Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/March 1889/Among the Fiji Islands

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


IT is a very trite remark that the Pacific Ocean often emphatically belies its title. I can not altogether defend it; and, in fact, it would be unreasonable to expect consistency from so vast an expanse of the unstable. When the grateful Magellan, escaping from the wintry horrors of the region now always associated with his name, burst into the sunshine and balmy breezes beyond, he did not, naturally, reflect very closely on the area over which the new name was to be applied. Big generalizations are dangerous; but it is not absolutely a misnomer, and those who have known this ocean for weeks together in its more gracious moods—whether on its vast solitudes or among its scattered island groups—will readily admit the justness of the title.

On the morning we reached Fiji the sea was without a ripple, and as we passed the pretty island of Mbengga, we scanned its rich green slopes in vain for a sight of life. Primitive man and his works do not show out prominently against tropical nature. A slight haze veiled the great island of Viti Levu—i. e., great Fiji; but, as we came nearer, its grand and varied outline stood out clearly in front of us, stretching far away to right and left. Suva, the seat of government, has no striking features. The houses lie scattered for a mile or two along a neck of land on one side of a bay, at the head of which enters the Tamavua River. A reef with a navigable opening crosses this bay, and forms a fair harbor. But the marvelous fantastic outline of hills beyond the bay—King David might have described them as "hopping"—seen from the broad veranda of the Club House Hotel, was a view of which one never tired. My expectations as regarded hotel accommodation being small, I was agreeably surprised to find a well-ordered, comfortable, two-storied house. It is true that the chambermaid was a little black Solomon Island "boy"; but his views on cleanliness, and on meum and tuum, were not appreciably behind those of his profession in. Europe; and he was, besides, when at home, a man-slayer and a cannibal. The only drawback, indeed, to comfort lay in the fact that the bedrooms were all open to the roof of corrugated zinc, and the noise of the torrents of rain—I never saw rain like it—was deafening. But rainy days, at that season anyhow—well, at all events, it is the "dry season."

Boat-voyaging in those regions is not only an enjoyable, but in Fiji almost the only mode of locomotion, though there are horses, and the number of tracks has of late years been considerably extended. Organized facilities for travel do not exist; but the traveler's path will be smoothed if he brings introductions to some leading official, or to one of the principal traders or planters. If he wisely cultivates the society alike of the official and of the non-official class, he will realize more profoundly than he ever did -before the great truth that there are two sides to every question. To this unfortunate antagonism I shall return later. Meanwhile I recall, with mingled sensations, a voyage of a fortnight in an open boat along the northern shores of Viti Levu, the principal island of the group, and about eighty by fifty-five miles in extent. The preparations for such a voyage are at all events simple. Of personal luggage the less the better—say a change of raiment and a mosquito-net, or "screen" as they call it in the colonies; for provisions, besides a tin or two of biscuits, some tea, whisky, and tobacco, you require only an assortment of the useful but most innutritious "ironclad"—i. e., tinned meats, here in universal use, and curiously in great demand among the natives, probably owing to the little trouble they involve. Hardly a coral strand in Fiji so romantic or remote but it may be found strewed with the empty tins. Judging from their effect on myself, I should cite them as a most potent cause of the decline of the native population!

We started punctually, Vaka Viti[1]—that is to say, having been trysted on board for Saturday at daybreak, we got under way on Monday afternoon. Indeed, only a man of exceptional energy like my conductor could, I was assured, have performed such a feat. Meanwhile the delay had nearly led to our spending a night al fresco on the Rewa River, whose famous mosquitoes would have left little of us to tell the tale. These Fijian rivers are of great size relatively to the extent of the land, and the delta of the Rewa forms the eastern extremity of the island. We had intended, accordingly, entering by its southern mouth, some miles distant from Suva, to ascend the stream some way, and thence down another embouchure to the northern coast. As it was, night overtook us soon after entering the river; and, although we at last sighted a light which indicated a house, there was much grounding on mud-banks, and retracing of our course, and weary hours of pulling, before we reached the desired point. My host being on an official tour, and thoroughly acquainted with the people and their language, there was but little difficulty about our reception anywhere—not that any respectable traveler could have much difficulty among these amiable people. Hospitality here, after all, is a simple matter, for native food is plentiful, and there is usually room for everybody, besides that the chief of the village has often more houses than one.

