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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXIX — yankona (Kava)

page 341

Chapter XXIX
yankona (Kava)

Yankona (Yaqona) the Kava or Ava of the Polynesians, is an infusion of the. root of the pepper plant (Piper methysticum), which is indigenous in Fiji. Throughout Polynesia it occupies the place which coffee takes among the Arabs, that is to say, it is used on occasions of ceremony and in the entertainment of strangers, and its preparation, even in private houses, is always accompanied by a ceremonial more or less elaborate. Its geographical distribution in the Pacific may be roughly described by saying that the races that chew betel do not drink yankona. The plant is unknown in the Solomon Islands and the other Melanesian groups, with the exception of the Banks and New Hebrides Islands. We know that the Banks Islanders acquired the habit of drinking it only recently, and it is possible that the New Hebrides natives learned the habit from labourers returning from the plantations in Fiji. Kava-drinking, indeed, seems to be so purely a Polynesian custom, that the Fijians might be supposed to have learned it from the Polynesians were it not for the fact that the yankona songs of the hill tribes are so archaic that the people have quite forgotten their original meaning. In the New Hebrides and Banks Islands the quasi-religious character of the custom has not yet given place to everyday use, and yankona is not drunk by women.

Even in Fiji itself there was considerable diversity of custom, Thomas Williams says it was not in common use in Vanualevu and part of Vitilevu in his time. The hill tribes of Vitilevu seem always to have used it, though its use was confined to the old men, who often drank it to excess. They page 342prepared it without the elaborate ceremonial with which the coast tribes have made us familiar, but on great occasions they made use of a peculiar weird chant, accompanied by gestures whose meaning has been long forgotten. In Williams's time the natives used to assert that the true Fijian mode of preparing the root was by grating, and that the practice of chewing it, which is now universal throughout Fiji, was introduced from Tonga. About thirty years ago King George of Tonga absolutely prohibited the chewing of kava as a filthy habit, and the practice of grating the root or pounding it between two stones has now become so universal that the Tongans regard the Fijian habit of chewing it, which they themselves introduced, with the utmost disgust. The customs of the two countries have thus been reversed.

In former times the use of yankona in Fiji was purely ceremonial. A dried root was the indispensable accompaniment of every presentation of food. The spokesman of the donors held it in his hand while making his speech, and the representative of the recipients tore off a rootlet or two while acknowledging the gift. The chief's yankona circle supplied the want of newspapers; the news and gossip of the day were related and discussed; the chiefs advisers seized upon the convivial moment as the most favourable opportunity for making known their views; matters of high policy were often decided; the chiefs will, gathered from a few careless words spoken at the yankona ring, was carried from mouth to mouth throughout his dominions. No public business was transacted without yankona-dnnking. The late Mr. William Coxon, who acted as English secretary to Tui Thakau, told me that he witnessed an execution at the chief's yankona ring, which it would be difficult to surpass in cold-blooded horror. The ring was formed as usual, except that the open space between the chief and the bowl was occupied by the condemned man, Tui Thakau's cousin, who had been guilty of sedition after repeated warnings. Four hulking fellows, seated on either side of him, held the ends of the cord that passed about his neck. The chewing and mixing proceeded with their usual decorous deliberation, and none knew bette page 343than the condemned man that the hand-clapping of the person officiating at the bowl, notifying that the drink was brewed, would be the signal for his death. He could hear the liquor slopping back into the bowl as the strainer was wrung out. Knowing exactly how often the operation must be repeated, he could count the moments of life left to him, yet he sat like the others in deferential silence with his eyes upon the floor and his breathing as regular as theirs. At last the brew was made: the brewer gathered the strainer into a tidy parcel, swept it once round the lip of the bowl, and struck it smartly with the other hand. It was the signal. The executioners threw their whole weight upon the rope, and the body fell writhing upon the floor with the head almost wrung from the shoulders, and the tongue hideously extruded from the open mouth. They stayed so until the tortured limbs ceased to writhe, and then, at a signal from the chief, the body was dragged by the shoulders to the doorway, and flung, rope and all, out of the house. It fell with a heavy thud upon the hard ground below, for the house was built upon a foundation fourteen feet high. Not until all was finished did any one break the silence, and the talk turned upon the ordinary topics of the day, and the men laughed at the jester's jokes as usual.

