Fiji: a no-go zone?
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
Two centuries ago, mariners dreaded these lovely islands. In 1789 Captain William Bligh, set adrift in an open boat by mutineers, did not dare take on life-saving food and water in Fiji, so bloodthirsty was the rep of the inhabitants. Readers of Death on Paradise Island may remember Inspector Joe Horseman's shipwrecked ancestor narrowly escaped the cannibal ovens in this era, too.
"Fear arms the Fijian"
However, 50 years on during constant inter-tribal war, the insightful English missionary Thomas Williams saw things differently. "Fear arms the Fijian... When on his feet, the Fijian is always armed; when working in his garden or lying on his mat, his arms are always at hand...his own security consists in universal mistrust of others. The club or spear is the companion of all his walks, but it is only for defence." (in Fiji and the Fijians, 1853, p.43)
Weapons of war
Whether offensive or defensive, the finely crafted clubs on the left are a deadly lot. Some were thrown; some with sharpened edges were used as battle-axes; others, like spiked maces and hammers, split skulls in an instant. I'm sure you can classify these examples, despite the size of this 1853 illustration.
Top warriors often named their prized clubs: Damaging beyond hope, Disperser, Weeping urges me to action.
The variety of the spear-heads below also displays the skill and delight in detail 19th century Fijians brought to everything they crafted.
Spears ranged from three to five metres in length, some made of a wood that bursts when moist. Fit for murderous purpose!
Slings and two-metre bows, shooting fiery arrows when raiding a village, completed the traditional arsenal. But in the early 1800s, the increasing supply and use of muskets reduced Fijians' eagerness for war.
Women only sometimes went to war with their men, but certainly battled to defend their fortified villages. To repel attackers, they shot arrows and hurled missile clubs with deadly aim. Women also specialised in obscene taunts and songs which the horrified Williams refused to translate.
Readers can examine a full range of historic weapons and much more at the Fiji Museum, which does not allow me to use images from its great collection. Fortunately the Peabody Museum at Harvard permits the use of this image from its Pacific Collection.
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all the best,
Bernadette (B.M. Allsopp)