To home page

To archive index

To Archive Index

To contents

To Contents

The Reverend William Allen, who served as Methodist missionary on Rotuma from 1881-1886, is described by Church historian. A.H.Wood, as "a rigid churchman, aggressive and even eccentric. His memory lingers in Rotuma as the preacher who took a bag of small hard fruit into the pulpit for throwing at those who went to sleep during his sermons!" (Wood, Rev. A.H., Missions of the Australasian Methodist Church, Vol. III, Rotuma. 1978)

[Paper read in section E, Geography, of the meeting of Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 6th meeting, held at Brisbane, Queensland, January 1895.]


by the Rev. W. Allen




Rotuma is said to be in 12° 30' south latitude, and 177° 10' east longitude, and visible at a distance of 35 miles. It lies east of Brisbane about 1,600 miles and is said to have been discovered by Pandora in 1793.

Configuration. A glance at the accompanying map shows the peculiar configuration of the island. Roughly speaking, I should say the island is about ten miles long and four miles broad. The narrow neck of land shown on the map is only about 100 yards across. It is composed of sand, and is flat, so that a boat can easily be taken across from one side to the other. On this isthmus the natives have sunk wells for water eight and ten feet deep, through sand only. Rotuma, I believe, was once two islands more than a mile apart. By the daily flowing of the tide from east to west, and, perhaps more especially by the moving of vast quantities of sand during hurricane seasons lasting for long periods of time, such an accumulation of sand has been caused at this place as to fill up the channel between these two islands.

No River or Lake. Although Rotuma has an average rainfall of about 150 inches each year, yet there is not a single river, lake, creek or stream of water on the island. All the rain seems to be absorbed by the porous nature of the country. The inhabitants get their supply of water from wells which they have sunk; but all the water found in these wells is brackish, and appears to be the ocean water filtered rather than accumulations of rain-water. In consequence of the brackish nature of the water in the wells, it is not used extensively for drinking purposes, the natives preferring the rain-water caught from the thatched roofs of their houses, or the water of the cocoanut.

Volcanic Origin. Many of the islands to the north of Rotuma lying near the equator are of coral formation, and only elevated a few feet above sea-level; but Rotuma, on the contrary, is mountainous, having a ridge of hills running nearly through the island about 600 feet high. It is evident that Rotuma is of volcanic origin, there being two extinct volcanoes--one in the centre of the island, and the other at the extreme west end. Several persons have been down the latter, and have travelled its subterraneous passages far from the light of day. In different places there can be clearly traced the broad belt of lava, which flowed not only right down to the water's edge but out to low-water mark. Volcanic conglomerate, tufaceous stones, porous and compact basalts are found of every texture, of many colours, and in various stages of decomposition.

Coral Reefs. Rotuma, like the great majority of islands in the Pacific, has its coral reefs. The island is enclosed by a coral reef, with a break here and there. At places the reef extends one or two miles from the shore, at others scarcely allowing room for the passage of a boat within it, and then disappearing altogether for a short distance. Inside the reef the water is shallow, not sufficiently deep to allow a boat to proceed at low water. At the islands west of Rotuma there is a large coral reef, not only extending from island to island, but far beyond. Upon whatever theory we may account for the construction of these immense coral reefs, there are, I think, unequivocal signs that they are undergoing dissolution. I am acquainted with reefs to the extent of hundreds of miles in Rotuma and Fiji, and I have noticed innumerable cracks and fissures, and even caves scooped out of the coral wall by the incessant action of the water. There are signs innumerable of decay and spoliation, but I have seen no indications of power to repair the damage done. When the reefs lift their heads to the water-level, they not only seem to have no further power of growth, but from that time are a prey to the ravages of the elements. It is a theory that has been advocated by some that there are no passages in a coral reef where there is no fresh running water, and that opposite every opening in the reef there must of necessity be a river or creek. It is true, I believe, that opposite a river you will generally find a passage in the reef, but at Rotuma we find several passages in the reef, but not a single river or creek on the island.

No Harbours. In Rotuma there is no harbour for shipping, but simply two open roadsteads. A change of wind may necessitate all shipping proceeding at once to sea. If caught in a hurricane there is no hope of safety for vessels of the class that trade with the islands. For these reasons sea captains do not care to visit the island, especially for the first three months of the year.

