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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXV — swimming

page 316

Chapter XXV

Swimming seems to come naturally to every Fijian. As soon as a child can toddle, it is playing at the water's edge with older children, and little by little it ventures out until its feet are off the bottom. Being supposed to be a natural action like walking, no attempt is made to teach it. In-ability to swim is always a source of derisive amusement. I remember a journey inland, where many swollen creeks had to be crossed, and all bridges had been broken down. A servant who was with us, a native of Malicolo, who could not swim, had to be ferried across clinging to an impromptu raft of banana stumps. Though the wearied carriers had to cut and make this raft anew at every crossing, the roars of good-natured laughter seemed to be ample reward, and the joke never grew stale.

In long-distance swimming the natives adopt a sort of sidestroke, in which nothing but the head is above water. They move smoothly and rapidly through the water, the legs and the right arm giving the propulsion, and the left hand striking downwards under the body. When a quick spurt is required, they use the overhand action with both arms alternately, with the cheek resting flat on the water as the arm on that side is driven aft. With this action they can swim at greater speed than all but the best European swimmers. They can swim immense distances, and no swimming-board or float is ever used, as in the Eastern Pacific, in surf swimming, except by children in their play.

There are many swimming games, such as chasing a fugitive and wrestling in the water. On a calm evening the page 317water is black with the heads of laughing men and women. I have joined in these sports, and though I am at home in the water, as swimmers go in England, I confess that when I was pulled down by the legs from below, and ducked from above when I tried to come up, I was glad to escape from them with my life. In the game of ririka (leaping) a eocoanut log is laid slantwise from the beach to an upright post in the water. The people run up this incline in endless file, and their plunges whiten the surrounding water with foam.

The Fijian is a good diver, though inferior to the Rotuman and the native of the Line Islands. When diving he does not plunge head, first from the swimming position, but draws his head under, and reverses the position of his body under water without creating a swirl. If the water is not too deep, when he reaches the bottom he lies flat with his nose touching the sand, his hands being behind the back, and propels himself with incredible speed by digging his toes into the sand. English divers, who can realize the difficulty of this manœuvre, may be inclined to doubt this statement, and for their benefit I will relate how I came to have ocular demonstration. At Christmas-time in 1886 I organized athletic sports at Fo'rt Carnarvon, an isolated little quasi-military post garrisoned by fifty men of the Armed Native Constabulary in the heart of Vitilevu. The mountaineers of the neighbouring villages were invited to compete with the soldiers, who were recruited from the coast. In wrestling and running the soldiers held their own, but when it came to swimming and diving they were nowhere. The course was a backwater of the river about 8 feet deep, and I went down the bank 150 yards from the starting-point to judge the winner. Our most expert diver was a Mathuata coast man, and he came to the surface 20 yards short of me, after being down 75 seconds. I had already written him down as winner, when a head bobbed up fully 20 yards beyond me. It was a sooty-skinned, insignificant little mountaineer, who did not seem much distressed, and was so pleased with our applause that he offered to repeat the feat. I sent for him next day, and took a lesson in 4 feet of clear water, where I could plainly page 318see his every movement. It amused him immensely to see my futile efforts to keep my head on the bottom, for whenever I drove myself forward with my toes, my head would rise to the surface. The art seemed to be to arch the body so that the head and feet were lowest, and to move the legs with the knees drawn straight up under the stomach. I raced him, he using the ground and I swimming under water, and found that he went more than twice as fast. The hill natives, who bathe only in fresh water, are better swimmers than the coast people.

Another water game is peculiar to the rivers. In flood-time, when the river is running like a mill-race, you put to sea on a banana stump, with the thinner end held firmly between the knees, and the butt under your chest, using the hands to steer and keep yourself in mid-stream. In shooting the rapids, you let the submerged end take the bump over the stones, but sometimes you receive serious bruises. Woe betide you if you get into a whirlpool and turn over, for you then have to part from your craft, and are in danger of being sucked under and drowned. From Fort Carnarvon the river sweeps round a bend of fifteen miles, and returns to a point not very far from the place of departure. We used to set forth in a flotilla of twenty, and cover the distance in little more than half-an-hour, our native companions keeping up an incessant chorus of laughter and song as we swept past the villages.

In one place on the Singatoka, near Nakorovatu, the sunken rocks cause a back current nearly as fast as the main stream, an elongated whirlpool half-a-mile long. A few strokes at each end are enough to take you from one stream into the other, and you may thus be carried up and down the river without effort.

Fijians never take headers. Under ordinary circumstances they bathe without immersing the head, because their thick mat of hair is difficult to dry. When they plunge from a height it is always feet first. I once lost my ring in the deep pool at the mouth of the submarine cave at Yasawa-i-lau, and I offered a sovereign to any one who would find it. The water was over twenty feet deep, and the divers found that page 319they could not reach the bottom with breath enough to search for it without plunging from a height. Even then they plunged in feet first, and turned over when near the bottom. But the ring had evidently sunk into the soft white ooze, which the divers churned into a thick cloud until further search was useless.