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A naturalist's look at cannibalism in Fiji

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, March 11, 2014

THE word itself creates an eerie feeling in people.

But it is a fact that cannibalism was a part of life in Fiji hundreds of years ago.

While some people believe it started in the 1800s, there is documented evidence that it existed well before that.

There are also documented reports of how some cannibals from Fiji were taken overseas for a purpose.

Stories passed down to villagers of Vatusekiyasawa in Rakiraki by their forefathers state that cannibalism started in the Nakauvadra mountain range when tribal wars were rife in the 1800s.

But according to the Yalo i Viti: Shades of Viti — Fiji Museum Catalogue 1986, "archaeological evidence from Lakeba establishes that cannibalism was firmly entrenched in Viti from 2500 years ago until the mid to late 1800s."

According to the Fiji Museum, cannibalism existed in Fiji about 400 BC and it was the major cause of bloodshed.

Otto Degener, a naturalist, also talked about cannibalism in his book "Naturalist's South Pacific Expedition in Fiji".

The tree Degeneria vitiensis, which he discovered in Fiji in 1942, is named after him.

In his book, Mr Degener writes about cannibalism as told to him by villagers he met during his visit to Fiji.

"Cannibalism was the most revolting custom of the Fijian. Yet we must not let that custom blind us to the unusually fine character, as a whole, of the average native man and woman," he wrote.

Mr Degener wrote that cannibalism was not practised throughout Fiji and that it was restricted to the chiefs and gentry.

"This practice of cannibalism rose to an unprecedented height during the early part of the 19th century. Many early writers ascribed it to the coming of the white man, many of whom were convicts, blackbirders, beachcombers and similar scum.

"Such white man brought the knowledge of firearms and by their abandoned and dissolute living prompted the natives to unspeakable savagery.

"It was not unusual for a chief to have as his advisor some reprobate white whose lusts and cruelties set the worst examples.

"Until the natives discovered their mistake, these men were regarded as chiefs, whose example was worthy of all imitation. Their dissipation and cruelty amazed even the cannibals.

"Thus wars and bloodshed became rampant in the islands and the slain, according to custom, were consumed as food."

Mr Degener wrote that people who had died a natural death were never eaten, saying only people who had been killed were considered good for food.

He wrote that according to the cannibals, cooked human flesh resembled pork but was more palatable.

"Though food in general was eaten with the fingers, human flesh was eaten by the chiefs with a fork. These were usually of casuarina wood, beautifully carved, or of human leg bones and provided with three or four prongs.

"Human flesh was the only meat which might not be touched with the fingers because it was supposed to produce a skin disease.

"The flesh of women, being more tender, was preferred to that of men.

"They considered the arms above the elbow, the legs and the thighs the choicest parts.

"Though the Fijians paid great attention 'to the cooking and serving of their food, in which rigid cleanliness is always observed', human flesh was the only animal food they would eat when in a state of decomposition.

"Several early white residents saw bodies brought from such a distance as 'to be green from putrescence and to have the flesh dropping from the bones, which were, notwithstanding, eaten with greediness and apparent pleasure'.

"In such a state, as they could not be lifted whole, they were made into puddings."

Mr Degener wrote that probably in order to assist the process of digestion, bokola as dead man's flesh is technically termed was eaten with an addition of vegetables.

He wrote that in Fijian estimation, the leaves of the malawaci (Trophis anthropophagorum), the tudauo (Omalanthus pedicellatus) and the borodina (Solanum anthropophagorum) ought to accompany the bokola.

"In Fiji, where so many isolated tribes existed, having different background and cultures, the reasons for practicing cannibalism were various.

"These were probably to gain mana (good luck), prestige and notoriety, and because of famine, lack of inhibitions, safety, revenge, religion, appetite and craving.

"In the case of some tribes or individuals, the prime motive at any one time may have been revenge; at another, simply bestial appetite; at still another, combination of two or more reasons."

Mr Degener wrote that he had failed, except for a few brief references, to find that the Fijians ate the heart or other organs of a brave enemy in the belief of thus acquiring some of his courage.

Furthermore, he wrote that in many instances, the initial reason for eating human flesh was probably famine or hunger.

He also wrote that some Fijians may never have acquired the inhibition against eating one of their own kind.

Also, he wrote that another motive for cannibalism was that of safety, primarily for the priests and chiefs, as the practice of eating the shipwrecked indicates.

"The most important motive for the practice of cannibalism was the desire for revenge.

"By far the greatest number of victims came from the ranks of the enemy or from male factors within the tribe.

"In any transactions where the national honour had to be avenged, it was incumbent upon the king and principal chiefs, in fact a duty they owed to their exalted station to avenge the insult offered to the country by eating the perpetrators of it."

Mr Degener also wrote that another motive for cannibalism was religion, where the human flesh was first offered to the gods, being the most valuable sacrifice that could be found.

"As all other offerings of food are afterwards eaten, the same observance would logically extend to the human sacrifice.

"When a Fijian tribe was about to engage in war and the priests promised the warriors that they would be successful in slaying some of the enemy, this enemy was not simply given by the gods to kill but to be eaten."

Mr Degener wrote that there was a certain religious awe associated with cannibalism and this is shown by the fact that the tabu class such as the priests, chiefs and high orders only were considered fit to partake in such feasts.

"Thus, women, considered inferior beings, were prohibited from entering the temple or bure and eating human flesh.

"The eating of human flesh was likewise forbidden to the kaisi or common people unless there was a great quantity on hand.

"Nevertheless, they had the opportunity of picking the bones after most feasts.

"Just as the Fijians buried a man at the base of each house post in the belief that his spirit would hold up the edifice, so men were sacrificed during the launching of war canoes."

Mr Degener also wrote that though Fijians may have eaten their first piece of flesh for a variety of reasons, many very soon acquired a taste for it.

"They considered the taste very good and became confirmed cannibals from the mere pleasure of eating it as food."

In his book, Mr Degener also mentioned about Fiji's and the world's most prolific cannibal Udre Udre, who is said to have lived in Rakiraki during the 1800s.

"This depraved monster had acquired an evil notoriety among the Fijians, proving that he was not at all a typical cannibal," he wrote.

Udre Udre is documented to have eaten between 872 and 999 people. His grave is situated next to the Kings Road in Rakiraki but no documented evidence has been found so far on how and when he died.

Epeli Bukadogo of Vatusekiyasawa Village in Rakiraki who narrated Udre Udre's story to this newspaper a few weeks ago also said he was unaware how the cannibal died.

* NEXT WEEK: The four cannibals who were taken overseas.

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