#2 Elderly Parents and the Time to Die
     (Charles Wilkes, 1845)

…a belief in a future state is universally entertained by the Feejeeans. In some parts of the group, this has taken the following form, which, if not derived from intercourse with the whites, is at least more consistent with revealed truth than any of those previously recorded. Those who hold this opinion, say that all the souls of the departed will remain in their appointed place, until the world is destroyed by fire and a new one created; that in the latter all things will be renovated, and to it they will again be sent to dwell thereon.

This belief in a future state, guided by no just notions of religious or moral obligation, is the source of many abhorrent practices. Among these are the custom of putting their parents to death when they are advanced in years; suicide; the immolation of wives at the funeral of their husbands, and human sacrifices.

It is among the most usual occurrences, that a father or a mother will notify their children that it is time for them to die, or that a son shall give notice to his parents that they are becoming a burden to him. In either case, the relatives and friends are collected, and informed of the fact. A consultation is then held, which generally results in the conclusion, that the request is to be complied with, in which case they fix upon a day for the purpose, unless it should be done by the party whose fate is under deliberation. The day is usually chosen at a time when yams or taro are ripe, in order to furnish materials for a great feast, called mburua. The aged person is then asked, whether he will prefer to be strangled before his burial or buried alive. When the appointed day arrives, the relatives and friends bring tapas, mats, and oil, as presents. They are received as at other funeral feasts, and all mourn together until the time for the ceremony arrives. The aged person then proceeds to point out the place where the grave is to be dug; and while some are digging it, the others put on a new maro and turbans. When the grave is dug, which is about four feet deep, the person is assisted into it, while the relatives and friends begin their lamentations, and proceed to weep and cut themselves as they do at other funerals. All then proceed to take a parting kiss, after which the living body is covered up, first with mats and tapa wrapped around the head, and then with sticks and earth, which are trodden down. When this has been done, all retire, and are tabooed, as will be stated in describing their ordinary funerals. The succeeding night, the son goes privately to the grave, and lays upon it a piece of ava-root, which is called the vei-tala or farewell.

Mr. Hunt, one of the missionaries, had been a witness of several of these acts. On one occasion, he was called upon by a young man, who desired that he would pray to his spirit for his mother, who was dead. Mr. Hunt was at first in hopes that this would afford him an opportunity of forwarding their great cause. On inquiry, the young man told him that his brothers and himself were just going to bury her. Mr. Hunt accompanied the young man, telling him he would follow in the procession, and do as he desired him, supposing, of course, the corpse would be brought along; but he now met the procession, when the young man said that this was the funeral, and pointed out his mother, who was walking along with them, as gay and lively as any of those present, and apparently as much pleased. Mr. Hunt expressed his surprise to the young man, and asked how he could deceive him so much by saying his mother was dead, when she was alive and well.

He said, in reply, that they had made her death feast, and were now going to bury her; that she was old; that his brother and himself had thought she had lived long enough, and it was time to bury her, to which she had willingly assented, and they were about it now. He had come to Mr. Hunt to ask his prayers, as they did those of the priest. He added, that it was from love of his mother that they had done so; that, in consequence of the same love, they were now going to bury her, and that none but themselves could or ought to do so sacred an office! Mr. Hunt did all in his power to prevent so diabolical an act; but the only reply he received was, that she was their mother, and they were her children, and they ought to put her to death. On reaching the grave, the mother sat down, when they all, including children, grandchildren, relations, and friends, took an affectionate leave of her; a rope, made of twisted tapa, was then passed twice around her neck by her sons, who took hold of it, and strangled her; after which she was put into her grave, with the usual ceremonies. They returned to feast and mourn, after which she was entirely forgotten as though she had never existed.

Mr. Hunt, after giving me this anecdote, surprised me by expressing his opinion that Feejeeans were a kind and affectionate people to their parents, adding, that he was assured by many of them that they considered this custom as so great a proof of affection that none but children could be found to perform it. The same opinion was expressed by all the other white residents.

A short time before our arrival, an old man at Levuka did something to vex one of his grandchildren, who in consequence threw stones at him. The only action the old man took in the case was to walk away, saying that he had now lived long enough, when his grandchildren could stone him with impunity. He then requested his children and friends to bury him, to which they consented. A feast was made, he was dressed in his best tapa, and his face blackened. He was then placed sitting in his grave, with his head about two feet below the surface. Tapa and mats were thrown upon him, and the earth pressed down; during which he was heard to complain that they hurt him, and to beg that they would not press so hard.