The ordinary Fijian house looks, outside, like a great oblong hay-stack, standing on a mound raised some few feet above the surrounding level, with a long ridge-pole extending beyond the roof at either gable, its ends sometimes ornamented with shells. The hay-stack has a doorway or two, with a mat suspended in it. Houses with greater pretensions, however, have the walls prettily latticed with reeds, and distinct from the roof, which is elaborately thatched, with great projecting eaves. Inside, immense posts, usually of vesi-wood. (Afzelia bijuga), and a very ingenious framework, support the roof. The interior decorations of sinnet (cocoanut fiber), always in rectilinear patterns—for they do not affect curves—are sometimes pretty. The black, squared lintels of the doors are the stems of tree-ferns. On a great shelf overhead is stored the family lau, a convenient Fijian word equivalent to the Italian roba. Here it comprises their fishing-gear, huge rolls of tappa or native cloth, mats, immense pottery vessels, and the like. The shelves were also handy in war-time as a point of vantage whence you could conveniently spear your neighbor as he entered, and before his eyes became used to the subdued light. The floor is strewed with mats, on which you recline, and is usually raised a foot or so toward one end, which enables you to take a graceful attitude, leaning on your elbow. Cooking is done in a little hut outside, or sometimes there is a great fireplace on the floor, confined by four logs, the smoke finding its way out through the lofty roof. As you enter the house, you find the mats being swept, or fresh ones unrolled and laid down. Your traps are brought up from the boat, and, if this happens to have grounded half a mile from the shore, you have perhaps yourself been carried to land by these willing giants. A few words are exchanged with the village chief or your host for the time being—far too few, to my mind, even for politeness. I am told they do not expect it. If they have ceased to expect politeness from English gentlemen, tant pis! I am helpless from ignorance of the language, and you hardly ever meet a Fijian who knows any English—the missionaries, in whose hands their education has been, having, wisely or otherwise, discouraged it. The silent séance then till supper came, and indeed after, surrounded by those pleasant and dignified faces, for whom I was necessarily dumb, was often very irksome. Supper, however, comes at last, provided from the materials before mentioned, and supplemented perhaps by an offering of fish or turtle. The latter sounds sybaritic, but it is very far from being a delicacy when badly cooked, and still less so when not quite fresh. And there is of course, as accompaniment, the ever-present and ready-cooked yam, or kumara (sweet-potato), or dalo (an arum-root), or bread-fruit, or cassava (manioc). I think I have arranged them approximately according to their insipidity and unsatisfying qualities. I tried hard to appreciate these famous vegetables, whose very names recall endless picturesque and savage associations; but I never succeeded, and hardly know which I disliked the least.

Sometimes we produced a root of kava, or, as the Fijians call it, yanggona, always a welcome gift, and handed it to our native companions to prepare the national brew. I suppose most people by this time know the orthodox mode of preparing this. It is chewed, or ought to be, as in Samoa, by young and of course pretty girls, and the masticated stuff being thrown into a bowl and mixed with water, the woody particles are fished out with a wisp of the fiber of vau (a malvaceous tree, Paritium sp.), and the liquor is then carried round to each guest in order. Of course, by the old school this mode of preparation is thought very superior to the Tongan innovation of pounding or grating the root. Certainly, the ingredients differ somewhat, and the dash of human secretion in the orthodox mixture possibly promotes digestion—an effect not to be despised after a square meal of half a dozen pounds of yam! Even in the humblest ménage the national bowl is not prepared without some form and circumstance—elaborate traditional motions of the hands in clearing the bowl and rinsing the fiber, strict attention to precedence in handing the cup to the guests (a matter in which, when Europeans were concerned, I was in other islands sometimes consulted), and to other points of etiquette, the transgression of which is viewed with some severity. Thus, it is de rigueur to empty your cocoanut cup at a single draught. On my first occasion of drinking I had neglected this rule, for the cup was large, and the taste, as I thought, nasty. Accordingly, on returning the cup, which you do by sending it spinning along the floor to the master of ceremonies, the usual quiet clapping of hands and murmur of applause which should follow this were withheld. On discovering the cause of the silence, I hastened to explain that I had never tasted the cup before, and thought it so good that I could not resist prolonging the pleasure, but I saw that my solecism was too great to be easily excused.

