From Round to Square (and back)

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Accidental Ethnographer (2d)—Fiji...Land of the Butterflies

One year ago on Round and Square (3 June 2011)—Living and Learning: Warring States, Divided Message.
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The Accidental Ethnographer." (Coming Soon)
Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7
[a] Cannibal Bay NZ RF
I gave a lecture at the Doylestown Historical Society on June 1st, as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's big bicentennial celebration. The subject was the American explorer and evangelist William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). This is part of a larger project that I am working on this summer in Doylestown with the help of Beloit College anthropology major Megan Nyquist '14. As I did a few weeks ago in preparation for another lecture (on another subject), I am posting some of Geil's own writings. This was enormously helpful to me the last time I tried it, and I think it is worth another try. I will, over the course of my summer research, post my lecture and some of the early results of the research Megan and I are doing. In the meantime, though, I want to start the "Accidental Ethnographer" series with William Geil's own words. I will post two or three readings from each of Geil's dozen books over the course of May and June.

[b] Cannibal Bay RF
William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.

He wrote about it all, and he took pictures. The former is not without problem; the latter is easily his legacy. It is all a fascinating picture of an American abroad in a peculiarly resonant time in American history—from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the end of World War I. This series will grow as my research does, but let's get started with Geil's own words—a little from each of his published books.
 ***  ***
William Edgar Geil gives his chapter on Fiji the title words " of the butterflies." He seems to have cannibals on the mind, though. Not unlike his earthquake and volcano rhetoric from yesterday's post, he indulges the English language in his description of human repast...of humans. We are only a fifth of the way into Geil's big book on the South Pacific, but we have already seen a powerful range of themes. Take a look at the way that Geil combines description and culinary evocation in the first few pages of his chapter on the exquisite island of Fiji. This is the very heart of anthropology...and anthropophagy. It also contains almost all of the keys to understanding William Edgar Geil and his complex life, thought, and reason for being.

Ocean and Isle—Fiji, or the Land of the Butterflies 
William Edgar Geil (1902) 
[c] Ca(nni)bal RF
The Fijian Archipelago consists of some 250 islands. The group lies half way from America to India, 300 miles north-east of Tonga, 500 miles south-west of the Navigator Islands. The exact distance from Fiji to Sydney is 1,900 miles, and to Auckland 1,200 miles. It is a Crown Colony, and has an acreage of 4,757,360 miles, which is slightly larger than Wales. THere are about 100 inhabited islands. The distinguished Dutch Captain, Tasman, discovered the Fiji Islands on the 6th of February, 1643, and named them Prince Williams Islands. On Turtle Island Captain Cook made an astronomical observation in 1773. Bligh passed by them after the mutiny of the "Bounty" when on his way to Timor. The missionary ship, "Duff," sailed among them, and the French ship "Astrolabe," in command of d'Urville, spent seventeen days in 1827 making the first chart. One half of the year 1840 was occupied by the American, Wilkes, making a survey of the entire Archipelago for the United States Exploring Expedition. The islands are of coral and volcanic formation. Many are very mountainous, the massive basalt peaks reaching as high as 5,000 feet about the tide. Frequent shocks of earthquake are felt, and volcanic action can be seen at the hot springs of Na-Savu-Savu on the island of Vanua Levu.
The country inland on the largest island is covered with a dense forest, and many large and valuable trees are available for commercial purposes. The soil, rich in humic acid, is deep and easily worked, and supplied with an abundance of moisture, for the rainfall at Suva is about 110 inches per year, and back in the mountains, where are the sources of the great rivers, 250 inches in not an unusual annual downfall of rain. Fiji is well watered. The two principal rivers are Singatoka and the Rewa. The latter rises at a point 4,000 feet about the sea, in the watershed of Calo. These rivers both drain the mountain country, and at their mouths are monster deltas, vast areas of flats, where sugar cane is cultivated. All tropical plants, and most temperate zone ones too, will prosper in this beautiful and naturally rich country. February is the warmest month, with a mean temperature of 84 deg. Fahr., and July is the coolest, registering 77 Fahr. Earthquakes and hurricanes are frequent, and especially the latter, are often very destructive. There are monster centipedes, sand flies, mosquitoes, and scorpions, but no malaria...

[d] Inversion RF
The Fijians are purely an agricultural and seafaring race. Descended from the gods, in real old Greek fashion, the peopling of the islands dates, by the most reliable traditions, far back in antiquity. I said they claim to be descended from the gods, but probably it would be nearer right to say that they worshipped their ancestors in pure Chinese style, without being restrained by the curbing power of the Celestial's sacred books. The Fijians are shrewd, witty, cheerful, and always polite. They are easy to get on with, if one knows and respects their peculiarities. They have not been nor are without talent. Their proverbs and poetry prove this. The Fijian language, which is Polynesian with some Malay words worked in for spice makes no distinction between reverence for the chiefs and for the gods. Their father-chiefs were their gods, but that they worshipped them before death, in the Roman "divine Caesar" mode, I know not, but am inclined to think that the worship was directed to the valiant chiefs who had gone to the spirit land...

