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  • Writer's pictureB.M. Allsopp

Fiji mermaids: a fishy story?

Updated: Jan 16

I was idly browsing Fiji news last October when a headline jumped out of the screen. "Radiology experts try to solve the mystery behind Fiji Mermaid" (dailymail.co.uk 24th October 2023) What? Seriously? In the midst of publishing my latest book Death Off Camera: Fiji Islands Mystery 5, I made a note to myself to pursue this later.


When I did, I was astounded to discover that Fiji (or Feejee) mermaids and mermen do indeed exist and not just in fairy tales. Many examples can be found in reputable museums across the world, such as the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the British Museum and more. If you're American, you may be quite familiar with the creature, but I had never heard a whisper, despite living in Fiji for years. The internet readily offered me photos, paintings, sculptures, and craft instructions, including a crochet pattern!


What's a Fiji mermaid?


19th century gentleman looking at his 'Fiji mermaid'
19th century Fiji Mermaid Source: Wikimedia

After ploughing through many references (I skipped the crochet pattern), I can tell you that Fiji mermaids were popular artefacts in the 'cabinet of curiosities' tradition. Moreover, in the museum world, the scope of the term 'Fiji mermaid' has widened to encompass any specimen assembled from different sources, usually designed to deceive. The technical term is cryptozoological hoax. However, 'Fiji mermaid' is more memorable and is commonly used in the U.S. because of one man: P.T. Barnum, the supreme showman of the 19th century.


Barnum's celebrity Fiji mermaid

Thousands flocked to his American Museum in New York to see the Fiji mermaid for themselves, when Barnum first exhibited the specimen in 1842. The creature had been fished from Fiji waters, he claimed. Barnum's publicity images on huge billboards pictured voluptuous sirens with fishtails. But the exhibit was a hideous mummified monster baring sharp pointed teeth and claws. Far from demanding their money back, the horrified crowds lapped it up and the attraction was an enormous success, exhibited around the U.S. for decades.


While some believed the mermaid was authentic, sceptics concluded the specimen was a Frankenstein stitch-up of a monkey's head and torso and a fish's body and tail. While Barnum challenged scientists to prove the mermaid was fake, he didn't allow his money-spinner to be dissected! Meanwhile, more 'Fiji mermaids' popped up in travelling sideshows, museums and private collections.


Japanese origins

Although stories of half-human, half-fish, sea-dwelling creatures were common among ancient maritime cultures around the world, most of the 'mermaid' artefacts which made their way to the U.S. in the 19th century were from Japan. Known as ningyo (human-fish), they had long been fabricated by seafarers for use in rituals and for sale. One tradition held that contact with a mermaid (by touch or ingestion) could protect humans from disease and even bestow eternal life. The earliest known example is from the 13th century, preserved in Ryuguji temple in Fukuoka, Japan. It is believed this mermaid’s bones were soaked in water which pilgrims bought to protect them from epidemics.


What do the radiologists say?

A fake 'mermaid' from Wellcome's Horniman collection
Merman (Source: Horniman Museum, London)

Returning to the headline which lured me into this detective work, modern museums are almost as reluctant to yield their specimens for dissection as P.T. Barnum. But modern forensics have come to the rescue. A radiology team have taken detailed images of a Fiji mermaid in an Ohio museum, which appears to be part-fish, part-monkey and part-reptile. These images have been sent to experts at Cincinnati Zoo and the Newport Aquarium aim to identify the species used in the mermaid. No news yet.


But 'Merman' a specimen from the Wellcome Collection in London, has been subjected to full imaging and DNA testing. Its animal parts are mostly fish, and no monkey; its face made of bundles of fibres wrapped around a wooden neck. Wooden and metal framing elements and papier mâché were used in other Fiji mermaids.


Meanwhile, the fate of P.T. Barnum's Fiji mermaid is still debated. It could have been destroyed by a fire in the American Museum in 1860, or by a fire in the Kilburn's Boston Museum in the 1880s. Or it may possibly have survived in Harvard's Peabody Museum which holds a mermaid made from monkey and fish parts, reptile claws, teeth, clay and papier mâché filler.. You can see the Peabody mermaid in this video and ponder the allure of the grotesque. But wherever it came from, it has nothing to do with Fiji.





P.S. I love to answer any questions about Fiji or my books from readers. Just leave a comment below, send me a message via the Contact page or email me at bernadette@bmallsopp.com. I warmly invite you to join our Fiji Fan Club below.

If you have friends interested in Fiji or Pacific islands in general, I encourage you to share this post.

I look forward to hearing from you!


Bernadette


B.M. Allsopp



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