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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom


Famine, in the European sense of the word, is unknown in Fiji. Even in times of scarcity every native can find sufficient food to satisfy his hunger, but, though the quantity is sufficient, the quality is not. Ample in amount and in variety, it is lacking in nitrogenous constituents, and it is unsuitable for young children and for women during the periods of gestation and suckling.

The staple foods of the Fijians are Yams, Taro (Arum esculentum), Plantains and Bread-fruit. Next to these in point of order are Kumala, or Sweet Potatoes (Ipomœa ba-tatas), Kawai (Dioscorea aculeata), Kaile (Dioscorea bulbiferd), Tivoli (Dioscorea nummularia), Arrowroot, Kassava, Via (Alocasia Indica and Cyrtosperma edulis), China Bananas, Cocoanuts, Ivi Nuts (Inocarpus edulis). Sugar-cane, and a number of other vegetables and fruits. Meat and fish are not reckoned as "real food" (kakana ndind). They are eaten rather as a luxury or zest (thoi).

All these vegetables contain a large proportion of starch and water, and are deficient in proteids. Moreover, the supply of the principal staples is irregular, being greatly affected by variable seasons, and the attacks of insects and vermin. Very few of them will bear keeping, and almost all of them must be eaten when ripe. As the food is of low nutritive value, a native always eats to repletion. In times of plenty a full-grown man will eat as much as ten pounds' weight of vegetables in the day; he will seldom be satisfied with less than five. A great quantity, therefore, is required to feed a very few people, and as everything is transported by page 335hand, a disproportionate amount of time is spent in transporting food from the plantation to the consumer. The time spent in growing native food is also out of all proportion to its value. The most valuable of all the staples is ndalo, or taro (Arum esculentum), which can only be grown successfully in the wet districts of the islands, or in places where there is running water. The only way of preserving perishable foods known to the natives is the mandrai pit. Bread-fruit and plantains are packed in leaves and buried in a deep hole weighted with stones and earth. Fermentation, of course, sets in, and when the pit is uncovered at the end of several months the stench is appalling. The fruit is found reduced to a viscous pulp, and though it turns the best regulated European stomach, it certainly tastes better than it smells. It has never occurred to the Fijians to dry any of these fruits in the sun, and grind them into flour, as is done in Africa. The yam crop is precarious, and, at its best, only yields about seven-fold, and then after immense expenditure of time and labour. In places in which taro and bread-fruit are not plentiful the natives have become accustomed to a season of scarcity from the month of November, when the yam crop has been consumed, till February, when the new crop is ripe, and in some districts this scarcity has been increased by the ravages of the banana disease, which destroys the plantains. At these seasons, if bananas are not obtainable, the natives subsist upon ivi nuts, and unwholesome and indigestible fruits and roots, such as yaka (Pachyrrhizus angulatus) or kaile nganga, or upon such wild yams as are obtainable. But even at such times every able-bodied man or woman seems to be able to find enough to eat.

The staple animal food of the Fijian is fish, which is fairly abundant in the coast villages, especially in those parts where fish-fences can be erected, except in very stormy weather. Even in times of reported famine it is found that the natives can always procure enough fish to satisfy their hunger. On one occasion, when the province of Lau was reported to be starving from the damage done by the disastrous hurricane of January, 1886, the Government dispatched a relief steamer page 336from island to island to distribute rice and biscuits, but it was found that the natives consumed the whole of their dole in one prodigal feast, having quite sufficient fish and pumpkins for everyday use. The regularity of the supply is proved by the fact that, though in Mathuata and one or two other provinces the natives are acquainted with a method of smoking or drying fish, they resort to it but seldom, preferring to waste or throw away their superfluity to the trouble of curing it. In Rewa, after a good haul, fish is preserved for a few days in leaves by repeated cooking, and is thus often eaten tainted. At Mbau mullet is eaten raw with a sauce of sea-water as a delicacy—a practice introduced from Tonga.

Pigs and fowls are to be found in every native village, but they are reserved for feasts or the entertainment of strangers, and are seldom eaten by the owners as part of their diet. Except on such occasions fowls are rarely killed, even for the use of a sick person. It is not that any complicated system of joint ownership limits the use of these animals to communal purposes, for pigs and fowls are owned by individuals absolutely, and though the native will often treat one of his pigs (called a ngai) with an almost Hibernian indulgence, and pet and feed it in his house like one of his children, this affection does not prevent him from slaughtering it and eating his share of it, when he considers it sufficiently fat. Whatever may be the reason the Fijian seldom eats a chicken and never an egg, although almost every other denizen of the reef and the bush—shell-fish, snakes, iguanas, lizards, grasshoppers, rats, grubs, chameleon-eggs, cats, dogs, wild duck, and, in recent times, mongoose—at some time finds its way into his maw.

Milk, the principal sustenance for children in their first years, is not to be had in native villages, and many Fijians vomit on first tasting it.1 Their agricultural system has imbued them with a prejudice against cattle, which break down their weak fences, and trample and destroy the yams and plantains. In the isolated instances, where the chiefs page 337keep goats or cattle as pets, they show, by their callous disregard for their wants, that they have no sympathy with the sufferings of the lower animals. The want of milk, as has been shown, has an important Dearing upon the relation between the sexes.

