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[This section was adapted from A. Howard, 1992. Symbols of Power and Politics of Impotence: The Molmahao Rebellion on Rotuma. Pacific Studies 15(4):83-116.]

Arts and Crafts

At the time of first recorded European contact, in 1791, Rotuma had a range of well-developed art forms, including tattooing, the making of shell ornaments, fine mat manufacture, oratory, chanting, and singing and dancing. By the end of the 19th century some of these aspects of expressive culture had completely disappeared, while others were drastically altered.


Tattooing, for example, described as prevalent by most early observers, was prohibited by European missionaries who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, and virtually disappeared. Captain Edward Edwards of H.M.S. Pandora, which came upon Rotuma on August 8th, 1791, wrote that the Rotumans were "tattooed in a different manner from the natives of the other islands we had visited, having the figure of a fish, birds and a variety of other things marked upon their arms" (Thompson 1915:64-66). George Hamilton, who was also aboard the Pandora, wrote that "Their bodies were curiously marked with the figures of men, dogs, fishes, and birds, upon every part of them; so that every man was a moving landscape" (Thompson 1915:138-139). Nowadays a number of young men are tattooed, especially those who have spent some time as sailors, but there are no practitioners of the art on Rotuma and the tattoos have little cultural significance.

Shell and Whale's Tooth Ornaments

The manufacture of shell and whale's tooth ornaments, used to designate rank in the pre-colonial era, also ended before the turn of the twentieth century. Traditionally, chiefs wore necklets of whales' teeth, which were generally buried with them as one of their most valued possessions (Gardiner 1898:412). Chiefs also wore pearl shell breastplates, shaped by taking off the horny layer and smoothing it down, so that the shell retained its original shape. MacGregor, who visited Rotuma in 1932, includes in his field notes a drawing of three shells strung into a necklace with braided sennit. A typed note referring to the drawing states that, "The half shell of mother of pearl made into necklace for the kings of Rotuma who wore them around their neck. Found in the tombs" (MacGregor 1932). On Rotuma today, whales' teeth, still so highly prized in Fiji, are not the valuable objects they were in the past. They are not ceremonially transacted between Rotumans, nor do they play any special role in Rotuman rituals. Some Rotumans have whales' teeth (tabua) in their possession, given by Fijians for special favors or service, but their symbolic significance for most Rotumans is otherwise minimal. Today there are no special ornaments that designate chiefly rank. Nor can contemporary chiefs be identified by special articles of clothing as was the case in the past.

Woven Pandanus Clothing and Mats

Lesson, who visited the island in 1824, described the Rotumans' usual clothing as "made from the fairest and finest weavings." He added that, "The weavings they wrap themselves in are beautiful, superior to any made by the Tahitians" (Lesson 1838-9:423-424). [see photo] One type of fine mat, the tofua, was made from pandanus leaves (sa'aga) and was worn by chiefs and the sau 'king'(Gardiner 1898:412, MacGregor 1932). Chiefs also wore a girdle of woven sa'aga over their wraparounds.

Gardiner describes the dress of the sau and his officers as follows:

The dress of the sou consisted of a fine mat, over which the malhida [chiefly girdle] was worn. This dress was made of the leaves of the saaga (Pandanus sp.?), split up, and plaited together like sinnet at the top, and hanging down loose. They were stained for the most part red, but some might be left white. Black was sometimes introduced by means of the bark of the si, a species of banana, which on drying turns a dull black. Another dress, pertaining to some of the officers, was the ololi; it appears to have been really a sort of apron, made of a fine mat, and hung down in front. It was almost completely covered with the red feathers of the arumea (Myzomela chermesina, Gray); its use was restricted to particular feasts. Round the neck might be a necklace of beads of whale's teeth, the tifui lei, and on each wrist the muleli, described to me as a round piece of turtle bone....On the breast was the pearl shell, tiaf hapa, but the really distinctive part was the malhida, which it was taboo for any one else to wear. The muleli was only worn by the mua as well as the sou, but the other ornaments were more generally used. (Gardiner 1898:462)

