The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom
The state of incessant intertribal warfare in which the first missionaries found the Fijians has led certain writers to represent them as a bloodthirsty and ferocious race whose sudden conversion to the ways of peace could only be accounted for by supernatural agency. There was one missionary, however, whose zeal in the cause of his church never obscured his natural truthfulness. "When on his feet," says Thomas Williams, "the Fijian is always armed. … This, however, is not to be attributed to his bold or choleric temper, but to suspicion and dread. Fear arms the Fijian. … The club or spear is the companion of all walks; but it is only for defence. This is proved by every man you meet: in the distance you see him with his weapon shouldered; getting nearer, he lowers it to his knee, gives you the path, and passes on."1
1 Fiji and the Fijians, p. 43. 85
It used, I know, to be said that the mortality was less with fire-arms than with native weapons, and this was true if the victims of native marksmanship only were taken into account, but the moral effect of gunpowder made the club and spear more deadly. The trade muskets which were imported in the early days by the traders in enormous quantities were flintlocks and "Tower" muskets, and when fretted by rust were often more dangerous to the man at the stock than to the man at the muzzle. The native marksmanship, always erratic, was not improved by a custom, common in Vatulele and other parts of the group, of sawing off the greater part of the stock, and firing with the barrel poised in the left hand at arm's length.
Few native traditions have come down to us from the eighteenth century, but there are so many references in tribal histories to an upheaval among the inland clans obliterating all earlier historical landmarks, that there is ground for believing that the wars before 1780 were little more than skirmishes, and that war on a larger scale began with the convulsion that drove so many of the inland tribes to seek asylum on the coast, and left so profound an impression on the traditional poetry. War on a destructive scale is impossible among a people split up into petty joint families, each bent upon defence rather than conquest. In order to understand the political state of Fiji two centuries ago one must examine the institutions of other races that are still in the same condition. The natives of the d'Entrecasteaux Islands as I saw them in 1888 afford an excellent illustration. As we travelled along the coast we found that every village page 87had its frontier, a stream-mouth, or a sapling stuck upright in the sand, beyond which none would venture. The natives did their best to dissuade us from crossing these boundaries by representing their neighbours as thirsting for the blood of strangers. But on the other side of the frontier we found a meek folk, lost in wonder that we had come through the last stage of our journey unscathed, so cruel and ferocious were its inhabitants. Every man lived in active terror of his neighbour, and went armed to his plantation, but this did not prevent him from being a most skilful and industrious husbandman, or from living to a good old age. The fear being mutual, there was, in reality, scarcely any war; an occasional attack upon a woman or an unarmed man served to keep the hereditary feud alive.
The social evils of such a state of morcellement may easily be exaggerated. The trivial loss of life is more than counterbalanced by the activity, alertness and tribal patriotism which are fostered in an atmosphere of personal danger. Every man having a selfish interest in the increase of his own tribe, public opinion compelled the observance of those customary laws that guarded the lives of women and young children. The lazy could not then idle away their day in philandering with the women; the adventurous could not evade their share of the communal labour by paying long visits to distant islands, even if they did not find enough to sate their taste for adventure at home. The insouciance that has followed the decay of custom was impossible, because the tribe that gave way to it was lost. The teaching of all history is that man deteriorates as soon as he ceases to struggle either against hostile man or unkind nature. A barren soil, an overcrowded community, or a fauna dangerous to man will serve the need, but in a country where there is food without tillage, land enough for twenty times the population, and no man-eating tiger or poisonous snake, there must be war to keep the people from sinking into paralyzing lethargy. It must be remembered that the most devastating wars are less destructive than mild epidemics. The slaughter in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, estimated at 80,000 in France page 88alone, worked out to little more than two in 1000 of the population—less, in fact, than in recent epidemics of influenza.
The causes of war among the Fijians rank in the following order of importance: Land; women; insults to chiefs (such as a refusal to give up some coveted object—a club, a shell-ornament, or a tame bird—or the unlawful eating of turtle, which are the chief's prerogative); wanton violation of the tabu; despotism or ambition of chiefs whom the malcontents hope to settle by a blow from behind in the turmoil of battle. But the most galling insult never provoked war unless success were assured by the oracles. An apparently restless thirst for war, which was carefully reported to the enemy, was a mere sham to feel the temper of the border tribes, and to frighten the other side into overtures for pardon. The real preparation consisted in rebuilding ruined temples, clearing away the undergrowth of shrines half-buried in weeds, and erecting new temples to the manes of chiefs who had lately attained the Pantheon. The issue then lay with the priests who interpreted the will of the gods, and grew fat on the offerings presented to their patrons.
