Allardyce, W.L, "Rotooma and the Rotoomans," Proceedings of Queensland Branch of the Geographical society of Australasia, 1885-6, Pp. 130-144.
The object of this paper is to endeavour to supply you with some information regarding one of our latest colonial annexations; its climate and people, with a few of their peculiar customs. The island in question is called Rotooma, and I may mention that it is invariably misnamed by being called Rotoomá.It is situated in the Pacific in 12o 30' south latitude, 177o 10' east longitude, and was discovered by the "Pandora" in 1793, when searching for the mutineers of the "Bounty."The mainland is seven miles long by three miles broad, and contains about 9,000 acres. How then did this speck in the Pacific come to be annexed? Well, it came about in this way. There occurred in Rotooma, about 1878, a religious war, and the Catholics and Wesleyans fought together. Fortunately, the struggle did not last long, though a number of people were killed, and shortly afterwards three Rotooma chiefs came to Fiji, and in the name of themselves and their people offered the island to England. Their offer was accepted, and on the 13th of May, 1881, Rotooma was formally annexed to the British dominions. On approaching from the south west you pass through a channel four miles broad, which lies between several small islands and the mainland. The first of these, Hoflua, at once strikes attention owing to the fact that the island is divided into two parts by a narrow strait of deep water several fathoms broad, while high overhead the rocks are connected, forming a huge picturesque arch. No one lives on this island, which contains a number of cocoanuts, is the natural home of thousands of sea birds, and is only accessible in the finest weather. The next island, or, rather, two small islands close together encircled by a reef, are called Hattana. There is no passage in the reef, but they can generally be approached from the lee side during the south east trades. They are uninhabited, very low lying, and are covered with cocoanuts and shrubs. The last of these islets, Waya, it in shape not unlike a sugar loaf, rising straight out of the sea, and has a height of nearly six hundred feet. In a small hollow, facing the south east, is the only village, which is composed of five men, including a Fijian teacher, and some thirty women and children. There is no landing place, and for months in bad weather they are altogether cut off from communication with their friends on the opposite shore. To go there in a boat either necessitates your swimming ashore or waiting till a small canoe is launched, in which are two men, who will come off for you. Apparently it is but a choice of too evils--an immediate dunking by jumping off the boat into the water, or a temporary postponement of the same operation by trusting one's self to the canoe. However, so skillfully do these men manage the canoe, that the landing, as a rule, merely necessitates a wetting of the feet. They patiently wait their opportunity, and when a large swell comes they paddle with all their strength and run the canoe, which draws but an inch or two of water, up a smooth rock, where they quickly jump out and hold on to it till the receding suction has ceased, when they drag the canoe up the rock before the next heavy swell comes. This is the only place in Rotooma where a drink of really fresh water can always be obtained. At best it is but a very diminutive stream, and in the dry weather to draw a bucketful would take some little time.The mainland is divided into seven districts, viz.:--Ituteu, Itumutu, Malhaha, Oinafa, Noatau, Pepsei and Faguta. There are two fairly good anchorages on the north side during the trade winds, but the reef is everywhere a sure one. The soil is that rich black volcanic earth which makes vegetation so dense and luxuriant. Cocoanuts abound everywhere, even on the hills, which range from two to six hundred feet, while finer groves of ifi (Inocarpus edulis) and hefo (Callophylum) trees are rarely to be met with anywhere. At present, there are but one or two old women who make the oil from the Callophylum, and that too but very impure. The aana (Caladium esculentum), yam, "ooh" (Dioscorea) exists in many varieties, and oranges, limes lemons, bananas, mummy apples, and pineapples are to be found in large quantities, while vi (Spondias dulcis), breadfruit, "ool" (Artocarous), and fava, a large tree which bears a kind of plum very much appreciated by the natives, not to speak of kaava (Piper mythisticum), are very plentiful.The natives are shrewd and adventurous, very light in complexion, and of a copper colour, from which it is reasonable to suppose that they are of Malay origin, their own traditions making them to have come from Samoa. In former times they wore their hair long, tatooed themselves from the hips to the thighs, and covered their bodies with turmeric and cocoanut oil. So thickly, indeed, did they besmear themselves with this mixture that its traces were left on everything they came in contact with. Now, however, as a rule, the tatooing is limited to the arms and lower portions of the legs, while they seldom anoint themselves with turmeric.The population is about 2,200, of whom four-fifths are Wesleyans, and the remainder are Roman Catholics. This excludes some three hundred young men who from time to time have left the islands as sailors and labourers to the Fiji, Samoan, Sandwich, and other groups of islands. Of those who have shipped to the colonies, the greater number are to be found at Torres Straits pearl fishing, where Rotooma natives are employed as boatmen and divers, The boatmen receive