The Fijians have two regular meals in the day. The principal meal is eaten in the afternoon when they return from their plantations. Sometimes food is cooked for them before they start in the morning, but more often they take with them some cold yam or taro left from the previous day, or trust to being able to roast some wild food during the intervals of their work. The women, however, generally cook a meal for themselves and the children if there is sufficient food and firewood in the house. The boys either eat with their parents or forage for themselves in the bush, eating large quantities of unripe fruit, and thus inducing the bowel complaints that are so common among them. In some cases it is the custom to boil a separate pot of food for the children to eat during the day. The men eat first, and when they are satisfied the women and children may fall to upon what is left, but the latter, during the operation of cooking, know how to take care of themselves.

It is impossible to say whether the Fijians now plant less food than formerly. The traces of extensive clearings that are to be seen on almost every hillside prove nothing but that the population was once much larger, and that the native planter shifts his ground year by year. But the decay of custom has not left the food-supply untouched, for supposing the production to be proportionately as great, the consumption is proportionately far greater. In heathen times feasts were confined to occasions of ceremony within the tribe, such as births, marriages and funerals, or the rare visits of allies. In these days every meeting connected with the Government or with the Missions is accompanied by a feast to the visitors. There are, besides the half-yearly Provincial Council, a District Council every month, and some three or four missionary meetings every quarter, and, though these feasts are often small enough, and the meetings are held in different page 338villages of the district or circuit in turn, they are all to be added to the ordinary expenditure of food upon births, marriages and funerals, as well as the little tribal solevus that are held from time to time. Moreover, with the introduction of European-built vessels, and the safety of travellers from attack, travelling for pleasure has much increased, without any diminution of the hospitality to visitors, which is enjoined by customary law. The ravages of the imported banana disease, and the damage done in some islands to the bread-fruit by horses (lately introduced), which are inordinately fond of gnawing the juicy bark, have diminished the supply of two important articles of food.

While intercourse with foreigners has had an unfavourable influence on the regularity of the food supply, it has done very little to provide the natives with new articles of diet. Preserved meats, biscuits, bread, tea and sugar are used by many of the richer natives, but always as luxuries, not as part of their daily diet. To these, and more particularly to the use of sugar, the natives attribute the decay of their teeth, a condition which they declare was unknown to the last generation. Whether this be true or not, it is a remarkable fact that among quite a hundred skulls which I have examined in burying-caves I have never seen a decayed tooth, whereas it was lately possible for an American dentist to realize a considerable sum by selling sets of false teeth to the native chiefs.

The obvious defect in the Fijian dietary is the absence of all cereals. It is alleged by planters of experience that in Fiji, where the immigrant Melanesian labourer is fed upon native food, he is of less value as a labourer than in Queens-land, where he receives a ration of bread and beef.

Cereals are the staple food of vegetarian races like the Indian and the French peasant, and indeed of all races that have left their mark upon history. But, though the Fijian has cultivated maize in the tax plantations for many years, and has tasted rice prepared by the coolie labourers, even growing it himself under European direction, he refuses to regard either as fit for human food. And, though he has a liking for page 339bread and biscuits, he seems to consider both inferior to yams and taro.

The labour of agriculture has been much lightened by European tools, and for this reason more food may now be planted than in heathen times. Formerly the reeds and undergrowth were broken down with a sharp-edged wooden club, and burned as soon as they were dry enough; this work is now performed in a tithe of the time with a twelve-inch clearing-knife. The ground was then ready for the diggingstick, a tool which does little credit to the inventive powers of the Fijians considering their ingenuity in other directions. It is merely a pole of hard wood tapered at the point by flattening one side. The diggers work in parties of three or four, by driving their sticks into the ground to a depth of twelve inches in a circle two feet in diameter. Then, bearing upon the handles, they lever up the clod and turn it over. The women follow them on their knees, breaking up the clods with short sticks, and finally pulverizing the earth with their hands. The soil is then made into little hillocks in which the yams are planted. The yams were weeded with a hoe made of a plate of tortoise-shell or the valve of a large oyster. Iron tools have superseded these, but, strange to say, the European spade remains less popular than the digging-stick, because it cannot, without pain, be driven into the ground with the bare foot. The most popular implement at present seems to be a compromise between the two—a digging-stick shod with a blade of iron—and it is astonishing how quickly the Fijians will dig a piece of ground with this unscientific tool.

Planting is made a picnic; the planter alternates spurts of feverish energy with spells of rest and smoking in the shade. Though the Fijian has learned the use of carts and wheelbarrows when working for Europeans, he does not adopt them, preferring to harvest his roots by carrying them in baskets slung across his shoulders with a stick. He uses no mean skill in the irrigation of his taro beds, leading the water to them by canals or by pipes made of hollow tree-fern trunks. For these he is now substituting troughs of corrugated iron.

page 340

The question of diet may have but little bearing upon the stamina of the adult Fijian, who is able to bear fatigue and exert his muscles as well as the men of any race, but it may well be concerned with those obscure qualities that threaten the race—the failure of the women to bear vigorous children.