In War they are fearless and savage to the utmost degree, but in peace their disposition is mild and generous towards their friends, and the affection they bear towards their relatives is seldom found among Europeans.

-- William Lockerby

Marooned in Fiji in 1808

Fiji's Geography

The 300-island archipelago of Fiji is at the bottom of the Melanesian chain of islands south from New Guinea. The archipelago is bound on the west by the Yasawas, the closest islands of the Fiji group to the Melanesian islands of Vanuatu. Melanesian influence is particularly marked among the Yasawa population, notably with regard to phisiogomy, language and socio-religious characteristics. At the easternmost edge of the archipelago lie the small and isolated islands of the Lau group. The proximity of the Laus to the islands of West Polynesia, particularly Tonga, has resulted in a considerable flow of culture and genes from Polynesia, with the result that Lau islanders both physically and culturally resemble their neighbors to the east.

At the center of these two small island groups lie the four main islands of Fiji: Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, Taveuni and Kandavu, which straddle the dividing line between two distinct peoples and their cultures. Fundamentally, Fijian society and culture are traditionally Melanesian, but modified by ideas and concepts introduced from Polynesia and integrated with Melanesian interests and practices.

Early Fiji: Staging Area For Conflict

Nobody knows precisely from where, or when, the Fijians made their way to the archipelago that became their home. The continuous pattern of islands from New Britain south to Vanuatu, separated only by short stretches of open sea, would have provided convenient passage to people of even limited nautical resources. Papuans or Melanesians may have moved slowly southward, reaching the southernmost islands of Vanuatu and somehow crossing the 500 miles of sea to the Fijian archipelago. Fijian legend describes such a migration from the Northwest, and also recounts the subsequent arrival of at least one other group which successfully established itself on the rich coastal plains and river deltas. The ancestral Polynesians had, in fact, successfully settled many coastal sites while moving southward, dislodging and occasionally co-existing with the original Melanesian inhabitants.

When the Polynesians arrived in Fiji, the Melanesians were not firmly entrenched, having themselves arrived only recently. The Polynesians were in a position to contest the incumbent Melanesians for the possession of this resource-rich, fecund and malaria-free island group. Excavation of various coastal sites testify that the Polynesians prevailed for several hundred years. But the unexplored reaches of the Pacific ultimately beckoned, and many of them departed first to the Laus, on to Tonga and Samoa, and ultimately to their destiny as master explorers and colonizers of distant Pacific landfalls.

Midway between two worlds, and inhabited by two peoples struggling for supremacy and possession, Fiji became a place of relentless and bloody conflict. The reports of early missionaries and traders who explored and exploited the islands in the early nineteenth century reveal details of extreme violence, cannabalism and internecine warfare. The remains of innumerable strategically located and heavily fortified villages and strongholds indicate that for hundreds of years warfare had been accepted as a normal way of life. European contact and the subsequent introduction of firearms further escalated the tradition of warfare.

War and Fijian Culture

In Fijian society warfare, cannibalism and religion were interdependent; religious rites and customs required bodies and sacrifices for the continuing security of society, while the successful conduct of war required the mediation of priests and the support of the war gods. War served to strengthen the authority of the leaders, to unify and reinforce the bonds of allied and supportive groupos, and to provide an opportunity for young males to enter into manhood and perhaps to acquire by force of arms the divine and chiefly power of "mana" or spiritual strength.

A high order of creative activity generated by wars, religious beliefs, chiefly powers and accompanying ceremonial rituals produced a rich cultural complex of great artistic merit. The influence of Tongan and Samoan craftsmen coupled with that of the native Fijians resulted in a wealth of artifacts that were elegant, functional, and potent.
The Weapons of War

The number and variety of clubs, spears and other artifacts of combat add credence to the fact that Fiji was beset by relentless violence. A club was the most revered and cherished personal possession of the Fijian warrior. Designed for specific purposes, practices, and regions, there were approximately thirty distinct and diverse types of clubs: dance and ceremonial clubs, throwing clubs, broad paddle types, fan-shaped clubs, pole clubs, and a large number of massive but distinct types formed from the stocks and roots of small trees and saplings. Fijians further classified clubs by surface ornamentation and design, type of wood or root used, and by the type and nature of coir sennet wrapping. The surface decorative designs found on the heads or shafts included regional, parochial and motifs that were created in both abstract and realistic form and sometimes included scenes from popular myths and legends. Kills were indicated by the inlaying of human teeth or ivory around the head, or by the cutting of notches on the grip. A club with many kills to its credit was thought to have achieved its own "mana," with power and life of its own. Clubs reaching this level of regard were donated to the temple and gods of war, where they figured as ritual objects in funerary rites and certain craft ceremonies.

Click for larger version of photo

Spears were of almost equal importance as clubs in traditional Fijian warfare. They were used as defensive weapons in the defense of forts or palisaded villages, being perfectly suited for thrusting through outer walls or thrown from high defensive platforms. Although spears were effective and deadly weapons, they were thought to be a less than honorable way to kill. Every effort was made to dispatch the enemy with a club, for only in this way would full glory be accorded to the slayer. 

