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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Tuka Heresy

The Tuka Heresy

In 1876 the Fijians had all nominally accepted Christianity. In every village throughout the group services were held regularly by native teachers of the Wesleyan Mission; the heathen temples had been demolished; and all customs page 141likely to keep alive the old heathen cults had been sternly discountenanced. Even the old men conformed outwardly "to the new faith, and it was hoped that, as they died out, the old beliefs would perish with them. But it was not to be expected that they had really abandoned all belief in the religion of their fathers.

Towards the end of 1885 strange rumours were carried to the coast by native travellers from the mountains. A prophet had arisen, who was passing through the villages crying, "Leave all, and follow me." He had gathered around him a band of disciples on whom he was bestowing the boon of immortality (tuka), to fit them to consort with their ancestors who were shortly to return from the other world bringing the millennium with them. The Commissioner of the Province, the late Mr. Walter Carew, found the rumour to be substantially true. A man named Ndungumoi, of the village of Ndrauni-ivi in the Rakiraki district, who had been deported in 1878 to one of the Lau islands for stirring up sedition, but had been allowed to return home about three years before, had announced that he had had a revelation from the ancestor-gods. He said that the foreigners had deported him to Tonga and still believed him to be there. They had tried to drown him, he said, by throwing him overboard with the ship's anchor tied about his neck, but, being vunde (charmed), he had swum safely ashore with his body, leaving his spirit behind to deceive the foreigners. Taking the title of Na-vosa-vakandua (He who speaks but once), the native title for the Chief Justice of the Colony, he appointed two lieutenants, who went through the mountain villages enrolling disciples and teaching them a sort of drill compounded of the evolutions of the Armed Native Constabulary and native dances. The prophet carried about with him a bottle of water, called Wai-ni-tuka (Water of Immortality), which conferred immortality upon him who drank of it. People paid for the boon at a rate varying from ten shillings' to two pounds' worth of property, and so remunerative was this part of his business, that at a feast held at Valelembo he could afford to present no fewer than four hundred whales' teeth, a page 142king's ransom according to the Fijian standard. Fortunately for the Government, the prophet was no ascetic. He had enrolled a bevy of the best-looking girls in the district to be his handmaidens, by persuading them that his holy water conferred not only immortality, but perpetual virginity, and that they therefore ran no risk of the usual consequences of concubinage. It was through the parents of these "Immortality Maidens" that information first reached the Government officers.

Ndungumoi's teachings were an ingenious compound of Christianity with the cult of Ndengei. Recognizing probably that the Mission had too firm a hold to be boldly challenged, he declared that when Nathirikaumoli and Nakausambaria, the twins who made war against Ndengei, had sailed away after their defeat, they went to the land of the white men, who wrote a book about them, which is the Bible; only, being unable to pronounce their Fijian names correctly they called them Jehovah and Jesus. His, therefore, was the newer revelation. There was some controversy among the faithful whether Ndengei was God or Satan. Most of them inclined to the latter belief, because Satan, like Ndengei, was a serpent. They named various places round Kauvandra Roma (Rome), Ijipita (Egypt), Kolosa (Colossians), etc., and they said that if a man were bold enough to penetrate to the recesses of the great cavern he might see the flames of hell.

The prophet had more practical concerns than the discussion of problems in theology. The twin gods, he said, were about to revisit Fiji, bringing all the dead ancestors in their train, to share the ancient tribal lands with their descendants: the missionaries, the traders, and the Government would be driven into the sea, and every one of the faithful would be rewarded with shops full of calico and tinned salmon. Those who believed that he was sent before to prepare the way would be rewarded with immortality, but the unbelievers would perish with the foreigners. The white men, he said, were fully aware of what was coming, as was shown by the officers of men-of-war who, when questioned as to why they squinted through glass instruments, looked disconcerted, and page 143said evasively that they were measuring the reefs, whereas in fact they were looking for the coming of the divine twins. In the meantime the faithful were to drill like soldiers, and the women to minister to them. They used a travesty of English words of command, and pass-words such as "Lilifai poliseni oliva ka virimbaita,"1 which is not sense in any language.