The kava-bowl, tobacco, and family prayers exhaust the evening's programme; and my companions being all asleep—why people waste so much time in sleep in this interesting world I never understand—I look out some suitable rafter whence to hang my mosquito-screen, and turn in—not, for the first night at all events, to sleep, for Mother Earth, considered as a mattress, is hard, and deficient in spring; but there is, anyhow, no other impediment to sleep; the cleanliness inside the houses is remarkable—no fleas or other vermin bred of dirt or carelessness. Flies and mosquitoes are supplied by Providence, and the latter have recently been discovered to be "good for us"; but as you listen to their baffled drone outside the curtain, you feel that you can waive your claim to such advantages.

I attended, at the Vale-ni-Bose or council-house of the province of Ba, a half-yearly meeting of the chiefs, who assemble to discuss the affairs of their respective districts; and, though my interpreter gave me only an outline of what was going on, it was impossible not to be struck by their readiness and intelligence, and not less by their gravity and gentlemanlike manners. Among other incidents, some men were brought up who had tried to leave their district without permission for another; and the utter humiliation of their look and voice, coupled with the dignity and severity in tone and bearing of the chief's reprimand, was very dramatic. To be sure, not very long ago he might have ordered them to the oven!

This same Roko or high chief, a shrewd-looking man with a refined and well-shaped head, related with much humor how, on a certain occasion, when a missionary was coming through, and the people were sending in offerings to him, his (the Roko's) contribution was a "long pig"-i. e., a human body. He and the missionary, he said, have met since and discussed—I mean, talked over—this practical joke. He invited me in the evening to a mekké—i. e., soirée musicale. The singing was a weird and curious performance, which has a strange fascination. There were about fifty performers, comprising, in fact, the entire party present. One man begins alone, and after he has sung a few bars, another takes it up in a sort of second to him; then a few more join, till suddenly the whole body of voices strike in, accompanying the song with strange, unintelligible gesticulations, turning half round (they are all seated on the ground), and pointing at each other with intent, meaning looks, and occasionally all clapping hands, in absolute unison—the song ending unexpectedly and quite abruptly with one clap. The time is beaten by a man with a couple of small sticks; it was very intricate, and the music evidently genuine and old, unlike anything I ever heard, and not to be rendered by our notation. Yanggona followed—a serious ceremonial brew—and I acquitted myself well, emptying the cup at a single draught, the Roko afterward presenting me with his own bowl, which was considered a great compliment.

