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  • B.M. Allsopp

Cannibal Coiffure

Here are a couple of travellers' reviews from the early 1800s:

"...if in anything the natives have a claim to originality and versatility of genius, it is in hairdressing"

"Their heads surpass imagination."

Whose hairdos sparked such wonder in foreign visitors in the early 19th century? Perhaps those of courtiers of London or Vienna in their powdered elaborate wigs?

No, it was the heads of the war-like cannibals of the beautiful Fiji islands that wowed educated missionaries and tough beche-de-mer traders alike. The engraving above also shows examples of face-painting styles.​​

Here are some more images to give you a taste of the variety of Fiji male coiffure. They're more than 150 years old, so lack the pixels for a sharp image, but they're all that exist now.

Let your mind run riot with the colours!

"The (coiffures) seem to be carved out of some solid substance and are variously coloured. Jet black, blue black, ashy white, and several shades of red prevail. Among young people bright red and flaxen are in favour. Sometimes two or more colours meet on the same head."

So wrote Thomas Williams, Methodist missionary, in Fiji and the Fijians, his remarkable work of anthropology published in 1858, which included these engravings.

This is the time when the ancestor of my character Inspector Joe Horseman, of the Fiji Police Force, was shipwrecked in Fiji and captured by the local chief. Aristocratic men sported the most flamboyant hairdos. Most chiefs had a personal hairdresser, who often laboured for several hours a day over a number of days to achieve the perfection Fijians prized in all crafts. The style was preserved not only by unguents, but by resting the neck on an elevated wooden rack to sleep. Warriors willing to sacrifice comfort and sleep to preserve their 'dos were tough indeed.

The photographs on the right and below (Pulman collection, Auckland Museum) are from later in the 1800s, when portraits were staged in studios. The necklace is from split whales' teeth, and would only have been worn by a chief.

Visitors to Fiji today no longer see these creative hairstyles, although Fijian men do tend to take pride in their appearance, particularly for special occasions.

It intrigues me that the tribal wars and cannibal practices of Fijians of this era remain well-known, but their uniquely creative hairdressing arts are mostly forgotten. We are fortunate Thomas Williams' book is still in print and historic photograph collections preserve this evidence.

So, spending considerable time, resources, and sacrificing comfort in the pursuit of personal beauty may be a universal human practice, subject to changing fashions and values.

I'll end with my favourite quote from an unknown visitor to Fiji, recorded by Thomas Williams.

"Surely the beau-ideal of hairdressing must reside in Fiji"

Now I'm off to the hairdresser, my hair's a mess!

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