Spears, like clubs, were generally made by specialist craftsmen who produced them in a great variety of styles, sizes and materials, and always in formal traditional patterns. The carving, particularly on the larger and more elaborate spears, was often extrordinarily beautiful. The shafts, either round, square or quadrangular, were often carved with intricate open spirals and whorls.

There were many types of spearheads, some being simply carved from the straight wood of the shaft, while others were tipped with stingray tail spikes, bamboo slivers or bone. To improve the grip and further enhance the appearance, shafts were wrapped in coir sennet, finely woven in alternate light and dark patterns.

Fijians classified their spears into at least a dozen and perhaps as many as twenty distinct categories. Spear types were further subdivided by the type of wood, form and materials from which the barbs were constructed and by the sennet binding on the shaft.

Click for larger version of photo

War in Fiji was fought on both land and sea. Control of the seaway was a major and decisive objective; thwarting the enemy's source of supplies and reinforcements was a distinct advantage. Sea battles involving hundreds of canoes were frequent. The canoe which inspired fear and awe and so often held the balance was the mighty Drua, or sacred canoe. One of the most elaborate and beautiful artifacts of Oceania, the Drua was a product of considerable group endeavor and human sacrifice. Double hulled and of gigantic proportions, the Drua was a masterpiece of design and craftsmanship, requiring total community involvement in its construction, and human sacrifice in its launching. Swift, with speeds in excess of twenty knots and highly maneuverable, it was capable of carrying upward of three hundred warriors. 

The Drua was considerably more sophisticated than a dugout canoe hewn from one massive log. Using stone and shell adzes, stone tipped drills and rasps of coral and shark skin, gum from the breadfruit tree and tapa cloth as caulking, the Drua was built up upon what amounted to a keel by carefully scarfing and fitting together hundreds of wooden components to form hull and deck. The oddly shaped pieces that formed the hull were meticulously fitted and finished, caulked, and finally lashed together tightly from the inside with coir sennet. The sister or small hull was built by the same method and joined upon completion to the main hull by a maze of cross beams which provided the strength and flexibility required.

As befitted its status and to ensure success in its endeavors, the Drua was launched metaphorically upon a sea of blood. Men died serving as rollers in its progress to the sea and more men were sacrificed to honor the raising of the giant mast and sails.

Click for larger version of photo

The "Pleasures" of War

Warfare among a people who were divided into relatively small political or social units was necessarily limited in scope and rarely reached overly destructive proportions. Rather, warfare was a means of unifying and galvanizing the people as well as providing entertainment and diversion, at least for the victors.

It provided the opportunity for warriors to primp and preen, to indulge in boastful and insulting rhetoric and to indulge, if victorious, in the sexual favors that they had been promised.

To the victors go the spoils, as the saying goes. The return of a victorious war party was the signal for dancing and feasting. The bodies of the slain were cut and prepared for the oven. Choice pieces were reserved for the chief, plunder was shared, eloquent speeches were made, tension and excitement ran high and before long the proceedings turned into a frenzied sexual orgy.

As observed by an anonymous European in 1809:

"That night was spent in eating and drinking and obscenity. The blood drank and the flesh eating seemed to have a maddening effect on the warriors. I had often seen men killed and eaten but I never heard or saw such a night as that. Next morning many of the poor women were unable to move from the continuous connections of the maddened warriors."

Recommended Reading.

The Fiji Museum in Suva has produced a number of excellent illustrated publications covering various aspects of traditional Fijian culture. One of the most comprehensive is YALO I VITI by Fergus Clunie, published in 1986. This gives a very extensive overview of Fijian material culture. Also by Fergus Clunie, FIJIAN WEAPONS & WARFARE Bulletin No. 2 of the Fiji Museum is a must for those with a particular interest in Fijian weapons. Highlights of the Collection of the FIJI MUSEUM: A Photographic Catalogue, compiled by Sara J. Wolf illustrates some of the finer examples in the Fiji Museum collection. The Fiji Museum also publishes the quarterly DOMODOMO which presents articles of Fiji history, culture and natural history. For further information contact the Fiji Museum, P.O. Box 2023, Suva, Fiji.

A HISTORY OF FIJI Vol. 1 by R.A. Derrick, published by the Printing and Stationery Department, Suva, 1946, gives a general but relatively complete overview of of Fiji from the first migrations, prehistory and the turmoil of contact which led to the Deed of Cession in 1874 when Fji became a British Crown Colony. All very interesting.

For a more in depth, academic look at Fiji culture, try FIJIAN MATERIAL CULTURE by A.R. Tippet, published in 1968 by Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Return to TribalSite

John Fowler, P.O. Box 612, Pahoa, Hawaii 96778 - Phone 808-965-9216 - Fax 808-965-5606