Having asked Sailosi, the provincial scribe, a very nice fellow, whether I could see some national dancing, I was told that it would hardly be worth my while, as there were only girls here to dance. I, of course, protested against this "only" as not merely ungallant but inapplicable, so far as my tastes were concerned; but it turned out that the scribe knew best, for the young ladies' performance was not very interesting, and it was very long. A few of the smaller girls, with a lali or drum, formed a group, while the rest in one or two rows kept walking slowly round them, singing in admirable time, far better than usually in church or school, but quite monotonous as to tune. Their costume was only the simple sulu or waist-cloth, but there were no really beautiful figures among them. Little bonfires were made to light up the performance, and the groups of small children tending these, or improvising torches, which they held with the greatest gravity and patience, was the most picturesque part of the scene. At last, when the young ladies had evidently exhausted their répertoire, and were beginning to repeat themselves, I slipped away, when Sailosi followed and begged me to stay, as he had arranged for a men's dance, and it was just coming on. Accordingly, they arrived and took possession of the ground; and the girls, after walking and chanting round them for a minute or two, as if by way of protest, gave it up and seated themselves among the spectators. It must be admitted that the new performance was a very superior affair. The dancers, fine stalwart fellows, gave first some of those curious combined movements, either simultaneous and in marvelous unison, or sometimes passing down a long line as if to represent the motion of a wave: then there were some capital figures, vigorously and beautifully danced, alternate rows dancing with regular steps in opposite directions, then setting to each other and wheeling round. I should not venture in "Maga," or indeed elsewhere, to hint that it was an improvement on a reel, but it recalled one in many of its features, including the occasional shout.

At Naiserelangi, another town on the north coast, where a half-yearly assemblage of chiefs was sitting, I had the good fortune to see some very picturesque and interesting ceremonies. These consisted of the customary offerings made by the people of the neighborhood to the visitors who had come from other parts of the district. Groups of these—splendid-looking fellows many of them—sat squatting in expectation on a space near the chief's house; while down the various paths leading to the village picturesque files of men and women came streaming on, carrying, either in their hands or on poles slung over their shoulders, bunches of every size of yams, or dalo, or pigs, or turtles. The procession had certainly not been marshaled with a conscious eye to the picturesque, and yet no artist or stage-manager could have produced an effect more perfect as to grouping, form, and color—the long rows of pleasant or stalwart figures ending off with little children, each gravely carrying its little offering, a single fruit, perhaps, or an Qgg; while for background to the picture rose a gently sloping hill-side, half wild, half planted, and crowned by precipice and forest. The bearers came up and deposited their burdens before the party of visitors, some one of these laying his hand on each heap in token of acceptance; and then followed a gentle clapping of hands, or of some other naked part, either in unison or a sort of running fire, but in a quiet ceremonious manner, as indicating formal rather than enthusiastic approval. Then the immense heap was divided into portions by a mata ni vanua—a hereditary official combining the duties of herald, embassador, and master of the ceremonies—who then proclaimed the name of the place for which each portion was destined. This is obviously a very delicate, not to say critical, operation, and to perform the division to the general satisfaction requires tact and discrimination of a high order. Finally, the parties representing each of the places named stepped forward and carried off their allotted portions. There is considerable feasting on these occasions, and sometimes, with such vast piles of food, considerable waste. They are enormous eaters, and constantly at it. One morning our share of the offering was brought in—a turtle and a mountain of dalo, then a little later a pig and another vast heap of dalo and yams; and before evening our crew of five had accounted for it all, with the very slight assistance we could give them; but the national vegetables have, of course, very little substance. Sometimes one sees fine-looking poultry and even turkeys, and one often gets very fair fish.

The sea, indeed, in some places, teems with life. You sail through masses of little white jelly-fish, or of a larger brown kind, besides a magnificent species of a rich purple color. Then there are multitudes of a diminutive flying-fish which I have not seen elsewhere. To the usual perils of the deep must here be added the shoals of gar-fish—a creature usually some fifteen inches long, with a long, sharp, bony snout—which at times take to whizzing through the air in all directions. You can not avoid them, for you can not tell from what direction one may be coming, and the snout, if it hit you fair, would go through your face or give a very ugly wound. One of our crew was struck and wounded, but he only threw the fish to the bottom of the boat, and said quietly, "I shall take it out of you for this to-night." A woman in the neighborhood had recently been struck by one in the breast, and died of the wound. A curious sight I saw one day, which I could not understand. Two large fish rose together about a yard from each other, shot straight up into the air, and then, sheering off in opposite directions, fell into the water a long way from each other. I asked what this meant—had they quarreled? "No," said one of the sailors, "it is not that. I have seen it before. It means a fair wind to-morrow." So next day, the wind being the reverse of fair, they put him into the bows to get the benefit of the water as it broke over us—hardly the way to encourage a study of natural phenomena!