1 The name Mbati has been erroneously derived from Mbati = Tooth, and Mbati-ni-vanua is sometimes translated "Teeth of the Land." The true derivation is, of course, from Mbati = Edge or Border, i.e. Border of the land. Borderers have ever been broken reeds to lean upon from their proneness to consult their own interests by going over to the stronger side.
Assured of the loyalty of the Mbati, the chief looked about him for allies. To tribes with which he was connected by marriage, or by the tie of tauvu (i.e. common ancestry), or which owed him a debt for past help, he sent costly presents, and the enemy, who was certain to be kept informed of every movement, followed this by sending a costlier gift to mbika (press down) the first present, and purchase neutrality. Councils were held, in which the entire plan of campaign was laid down, and orders were sent to all the tributary villages to hold themselves in readiness; a refusal always meant, sooner or later, the destruction of the village. The Mbati and the outlying villages were meanwhile strengthening their defences, either by entrenching a neighbouring hill-top or by deepening the moat, and building reed fences with intricate passages through the earthwork ramparts.
It sometimes happens that inferior combatants each pin their faith on the aid of a superior chief, while he, for his own interest, trims between the two, inclining to the weaker party in order to reduce the stronger, whom he reassures with flattering messages. In promising his aid he would, in ancient times, send a spear with a floating streamer; more recently the custom was to send a club with the message," I have sent my club; soon I myself will follow." It was death for tributaries to kanakanai yarau (i.e. eat with both sides). The other side were kept fully informed of these preliminary negotiations, and had made similar preparations. No formal declaration of war was therefore necessary, though there were instances of it. Usually the declaration took place in more practical fashion by the surprise and slaughter of an unarmed party of the enemy—women fishing on the reef, or a messenger returning home in his canoe. On the news of this exploit the page 90war-drum was beaten and the tangka was held. Thereafter no visitor, though he belonged properly to the opposing side, might depart. Custom required that he should fight on the side of his hosts.
The tangka was a review, held on the eve of leaving the chief village, and at every halting-place on the way to the battlefield. It was a ceremony that appealed to the Fijian temperament with peculiar force, since, to adapt the phrase of a classic in the literature of sport, it was "the image of war, with less than ten per cent. of its danger." The warriors, arrayed in all the majesty of their war-harness, met to defy a distant enemy, to boast of their exploits on a future day, not to the unsympathizing eyes of strangers, but to a gallery of applauding friends. The public square of the village was lined with the townsfolk and their women; at its further end sat the paramount chief and his warriors. Presently the approach of a party of allies is announced with a loud shout; led by their chief they file into the open, painted With black and white, armed and turbaned, their eyes and teeth gleaming white in terrifying contrast with their painted skins. The tama, the shout of respect, is exchanged, and a man, who is supposed to represent the enemy, stands forth and cries, "Sai tava! Sai tava! Ka yau mai ka yavia a mbure!"1
"Sir, do you know me? Your enemies soon will!"
"See this hatchet, how clean! To-morrow it will be bathed in blood!"
"This is my club, the club that never yet was false!"page 91
1 An archaic phrase, whose meaning is now lost. Williams translates it "Cut up! Cut up! The temple receives," which perhaps is near enough, the meaning being that the bodies of the slain will be dismembered, cooked, and presented to the gods.
"The army moves to-morrow; then shall ye eat dead men till you are surfeited!"
(Striking the ground with his club) "I make the earth tremble: it is I who meet the enemy to-morrow!"
"This club is a defence; a shade from the heat of the sun, and the cold of the rain. You may come under it!"
A young man approaches the chief quietly carrying an anchor pole, and smashing it across his knee, cries" Lo, sire, the anchor of—(the hostile tribe); I will do thus with it!"
These boasts are listened to with mingled laughter and applause. Thus far and no farther does Fijian courage reach, for the performance in the field falls woefully short of the promise. There the natural timidity and caution of the race reasserts itself, and a reputation for desperate valour may be cheaply won. During the mbole the chief will sometimes playfully taunt the boasters; hinting that, from their appearance, he should have thought them better acquainted with the digging-stick than the club. At the close of the tangka the presiding chief usually made a speech, appealing rather to the self-interest of his allies than to their attachment, promising them princely recompense, and sometimes giving them more definite promises, such as a woman of rank, as a reward for valour in the field. Such a woman was called" The cable of the Land," and was highly esteemed in the tribe to which she was given.
