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  • B.M. Allsopp

An American in Fiji

How did a respectable Bostonian lady come to be living in a Fijian village in the 1840s? These were violent years of inter-tribal wars, when sailing ships brought foreigners, kaivalagi, intent on profit, religion or refuge from their own laws. The fate of the shipwrecked, like Inspector Horseman's ancestor, was almost always grim. Kaivalagi added fuel to conflicts which could flare up from the slightest perceived insult. In 1844 the barque Zotoff, out of Salem, Massachusetts, landed Mrs Mary Davis Wallis onto these perilous shores. She remained in Fiji for most of the next five years.

Beche-de-mer trade

postcard of Zotoff, sailing bark owned by Capt. Wallis

Her husband, Captain Wallis, was an experienced trader in beche-de-mer (dried sea cucumber). Like others in this profitable business, he would first contract a chief to supply his cargo. The chief then organised his subjects to collect and process huge quantities of these marine invertebrates, which Wallis would carry to markets in Asia. On previous voyages he had become comfortable with Fijian language and customs.

Life in Fiji

book cover of Life in Fiji by Mary Wallis, 1851

Mary Wallis insisted on sailing with her husband. The problem was that she suffered badly from sea-sickness. After a long voyage via New Zealand, Mary was ready for shore leave. When Cakobau, son of the pre-eminent Fijian chief', boarded Zotoff to negotiate a contract, he was much taken by Mary and sent his favourite wife to entreat her to visit his island of Bau. Mary ended up staying with missionaries on neighbouring Viwa island, teaching sewing and embroidery to a class of girls. But she visited Bau many times, becoming quite the court insider through her friendships with chiefly ladies.

While sailing in the Zotoff to different parts of Fiji, she observed customs which variously puzzled, appalled and sometimes delighted her. Like me, she loved Fijian puddings. As her taste became known, presents of puddings would arrive wherever she was staying.

Curiosity did not kill Mary Wallis. She asked direct questions of anyone and poked her nose into everything. She studied the politics of shifting allegiances among the tribes. Equally blunt in action, she protested against strangling new widows and other practices abhorrent to her. Despite or because of her boldness, Mary endeared herself to many aristocratic families. Indeed, a daughter of Cakobau was named Mere Walesi (Fijian spelling) in her honour and today this name is still popular. While I was working in Suva I taught two students named Mere Walesi .

Five Years Among the Cannibals, by A Lady

When Mary Wallis returned home to Boston, she wrote up her journal and Life in Feejee: Five Years Among the Cannibals was published in 1851. A sensation at the time, it is such a valuable source for scholars that it is still in print. I thoroughly recommend this unique book which reveals so much of the worlds of both the observer and the observed. I only wish Fijians had recorded stories of Mary Wallis from their perspectives!

What would this intrepid woman think if she knew her memoir was now available on Kindle?

You can find more about Fiji on my website, in the Fiji Gallery and Fiji Resources page. As ever, I'd welcome your comments and questions about this post.

until next month,

Bernadette (B.M. Allsopp)

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