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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXVII — games

page 328

Chapter XXVII

While ceremonial dancing takes the place both of theatrical shows and of sports with the Fijians, there are two national games that have held their own, and a number of amusements which may be briefly enumerated.

Veiyama was a sham fight among children, in which serious injuries sometimes resulted, and, as they have no longer the example of their elders, it is now very rarely played. A swing consisting of a rope tied to a high branch with a loop for the foot, formerly very popular, has now also fallen into disuse. The children now play hide-and-seek, and a few impromptu games, without prescribed rules, and with the warm water on the beach to sport in, and the school dances to practise, they do not feel the want of them; They have no toys except miniature canoes, which they make for themselves as they want them.

Veimoli, or pelting with oranges, is played both by children and young men. The skill consists in dodging the orange, which is thrown at short distance and with full force, and their activity in dodging is so extraordinary that it has given rise to the myth that Fijians could avoid a bullet by dodging at the flash of the gun.

The there, or foot-race, was always run on some occasion such as the first voyage of a canoe, or the digging of a plantation, for a prize offered by the owner. In my first voyage in a canoe I had had built at Fort Carnarvon we found a crowd of young men waiting for us on the river-bank, decked in streamers, and shouting a sort of shrill war-cry. My men declared it was a there, and a bale of mast (at my expense) was page 329hastily unpacked, and a streamer of the cloth fastened to a stick. With this one of the men landed, some two hundred yards lower down, and ran at topmost speed with the whole rabble baying at his heels. The man who caught him and tore the flag from him received the bale, which he afterwards divided out among the others.

The veisanka was a sort of wrestling match between men and women, who met at the top of a steep hill, and, having closed, a couple would roll down the hill together. It was a rough sport, resulting often in a sprain, and it has now been discouraged by the missionaries.

There were also the veitenki-vutu (throwing the vutu), a fruit, which from its buoyancy is used as a float for fishing nets; the veikalawa-na-sari, a sort of "hop, skip and jump"; and a kind of skittles, played with stones. All these have been abandoned.

The veisolo is a custom rather than a game, and it is still occasionally practised in Western Vitilevu. The last case I heard of occurred in 1887, and some of my armed constables were the victims. They put up in a small village in the Nandi district, and hardly had the food been brought to them when the house was beset by a number of girls bent on mischief. The traditional object of the besiegers is to disperse their visitors and take away the food, but the real motive is to have a romp. The men are expected to be gentle with their assailants, and either to take them captive or lay them gently on the ground, but in this instance they were greatly outnumbered, and all the men of the village being absent, they were really in fear for their lives, for they had heard stories of men dying from the violence of these Amazons. They barricaded the door, and, having succeeded in wresting one of the pointed sticks that were thrust at them through the grass walls, for a time prevented any of the women from getting in. Their assailants then became infuriated, and shrieked for a fire-stick with which to fire the thatch, and one of the men holding the door thought it well to take a hostage. So he drew back, and a strapping girl bounced into the hut. Then followed a scene which suggests that there is a sexual signifi-page 330cance in the custom, for the girl was stripped and cruelly assaulted in a manner not to be described. The women outside were actually setting fire to the house, and would have burned their village to the ground had not the men, alarmed by the uproar, returned from their plantations in time to put a stop to it. The guests beat a hasty retreat under cover of the darkness, and, curiously enough, no complaint of their behaviour to the girl was made, probably because it was custom.

The two national games that have held their own are veitinka and lavo. The tinka or ulutoa is a reed four feet long fitted into a pointed head carved out of ironwood, and about four inches long. On the outskirts of every village in Western Vitilevu is the tinka ground, a level stretch of bare earth over one hundred yards long by ten wide. The ulutoa is thrown thus: the thrower rests the end of the reed on the ball of the middle finger of the right hand, and, with the arm extended behind him and the point of the ulutoa on the level of his armpit, he takes a short run and discharges the weapon with the full force of the right side of his body. It flies through the air for the first thirty yards with a low trajectory, and touching the ground with its smooth surface, skims along it, barely touching the earth until its force is spent. The longest throw wins the game. The heavy head and the light shaft make the ulutoa an attractive missile, but the unpractised European finds the knack of throwing straight very difficult to acquire. Almost every fine evening finds the youths of the village at practice on the tinka ground, and on feast-days challenges are sent out to the neighbouring villages and matches are played. Good players regard their ironwood heads much as golfers do their favourite driver; but they cut the reed shafts from the roadside as they want them.