Rotuman women still make fine mats (apei), which are important articles of exchange on ceremonial occasions . Chiefs (or rather their wives) are required to bring apei to weddings, funerals and other special events, and their prestige is affected by the number and quality of mats they are able to provide. [see photo]

The ritual significance of mats remains prominent despite the fact that their religious underpinnings have long since been subverted. Traditionally white mats were consecrated by the sacrifice of a pig prior to their manufacture. They therefore symbolized life, and since pigs were sacrificial substitutes for humans, human life. Today white mats are rarely consecrated in this way, but they retain symbolic potency. Apei lend enormous weight to any form of request or apology. It is very difficult indeed to turn down an appeal backed up with a white mat. In this respect a gift of an apei is comparable to the Fijian presentation of a tabua 'whale's tooth', an equivalence explicitly recognized by Rotumans.

Fine white mats are also used as seats (päega) and covers in ritual contexts. The bride and groom at a wedding, honored guests at a mamasa 'welcoming ceremony', or any others on whom special status is being conferred, sit upon an apei during the performance of ceremonies. Symbolically this elevates them to a status equivalent to that of chiefs. Apei are also used to cover gifts of food on special occasions and as canopies to sanctify special people or items (such as a wedding cake).

Of all the traditional forms of artifactual production, fine white mats retain the strongest symbolic significance on Rotuma. How long this will remain the case is problematic, however, given reduced interest in their manufacture by the younger generation.

Performing Arts

In contrast to artifactual production, the performing arts have retained more vigor, although loss and transformation are evident here as well. One can identify four traditional forms of performance in Rotuma: oratory and chanting, dancing and singing, clowning, and kava ceremonies.

Oratory and Chanting
Little has been written on Rotuman oratory, in part, perhaps, because it is not the highly developed art it is in many other Polynesian societies. Nevertheless, oratorical skills are valued by Rotumans, and there is some evidence to suggest they always have been. In the past, the telling of legends was one form of oratory. When chiefs wished to be entertained they would prepare a feast and invite a storyteller to perform (MacGregor 1932), and elders would get together in order to share their knowledge of genealogies and local history, some of which was preserved in chant form. Today there are few people who claim to have such knowledge and are willing to share it, but those who do may become a focal point for admirers who provide an eager audience.

A better preserved form of oratory concerns speeches made on various occasions, mostly to thank those who have donated labor, food and other goods on ceremonial occasions. Chiefs of all rank are expected to make speeches in such circumstances, but oratory is not confined to chiefs. Church and government officials also address audiences on various occasions, and guests who have been honored, regardless of sex or rank, usually offer thanks in a formal, or quasi-formal, way. Chiefs also make speeches in order to inspire their subjects to work hard, to donate food or money to a cause, or to promote community harmony.

Two other arenas for speech-making are community meetings and the Methodist Church. At village or district meetings, individuals often express their views in an eloquent, sometimes passionate, manner. The object is to be persuasive without being abrasive, to convince without alienating. Some of the most admired speakers never raise their voices. Soft-spoken speech signifies humility to Rotumans, which is a valued trait in chiefs and commoners alike.

The Methodist Church provides a number of roles requiring oratory, including ministers, catechists and lay preachers. While there are only a few ministers on the island at any given time, each of the fourteen churches has a catechist and a large number of lay preachers, including a number of women. Lay preachers rotate assignments between the churches so are often in the position of visiting dignitaries. For the most part, preaching is based more on Western models than on traditional Rotuman oratory, which contains repetitive formulas. Preachers often start off softly and build to crescendos. Some are prone to making vigorous gestures to punctuate their speeches, a style that contrasts with traditional Rotuman oratory in which gestures and facial expressions are of little significance. Regardless of context, however, effective speakers are admired in Rotuma, and oratory is a vital part of the contemporary culture.

