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An Account of Samoan History up to 1918

The Rotuman People

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The Rotuman People.

The natives of the Island of Rotuma, a Polynesian Island under the administration of the Fiji Government, have for many years been a source of mystery to students of Island races and languages. It has long been noted that cast of countenance, the mode of speech and many of the customs of the Rotuman native have varied widely, if not been unique, from the general type and form of the Polynesian, especially his neighbours the Tongan and Samoan, with which he has been classed. To ascertain the position of the Rotuman among the Facific Islanders and to make a general survey of his early histcry and pre-European culture, the Bishop Museum has had an anthropologist at Rotuma during the first half of the year. Although he has made no report as yet, nor had time since his return to anayls his notes, he has made a few prelininary observations on Rotuma.

From the measurement of a number of Rotuman adults taken to ascertain if possible, their racial origin or physical relationship with other Polynesians, the Rotuman appears to have a racial strain so far unreported for other Islands, This is most noticeable in the rather Semitic profile of the nose, the fold of the eye and the thinness of the lips. The Rotuman is slightly smaller in physique today than his cousin in Tonga or Samoa, and his skin colour shows a greater range between a light and dark brown. European admixture of blood, and a greater adoption of European manner of living may be the cause of some of these facts, but it cannot account for all the strange physical characters of which some are as distinctly non-European as they are non-polynesian. Europeans have been recorded as living in Rotuma since twenty years after its discovery in 1791. At one time there were two groups of criminals escaped from the penal colony in Australia, living at either end of the Island. No doubt the facial expression of the many Rotuman Islanders owes its difference from the Polynesian type mainly to this old and continued mixture with Europeans. page 2 Up to the end of the nineteenth century there was a large part of the population living on the hillsides and hill tops of Rotuma. The European contact must have been very slight with these people, for they did not live in village clusters as did the shore people, and according to tradition and early observers on the island, they were kept in the bush by the shore people. Permission had to be granted before they could pass through the villages to fish or bath in the sea. It is among the descendants of this darker island folk, that the non-polynesian differences can best be observed. There is the suggestion here of two racial elements on the island, but a study of the culture does not bear this out.

It is the coastal people who have any cultural differences from Tonga or Bamoa, that exist today. The most noticeable peculiarity exists in the custom of building dwellings, some on stakes twenty feet high on the odge of the beach. In these the unmarried men of each village sleep. It is interesting to note, that in those districts where the high house is prohibited by the missionary for fear of disaster in hurricanes, that the custom of the young men sleeping in a separate house still persists. The pile dwelling itself is remeniscent of the pile dwellings of Melanesia, but unlike these they are niver built over the water.

The Rotuman chiefs always received their food on low four legged tables cut from a solid plank of wood. They sat before these with their knees close together before them in Japanese fashion, and although they sit crossed legged today, they say it is sitting Tongan fashion. They also carved out of single pieces of wood, bowis, legged paint dishes, curved headrests and stools for the King. All but the last are similar to Tongan types and Fijian types exgibited in the Suva museum.

The Rotuman graves form the most fascinating side of the study of their culture. The island has been described not inaccurately as “one great cemetery.” Certainly graves are to be found everywhere, under house sites, alongside most of the roadway, in great village cemeteries now preserved by European law, on tops page 3 of the little Islands along the reefs, and throughout the bush. They are monuments to a remarkable industry and devotion to the dead qualities now sadly failing among the present inhabitants. The dead buried in double stone vaults of great size built up of thick slabs of conglomerate rock or coral cut from the reef. Important graves had top slabs out from quarry of basaltic rock in the western end of the island. All these were transported overland by large groups of labour, while a priest 13 tood or top and muttered incantations and prayers to make the burder lighter. Great rafts were built too, to carry these stones longer distances dovm the coast. One slab of coral found on the King's cemetery high up in the bush measured 17 feet, by 7, by one and a half. The lower vault of the grave was made of six slabs of stone in box shape, set in the ground. The body was wrapped in mats and tapa and taid upon the floor. The end stone wan closed up and the whole vault was buried in sand. On top of this vault the superstructure varied according to the importance of the dead in the estimation of his family. Chiefs and family vaults for later corpses were covered by a second vault which rested on the ground level. Some had merely a capstone or an upright monolith as markers. Although the island is covered with burials and cemeteries from end to end there is evidence of another stratum of burials, either unmarked originally or covered by the workings of rain and wind. Some of these were disclosed in building on the Catholic Mission at Sumi, where one grave when unearthed revealed a burial of a corpse in a sittingposition.

The land of the dead was placed at the bottom of the sea and described sometimes to be lying just beyond the reef, and sometimes at the horizon. Here the souls of the dead lived and often returned as spirits or atua. They came to gather in other souls which they took home to eat. Souls of chiefs returned to enter the bodies of family witchdoctors or priests, and through them to consult with and advise their descendants. The old religion is primarily ancestor worship. However, the Rotumans, believed in Tagaloa the supreme deity of Western Polynesia, but he had rather page 4 indistinct qualities. Hatives today cannot remember much more about Tagaloa Siria other than male children were brought out of the house immediately after they were born and tossed into the arms of their nurse to Tagaloa to bless with courage and strength.

Tagaloa manifested in several forms in the beliefs of the Samoans. He is the creator of man or a partner in his creation which took place on the Island of Tau in Manua. However, in Rotuma, no such function is attributed to him, and starngely enough today there is no legend existing which attempts to account for a mans presence on any of the islands. There is but one belief and that is that the first Rotumas were lead from Samoa by a man naned Raho. He was the son of a Tuitoga and a Savai'i woman. His departure from Savai'i in a canoe he built for the trip was caused over a dispite between his granddaughter and his half brother who was a full Tongan, Rotuma was built from two baskets of earth warried from Bamoa by two winged women who were born miraculously of Raho's daughter. The Island of Alofi in the Jtoorn Islands is also attributed to the oreative powern of these females. They accompanied Raho and as soon as the sand of the baskets was laid down he landed on the Island. Following his arrival there were soveral canoes followed from Tonga. In more recent history, canoes cane from Tarawa in the Gilbert Group and Neiafoou of the Tonga Islands. Maafu of Neiafoou conquered Rotuma and for some time each. Rotuman district was under the control of one of Maafu's Lieutenants. From history it would appear that the Rotumans bore a close relationship to Tonga than any other Island Group. This is supported by the general pattern of their material culture or craftsmanship.

The language a very complex study in itself due to its strange vacabulary and development on the Island, Supplies few clues at present. Mr Churchward of the Nethodist Mission and long a resident of Rotuma is ppreparing a detailed and thorough treatise of the Rotuman language. It is safe to say that although the Rotuman words as spoken appear unrecognisable to other Polynesians, the majority of them are coinmon to the language that is spoken in Samoa and Tonga. There are other words however, page 5 which at present show no relation to the languago as of the neighbouring Polynesian or Nelanesian Islands. The majority of these woräs are the most commonly used in every day speech, such for instance “tanu” the word for water. In all the rest of Polynesia the form vai or wai is used. This duality of origin in the language bears out the suggestion gathered from the observations of the physical types among these people, that is, that in Rotuma there appear to have been two distinct people who have mixed to form the present type of Rotuman, as well as produce Rotuman culture and Rotuman speech.

The above notes were compiled by Mr G. HcGregor who visited Rotuma in 1932 and he handed me them as he was leaving Samoa.