Lavo has a curious history. It was originally a Fijian game, and was played with the lavo, the flat round seeds of the walai creeper (Mimosa Scandens), which from its shape has given its name to all European coins, for the dollars recovered from the wrecked brig Eliza in 1809 were used for the game in preference to the seeds. The Tongan immigrants page 331learned the game and carried it back with them to Tonga, under the name of lafo, where, the seeds being scarce, they substituted discs of cocoanut-shell, which were a great improvement. In Tonga it flourished exceedingly; the rules were improved, special sheds were erected for it, and valuable property changed hands in the stakes.

Meanwhile it had died out in Fiji, and when it revived through the influence of the Tongans domiciled in the group, it was in its Tongan form with cocoanut-shells.

I have described it elsewhere in detail,1 and I will here only indicate the rules. A board is made with mats about fifteen feet long, slightly raised at the sides so as to form a sloping cushion. The four players sit, two at each end, so arranged that the partners are divided by the length of the board, and each is sitting beside an adversary. Each player throws five discs alternately with his opponent, and the object is to skim the disc so as to be nearest the extreme edge, and to knock off an adversary's disc that may be nearer.

The under edge of the disc is oiled with a rag, and a very nice judgment is required to impart a "break" from the cushion so as to topple off an opponent's disc and leave your own in its place. In scoring it is not unlike tennis. You begin at six and count to ten, and the best out of five makes the set. I have taken part in many a match, and can testify to the excellence of the game and the skill that may be acquired with practice.

The men amuse themselves sometimes with a game of guessing. One flings out his hand suddenly, and the other guesses the position of his fingers.

The chiefs sometimes play practical jokes by punning (vakarimbamalamala). Thus as the word ulaula means both to thatch a house and to throw short clubs at one another, the Mbau chiefs send to their vassals to come and ulaula. They come expecting to thatch a house, and find themselves received with a volley of throwing clubs.

Story-telling is the principal amusement on long evenings, and the best story-tellers are professionals. The most success-page 332ful are tales full of exaggeration of the Munchausen order, and these, especially when unfit for polite ears, provoke roars of laughter. The story-tellers have now begun to draw upon European literature for their inspiration, and the result throws a very instructive light upon the Fijian's sense of humour.

I once gave a Fijian the outline of Mr. Rider Haggard's She, and a few nights later I chanced to hear his version of it delivered to a spellbound native audience. The author would not have enjoyed it, for the central figure was the native servant of the travellers, who, it will be remembered, was incidentally "hot-potted" by an unfriendly tribe. This servant had become an Indian coolie, talking such broken Fijian as coolies talk in a sort of nasal whine. The narrator enlarged upon his skinniness, his absence of calf, his cowardice, and many other qualities in the coolie which the Fijians hold in contempt. There were endless interpolated dialogues, and the coolie argued at great length against the fate decreed for him, but when the red-hot pot was finally on his head the story was drowned in shouts of appreciative laughter. "She," being but a love-sick white woman, of course talked in "pidgin" Fijian, but she had little more than a walking part. The professional story-tellers are promised nambu, or fees in kind, by the audience as an inducement.

Wherever a ground is within reach, and Europeans are at hand to organize the game, the Fijians have taken keenly to cricket, though not to the same extent as the Tongans. They have a natural aptitude for fielding and throwing up, but their idea of batting and bowling are still in the elementary stage, where force is thought better than skill. It was, however, possible to send a native team on tour through the Australian colonies, under the captaincy of Ratu Kanda-vulevu, King Thakombau's grandson.

The native constabulary took keenly to Rugby football for a time, but as they wore no boots the sick-list after every match was unduly swelled with men suffering from injured toes, and the game was not encouraged. In a temperature of 80 degrees in the shade, where passions are apt to rise with page 333the thermometer, football is unlikely to become a national game.

English athletic sports are held occasionally at native meetings, but so strong does tribal feeling still run, that it is unsafe to encourage wrestling matches and tugs-of-war between rival tribes, such contests being apt to degenerate into free fights. The instinct of the weaker side is to run for a club with which to wipe out the disgrace.

1 The Indiscretions of Lady Asenath.