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Polynesia; A popular description of the physical features, inhabitants, natural history, and productions of the islands of the Pacific. With an account of their discovery, and the progress of civilisation and christianity amongst them.

Chapter X. — The Archipelago of Viti or Figi

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Chapter X.
The Archipelago of Viti or Figi.

a figian m'bure or spirit-house.

a figian m'bure or spirit-house.

This important group, comprising nearly two hundred islands, besides islets, rocks, and reefs, is situated in the south-western Pacific, between latitude 15° 30', and 19° 30' south, or rather more than midway between the Tongan Islands and New Caledonia. The two largest islands, called Viti Levu page break
bau, the capital of figi. chap. x.

bau, the capital of figi. chap. x.

page 219 and Vanua Levu, are of considerable size, having each a circumference of from 250 to 300 miles: the names of the other more important ones are Kadavu, Taviuni, Rabe, Koro, Gau, and Ovalau. Sixty-five of the islands are described as being inhabited, and the population may be roughly estimated at, at least, 200,000 souls.

The first account we have of the discovery of the Figian archipelago, is that of Abel Jansen Tasman, who, in the year 1643, sailed past some of these islands, to which he gave the name of Prince William's Islands, the inhabitants themselves styling them collectively "Viti," which the Tongans and other nations have corrupted to "Figi." For 200 years after their existence was ascertained by Tasman, nothing whatever was known respecting this important group; and, although Captain Cook sighted one of the islands (Vatoa), and Captain Wilson nearly lost the missionary ship "Duff" on the reefs of Taviuni, the Figian Islands and their inhabitants were nominally unknown to us until they were visited by D'Urville, and by Commodore Wilkes, of the United States Exploring Expedition, and, still later, by Her Majesty's surveying ship "Herald."

Towards the beginning of the present century, the Figis were visited from time to time by vessels from the East Indies, in search of sandal-wood and "trepang," or beche-de-mer, for the Chinese market. These vessels were always well armed, and no communications made with the natives until some of their chiefs had been sent on board as hostages; these people being then regarded as the most ter-page 220rible and ferocious of savages. Generally speaking, however, the Figians have behaved with kindness to such white men as have been wrecked on their coasts, or fallen into their power. A number of convicts, who escaped from New South Wales, in 1804, managing to reach the Figis, dwelt amongst them for a long period, teaching the chiefs the use of fire-arms, which they procured from the trading vessels, and exercising a considerable influence over these warlike and cruel, yet otherwise intelligent people.

There are several good roadsteads and harbours in the Figian group, the principal of which is the extensive harbour of Levuka on the eastern side of Ovalau. These islands rise in general abruptly from the sea, and present, in their bold and irregular outline, the peculiar characters of the volcanic formation to which they belong. With the exception of some tracts on the two large islands about the deltas of the great rivers, but very little level land is to be anywhere seen. Almost every island is surrounded either with a fringing reef of coral, or one separated from the shore by a channel more or less narrow.

The Figi Islands may be said to owe their origin to volcanic upheavings and the busy operation of corals. At present there are no active volcanoes, but several of the highest mountain peaks must, in times gone by, have been formidable craters. Hot springs are occasionally met with, and earthquakes experienced, thus showing that Figi is still not altogether secure against plutonic action.

Most of the country is of an undulating nature, page 221the hills in the larger islands having peaks 4000 feet high; Voma and Buke Levu being the most lofty. The soil is remarkably fertile and productive; it consists, in many places, of a decomposed volcanic rock, which, when saturated with moisture, is wonderfully fertile: indeed, it is said that there is hardly an acre of land throughout the group that might not be either converted into a pasture or cultivated. Like most of the islands situated within the influence of the trade-winds, that blow almost invariably from the eastward, the aspect of the weather side of all the group is essentially different from that of the lee side. Owing to the constant moisture brought with the trade-wind from the ocean, " the former teems with a dense mass of vegetation, huge trees, innumerable creepers, and epiphytical plants. Hardly ever a break occurs in the green mantle spread over hill and dale, except where effected by artificial means. Eain and moisture are plentiful, adding ever fresh vigour to, and keeping up the exuberant growth of trees, shrubs, and herbs. Far different is the aspect of the lee side. Instead of the dense jungle, interlaced with creepers and loaded with epiphytes, a fine grassy country, here and there dotted with screw-pines (pandanus) presents itself." The high ridges of mountains, which form the backbone of the two largest islands, attract the moisture from the clouds; and, intercepting the numerous showers, send down streams of never-failing water to fertilise the valleys below.

