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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter VI — cannibalism

page 102

Chapter VI

About 1850, when the first details of cannibalism among the Fijians began to reach England through the missionary reports, there was a good deal of scepticism. Naval officers who had visited the group had seen nothing of the practice, which, indeed, seemed incompatible with the polished and courtly manners of the chiefs who entertained them.1 But as soon as the existence of the practice was proved there came a reaction, and its extent is now as much exaggerated as it was formerly underestimated. Professor Sayce, for instance, in a book published within the last few years,2 has committed himself to the ridiculous assertion that the Fijians ate their aged relations—an act which would be regarded by them with a horror at least as great as would be felt by an European. To eat, even unwittingly, the flesh of your relation, however distant, or to eat or drink from a vessel used by a man who had done this, would result, so the Fijians believe, in the loss of all your teeth.

Except in rare cases, none but the bodies of real or potential enemies were eaten, and these must have been slain or captured in battle, or cast away in wrecks "with salt water in their eyes." The bodies of those who had died naturally were invariably buried, and though there are instances recorded of the secret desecration of graves for the purposes of cannibalism, these were very rare, and they excited disgust among the people themselves.

1 It is strange that the only act of cannibalism seen by any member of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1840 was the eating of an eye—a part of the body which was nearly always thrown away.

2 The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia, p. 8.

page 103

There are various traditions of the origin of cannibalism, but all agree in saying that it was not introduced from without, and that there was a time when the practice was unknown. The most plausible ascribes it to the practice of presenting the human body a sacrifice to the gods as being the most costly offering that could be made, and that, as all presentations of food were afterwards eaten, the human sacrifice was treated in the same way. It is tabu for an inferior to decline food offered to him by a chief. If a slave cannot eat a cooked yam so presented to him, he wraps it up and takes it home with him to eat at a future meal, or if he throws it away, he does it secretly lest he should give offence to the donor. Thus in 1853 the chief of Somosomo, in reply to the missionary's remonstrance, said, "We must eat the bodies if Thakombau gives them to us." This obligation was tenfold stronger when the gods themselves were the givers.

But whereas in times past cannibalism was confined to ceremonial sacrifices in celebration of victory, the launching of a chief's canoe or the lowering of its mast, it increased alarmingly about the end of the eighteenth century—that is, a few years before the arrival of Europeans—just as human sacrifice and its attendant cannibalism among the Aztecs became intolerable just before the Spanish conquest. In the Fijian mind it was but a step from offering gifts to a god and taking them to a high chief, and great feasts soon came to be considered incomplete without a human body to grace the meal. Among a few of the chiefs there began to grow a vitiated taste for human flesh, though there were not a few who never overcame their dislike to it.

The moral attitude of Fijians towards cannibalism is as difficult to understand as our own is difficult to explain. Apart from the fact that cannibalism must entail homicide, there is no manifest reason for our horror of the practice, except our reverence and tenderness for the dead. Most, if not all of the other carnivora are cannibals, and the distinction we draw between the flesh of men and the flesh of other mammalia is purely sentimental. Our other instincts are based upon some law of Nature whose infraction is visited page 104by Nature's penalties; yet, so instinctive is the horror of cannibalism in Aryan races that not one of them has thought of condemning it in its penal code, and cannibalism has never been illegal in Europe Some trace of this instinct is discernible among the Fijians. Human fresh was tabu to women, and the Mbau women of rank who indulged in it did so in secret. Except in moments of excitement, the cooked flesh was shared out with elaborate ceremonial, and eaten only in the privacy of the house. The care with which the practice was concealed from Europeans, though partly due to the knowledge that it would excite detestation and contempt, suggests also some trace of instinctive shame. The tabus and ceremonies surrounding it clearly indicate its religious origin. The alarming drum-beat, called Nderua, which haunts all who have heard it; the death-dance (thimbi); the presentation of the body to the War-god of Mbau, and the part played by the priests in Vanualevu and other places; the eating after decomposition had set in when the slightest taint in other meat excited disgust, and, lastly, the fear of touching the meat with the fingers or the lips, and the use of a special fork which was given a name like a person, are all evidences that the gods had a share in the rite. Every part of the body had, moreover, its symbolic name, which was only used in connection with cannibalism The trunk, which was eaten first, was called Na vale ka rusa (the house that perishes); the feet, Ndua-rua (one-two). The fiction that bodies intended to be eaten were popularly called "Long pig" (Vuaka Mbalavu) is founded upon a vakathivo, or jocose toast of Tanoa, chief of Mbau, after drinking kava, in which the object of desire was concealed in a euphemism, such as Sese Matairua! ("spear with two points," i.e. the breast of a virgin).