Chanting likewise has retained vitality, although mostly in the form of songs sung during traditional dances (tautoga). Kaurasi divides dance songs into four groups: (1) those depicting social functions in which two parties entertain one another; (2) those indicating events which led to wars; (3) those referring to the loss of a friend or relative; and (4) those referring to overseas trips and safe returns. He also identifies two other types of Rotuman chants: those sung before wrestling matches or before a war, which aimed at inspiring one's own combatants and intimidating one's competitors or enemy; and those sung when receiving a chief, or at the funeral of a chief (Kaurasi 1991:144). Neither of these latter forms of chanting are common now, but they are performed on special occasions (most recently when receiving the President of Fiji and the Catholic Archbishop at the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Church on Rotuma, in August 1996).

Singing and Dancing
Of all the Rotuman art forms, composing songs for special occasions, and choreographing taumaka dances, have survived with the most vigor. Prior to a special event, the group chosen to perform meets regularly for rehearsals, and a good deal of pride is involved. On grand occasions several groups may perform in a competitive context, with prizes being awarded to the winners. Good composers are especially admired. According to Hereniko:

A good purotu [composer] is judged on the aptness of his choice of words, which should 'cut deep into the heart of the listener,' on the actions chosen to portray his poetry, and the melody. It is also very important that his allusions be suitable for the occasion and the individuals being honoured. (Hereniko 1991:132)

In addition to the preparation of songs for taumaka, lyrics are composed for modern instruments such as guitars. They are sung at special events such as höt'ak hafu 'ceremonial erecting of a gravestone', in which case they honor the memory of the deceased and his or her close relations. Church provides still another arena for musical creativity, with hymn-singing competitions occurring frequently. Several individuals on the island are well-known for their abilities as hymn writers. Thus singing and dancing are among the most powerful media for communicating messages and mobilizing sentiment in contemporary Rotuma. [See Music and Dance]

As in most other Polynesian societies, light hearted joking is a significant part of any informal gathering of friends and family on Rotuma. A favorite pastime is playing cards, during which raucous laughter is the rule. As Hereniko observes:

Card games and other informal contexts are usually marked by the prevalence of teasing banter. Sometimes someone will reminisce about the stupidity or arrogance of their friends and neighbors. Others may then start telling jokes about their own foolishness. If they tease someone, most Rotumans expect to be teased back. Whether it is women net-fishing in the lagoon or men hacking away together in the taro plantation, you can hear them laughing. And it is not quiet laughter either, but huge belly laughs that can ride the wind and reach the ears of folks a long way away (Hereniko 1995:15).

He goes on to describe the role of the han mane'ak su, the female clown who presides at Rotuman weddings:

Isolation means that Rotumans, like rural people everywhere, must provide their own entertainment. Mispronounced English words, pompous fools, and incongruous behavior often become sources of entertainment. As women fish in the sea, or as men work in the garden, they mimic amusing incidents or persons. In Rotuma, the humorist who can provide homemade entertainment is a popular individual. If she is an old woman, she may even be invited to play the role of ritual clown at a traditional wedding

As the ritual clown, the han mane'ak su is usually asked to perform on the day before the wedding proper when food for the wedding feast is being prepared, on the wedding day itself, and on a designated day after the wedding when the couple are taken to the groom's home. But the chosen clown is not just a performer; she is also the supreme ruler of the wedding's activities. As such, the chiefs and other men become the target of her antics, and are ordered about like little children. This inversion of the social order causes much laughter among the wedding guests.

A wedding context provides the Rotuman clown with considerable licence to do as she wishes. Implicit in this frame are boundaries that are flexible, and amenable to being stretched or tested for their resilience. A skilful clown who has acquired a certain amount of confidence and reputation can be very daring in her technique or interaction with the chiefs and other men; a less confident clown tends to avoid the risk of offending the chiefs (Hereniko 1995:19-20). [see photo]

Kava Ceremony

Finally, mention should be made of the kava ceremony, which can be considered a form of dramatic performance. As in other Polynesian societies, important ceremonies on Rotuma require the presentation, preparation and serving of kava to chiefs and dignitaries.