Garden of the Pacific. Rotuma has been called the "Garden of the Pacific," because of its beauty and fertility. Whichever way you approach it from the sea, no barren rock meets the eye--it is evergreen. From the highest peak down to the water's edge there are to be seen tens of thousands of cocoanut palms, waving their plume-like heads in the breeze. Nature is clother in her magnificent multiplication of colours; the great forest trees are festooned with vines of every shade of gold, green and crimson. There sits fair Rotuma in gorgeous beauty, unknown outside the tropics as an emerald isle on a sapphire sea. The shallow water enclosed by the coral reef presents a great variety of green tints; beyond is the deep ocean blue, while the perennial verdure of the island and the glowing azure of the ofttimes cloudless sky present to the eye of the beholder such a blending of colour as the earth can scarcely duplicate.

Productions. The fertility of the soil is very great; everything grows luxuriantly and quickly. the chief productions are cocoanuts, oranges, lemons, limes, taro, yams, kawai, bananas, sweet potato, sugar cane, sago, bread-fruit, coffee, cocoa, mummy-apple, arrowroot, and maize; and other esculents they find in the bush in the form of roots, berries, nuts, and fruit. Patches of tobacco are often seen. Kava (Piper methisticum) is very largely grown, a single root sometimes weighing more than 100 lbs.

The Fauna. The fauna of the island is somewhat disappointing. With the exception of wild pigeons and sea birds, there are few other species at present. Reports says that they were plentiful, but during a very severe hurricane that visited the islands some years ago they nearly all died. There are no wild animals, but a few non-venemous snakes. The sciences of entomology and conchology are full of interest.

Seven Tribes. Rotuma, although of such limited dimensions, is divided into seven sections or tribes--namely, Noatau, Oinafa, Malhaha, Itutea, Itumutu, Faguta, and Pepjei. Each tribe has its own chief. Formerly there was but little intercourse between these tribes and often they were at war with each other.

Annexation. In the year 1881, at the request of the Rotumans, the island was annexed to the colony of Fiji, and thus became part of the British Empire.

Adjacent Islands. Lying in a line with the coral reef that surrounds Rotuma, there are four small islands; also, some four miles to the west there are three islands in a line. The most northerly of these, Uea, is inhabited at present by some thirty persons. The island is in the form of a sugarloaf, and, strange to say, possesses a never-failing stream of pure water. Because of its exposed position, the island can only be approached in the calmest of weather. Hofliua, another of these westerly islands, in uninhabited, but is remarkable owing to the fact that it is divided into two parts by a narrow strait of deep water just wide enough for a boat to pull through, while high overhead the rocks are connected, forming a hugh archway.


The population of Rotuma at present is not much above 2,000. In complexion they are a light copper colour, more resembling the Samoan and Tongan than the Fijian, though not as big-boned as the Tongan. The oblique eye, flat, wide nose, straight, coarse, black hair seem to indicate that originally the Rotumans were of Asiatic origin, probably Malay; but their own tradition says that they came from Samoa.

Tradition. Their story is that a Samoan named Raho was badly treated in Samoa. Having consulted his god, he determined to leave his home. His god having told him to collect two baskets of sand, he put them on board his canoe, together with a quantity of food; and taking his wife and six other men and women, they set sail. Having sailed and paddled their canoe for days towards the west, they grew weary; and their god told them to throw the sand overboard. Having done so, immediately there grew up from the ocean an island. This made the sea so rough that they were in great danger of being swamped. When the sea became sufficiently calm, they approached the island, and found on it a great number of vegetables growing. This they called Rotuma. Here they settled, and, because they could not agree long together, they separated, thus forming the seven tribes into which the people are divided.

Physical Development. As a race they are equal to the white man in physical development, having well-developed muscles. They are shrewd and adventurous, ready to learn anything from the white man, and to engage in any occupation, provided they are sufficiently paid. The Rotumans are said to make splendid seamen. Before annexation the island was regularly visited by numbers of whaling ships that came for the purpose of getting supplies of native food, and repairing and repainting the ships. The natives went on board those whalers out of curiosity at first, but afterwards great numbers shipped as sailors. By this means they have cultivated a strong liking for a seafaring life, and now every ship that touches at Rotuma finds young men desirous of visiting the world beyond their island home. Not only are the Rotuman sailors found in various parts of the Pacific, but some have reached Austrailia, America, and Eng land. Nearly 200 young Rotumans are said to be occupied as divers, &c., in connection with the Torres Straits pearl fishery.

