Captain Erskine cruise through the Fiji Islands
4 June, 2023, 8:00 pm
During Havannah’s skipper, Captain John Elphinstone Erskine’s cruise around the Fiji Islands in the 1800s, he had the opportunity to witness the local customs and traditions including a visit to Ratu Seru Cakobau.
An account of this cruise was published by Erskine in 1853 in a journal titled Journal of a Cruise Among the Islands of the Western Pacific, in Her Majesty’s Ship Havannah.’ When Erskine arrived with his travelling company had an audience with Cakobau, they were received with ‘much ceremony’.
According to Erskine’s account they were met with of “native cloth, coils of cordage and the produce of the late Butoni tribute”.
Cakobau was seen seated ready to receive them.
“He rose, however, as we entered, seeing that it was expected, unfolding, as he did so…,” Eskine noted. “…an immense train of white native cloth, eight or ten yards long, from his waist, and invited me to occupy the one chair he possessed, the others taking their seats on rolls of cloth, or, like the natives, sitting cross-legged on the floor.”
Erksine admired the appearance of the great chief who was large, almost gigantic in size and his limbs “beautifully formed and proportioned.”
He said Cakobau had an immense head of hair, covered and concealed with gauze, smoke-dried and slightly tinged with brown. This somehow gave him the appearance of an eastern sultan.
“The missionaries said that he was a little agitated with the prospect of our interview, but I confess I did not discover it.
“Not far from him sat his principal and favourite wife, a stout, good looking woman, with a smiling expression, and her son, Thakombau’s heir, a fine boy of eight or nine, and he was surrounded at a respectful distance by a crowd of crouching courtier.”
Cakobau warmly greeted Wesleyan missionaries, Lyth and Calvert, and after a few words of greeting to Erksine, returned to his seat and waited for the start of their proceedings.
“This I soon did by requesting Mr Calvert to translate an address to the chief, which I first slowly repeated in English to this effect,” Erskine said.
“That he, the chief of Feejee, might see by my visit that the Queen of England’s ships do not come among these islands merely as punishers of misdeeds, but to testify on the part of the queen, as friendly ambassadors, her Majesty’s desire to cultivate their friendship and to see the cause of civilisation and religion advanced among them.
“Alluding to a representation which had been made to me, that Thakombau, knowing that the queen had a resident consul in Samoa, was very desirous that such an officer should live in his dominions to look after his fellow-countrymen and arrange their disputes with Feejeeans.”
Erskine tried to make Cakobau understand that if he wanted the favour done, then he must make sure that there were no uncivilised killings in Bau (referring to the late massacre on the occasion of the Butoni visit), Erskine drove the idea that civilized nations, looked upon such horrific murders with the “greatest horror and disgust.”
Erskine said Cakobau listened with great attention except when the topic of cannibalism was discussed.
“With every protestation of a desire to live well with the white men, and especially to protect the missionaries, in which I believe he was perfectly sincere, he touched lightly on the subject of cannibalism, giving a kind of conventional denial to its habitual exercise, and saying it had been the custom of their fathers, but was now giving way to better habits.
“He ended by inviting us to eat with him, a piece of attention which Mr. Calvert said he had never yet shown to any European, which we accepted, promising to return at the dinner hour after strolling through the town.”
During this stroll, Erskine asked Calvert the meaning of the chief’s earlier interruption during the translation. “I was told at the moment of expressing our horror at the practice of eating their fellowmen, he broke out, ‘that it was all very well for us who had plenty of beef to remonstrate, but they had no beef but men’.”
After visiting Navindi (Gavidi, Cakobau’s chief warrior) and his people, they continued to walk about on the island looking inside the different houses when invited.
The group came at last to an irregular square, on which stood a building, probably 100 feet long. The “strangers’ house” was still occupied by the Butoni.
The group entered it by a door in the centre.
“The interior struck me at first as resembling the lower deck of a ship-of-war, there being a passage down the centre, and the families living in separate messes on either side, divided, however, from each other, in some cases, by partitions of coloured native cloth.”
Erskine also met the former Queen of Rewa, whose husband had been put to death during the war and was also Cakobau’s half-sister.
After the stroll it was time for the group to have the second feast at Cakobau’s house. The feast consisted of a pig, not baked in the lovo, but cut up and boiled in an iron pot, similar to those used in boiling the trepang (beche-de-mer).
“The broth, or greasy water, was first handed round in cocoanut shells, and required an effort to swallow; but the pork was excellent, and was served with yams in a very cleanly way on bananaleaves.”
During the feast, Cakobau noticed Erskine and the rest admiring the carved spears that hung over their heads.
“Thakombau after dinner sent for one or two handsome clubs, the handles of which were decorated with coloured plait, and presented them to Captain Jenner and myself — a compliment which we returned by inviting him to accompany us on the following day to the ship, which he readily accepted, promising to cross to Viwa early in the morning, where we were to take our departure in the barge.
“I extended the invitation to Navindi, who was awaiting us at the wharf with a present of a neckpillow and several utensils of native crockery articles which he had been told I was desirous of purchasing, but for which he would not accept any return.”
After inspecting Cakobau’s foundation of a stone house which an American had started and had since left, they left for the night for Viwa.
The next morning Erskine received a surprising letter from a man called Charles Pickering who had previously left for Lakeba because of Cakobau and now resided at Viwa.
He was a man known for causing trouble, according to the natives. History being the subject it is, a group’s version of events may not be the same as that held by another group.
When publishing one account, it is not our intention to cause division or to disrespect other oral traditions.
Those with a different version can contact us so we can publish your account of history too — Editor.
Continues next week