Unsolved mystery of Baker’s death – Part 1

Who gave the tabua?

IT is the question that remains unanswered. It is the unsolved mystery that many have tried to solve. Who was the chief who originally gave the tabua for the death of Reverend Thomas Baker.

About 150 years on and history teaches us that as the late Reverend Baker left Rewa, there was another person ahead of him carrying a tabua, asking that the English missionary be killed.

In all history books that were researched, mentioned was the tabua which was given by a chief of Bau for the death of Reverend Baker. However the name or identity of that chief remains a mystery.

In 2003, the people of Nabutautau presented their traditional apology to the family of the late Reverend Baker.

According to a report published by The Telegraph; “Also in the crowd was the great-grandson of the chief who ordered Baker to be killed.”

It is unclear, however, whether he was the great-grandson of the chief that issued the final blow or the great-grandson of the chief who originally gave the tabua.

However it may seem, there are different versions of how and where that tabua originated. There are many accounts and untold stories. In some places, they claim to know the chief’s identity.

Today, we take a look at a rather unknown account written by Adolf 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.

Brewester, who arrived in Fiji in 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 was titled 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 wary peace, methods of living, characteristics mentally physical, from the days of cannibalism to the present time.

“September, 1870, the date of my arrival at Suva, on the island of Viti Levu, now the capital of the colony of Fiji, the natives there were already sincere and devout Christians, thanks to the Wesleyan Mission. About fifteen years previously, Thakombau (Ratu Seru Cakobau), the titular king of Fiji, having embraced the new religion, his retainers and vassals followed his example, amongst whom were the people of Suva. By that time, also, all the maritime and island communities had abjured heathenism and cannibalism, and only the hill tribes of Viti Levu followed the old way. Some of these were quite close to Suva, as their villages were just across the hills on the western shore of the harbour, and their inhabitants came down every now and then to trade and to seek work with the new settlers. They were easily distinguishable by their enormous fuzzy-wuzzy heads of hair and scant clothing. The men only wore a strip of malo or bark cloth, passed between their legs and fastened round the waist like a sash. This get-up very much resembled that of the immortal Gungadin, not very much before and rather less than half of that behind. Their womenfolk wore the liku, which was a narrow fringe of grass or fibre, tied by a string round the middle, which made quite a decent and respectable covering from the skilful way in which it was worn. The proper name for these hill people is kai Tholo (Colo) or “from the mountains”. The newly-converted part of the population stigmatised them, however, as tevoro, which is a corruption of our word devil, whilst they called themselves the lotu or those of the Christian religion.

“We landed at Suva on a Sunday, just opposite the pretty little native church, and at once found out how devoutly the natives regarded the day, applying to it all the rigidity of the Sabbath. Just freshly landed, we were eager to buy bananas, oranges, green coconuts and all the luxuries of the tropics, but our demands were met by the stereotyped reply of singa tambu (holy-day), and we got nothing. In accordance with the Wesleyan system, or Methodism, there was a native teacher in charge of the village who conducted the services in the church, and for three or four days of the week taught the children reading, writing and elementary arithmetic. They were recording then in a little ballad the murder of the Reverend Thomas Baker, who in July, 1867, had perished at the hands of the people of Vatusila.

Fijians make rhymes and verses about every occurrence; it is their way of preserving historical events. Very wisely the Wesleyans have adopted the system as a method of instruction. As a district commissioner, the native teachers always asked me, when on circuit, to examine their schools, and I have heard wonderful songs and seen amazing dances descriptive of physical geography, history and arithmetic. I can only now recollect the refrain of the dirge in which the Suva children were describing the murder of the missionary:

“Oh! Dead is Mr Baker, They killed him on the road, and they ate him, boots and all.”

“In after life, as the Resident Magistrate of their district, I became intimately acquainted with his slayers. At Nandarivatu, my headquarters in the province of Tholo North, we had a school where a certain amount of education was given to the young gentlemen of the district. One of them was the son of the head chief of Vatusila, where Mr Baker was killed. Our scholar was not alive at the time, but he had heard all about it from the old people. When I left Fiji in 1910, he had succeeded his father and had become the buli or headman of Vatusila.

“Mr Baker, prior to his departure on his last journey, was living on the lower Rewa. Simultaneously with his start a tambua was despatched by one of his neighbours, a local chieftain, to the first of the heathen tribes on his way, asking the people of it to be yalo vinaka or good-natured enough to accept the sacred symbol, and in return slay an obnoxious white foreigner, who was shortly to arrive amongst them.

“For some 30 years or so the sender of it remained unknown, but at last the fears and remorse, entailed by the sense of blood-guiltiness, and a train of illnesses and misfortunes, enforced a confession. When it was made the actual sender had long been dead, and the act of atonement was made by his eldest son, who considered that he was being visited for the sin of his father.

“According to native custom, he made a soro or act of atonement to the Wesleyan Mission, when assembled in one of their synods or annual conferences. This was done by presenting a string of tambua to the assembled elders, accompanied by a confession of the transgression and a petition for pardon and absolution. This was of course granted, and thereby the uneasy conscience of the son felt purged of the crime of his father, or as the people themselves would put it in their native way, ‘thus his soul obtained relief’.

“In 1884, 17 years after the tragedy, I was posted as assistant to the Resident Commissioner of Tholo East, whose jurisdiction extended to the head waters of the Rewa River, and to the great divide over which the martyred missionary passed on his last and fatal journey. The people of the villages through which he went often talked about him and the mysterious tambua which accompanied him secretly. They greatly desired it, and it was discourteous not to accept and carry out its behest, but prudence and rough native statesmanship intervened. The vavalangi or dreaded white men, with their unlimited command of guns, powder and bullets, were best left alone, and each tribe refused to carry out the terms of the tambua and passed it on.

“At the same time they tried to dissuade their visitor from going on, earnestly begging him to return, assuring him that beyond their boundaries they could not guarantee his safety, and that his forward path was beset with great danger, but their admonitions fell on deaf ears. After I had been in the hills about 12 years, and was Resident Commissioner of the Tholo North Province, it was rather quaintly borne upon me how circumspect some of the graver chiefs desired to be in any dealings with the white people.

“I perceived that they wanted a lead. So with a deprecatory air I said: ‘Of course bygones are bygones, but what about the ancient spinach, the boro ni diya’. We had relaxed from formal business and were seated in a circle round the yangona bowl drinking kava. An old greybeard, one of the leading chiefs, looked solemnly round, eyeing each one of us slowly and separately, and then propounded this momentous question. ‘What is the use of lying? If the truth be known, I did eat part of Mr Baker!’

“It came about in this manner: As you all know, he was killed by the Vatusila people, to whom my mother belonged. They sent up one of his thighs wrapped up in banana leaves to my father, the chief of Nandrau, whose successor I am. You will remember how careful he was (turning with a bow to me) not to have any friction with the white gentlemen. So he refused to have anything to do with this present, and ordered it to be thrown away.

“I and some other small boys got hold of it and cut it up into small pieces and cooked it in a little kovu (bundles of leaves, which in native cookery take the place of our pudding cloths) done up with the proper spinach and so we ate it. This vegetable which always accompanied human flesh was considered very necessary on account of the supposed binding nature of the principal part of the repast, and spinach was thought to be the corrective.”

? Next week: We continued the accounts of AB Brewester and the information he gathered. Did he find out who was the original sender of the tabua?

More Stories