Fiji—Palette of the Pacific
By “Awake!” correspondent in Fiji
HERE in Fiji a multicolored canvas passes before the eyes. There are gaily turbaned Moslems, bearded Sikhs, busy Chinese. You will notice a few in conical hats and traditional black mandarin trousers. Madrasi womenfolk will be seen in saris of vivid pinks and purples buying sweetmeats from a curbside vendor. A Malay-type woman in unusual garb haggles with a tourist over the price of a basket.
But amidst this mixed population one nationality with a great head of hair stands a little taller than the rest, the native Fijian. With his splendid physique, and dressed in his unique sulu, described by one chief as the “kilt of the South Sea Highlanders,” the Fijian retains an individuality distinct from all others.
“But,” you may ask, “how is it that there are so many nationalities in Fiji, these remote islands in the vast Pacific?” To answer this we must open the pages of history.
Much of the past is sketchy. At some unknown time in the past, seafaring migrants in great double canoes sailed from the west through the uncharted waters of the Pacific. They had no sextant, compass or charts. They sailed mostly into the sun, against prevailing winds and currents. Their only navigational aids were their eyes and knowledge of the sea. Legends, and a now generally accepted theory, trace the path of these travelers back to Indonesia, considered to be the springboard to the Pacific. Fiji later became a melting pot of mixed Melanesian and Polynesian stock.
These Melanesian migrants became the South Pacific’s best shipbuilders. Their well-known double canoes were built of heavy planks hewn from split logs with stone axlike cutting tools and lashed together with sennit. The joints were designed with such precision that they rarely needed caulking. Some took as long as seven years to build. The largest Fijian canoe on record is the Rusa-i-Vanua, with an overall length of 118 feet and a deck 50 feet long and 24 feet wide, the mast being 68 feet high and each of the two yards measuring 90 feet. Such canoes could carry one hundred men with supplies for a long journey and reach a speed of fifteen knots. Centuries passed, and then the picture in Fiji changed with the advent of the European.
The European and Modern History
Though Fiji was visited earlier by a Dutchman, it felt European influence to a greater extent in the eighteenth century when explorers came this way. Among them were the sandalwood seekers. Sweet-smelling sandalwood contains an oil that has long been prized in Polynesia. A profitable market for this fragrant wood could be found in China and India, where it was highly valued for incense, religious articles, fine cabinet work and scent. A cargo of two hundred and fifty tons purchased with barter goods valued at one hundred dollars sold in China for forty thousand dollars. This led adventurous men through treacherous reefs to the shores of Vanua Levu and pitted them against the most dreaded cannibals of the South Seas.
During this period Fiji came to be known as the Cannibal Isles. This fearsome title was no misnomer either, for it was the Fijian’s passion for human flesh that caused poet Robert Brooke to write:
The limbs that erstwhile charmed your sight
Are now a savage’s delight;
The ear that heard your whispered vow
Is one of many entrees now.
Some chiefs subscribed to cannibalism with relish. Chief Ra Udreudre is said to have dined on 900 bodies in his lifetime. Then there is the authenticated account of the ill-fated Wesleyan clergyman, Thomas Baker, who was slain and then eaten, boots and all. Parts of his charred boots may be seen in the Suva Museum along with the flesh-eating forks. Whatever the causes, cannibalism overshadowed and tarnished the fine qualities of the Fijian.
In 1835 Wesleyan missionaries Cross and Cargill arrived. Some of the natives accepted the teachings of the black-coated strangers, but for wrong reasons. The islander’s idea of a god was of one who either blessed or punished them, and they worshiped these because of their power. When they saw that Europeans could produce metal tools, the printing press, firearms and warships, they reasoned that the new god must be more powerful than theirs and it would be best to worship him.
From 1840 onward, European settlers came in successive waves, hoping to find their “pot of gold.” They traded, purchased property at five cents an acre and established plantations. These required large work forces. Fijians were unsuitable, as they worked only on impulse and were unwilling to undertake menial labor. So some planters bought slaves on the open market. This demand for labor added another ethnic group to the scene.
Islands with a Varied Population
With the American Civil War, cotton growing in Fiji became a profitable occupation. Later the sugar industry was developed. Laborers were in great demand and the planters looked to India. Already Indian laborers were being used under an indenture system in Africa, and in 1879 Fiji followed suit. The indenture system continued here until 1916. Of the 64,000 Indians in Fiji at that time, 24,000 returned to India, while others remained in Fiji as settlers.
Today the Indians are as much a part of Fiji as the Fijians, contributing their own accent of color in the glittering mosaic of life. Indian taxi drivers, in white shirts and dark trousers, cater to tourists in search of bargains at the famous duty-free stores of Cumming Street.
There are also domed Moslem mosques crowned with the star and crescent of Islam. Here devotees of Allah bow six times a day. Hindu homes can be found too, containing framed pictures of the Hindu gods, such as Brahma and Siva.
