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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Witchcraft — Ndraunikau (lit., leaves)

Ndraunikau (lit., leaves)

In 1618 two women were executed at Lincoln for burying the glove of Henry, Lord Rosse, in order that "as that glove did rot and waste, so did the liver of the said lord rot and waste." The belief illustrated by this trial is found in every people, in every country, and in every age. Dr. E. B. Tylor has remarked with much force that the occult sciences are nothing but "bad reasoning." There being obvious relation between a glove and its owner, between a waxen image and the person it represents, the sorcerer reasons that what he does to the one will happen to the other. Health being the normal condition of all, except the very aged, sickness and death must be the work of some malevolent agency, divine or human; and, if the sick person is free from all suspicion of sacrilege, the gods can have no motive for afflicting him. Instead of "Whom the gods love die young," the primitive man reads "An enemy hath done this." This theory of disease being once established, it is a short step to the professional agents of disease, who, for a consideration, will wreck the health of the strongest man with the simplest of tools—a lock of his hair, a scrap of his food, or a garment that he has worn. The belief in such powers is not more wildly foolish than our own theory of microbes would have seemed if it had been put forward before there were microscopes to prove its truth. It could at least point to success in its support, for there can page 164be no doubt whatever that numbers of bewitched persons did actually die—from fear—and that many sick recovered-as the result of curative counterspells that put new heart into them.

The terror of witchcraft was never absent from the mind of a Fijian. Williams relates that the sceptics who laughed at the pretensions of a priest trembled at the power of the wizard, and that this was the last superstition to be eradicated from the mind of the convert to Christianity. It would be more true to say that the Christian native has never lost it. The professional wizard was not necessarily a priest, but if he had not the protection of sanctity, he was a person of considerable courage, for witchcraft was a dangerous profession. The pay was very high, but since the transaction could never be kept entirely secret, the wizard had to brave the resentment of his victim's relations.

The procedure was this: If a man desired the death of a rival he procured something that had belonged to his person—a lock of hair, the parings of his nails, a scrap of food, or, best of all, his excreta, for witchcraft by these produced incurable dysentery. With these he visited the wizard by night, taking a whale's tooth as an earnest of the reward that he would pay when the death of his rival was accomplished. The wizard then prepared the charm by wrapping the object in certain leaves of magical properties, and burying the parcel in a bamboo case either in the victim's plantation or in the thatch of his house. In a few days the man began to sicken—generally, no doubt, because hints of the design had been conveyed to him—and if the charm could then be discovered and destroyed, he would recover. But if a diligent search failed, offerings were made to the gods, or the chief in whose district the wizard lived was invoked to use his authority. It was more common, however, to fee another wizard to make the charm innocuous by counterspells, which were often effective through the fresh hope infused into the sufferer, to the profit of both practitioners. When the victim died the wizard claimed his reward by attending the funeral with a blackened face, and bold indeed would be the employer who dared to bilk him. This practice was sometimes abused.

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Any sudden death being ascribed to witchcraft, a professional wizard, who was entirely innocent, would blacken his face at the funeral in the hope that some one who had an interest in the death would pay him the fee he had never earned. Such a case occurred as late as 1887 at the funeral of Mbuli Mbemana, who died of a chill contracted in taking a huge vesi log down the river as a king-post for the council-house at Nandronga. A man with a blackened face was pointed out to me at the funeral, and shortly afterwards a formal complaint was made by the dead man's relations against the river tribes of having fee'd this wizard to compass the Mbuli's death. I summoned them to a meeting, but all my arguments were impotent against the undoubted fact that the Mbuli was dead, that the river tribes detested him and had an interest in his death, and that their wizard had appeared with a black face at his funeral. Fiat experimentum: let them commission their most famous wizards to compound a spell that no man could withstand—I would supply them with all the material they wanted—and if I still lived they would put away this superstition for ever. They discussed the proposition with gravity, and replied through their spokesman that this would be no proof at all, for it was well known that white men, who subsist on outlandish meats, were proof against Fijian spells. There was with me a Tongan, named Lijiate (the nearest the Tongans can get to "Richard"), whose enlightened contempt for the dark-mindedness of these heathen had been expressed with unnecessary emphasis. Him I proffered as a substitute. But I had reckoned without my host. "Pardon me," he said, when I asked him for a lock of his hair, "but I almost believe in it myself." One stout-hearted Fijian servant was ready to step into the breach, but it was then my turn to interfere, for the knowledge that he was bewitched would lay the stoutest-hearted Fijian low in less than a week.1

1 In 1902, under the flooring stones of a prehistoric kistvaen near the Sepulchral Circle on Pousson's Common, Dartmoor, two tresses of human hair were discovered, neatly coiled up. They were doubtless the record of witchcraft practised within the nineteenth century, on the same plan as that of the Fijians.

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A man, delirious with triumph at his narrow escape, once brought me a spell that he had found buried in the thatch of his house in Tawaleka. It was a bamboo six inches long, corked with a tuft of grass. Within was a shred of masi, torn, no doubt, from his clothing and a handful of withered leaves of some bush shrub. He wished me to hold inquisition over the countryside in the hope that his enemy would confess the crime, for ndraunikan had been wisely made a punishable offence. Its utility has long passed away, and its power for harm remains. Apart from the death and suffering it may inflict on the victim through terror, it not infrequently leads to actual violence. The murder of Mbuli Mbureta in 1884 is a notable instance. At the trial of his murderers it was elicited that a number of disaffected chiefs in his district had fee'd a wizard to remove him by witchcraft. When weeks had passed, and the unpopular chief continued in obstinate good health, the wizard's employers taunted him with his lack of skill, and received a definite promise of the Mbuli's death before a fixed date. The promise was kept; the victim disappeared, but when his body was discovered it was found that the skull had been fractured by an axe-stroke from behind.

In the face of such instances as these it demands some courage to assert that upon the whole the belief in witchcraft was formerly a positive advantage to the community. It filled, in fact, the place of a system of sanitation. The wizard's tools consisting in those waste matters that are inimical to health, every man was his own scavenger. From birth to old age a man was governed by this one fear; he went into the sea, the graveyard or the depths of the forest to satisfy his natural wants; he burned his cast-off malo; he gave every fragment left over from his food to the pigs; he concealed even the clippings of his hair in the thatch of his house. This ever-present fear even drove women in the western districts out into the forest for the birth of their children, where fire destroyed every trace of their lying-in. Until Christianity broke it down, the villages were kept clean; there were no festering rubbish-heaps nor filthy raras.

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In this respect Fijian witchcraft was immeasurably superior to that of other primitive races who employ similar methods. The Gold Coast tribes slay men by spells of roots tied together with a curse;1 the priest-king Láibou of the Wa-Nandi tried to annihilate the Uganda force sent against him by leaving a snake tied to a dog near their camp.2 The Swahili bury medicine at the door of the hut by which the doomed person must pass.3 But in none of these cases are the excreta of the victim necessary, nor does the superstition react in the interest of public health.

1 Nine Years at the Gold Coast, by Rev. D. Kemp.

2 Campaigning on the Upper Nile and Niger, by Lieut. Vandeleur.

3 East Africa, by W. W. Fitzgerald.