Dr. E. B. Tylor gives six reasons for the practice of cannibalism—Famine, Revenge or Bravado, Morbid Affection, Magic, Religion, Habit. Three of these had no application in Fiji. The famines were transitory, and in Tonga, where cannibalism was occasionally resorted to from this cause, the practice died as soon as the cause was removed. Cannibal-page 105ism from morbid affection, such as Herodotus describes among the Essedones of Central Asia, was equally unknown, since, as I have already said, the Fijians had a superstitious horror of eating their own relations; and as to magic, I do not think that any trace of a belief that by eating the flesh of a warrior the eater absorbed his courage can be found. There remain Religion, Revenge or Bravado, and Habit, which were at the root of the Fijian practice in the order enumerated. The history of the Aztecs shows how soon ceremonial cannibalism degenerated into a vicious appetite for human flesh. In the Fijian wars of the early nineteenth century a portion of every captive was eaten, and raids were undertaken solely to procure human flesh for chiefs who had become addicted to cannibalism. But bravado and the gratification of revenge was the most powerful motive with the bulk of the people. In Nandronga the liver and the hands of an enemy were sometimes preserved by smoke in the house of one whose relations he had slain; and whenever regrets for the dead would wring his heart, the warrior would take down the bundle from the shelf over the fire-place, and cook and eat a portion of his enemy to assuage his grief. Thus he continued to sate his vengeance for one or two years until all was consumed. In the native mind the poles of triumph and of humiliation are touched by the man who eats his enemy and the man who is about to be eaten. Even to-day the grossest Fijian insult is to call a man Mbakola (cannibal meat); the most appalling threat to exclaim, "Were it not for the government I would eat you!" There was but one higher flight of vengeance, and that was to cook the body, and leave it in the oven as if unfit for food. The Rev. Joseph Waterhouse dug up one of these ovens while gardening at Mbau. The element of vengeance superimposed upon religion is admirably illustrated in the narrative of John Jackson,1 who was an eye-witness of what he relates. The bodies of the slain were set up in a sitting posture in the bow of the canoe by being trussed under the knees with a stick as schoolboys play at cockfighting. The

1 Erskine's Voyage, 1853.

page 106drums kept beating the nderua all the way across the strait, and as they neared the village a man kept striking the water with a long pote to apprise the inhabitants of their success, and the warriors danced the thimbi on the deck. It was usual for the women to troop down to the water's edge dancing a lascivious dance, and when the bodies were flung out, to cover them with nameless insults; but in this instance (on the Vanualevu coast near Male) they were carried to the village square and set up in a row, with their war-paint still on them, while the whole population of the village sat down in a wide circle. An old man now approached the bodies, and, taking a dead hand in his, began talking to them in a low tone. Why, he asked, had they been so rash? Did they not feel ashamed to be sitting there exposed to the gaze of so many people? Gradually becoming intoxicated with his own eloquence and wit, he raised his voice and delivered the last sentences as loud as he could shout. At the climax of his peroration he kicked the bodies down, and ran off amid the plaudits and laughter of the spectators, who now ran in upon the bodies, and, seizing an arm or a leg, dragged them off through the mire and over the stones to a temple standing apart in a grove of ironwood trees, A heap of weather-whitened human bones lay before it, and other bones were embedded in the fork of shaddock-trees, where they had been laid many years before. An old priest, with nails two inches long, was there awaiting them, and stones were ready heating in a fire for the oven. A number of young girls now surrounded the bodies and danced their lewd dance, singing a song whose import could be guessed from their action in touching certain parts with sticks which they held in their hands. The butcher, armed with a hatchet, some shells and a number of split bamboos, now got to work. He first made a long deep gash down the abdomen, and then cut all round the neck down to the bone, and severed the head by a twist. In cutting through the joints he showed some knowledge of anatomy, seeing that he used nothing but a split bamboo, which makes a convenient knife, since it is only necessary to split off a fresh portion to obtain a sharp edge. The trunk, the hands and page 107the head were usually thrown away, but on this occasion, the bodies being but few, all was eaten except the intestines. Banana leaves were heaped on the hot stones of the oven, the flesh and joints were laid on them, and the whole covered with earth until the morning. The cooked meat was then distributed with the ceremonies usual at feasts, and warriors from a distance, after tasting a small portion, wrapped up the remainder to take home as a proof of their prowess.

When a chief or a warrior of repute was cooked, portions of the flesh were sent all over the country. The body of the missionary Baker, killed at Navatusila (Central Vitilevu) in 1860, was thus treated, almost every chief in Navosa receiving a portion.1

When a body had to be carried inland it was lashed to a pole face downward in order that it might not double up, the ends of the pole resting on men's shoulders. In dragging the body up the beach the following words were chanted in a monotone, followed by shrill yells in quick succession.