Dr. Seemann thus describes their coasts: "The coast-line of most of the islands is enriched by a page 222dense, more or less broken, belt of cocoa-nut palms. White beaches, formed of decomposed corals, may be traced for miles; whilst good soil in many instances extends quite to the water's edge, and trees, not numbering amongst them the strictly littoral vegetation, overhang the sea. Mangrove swamps are limited, and chiefly confined to the mouths of the rivers; hence the almost total freedom of the country from malignant fevers." In the windward islands, Lakemba and its dependencies, considerable tracts of open country are covered with the common brake and other hard-leaved ferns: whilst whole districts present a strictly Australian appearance, owing to the presence of casuarinas and acacias.

There are but few parts of the globe where nature has been more bountiful and lavish in distributing her vegetable treasures than in Figi; the fertile soil of these islands producing an incredible number of the most valuable forest trees, fruits, and plants, adapted to the service of man.

The climate of the Figis is tropical, but the heat is moderated by the trade-wind, so that its mean temperature does not exceed 80° Fahr. The islands are generally healthy, dysentery being about the only disease Europeans have to fear.

Elephantiasis is a disease to which the Figians are more or less subject; it is, however, local in its appearance, being principally confined to the inhabitants of the low, damp valleys. In the island of Naigani it is fearfully prevalent, whilst many large districts are almost free from it. The natives ascribe it to the use of the cocoa-nut milk.

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Dysentery is also frequent amongst them at certain seasons of the year: this disease the Figians believe to be catching, and they carefully avoid using a seat or a mat which has been occupied by a person suffering from it. Fever, that scourge of the Samoas, is unknown in the Figis.

From October to April, the hottest season, a considerable quantity of rain falls; whilst there are occasional showers during the dry season, which lasts from May to September. Hurricanes and thunder-storms seldom occur, except in the months of January, February, and March; and frequently several successive years pass by without the occurrence of the former.

It is currently reported that in the interior of the largest of the islands, Viti Levu, there exists an extensive table-land, with a large lake, on which the natives cross with canoes. The highest peak in the island, and probably in all Figi, is that of Voma, which was first ascended, in 1860, by Dr. Seemann, in company with Mr. Pritchard and Colonel Smythe. At the elevation of 2500 feet above the sea, the virgin forests were entered, and a vegetation quite different from that of the lowlands encountered; all the trees being densely loaded with orchids, mosses, lichens, and ferns.

The third island in size of the Figian group is Taviuni; it is about twenty-four miles long and nine broad, and is traversed by a chain of mountains about 2000 feet high, the tops of which are usually wrapped in clouds. Dr. Seemann thus describes the appearance of Taviuni: "Stately cocoa-nut palms page 224gird the beach, whilst the mountain sides are covered by dense forests full of fine timber, and abounding in wild pigeons and the 'kula,' a species of parroquet (Coriphilus solitarius), valued on account of its scarlet feathers by the Tonguese, and still more by the Samoans, for ornamenting mats. Numerous streams and mountain torrents, fed principally by a lake at the summit, descend in every direction, and greatly add to the beauty of the scenery. The northern shores especially, forming, in conjunction with the opposite island of Vanua Levu the straits of Somo-somo, teem with vegetation, and present a picture of extreme fertility. The trees and bushes are everywhere overgrown by white, blue, and pink convolvulus and other creepers, often entwined in graceful festoons. Here and there the eye descries cleared patches of cultivation, or low brushwood, overtopped by the. feathery crowns of magnificent tree-ferns, with villages nestling among them. The air is laden with moisture, and there is scarcely a day without a shower of rain."