When the few lonely missionaries came to these wild and inhospitable shores, they confronted murder, cannibalism, polygamy. The chief having most wives was counted best deserving of reverence. They were guilty of strangling widows, infanticide, the most inhuman treatment of war captives, and all the violent, bloody methods and schemes which their darkened but active minds could devise. Here came noble missionaries, and to-day what of civilization and humanity and Christianity the visitor witnesses must be placed to their credit. This I say without the least mental reservation. Out of the entire native population forty-seven per cent. are members in good and regular standing of the 896 Wesleyan churches. There are other preaching places, numbering 330, supported by the Wesleyan Fijians. The Wesleyan day schools have 25,610 attendants, and the Bible schools 30,890, while the adherents to the Wesleyan missions number the colossal aggregate of 91,197. The Roman Catholics has about 5,000 adherents, and have done some good work in the schools. They have been a bit amiss, however, in not devoting enough attention to such studies as would develop the reasoning faculties of the pupils.

The Fijians are a grateful people, or, at least, the converted are. The Government has erected 7,000 new houses, and moved entire villages from miasmatic to higher and healthier locations. It has required all houses to be built at least eighteen inches above the natural grade on the soil, and the sleeping part of the hut to be a foot or more above the rest of the room. Villages are required to keep a cow, and everything is being done by the Government and missionaries to cut down the death rate, for, sad to say, the Fijians are still diminishing in numbers. Dr. Withington tells me that but recently it was found that the decrease is due to the death rate and not the birth rate, as was at first feared. The birth rate should show net increase in the population each census, but the rapidity of the deaths leads to the regrettable result...

[e] Nourished RF
In Fiji one is at the fountain head of cannibalism, not of course of the present days, but of the past. Let us ask the question how came these islanders to become addicted to the use and abuse of human flesh? The history of these islands scandalizes human nature. As late as 1871, over an hundred persons were cooked and eaten in one village. In this case, afterwards, as if they would eat the tenderest morsels first, the pigs were consumed, bu the pork was underdone. So dreadful attacks of dyspepsia fell on the revellers, carrying some to their graves.

The cannibal days were, in a way, times of education, and the alert Fijians made bad use of the opportunities. Some scholars who have studied the Fijian cannibal question, say that the parents rubbed portions of human flesh on the lips of the children to arouse in them the appetite for the ghastly meal. They even put morsels into the mouths of infants that they might be nourished by the juices. This may have been under the spell of a tradition that the strength of the victim was transferred to the eater, or, as some hold, just to wantonly start the taste for the horrible feasts. Human meat salted down was considered a dainty dish. Chiefs lived upon their friends, often eating them raw. It was the custom in certain tribes to bake their enemies alive. The king of Rewa had a pretty female servant who dared to displease her lord. He ordered that one of her arms should be cut off and cooked; then he commanded her to eat it, which she did, and for this bloody inhuman grace she was permitted to live.

When a chief was unwell and wanted a real nicety, a young child was roasted for him. Women were reckoned more tender than men, and of better flavor. I met several ex-cannibals who have many times eaten human flesh, and they all agreed that it was tasty food. The Socinian says that human nature is very good. The Fijian says that human flesh is good, for he has eaten it. Indeed, in the Fijian language there is no word for corpse but "bakola," which conveys the idea of eating the dead. The Natawa clan finding an unfortunate boat's crew wrecked on their coast, cut off their legs, taking the precaution to first place native dishes under the wounds to catch the blood that none be lost. If, perchance, any fell aside on the ground, it was promptly licked up, and was in all respects treated as a very precious and appreciated delicacy. In this tribe so impatient and savage were they, that some could not curb themselves to wait for a body to cook, but tore or cut off portions such as nose, ears, and fingers, and ate them raw.

[f] Scarcity RF
They always cut off the cutis or outer skin, leaving what remained white. It does not appear that the custom was long in vogue. So vigorously was it practised, that if long observed it must have depopulated the islands. It is thought to have reached its apex when civilized nations learned of it and prepared to send missionaries to Fiji. So far had the consideration of human flesh gone as food, that search was made for the most toothsome vegetable to eat with the horrible banquet. Bordino was considered the best vegetable to accompany human flesh. Toussenel says: "Let us pity the cannibal and not blame him too severely. We who boast of our refined Christian civilization, murder men by tens of thousands from motives less excusable than hunger. The crime is not in roasting our dead enemy, but in killing him when he wishes to live." This suggested that cannibalism was caused in the first instance by the Fijian scarcity of animal food.

Fowls and pigs were not indigenous. On Fiji now there are no animals except such as have been imported. But four kinds of turtle are found, and a friend tells me there are more than fifty kinds of birds, including the "Orange Dove," but it is very rare. A biologist tells me that in Samoa they have the "robber Crab," This crab is so named because it climbs cocoanut trees, bits off the stem, the nut falls to the ground on some rocky place, breaks open, and the crab extracts the kernel for a living. It will not drop one down except there be a hard stone to break the shell in the fall. Here in Fiji is the Ugavule crab, which throws stones and earth at anything which pursues it. My biologist friend holds that the crab of Fiji is related to the crab of Samoa, but in this matter I must let the doctors disagree if it be not true.

But to hold on directly and pertinently to the cannibal question, from which we have hardly digressed...[1] 

Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7 
William Edgar Geil, Ocean and Isle (Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902), 56-63.

Geil, William Edgar. Ocean and Isle. Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902.
[g] Fijisun RF

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