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Unsolved mystery of Baker's death - Part 2

Sikeli Qounadovu
Sunday, January 21, 2018

"I and some other small boys got hold of it, and cut it up into small pieces and cooked it in a little kovu done up with the proper spinach and so we ate it."

Those were the words of one of the chiefs in Navatusila and his recollection on how they devoured the cooked body of slain Reverend Thomas Baker.

The chief was sharing his experience during a Colo East Provincial meeting in 1892, which was chaired by its administrator Adolf Brewester.

Quite interesting though, as highlighted by Brewester, Reverend Baker was well accepted by the people of Nubutautau, before his death

According to Brewester as Reverend Baker journeyed up the highlands, the tabua that had his death warrant was also ahead of him. Brewester wrote, Reverend Baker had been advised not to travel any further, some even warning him that he had been marked for death.

Brewester who was the Governor's Commissioner for the Provinces of Colo North and Colo East and later being appointed the Deputy Commandant of the Armed Native Constabulary of Fiji arrived in Fiji 1870 (three years after the death of Reverend Baker) was soon to be posted to Colo East where he heard stories and listened to the accounts of the kai colo.

As follows is Brewester's account from his book written to his wife in 1922.

The book "The Hill Tribes of Fiji — a record of forty years' intimate connection with the tribes of the mountainous interior of Fiji with a description of their habits in war y peace, methods of living, characteristics mental, physical, from the days of cannibalism to the present time."

"When Mr Baker arrived among the Vatusila, they had no intention, at first, of accepting the tambua and killing him, but determined to pass it on as the other tribesmen had done. He sealed his own fate, however, by what his host considered a gross breach of good manners. The young chief, now the head of the tribe, whom I have mentioned as having been educated in the Provincial School at Nandarivatu, gave me their version of the affair. He said, that when Mr Baker arrived in their village he was hospitably received, and spent the night there. In the morning he produced a comb and used it in his toilet, and then laid it down on the mats. His host, the leading chief, picked it up and stuck it in his own fuzzy locks. He did it quite innocently, as property was, as regards ordinary people, in communal use, and the upper classes could certainly take anything they fancied. Native combs, too, were worn stuck into their owner's hair. They were very necessary appanages, from the verminous state of the big-heads, being constantly required for scratching. The knowledge of this probably offended the real owner's sense of cleanliness and decency, and he snatched it from the chieftain's head. He could not have committed any deadlier offence.

"The head is the sacred part of the body, and there dwells all the mana or mysterious power of a man. More especially is this the case in regard to a chief, as he is generally the shrine of the ancestral god, and as such is himself divine. He is the representative of his god-like forbears who have preceded him to the spirit world, and whose worship he has to perpetuate here on earth. As such, when he moves about among the people, he is accorded the tama or sacred acclamation, as the holy father of the tribe. So revered is his head that none but the hereditary priests can dress it. After doing so they must not handle food, and have to use skewers with which to pass it to their mouths, or have to be fed. The divinity of the chief's head by contact entered their hands, rendering them tambu. The insult to the chief's honour, and the covetous desire for the beautiful ivory tambua sealed Mr Baker's fate, and it was decided that the request accompanying the whale's tooth should be carried into effect. Shortly after leaving the village, at an appointed spot, he fell under the battle axe of one of the chief's henchmen, and the body was taken back to the village and displayed in the rara or public square. An ancient chieftainess came and seated herself by the corpse and endeavoured to arrange it for burial, begging that it might not be put to the usual purpose, and prophesying woe to the tribe for the evil deed. The narrator who told me this said, they had good cause to remember her predictions, as nothing but woe and evil fortune had dogged them ever since. In vain were her petitions; the ruthless law of the vanquished was applied, and the body was eaten in accordance with immemorial tradition. This fateful tambua, but a simple whale's tusk, proved a veritable dragon's tooth, and the people of Vatusila and the sender reaped the whirlwind. Many innocent people died from its baneful effects, and through it much blood was shed.