The summit of the mountain of Somo-somo, in Taviuni, consists of a large extinct crater, filled by a clear, deep lake, full of eels, the north-eastern part of which is entirely covered with a vegetable mass several feet in thickness, and sufficiently solid to bear the weight of persons wading across it. This jelly-like mass is composed of microscopic waterplants, and so much resembles in colour and appearance the green fat of the turtle, that the natives say the fat of all the turtles eaten in Figi is transported thither by some supernatural agency.

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The island of Kadavu, the most southerly of the Figis, is next in size to Taviuni, and possesses an anchorage on the north side, in Tavuki Bay, where American whalers frequently call, for the purpose of taking in wood and water. On the south of Kadavu is an excellent harbour with deep water and good anchorage, called Ga-loa or Black-duck Bay.

Although several of the Figian islands exhibit signs of craters, there is only one place where there are any visible indications of volcanic heat; this is at Savu-savu, on the island of Vanua Levu, where there are boiling springs similar in character to those of New Zealand, alluded to in a previous chapter. Earthquakes, as in most volcanic regions, are frequent; they usually occur in the month of February, several shocks being often felt during a single night.

Sugar, coffee, tamarinds, and tobacco, as well as cotton, thrive wonderfully in the Figis, and may be expected, especially the latter, to form considerable articles of export from these islands, as soon as European enterprise has been sufficiently directed towards them.

The indigenous vegetable productions of Figi would, many of them, prove highly remunerative if properly turned to account. The annual value of the cocoa-nut oil extracted by the natives in their present primitive and wasteful manner, is not less than 6000l. on the spot. Already several enterprising Europeans have set up proper machinery at Somo-somo and other parts of Figi, for the production of cocoa-nut and other vegetable page 226oils and fats, together with the manufacture of citronella oil from the lemon grass which grows there so abundantly. Sago, arrowroot, turmeric, ginger, pepper, and nutmegs, are all indigenous to these favoured islands, growing in abundance, and, as yet, but little understood by the natives, whose staple articles of food are the same as in the other tropical islands, viz., the yam, the taro, the plantain, the cocoa-nut, and the bread-fruit tree, all of which flourish in the forests and groves of Figi.

The sandal-wood (Santalum), so much valued as an article of commerce, has now become almost extinct in the Figis; thousands of tons of it were formerly exported from thence into China, where it readily fetched from twenty to thirty pounds a ton.

Sheep have been imported, and wool is now being produced in some of the Figis by British subjects from Australia, several extensive sheep-runs having recently been purchased from the chiefs on the northern shores of Viti and Vanua Levu.

The Figians are generally above the middle height, especially the chiefs, who are tall, well made, and muscular; whilst the lower orders exhibit a certain meagreness, arising from laborious service and scanty nourishment. Their complexion in general is between that of the true Papuan and the copper-coloured race, although instances of both extremes are to be met with, indicating a mixed descent from the two different stocks. Though the young people are often handsome, they are inferior to their neighbours, the Tonguese, in beauty of person. Unlike most of the Polynesian natives, the Figians exhibit page 227great activity both of body and mind; they are a vigorous and warlike race; and express themselves with great clearness and force of argument. In the manufacture of their weapons and utensils they display considerable ingenuity; their clubs are beautifully carved, their tappa-cloth handsomely chequered, and their wicker-work baskets and earthenware vessels evince both taste and skill.

The faces of the greater number are long, with a large mouth, good teeth, and a well-formed nose. Instances, however, are by no means rare of narrow and high foreheads, flat noses, and thick lips, with a broad, short chin; still, they have nothing about them of the negro type. Their eyes are generally fine, being black and penetrating. Their hair is crisp, and disposed to be somewhat woolly, great pains being taken to spread it out all over the head into a mop-like form. The chiefs, in particular, pay much attention to the dressing of the hair; and for this purpose all of them have barbers, whose sole occupation is the care of their masters' heads. To dress the head of a chief occupies several hours, and the hair is made to stand out to a distance of eight inches. They are very careful not to crush these grand wigs; and when they lie down they rest their necks on wooden pillows, elevated with legs about ten inches from the ground, so that the elaborately-dressed hair may sustain no pressure.

The Figians build large canoes. They are bold navigators, and make somewhat distant voyages from one island to another, steering only by the stars, or by the trade-wind that blows pretty constantly in one direction.

