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Good Words 1860
What Has Been Done In The Fiji Islands


A Christian thinker and worker of the last century set himself one day to consider the probable order in which the gospel of Christ would spread throughout the world, and he put on record the result of his thoughts. He looked at the promise, "The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea," and then at the actual condition of Christian and heathen countries; and, after weighing probabilities, he judged that there would be first a fuller setting up of the kingdom of God in the hearts of English and American Christians, whence it would spread from house to house, from town to town, and from one kingdom to another. Thus, he contemplated the triumph of the gospel throughout Europe, till all Papists should forsake their superstitions; and thence to Asia, till Mohammedans should own the truth; and thence to such heathens as, living near Christian nations, are in habits of intercourse with them—to the various tribes of Tartars, to the dwellers in the East Indies and in Africa, till at last the gospel should find its way into the very heart of China and Japan. Yet, after this survey, one grand difficulty remained. By what arrangements of Providence were the dwellers in the South Seas to be Christianised ? How should these outcasts, peopling insignificant ocean-girt rocks, or low-lying and scattered coral islets, be taught the way to the Saviour? Here reason was baffled; but faith, remembering how Ezekiel was "taken by the Spirit," and Philip led on his desert route by an angel, confidently affirmed that, in God's own way, this least likely work should yet be accomplished.

Eighty years have passed since then, and how different has been the course of events. Japan as firmly closed against Scripture-teaching as ever; Romanism and Mohammedanism still shutting out the light; the interior of Africa barely touched by the hand of Christian enterprise; while, to almost every group and island of the vast and thickly-studded Pacific Ocean, the Word of God has come in power, and from their Christian assemblies the incense of many prayers is day by day ascending to heaven. Surely, if John Wesley could now look at the work in the Harvey Islands and in Tahiti; in Samoa, in Tonga, and Fiji, he would rejoice like those who at Jerusalem heard Peter's story—"held their peace and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life;" only with this difference— their doubt had relation to God's willingness to save; his, to the mode and order in which the Divine wisdom would choose to act.

The South Sea missions generally have attracted the attention of English Christians of all Churches, and many a pleasant book has told the interesting story of the first missionaries in the Duff, and of their successors. But the Fiji group is less known than most, and on many grounds it has a claim on our Good Words. The fact that the present lord of Fiji, Thakombau, offers its sovereignty to our queen, leads statesmen and cotton-manufacturers to inquiry. Within the last few weeks a man of science has left England to study its flora; and no true Christian can fail to regard with deep interest the scene of one of the most wonderful triumphs of modern Christian missions. While angels, with their piercing intellects, desire to look into the blessed truths of Christian doctrine, surely we, wayfarers and simple ones, plain and practical, placed where we can, for a little while, so well investigate the effects of that doctrine, should never grow weary in gathering new facts illustrative of its power unto salvation.

The Fiji islands are a group numbering two hundred and eleven, spreading over about 40,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and situated about 1000 miles from New Zealand. Many of them are surrounded by "the white reef, that," according to one of the latest and happiest descriptions, "in Pacific islands encircles their inner lakelets, and shuts them from the surf and sound of sea. Clear and calm they rest, reflecting fringed shadows of the palm-trees, and the passing of fretted clouds across their own sweet circle of blue sky; while beyond, and round and round their coral bar, lies the blue of sea and heaven together—blue of eternal deep." Some of the islands are very small and flat; others raise their peaked summits to the height of four or five thousand feet, and the two largest are from three to four hundred miles in circumference. They are beautiful of aspect, and rich in productive soil. They are covered with a luxuriant growth of tropical plants and trees, from lowest coral reef to highest peak, save where the hand of native cultivation has cleared away large tracts of wood by fire, in order to prepare planting-ground for yams, bananas, and taro. Where this has been done one must rise to the level of a thousand feet before reaching masses of forest growth.

