Early History of Fiji: Names, First People, Cannibalism

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Fiji is the second largest Pacific nation after Papua New Guinea. Official Name: Republic of Fiji; conventional short form: Fiji; local long form: Republic of Fiji (English)/ Matanitu ko Viti (Fijian); local short form: Fiji (English)/ Viti (Fijian). The Fijians called their home Viti, but the neighboring Tongans called it Fisi, and in the Anglicized spelling of the Tongan pronunciation: promulgated by explorer Captain James Cook: the designation became Fiji. [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

Name of the People: noun: Fijian(s) or Fiji Islander (s); adjective: Fijian. The term “Fijian” has ethnic connotations and should only be used to describe people of indigenous Fijian descent as opposed to those South Asian descent.

Fiji is a multicultural island nation with cultural traditions of Oceanic, European, South Asian, and East Asian origins. Immigrants have accepted several aspects of the indigenous culture, but a national culture has not evolved. Commercial, settler, missionary, and British colonial interests imposed Western ideologies and infrastructures on the native peoples and Asian immigrants that facilitated the operation of a British crown colony.

The indigenous name of the islands is Viti, an Austronesian word meaning "east" or "sunrise." Ethnic Fijians call themselves Kai Viti ("the people of Viti") or i Taukei (ITaukei"the owners of the land"). Until the advent of colonial rule in 1873, the population of Viti Levu, the principal island of the Fiji group, was divided into hierarchically organized coastal peoples and more egalitarian highland peoples in the interior. In the early 1900s, society was divided along ethnic lines, with iTaukei (indigenous Fijians), Europeans, and Indo-Fijians living in separate areas and maintaining their own languages and traditions. Divisions between these groups still remain.

With well-developed infrastructure, Fiji has become a hub for the Pacific, hosting the secretariat for the Pacific Islands Forum and the main campus of the University of the South Pacific. In addition, Fiji is a center for Pacific tourism, and Nadi International Airport is by far the busiest airport in a Pacific island country. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

First Fijians

Austronesians — a coastal people originating from Taiwan and south coastal China that spread slowly through the Philippines and other islands off Southeast Asia — settled Fiji around 1000 B.C., followed by successive waves of Melanesians starting around the first century A.D. Melanesians speak a language that has affinities with Malay but whose precise origin has not been determined. The ancestors of modern Fijians arrived by boat around 3,000 years ago, a remarkable feat when considering the wide open spaces of empty ocean that had to be traversed to reach the islands (Europeans at this time were afraid to sail out of view of land).

The earliest inhabitants were probably migrants from nearby Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Fiji was a crossroads of the Pacific in prehistoric times. The distinctive cultures and physical features of the Fijian groups are evidence of this. Some of their descendants later moved on to settle the Polynesian islands to the west. [Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, 2009, Encyclopedia.com]

Disability Social History Project reported: A Fijian researcher says that Fiji was populated by a race of cheerful, mountain-dwelling dwarfs before the arrival of the Melanesians, who are generally regarded as the South Pacific nation’s first settlers. According to Aminio Qalovaki, who has released his theory in a report after 34 years of research, the tiny, Negroid tribes “had always lived in Fiji.” “They were the true natives of Fiji, and they lived in caves and survived on wild fruits, animals, birds and reptiles,” Qalovaki told the Daily Post newspaper. “The way they talked and acted made people laugh, and they loved sports.” When the Melanesians arrived from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, about 3,500 years ago, they assimilated easily with the dwarfs, said Qalovaki, a former government geologist and researcher. [Source: Reuters was listed as a source but I have been unable to find another source for this farfetched report]

Lapita People and Tongans in Fiji

In Fiji’s early history it was a crossroads between Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The non-Indian people that live in Fiji today are a mix of Polynesians from the Central Pacific and Melanesians that predominate in from New Guinea to New Caledonia. The deltas created by the networks of waterways in Fiji are very fertile and have been the primary areas of human settlement and agriculture from the earliest times.

The first settlers of Fiji are thought to have been the "Lapita" people, named after distinct pottery first discovered in New Caledonia and believed to have originated in New Britain in Papua New Guinea and transferred to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa and the Marquesas Island near Tahiti. The Lapita people traversed the western Pacific a distance of 3,400 kilometers (2,100 miles) to reach Fiji.

Lapita peoples interbred first with Melanesians from the west and later with Polynesians (also Lapita descendants) from the east. The generally accepted theory is that the people who made Lapita pottery were superb sailors, who moved freely around the Pacific. Lapita People were later joined by Melanesian people from the west. After a thousands years of interaction, one theory suggests. the Melanesian stock, considerably modified by "Lapita" blood and culture organization, became dominant and pushed out the first settlers first to the Lau islands of Fiji and then to Tonga. From Tonga, the "Lapita" people, who evolved into Polynesians, colonized of the South Pacific, inhabiting the islands of Samoa, Niue, Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the Marquesas, the Tumaotus, Easter Island, Pitcairn, Hawaii and New Zealand.

The people of Tonga maintained contact with the people of Lau and the windward side of the Fijian Island. When the Europeans began arriving in large numbers in the early 1800s, there were distinct racial groups throughout the islands, with those on the eastern side looking like Tongans and Tahitians, and those on the western side looking like Melanesians from Papua New Guinea.

