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Weapons and warfare

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

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.

This is what William Lockerby, who was marooned in Fiji in 1808, had to say about the early Fijians, as documented in the book Fijian Weapons and Warfare.

While warfare was one of the bases of Fijian society in the 19th century, some knowledge of it is said to be necessary for a real understanding of Fiji's fighting weapons, history and the past life of its people.

The book written by Fergus Clunie and published by Fiji Times & Herald Limited in 1977 is a bulletin of the Fiji Museum and is for the benefit of Fijians, especially students and historians.

Mr Clunie wrote that the other aspects of Fijian culture and character should always be borne in mind — "war after all being only one of the bases of Fijian society".

Detailed historical records of events in Fiji are said to have only really began with the sandalwood trade in the early 19th century.

But by then, Europeans were said to have been already aware of the warlike nature of the Fijians through the writings of European navigators.

These navigators are documented to have been warned in Tonga of a group of islands to the west inhabited by a fierce cannibal people who fought with clubs, spears, slings and bows in their constant wars.

Mr Clunie wrote that from Fijian oral tribal histories, legends and dances, the Fijian language, sophisticated and often huge fortifications scattered around the country and the character of various Fijian weapons, it could be concluded that war was an almost everyday way of life in Fiji.

Furthermore, he wrote that by the beginning of the 19th century, Fiji was enmeshed in treacherous plots, intrigues, murders, raids, ambush, petty and major wars.

"It was a land in which few people lived to die of old age; where men quite literally never dared to move about unarmed," he wrote.

"Heavy clubs, spears and other weapons accompanied the wary Fijian on even short walks beyond his village or town perimeter.

"A man politely lowers his weapon from his shoulder when meeting others on the path to show his friendly intentions and respectfully crouches down with it when encountering a chief.

"If working in his vegetable gardens, a spear was stuck into the earth beside him or a club lay handy."

Mr Clunie wrote that it must be realised the constant bearing of arms was not just mere formality or tradition but was a necessary precaution — life in Fiji being very cheap and violent death commonplace at that time.

The fear of attack and murder was said to have been a part of daily life, especially in weak towns bordering powerful neighbours and men usually carried at least a throwing club even in their home villages, although some chiefs wisely forbade the bearing of arms in their own towns by all but themselves.

When meeting in a house around the kava or yaqona bowl, men customarily left their weapons just outside the door so that they could relax confident and safe in each others company.

"Distrust and suspicion were a part of daily living. The sight of a strange canoe made people uneasy and women and children would often flee for their lives at the sight of a stranger," Mr Clunie wrote.

"Even heavily armed foreign trading ships had to be on their guard when anchored in Fiji waters, being prone to attack if they relaxed their vigilance.

"It was standard practice on sandalwood and beche-de-mer traders to double-shot the guns with grape or canister, trice up six inch mesh boarding nettings to prevent access to the deck, and arm the crew with boarding pikes, cutlasses and firearms."

Mr Clunie wrote that even the Methodist missionaries were forced to come to terms with reality and travel armed on occasion, sometimes sleep with loaded muskets by their beds and even open fire in defence of their families.

He wrote that many of the fights and ways which were constantly wracking some parts of Fiji were conducted on a local scale, some being campaigns between near neighbours.

"Surprise attacks on small undefended hamlets or villages quite frequently occurred in this terrorist level of fighting which was known as i valu yasa or stealthy warfare.

"Although the sneak raids and murderous ambushes usually resulted in light casualties, they were a common and constant threat, flaring up without warning.

"They could drag on for months and years and two small towns or states within one or two kilometres of each other might be in a state of chronic petty hostility long before fighting a major battle to decide the issue."

Larger wars documented to have been between confederated chiefdoms were known as i valu ni tu — or state wars — and tended to be more openly conducted, war being formally declared and allied armies marching to attack fortified towns.

More general wars involving several confederations of tribes or states and covering large tracts of land were termed i valu rabaraba or widespread wars but even these did not cause very heavy casualties.

The most serious and destructive conflicts were said to have been those between large tribal confederations or states under high chiefs who were bitter personal enemies.

They involved allied armies or mata-i-valu of several thousand warriors and resulting in the sacking and depopulating of large tracts of land and entire islands.

It is documented to have sometimes continued until one of the rival high chiefs was cut down or fled into exile, in the latter case plotting vengeance and living to fight again when the opportunity offered.

Mr Clunie also wrote that the causes of wars in 19th century Fiji were many and varied and were not necessarily very profound.

He wrote that it did not require a deep cause to result in bloodshed, saying some wars arose from only minor breaches of traditional etiquette.

"The fact that it was as usual to be at war as at peace, that men lived for war and killing and that life was very cheap should be kept in mind when thinking of the causes of Fijian wars, as should the large population and complex political structure of Fiji."

It is documented that many of the remote and particularly violent hill tribes of the larger islands complicated matters by being laws unto themselves, with the border tribes raiding almost at will then retreating into their mountain fortresses where no one dared pursue.

Disobedience, disloyalty, real or imagined slights by subjects or tribute-paying tribes to their overlords, or failure to pay sufficient tribute could result in war and merciless punishment, with the vengeful paramount chief falling on the offenders with his powerful allied army.

Mr Clunie wrote that insults and jealousy between rival chiefs and the desire for personal supremacy among them, whether on a local or widespread scale, caused minor and major wars and numerous assassinations and murders.

Revenge is said to have caused countless murders, raids, skirmishes, even major wars, and was often the lurking, underlying cause of a war apparently being fought for quite some other reason. However, it is documented that revenge did not stop with the killing of the enemy but was with religion one of the major factors behind Fijian cannibalism.

"Fijian religion was inextricably mixed with war and cannibalism, having developed over hundreds and possibly thousands of years of warfare and being admirably suited to the needs of a martial society.

"Like many other religions, it was a major cause of bloodshed," wrote Mr Clunie in his book.

Epeli Bukadogo of Vatusekiyasawa Village in Rakiraki said from the stories told by his forefathers, tribal wars were rife in the 1800s and with that, there was a rise in cannibalism in different parts of the country.

NEXT WEEK: The sanctioning of wars and the religious rites prior to battle.

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