at the rate of two or three pounds a month; while the divers, if successful, have been known to make £200 a year. Very little of this money, however, ever reaches Rotooma, as a fortnight or three weeks in Sydney is amply sufficient to dispose of it all, and as a rule, with the exception, perhaps, of a box and a roll or two of cloth, with absolutely nothing whatsoever to show for it.It not infrequently happens, too, that on reaching Sydney a vessel is not found to be leaving for Rotooma for several months, in which case, when the money is finished, there is nothing to be done but to re-engage at pearl fishing. (Since annexation, however, I have been led to understand that all vessels bound for Rotooma must first clear themselves at the Fiji Customs before proceeding there.) Nearly all the men on the island have at one time or another been to sea, and while in the old whaling days Honolulu and Behring Straits formed the goal of their ideas, the sailors of the present day must needs visit New Zealand, Australia, China, and India, while others still more ambitious are not satisfied till they have rounded the Horn and passed the white cliffs of Dover. The few who have never been to sea at all have often to endure a considerable amount of banter at the expense of their inexperience.As most of those who have been abroad have brought back with them a smattering of English a stranger has but little difficulty in getting himself understood, the more so as a considerable number, after several years' residence in Fiji, have acquired a fairly good knowledge of that language.
Some forty or fifty years ago Rotooma formed a not unimportant whaling station, as yams, fowls, pigs, &c., were always easily obtainable. As many as ten or eleven whalers have been known to have anchored in the lee harbour, Ituteu, at once, and as in those days the abandoning of men and their deserting their ships was no uncommon occurrence, ninety whites have thus been on the island at one time, of whom seventy used to make and sell an intoxicating liquor from the cocoanut trees, known as "Tokelau toddy," so called because the natives of the Tokelau islands appear to have been the original makers, and still manufacture and drink a considerable quantity. At present (1882) there is but one of the old hands remaining, an Indian half caste, who goes by the sobriquet of "East India Jack," and who says that he has lived there for over fifty years.
The climate of Rotooma, unfortunately, cannot be looked upon as by any means a healthy one, and the European, whether missionary, government official, or trader, would do well, where possible, to make a trip to the colonies during the hot season. The temperature in the shade, from November to March, ranges from 90o to 100o Fah., and in the cooler months from 80oto 90o Fah., while the average rainfall may be estimated at 150 inches. One must, however, remember that the reading of the thermometer is that of a damp heat, which is singularly oppressive and enervating. The scourge of the place is elephantiasis, and a very large percentage of Rotoomans are martyrs to it, as a slight attack of fever, or a chill, is quite sufficient to give, not only the native, but the European, this dreadful disease, which in very many instances reduces him to a most pitiable physical condition.
Rotooman houses, too, cannot be looked upon as altogether desirable abodes, being by no means air tight, and somewhat damp. The average length is about four fathoms, the breadth about two, and the ridgepole varies in height from two to three fathoms. The walls and roof are formed of plaited palm leaves, and the two ends of the house are rounded off in the shape of a semicircle. Nearly every house is built on a foundation of stones and earth, or stones and sand varying from one to four feet in height. The floor is covered with small pieces of coral and pebbles, which form a fairly dry surface, and on these rough mats of plaited cocoanut leaves, called "farau" are placed. At the further end of the house there is a dais which is covered with nice soft mats, salaa, which serves the double purpose of sitting room during the day and bedroom at night. There is scarecly a house which does not possess, suspended from the ridgepole, a kind of large four sided swinging basket, called kokona, which serves as larder and cupboard, and general receptacle for things which are intended to be out of the way of the children and the rats. To guard against the latter a piece of circular wood, a foot or more in diameter, is obtained, and a hole bored in the centre, through which the main string of the kokona passes. Underneath this piece of wood, when at a suitable height, a knot is made, not large enough to pass through the hole in the wood, which is thus kept stationary. However, the slightest weight on any part of it, at once gives the wood a sudden tilt downwards, and the rat is dropped on to the floor, clear of the kokona, and alongside of the cat.
There are a few houses on the island built of lime and stone, but these invariably take many months to build, and are as a rule eventually reserved as places of worship.
The male portion of a Rotooman household have their time employed in planting, house building, and out door cooking, &c., these duties being greatly facilitated to them owing to the productiveness of the soil, whereby a man can in the course of a few days plant more than sufficient food for himself and family for several weeks, his gardens requiring little or no attention beyond an occasional weeding, and the proximity of all the materials necessary for house building operations and the abundance of fuel which is close alongside.