The armies, even of the great confederations, rarely exceeded 1000 men. A greater number could only be assembled with an immense effort The chief command was vested in the Vu-ni-valu (lit., Root of War). The titular chiefs of the auxiliary tribes acted as officers.
The first objective of the invading army was an outlying village of the enemy. This might be a fortress on a hilltop, strongly entrenched by nature, or a village in the plain, defended with an earthwork about six feet high, surmounted with a breastwork of reed fencing or cocoanut trunks, and surrounded by a muddy moat. Sometimes there was a double or a triple moat with earthworks between. There is endless variety in these fortifications, for advantage was always taken of the natural defences, and almost every important hilltop in Western Vitilevu is crowned with an entrenchment page 92of some kind. Though there were generally from four to eight gateways, defended by traverses, and surmounted with a look-out place, some strongholds had but one gateway and that so difficult of access as to be impracticable to the besiegers. The fort of Waitora, situated on a hill two miles north of Levuka, is a rock about twenty feet higher than the surrounding ground, and inaccessible save by means of a natural ladder formed of the aërial roots of a huge banyan-tree, which arch over at the top so as to form a tunnel just big enough to admit the body. The great rock fortress of Na-koro-vatu on the Singatoka river was taken in the rebellion of 1876 by surprising the only approach on a Sunday morning, when the rebels thought that the government troops would be in church. The besiegers crept up a jagged rift in the rock as steep as the side of a well, and utterly impregnable against more vigilant defenders. In the island of Vatulele, an upheaved coral reef honeycombed with caverns, the fortress of Korolamalama was a cave defended by a breastwork of stones, watered from a well in its inmost recesses, and provisioned for a siege of many months. The last stronghold of the rebel mountaineers in 1876 was a cave large enough to contain the population of all the neighbouring villages, and impregnable to every weapon except smoke, an expedient commonly employed by the force attacking such defences. On the other hand, the chief towns of large confederations, such as Mbau, Mathuata and Rewa, were not fortified at all, because if the enemy had been victorious enough to approach them, their inhabitants would have seen that all was lost and would have sued for peace.
The first care of a besieging army is to prepare for defeat. Each division of the army prepared its own orua, paths diverging from the fortification down which they could run if assailed by a sortie, or taken in the rear by an ambush. Sieges were never of long duration: the attacking army, lacking any kind of commissariat, seldom carried food for more than three days, and were in straits while the besieged were living in comfort on their ample supplies. Like every root-eating people, the Fijians require a heavy weight of food per page 93head to satisfy them, from five to ten pounds' weight of yams or other roots being the normal daily food of a full-grown man. Consequently, if the first assault failed, they usually retired to deliberate and secure fresh supplies. Fortresses were seldom starved into capitulation, though, as they were generally ill-provided with water, this method of attack, so peculiarly suited to the native character for caution, would generally have succeeded. It was tabu for a messenger to go direct to the army lest he should dispirit the troops. He had first to go to the capital, whence his message was dispatched to the Vu-ni-valu by a herald of the town.
A siege began with an interchange of abuse. The attacking chief would cry in the hearing of both sides, "The men of that fortress are already dead: its present garrison are old women!" Another, addressing his own followers, shouted, "Are those not men? Then have we nothing to fear, for we are truly, men." A warrior from within retorts, "You are men? But are you so strong that if you are speared, you will not fall until to-morrow? Are ye stones, that a spear cannot pierce you? Are your skulls of iron, that a bullet will not penetrate them?" Under the excitement of this war of words indiscreet men were betrayed into playing with the name of the chief of the enemy. They will cut out his tongue, devour his brains, use his skull for their drinking-cup. These became at once marked men, and special orders were given to take them alive. On Vanualevu the punishment that awaited them was the torture called drewai sasa, to carry fuel like old women. A bundle of dry cocoanut leaves was bound upon their naked backs and ignited, and they were turned loose to run wherever their agony might drive them.