Sons Encouraged to Go Abroad. Instead of parents trying to keep their sons at home, as with us, they do their utmost to induce them to go abroad to see the white man's land, and learn his language. There is scarcely a young man on the island that is physically strong, who has not spent some months away from his island home. Of course, many who go away never return. The consequence is that there is a great preponderance of females over males on the island and the natural growth of population is not only checked but the number on the island is getting less year by year; and unless some change takes place, in a few years they will cease to exist as a people.

One of the first things that strikes a stranger visiting Rotuma is the number of its graveyards. Wherever you walk, along the beach or inland, you will come across innumerable graves. It is the custom for every man to build his house on an elevated foundation, varying from two feet to six feet high. In every town that is now occupied, there are to be found many of these empty foundations, which tell too plainly of the shrinkage of population. Formerly there were several large towns inland; but they have disappeared, the population having died or left for the town on the beach. During the last fourteen years I reckon the population of Rotuma has decreased by about 300. Some of the old men there say that many of the towns have not now one-half of the population they had when they were young men. Formerly there was such a numerous population, requiring so many houses and so much firewood, that no person was allowed to cut down a tree without planting another in its place. But no such precaution is necessary now.

His Characteristics. The Rotuman in his home is prudent; he counts the cost, thinks before he acts, is cautious. He is courteous and inquisitive. These two traits of his character shine out conspicuously in his dealings with strangers. He is extremely hospitable, giving the best he has to offer, and sometimes giving food when he has to go without himself. He is logical in his way. Everything English he thinks is better than Rotuman. Their axes are better than our stone axes, their muskets than our spears and clubs, their knives than our cockle-shell, their ships than our canoes; the English have a God, therefore the God of the English must be superior to ours. Thus the Rotuman reasons. He is industrious, especially when away from home and thrown upon his own resources. At home the land, being wonderfully fertile, yields him all that he requires without his exerting himself much. Abroad, he works on contentedly day after day. It is this trait of his character, combined with his skill, that makes the Rotuman such a favorite among sea captains. He is also honest--always pays his debts. We never lost anything during our residence in Rotuma. A gentleman who lived there for twelve or fourteen years, who had two trading stations and daily business transactions with the natives, told me that although he was under the necessity of giving them credit very frequently, yet, during all those years, he never had never lost a pound. This will appear the more remarkable when we remember that it has been the law of the land, since annexation, that no white man can sue a native for debt.

Probably never Cannibals. Whether or not the Rotumans were ever cannibals is doubtful. They have no written records that date further back than thirty years. With one or two exceptions, all that were asked stated that they never heard of any cannibalism in Rotuma. Nor does their language seem to possess any word equivalent to the Fijian word bokola, which signified human flesh to be eaten. If ever they were cannibals it is certainly not within the memory of any living Rotuman.

Their Knowledge. Until the arrival of the white man these islanders had no written language; but from their ancestors, without the aid of books, they have acquired a good knowledge of the botany and natural history of the country in which they live. They have named every herb, shrub, and tree, and have ascertained the peculiar properties of many. Every sort of insect, fish, bird, and shell has been named by them, and they know the habits of many. Nor is their knowledge confined to the island on which they live and the briny ocean around them, for they have given some attention to the starry sky, not only naming the sun and moon but also the principal groups of stars in their horizon.

Ownership of Land. Every Rotuman is a land owner. All know their respective land. They have no title deeds in their possession by which to hold their land, but they have unwritten titles handed down by their ancestors, which all respect. They all know the boundaries of their own and their neighbour's land, hence the infrequency of land disputes. During my residence in Rotuma an old man returned from sea who had been absent from the island fifty years. He had almost forgotten his mother tongue. He remembered, however, where his land was and its boundaries, and so entered into peaceful possession, although very few on the island remembered him. When a man marries in Rotuma he takes his wife to live in his tribe, but not infrequently he spends two or three months each year with her people cultivating her land. The children inherit their father's and mother's land, and are regarded as belonging to the two tribes.