After passing these, and nearing the summit of the hills, trees are found to be sparsely scattered; but ferns of many kinds, with orchids and mosses, abound. Lower down, and following the course of the pleasant and fertilising rivulets, is an interlacing undergrowth of bushes and climbing plants. The mangrove seeks low and swampy places near the sea, pushes its way along muddy creeks, creeps over tracts of coral reef, and flourishes even where its young offshoots are covered three or four feet, at high tide, with salt water. Nature is here prodigal of her varied tints and forms; indeed, so favourable to vegetable life are the climate and soil of these islands, that turnip, radish, and mustard-seed, planted by Mr Brackenridge, (an American horticulturist who accompanied the United States exploring expedition,) shewed their cotyledon leaves in twenty-four hours; melons, cucumbers, and pumpkins sprang up in three days; beans and peas in four. In four weeks from the time of planting, radishes and lettuces were fit for use, and in five weeks marrow-fat peas. There is a difference here, as in all the large Polynesian islands, between the two sides of the islands. On the weather side showers are frequent, and vegetation knows no check; to leeward droughts are common, and the sultry sun sets his scorching mark upon the land. Though this is true, and though there are rocky places hopelessly barren, yet it is said that two-thirds of the entire surface of the islands is available for cultivation.

A small traffic with European ships was begun in the year 1806, sandalwood being then the chief article of barter. That supply has ceased; but the Fijians now trade with America, England, and Hamburgh, the principal exports being cocoa-nut oil, tortoise-shell, and beche-de-mer. Of all tropical trees the cocoa-nut seems to meet the largest number of demands from those who live among its groves; and to exaggerate its value is scarcely possible. Food, and light, and clothing; drinking-cups, cordage, fishing-tackle, carpeting; wood for building, and oil for lubrication are all supplied by this ever-ready friend. Home consumption being great, cocoa-nut oil is not likely to be very largely exported; yet in 1.859 seven hundred tons were sent to America.

The search for tortoise-shell gives occupation to many of the natives, and some of the small uninhabited islands are visited, at certain seasons, for this express purpose. From December to March, fishermen remain in the haunts of the turtle, and intercept the slow travellers as they return from feeding or from laying their eggs. The female turtle is most prized. Sometimes they are caught in nets of strong cocoa-nut sinnet, with meshes of seven or eight inches square; but, after they become entangled, the difficulty of actual capture remains. The Fijians will dive and seize the turtle, overcoming him in his own element, not without a severe struggle. Should the resistance offered be unusually vigorous, his captor tries to insert his finger and thumb in the creature's eye-socket, and this done, the turtle owns himself vanquished by rising to the surface. He is then dragged to the boat and laid on his back. Pour or five men will sometimes be engaged in securing one such prize. Live turtle are kept in pens, by the chiefs, ready for sale. The thirteen plates that cover the back and sides of the turtle (the tortoise-shell of commerce) are called "a head," and weigh from one to seven pounds.

Those who have lived in Fiji tell us that, as they walk along the shore or near the reefs, they often see, through clear and shallow water, numbers of sea-slugs, some black, and some brown, others of a dark yellow colour. These are different species of holothuria, sought after by the natives, not so much for home, as for foreign consumption. They are not unsightly as they creep along their light-coloured sea-floor of sand and corals, all unconscious of impending destiny. Some even praise their beauty. But one cannot look at them without remembering that thousands and tens of thousands are taken every year, drained, and split, and boiled and dried, till they become as hard as chips; and then sent to China to be softened, and swallowed in the rich soup of mandarin gourmands. Traders make an agreement with some willing chief, paying him so much a hogshead for the beche-de-mer, just as they are taken on the reef; then he sets his dependants to find them, and to prepare suitable houses for the curing process, which keeps many hands employed for many days.

Fijian exports, in American vessels alone, amount to ,£32,000 per annum. Those in British ships are said to be of equal value, and Hamburgh vessels do a considerable trade.

These particulars fail to give a correct idea of the industrial produce of Fiji, which far exceeds that of other Polynesian islands. There is an interesting chapter in the first volume of a recently-published work, [Fiji and the Fijians. Vol. I. The Islands and their Inhabitants. By Thomas Williams. Edited by George Stringer Rowe. London: Hamilton and Adams.—The Editor acknowledges his obligations to the proprietors of this work for the use of the above illustrations, and others to appear in the continuation of this article.] which raises our respect for the capacity and activity of the people, and shews that they are resorted to by the Tongans and other neighbours for articles of manufacture, pottery especially, wherein their excellence is confessed.