Allowing for certain local variations, the ceremony of yankona-drinking as practised throughout Fiji at the present time is a fair guide to the ancient practice. The chief is seated with his back to the raised bed-place at the further end of the house, the bowl is hanging from the eaves with its strainer; a few young men, preferably those who arc known to have good teeth, are called in by one of the attendants. A man unhooks the bowl from its hanging-place, and, squatting on his heels, claps his hands several times in apology to the company for having reached above their heads. The man who is to make the brew faces the chief with the bowl before him, carefully turning it so as to allow the cord by which it hung to be stretched out in the direction of the presiding chief. The others, still conversing, move their places so as to form two lines, the sides of an oblong page 344corresponding with the shape of the house, the president closing one end and the bowl the other. When all is ready a herald, sitting near the chief, says, "Na yankona saka" (the yankona, sir), and the chief, or his own herald in his place, says carelessly, "Mama!" (chew!). The outer rind is scraped off with a knife, the root is cut into small pieces, and while water is poured over the hands of the brewer to cleanse them, the young men munch the root into a pulp, which they deposit in the bowl until it is studded all over with little doughy lumps of the size of hens' eggs. When all is chewed the brewer takes the bowl by the edge and tilts it towards the chief, and the herald calls his attention to it by saying, "Sa mama saka na yankona" (the yankona, sir, is chewed); the president glances at it and says, in a low tone, "Lomba" (wring it), an order which the herald repeats in a louder tone. Water is poured into the bowl from a jar or bamboo, the brewer meanwhile stirring it into a muddy fluid. It is at this point that the yankona song is chanted. Each verse is sung in a quavering duet, which is broken in upon by a chorus chanted in unison, each verse ending with a sort of sigh or grunt and accompanied by gestures of the arms and body, which are executed in absolute time. The effect of the double line of bodies swaying gracefully in the uncertain light of the lamp has an extremely picturesque effect. The words of the chant have been so far conventionalized that they have ceased to convey any meaning.

Throughout the chant the brewer is busy at his task. He first places the strainer, a bunch of the fibres of hybiscus bark, over the surface of the infusion, on which it floats like a buoyant net. Then he presses the outer edge of it down along the sloping bottom of the bowl, and coaxes it upwards towards him with his fingers so as to enclose all the solid matter of the infusion in a sort of bag or parcel. Slightly twisting the ends of the parcel he folds them together, and doubling it again so as to reduce its size to a comfortable hold for the hands, he lifts it gently from the liquor and begins to wring it, allowing the liquor to drain from it back into the bowl. Taking a new handhold he twists it tighter and tighter until the last drop is wrung from it and the page break
Brewing Yangkona.

Brewing Yangkona.

page 345fibres crack with the tension. On a little mat spread at his left hand he now shakes out the woody portions of the root, holding the strainer up with the left hand and combing it with the ringers of the right. The operation of straining is repeated three or four times, until the liquor is sufficiently clear, and sometimes two strainers are employed, the one to relieve the other. An old strainer is preferred to a new one, from which the acrid quality of the fibre has not been washed by frequent use. If strained too often the liquor becomes weak and tasteless, and some judgment has to be exercised by the brewer to regulate his movements so as to bring his operation to a conclusion without interrupting the singers in the middle of a verse. The signal, warning them not to begin another verse, consists in making a feint in the air as if to wipe the lip of the bowl, and in then holding the strainer in the left hand while striking it sharply three or four times with the hollow palm of the right. The cup-bearer now crouches before the bowl, holding his cup over it with both hands, while the brewer fills it by using the strainer as a sponge. The cup-bearer now approaches the chief in a stooping posture, holding the full cup with both hands at arm's length before him, and empties a portion of its contents into the chief's own private cup, which has been carefully wiped for the occasion. While the president is drinking all clap their hands in a quick and merry measure, finishing abruptly with two sharp claps as the president spins his cup upon the ground, the herald crying, "Mbiu" (thrown away) at the same moment. At this the clapping becomes independent. It is prolonged according to the rank of the chief, and it is naturally more hearty on the part of his own dependants. Some sycophant usually continues to clap for some moments after the others have ceased in the hope of attracting the chief s attention. The next to drink after the president is his private herald or attendant; after him the chief next in rank and his attendant, and so on until the liquor is exhausted. Unlike the practice of Tonga, the cup-bearer has the delicate duty of serving the company in the order of rank without assistance from the herald, who, to qualify himself for his hereditary office, has page 346made a lifelong study of the table of precedence. When two persons of nearly equal rank are present a very pretty contest of modesty ensues, the first served declining the proffered cup in favour of the other, who in his turn vehemently repudiates the honour thrust upon him. It is an empty form prescribed by convention, for the fact of drinking before another would confer a step in the social ladder no more than preceding another to the dinner-table in more civilized communities. If the cup-bearer were to make a mistake—a very rare occurrence—he would be set right by one of the heralds before he could commit his solecism. The task was less difficult, because when custom was the law it was impossible for reigning chiefs to eat or drink together, and even now, when they are brought together by the Government, the feast is always apportioned, and taken away by their attendants to be eaten in the privacy of their temporary lodging. But, since no native council would be fruitful of debate unless it were opened with a solemn yankona-drinking the problem of precedence has been boldly solved by the English commissioners by prearranging a fictitious table of precedence, alphabetical or otherwise, so fictitious that it cannot be construed into a ground of offence, even by the most jealous and susceptible.

