FIJI ETHNOLOGY

           

In the Fiji Islands, which stand at the farthest end of the Melanesian chain, a somewhat detached link as it were, lying towards Tonga and Samoa, one would expect to find considerable Polynesian influence, both in race and culture. Undoubtedly these influences have separated, especially in the eastern islands of the group nevertheless, the Melanesian physical type prevails.

The inland hill tribes of Fiji lived in small, independent village communities; but elsewhere there were larger tribes, as well as considerable territorial federations, the result of conquest and diplomatic alliances. Because of their direct descent from celebrated hero-ancestors, the tribal chiefs acquired a priestly sacredness, almost a divinity, which in course of time became so deeply imbued, that they stood aloof from secular administration and appointed their brothers or other relatives as executives and active war leaders. Customary appointments in time became inherited rights, and distinct hereditary septs of royal priests and of executive leaders arose.

Underlying this veneration for male descended chiefs, on which the social organisation rests, there is a remnant of totemism and matrilineal descent. This is seen in the possession here and there, of isolated patches of waste land - that is, "sacred land" - which is inherited matrilineally and whose natural plants and animals are tapu to the inheritors. Fijian religion is further complicated by a belief in nature spirits (of the sea and sky) and in gods hunting, fishing and war.

Fijian necklaces.

There is an agreeable orderliness without formality in "village-planning" in Fiji, the large, strongly-thatched houses, each on a low stone platform, being usually built around a close-cult village green shaded by fruit trees and palms.

As the usual tropical fruits and garden produce are at command, with fish in abundance. Juvenile fishermen, armed with four-pronged darts and arrows, spend long halcyon days among the shoals of sprats near the shore, acquiring that skill which will later enable them unerringly to spear the swift sea fish from their canoes or from the rocks. All the coastal people construct extensive fish fences, which lead the fish following the ebb tide into enclosures, where they are speared at low water. Some tribes are specialist fishermen, who barter their catch for vegetables instead of cultivating gardens. Turtle-fishers are, or were, members of the household establishment of a chief, who alone might eat turtle. They usually cast their long coconut-fibre nets from canoes, though a few master-turtlers were amazingly adept at the game of diving below a turtle, flipping it upside-down, and bringing it to the surface.

Cooking was done in the earth oven, and in some districts in earthenware bowls as well; pottery, however, usually took the form of large water vessels (sometimes in the shape of coconuts fastened together) and open basin. Food bowls were carved in a variety of shapes: sometimes in the form of a bird, a fish, or a turtle, which may have represented the formal offering of the totem animal as ceremonial food. Small, flat dishes held coconut oil for rubbing into the skin; but for the oil wherewith a priest would anoint his body, the dish had a somewhat curiously carved stand or pedestal.

The Fijians gave place to no other South Sea people in hospitality, or in their observance of ceremonial feasts, for which enormous supplies of food were prepared for pre-prandial display on racks like the Maori food-stages. As soon as the guests were assembled and the gathering had been called to order, the distribution of the food was made in strict accordance with recognised rank and precedence. One may be sure the proceedings were closely followed for the Fijians were as jealous of social status as Melanesians and Polynesians anywhere. Unintentional slights, nursed as grievances became magnified into deliberately planned insults, and not infrequently found their ultimate outlet in fierce and ruthless fighting.

In warfare the Fijian laid his plans carefully, and exploited an artful diplomacy to foment discord among his enemies and fasten allies to his own side. For all that he was heavily armed, he employed stratagem and skirmish rather than direct attack. The favourite wife was "the net"; the attackers broke and fled, leading their heedless pursuers into ambushes - a simple ruse, that succeeded surprisingly often.

An early image of a Fijian warrior.

Although fighting was constant in the early days, the aggregation of tribes by conquest and alliance did not produce large federations until European times, when the early acquisition of muskets gave the district of Mbasu an initial advantage. But as other tribes became armed and effected other alliances, a long period of almost universal war and rebellion of Mbau, was the result of his enlisting the aid of Tongans, who, having long harried the coasts of Fiji in the manner of the Scandinavian vikings, had become firmly established in the Lakemba group, or "Windward Islands," which lie some 200 miles to the eastward.

