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Outbreak of war and mobilisation

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, April 29, 2014

THE ancient Fijians are said to have generally weighed up the options carefully before engaging in a large-scale war.

A council of chiefs, priests and elders would meet to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed campaign and decide whether to fight or postpone matters until a later date.

If the consensus of opinion was for war and the war god had expressed support and approval, the council appointed the turaga-ni-valu, literally the war chief, to be the army general.

The paramount chief or an eloquent orator known as the dau-ni-vosa then stepped forth to express the will of the gods and the chiefs to the assembled populace, outlining the just reasons for the coming campaign and exhorting their loyal support.

War being decided on, there followed a period of feverish preparation and mobilisation for war, during which heralds were dispatched on diplomatic missions to enlist allies and subvert the enemy's efforts.

The army was mobilised, fortifications stocked and strengthened, and raiding parties were sent out to engage in the guerilla hostilities, wrote Fergus Clunie in his book Fijian Weapons & Warfare, which is a Fiji Museum bulletin published by Fiji Times & Herald in 1977.

Mr Clunie is said to have lived in Fiji from childhood until 1987, when the first military coup happened. He was also said to have been the director of the museum.

He wrote that large-scale wars generally began with a formal declaration of war and breaking off of friendly relations, with messages to this effect being conveyed to the chiefs concerned by the herald or mata-ni-vanua.

Furthermore, he wrote that double treachery and assassination of hostile chiefs were widely practised, stating that "an allied chief might enter into a counterplot with his superior, pretending to join only to attack him from within his own ranks."

"This treacherous willingness to suddenly and secretly change sides figured prominently in Fijian warfare," he wrote.

"Weapons were prepared and special houses built for the shelter of the allied troops, who were given a virtually free run of their hosts gardens and livestock, besides being presented with great quantities of food and property as a reward for their loyalty and services.

"After a victorious campaign, the allies were again feasted and given a share of the plunder and other rich gifts of property, including weapons, canoes, tabua, pigs, turtles, women, coinsinnet and bark-cloth."

Mr Clunie wrote that if a town was likely to be attacked, its fortifications were strengthened or renewed — a power often sending detachments of warriors to help its allies and borderers in throwing up their defensive works.

The commonest type of fortified village or town in lowland areas and crowning round or flat-topped hills was a roughly circular ditched fort or korowaiwai, he wrote.

Ditches were made, enclosing the town, but were usually broken at three, four or more points by several narrow earthen traverses or causeways which gave access to the gates of the fort.

After the introduction of firearms, some of the fighting platforms at major towns were constructed solidly enough to take the weight and recoil of small cannon, which were mounted on them.

Mr Clunie wrote that by no means all Fijian forts were circular ditched ones, forts in more rugged country taking every advantage of the difficult terrain by being built along razor-back ridges and on cliffs.

Some of the more unpleasant obstacles about Fijian fortifications were the pitfall man traps or lovosa which was typically a small hole dug between 50 and 60 centimetres deep, at the bottom of which were planted one or more upward pointing spikes or skewers of split bamboo or tree-fern wood.

Caves were fortified and served as strong keeps, the entrances protected by walls of loose stones, which might be crowned with a fighting fence.

A taqa parade was held as each tribe of allies arrived to reinforce an army, giving each contingent of warriors a chance to prove their loyalty to the fighting chief or turaga-ni-valu .

Mr Clunie wrote that in time of war, larger-scale sea battles quite often occurred between the large and small canoes of rival fleets.

"The huge, plank built, double-hulled drua , some of which exceeded 30 metres in length, were capable of carrying large contingents of warriors in addition to their sailor crews, the biggest drua carrying in excess of 250 passengers on deck."

He wrote that many wars never developed beyond petty sniping and skirmishing, the victims of which were dragged off in triumph to be offered to the gods, cooked and eaten.

"Bush craft and stealth were the hereditary skills of the Fijian warrior, ambush being his specialty.

"The classic Fijian ambush tactic on the ground scale was the cuka-ni-valu — the fishing net of war — in short, ambush by encirclement."

Mr Clunie wrote that the mountain people of Viti Levu were masters of this mode of fighting and adapted more mobile forms of it, and that assassination plots to get rid of troublesome enemy chiefs were also commonly resorted to and were often successful. Fijian armies lived off the land, the women of the attacking forces often accompanying the warriors to the war.

"The women played a useful support role in the actual fighting in some campaigns, stationing themselves on prominent hills and calling down information on the enemy's movements to their own warriors, sometimes luring the enemy into an ambush."

Mr Clunie wrote that a youth could only attain true warrior status by killing an enemy with a war club as distinct from all other weapons, save, in later years, the musket.

"It was customary to honour killings by giving them new titles and commemorative names, regardless of the age or sex of their victims — man, woman or child — an enemy was an enemy and his or her death was desired."

Those who killed chiefs or notorious warriors were specially honoured, he wrote.

Mr Clunie wrote that cannibalism or veikanikani was an integral part of Fijian religion and warfare, where the captured bodies were offered to the gods and then cooked and eaten.

Furthermore, he wrote that Fijian children then grew up against the violent and bloody background, receiving ample psychologically and physical training on warfare.

"Young children were taught to hate their tribal enemies, being led by their mothers to kick and trample the dead enemy bodies brought in for sacrifice and eating.

"Those orphaned by war or murder were encouraged to nurture vengeance, being disparagingly known as 'the children of the dead' until they grew up and paid back their parents' deaths in blood."

Mr Clunie wrote that other Fijian sports and games helped train the Fijian to use his weapons and to keep the seasoned warriors in trim.

The best remembered of these nowadays was the popular and exciting game of veitiqa in which a reed dart a metre or so long with a bullet-shaped hardwood head or ulutoa was thrown from the forefinger to skim and ricochet along the ground for distances of a hundred metres and more.

The Fijian warrior did not rely on a shield or armour but depended rather on his well-developed agility and alertness.

Mr Clunie wrote that this should always be borne in mind when thinking of Fijian warfare and weapons as it in part accounts for the relatively light casualty rates in many Fijian battles, the warriors being as adept at avoiding as they were at employing the various weapons in their armoury.

NEXT WEEK: The Islamic ritual of Ratib — the test of faith and cutting of one's body without drawing blood.

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