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They build the frames of their houses of the timber of the bread-fruit tree, and fill them in with reeds, whilst they cover the roof with a thatch of the wild sugar-cane. The ordinary houses are usually oblong in shape, being from twenty to twenty-five feet in length by fifteen in breadth. They have, for the most part, two doors, and a fire-place of stones in the centre. The furniture consists of a few boxes, mats, clay jars, and drinking-vessels; the manufacture of pottery being extensively carried on by them.

The "bures," or public sleeping-houses, are a singular feature in every Figian village. All along the sides of these buildings are sleeping-places, covered with fine mats, and between each of these is a fire-place, and a stage on which to rest the legs; the head, or rather the neck, being supported by a wooden pillow. In these "bures" all the male population, whether married or single, sleep; and here, in the evenings, are argued all manner of questions touching on Figian politics and other topics. The events of the day being discussed whilst the company are all busily engaged in plaiting cocoa-nut fibre, and smoking their cigarettes of native-grown tobacco, the "kava" bowl is brought in, and the preparation of the nauseous and intoxicating draught commenced. As the night advances, and the conversation begins to slacken, the men, one by one, rest their necks carefully on their wooden pillows, so that their large mop-wigs may not be crushed; and, cocking their legs upon the stages, drop off to sleep.

The principal occupation of the people, when not engaged in war, is the cultivation of their page 229yam and "taro" gardens, sailing in their canoes, and fishing. Their clothing is extremely scanty, consisting of a strip of "tappa cloth" made from the paper-mulberry, passing between the legs, and fastened to a waistband or girdle. The length of the "tappa" hanging down denotes the rank of the wearer, some of the chiefs letting it dangle on the ground, or playfully swinging it over their shoulder when walking. Distinguished persons frequently envelope themselves in pieces of snow-white "tappa" many yards long, and allow trains to drag after them on the ground. On the occasion of heathen youths of high rank being introduced to the privileges of manhood, they were formerly made to stand on a pyramid of dead bodies prepared for the accompanying feast, and were enrolled by two relatives in several hundred yards of this native cloth, until they resembled bales of clothing instead of human figures. The "liku," a dress consisting of a number of fringes of vegetable fibre, dyed various colours and neatly plaited, is also worn both by men and women; whilst foreign calico has now in many places superseded the use of the original cloth made from the paper-mulberry.

Amongst the Figians the women only are tattooed; the operation is performed by members of their own sex, and is only applied to the corners of the mouth and a small portion of the legs.

Some of the Figian women of the higher class are of a much lighter colour than those of the ordinary stamp, and are dignified and prepossessing in their bearing. Dr. Seemann thus describes the queen of page 230Somo-somo, in the island of Taviuni: "The queen wore two yards of white calico around her loins, fernleaves around her head, the purple blossom of the Chinese rose in a hole pierced through one of her ears, and a bracelet made of a shell. No other garment graced her stately person, and yet she looked truly majestic." The girls in their dances form head-dresses of living fire-flies, which they impale upon slips of bamboo, and manage to fix in such a manner, that for hours their coronets corruscate with the flashes from these living diamonds.

The Figians have a superstitious dread of travelling in the forests after nightfall; they imagine they behold ghosts and evil forms in every direction, and shout at the top of their voices, like terrified children, to drive them away. Rebels, when taken prisoners, were (according to the accounts of John Jackson, who resided amongst the Figians for a considerable time many years ago), fastened to banana stems, and laid down on the beach as rollers, over which the conquerors rolled their enormous war canoes, the weight of which crushed the wretched victims, and disembowelled them. Their bodies were afterwards cooked and eaten, the priests performing the usual ceremonies over them.

Sacred groves, trees, and stones, formed a prominent feature in Figian paganism; the latter, of peculiar form, were erected in various places, and worshipped as having reference to procreation. Many of the sacred groves have been latterly cut down, though some still exist. In the Rewa district is one beneath an enormous cluster of banyan trees, interlaced page 231with ferns, wax-flowers, and climbing plants. In this lonely bower, from which the daylight is nearly hidden, the heathen priest was wont to consult the gods for peace or war.