Self-immolation is by no means rare, and they believe that as they leave this life, so will they remain ever after. This forms a powerful motive to escape from decrepitude, or from a crippled condition, by a voluntary death.

Wives are often strangled, or buried alive, at the funeral of their husbands, and generally at their own insistence. Cases of this sort have frequently been witnessed by the white residents. On one occasion Whippy drove away the murderers, rescued the woman, and carried her to his own house, where she was resuscitated. So far, however, from feeling grateful for her preservation, she loaded him with abuse, and ever afterwards manifested the most deadly hatred towards him. That women should desire to accompany their husbands in death, is by no means strange, when it is considered that it is one of the articles of their belief, that in this way alone can they reach the realms of bliss, and she who meets her death with the greatest devotedness, will become the favourite wife in the abode of spirits.

The sacrifice is not, however, always voluntary; but, when a woman refuses to be strangled, her relations often compel her to submit. This they do from interested motives; for, by her death, her connexions become entitled to the property of her husband. Even a delay is made a matter of reproach. Thus, at the funeral of the late king, Ulivou, which was witnessed by Mr. Cargill, his five wives and a daughter were strangled. The principal wife delayed the ceremony, by taking leave of those around her; whereupon Tanoa, the present king, chid her. The victim was his own aunt, and he assisted in putting the rope around her neck, and strangling her, a service he is said to have rendered on a former occasion, to his own mother.

Not only do many of the natives desire their friends to put them to death to escape decrepitude, or immolate themselves with a similar view, but families have such a repugnance to having deformed or maimed persons among them, that those who have met with such misfortunes, are almost always destroyed. An instance of this sort was related to me, when a boy whose leg had been bitten of by a shark was strangled, although he had been taken care of by one of the white residents, and there was every prospect of his recovery. No other reason was given by the perpetrators of the deed; than that if he had lived he would have been a disgrace to his family, in consequence of his having only one leg.

When a native, whether man, woman, or child, is sick of a lingering disease, their relatives will either wring their heads off, or strangle them. Mr. Hunt stated that this was a frequent custom, and cited a case where he had with difficulty saved a servant of his own from such a fate, who afterwards recovered his health.

Formal human sacrifices are frequent. The victims are usually taken from a distant tribe, and when not supplied by war or violence, they are at times obtained by negotiation. After being selected for this purpose, they are often kept for a time to be fattened. When about to be sacrificed, they are compelled to sit upon the ground, with their feet drawn under their thighs, and their arms placed close before them. In this posture they are bound so tightly that they cannot stir, or move a joint. They are then placed in the usual oven, upon hot stones and covered with leaves and earth, where they are roasted alive. When the body is cooked, it is taken from the oven, and the face painted black, as is done by the natives on festal occasions. It is then carried to the mbure, where it is offered to the gods, and is afterwards removed to be cut up and distributed, to be eaten by the people. Women are not allowed to enter the mbure, or to eat human flesh.

Human sacrifices are a preliminary to almost all other undertakings. When a new mbure is built, a party goes out and seizes the first person they meet, whom they sacrifice to the gods; when a large canoe is launched, the first person, man or woman, whom they encounter, is laid hold of and carried home for a feast.

When Tanoa launches a canoe, ten or more men are slaughtered on the deck, in order that it may be washed with human blood.

Human sacrifices are also among the rites performed at the funerals of chiefs, when slaves are in some instances put to death. Their bodies are first placed in the grave, and upon them those of the chief and his wives are laid.

The ceremonies attendant on the death and burial of a great chief were described to me by persons who had witnessed them. When his last moments are approaching, his friends place in his hands two whale’s teeth, which it is supposed he will need to throw at a tree that stands on the road to the regions of the dead. As soon as the last struggle is over, the friends and attendants fill the air with their lamentations. Two priests then take in each of their hands a reed about eighteen inches long, on which the leaves at the end are left, and with these they indicate two persons for grave-diggers, and mark out the place for the grave. The spot usually selected is as near as possible to the banks of a stream. The grave-diggers are provided with mangrove-staves (tiri) for their work, and take their positions, one at the head, the other at the foot of the grave, having each one of the priests on his right hand. At a given signal, the labourers, making three feints before they strike, stick their staves in the ground, while the priests twice exchange reeds, repeating Feejee, Tonga: Feejee, Tonga. The diggers work in a sitting posture, and thus dig a pit sufficiently large to contain the body. The first earth which is removed is considered sacred, and laid aside.