"Thakombau (Ratu Seru Cakobau), who by that time had become the titular King of Fiji, was induced to send up country armed expeditions to avenge the murder. His columns started from various sources, but they acted independently of each other, and were without discipline or cohesion, and with one exception were ambushed and cut to pieces before they ever got near their objective. One of them got wandering about in a part of East Tholo, to which I was afterwards posted, and through which Mr Baker had passed, where the people had refused the tambua and had warned him not to proceed. An armed military force of tribesmen, other than their own, was not to be tolerated, and the hill men drew it into an ambush, from which but few escaped. I was shown the scene of it, a pretty little valley with a mountain brook, the waters of which, I was assured, ran blood on that memorable day. As all these punitive expeditions failed, no immediate vengeance fell upon the people of Vatusila, and they were emboldened to commit attacks upon the white men, the cotton planters on the Mba or northern coast of Viti Levu."

There were other accounts that the story of Reverend Baker pulling the comb from the chief's head was falsified account to justify his death.

Following the death of Reverend Baker a warrant was out for all those that conspired to the death and consumed the body of the white missionary. History teaches, that some of those that participated sought refuge and hid themselves in places around the country.

Last year, 148 years after leaving Nabutautau, the descendants of Ro Kubunadakai returned to rekindle and strengthen a long lost family tie. The descendants of Ro Kubunadakai from Nadrau and Nakorovou made the long trip to Nabutatau and performed the traditional ceremony of cara sala.

In what was described as an emotional and solemn occasion, the occasion was filled with a lot of emotions.

"This is one of the best moments in my life ... to go back to Nabutautau in the traditional iTaukei way with all my extended family," said Adi Laite Kubunadakai.

According to a report published by this newspaper on December 30, 2017, Ro Kubunadakai was the elder brother of Ratu Katakataimoso or Ratu Nawawabalavu, who is believed to have issued the final blow that lead to the death of Reverend Baker.

When Kubunadakai's son Rokovunidilo died, his two sons left Duguivalu, their residence at Nabutautau.

Rokovunidilo's two sons Ratu Orisi Kubunadakai II and Ratu Ponipate Katololo moved to Toge in Ba where their descendants have lived until today.

Ratu Orisi Kubunadakai married and had two sons and a daughter — Ratu Semi Taivalu, Ratu Kavarieli Vatuorooro and Adi Laite Nima. Adi Laite Kubunadakai is a direct descendant of Ratu Kavarieli Vatuorooro.

They belong to the tokatoka Nakauvadra in the mataqali Vadrasiga of the Navatusila clan.

In 2003 the vanua o Navatusila presented its traditional apology of matanigasau to the descendants of Reverend Baker. This was their belief to lift a curse that had blanketed them for more than a century.

"The past is the past and we need to move ahead to the future. I feel that the spirit of Thomas Baker is at rest." Les Lester the great, great grandson of Reverend Baker said, when accepting the traditional apology of the vanua o Navatusila.

Reverend Baker arrived in Fiji on April 5 1859, six years later he and his family moved and were stationed in Davuilevu. During his time he had been travelling around spreading the gospel.

Last year, at Nadakuni Village, Naitasiri when the Vunivalu of the Tui Waimaro revealed that they were still at Raravatu (the old village site), when Reverend Baker brought Christianity was two years before his death.

According to the vunivalu, Reverend Baker then returned to Rewa before he made another trip up further inland, only this time it was to be his fateful trip.

For a Wesleyan reverend to have lived in the country for eight years, he certainly would have been taught and knew the customs, the do's and don'ts, because if he didn't he would have been dead within the first year.

He knew respect and he knew what to do, evident from how he was well accepted in all villagers he travelled to.

So why then was Reverend Baker killed, who then was this chief that gave that tabua.

Until then, this mystery may just never be solved.

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