been repugnant to Fijian ideas, but the chiefs could not be induced to take any interest in the proposal, which shows that their attachment to the primitive solevu was no longer due to the necessity for barter, but rather to the elaborate ceremonial display which is so dear to the native mind.

Yet the Fijians are by no means deficient in the mercantile instinct. In some districts side by side with the solevu a regular system of trade by barter was practised. At Lekutu in Mbau the townspeople were in the habit of bartering fish and salt with the hill people for vegetable produce. There were regular market-places, and the barter took place at fixed intervals. At Kandavu a single household or tribal sept having a store of bark-cloth, or some other commodity, would invite the possessors of some coveted article to trade with them, and page 289on the appointed day would visit their village and hand over their property in exchange for cooked food as well as the wares they needed. Similar practices prevailed in Western Vitilevu between the natives of the coast and the mountaineers; these customs were called tango or veisa.

The growing use of money has been developed side by side with a system of traffic in native produce, not only with European buyers, but among the natives inter se. Natives of the coast districts of Tailevu, who are required periodically to take contributions of food to Mbau on the occasion of some ceremonial without expecting any remuneration, at the same time carry on a regular trade with their chiefs at Mbau, hawking vegetables or fowls from house to house for money or its equivalent in European articles. Thus they draw a clear line of distinction between lála and barter.