The women employ themselves principally in looking after the children, fishing, cooking small things in the house, and plaiting mats, of which there are several varieties and for which they are justly noted, a good mat in Fiji fetching from two to four pounds. On state occasions, too, when "kaava" is prepared, elderly women are chosen to chew the roots.
An American of the name of John Williams has the credit of being the first person to buy cocoanut oil in Rotooma, and a brisk oil trade was carried on till about twelve years ago, when it was supplemented by copra. When a native intended to make oil he collected several hundred dry cocoanuts and then invited his friends to a kind of social gathering, at which they did all the work and scraped the flesh out of the nuts while he killed a pig and supplied them with a suitable feast. The scraped cocoanuts were then placed in the frame of a canoe and were left to stand for five days, the canoe being covered over with mats or leaves. At the end of this time it was stirred regularly morning and evening for other (sic) three days, when the owner was then enabled to take off some gallons of oil. He then poured into the canoe several buckets of salt water, which the cocoanuts absorbed while the oil oozed out; and this was repeated once or twice. The Rotoomans, however, were not considered by any means adepts in oil making. A gallon of oil usually fetched a fathom of cloth, and it took ten nuts to make a quart of oil, or forty nuts to the gallon. Thus a hogshead of oil, which ranged in price from £2 10s. to £3 lOs., required 2,500 nuts. The casks employed in this trade in the first instance were mostly old oak beer hogsheads, as it was at once found that cocoanut oil when stowed in other varieties of casks leaked very considerably, owing to its extremely penetrating nature. A larger measure than this was the imperial butt, which was specially made and sent out from England for the trade. Vessels laden with oil generally had a number of these large butts in the hold as a kind of ballast and primary layer, though these were subsequently replaced by two hundred gallon iron tanks. With the introduction of copra, however, the oil making almost altogether ceased. A native some years ago used to receive £10 a ton for his copra; but of late, owing to the fall in prices, he rarely realizes more than £6 or £7. To make a hundred weight of copra he requires a little over two hundred nuts, the flesh of which he scoops out and places in the sun to dry, and which, according to the weather, takes from three to five days. With fine weather and a warm north wind three days is sufficient, supposing even that it is taken in at night; but with a hot sun and no wind it requires four day; while with the S.E. trade, which is the coolest wind, it has generally to remain out for five days. When dry it is found to have lost nearly half its original weight, and now weighs 112 lbs., in which state it is sold to the trader, in whose hands it shrinks still further, owing to the copra bug and other insects. Thus it takes nearly two cocoanuts to make one marketable pound of copra, and to make a ton requires over four thousand nuts.
Three years ago there were five trading firms on the island, and the annual export of copra was about 250 tons. There was also a slight "kaava" trade, varying from three to four tons per annum, the dried root in the first instance being bought by the traders at from 6d. to 9d. per pound.
One of the peculiar features of the island is the large number of caves which abound in most of the districts. Many of them are mere underground passages of from fifty to sixty yards in length, to explore which you must be prepared to grovel for yards on your stomach, pushing a lamp before you, and with hundreds of bats flying about your face. There is, however, one very remarkable cave called Mamphiri, which is well worthy of mention. On the top of a hill 300 feet above the sea, and partly covered over by thick bush, is a circular hole of about eighteen feet in diameter, round which blocks of lava stand up two or three feet high, forming a kind of railing, against which one can with safety lean if disposed to gaze at the darkness below. To descend it is desirable to put yourself in charge of the chief of the district, who will either accompany you himself or send a number of his young men to put up a scaffolding and make everything secure; you merely require to supply the rope. On descending, for the first thirty feet the circular hole remains much the same, ferns and mosses growing on the sides nearer the top; after this, however, it opens out very much, and, after a further descent of seventy feet, you reach a heap of scoriae, thirty feet in height, down which it is necessary to scramble. After groping round the walls of this cave, which has an oval shape and is rather over twenty yards in length, a passage will be found at the north end, which, after sixty yards of gradual descent, leads you to another cave of smaller dimensions. This underground passage is beautifully paved with hugh blocks of flat lava, between and winding through whcih are a number of small gutters. Not very long ago a number of the natives thought that Mamphiri was bottomless, while others believed that there was a submarine passage leading from it to Waya. Tradition says that the cave was formed by a chief of the name of Raho, who, having been defeated in battle, determined to have revenge on his enemies though he perished himself in the attempt. He accordingly went to Mamphiri and cut a large stick, which he struck into the ground with the intention of swamping the island. In this he was unsuccessful though he is said to have thus formed Mamphiri.