It is only in modern times that women have become yan-kona drinkers. All the old natives agree that it used to be considered a shocking thing for women to drink yankona. Some of them assert that the emancipation of women from the old restriction was introduced from Tonga, while others think that Nkoliwasawasa, the sister of Thakombau, was the first to drink it in Mbau, and that she was allowed to do so to comfort her for the loss of her husband. Others were not allowed to imitate her, for that would have been dis-respectful, but as soon as the status of women was raised through the influence of the missionaries they began to drink yankona as the men had done before.

Other changes have crept in. In the old days, it was not drunk in every house nor on every night, but only in chiefs' houses by the chief and his retainers, and on the occasion of page 347special feasts and ceremonies. Now, however, it is drunk in the houses of the common people whenever they can obtain a supply of the root. Far more yankona is now planted than before, and one chief at least is in the habit of growing it for trade. European traders import it in large quantities from Samoa and other Polynesian islands and retail it to natives at the usual rate of from 1/6 to 2/a lb.

Boys begin to drink it as soon as they leave school, say at the age of eighteen; girls do not begin till later, though they are often required to chew the root for others to drink. Women seem to drink it as a beverage, as a stimulant, as a laxative, and also as a diuretic. They drink it during pregnancy in the hope that it will give an easy labour and produce a fine child; and also during the suckling period under the excuse that it increases the flow of milk when all other expedients fail. There is among some natives a fixed belief that frequent draughts of yankona are a specific in the early stages of diarrhœa.

There can be no doubt that moderate drinkers find it quite innocuous, but it is otherwise with confirmed yankona topers, who are easily recognized. Their bodies become emaciated, and their skin, especially the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet and the forearms and shins, become dry and covered with scales. They lose their appetite, their sleep is disordered, their eyes bloodshot, they complain of pains in the pit of the stomach and sink into unwholesome lethargy. Any more prolonged debauch than usual leaves its marks upon the drinker for two or three days.

Natives describe the symptoms of habitual yankona-drinking as follows:—

Kaui (peeling of the skin), at first about the hypogastrium only, but eventually over all those parts of the body where it usually occurs; offensive perspiration; smarting of the conjunctivæ; darkening in hue of the nose and cheeks; lakatha, i. e. cracking of the palms and soles, weariness and lethargy, pins and needles in the hands and feet. If an habitual toper goes without yankona for one day he feels restlessness and sleeplessness, a parched feeling in the mouth and viscidity in page 348the saliva. If the abstinence is continued for two or three days he has borborygmi, occasionally tenesmus.

The following are the effects of a single debauch on a person unaccustomed to drink yankona: restlessness, headache and sleeplessness, singing in the ears, salivation, hyperuresis, languor, temporary loss of control of the legs, tremor of the hand when grasping, and disinclination for food.

From my own experience I am bound to say that one may drink a very great deal of yankona without experiencing any of these symptoms. The visitor to the Pacific who fondly hopes that a single draught of the national beverage will send him careering over the country with a clear head but re-bellious legs will be woefully disappointed. On one occasion I joined a party of investigation to test in propriâ persond the effects of a carouse. We drank a bucketful of strong yankona between the three of us in three-quarters of an hour, until, to put it plainly, we could hold no more. The effect was negative. We felt no stimulation, no soothing, no depression. Our lower limbs continued to behave as lower limbs should. The drink neither kept us awake nor sent us to sleep, and it left no headache behind it. So far from the hands trembling in the act of grasping, one of our number played a better game of billiards that afternoon than usual. We felt a little sick, perhaps, but not more than if we had been compelled to swallow the same extravagant quantity of any other liquid.