The persons who have dug the grave also wash and prepare the body for interment, and they are the only persons who can touch the corpse without being laid under a taboo for ten months. The body after being washed is laid on a couch of cloth and mats, and carefully wiped. It is then dressed and decorated as the deceased was in life, when preparing for a great assembly of chiefs: it is first anointed with oil, and then the neck, breast, and arms, down to the elbows, are daubed with a black pigment; a white bandage of native cloth is bound around the head, and tied over the temple in a graceful knot; a club is placed in the hand, and laid across the breast, to indicate in the next world that the deceased was a chief and warrior. The body is then laid on a bier, and the chiefs of the subject tribes assemble; each tribe presents a whale’s tooth, and the chief or spokesman says: “This is our offering to the dead: we are poor and cannot find riches.” All now clap their hands, and the king or a chief of rank replies: “Ai mumundi ni mate,” (the end of death) ; to which all the people present respond, “e dina,” (it is true.) The female friends then approach and kiss the corpse, and if any of the wives wish to die and be buried with him, she runs to her brother or nearest relative and exclaims, “I wish to die, that I may accompany my husband to the land where his spirit has gone! love me, and make haste to strangle me, that I may overtake him!” Her friends applaud her purpose, and being dressed and decorated in her best clothes she seats herself on a mat, reclining her head on the lap of a woman; another holds her nostrils, that she may not breathe through them; a cord, made by twisting fine tapa (masi), is then put around her neck, and drawn tight by four or five strong men, so that the struggle is soon over. The cord is left tight, and tied in a bow-knot, until the friends of the husband present a whale’s tooth, saying, “This is the untying of the cord of strangling.” The cord is then loosed, but is not removed from the neck of the corpse.

When the grave is finished, the principal workman takes the four reeds used by the priests, and passes them backwards and forwards across each other: he then lines the pit or grave with fine mats, and lays two of the leaves at the head and two at the foot of the grave; on these the corpse of the chief is placed, with two of his wives, one on each side, having their right and left hands, respectively, laid on his breast; the bodies are then wrapped together in folds of native cloth; the grave is then filled in, and the sacred earth is laid on, and a stone over it. All the men who have had any thing to do with the dead body take off their maro or masi, and rub themselves all over with the leaves of a plant they call koaikoaia. A friend of the parties takes new tapa, and clothes them, for they are not allowed to touch any thing, being tabooed persons. At the end of ten days, the head chief of the tribe provides a great feast (mburua), at which time the tabooed men again scrub themselves, and are newly dressed. After the feast, ava is prepared and set before the priest, who goes through many incantations, shiverings, and shakings, and prays for long life and abundance of children. The soul of the deceased is now enabled to quit the body and go to its destination. During these ten days, all the women in the town provide themselves with long whips, knotted with shells; these they use upon the men, inflicting bloody wounds, which the men retort by flirting from a piece of split bamboo little hard balls of clay.

When the tabooed person becomes tired of remaining so restricted, they send to the head chief, and inform him, and he replies that he will remove the taboo whenever they please; they then send him presents of pigs and other provisions, which he shares among the people. The tabooed persons then go into a stream and wash themselves, which act they call vuluvulu; they then catch some animal, a pig or turtle, on which they wipe their hands: it then becomes sacred to the chief. The taboo is now removed, and the men are free to work, feed themselves, and live with their wives. The taboo usually lasts from two to ten months in the case of chiefs, according to their rank; in the case of a petty chief, the taboo would not exceed a month, and for a common person, not more than four days. It is generally resorted to by the lazy and idle; for during this time they are not only provided with food, but are actually fed by attendants, or


[#2] Charles Wilkes, “Elderly Parents and the Time to Die,” Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Vol. III. (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845), pp. 92, 94-100.

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#2 Elderly Parents and the Time to Die
     (Charles Wilkes, 1845)

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