The Figians are said not to worship idols, although carved figures are sometimes met with in their temples. The heathen priests, besides announcing oracular communications from the gods, offer up prayers in the temples to them, invoking their aid for success in war, for fruitful seasons, for plenty of fish, and for life and freedom from disease.

The Pantheon of the Figians contains many deities. Their principal one is Ovê, who is considered the maker of all men; next in order, and the one most generally feared, is Ndengei, who is worshipped under the form of a large serpent, and is said to dwell in a sacred cave in Viti Levu. They have also malicious and mischievous gods, which reside in "bulu," where reigns a cruel tyrant, with a grim aspect, whom they name Lothia. Samuyalo (destroyer of souls) is his colleague, and sits on the brink of a huge fiery cavern, into which he precipitates departed spirits. A belief in a future state appears to be universal amongst the Figians; and this doctrine they extend not only to the human race, but to all animals, and even vegetable and mineral substances. If an animal or a plant die, its soul goes at once to "bulu." If an axe or chisel is worn out or broken, away goes its soul for the service of the gods. If a house is taken down or destroyed, its immortal part finds a situation on the plains of "bulu." As a confirmation of this doc-page 232trine, the Figi people show a sort of natural well, or deep hole in the ground, on one of their islands, across the bottom of which runs a stream of water, in which, they say, may distinctly be perceived the souls of men and women, beasts and plants, of stones, canoes, and houses, and of all the broken utensils of this frail world, swimming along into the regions of immortality. Their belief in a future state, guided as it was by no just notions of religious or moral obligation, was the source of many abhorrent practices amongst them, such as putting their parents to death when advanced in years, suicide, the immolation of wives at the funeral ceremonies of their husbands, and human sacrifices.

Twenty years ago the Figians were described as being the most systematic and inveterate cannibals on the face of the globe. The bodies of their enemies were always eaten, and not only men, but women and children, were slain to be devoured. Twenty years ago, the Rev. W. Lawry tells us, "Formal sacrifices are frequent among them. The victims are usually taken from a distant tribe; and when not supplied by war or violence, they are at times obtained by negotiation. After being selected for this purpose, they are often kept for a time to be fattened. When about to be sacrificed, they are compelled to sit upon the ground with their feet drawn up under their thighs, and their arms placed close before them. In this posture they are bound so tightly that they cannot stir or move a joint. They are then placed in the usual oven upon hot stones, and covered with leaves and earth, where page 233they are roasted alive. When the body is cooked, it is taken from the oven, and the face painted black, as is done by the natives on festal occasions. It is then carried to the "bure," where it is offered to the gods, and is afterwards removed to be cut up, and distributed to be eaten by the people."

Cannibalism has fortunately now almost died out in Figi, being confined to a few heathen localities only. In a very short period it will be known but as a thing of the past, and referred to by the natives themselves with horror and disgust. Kuruduadua, the powerful heathen chief of Namosi, in Viti Levu, has also lately abolished this barbarous custom, which, within the last very few years, was carried on to an alarming extent amongst his people. At the time of the visit of the officers of H.M.S. "Herald," when engaged in a survey of the Figis, not ten years since, Namosi was the stronghold of cannibalism; there were ovens in the public square for baking the bodies; and huge pots, into which the victims were cast alive to be boiled for their horrible feasts. The flesh was eaten with large forks, made of the hard wood of the Casuarina, and having several prongs. Taro and other vegetables were frequent accompaniments to these feasts. For every enemy's corpse brought into the town to be eaten, a stone was placed near the "bure," or sleeping-house, and upwards of 400 of these stones were counted against one "bure" in Namosi.

Bau, the capital of Figi, is built on a small island connected by a reef with the large island of Viti Levu. The beach is thickly covered with native page 234houses, arranged in crooked streets. The king's residence is a very large house, with out-houses attached, and a lawn in front; besides this is a church 100 feet long by 46 high and 40 wide, and a building of huge dimensions, called "Bure ni sa," a sort of "town-hall" or place of meeting and sleeping, for the men only.

