General information of the Feejee Islands, 1847

Sydney Chronicle 23Jun1847 page2The Sydney Chronicle, an early Sydney newspaper, was published from 1846 to 1848. The following article about Fiji was published for the interest of readers. Despite the unusual spelling it gives a good picture of life at that time.

THE FEEJEE ISLANDS. We have been favoured with some general information relative to these Islands, which will, no doubt be found interesting to most of our readers. We have, therefore, appended it in a concise form.

EXTENT AND POPULATION.–The group contains upwards of fifty inhabited Islands, besides a considerable number of islets. Of these Islands, the largest is Vanaulever (or Big Island), which is about three hundred and sixty miles in circumference, andcontains a population of nearly 40,000. The next in size is Vitilevu, which is three hundred miles in circumference, and contains a population of from 20,000 to 30,000. The remaining Islands are of various sizes down to ten miles only in circumference, with an average population of from 80 to 100 persons to the square mile. The Island of Ovalau, mentioned in the narrative which appeared in our number of the 16th, is thirty miles in circumference, and contains a population of about 3000. It is impossible to make any accurate estimate as to the entire population of the group, but it must be immense.

CLIMATE AND PRODUCTIONS.—The climate of this group is particularly healthful, extremes of heat and cold being never felt, and besides the ordinary productions of the South Sea Islands, such as yams, taro, arrowroot, sweet potatoe, &c., the Islands produce coffee, sugar-cane, and cotton. No European fruits have been tried there except the grape, and the few vines which have been planted have been found to succeed particularly well. Pigs are numerous, but there is yet but few cattle. The basis of all the Islands is coral, and there are many of them mountainous, but there is an abundance of level land for agricultural purposes, and the forests yield an inexhaustible supply of timber adapted for ship building. The principal articles of export are beche le mer, cocoa nut oil, and tortoise shell.

HABITS AND DISPOSITIONS OF THE FEJEANS. The Fejeans are an intelligent race, although not so keen as the New Zealanders and some other of the Polynesian tribes; they are however, very industrious, being in this respect superior to any of these races. They cultivate the earth and rear abundance of provisions not only for their own consumption but for sale; so that it is not the want of provisions but their depraved appetite which induces them to indulge in cannibalism. Their fondness for war is the chief curse of the race, and prevents them from enjoying that happiness which their beautiful and fruitful country would otherwise afford them. To strangers they are exceedingly hospitable, and willshare with them to the last morsel of provisions. Of their warlike propensities and the efforts which are made to attain conquest, a sufficient proof is afforded by the fact that in the last expedition undertaken by Saru, the chief of Bow, no less than 15,000 lighting men were engaged. The Fejeans have double war canoes, capable in some instances, of carrying about 300 men. The dress of these islanders is composed of Tapa, a cloth made from the Inner bark of a tree in the same manner as that worn by the other natives of the South Sea Islands, although the fashion of wearing it is different. Their original arms were bows and arrows, spears and clubs, but firearms are now superseding these weapons. RELIGION.- The Fejeans aire heathens but not idolaters, and have a numerous priesthood. The priests are called Nambattas, and there are man houses where the spirits of the Gods they worship are said to dwell. A house of this kind is called Boura, and besides its sacred character as a resting place for the Fejean deities, it is a species of Town Hall where all strangers come to relate their business, and where all public matters are discussed. In these houses strangers are also lodged. The Wesleyan missionaries who are numerous, have made a good many converts, and there are two French priests at Lakambo, who have made some progress. The principal station of the Wesleyans is at Vava, where they have a printing press. The natives, after their conversion to Christianity, be-come exceedingly docile.

CIVIL GOVERNMENT AND GRADES IN SOCIETY. The government of the Fejees is an absolute monarchy. Saru, the Chief of Bow, having become, by the success of his late expedition, Tua Viti or king of Fejee (Fejee, we may here remark, is an European misnomer, the name of the islands and nation, according to the native tongue, being Viti,) has an immense revenue, tribute being paid to him in kind, by all his dependants; and, so great is his power, that he has only to demand and to receive. His Majesty is treated with great respect by his subjects, who approach him on their hands and knees whenever they have occasion to address him. Next to the Tua or king, there are a class of sovereign chiefs called Turanga Koro, who are the heads of subordinate districts or states, and over whom the supreme chief has but a mere feudal superiority. The next grade in society is that of the Matanafan[?] or owner of the land. These “lords of the manor”  receive no particular rent for their patrimony, but possess great influence, antd are generally about the persons of the chiefs. Every old man can make   seunet- every woman can make the tapa, or cloth with which the people are clothed, and every one can cultivate the ground ; but there are a few trades which are exclusively practised in particular fami- lies, being in fact hereditary. These are the mataso[?] or carpenter, the kiwi or fisherman, the mati-na- kouro or manufacturer of earthenware, and the mati-na-emba or mat maker; the last are principally women. Besides the persons in authority above named, every district or state sends to the neigh- bouring states an officer, called a matacambon whose situation and privileges are precisely analagous to those of the European ambassador, his person being sacred from violence during the more turbulent times. The great bulk of the population consists of the kassi, or poor people, who cultivate the ground; but there is a still lower class – the Barnboola, these are the slaves who have been taken in war, and may be killed and eaten by their captors at pleasure. The law of inheritance is very different here from what it is at most of the other South Sea Islands, nobility, and property being inherited by the male instead of the female line.

EUROPEAN SETTLERS.- The European and American settlers are about sixty in number, and are for the most part married to native wives. The number of half caste children is very great, and at the town of Soalevir, which is the principal settlement of the Europeans, there are no less than 96. These enterprising men are of a superior class to those who are found at most of the other islands in the South Seas, and are employed in ship building, as pilots or as traders among the various islands of the group. They possess among them no less than eleven small vessels, all decked, varying in size from six to thirty tons, which are all armed with swivels. No opposition is offered by the chiefs to Europeansettlements, and a new settler is readily allowed sufficient land for a house and garden. Provisions are plentiful and cheap, being procured by barter for the ordinary articles of trade – arms, ammunition, hardware, &c., but as these articles are only to be procured from the vessels which call there for supplies, the settlers have generally to pay a high price for them.

HARBOURS. – The group abounds with harbours and good anchorage may be found anywhere among the Islands, with a muddy bottom, at from thirty to five fathoms. There are, however, many coral reefs, but as competent European pilots can at all times be procured, the trade among these islands may be pursued without danger.

* The above particulars were communicated by a person who has been for seventeen years a resident on the Islands, and may, therefore, be relied upon as accurate. The only inaccuracies worthy of note in the narrative which appeared in a previous number are in the names of the principal chief and of two Europeans. The chief who was called Sam in our last, is the before mentioned Saru, King of Feejee.The man whose murder was mentioned in the fourth paragraph, was named Wilson, instead of Nelson, and he whose life was so much sought after by Saru  was named Pickering, instead of Tickay. This man was a native of Sydney, and has a mother still living in this city.

Source – Sydney Chronicle, Wednesday 23rd June 1847, page 2. Accessed on Trove 29 April 2012. review inmotion

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