#3 Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives
     (Thomas Williams, 1858)

When a chief is either dead or dying, the fact is announced to his various connexions; and should he be of supreme power, the principal persons in his dominions come to pay their respects, and offer a present to him. . .I have heard the dead questioned in a style which has prevailed among every people where similar modes of lamentation have been observed. “Why did you die? Were you weary of us? We are around you now. Why do you close your eyes upon us?” Sometimes these wailings continue through the night, and their dreary, dismal effect cannot be imagined by any one who has not heard them. The tones are those of hopeless despair, and thrill through “nerve, and vein, and bone.”. . .

. . .The next step is the preparation of the loloku. This word expresses anything done out of respect for the dead, but especially the strangling of friends. This custom may have had a religious origin, but at present the victims are not sacrificed as offerings to the gods, but merely to propitiate and honour the manes of the departed. It is strengthened by misdirected affection, joined with wrong notions of a future life. The idea of a chieftain going into the world of spirits unattended, is most repugnant to the native mind. So strong is the feeling in favour of the loloku, that Christianity is disliked because it rigorously discountenances the cherished custom. When the Christian chief of Dama fell by the concealed musketry of the Nawathans, a stray shot entered the forehead of a young man at some distance from him, and killed him. The event was regarded by many of the nominal Christians as most fortunate, since it provided a companion for the spirit of the slain chief.

Ordinarily, the first victim for the loloku is the man’s wife, and more than one, if he has several. I have known the mother to be strangled too. In the case of a chief who has a confidential companion, this his right-hand man, in order to prevent a disruption in their intimacy, ought to die with his superior; and a neglect of this duty would lower him in public opinion. . . .

            Choosing to Die

…In the case of a chief drowned at sea, or slain and eaten in war, the loloku is carefully observed, as well as if the deceased had died naturally, and been buried in a strange land. But in these instances the grief of the survivors is more impassioned, and their desire to manifest it by dying is more enthusiastic.

When Ra Mbithi, the pride of Somosomo, was lost at sea, seventeen of his wives were destroyed. After the news of the massacre of the Namena people at Viwa in 1839, eighty women were strangled to accompany the spirits of their murdered husbands.

Before leaving this dark subject, it demands more full and explicit examination. It has been said that most of the women thus destroyed are sacrificed at their own insistence. There is truth in this statement; but unless other facts are taken into account, it produces an untruthful impression. Many are importunate to be killed, because they know that life would thenceforth be to them prolonged insult, neglect, and want. Very often, too, their resolution is grounded upon knowing that their friends or children have determined that they shall die. Some women have been known to carry to the grave the mats in which they and their dead husbands were to be shrouded, and, on their arrival, have helped to dig their own tomb. They then took farewell of their friends. . .

If the friends of the woman are not the most clamorous for her death, their indifference is construed into disrespect either for her late husband or his friends, and would be accordingly resented. Thus the friends and children of the woman are prompted to urge her death, more by self-interest than affection for her, and by fear of the survivors rather than respect for the dead. Another motive is to secure landed property belonging to the husband, to obtain which they are ready to sacrifice a daughter, a sister, or a mother. Many a poor widow has been urged by the force of such motives as these, more than by her own apparent ambition, to become the favourite wife in the abode of spirits.. . .

. . . As it affects the children, this dreadful custom is fearfully cruel, depriving them of the mother when, by ordinary or violent means, they have become fatherless. Natural deaths are reduced to a small number among heathen Fijians, by the prevalence of war and the various systems of murder which custom demands…


[#3] Thomas Williams, “Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives,” Fiji and the Fijians (London: Alexander Heylan, Vol. 1, 1858; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1870), pp. 160-176.

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