The people of Bau are superior to those of most parts of Figi: they are tall, well-proportioned, and often with a handsome cast of countenance. The king, Thakombau, is supreme chief of Bau, and head sovereign of all Figi. In 1859, this personage, with the approbation of the leading chiefs, made a formal cession, through the British consul, of the whole of the Figi (or Viti) group to the crown of England. Although the occupation of these important and prolific islands has been repeatedly urged upon the home government by the several naval officers who have had an opportunity of examining them, the offer made by Thakombau has not as yet been accepted.

The following passage from Dr. Seemann's narrative will show the wonderful progress made by the Figians under the teaching of the missionaries. He says, "Until 1854, Bau, the metropolis as well as the ruling state, was opposed to the missionaries; and the ovens in which the bodies of human victims were baked scarcely ever got cold. Since then, however, a great change has taken place. The king and all his court have embraced Christianity; of the heathen temples, which, by their pyramidal form, gave such a peculiar local colouring to old page 235pictures of the place, only the foundations remain; the sacred groves in the neighbourhood are cut down; and in the great square, where formerly cannibal feasts took place, a large church has been erected. Not without emotion did I land on this blood-stained soil, where, probably, greater iniquities were perpetrated than ever disgraced any other spot on earth. It was about eight o'clock in the evening; and, instead of the wild noise that greeted former visitors, family prayer was heard from nearly every house. To bring about such a change has required no slight efforts; and many valuable lives had to be sacrificed—for although no missionary in Figi has ever met with a violent death, yet the list of those who died in the midst of their labours has been disproportionately great.

The Tonguese have not inaptly been styled the Anglo-Saxons of the Pacific. Finding their own group too small for their occupation, they established colonies in Figi, and have made frequent attempts to possess themselves of the whole group. To escape from the exactions and tyrannies of the Tonguese was one of the reasons which induced the king and chiefs of Figi to offer the sovereignty of their islands to the British crown. As Tonga furnished no large timber for canoe building, the Tonguese had recourse to the inexhaustible forests of Figi, where plenty of trees suitable for that purpose were obtainable. As the result of this constant communication between the two groups, a large influx of the lighter blood of Tonga was soon perceptible in those districts, and especially in page 236Kadavu, where most of the inhabitants are now a mixed race.

During the rebellion in Figi, about ten years ago, the aid of King George of Tonga was sought by Thakombau, to assist in quelling it. A large fleet of canoes and a strong reinforcement of warriors soon arrived from Tonga; and, under Maafu, a powerful and unscrupulous Tonguese chief, the nominal authority of Thakombau was re-established. A vessel of eighty tons, built in the United States, was presented to King George for his assistance, by the people of Bau; and from that period, Maafu remaining in Figi, a system of oppression and annexation was carried on by him and his party (who were 3000 strong), which would probably have resulted in the conquest of all Figi by the Tonguese, had it not been frustrated by the timely return of Mr. Pritchard, the British consul, with the intelligence that the cession of Figi was under the consideration of Her Majesty's government. Peace was thus established for a short period only, the war again breaking out between the Tongans and Figians with increased animosity. It was not till July, 1861, that these hostilities ceased. Commodore Seymour, in H.M.S. "Pelorus," then visited Figi, and by his influence a treaty of peace was drawn up and agreed to by all parties, thus terminating this long and desolating conflict between the two races.

The house of Mr. Pritchard, her majesty's consul in Figi, is on a little rocky islet on the west of Ovalau, where the British flag waves on its summit. The steep slopes of the island have been formed page 237into terraces, glowing with every variety of flowers; and a pretty European-built cottage, with a broad verandah, and a roof thatched with sugar-cane leaves, contains the archives of the consulate. This picturesque abode, with its staircase, its windows, its papered apartments, and other attractions, is looked on by the natives as a triumph of art. Dr. Seemann, who was despatched by the British government on a mission to Figi, to report on the capabilities of that group, in 1860, says of Mr. Pritchard, "the British consul is now the sole authority that keeps order in Figi, the natives having voluntarily made over to him the entire jurisdiction of the group, and found it preferable in their quarrels with the whites (of whom there are upwards of 200 resident on these islands) to abide by his judgment, rather than break their own heads and those of the white settlers by an appeal to the club."

The present population of the Figian archipelago is estimated at 200,000, of whom upwards of 60,000 are numbered as converts to Christianity.