Civilising the cannibals

Western visitors to Fiji in 19th century liked to watch what they ate. Traveller John Erskine, for instance, was suspicious about some ‘pork’ he was offered and threw it away, convinced it was human. Similarly, labour recruiter John Gaggin paid close attention to the cutting up of a pig “to satisfy [himself] it was… not a baked boy or girl”.

As Tracey Banivanua – Mar explains in “cannibalism and Colonialism” man-eating was a cornerstone of western understanding of Fiji in the colonial period. It was first mentioned in 1784 by Captain James Cook who wrote of ‘Feejee’ where the natives were “addicted… of eating their enemies.” When missionaries and settlers arrived in greater numbers during the 19th century, reports of cannibalism proliferated.

Fijian warrior

Some were lurid descriptions of cannibal feasts. Other writers stressed the omnipresence of the practice. Gordon F Cumming noted that a human being in Fiji “was looked upon only in the light of so much beef”. Even the young were said to be involved. According to Reverend John Hunt, adults rubbed “human flesh over the lips of their little children, and put a portion into the infant’s mouth, that it may be nourished by its juice and trained in the practice of cannibalism”.

Fijian war clubs

Such stories were not just intended to thrill people back home; they also provided moral underpinning for the domination of the locals by western settlers. Cannibalism was an unnatural act, seemingly as far as possible from acceptable European behaviour. Tales of man-eating could therefore justify the annexing of foreign lands as well as the introduction of Christian morality into a country.  The Fijians, with a fearsome reputation for cannibalism, were hence deemed ripe for colonisation. In the years up to 1874 Fiji was incorporated into the British empire.

Captain James Cook

However the take-over of Fiji was far from the smooth process. A group of Fijian tribes offered serious resistance from 1867 until 1876 when the colonial governor, Alexander Gordon, crushed it with military force. During the disturbances, accusations of cannibalism were regularly aired. When planter Rodney Burt and his family were murdered in 1869 reports claimed that his murderers set “about killing and devouring his horses, pigs and half-caste child”. This association of rebels with man-eating was made by Governor Gordon as well. He described the unruly villages as “cannibal towns”.

“Cannibal Tom

The labelling of the rebels as hungry cannibals reduced their uprisings to a battle between civilisation and savagery, ignoring legitimate grievances the Fijians may have had. It made violet repression the authorities’ most likely response and necessitated a continuing colonial presence to ensure further outbreaks of man-eating were prevented.