It formerly was the custom on the birth of an infant, if a boy, for one of the old women in attendance to rush out of the house and calling loudly on their god, "Tangroa," proclaim that another man child had been born. The advent of a girl, however, on this terrestial scene was not thus proclaimed. This was followed by a feast, called "otchuki," which, however, was only made to the firstborn, and invariably consisted of large quantities of pigs, yams, and dalo, &c.; the food brought by the father's friends being given to the mother's relations, and vice-versa. The next important event occurred when the child was about four years of age and consisted in boring a hole in the lobe of its ear, called "palang ou falinga." This operation was performed by a doctor, who was obliged to draw blood from his own arm or some other part of his body after doing it.
Previous to the introduction of Christianity, and even to a certain extent afterwards, it was customary for parents to formally marry their children when they were but five or six years old. This occasion was, of course, attended by much feasting. In many instances, however, the man and woman on growing up never took kindly to each other, and, though married, never lived together. The last feast of all was that made on his decease, when the greater portion of his stock and property were sacrificed for the benefit of those who came to attend his obsequies. Often a large pile of stones was placed on the grave of the departed, which took several days to erect. In later years gravestones have been obtained from the colonies, varying in value from £10 to £20, in order to mark the last resting place of the deceased.
In olden days there were three chiefs, or rather officers, of very great importance in Rotooma, viz.:--Sau or king, Puer, and Mua. The sau, or Rotooma king, was till comparatively lately the being to whom most veneration was paid on the island, and though the puer, a kind of prime minister, conducted the affairs of the land, he always drank "kaava" after the sau on state occasions. The puer had the power, on the death of a sau, to name a suitable chief as his successor, though his choice was not necessarily followed, in which case a tribal war occurred if the matter could not be otherwise satisfactorily settled, and the victors then elected a sau. The length of reign was a matter that rested altogether with the king, but he could not resign before six months, which was known as a "tef," a period with them not unlike our year, as the reign was always reckoned by the number of tefs. Some generations ago the sau was appointed when a mere boy, and often reigned for some thirty or forty years; but, latterly, he rarely occupied the throne for more than a twelvemonth. The sau, in like manner, on the death or resignation of a puer had a right to appoint a successor, and his choice also, though not necessarily, was usually adhered to. The staff of the sau was composed of certain officers who were known as Heugata, Titup, Fakpuer (the doctor), Faugata, and Fatma, exclusive of two aides-de-camp called Mafuai, whose duties obliged one to always accompany the king, while the other sat in his house and received the king's daily presents of food, &c. On the appointment of a sau, a large feast called Taokianmarai" had to be made, which he attended, dressed in a costly mat with a girdle of red leaves round his waist, and a large necklace hanging down over his chest, composed of sweet smelling flowers. He was accompanied by a number of old women who, as they proceeded, sang. After the feast the king took off his robes of state and gave them to his Faugata, who donned them, and for the remainder of the day held the position of sau. When he returned them in the evening he daubed the king's face with a yellow dye, which was supposed to greatly enhance his personal appearance. In the second month of the year a large feast was made, called "Tefhay," which the whole island attended. When the people had collected together, one of the king's aides-de-camp began shouting out the names of all the past kings, and as each name was called some of the descendants came forward with food and placed it before the sau. This calling of names lasted for a considerable time. The Rotooma kings, as handed down from generation to generation, number one hundred and six. In the same week of the same month, the sau, with all the people, went to Noatau for a large feast, called the "Sesueli," and on the next day the officers of the sau made him a feast, called "Arougi," in his own district. Among minor feasts, one called "Suivauqunu," which was made on every occasion when he took off his robes of office, is the most important.
It is a noticeable fact that on all occasions when presents of food were made to the sau his officers always received a larger share than any of the other chiefs, excepting the puer and mua, and always drank kaava before them (the other chiefs). The duties of the puer consisted in making the necessary laws and in arranging with the different districts that a regular supply of food should be daily brought to the sau, whose diurnal duties consisted in partaking three times of food and kaava. Neither the sau nor the puer could condemn a man to death merely for his own gratification, which shows that the chiefs never had the absolute power which existed and does still exist in many of the other groups of islands.