The Fijians are a grand-looking race, splendidly made, and well proportioned from head to foot—no falling away about the calves, or spur-like heels, as one sees in some of the finer Indian races. Then such a carriage—broad shoulders, with the head well set on and thrown back. The mop head of hair, composed of long, separate spirals carefully tended and frizzed out, which is so special a characteristic of the race that till lately it was thought a natural peculiarity of the hair, is now unfortunately going out of fashion. It gives a very imposing appearance to the wearer, like a gigantic Guard's "bear-skin," but is now curtailed to the modest dimensions of four to six or seven inches in length. It is often dyed to a yellowish brown by a weekly plastering with lime, which also stiffens it, and is very becoming, though its primary use is to destroy the superabundant insect colonies. Any actor wishing to acquire the gait of conventional majesty should come out here and watch the ordinary Fijians walking up and down, every inch a king, and, in quaint combination with this majestic strut, holding each other's hands like little children. In color some few are very black, but the great majority vary from a dark bronze to chocolat Ménier; and one is often inclined to wonder whether the ancient use of bronze in statuary was suggested by the coloring of some such race. Certainly in this color humanity may go naked and not be ashamed. The costume proper is only the sidu, or waist-cloth; and there can be no better proof of the Fijian's natural dignity and look of breeding, than that the too frequent addition of a dirty flannel shirt does not always transform him into a ruffian or a snob. When a black coat and trousers are superadded—happily this is still very rare—as much can not be said!

The mysterious question of a general decline of these races has often been discussed, and has been ascribed to many causes, all of which contribute something, and some of which, as drink and debauchery, are obvious. Hardly less so, perhaps, the going to church in a full suit of European clothes, and sitting naked in a draught to cool themselves afterward! For this reckless introduction of clothing, not less deleterious than unæsthetic, the more ignorant missionary of former days has to answer, and disease has not unfrequently been introduced, besides, in second-hand clothing.

One hopes against hope, and against such experience as one has, that the decline of the Fijians will be arrested. The disappearance from the earth of these very fine races—for the Polynesians are finer still, perhaps the finest-looking race anywhere—is a distinct loss to the world, and not merely from a sentimental or antiquarian point of view. The experiment of preserving such a race has certainly never been tried before under such favorable circumstances, for the workers have had carte blanche; but it would not be surprising if, feeling they are fighting a losing battle, they began now to relax their exertions. It was melancholy to look at the registers of the little towns, neatly kept by native scribes, and to observe the gradual decrease—if fewer deaths sometimes, then also in proportion fewer births. One noticed, too, the hopeless resignation of the sick, suffering from comparatively slight ailments, but apparently not caring to live. If something more could be done in the way of giving skilled attendance to the sick, it would be well. An attempt is being made, by giving some little training in the hospitals, but the hamlets are so numerous, and so small and scattered, that it would be difficult for such trained attendants to reach them all. More might, as it seemed to me, be done in the way of sanitary supervision. The head-man or the district chief may be "responsible," but he may not always understand what is needed. Where sites are unhealthy they should be changed, and far greater cleanliness in the surroundings insisted on. (The interiors of the houses, as I have said, are almost faultless in this respect.) Direct encouragement might be given in some form for the rearing of children. The possession of an illegitimate child being now a proof of a crime which is punishable by law, such children, naturally, seldom see the light. But what I believe is needed, above all, is some additional stimulus to exertion, some interest in life which would strengthen their hold on it. With our accumulated experience, our great resources, and unlimited good intentions, is the problem beyond us?—Abridged from Blackwood's Magazine.

  1. Fiji fashion, according to Fiji notions.