The Tongan plan of expansion, however, was always to support the weaker side, and ere long their leader, Maafu, was raiding the territory of Mbau. Thakombau was at this time also embarrassed by pressure for the repayment of a debt to America, and he finally sought British sovereignty (effected 1874), under which to retain his "kingship" and his royal prestige among the Fijians.

Few people had as heavy or as finely-carved clubs as the Fijians, and their variety and unusual shapes are always of interest, particularly if one endeavours to ascertain their origin or derivation. The formally designed clubs derived from natural root-stocks are easy to identify; but careful study has been required to trace such characteristic forms as the "pineapple" club stone-head club origin. Bows and arrows, short, round-headed throwing clubs (ula), and long, wooden spears with splendidly-rendered decorative barbs, were also part of the Fijian's arms and equipment.    

The carved wooden head-rests served vanity rather than repose. The Fijians are proud of their long, fuzzy locks, and devote much time to oiling, combing, and, sometimes, lining them to impart a chestnut hue. The literally outstanding results were not to be undone during negligent slumber, hence the wooden "pillows."

For further ornament the Fijian had chief recourse to pearl shell and to the teeth of the sperm whale. The breast-plates of pearl shell, covered with thin plates of whale ivory, were badges of chiefly rank, and possibly only men of some standing would have been able to acquire the handsome necklaces of slender ivory pendants wrought to a long, curved point and carefully matched for gradation in size.

The undivided single whale tooth, or tambua was much more than an ornament; it was offered as a compliment between chiefs, and the presentation of a tambua was a necessary preliminary to the submission of a request for assistance or favour. In particular, it was presented with careful ceremony as a mark of homage to the ruler or overlord of a territorial federation. Not every official was entitled to be offered a tambua - a lesser mark of respect was a gift of a portion of the dried root of the pepper tree, from which the kava drink was made.

The drinking of kava, or yaqona as the Fijians call it, was invested with solemn formality. "Drinking in" was the essential part of the ceremony of installation of a chief, and a kava-drinking circle was the invariable form of deliberation in council or transaction of public business.

Kava ceremony, Fiji.

The large wooden yaqona bowl is placed before the chief, and the drink is prepared to the accompaniment of a ceremonial chant. The first cup is presented to the chief, those present steadily clapping during his libation, ceasing only when he spins the empty cup along the floor. Each member of the circle then receives his portion in turn, with the same jealous observance of precedence as in the apportionment and distribution of food at a feast.

An assortment of Fijian clubs.

The well-known fire-walking ceremony in Fiji is by no means a general practice. It is restricted to a certain social class on the island of Mbenga. It is not really "fire-walking," but "hot-stone-walking." The people who perform the ceremony understand that they are passing through an earth oven, and they have legend which records a remote ancestor's descent into the depths and rising up from an oven. The rite used to be performed when the Dracaena root was ripe, and preceded the cooking of the root in the oven. It was now considered to be a first-fruit rite, a kind of proprietary sacrifice and resurrection.

Fire-walking, Fiji.

Another restricted cult is that of the Nubuki, a secret initiation ceremony for youths, performed on a rock-walked platform area with a stone pyramid in the manner of a Polynesian marae. There were three degrees of initiation: youths, men, and priests, and the rite consisted essentially of the simulation of death and revival - a kind of ancestor worship. The formal ceremony was followed by an orgy, and recalls the similar licentiousness in the Tahitian areoi societies.

The Fijians today live well-ordered, contented lives, both in their native villages and in the European communities, where they find ready employment as clerks, carpenters, artisans and native police. Native doctors and native magistrates minister to the health and social well-being of their own people, and three chiefs present the natives on the Legislative Council.

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 21st November 2008)