The mua was less powerful than either the sau or the puer. He was appointed by the puer for an indefinite period, though it was customary to resign after about a year. By him alone he could be dismissed from office. On the appointment of a mua he could take up his abode in whatever district he chose, and on the fifth day of his muaship the people of the district he had chosen to live in took him out fishing for the purpose of obtaining turtle. If a turtle was not caught he was prevented from cooking turtle again while in office, and the general opinion was, that though he might be a good mua, yet food would be scarce. To cook turtle was a very great honour, and belonged to a people called "Moriroa." If a person happened by chance to catch a turtle he was obliged to send for one of the Moriroa to cook it. On this particular occasion, however, if a turtle was caught there were very great rejoicings, as it foretold of an abundance of food. If the previous mua had died a natural death, it was the first duty of his successor to bury him at "Muasolo" (the Mua's Hill), the burial place of the muas, situated in the bush about half way between Fanguta and Malhaha, and to unearth the last mua in order to obtain the stone axe, called "voirou," which it was customary to bury with the mua--a different axe, however, being buried with each mua. If the stone axe was easily found the opinion was that the new mua would be a very good one. It was then wrapped up, carried home, and taken very great care of. In those days a year (tef) was composed of six moons, called respectively Oihap, Noatau, Howata, Kasep, Fosoghow, and Afopugi. Oihap, or the weeding month, was the most important by far, for during it the most momentous feasts occurred. On the first day of this month a large fishing took place at Faugata, which all the people of the district attended under penalty of death. At the conclusion of the fishing a large feast was made, composed of perhaps a hundred pigs and a proportionate quantity of yam and taro, which was duly taken up by all the people to Muasolo. This procession was headed by men blowing conch shells and shouting to the gods for a fruitful season. The mua, attended by all his officers, of whom he had a large number, with his head enveloped in native cloth and carrying a stone axe in his hand, brought up the rear, while a woman walked behind him and held a fan palm leaf over his head as an umbrella. On arriving at Muasolo it was probable that they would there meet people from other districts performing obsequies to the spirit of the departed mua. Those districts only were excused from attending whose mua had been dead three years, for the districts had the honour of mua in a kind of turn. The non-attending districts were, however, obliged to make the fishing and feast, and were permitted to eat it in the house where their last mua had died in place of carrying it to Muasolo. The reigning mua now set the example of clearing and burning up all the rubbish about the muas' graves, in which he was ably assisted by all present. The food was now partaken of, after which the procession started for Malhaha, preceded, as before, by the conch blowers, &c. On arriving there they went fishing, and were joined by the Malhaha people, and the fish with other food was, as before, taken up to Muasolo and disposed of there. This finished the most important day to the mua in the six months. In the following month, Noatau, a large fishing took place at Noatau, from which the month derived its name, [fn. I think my authority must have been mistaken, but this is what he told me.] though the fishing itself was known as "Nukrairai," which was the name of the Tiu's burying place--a high Rotooman family. Here the feast was partaken of, and the places cleaned as at Muasolo. In the next month, "Howata," there was a large fishing at Oinafa, and as the people always met on this occasion on the small island of Howata, which is close to the shore, the month derived its name from the island. During the months of Kasep and Fosoghow there were no remarkable feasts; though in the following month of Afopugi, everyone was warned to be very careful of what they did or said, and on no account to make any noise near the mua's house. Besides these feasts, there were a large number of smaller ones which the mua was not obliged to attend in person. On the occasion of the larger feasts the food for the mua was always cooked by itself. Did he feel unable or indisposed to eat it all, it had to be pitched away, and no one was permitted to eat it. If any one ate it, it was said that his throat would at on¢e swell up to a prodigious size, which was a sufficiently dreadful idea to prevent anyone from ever attempting it. On a mua's resigning office he was again taken to fish, after which he was accompanied by his officers into the bush, and he himself having planted a little kaava, they finished their duties to him by planting him either a yam, taro, or banana bed.
The kaava planted by the mua himself was, when ripe, taken to, and drunk by, the reigning mua. A new mua was always appointed a day or two before the last one resigned.
As I do not consider that these few remarks about Rotooma would be in any way complete without a specimen of their mythology, I beg to relate to you the tale of Toak and Honitimous.
[Here the author gave a graphic account of Toak and Honitimous, from which it would appear that Toak fell in love with a woman named Honitimous, who afterwards turned out to be immortal, much to the disappointment and disgust of Toak.]
In reading the paper Mr. J.P. Thompson explained the way in which the natives brewed the kaava, and the mode adopted by the Tokalaus in extracting the juice from the cocoanut tree to make toddy, and also the material used by the natives in the manufacture of mats. He also explained that Mr. Allardyce had been for some time a resident commissioner at Rotooma, but had to leave on account of the unhealthy condition of the island, and was now a magistrate and commissioner for the island of Kadavu, and the districts of Navua and Nadroga, Fiji.
The proceedings then terminated.