Then there is the Chinese community. These are frugal, hard-working people, fitting quietly into the population as butchers, bakers, merchants, market gardeners and restaurateurs. Other peoples that add color to this palette of the Pacific are Rotumans, Tongans, Samoans and islanders from the Gilbert and Ellice group and the Solomons. Some are the offspring of those brought to Fiji as laborers or wives of the early settlers. Others simply migrated and made Fiji their home.
There is disagreement as to the actual number of islands in the group. Many say there are three hundred and sixty-one. About one hundred of these are inhabited. If the many fragments were joined in a giant jigsaw, the total area of 7,022 square miles would almost equal that of the state of New Jersey.
“Gateway to the Day”
Because the group of islands straddles the International Dateline, Fiji could fittingly be called the “Alarm Clock of the World.” It is here that each new day begins. This creates humorous problems for those living astride the dateline, for on one side it is today but on the other side tomorrow or yesterday. One Taveuni Island merchant claimed that the dateline intersected his store, and so he conducted trade through the front door until Saturday, and through the back door the next day, which he claimed was Monday, in this way trying to overcome the objection of the missionaries to trading on a Sunday.
Some of these islands are but carpets of sand. Others feature majestic volcanic peaks clad in jungle growth, encircled with reefs and foam. Even in the capital, Suva, there is an abundance of tropic growth.
The surrounding water is crystal clear. Taking a cruise in a glass-bottomed boat, you can have an unimpaired view of one of the world’s largest displays of undersea life. But most beautiful of all are the Fijians themselves.
Colorful Customs and Ceremonies
The modern Melanesian is different from his bloodthirsty forebears. He is very hospitable. The Fijian gives freely of his taro and bananas to a neighbor in need. Willful neglect of poorer kinsfolk by wealthier relations is criminal to him. This community custom, known as kere kere (“to beg” or “ask for”), might be called the South Seas social security. If a man lost his home or crops in a hurricane he could go to his richer relative and ask for food or other aid. If his kin had it, he would not be refused. Naturally, such a custom prevents individuals from amassing wealth of any kind. Kere kere sets the community-minded Fijian apart from the Indian who banks his money to build a home or buy a shop.
Ceremonies, too, add dramatic color to the way of life. Drinking yacona (kava) is a common ceremonial and social custom among Fijians. The drink is made from the powdered root of the pepper plant (Piper methysticum) in a large tanoa (yacona bowl) adorned with a rope of coconut sennit and white cowrie shells. The powder is steeped in water and strained with the fibers of hibiscus bark.
During the ceremony, when the one seated at the tanoa considers the drink to be of the right consistency, he throws the fibers over his shoulder. The cupbearer, dressed in a skirt of crimson leaves, moves forward stealthily to receive the first serving with a polished half coconut shell. With arms outstretched he carries the bowl to the guest of honor. A ripple of applause arises from the red- and black-painted participants. Then the bowl is returned for the next serving.
Of course, yacona is not confined to ceremony, for it is consumed daily and is referred to fondly as “grog.” When sunset draws the menfolk home from the cane-fields or a community fish drive, “grog” (nonalcoholic) is an open invitation to a long, gregarious evening accompanied with guitar and song.
They Walk on Fire
The most spectacular ceremony, viewed by many newcomers, is the mysterious fire walking done by both Fijians and Indians. Both races follow a two-week period of tabu (prohibition) from certain foods and from sex relations. The Indians’ preparation for this basically religious ceremony includes meditation and prayer. Then several long silver skewers are forced through the tongues, cheeks and earlobes of these Hindu devotees. After this they are led to a pit lined with six inches of red-hot embers. Facing some religious images, they begin to walk, unharmed, through the embers while their womenfolk watch and sway to the throb of drums.”
The Fijian ceremony is no less spectacular. They heat up a huge pit full of large boulders (from their home island of Beqa) until these are white hot. This takes about eight hours. Then the bete (priest) leads the colorfully dressed fire walkers over the stones without a single burn. While medical authorities cannot explain how it is possible, students of the Bible realize that it is due to the power of wicked spirits.
An International Assembly
This December, Fiji will be a focal point for Jehovah’s witnesses in the South Pacific. At Nadi, amid the patchwork fields of cane and in an oasis of palms, the Fijian Witnesses have erected large, island-style auditoriums from bamboo, reeds and palms for an international convention. Some things might not seem sophisticated or geared for efficient organization, but be assured it will be adequate and hospitable, with that warm island atmosphere that will make it authentically South Seas in atmosphere. To illustrate this warmth, last year New Caledonian Witnesses paid an estimated seven thousand dollars in air fares and other expenses for their poorer Fijian brothers to attend an assembly with them in French New Caledonia, something they could not afford themselves.
The convention program will be in English, French, Fijian, Tahitian and Samoan, with Bible dramas in all these languages, each with its own island flavor. The assembly will afford one the opportunity to see the variety in island costumes—Fijian, Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan, Indian and Vietnamese.
If you could be here, no doubt you would have many lasting memories. Among them would be the unforgettable Fijian farewell song, Isa Lei. It is another reminder that Fiji is a colorful palette of the Pacific.