Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Among the Cannibal Islands
By LAENAS GIFFORD WELD.
SPREAD out before you a chart of the South Pacific—one upon which are set down the many details useful to the navigator of this strangely interesting region. Besides the intricate labyrinth of islands, reefs, rocks, and shoals which are scattered over its surface, there are recorded the variations of the compass, the directions of the ocean currents, and the results of countless soundings. Running your pencil through all the points on this map for which the indicated depth is fifteen hundred fathoms or thereabouts, you will be able to trace out an irregular and more or less interrupted band, extending from the East Indian seas nearly to the coast of South America. Within the area thus marked out the sea is comparatively shallow; so that, were its bed to be elevated some thousands of feet, we should see emerging from its surface a vast continental area, bordered on the north and south by open seas.
We are told that such a continent once really existed, but that for thousands of years it has been slowly subsiding. The coral polyp has all this time been building up the countless reefs and atolls of this region, keeping their summits flush with the surface of the sea as the subsidence has gone on; so that here, instead of the dull monotony of an ocean desert, we have one of the most striking physical features of the globe. There are volcanic masses among these coral islands which, rising some few thousand feet above the level of the great barrier reefs that surround them, may be looked upon as remnants of this vanishing continent of the Pacific. Among these ancient landmarks none are of more interest than the great Fiji group of islands.
Until within quite recent years the word Fiji was regarded as a synonym for all that is barbaric; and if that epithet, "King of the Cannibal Islands," ever had any real claimant, it must have been in the person of Thakombau, the native potentate who played so important a part in the history of Fiji from the time of its first settlement by Europeans till it was formally annexed by Great Britain.
This regenerate old cannibal had spent the first forty years of his life in wars with his neighboring chiefs and in the practice of the most horrible barbarities. The strangling of his own mother and of his father's four other wives was only a part of the usual ceremony attending the assumption of the title of Tui Viti, or King of Fiji. Thakombau was, however, not hostile to the Wesleyan missionaries who had established themselves within his domain; but, while he listened respectfully to their remonstrances, he remained a determined heathen. This continued so long as he was prosperous; but when, in 1854, tribe after tribe had successfully rebelled against him, he began to listen more favorably to the counsels of the Christians. On the 30th of April of that year he gave orders that the great drums at his capital, which had been used till then to summon his people to cannibal feasts, should be beaten to call them together at the mission house to worship the true God. Two years later, having remained true to his new faith, he was united in Christian marriage to his favorite wife, and they were together baptized.
It was the same king who, at a later period, finding himself a mere puppet in the hands of foreigners, who had formed themselves into a government, of which he was the nominal head, brought about a general appeal from the most powerful chiefs to England's Queen for protection—an appeal which was, in 1874, listened to with favor. Upon this occasion Thakombau sent to Queen Victoria his favorite war club, which he himself styled "the former, and until recently the only known, law of Fiji."
The territory thus acquired by the British Empire comprises over two hundred islands of various sizes, some seventy-five of which are inhabited. The largest, Viti Levu, is oval in form, and has an area nearly equal to that of the State of Connecticut. Vanua Levu, lying to the northeast of Viti Levu, rather exceeds Delaware in size. Between these two islands, which are by far the largest in the group, is a channel some thirty miles in width; but the sea here, as well as over an immense area to the north, is so full of coral patches that navigation is exceedingly dangerous. The southern shores of the islands are more accessible, and afford many excellent harbors, of which that of Suva, the English capital, on the southeast coast of Viti Levu, is the best.
The study of the difference in the character of the northern and southern aspects of the larger islands affords an interesting lesson in physical geography. Thrust upward into the currents of the southeast trade winds to a height of over four thousand feet, the mountain ranges act as huge condensers, precipitating in torrents of rain the moisture which these currents have absorbed from the open sea. This condensation takes place principally as the winds blow up the southern mountain slopes, so that comparatively little rain falls upon the north side of the islands. The largest streams, therefore, flow back down the southern slopes to the sea, where they discharge immense volumes of fresh water. As fresh water is fatal to most species of coral polyps, we find here, along the southern coast, comparatively few of those dangerous reefs that fringe the islands on the north.
The fertility of the soil, which in the valleys and on all the southern slopes is thoroughly saturated with moisture, is quite equal to that of other similar regions. In the dense tropical forests, which cover large areas, tree ferns, screw pines, and a multitude of other strange forms contend with one another for the light of day, while affording nourishment to an immense variety of epiphytic mosses, lianas, and ferns, which connect the larger stems and branches with an almost impenetrable network of green.
There are few really indigenous species of animals; rats and flying foxes being the only mammals. As to the others now found here, the names by which they are known point to their European origin; thus we have seepi (sheep), goti (goat), collie (dog), pussi (cat), etc. Even the hogs and fowls which run wild in the jungles came originally from the Friendly Islands, where they were introduced by the early navigators.
Living in such a little world as this, the Fijians were of necessity much in advance of the races inhabiting the neighboring Pacific islands. The struggle for securing and holding this fair domain must of itself have led to its possession by a superior race. We find evidences of this superiority not only in the splendid physical development of the Fijians, but also in their relatively advanced religious notions and in their rather elaborate system of mythology. One traveler has likened this people, in some respects, to the primitive Greeks. If we compare the petty maritime enterprises celebrated in Fijian song and story with those recorded by the early Greek poets, we may imagine the difference to be in some measure due to the difference in character of the two archipelagoes which were their respective scenes of action. Upon taking the trouble to translate certain books of Homer into Fijian it was found that their recital was listened to by a company of these untutored savages with the most appreciative attention. This fact certainly speaks well for the mental quality of the race. The one foul blot upon the character of the Fijians was their cannibalism; but, in view of the readiness with which they have abandoned this practice, now that animal food can be easily obtained, we must hold Nature responsible, not only for this curse, but also for the many other barbarities attending it.
