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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXII — physical powers

page 297

Chapter XXII
physical powers

Though the contrary is asserted by European residents, I think that the physical strength and endurance of a Fijian are greater rather than less than that of the average Englishman. Native prisoners, used as porters, will carry a box weighing from 50 to 60 1b., slung on a bamboo between two men, over very hilly roads a distance of thirty miles in a hot sun without distress, if they are allowed occasional halts, and will do this for several days in succession. A letter-carrier will cover thirty-five miles of hilly road as an ordinary day's march, and more if haste is enjoined. On a fairly level road, such as the hard beach, a native will walk ten miles easily in two hours and a quarter. It is probably true that most Europeans in good training could do all these things equally well in cool weather, if they were barefooted and could reduce their clothing to a loin-cloth; for having once been shipwrecked at night, with ten miles of sand in the darkness to cover, when I had given my wet clothes and shoes to a native to carry, I found that I outpaced my men easily. But this, of course, was no test, for the cool breeze which was pleasant to me cut through them like a March east wind, and left them shivering, starved and miserable.

On the sugar plantations the overseers have a good opportunity of comparing the strength and endurance of Fijians and East Indian coolies, and they find that where steady hard work, such as thrashing cane, is required the coolie is the best labourer, but that the Fijian excels in work such as unloading punts, or hauling logs, in which great muscular effort is page 298required, with rests between. This is exactly what one would expect. In India the man who cannot work steadily must starve; in Fiji food is so easily come by that a few spurts of labour at planting and harvest and war time are the normal conditions of life.

A Fijian can hurl a spear and throw a reed into the air farther than a white man can, and in those feats in which knack is in favour of the white man, such as throwing the cricket ball, he is probably more than his equal.

His extraordinary powers of endurance in the water far surpass anything recorded of Europeans. I have twice talked with people just rescued after being 48 hours in the water, swimming without support, in both cases from the capsizing of their canoes in mid-channel. They seemed little the worse, though they had been without food or drink for two days in a burning sun and in constant peril of sharks, which had eaten several of their companions, and their faces were raw, owing to their continually brushing the salt water out of their eyes. Men suffer more acutely than women in these cases, because the long immersion in salt water produces a horrible and painful affection of the male organs.

On the other hand, Fijians seem to be more sensitive to cold and hunger than Europeans. The average daily weight of roots consumed by a healthy adult Fijian is from seven to ten pounds, and the stomach is probably larger than that of a European, and feels hunger sooner. Cold and hunger tell rapidly upon his buoyant spirits, and make him silent and depressed. Fijians are heavy sleepers, and dislike being aroused. It is difficult to induce a commoner to awake his chief at all, and if he must, he does it by calling "Iele!" softly, or scratching at his sleeping-mats, but never by touching him. He bears deprivation of sleep less easily than a European, and for this reason he makes a bad sentry.