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Death at the coming of age

Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, February 24, 2013

Berthold Carl Seemann was a German who studied botany in England in 1844 as a 19-year-old. He travelled the world and by his time's standards quite an accomplishment as he traversed the vast Pacific Ocean, visited countries in Central and South America, South Africa, Hawaii, Hong Kong and the East Indies.

He came to Fiji in 1860 as a 35-year-old as part of the investigative team to see the viability of Fiji being annexed as a British colony.

What he found can be read in his book, "VITI: An Account of the Government Mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands" where his accounts were not restricted to the plant life of our country. It remarkably, also, included an insight into the ungodly practice of cannibalism and the horrible fate of the condemned where taking another person's life is part of life. He spent some time in the province of Namosi where he observed this heathen custom being practised.

One that stood out was the practice of marking the coming of age or the introduction into manhood of a chief's son.

This practise as described by Seemann was a horrible sight to see because it entails killing hundreds of people for the sake of one child.

"We were struck with the fact, that all the young lads were in a state of absolute nudity; and, on inquiry, learned that preparations were being made to celebrate the introduction of Kuruduadua's eldest son into manhood; and that, until then, neither the young chieftain nor his playmates could assume the scanty clothing peculiar to the Fijians.

"Suvana, a rebellious town consisting of about five hundred people, was destined to be sacrificed on the occasion. When the preparations for the feast were concluded, the day for the ceremony appointed, Kuruduadua and his warriors were to make a rush upon the town, and club the inhabitants indiscriminately.

Seemann said the practice was told to him by Kuruduadua himself, who was accorded this rite of passage by his own father, the late Tui Namosi.

"The bodies were to be piled into one heap, and on the top of all a living slave would lie on his back. The young chief would then mount the horrid scaffold, and standing upright on the chest of the slave, and holding in his uplifted hands an immense club or gun, the priests invoke their gods, and commit the future warrior to their special protection, praying he may kill all the enemies of the tribe, and never be beaten in battle; a cheer and a shout from the assembled multitude concluding the prayer.

"Two uncles of the boy were then to ascend the human pile, and to invest him with the malo, or girdle of snow-white tapa; the multitude again calling on their deities to make him a great conqueror, and a terror to all who breathe enmity to Navua," Seemann wrote.

He added the malo or the tapa cloth that was to be used for this occasion would be perhaps two hundred yards long, and six or eight inches wide. When wound round the body, it would cover the boy completely and no one else was allowed to unwind this great length of tapa but his own uncle.

The horrific story drove Seemann and the British consul in Fiji at the time, William Pritchard to plead with Kuruduadua, the right to tie the tapa cloth or malo around his young son during the rite.

At first Kuruduadua refused but only allowed the two to take part in the rite after he had talked to his people.

"At the appointed hour, the multitude collected in the great stranger's house, or bure ni sa. The lad stood upright in the midst of the assembly, guiltless of clothing, and holding a gun over his head.

"The consul and I approached, and in due form wrapped him up in thirty yards of Manchester print, the priest and people chanting songs, and invoking the protection of their gods.

"A short address from the consul succeeded, stirring the lad to nobler efforts for his tribe than his ancestors had known, and pointing to the path to fame that civilisation opened to him.

"The ceremony concluded by drinking kava, and chanting historical reminiscences of the lad's ancestors, and thus we saved the lives of five hundred men!"

He noted that Kuruduadua cried in sadness during the ceremony as he was affected that he could not carry out what his ancestors had done to their first born.

"Soon however cheering up, he gave us a full account of the time when he came of age, and the number of people that were slain to celebrate the occasion," the botanist wrote.

This was not the only account of such horrible practice in Fiji as other early European explorers like Joseph Waterhouse also mentioned this in his book, "Vah-ta-ah, the Feejeean Princess".

Seemann also testified to another horror in Namosi which he terms as strange and it happened way before he came to Fiji. It is the story of the kai Na-loca, a tribe that lives three miles north, north-east of Namosi and how, because of a great offence to a Tui Namosi, the whole tribe was condemned to die.

"It was not that they were massacred but instead members of the tribe were eaten annually until they die out altogether.

"The practice continued through many years and through successive Tui Namosi's too."

The story sounds strange, but as a number of natives were present when it was told, several of whom corroborated the various statements, or corrected the proper names that occurred, its truth appears unimpeachable," Seemann wrote.

"Every year the inmates of one house were baked and eaten, fire was set to the empty dwelling, and its foundation planted with kurilagi a type of dalo. In the following year, as soon as this taro was ripe, it became the signal for the destruction of the next house and its inhabitants, and the planting of a fresh field of taro. Thus, house after house, family after family, disappeared, until Ratuibuna, the father of the present chief Kuruduadua, pardoned the remaining few, and allowed them to die a natural death.

"When Seemann arrived in Fiji in 1860, only one old woman, living at Cagina was the sole survivor of the Naloca people.

"The German talked about the mental anguish this tribe had to go through as they watched every year a house being burnt down and its inhabitants killed and eaten.

"Picture the feelings of these unfortunate wretches, as they watched the growth of the ominous taro! Throughout the dominions of the powerful chief whose authority they had insulted, their lives were forfeited, and to escape into territories where they were strangers would, in those days, only have been to hasten the awful doom awaiting them in their own country. "Nothing remained save to watch, watch, watch, the rapid development of the kurilagi. As leaf after leaf unfolded, the tubers increased in size and substance how their hearts must have trembled, their courage forsaken them!

"And when at last the foliage began to turn yellow, and the taro was ripe, what agonies they must have undergone! What torture could have equalled theirs?"

Even though Seemann's explanation of the Na-loca people focussed more on the growth of the kurilagi taro, nevertheless he captured the nature of the iTaukei culture and their tendencies towards blood and the gruesome.

* Next week: Cannibals and their etiquette.

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