Lunch on Fiji: A tale of the South Pacific

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

What in the world could Thomas Baker have been thinking when he started fiddling with a hair comb worn by a Fijian chief in 1867? After eight years on the island, the English missionary should have known that touching the head of a chief – especially a cannibal chief -- is a huge no-no in Fijian culture. So it’s no wonder he wound up as lunch that day. Ditto for the eight guys who came with him to Nabutautau, a little hamlet in the remote highlands of Viti Levu, the largest of Fiji’s 300 or so islands.

Old-time canoes displayed at the Fiji Museum.

Fast forward to today, and you can see what’s left of Baker in a museum in Suva, Fiji’s capital. Mosey around the Fiji Museum’s old-time dugout canoes, rusting rifles, battle clubs, artworks, masks, musical instruments, history charts and the like, and you’ll come across an odd-looking glass case spotlighting what looks like chewed up pieces of bark. Actually, they’re nine boiled pieces of the soles of Baker’s boots.

Guard at the museum.The significance of the display is that the Baker luncheon was the last recorded incident of cannibalism on the Fiji islands. Before then, the local folks had earned quite a rep for chowing down on just about anything that moved.

English explorer James Cook sailed by there in the 1770s, but he didn't go ashore on what was then called “the Cannibal Islands.” And Captain Bligh’s longboat crew kept rowing past the islands after they were booted off the HMS Bounty in 1789. Bligh noted in his logbook: “I dare not land (on Fiji) for fear of the natives.”

Such reports helped keep the islands off the bucket lists of all but a handful of the era's gunrunners, whalers, sandalwood traders and escaped convicts from Australia. Likewise, missionaries zeroed in on saving souls elsewhere in the South Seas, such as on New Zealand, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and Tonga.

In the 1830s, stories about the stewpots of Fiji finally brought a tsunami of pastors to the islands from the London Missionary Society. Progress was slow at first, and a good number of soul-savers themselves ended up saved -- for Fijian feasts.

The missionaries' big break came in the mid-1800s when the Methodists were able to convert a super-chief named Cakobau, and with him most of Fiji.

Cakobau was later named king of the islands, but in 1874 was forced to step down and deed them to Great Britain. Fiji won its independence in 1970.

Maybe it was a longstanding touch of guilt, or perhaps because the villagers of Nabutautau had run into hard times, but in 2003 they invited 11 of Thomas Baker’s descendants to a traditional Fijian matanigausau ceremony to tell them they were sorry for what happened 136 years earlier.

Dancers reenact wars between cannibal tribes.Said village chief Filimoni Nawawabalevu, “We believe we must have been cursed, and we must apologize for (eating Baker)...when we have made the apology we will be clean again.”

To seal the apology, the villagers erected a monument in Baker’s honor in the center of Nabutautau.                                                 

‘We are each other’

If you flew all the way across the Pacific to a bunch of islands you knew mostly from movies like Tom Hanks' Cast Away and The Blue Lagoon, you might be more than a little surprised to find that the dominant language there is English (even above some two dozen Fijian dialects).That's a holdover from the country's colonial days, as is its parliamentary form of government (but mish-mashed with the clout of a council of chiefs from the islands' 14 provinces).

Chances are you'll find most Fijians are genuinely friendly and honestly pleased that you've taken the time to visit their islands. You'll soon learn that when the local folks stick out their hands to you, it's to shake yours, not for tips.

Fiji’s sunsets are straight off the travel posters.Drive from one end of Viti Levu to the other – a ride of four or so hours -- and along the way you'll spot dozens of small villages looking much like they did centuries ago (except for power lines and TV aerials here and there). Drop by a village, and folks will likely invite you into their homes, perhaps for a snack of traditional Fijian rourou (pronounced row row) made of spiced spinach or taro leaves, along with a belt of coconut milk.

Historians generally credit the early missionaries and ongoing religious practices – for instance, just try to get a seat in church on Sunday – for the high values Fijians today put on personal morality. Like retaining traditional village life,  helping one another out when times are tough, sharing what little they have with strangers and reverence for their elders.

A Fijian saying puts it this way: “We are each other.”

Staying there: Fiji's 100 or so inhabited islands host close to 700,000  annual visitors, most of whom stay in 100-plus tourist-class resorts and inns. A hefty number of the properties feature luxury thatched-roof bure huts popping out of the jungle on Viti Levu and on boutique resorts peppering the out islands.

More info on the Fiji Museum: Visit www.tropicalfiji.com.

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