We noticed the familiar numbing sensation of the fauces and the soft palate which swallowing strong yankona always induces. For a time the quantity of saliva was increased, and it became more viscid than usual. Europeans who are accustomed to drink yankona in moderate quantities find, not only that it quenches thirst better than any other beverage on a hot day, but that it acts as a mild stimulant to social conversation, and to the fullest enjoyment of tobacco. Its capacity for loosening the tongue is fully recognized by all those who have to conduct native meetings. Native chiefs of high rank, confronted with each other, are usually tongue-tied with awkward constraint, but as soon as the yankona cup has gone page 349round, their reserve is dispelled like the mists of a summer morning, and they become prone to betray confidences that would otherwise have remained locked in their bosoms. Europeans have discovered an even more useful quality in yankona. The great temptation that besets lonely; English-men in tropical countries is intemperance, which grows upon some of them until they lose all power of resistance to the vice. Some confirmed drunkards have cured themselves by substituting yankona for spirits. They drink, it is true, incredible quantities of the root, but it satisfies the craving for a stimulant, without producing intoxication. In this respect it is a pity that yankona cannot be acclimatized in Europe.

It is a common fallacy among writers of the South Seas that "the natives of the Pacific Islands use a fermented beverage called kava." So far from its being fermented, kava is always drunk as soon as it is made, and any dregs left in the bowl over night are unfit to drink the next morning, because by that time fermentation has generally begun. Those who desire to know more of the chemical analysis of yankona can consult the monograph on the subject given by Dr. Lewin with the German love of ponderous detail before the German Medical Society in 1885. The chief physiological influence of the drug in the human body is exercised on the motor nerves, but the sensory fibres are also affected, and the influence is cumulative. The alcoholic extract, when evaporated to the consistency of soap, is as active as cocaine, weight for weight, in inducing local anæsthesia.

There is, no doubt, in these days, a greater consumption of yankona than in heathen times, for at present the consumption is limited only by the supply. Except in favoured localities, such as the island of Koro, the root requires from two to five years to come to maturity, and demands a good deal of attention during its growth. The importation of the dried root from other islands in the Pacific has certainly made the natives independent of the green crop; but since a single root of the ordinary size generally suffices only for a single occasion, and its equivalent in dried root cannot be purchased at the local stores for much less than 2/a pound (a pound page 350being the minimum required for an evening yankona party)—the constant use of the root is beyond the power of any but the richer natives. Natives probably drink yankona once a day throughout the year, far less, in fact, than persons of the same rank in Tonga, where the pounding stones are never silent. Commoners, unless they are in attendance on chiefs, go many days without tasting it.

In one respect there are signs of a change for the better. The custom of chewing the green root not only tended to foster a taste for drinking in the young person selected to prepare the bowl, but was probably the means of communicating the bacilli of disease through the saliva. There are Europeans who defend the dirty habit on the ground that pounding reduces the woody fibre to dust which cannot be removed by the strainer, and who allege that the root is merely masticated, and leaves the mouth uncontaminated as it went in. But this comfortable belief received a rude shock when the experiment was made of weighing an ounce of the root before and after chewing, and it was found that the ounce had increased by something more than 10 per cent. Happily, the Tongan chief is the arbiter elegantiarum to the Fijian Courts, and it is fast becoming the fashion to regard the habit of chewing yankona in its proper light and to substitute the pounding stones of Tonga.

The Wesleyan missionaries have attacked yankona drinking with a fiery zeal which is scarcely commensurate with the importance of the subject, for if it is a vice at all, it cannot reasonably be condemned for bringing in its train any of those social evils that are due to alcohol. A large number of the native teachers wear a blue ribbon on their shirt-fronts in token that they have abjured tobacco and yankona, and suspend conspicuously in their houses a card bearing the legend, "Sa tabu na yaqona kei na tavako" (drinking and smoking are forbidden). In the interests of the mission the wisdom of this crusade may well be questioned, for the path of virtue for the native has been made dull enough already by the prohibition of all his ancient heathen distractions, and to curtail any more of his pleasures would be to invite an page 351inevitable reaction which up to now has taken the course of going over to the Roman Catholics, whose policy it is to make the lives of the Fijians as joyous as they dare. Nevertheless, in so far as they have checked the habit of yankona-drinking among youths and childbearing women, the efforts of the Wesleyan missionaries are likely to be of some immediate if not ulterior advantage.