The basics of the traditional kava ceremony in Rotuma are well described by Gardiner (1898:424-425) and MacGregor (1932), from whose accounts the following composite description draws.

At feasts chiefs take their place in the "front" of the ceremonial site, with the highest ranking chief in the middle. (In Rotuma the "front" side is generally the side toward the sea, but under certain circumstances it may be on the east, or sunrise side.) Behind him is his mafua 'spokesman', who conducts the ceremony. The kava roots are brought to the site at the head of the men's procession bearing food. The roots of the kava are placed to point toward the chiefs, the leaves away. The presentation is acknowledged by the mafua, who calls out "Kava." The man who is tending the kava then breaks off a small branch from the root and stabs it into the root, and shouts "Manu'!" The mafua then recites a fakpej, a chant-like recitation. The contents of the fakpej are described by Gardiner as telling a "story of the old times or whale fishing" (1898:424). MacGregor includes the texts of some fakpej in his field notes. They are stories about how kava came to Rotuma, which may have been the dominant theme of the chants in traditional times. The language of some fakpej is archaic, however, and not well understood by contemporary Rotumans, sometimes not even by the reciter. If more than one bundle of kava roots are being presented this may be repeated, with additional fakpej being chanted.

After this the mafua calls the names of the chiefs to whom a piece of kava root is to be presented. The man tending the kava cuts off one piece of the root for each chief. A final piece is cut off and given to the women to be washed and chewed. After it is sufficiently chewed, the mafua calls out for the woman who will mix it to wash her hands. The chewed kava is then put into a tanoa 'kava bowl' with water and is mixed with a vehnau 'strips of cloth from the bark of the hau tree.' The kava maker strains the brew through the cloth, then passes it back to an attendant who wrings it out, while a second attendant pours water over the kava maker's hands. When the kava maker is finished the preparation she calls out, "Kavaite" 'The kava is ready.'

The mafua then calls out "marie', marie', marie'!" which draws attention to the proceedings, much in the manner that "hear, hear!" does in English speaking settings. The kava maker then lays down the vehnau and claps her hands, twice with her hands cupped, then a loud clap with her palms flat. The mafua again calls marie', marie', marie'!

The second attendant then brings an ipu 'coconut shell cup' to the kava bowl, and the kava maker lifts the vehnau and drains kava into it. The attendant then says, "Kava taria" 'The kava is ready.'

The mafua then calls out "Taukavite se Maraf [or the name of the highest ranking person present] 'Take the kava to Maraf.' The attendant bears the kava to the person whose name has been called out and stooping low, hands it to him. She then returns to the bowl and when the cup is refilled calls out again, "Kava taria." The process is repeated until all the chiefs and dignitaries are served in order of rank.

Kava presentations remain a central part of any ceremony performed in contemporary Rotuma, but they lack the formality and sense of drama that accompanies performances in Fiji and Samoa. Kava is no longer chewed, but is pounded with an iron pestle. In recent years Rotumans have adopted the Fijian custom of drinking kava socially, and in each village the men gather around a kava bowl where they drink a talk for hours on end. While women are not excluded from these sessions it is predominantly a male activity.


Gardiner, J.S., 1898. "Natives of Rotuma." Journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:395-435, 457-524.

Hereniko, V., 1991. "Dance as a Reflection of Rotuman culture." In A. Fatiaki et. al., Rotuma: Hanua Pumue, pp. 120-142. Institute of Pacific Studies, the University of the South Pacific, Suva.

Hereniko, V., 1995. Woven Gods: Female Clowns and Power in Rotuma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kaurasi, M., 1991. "Rotuman Chants, Sports and Pastimes." In A. Fatiaki et. al., Rotuma: Hanua Pumue, pp. 143-152. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suva.

Lesson, R.P., 1839. Voyage Autour du Monde... P. Pourrat Freres, Paris. 4:93-131.

MacGregor, G., 1932. Field notes on culture and physical anthropology from Rotuma. Manuscript in the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawai'i [3 boxes].

Thompson, B., 1915. Voyage of H.M.S. Pandora. Francis Edwards, London.

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