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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cannibalism & Fiji

For centuries, foreigners were warned to avoid the shores of Fiji for fear of the tribes here, as they were notorious for their love for the human flesh.  Pre-Christian Fijian tribes did not just love the human flesh, they believe that eating the flesh of vanquished enemy tribes allowed them to destroy their enemies’ souls and take over all the enemies’ best characteristics.  Makes a lot of sense – why do you just want to kill your enemy but allow the spirits of the killed to haunt you?  Yes, you eat him so that you destroy his soul as well.
In fact, cannibalism had become such a ritualistic event whereby high chiefs, believed by Fijians in those days to be descendants of gods, could not touch the human flesh with his bare fingers.  Cooked human flesh had to be consumed using ritual cannibal forks which on ordinary days were kept on altars as holy relics in sacred spirit-houses.  These cannibal forks were often carved intricately, with elaborate handles and curvy artistic sticks that resembled fresh petals of flowers.  Today, one could buy souvenir cannibal forks from any handicraft shops across Fiji.  Fijians enjoy telling tourists about their cannibal ancestors, not unlike Australians who are proud of having convict ancestors.
Apart from the ritualistic significance of consuming human flesh, prisoners taken in war were often taken back to be slaughtered in grand victory celebratory feasts.  Visitor records wrote about sadistic tortures of such prisoners, who sometimes had their body parts cut off and cooked and then fed their own flesh.  Imagine being fed your own leg!
There were times when so many enemies were slaughtered in a battle that they could not finish eating all the flesh.  The remainder was hung on tree branches for consumption in the coming week.  European sailors reported seeing chunks of human flesh hung from trees in the aftermath of tribal battles.  That’s not very different from snacks hung from supermarket shelves.  Hungry?  Go have some ladies fingers hung on that mango tree outside.  Don’t bother mum now.
Fijians invented uses for all parts of the human body. After the flesh was consumed, the skull was sometimes carved into a high society drinking vassal; teeth as necklace; bones were used by the coastal tribes as sail needles war canoes, while many inland tribes hung bones on tree branches as trophies of victory.  Imagine taunting your enemy tribes: “Surrender you bastards – your father’s skull is now my favourite tea cup, your brother’s leg bone is now part of my Christmas tree decoration, and I give my wife a new necklace made from your sister’s teeth!”  Of course, if you surrender, you would end up becoming someone’s thanksgiving dinner and table weight.
Even today, when Fijians cut down an old tree, they sometimes find long leg bones stuck into tree trunks or across old branches two hundred years ago, which were had newer branches and bark grown over them.  These were war trophies placed by their ancestors after cannibalistic feasts but long forgotten after the tree grew over them and the coming of Christianity which led to the destruction of such trophies in most Fijian villages. 
A few highland tribes in Central Fiji were more aesthetic.  Not sure if they have picked up Zen philosophy and stone garden techniques from Kyoto’s Buddhist shrines, they placed stones in neat rows to record the number of cannibalized enemies.  Big stones for the eating of important chiefs and small ones for ordinary enemies.  A missionary was shown Chief Udreudre’s collection of 872 stones in his courtyard in 1848, and the chief’s son informed the missionary regrettably that his father should have at least 900 but some had gone missing with time.
By the 19th century, more and more visitors came by – some were businessmen and sailors in search for the highly valuable sea cucumber which the Chinese would pay precious silver for; others were missionaries who see the conversion of cannibals to Christianity an attractive goal to undertake for Christ.  Many among both groups ended up in the cooking pots of Fijian chiefs. 
Indeed, in the Fiji Museum were exhibits relating to Reverend Thomas Baker of the London Missionary, who was eaten along with six of his Fijian trainee teachers by pagan highland tribesmen in 1867.  On display were remnants of Baker’s well chewed leather shoes (I wonder if they had dumped Baker whole and dressed in the cooking pot), an intricate cannibal fork which the highland chief had used to partake Baker’s flesh and the ritual plate on which Baker was supposed to have been served to the high chief.  What was tragic about Baker was that he was killed on the special request made by a Christian convert chief on the coast, over matters relating to local politics and protocol.

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