What has been said makes it plain that any who should expect to find in Fiji a low type of humanity, an approach to the physical weakness and mental incapacity of the wandering aborigines of Australia, men whose building and cooking powers are undeveloped, would make a great mistake. The Fijian native is a finely made man, muscular and energetic. His house is carefully constructed, often thirty feet in height, and from sixty to ninety feet in length, strong in posts and rafters; its walls made of reeds neatly arranged, and adorned with coloured sinnet-work; its thatch of long grass, or leaves of the sugar-cane and stone-palm; with a fireplace sunk a foot below the floor, and guarded by a kerb of hard wood; a dais serving as a divan and sleeping-place, and a shelf for the owner's property. Many houses, thus large and handsome, with others of inferior form and size, are grouped into villages, intersected by narrow lanes, and protected by reed fences. The Fijian canoe is built on so good a model that the Tongans have adopted it in place of their own old-fashioned Togiaki. The spears and clubs of Fiji display much skill in carving, and speak well for the habit of patient continuance in tedious labour. In cookery, the Fijians avail themselves of many methods; they bake, boil, roast, and fry their food. They have twelve kinds of bread, nearly thirty kinds of puddings, and many sorts of broths and soups, including turtle-soup.

The language of the islands is probably richer in radical terms than that of many other Oceanic tongues. "Whatever belongs to their religion, their political constitution, their wars, their social and domestic habits, their occupation and handicrafts, their amusements, they not only express with propriety and ease, but, in many instances, with a minuteness of representation, and a nicety of colouring, which it is hard to reproduce in a foreign language. Thus the Fijians can express by different words the motion of a snake and that of a caterpillar, with the clapping of the boat lengthwise, crosswise, or in almost any other way. For the verb 'to think' it has two words; for 'to pluck' four; for 'to carry, command, entice, lie, raise,' it has five each; for 'to make, place, push, turn,' eight each; with fourteen for 'to cut,' and sixteen for 'to strike.' The Greek and other cultivated tongues have different words for 'to wash,' according as the word has reference to the body, or to clothes and the like ; and when the body is spoken of, their synonyms will sometimes define the limb or part which is the subject of the action. The Fijian leaves those languages far behind; for it can avail itself of separate terms to express the washing process, according as it may happen to affect the head, face, hands, feet, and body of an individual, or his apparel, his dishes, or his floor." The people excel in conversation; and Mr Hadley, cited by Dr Pickering, says, "In the course of much experience, the Fijians are the only savage people I have ever met with who can give reasons, and with whom it is possible to hold a connected conversation." They are particular as to many points of etiquette, especially as it regards the recognition of rank. They have an aristocratic dialect, which hyperbolises every member of the chief's body, and the commonest acts of his life. An armed man, when he meets a chief, lowers his arms, takes the outside of the road, and crouches down. Should he wish to cross the path of his superior, he must pass before and not behind him. They have a singular custom, called bale muri, "follow in falling." Mr Williams says—"One day I came to a long bridge, formed of a single cocoa-nut tree, which was thrown across a rapid stream, the opposite bank of which was two or three feet lower, so that the declivity was too steep to be comfortable. The pole was also wet and slippery, and thus my crossing was very doubtful. Just as I had commenced the experiment, a heathen said, with much animation, 'To-day I shall have a musket.' I had, however, just then to heed my steps more than his words, and so succeeded in reaching the other side safely. When I asked him why he spoke of a musket, the man replied, ' I felt certain you would fall in attempting to go over, and I should have fallen after you;' (that is, appeared to be clumsy;) ' and as the bridge is high, the water rapid, and you a gentleman, you would not have thought of giving me less than a musket." In their intercourse with strangers they are almost as polite and as self-depreciating as the Chinese. They will bring a handsome present, and say, "I have nothing fit to offer you, but these fowls are an expression of my love for your children;" or, laying down a valuable lot of yams —"A matter of little importance, but given to help in fattening your hogs." Every change in health and condition is celebrated with ceremonies and feasts. There is one custom which shews more tenderness of feeling than we expect to find among savages. When a girl is betrothed, and is about to leave her friends, a day is appointed on which the relatives of her intended husband bring her trinkets, and try to solace her, and this is called, vakama-maca, "the drying up of the tears."

(To be continued.)


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