Cultivator of the Soil. Every Rotuman is a cultivator of the soil, and seems to venerate it. It is a real pleasure to him to watch the growth of the things he has planted. At sunrise he will often be found in his garden at work. All his food supplies come from his garden. The soil is so prolific he has little difficulty in raising sufficient food for all his requirements. His chief work is to keep down the weeds which grow so rapidly and threaten to choke what he has planted.

Houses. The Rotumans' houses are not built on the same model as the Fijians, the Samoans, or the Tongans. They have not the two long central posts that are so conspicuous in the houses of the Fijians, nor the wood protruding at the top. The two rows of posts with the cross-timbers support the whole of the Rotuman's roof. The roof is covered with the leaf of the sago palm. One of these put on nicely is said to last without rethatching for twelve or sixteen years. The ends of a Rotuman's house are not square like a Fijian's but round like a Samoan's. The Rotuman, however, cannot open the sides of his house, as the Samoan does. All the Rotumans build their houses on foundations of stone and sand, varying from two to seven feet in height. The doorways are seldom more than four feet high, and often only three. At the present time some of the Rotumans are building stone houses by the aid of burnt coral. In these houses they have wooden doors and windows of European manufacture. The floors of their houses are covered with coarse mats made of the leaf of the cocoanut palm plaited. On these are laid finer mats which the natives call epa. In addition to these mats the Rotuman women make a very fine mat which is much valued throughout the Pacific. They are called apei, and they can readily get £3 or £4 for one of them.

Canoe-building. Canoe-building used to take up a great deal of the men's time. They made large double canoes. These, with their rude stone axes, took many years to build--often eight or ten. No nails were used; everything was fastened together with sinnet. With these they were enabled to reach Tonga and other places. Some, doubtless, were lost at sea with all on board. According to tradition, many years ago the island was overcrowded, and it was considered necessary to build canoes and sail away in quest of other lands on which to settle the people. At the present time there are no double canoes on the island, but some small single ones used for fishing about the reefs.

War. War was not infrequent even on this tiny island, and as one goes from place to place he will find many large stones that have been erected to mark places where warriors fell. They speak of a war, in the memory of the old people, at which 100 were killed. They used to fight with spears and clubs, bows and arrows, white and black stones. They had also their war songs. For fifty years past they have had firearms, and every house has one or two guns which they prize very much but use very little. Each of the seven tribes had had its boundaries altered again and again as the result of war. The last war occurred about eighteen years ago, in which four of the tribes were engaged and several men killed. Heathenism then tried to exterminate Christianity, but failed.

Copra. The men, women, and children are all more or less employed making copra, large quantities of which are exported. They generally husk the nut, crack it in two, cut out the flesh with a large knife, and expose it to the sun for three days, when it is thoroughly dried.

Schools. All the boys and girls on the island can read, write, and have some knowledge of arithmetic and geography. They meet their teacher, in the school-house three days a week, from six in the morning until nine. Parents that fail to send their children are liable to a fine. Teachers are supplied by the church, and not be the State. Every householder in each town gives something quarterly towards the teacher's support.


Men and Women. All the people in Rotuma wear clothing of European manufacture. It consists of waist cloth and shorts for the men, and waistcloth, skirt, and pinafore for the women. The men sometimes succeed in picking up an old hat cast off by some white man. When any of the men return from sea, they always wear home a European suit, including hat, collar, necktie, boots, and stockings. Within twenty-four hours these will have been put away, and the new arrival will appear in the ordinary dress of the country. Generally speaking, the men appear to be superior to the women. The men work their gardens alone, and when they reach home cook the food. The women never cook. They mind the children, fetch water from the wells, make their mats, sweep out their house, sit, smoke, talk, and sleep. Rotuma is a lazy woman's paradise.

Cooking. Almost all the food is cooked in the native ovens. This is a circular pit in the ground, containing a number of small stones, in which they make a fire. When the fire has nearly exhausted itself, the food is placed on these hot stones and quickly covered with leaves and sand. This keeps in the air and cooks the food. The Rotumans, unlike the Fijians, use no native pottery in their cooking. Latterly, they are beginning to use kettles, saucepans and crocks of European manufacture.

