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Chief lies in state

Matilda Simmons
Sunday, December 17, 2017

WE came across this gem of a picture in one of the early editions of The Fiji Times. The picture is of the coffin of the Vunivalu (warlord) and Roko Tui Bau (sacred chieftain) Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau while lying in state at the chiefly island of Bau in 1883.

Anyone well versed with Fijian history would know the longstanding legacy and history that follows the late chief. No Fijian historical accounts have been quite elaborate than about him.

He was a styled vunivalu, "warlord" of Bau during the years prior to the cession of Fiji to Great Britain in 1874 and was considered one of the power brokers who attempted to unify the country as a kingdom under his rule. As well as vunivalu, he styled himself Tui Viti, or King of all Fiji, though he was never universally supported in this position. As part of the cession agreement, the British supported Cakobau in his role as king of Fiji.

According to historical accounts, he was born to Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa and Adi Savusavu in 1815 on Nairai Island but raised on Gau Island. He was born at a time when his ancestors faced power struggles during the course of nearly a century. These struggles led to the death of his paternal uncle, the vunivalu of Bau, Naulivou Ramatenikutu and the installation of Tanoa as Vunivalu. However in 1882, amid reprisals and assasinations, Ratu Tanoa was exiled in 1832.

When he reached his early 20s, he returned to Bau; gained power in 1837 and persuaded the Lasakau people to overthrow the Roko Tui Bau Vuani-ivi clan led by Ratu Ravulo Vakayaliyalo. Seru then reinstated his father as the ruling Vunivalu on Bau.

According to Wikipedia, a missionary, Mary Wallis, described him after meeting with him on December 7, 1844: "He is tall, rather good looking, appears fully aware of his consequence, and is not destitute of dignity. He wore an enormous quantity of hair on his head, and several yards of native cloth around his body...

"Seru was given the name Cikinovu ('Centipede'), because he moved silently and struck painfully. Later, he was called Cakobau ('destroyer of Bau'), because he had destroyed what was Bau; but Seru also built a new Bau, under the supremacy of the Vunivalu. After he converted to Christianity, he took additional name of Epenisa (Ebenezer)."

The Fiji Times obituary on February 3, 1883, described him as "the greatest warrior and statesman that the Fijian race has had" with the picture of his lying in state.

The chief had passed away on February 1, 1883. His direct descendants include the first governor general of Fiji, Ratu Sir George Cakobau. Through marriage, he was linked to other chiefly families in Fiji including that of the Tui Nayau from which came Fiji's first PM Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

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