"Yari au malua. Yari au malua. "Drag me gently. Drag me gently!
Oi au na saro ni nomu vanua. Yi mundokia! Yi mundokia! Yi mundokia Ki Ndama le! I am the champion of thy land. Give thanks! Give thanks!" etc.
Yi! u-woa-ai-e!"
As the practice of cannibalism grew, many refinements of cruelty were devised for enhancing the gratification of revenge. According to Seemann,2 a whole village in Namosi was doomed as a punishment to be eaten household by household. They obeyed the chief's command to plant a taro bed, and as soon as the taro was ripe a household was clubbed, and the bodies eaten with the vegetables. None knew when his turn would come, for the house was chosen at the whim of the executioners. One might be tempted to enlarge upon the horrible suspense in which these unhappy villagers must have lived, and to wonder why they did not flee to some distant

1 There is a well-worn story that the chief of Mongondro received a leg from which the Wellington boot had not been removed. Taking the leather to be the white man's skin, the chief was much impressed with the toughness of the superior race.

2 Mission to Viti.

page 108province, but such sympathy would be wasted. If the story is true, we may be sure that they went about their daily tasks without a thought about the club hanging over them, and that the idea of flight never entered their heads, for the Fijian looks not beyond the evening of the next day, and certain death within a year or two seemed no nearer to them than it does to us who pursue our futile little tasks with Death plucking at our sleeves, having at the most but two decades to live.

The torture (vakatotonga) consisted in the mutilation of the victim before death. To avenge the death of one of his relations, Ra Undreundre of Rakiraki ordered a woman captured from the offending village to be laid alive in a wooden trough and dismembered, that none of the blood might be lost. This was a form of punishment practised in Tonga in ancient times. In several well-authenticated cases the flesh of a victim has been cooked and offered him to eat. A Fijian prisoner undergoes these torments with stoical fatalism, making no attempt at escape or resistance. In the entertainment of the Somosomo natives at Natewa, Jackson saw standing by the pile of yams a young girl who was to be killed and eaten when the ceremony of distribution was over. She showed no outward sign of distress at her impending fate. At the risk of his life Jackson caught hold of her and claimed her as his wife, and the chiefs, more amused than angry at his breach of etiquette, granted his request.

Neither sex nor age was a defence against the cannibal oven. Aged men and women as well as children were eaten, though the flesh of young people between sixteen and twenty was most esteemed. The upper arm, the thigh and the heart were the greatest delicacies; an ex-cannibal in Mongondro told me that the upper arm of a boy and girl tasted better than any other meat. The same man, who had eaten part of the missionary Baker, said that the flesh of white men was inferior to that of Fijians, and had a saltish taste. Jackson describes it as being darker in colour, and the fat yellower than that of the turtle. In the police expedition to Navosá in 1876, Dr. (now Sir William) McGregor surprised a village, page 109and found a human leg, hot from the oven, laid out upon banana leaves. The skin had parted like crackling, disclosing a layer of yellow fat. When the flesh is kept for several days it is said to emit a phosphorescent light in the darkness of the hut. The Fijians cannot understand our feeling about the killing and eating of women and children. Moku na katikati (club the women and children) is their principle, and they explain that, since the object of war is to inflict the maximum of injury upon the enemy, a twofold purpose is served by killing women—distress to their relations, and the destruction of those who might breed warriors to avenge them.

The most celebrated cannibals from liking were Tambak-authoro, Tanoa and Tuiveikoso of Mbau, and Tuikilakila of Somosomo, but the reputation of these pale beside that of Ra Undreundre of Rakiraki. His victims were called Lewe ni mbi (contents of the turtle-pond), and his fork had a name to itself—Undro-undro, a word used to designate a small person carrying a great burden. His son took the missionary to a line of stones, each of which represented a human being eaten without assistance by his father since middle-age. They numbered eight hundred and seventy-two, but a number had then (1849) been removed! The special fork used exclusively for human flesh points clearly to the religious origin of the practice, forks being never employed for other kinds of food, even food presented to a god. There was some quality in human flesh that made it tabu to touch it with the fingers or the lips. Moreover, the fork was tabu to every one but its owner, and if it belonged to a high chief, it had always a name of its own. The genuine forks have now all been removed from the country, and those offered for sale in the group are forgeries.1

Persons slain in battle were not invariably eaten, for chiefs of high rank were often spared this indignity, and if a friend

1 The Rev. F Langham was the first to point out the test for these forgeries. The genuine forks are carefully finished at the root of the prongs; the forgeries have inequalities and splinters. Mr. H Ling Roth has questioned this distinction, but I have never known it fail in the specimens I have examined.

page 110of the dead man happened to be of the victorious party he might intercede to save the body from the oven. In such cases a truce is called, and the relations are allowed to come and remove the body for burial. At the funeral the mourners cut out their thumb nails and fixed them on a spear, which was preserved in the temple to remind them of the service done to them, and at the close of the war they made valuable presents to their benefactor to extinguish the debt.

The abolition of cannibalism cannot possibly have had any results unfavourable to the race. It was an excrescence upon the religious and social system, and it might have been swept away without disturbing them in any way. In its later development, moreover, it was responsible for raids in which many lives were lost.