Trading, Mixing and Fighting in Fiji

Before European contact, Fijian society was (and to large degree still is) organized into patrilineal clans, subclans, and lineages. By the 19th century there were forty chiefdoms, twelve of which dominated the political scene. [Source: Anthony R. Walker, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

Fijians traded with Polynesian groups in Samoa and Tonga, and by about 900, much of Fiji was in the Tu’i Tongan Empire’s sphere of influence. The Tongan influence declined significantly by 1200, while Melanesian seafarers continued to periodically arrive in Fiji, further mixing Melanesian and Polynesian cultural traditions. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Before Europeans, the Fiji Islands were racked by an endless cycle of war between kingdoms on various islands. At this time, the Fijians were well-known for their armor and weapons, especially their war clubs. The Fijians created various war clubs, each with a unique purpose in battle. "Throwers" were built for hurling at enemies, striking with their broad, knobbed ends. "Penetrators" featured a spike with a weighted head, were crafted from the heaviest wood obtainable, and were exclusively wielded by the most expert warriors. These clubs inflicted a single, lethal blow to the victim's skull. [Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, 2009, Encyclopedia.com]

Cannibalism in Fiji

Fiji was once known as the "Cannibal Islands." The earliest evidence of cannibalism is human bones dating from 500 B.C. with human chew marks. Cannibal ovens and other objects related to the practice can still be seen on Fiji. Describing a large stone, outside a Methodist church, with a concave depression, a Fijian man told National Geographic, "This stone was use for killing captured enemies. The guy kneeled, his head was placed in the depression, and the club came down. This stone has been washed with a lot of blood....Now it’s a baptismal font."

When first encountered by the Europeans, the peoples of New Guinea, northern Australia and Melanesia practiced some form of warfare cannibalism. In Fiji cannibalism reached a higher level. Prisoners captured in raids and wars were sacrificed and eaten under the supervision of priests during important events such as the dedication of temples or chief’s houses. Events featured dancers with masks made from human hair.

Fijians believed that human flesh was food of the gods. They regarded sacrifice and eating of human flesh as a way of communing with the gods. All enemies killed in battle were, as a matter of course, eaten by the victors, the bodies being previously presented to the spirit. Nineteenth century missionary accounts described cannibalism as “frequent and orgiastic.” One missionary estimated that “during a five-year period in the 1840s, not fewer than 500 people had been eaten within fifteen miles of his residence.”

Food supplies traditionally ran low from November through February. Fijians raised pigs but as a rule there was not much available land for livestock. Cannibalism may have evolved as a way of supplying protein. When large town was sacked sometimes 300 or more people were eaten. One chief claimed he eaten 872 people during his life.

Cannibalism died out in Fiji in the mid-19th century with the acceptance of Christianity but comments and jokes are made about it. "Many people can't forget that the Fijis were called the Cannibal Islands," a Fijian chief once told National Geographic. "Once I was on a ship bound for England when my dinner partner asked me if I had ever eaten human flesh. 'Of course,' I said, 'much better than pork'...When the steward brought the menu. I said 'Take it away! Bring me the passenger list!"

Last Act of Cannibalism in Fiji

Reverend Thomas Baker — from Playden in East Sussex — was one of the few Westerners recorded to have been a victim of Fijian cannibalism. On July 21, 1867, in what has been described as the “Last Act of Cannibalism in Fiji” Baker and eight Fijian followers were clubbed to death, cooked and then eaten by the people of Nabutautau. One villager who took part in the cannibals' feast was quoted in contemporary accounts as saying "we ate everything but his boots". There are various stories as to why Baker was killed. Some say that he tried to take a comb out of the village chief's hair, or a hat from his head, without realizing that touching a chief's head is taboo in Fiji. Others say he was a victim of power-struggle between different chiefs. One of Baker's boots is reportedly on display in the Fiji Museum. [Source: BBC, November 13, 2003]

According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: On the Fijian islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, eating one's enemies was a time-honoured tradition. Sufficient for the act was a declaration of war. Such declarations were often made in symbolic form, such as by insulting the chief of another tribe. Fiji in 1867 was still an untamed paradise. When the Reverend Thomas Baker and his group of eight Fijian helpers made the arduous trek to the isolated village of Nabutautau, it was with the intention of bringing the blessings of Christianity and Western Civilisation. [Source: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, June 24, 2009]

Our adventurers were, no doubt, steeled against the dangers of encountering uncontacted tribesmen. The missionary's background would have prepared him for the prospect of martyrdom. It was considered part of the price one paid for carrying out The Great Commission. The hospitable folk at Nabutautau made the journeyers welcome, but after that matters went south rather quickly. Accounts differ as to whether it was a hat or a comb that the Reverend Baker tried to retrieve, but the fact remains that he touched the chief's head, a totally forbidden act...An act of war, in fact. The villagers may have regretted what had to be done, but they acted forthrightly. Punishment was swift and condign. The missionary and his war party were dispatched with clubs, and their remains consumed.

Later the people of Nabutautau village watched in helpless puzzlement as the rest of their country acquired the accoutrements of modern life — roads, electricity, coveted schools — while they remained as isolated a backwater. Why were they being left out. The answer came to them: They were cursed. Cursed because, alone of all Fijians, their village had eaten a missionary. The children should not be allowed to suffer. Something must be done. The first two attempts at exorcism failed — the wished-for civilisation did not materialise. The third time had to be the charm.

Finally, in 2003, 600 people, including Baker's great-great-grandson Geoff Lester, nine other Baker's descendants from Australia, Methodist pastor, Iumeleki Susu, a descendant of the only surviving member of Baker's doomed group, and The Prime Minister of Fiji, attended the ceremony which turned the tide in Nabutautau. The visitors made the five-hour journey by four-wheel drive from the coast to Nabutautau, where they were overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness of the natives. After the traditional drink of kava, a ceremony was performed to ritually break the 'chain of bondage' around the village. Ratu (Chief) Filimoni Nawawabalevu presented the visitors with gifts of whales' teeth, woven mats, and a cow. The response was gratifying for all involved. A road was constructed. The Thomas Baker Memorial School has been so successful — with a record 100 percent pass rate for students, unique on Fiji — that a high school has been built, the Thomas Baker College.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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