The national character of Fiji finds its best expression in the songs once common among the natives, but now, under Christian influences, almost obsolete. . These songs or mekkés, as they are called, generally recount the story of some ancient hero, of some military campaign or naval expedition, or perhaps of a peaceful fishing excursion. They are generally sung of evenings by the men only, who assemble for the purpose in one of their long, low huts. Here they sit in solemn state on mats laid upon the ground, the only light being that of a smoky fire in one end. According to Major Abercrombie, an eyewitness of the ceremony, one man begins the chant alone; a second soon joins him, then a few more, till finally all present have taken it up, accompanying the wild music by much pantomime and earnest gesticulation. The time is beaten upon a wooden drum by one of their number, and is occasionally accentuated by a general clapping of the hands. After a certain climax has been reached, the music stops quite abruptly with one loud clap.
Yangona, the national beverage, is then served. This liquor is brewed with much formality, accompanied by low chanting. The great wooden bowl having been brought into the center of the room, the operator in charge sits down cross-legged before it. The yangona root is grated (it was formerly chewed by young men selected for the purpose) and deposited in the bowl, the inside of which has, from long use, become covered with a beautiful purple enamel. The requisite number of cocoanut shells of water are measured out and poured over the grated root, the whole being stirred to the music of a solemn chant. The floating particles of the grated root are collected and removed by means of a net of hibiscus fibers skillfully handled by the person in charge of the brew. The liquor thus prepared is handed round in cups of cocoanut shell, the chief being the first to drink. Taking the cup between his two palms, he slowly swallows its contents without removing it from his lips, while the onlookers join in a measured clapping of the hands. When the cup is finally thrown down with a spinning motion, to show that it is empty, all unite in the chorus, "A matha, a matha"—it is finished. The others now drink in a certain order of precedence. The liquor is of a dirty yellow color and has a bitter, aromatic taste, not altogether disagreeable. Used in moderation, it acts as a stimulant, but if indulged in too freely a temporary paralysis of the lower extremities follows, and the victim, while perfectly rational, reels and staggers as if drunk.
It is at these meetings around the yangona bowl that the numerous legends and fables of which the Fijians were passionately fond have been handed down in song from generation to generation. As a specimen of these mythical tales we give one which has been rescued from oblivion by the Rev. Thomas Williams and recorded by Mrs. C. F. Gordon Gumming in her At Home in Fiji. It tells of a gigantic bird called "Duck of the Rock." This monster carried off Tutu Wathi Wathi, the beautiful wife of the god Okovo and sister of Rokoua. The two gods gave chase in a large canoe, and as they voyaged came to an island inhabited by beautiful goddesses. Here the brother wished to remain, but, the husband protesting, they sailed on to the Yasawas, the most westerly isles of the group. Here was the cavern in which dwelt the great bird, but it was empty, and they found only one little finger of the hapless Tutu Wathi Wathi. The angry gods now swore to avenge her death, when presently they saw the monster approaching, his great wings darkening the sea like the shadow of a storm cloud. In his beak he carried five large turtles and in his talons ten porpoises. These he deposited upon the rocks and proceeded to devour, while Okovo prayed the other gods to help him by sending a storm of wind. The prayer was answered, and a sudden gust ruffled the feathers of the monster, so that Rokoua was able to force a spear through an unprotected spot into his vitals. Having thus accomplished their just revenge, they took one of the smallest feathers for a new sail, and then cast the dead body into the sea, causing such a surge as to "flood the foundations of the sky."
It is to be regretted that these legends have not been more carefully collected by the earlier settlers in Fiji. Even the few of them which have been preserved exhibit a truly interesting national character. But this national character has been lost since the advent of the European. The Fijian of to-day does not like to be reminded in any way of the old days when cannibalism was in vogue. He is exceedingly sensitive to the sneer of the white man. While the race has been partially rescued from barbarism, it has lost its old vigor and spirit. The native population has of late years been decreasing at an alarming rate. An epidemic of measles, heedlessly introduced in 1875, carried off fifty thousand souls, about one third of the whole population of the islands. Fiji is but the vestige of a former continent, which has gone down beneath the steadily encroaching sea. The Fijians are fast becoming, before the resistless encroachments of the European, only the vestige of a former race.
We have here now a well-ordered British colony. Sugar, cotton, wool, tobacco, bananas, cocoanuts, and other agricultural products are exported in great quantities. The extensive plantations are worked largely by laborers introduced from India and the neighboring Pacific islands. But as a colony Fiji does not prosper. Better times are looked for when the Nicaragua Canal shall have become a reality, as these islands lie upon the great commercial route which will then be established between England and Australia.
Enumerating the applications that have been or may be made of zoölogy to the arts and industries, Dr. William A. Hardman showed, ia the British Association, that biological principles dominate medicine and surgery; bacteriology and brewing depend on the study of microscopic organisms; economic entomology is of value in agriculture; and zoölogy has a practical application to the fishing industry.