Tattooing. The Rotumans tattoed their body from the waist to the knee. None of this part was exempt. The dye they made themselves from the bark of trees, using fish-bones for their needles. The process was an exceedingly painful one, some even dying through it. Only a little was done at a time, just as much as the person seemed able to bear. Tattooing only commenced when they were young men, and no one was considered to be a man and competent to marry until he had been tattoed. The women were not tattoed, excepting on their face and arms.

Long Hair. In their heathen state the men, as well as the women, wore their hair long, and, unlike the Fijians, failed to keen it trimmed. It was a long tangled mass reaching nearly to their waist, and dyed with lime and the bark of a tree, which they call fav. This made their hair red. The women dyed their hair with cocoanut oil and the bark of fav, which made their hair black. The single girls had a little of their front hair cut short, and also a little of the hair on each side over the ears. These three spots were coloured with white lime. The rest of their hair was black. Single girls were easily known by this badge. At the present time they have ceased to dye their hair. The men all cut their hair short, and nearly all the women do the same.

Changing Children. The Rotumans have the unnatural custom of giving their children away to their relatives and friends. This is not the exception, but the rule. There are very few homes in Rotuma where brothers and sisters are brought up together. They are generally scattered, living in different homes. The parents, instead of bringing up their own children, bring up the children of some of their friends. This destroys the natural love that should exist between brothers and sisters, parents and children. When asked why they give their own children away and take the children their neighbours instead, they answer, it is the custom of Rotuma to do so, and shows that we love our neighbours and our neighbours' children." The one who adopts a child would be called by the child its makika, while the person who adopts would call her adopted child her mapiga. The children go occasionally to see their parents' and will belong to their parents tribe and inherit their parents' land. They are only given to be reared among neighbours and friends.

Circumcision. Circumcision is practised among the Rotumans, as among the Fijians and some other islanders of the Pacific. The rite is performed when the boys are from twelve to sixteen years of age. they have a feast in connection with the ceremony, and but little privacy is observed.

Births. The women suffer very little in parturition. A wide difference exists between the customs of the Rotuman and Fijian women at this time. A Rotuman woman, when she knows that she is pregnant, ceases work and continues to rest until the child is born. As soon as it is born, she gets up and goes for a bath in the sea, and returning to her house eats freely, and almost immediately begins to visit her friends and resume her household duties. The Tongan women have similar customs; but the Fijian women, on the other hand, work right up to the day of their confinement, after which they are forbidden the free use of animal food and fish for some days. They always remain resting in their house for a month or more. When the baby is born a series of feasts follow which keep the husband busy, but the great feast is prepared on the anniversary of his birthday. On that day, he is weaned and given to a friend to rear up. He is given away just as he is beginning to understand somewhat his mother's love. The mother generally sheds tears at parting with her child, but submits to the custom of the land.

The naming of a child takes place very early, sometimes before it is born, but generally within the first three or four days of its existence. The child is often called after one of its grandfathers, uncles, or other relatives, sometimes after a ship, or a country, or flower, or tree, or animal, or fish, or after some peculiarity that the child may have. Sometimes the names given are most filthy expressions which cannot be mentioned in the presence of women.

Ancient Marriage. When a young man wants to possess a wife, he makes a feast called koa ne mos, and sends it to the girl's house. On the second day, the young man makes and takes another feast called fakpo. On the third day word is sent to the friends of the young couple inviting them to the marriage on the next day. The fourth day, all the friends arrive with presents of food, mats, etc. The young couple would smear their bodies with oil, tumeric, and yellow colouring, and so would the guests. They feast together, and sing to each other, the women singing to the men, and the men to the women. This is kept up at intervals all through the day and night. During the day, the young couple were put on to a platform and carried round the village on the shoulders of some of those present. If the married persons are poor they are generally dipped two or three times in the sea; if they are people of rank they are simply carried round the village square with rejoicing. After this, about a dozen of the male friends of the bridegroom form a square around the young couple, and another man with a light tomahawk strikes each a blow on the head causing the blood to flow; so the marriage is ratified with blood. This brings the marriage ceremony to an end. How different the ceremony to-day!

