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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXX — tobacco

page 352

Chapter XXX

The tobacco plant was indigenous in Fiji, but until the beginning of the nineteenth century the leaf was only used for killing lice, from which it took its original native name of mate-ni-kutu (lice-slayer). Smoking was introduced by a Manila ship, and it spread rapidly through the group, being adopted by both sexes.

The plant is grown in dry, sandy soil, preferably on the sites of old houses which have been well manured by the village pigs. The leaves are hung suspended in bundles from the rafters of a house to wither, and are then twisted tightly together to sweat. This produces a leaf of great pungency and strength. It is smoked almost exclusively in the form of a suluka, or cigarette, rolled in dry banana leaf. The ribs of the tobacco leaf are stripped off, the leaf is partially dried over a firebrand, and shredded before being rolled, and a supply of ready-rolled suluka is either stuck into a cleft reed to keep it from unrolling, or carried behind the ear.

Until about 1880 every native over fourteen years of age smoked; many of the children began at a much earlier age, and, if punished for it, continued the practice in secret. About twenty years ago the Wesleyan missionaries tried to discourage the practice, by instituting a blue ribbon for total abstainers from kava and tobacco. They may have induced five per cent, of the adults to abandon the habit.

As long as smoking was confined to the suluka it had a picturesque side, but latterly the inconvenience of a cigarette that goes out every two or three minutes, even with continuous application, has favoured the introduction of the English pipe. page 353The young chiefs are seldom seen without one, and as they omit to remove it when speaking to you, it has not tended to preserve the courtliness of Fijian manners. The women have now begun to use it, and may be seen working in their plantations, smoking a short, black clay pipe, with the bowl turned downwards to keep out the rain. It would no doubt be universal were it not that the imported tobacco, though it is admitted to have a pleasant smell, is objected to as being less narcotic than the native-cured leaf.

The women smoke a great deal during pregnancy, but abstain for the first ten days after confinement. One woman told me that she had noticed, when suckling, that when she was smoking heavily she had less milk, and that her baby cried a great deal, whereupon she discontinued smoking until the child was able to crawl. Few Fijian mothers show so much consideration. With the view of testing the important point as to whether excessive smoking affected the mothers, an experiment was made on May 29,1883. A healthy Fijian woman, with a child at the breast, was taken to Suva hospital and given half-an-ounce of native leaf to smoke. She consumed is all in two hours, and then declined to smoke any more. One and a half fluid ounces of her milk were drawn off and submitted to examination by the late Dr. Zimmer. Unfortunately there were not sufficient appliances for securing a positive analysis, but the addition of platinum bichloride to the distillate gave a yellow precipitate, such as is produced by the combination of nicotine with that salt.