Meanwhile, within the fort the war-drum is beating incessantly, now signalling for help to friends at a distance, now rattling a defiance to the enemy, for, as in Abyssinia, the drum beats have a recognized language. As a further provocation to the besiegers, when the wind favours, the war-kite is hoisted. This is a circular disk of plaited palm-leaves, decorated with streamers of bark cloth. The string is passed through a hole in a pole or bamboo twenty or thirty feet long, erected in a page 94conspicuous part of the fort. The string is then pulled back-wards and forwards through the hole so as to keep the symbol of defiance floating over the heads of the approaching foe.
|"A vosota, na mate,||"To brave it out is death,|
|A ndro na ka ni veiwale."||To run is but a jest!"|
If, however, the defenders obstinately refuse to be drawn, and the leading detachment has shouted itself hoarse to no effect, it is relieved by a second, or even a third, until the siege is abandoned for the day. In the face of a determined attack a Fijian garrison loses heart and makes but a spiritless defence, and this explains the universal success of the Tongans, who carried everything before them by their spirited assault.
1 When the story of the Iliad was being translated into Fijian I asked a Fijian what part of the story most appealed to his people. He said at once that it was that which describes Achilles putting the whole Trojan army to flight by merely shouting to them from the bank of Scamander.
The scenes that followed the sack of a fortress are too horrible to be described in detail. That neither age nor sex was spared was the least atrocious feature. Nameless mutilations, inflicted sometimes on living victims, deeds of mingled cruelty and lust, made self-destruction preferable to capture. With the fatalism that underlies the Melanesian character page 96many would not attempt to run away, but would bow their heads passively to the club-stroke. If any were miserable enough to be taken alive their fate was awful indeed. Carried back bound to the chief village, they were given up to young boys of rank to practise their ingenuity in torture, or, stunned by a blow, they were laid in heated ovens, that when the heat brought them back to consciousness of pain, their frantic struggles might convulse the spectators with laughter. Children were strung up to the masthead by the feet, that the rolling of the canoe might dash out their brains against the mast.
But little loot was taken, and every man kept what he could seize upon for his own. At the first hint of attack the women were laden with everything of value which could be stored in a secret magazine at some distance from the fortress; what remained was often destroyed by the burning of the huts. Williams sets down the loot of one chief whom he knew as seven balls of sinnet, several dogs and five female slaves, but he believed that part of this was pay and part plunder.
The return of a victorious party, especially if they brought the bodies of the slain, was an extraordinary scene. The noise and confusion which shocked the early missionaries seem all to have been part of an ancient prescribed form. If the war-party returned by sea the dead bodies of men and women were lashed to the prow of the canoe, while the warriors danced the thimbi, or death-dance, on the deck, brandishing their clubs and spears, and uttering a peculiar falsetto yell. The women rushed down to the beach to meet them, and there danced and sang with words and gestures of an obscenity never permitted at other times. In this dance young maidens took part, and when the bodies were dragged ashore, joined with their elders in offering nameless insults to the corpses. Then the men, seizing the bodies by the arms, dragged them at full speed to the temple, sometimes, as at Mbau, dashing the brains out against a stone embedded in the earth before the shrine. All social restrictions were then loosed, and, in the mad excitement, sexual licence had full rein in open day.page 97
Every tribe has its own distinctive war-cry, or rather death-cry, for it is shouted only when giving the death-blow to an enemy. Though this is distinct from the name of the tribe, and very seldom uttered, it is so firmly fixed in the mind of every tribesman that, even in these days, when it has not been heard, perhaps, for a whole generation, every full-grown member of the tribe can remember the word. In Land Inquiries I made a point of asking what was the death-cry of each claimant, and also of questioning witnesses regarding its origin. Many of the words appeared to be place-names, though the places could not be identified, and few of the words could be translated, nor did any have any relation to warfare. In not a single case could a witness offer any explanation except that the word had been handed down by the ancestors of old time, and the origin must therefore remain in doubt. The memory of the death-cry is as tenacious as that of the tribal tauvu.
The mode of treating for peace varied with the district. Sometimes a woman of high rank, dressed in gala costume, was presented to the victors with a whale's tooth in her hand; sometimes an ordinary mata was deputed to carry the whale's tooth. In Vatulele and other places a basket of earth was presented in token that the soil, and all that it produced, was at the disposal of the conqueror. The terms, especially in cases of the last of these soro, were hard; the vanquished were reduced, not merely to tribute-bearers, but to actual serfs and kitchen-men. In a single generation their very physical bearing was changed.