Deaths. It is the custom when any person dies not to let the body rest on the ground until buried. If it is a child that dies they hold it in their arms until it is buried; if an adult, the women sit on the floor in two rows facing each other, and let the body rest on their outstretched legs. Towards evening they sometimes make the corpse sit in a chair with a canopy over its head. When ready for burial it is wrapped up in native mats and placed in the grave in a sitting position, three or four feet deep; they then bring up a quantity of fresh sand and make a mound three or four feet higher. In this manner they bury their dead tier upon tier until their cemeteries are large mounds of sand some 20 or 30 feet high.

The "Sau". There are seven tribes on the island of Rotuma, and each tribe has its recognized chief. But, in addition to these chiefs of tribes, there was formerly over the whole of Rotuma a man elected to be sau, or sacred king. He was regarded as a kind of god, and received homage and presents from the people all over the island. He was not allowed to do any physical work, chiefly confined himself within his house, where he was waited on hand and foot, and feasted to his heart's content. The saus were generally elected for short periods of six or twelve months. The five principal tribes took it in turn to select the sau. They would go into a neighbouring tribe and select their sau, and bring him to their own tribe to live with them. But he was sau for the whole of Rotuma, and all would willingly pay tribute to him during his term. The resignation of one sau and initiation of another were attended with gross heathen customs, lewd and immoral.

Devil Worship. The Rotumans were devil worshippers, and had their priests (apeoiitu) and temples (rimonu). These priests were consulted by the people in times of sickness, war, etc. The people always took presents of food, pigs, or mats. After presenting their gifts they remained in the temple and watched the priest, who presently began to shake and tremble. He is then supposed to be under the influence of the devil. The visitors were filled with fear, and waited anxiously to hear what the devil had to say through the mouth of the priest. The priest generally said something to please the visitors, after which the priest and visitors drank kava together, and then separated.

Climate. The climate of Rotuma is very sickly. No European can remain there long without contracting diseases hard to be shaken off. It is difficult to account for the sickly character of the island; but some attribute it to the absence of good water, to the drinking of so many cocoanuts, and the oozing of water from the land into the sea at low water. There are no mangrove swamps in Rotuma. Several diseases are peculiar to the island, but the scourge of the place is elephantiasis and terrible ulcerous sores, which not only eat the flesh but the bone. Large numbers of the natives--men and women--are suffering from elephantiasis, and some cases are pitiable in the extreme. It attacks the arms, legs, heart and generative organs. The last form of the disease is the worst. Some white men have been attacked by elephantiasis, but by leaving immediately for a cold climate have recovered; others who have remained on the island have succumbed to the complaint.

Forecast. What will be the future of Rotuma and the Rotumans? This is an interesting question. Rotuma being part of the British Empire will probably remain so; but being small, without ports, without mineral wealth, and lying adjacent to Fiji, it is unlikely to be of much importance to the Empire. If, however, it had not been annexed by Great Britain, it would in all probability have been annexed by France. What will be the future of the Rotuman race? Will they disappear, as so many other races have done? We very much fear so. From the great number of graveyards on the island, and also from the vast number of stone foundations on which houses were formerly built, it is very evident that Rotuma was once densely populated. The present population is probably one third of what it once was. From my own observation, during the ten years from 1881 to 1891, the population decreased 200. This shrinkage is still going on, and is likely to continue for the following reasons among others:

  1. The majority of young men leave the island.
  2. The marriage relationship seems to be very weak. A large number of young married couples are living apart.
  3. Deaths exceed births. Many use means to prevent child bearing.
  4. European diseases have been introduced which the natives do not understand; there being no resident doctor, the people quickly succumb.
  5. The natives wear clothing of European manufacture, but have no judgment as to how it should be worn. In the intense heat of the day they wear ample clothing; in the cool of the evening they are almost destitute. As a consequence, they suffer largely from colds, chest complaints, etc. Their old method of daily anointing the body with cocoanut oil was more healthy than their present practice, I think.

Unless there is a decided improvement in the habits of the people, the Rotuman race will soon be extinct. If this comes to pass, the island, being so unhealthy, is not likely to be occupied by much white settlement, but may afford a comfortable abode for some of the overflowing population of India, China,or Japan.

To home page

To archive index

To Archive Index

To contents

To Contents