1937 visit to the Island of islands of Ngau, Mbatiki, villages of Yavo, Saweieke, Fiji

In Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937 recorded a visit to – in an undated year to the Island of island of Mbatiki, and villages of Yavo, Saweieke, Fiji .

Big lali (war drum) beats on deck:
Whonsbon-Aston wrote “THERE is something exhilarating in facing out to sea in a ten-ton cutter into a stiffish south-east trade, with the country’s flag flying at the topmast and a copper-coloured, mop-haired giant “thud, thud, thudding” on the big lali (war drum) on the fore part of the deck. Great to feel the salt spray dashing from the prows–that is, always provided you are a sailor.

This day our party on the Provincial cutter, Manama-na-Yanuyanu (Madam of the Isles), consisted of the District Medical Officer, who took his wife and family with him, and the Inspector of Native Schools. The good little ship fought the waves, great green, curling, white-feathered waves, all day, our objective being the island of Ngau, but the green cliffs of Wakaya seemed to be constantly towering over us as we tacked back and forth. Just as the light of day was failing we crept through an almost imperceptible gap in the coral reef at the island of Mbatiki.

Main village called Yavo: In the dark we were rowed ashore, and, aided by hurricane lamps, we scrambled the two miles of beach and headland to the nearest main village called Yavo. Great excitement filled this out-of-the-way Fijian village at our unexpected arrival. Fires lit up and the chief prepared to give us his house and another for the night–such is the hospitality of these Nature’s gentlemen. By 8.30 an excellent dinner was served, partly Fijian, partly European.

A Fiji house (bure): A Fiji house (bure) is rectangular in shape, very solidly built of thatch, with walls at least a foot thick. They are all built with foundations on raised mounds; the higher the foundation, the higher the rank of the owner was once the rule, I understand, with the temple highest of all.

Mats on the floor: The floors are covered with clean, well-woven native mats, while the native beds that fill one end of the house are covered with several layers of mats with the overlapping edges fringed with coloured wool.

Beams laced with cross rope: The great beams inside the house are usually laced with native rope in regular patterns. In the houses of chiefs who are also mbulis (that is, with the oversight by Government authority of several villages) it is not unusual to find a small iron safe in which necessary papers and tax monies are deposited for safety; it is almost equally usual to find the safe key hanging on a nail above.

How to enter the house: Dinner was partaken of at one end of the large bure, with the single benzine light casting dark shadows to the far corners. Through the darkened doorway now and then mysterious figures would appear, creeping in on all fours in an eerie fashion, then clapping the cupped hands as a sign of respect before sitting down in absolute silence just within the doorway.

On course again for Ngau: Next morning we were off again, paddled in long punts over the shallow, reefy waters and then, in our good ship, once again facing the now slightly less boisterous high seas. I had no visits to pay at Mbatiki, as there were not then any white settlers living there. We set our course again for Ngau, where there were a few white settlers to call on. Two of these were with us; for some months before, when the hurricane had raced over their plantation, they had decided to get right away for a time from the scene of desolation, and they were now returning.

Deep blue waters are full of sharks: We landed at their place, and after a dip on the shallow shore reef–it was low tide and the deep blue waters are full of sharks–we walked on to the big main village of Saweieke, where provision had been made for us.

Saweieke is a big village with a history: It follows the usual style of Fijian village, with grass bures set about an open square, usually called the rara.

What’s for dinner: Dinner that night, in addition to such European dishes as we had with us, consisted of boiled fowl, fish, and excellent prawns cooked in coconut milk, with yams, taro and sweet potatoes cooked native fashion.

Kava first: Before dinner came the welcoming ceremony, the ceremonial drinking of kava according to ancient tradition.

Dances after dinner: After dinner came mekes (dances) given by the women dressed in tapa and oil and sitting on the floor, their bodies moving rhythmically to the beating of a wooden drum and the singing of age-old chants. The women at last retired and the old men left had a long talk, full of vigour and at times hearty laughs.

Day starts with drums and orders: Early in the morning came the roll of native drums, then the voice of the chief calling out the allotted duties of the day, for every village is a community and all join in its affairs according to their age and ability. A little later I arose to bathe. I stood for a few minutes taking in the scene from the steps of the chief’s house, where I had spent the night. From the far corner of the square came an erect, stately old man, bearing on his shoulder a stick from which were suspended some bunches of taro, one before him and another behind.

Cannibal dinners: His appearance reminded me that the same village square had been the scene of a barbaric spectacle some years before. Bloodthirsty Cakabau’s father, Tanoa, had been temporarily displaced by rebellious subjects. The tables once more turned. Tanoa and his son paid a visit of state to his ally, the chief of Saweieke, who had for the occasion trussed up the dead bodies of his captives ready for cooking and propped them up in ordered lines about this village square. The party reviewed the grim “guard of honour” with many a grisly jest ere the bodies were hurried to the pot”.


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