Temples were built secretly at Valelembo and other places, wherein, behind the curtain, the god might be heard to descend with a low whistling sound. A white pig, a rarity in Fiji, and probably a symbol for the white men, was being fattened against the day when it was to be slaughtered as a sacrifice to the ancestors.

The prophet had fixed the day; the feasts were all prepared; threats about what was to happen to church and state were being freely exchanged, when the prophet was arrested. He then besought his guards not to send him to Suva, and so defeat all the glorious miracles he was about to work for the redemption of the race. Unless the twin gods reappeared on earth the power of Ndengei, which is the Old Serpent, would continue in the ascendant, for the twins were they of whom it was foretold that they should bruise the head of the serpent. He was a sooty-skinned, hairy little man of middle age, expansive enough with the native warders in Suva gaol, but reticent when questioned about his mission. He was deported to Rotuma, where he is still living, and the out-break was stamped out for the time.

In 1892 the heresy broke out afresh. One of his lieutenants, who had been allowed to remain in the district, began to receive letters from him. He would stand in the forest with a bayonet, and the magic letter fluttered down from the sky and impaled itself on the point. This was the more remarkable since Ndungumoi could not write. Holy water was again distributed, there was more drilling, and the end of British rule was again foretold. This time the Government decided to page 144let the light and air into Ndrauni-ivi, the fount of superstition; the people, lepers and all, were deported in a body to Kandavu, and the very foundations of the houses were rased to the ground.

These false prophets were not all self-deceived, nor were they wholly deceivers. They were of that strange compound of hysterical credulity and shrewd common-sense that is found only among the hereditary priests of Fiji. They knew what strings to play upon in the native character. The people are arrogant and conservative; they secretly despise foreigners for their ignorance of ceremonial, while conforming to their orders through timidity; their nature craves for the histrionic excitement and the ceremonial proper to traffic with unseen powers. They chafe secretly at the ordered regularity imposed upon them; at the inexorable punctuality of the tax-collector, at the slow process of the courts in redressing their grievances, at the laws which forbid them to seize with a strong hand the property they covet. It would have been no disgrace to them to yield allegiance to a conqueror, but the white men never conquered them, and therefore the tribute which they pay annually in the form of taxes is an ever-recurring dishonour. They pant for change—for the coming of a time when the heroic stories that they have heard from their fathers shall be realized, and their chiefs be again lords paramount over their own lands. They have forgotten the curse of war, the horror of the night attack, the tortures, the clubbings, the ovens, the carrying into captivity, to which half at least of the tribes would again be subject if their millennium came; for all the gifts which the Empire has bestowed upon its coloured subjects, the Pax Britannica is the last to be appreciated. Good government? They would welcome the worst anarchy so it were their own and not the foreigner's!

Upon all the jangling strings Ndungumoi harped, half believing the while in the mission he professed. The Fijians secretly hated the foreigners and coveted their goods; the foreigners should be swept away, leaving their goods behind them. They found the Mission Services tame; they should dabble in the black art as often as they pleased; they loved the excite-page 145ment of conspiracy, and they admired the Old Testament; if they believed in him they might hatch plots against the Government with biblical sanction. Left to themselves the Tuka superstitions would have resulted in bloodshed, if not in grave political danger. To the white settlers in the outlying districts the natives are in the proportion of many hundreds to one, and these must infallibly have fallen victims to Ndungumoi's demand for blood-sacrifice. The outbreak would probably have been confined to the island of Vitilevu, and the Government could have counted on nearly one-half of the group to aid in suppressing it; but as in the case of Hauhauism among the Maoris, which the Tuka resembled, the military operations would have been protracted and costly.

1 Oliva is the name of Captain Olive, formerly Commandant of the Armed Constabulary; virimbaita is "to hedge in." The other words mean nothing.