History of Tavuni

Where the chiefs of Tavuni descendants of Chief Maile, now rest atop a mound overlooking the Sigatoka valley. Picture: MATILDA SIMMONS

TAVUNI Hill Fort or Tavuni Archeological and Botanical Park Investment located about four kilometres from Sigatoka Town is perhaps one of the country’s well preserved village sites. It is a hill fort that leaves behind remnants of a culture entwining Fiji and the Kingdom of Tonga. It was said the site was established by a Tongan high chief, Maile Latamai Finau, who had high ambitions of not just settling in Fiji but to rule over his own fort and establish a line in the country. Oral accounts state he arrived in Fiji in the early 1800s after he was banished by his father who held the Tuipelehake or Tu’i Tonga title at the time (considered the second highest ranking chiefly title in Tonga). He was known to be a womaniser. According to our tour guide Lanieta Nainoca, who took us around the site, Maile was banished after a misdeed with a high ranking woman and was overlooked for the chiefly title for his younger brother. He left Tonga with an entourage of followers and warriors for Fiji and arrived via Kadavu and Serua islands. The Tongan chief arrived at a time when Fiji was rife with tribal wars and cannibalism. So they built a very strong fortress around the area which proved impenetrable by their enemies. “He was quite ambitious and wanted to establish himself well in Fiji,” said history enthusiast Lanieta who was our tour guide at the hill fort. “He married two women from the district of Conua. The district where their tribes are from owned large swathes of land in Sigatoka,” she said. “His first wife was a lady from Narata. They had a daughter called Salote Tupou. However his wife died after childbirth. Malie then remarried to a lady from Nadrala and they had a son called Orisi Moala. “Salote’s descendants today now live just at the foot of Tavuni Hill Fort. They are called the Mataqali Henibua while Orisi Moala’s descendants now reside at Nawamagi Village further up the hill from Tavuni. Their mataqali or clan is called the Matanisiga,” said Lanieta. The hill fort today is covered in shady trees and old mounds that hearkened to the hive of activities that once took place there. One thing that was common around the ancient site was the presence of lovo pits or earth ovens where cannibalistic feasts took place sparingly. And as we toured the area, we were shown remains of what must have been a very strong fortress that ran a well-oiled defence mechanism including an organised community. Altogether there were nearly 60 house mounds which had stones that wove around it in circle or rectangular shapes. According to Lanieta, the round mounds belonged to the Tongans while the latter to the iTaukei people. Both communities lived together and intermarried. There were cooking ovens, waste pits and even a killing stone or vatu ni bokola where prisoners were killed and cooked in the earthen oven. “I was told when they found this place everything was still intact, all the cooking utensils and so on were still here,” said Lanieta. “If you look around, there is a tree that grows here that is supposed to grow only at the seaside; stories told that the Tongan settlers brought that tree with them because it reminded them of when they used to stay near the coast back at home. “The mounds go higher as you walk up. The higher the mound the higher the status or rank of a person. In the traditional iTaukei setting this high status was often given to the bete or priest who acted as the intermediary between the gods and the people.” Tavuni Hill Fort enjoys some breathtaking views over the Sigatoka valley and river. You could see why the fort was established on this hill. It allowed for early detection of attacks from the sea or from the ferocious highland tribes.

Kai colo wars
However, this fortress would not stand the test of time. Between 1875-1876, fi ghting that came to be known as the “Kai Colo Wars” destroyed the lull and idyllic life the villagers had been living up to that point.
According to historian Dr Robert Nicole, the war grew from the distrust of the people of Colo who lived in the interior of Viti Levu at how the signing of Fiji to Great Britain was carried out in 1874. They were a law unto themselves and had more to gain then lose if Fiji remained independant. It fi rst began when several Colo chiefs were persuaded to head down and talk with the colonial administration and Bau high chief, Ratu Seru Cakobau on how the Deed of Cession worked. But unbeknownst to them, a measle outbreak had begun and they would take the virus back with them to the interior of Viti Levu.
The epidemic literally wiped out a quarter of the Fijian population and this was viewed with disgust and anger by the kai colo people who saw it as a way by the colonial administration to destroy them.
The people returned to their pagan ways, threw the church doctrines out the window and started serving their old gods. The Colonial Administration, under Sir Arthur Gordon saw this as a rebellion and a native constabulary of over 1000 men formed under the Nadroga chief Ratu Luke was sent to quell the kai colo people.
Tavuni people were on the side of the kai colo fighting against the British and people from coastal tribes.
The constabulary group made their way up and destroyed all the hill forts, and had all the chiefs involved in the uprising to be either hanged, imprisoned or banished to other islands in Fiji.
In 1876, Tavuni under the reigning Noitoga chief Kunatui, was stormed and destroyed by government troops.
The hill fort never survived the onslaught and since then has never been resettled.
However, it did leave behind a living history in the form of the many descedants of Chief Maile. The Tongans had intermarried and adapted to Nadroga life, language and culture. According to research documents, Tongan names like Maile Latamai Finau, Tupou and Fatafehi are still in use among the Yavusa Toga or No iToga (Tongan tribe) of Nadroga and their close relatives. The descendants of Maile Latamai Finau and his followers now can be found in the villages of Naroro, Korotogo, Nawamagi, Malevu, Cuvu and Nadrala in Nadroga; Waicoba in Navosa; and Vatutu and Waqadamu in Nadi. Oral accounts added the Navosa and Nadi branches are descended from some of Maile Latamai Finau’s followers who had chosen to separate from him after a dispute. These followers later crossed inland from Nadroga to Nadi.
It’s a history that is proudly kept and retold among the descendants of the Tongan high chief today and where links are being re-established.

  • Visitors willing to take a look at this ancient fortress can call tour guide Lanieta Nainoca on 9875959 or email – lanainoca@gmail.com to book a tour. For local visitors entry is $6 per person and $12 for overseas visitors.
  •  History being the subject it is, a group’s version of events may not be the same as that held by another group. When publishing one account,
    it is not our intention to cause division or to disrespect other oral traditions. Those with a different version can contact us so we can publish
    their account of history too.

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