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The value of a tabua in Fiji

Sikeli Qounadovu
Sunday, July 16, 2017

THE tabua/kamunaga (whale's tooth) is the most important item in the iTaukei custom. The item is of great importance to the indigenous Fijian.

Such is its power that in the olden days, it had power to divide the land and its people. Once presented, it has the ability to forgive transgressions and solve differences. The tabua has the power to declare war and was an important item used for treachery in order to gain sides.

However, many may not know the history behind the tabua. According to the book, Fijian Artefacts by Rod Ewins and sourced from the National Archives of Fiji, there is a degree of speculation as to what was originally understood by the name tabua.

Ratu Deve Toganivalu, in his book "Ai Yau kei na iYayaya vaka Viti — Fijian Property and Gem", wrote about the use of a particular shell (sauwaqa or cava) and carved wooden tabua. It has been suggested that whale's teeth was introduced from Tonga in the 18th century and was widely adopted as the most significant talisman of Fiji.

"Certainly the presence of many whalers in Fiji at the end of the 18th century and during the 19th century made access to whale's teeth much easier, but it seems highly improbable that such significance would have been attached to any introduced object of this type, and it is likely that they had been used by the Fijians for a much longer time. Probably the whales that inevitably would have stranded there. Indeed, whales are still stranded in Fiji on occasions, despite their greatly depleted numbers.

"The sauwaqa may have been Pterocera or Lambis. The cava is the conus marmoreus. In Serua Province, the sici moto was used, believing these to be the Terebra cremulata but Capell listing them as Melanopolis cotata, a species of trochus. It should be noted also that the spindle cowry, Volvaria, is known as buli tabua, though whether from its used as a tabua or merely from its shape is unclear."

According to Ewins, another account speaks of the use of the wooden tabua in the highlands, as early as the mid-17th century.

"He is probably speaking of the wooden tabua which were placed in graves, and whether these were the current form, or a substitute for the whale's teeth, intended to deceive spirits, is hard to say."

The tabua came in different shapes and sizes all for different purposes.

"The teeth were used in various ways, polished and unpolished, large and small. The purely ceremonial form were generally larger, and were painstakingly polished and sometimes anointed with coconut oil and turmeric to darken them; in extreme cases also being smoked to a rich walnut colour in the same manner as masi kuvui.

"Smaller teeth were valued for making necklaces, sewing into liku, making ear plugs, and so on but here the functioned rather as a highly regarded object, without the deep mystical and symbolic overtones of the presentation tabua," wrote Ewins.

In the next few weeks, The Sunday Times will bring to you the history behind the tabua displayed at the Fiji Museum. Readers will also be informed of the different occasions where the tabua is presented and its meaning.

* Next week, we bring to you a historical account of the origins of the word tabua. This is information sourced from the iTaukei Trust Fund Board and the Fiji Museum.

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