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History Of Some Curious Customs Used By The Natives Of The Feejee Islands

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

The Feejee Islands are situated about 21° south latitude, and 174° west longitude. They are very little known, and have received various names from different navigators. Tongataboo is the best known of this group, and there is an account of it in a work by the missionaries who endeavoured to convert the inhabitants to our holy religion.

These islands have been but little frequented except by the missionaries, some of whom were massacred in their devout attempts. They have, however, been sometimes visited by men who had a less holy intention ; viz., by persons in search of sandal-wood, which forms a valuable article of commerce in China, where it is said to be worth £80 a ton.

In the pursuit of this article, many persons have had intercourse with the inhabitants, and have by no means left a favourable opinion of white men among them. One vessel particularly, after promising to assist them in their wars with the natives of a neighbouring island, for which piece of service their brig was to be laden with sandal-wood, received from them their cargo, and left them without any return. In consequence of some nefarious transactions of this sort, they have sometimes showed signs of hostility, and more than once innocent persons have suffered for the guilty.

Having occasion to pass at no great distance from these islands in the year 1815, the master of a brig in company, whose name is Siddons, gave me the following account. Mr. Siddons had been several years living among them, had an estate there, and they even acknowledged him as a chief.

As to the truth of his relation, I have no manner of doubt; for although on hearing it some circumstances were enough to startle me, yet, having met with another man soon afterwards, who had been in the same trade, I took the opportunity to converse with him on the subject. He gave the same account, and without knowing that I had heard them before, related many circumstances that had happened to Siddons himself; for it appeared they had both been there at the same time.

When a man dies (said Mr. Siddons), if be be a chief or man of importance, one or more of his wives are strangled at his funeral. Some have but one wife, but I have known several with five or six. I myself was present at one of these ceremonies. The defunct was an old chief who had died of some lingering disease, and his body was wasted to skin and bone. A native friend, who was a chief, came on board my brig, and invited me on shore to see the ceremony, as I had formerly expressed a wish to that effect. The corpse was rolled up in large folds of a kind of cloth that is made in these islands, similar to, but coarser than that which is made at Taheite. They conveyed the body to the door of the house of the coloo or priest, who are men having great influence in the country, and who are supposed to foretell future events. The corpse was placed on the ground, with the feet towards the door of the priest's house, and many hundreds of the natives were surrounding it. A woman was sitting at the head, which was uncovered, for the cloth was principally rolled across the belly. She had in her hand something like a powder-puff, and she continually puffed the face of the corpse with a black powder. I was anxious to get near the body, but my friend continually exhorted me to keep at a distance. I nevertheless persisted, and advanced to within a few yards of it. The woman continued to sprinkle the face with the black powder ; and when I had waited about an hour, a murmur among the multitude, and a sort of shout, attracted my attention. My native friend, who kept beside me, informed me that it was occasioned by the approach of the principal wife of the defunct chief, who lived some miles off, and who had just arrived in a canoe. In a few minutes she made her appearance, accompanied by her female friends. I did not observe any mark of extreme dejection about her, but she appeared serious and thoughtful. She advanced to the body, kissed it, and then retreated backwards about twenty steps, keeping her face towards it. A woman well known to me was sitting there, and the widow placed herself upon her lap, when the females who had accompanied her to the place approached her and attempted to kiss her, but she repelled them scornfully with her arms. The woman upon whose lap she sat then put one of her hands at the back part of the head -of the widow, and the other on her mouth. A man suddenly placed a cord round her neck ; six men who were ready took hold of it, three at each end, and pulled with all their force. I did not observe that the widow made the least struggle, although, after the manner of the country, she was only covered about the middle; not even her legs moved. I was anxious to know what would be done with the bodies, and had recourse to my friend for that purpose. He told me, however, that that was not permitted to be known, but I might see all that they themselves knew, the final part of the ceremony being known only to the caloo. I accordingly went to the priest's house in the evening. The dead chief and his strangled widow were placed near the door. I had brought one of my boat's crew with me, and as the few natives that were present had some difficulty in forcing the chiefs body through the doorway, in consequence of the many folds of cloth that were about it, this man assisted them in this part of the rite ; and while this was doing, I went into the apartment, anxious to discover whether there was any grave dug. It was dark, and I felt about the house cautiously with my feet, lest there should be a cavern beneath it, but I found none; and as they had then placed the two bodies beside each other in the house, my friend told me that I could not be permitted to see more, and we retired.

Another instance of the same ceremony I was more intimately acquainted with, and, indeed, was in some measure a party concerned. I had been on a cruise, and at my return I found my friend Riccammong dead. He was a fine young man, and a chief. I had formerly entered into an agreement with him for a cargo of sandelwood, which was not yet fulfilled. I greatly regretted the death of this man, not only because I had a friendship for him, but because I feared it would be a means of my losing my cargo of sandel-wood. I called immediately upon his mother, who had also been a great friend to me. As soon as she saw me, she embraced me ; and not knowing I had been informed of her loss, with tears told me that Riccammong was dead. "And what can I do ?" said she. " How shall I be able to procure you the sandel-wood ?" I told her I was much grieved at the loss of her son, and requested to pay my respect to the body. I knew very well before that it was customary to visit and speak to the dead as if they were living, and that there was always some person present to give answers for them. I therefore went with the mother to the apartment where the body was laid, and taking hold of the dead chief's hand, I said to him, " I see, Riccammong, what has happened to you : you are dead, and have left us. You know, Riccammong, the agreement that existed between us, that you were to procure me a freight of sandel-wood, which I have already paid you for, and which I have not received. What is to be done in the business, Riccammong ?" The mother, who stood by, answered, "Yes; I recollect the agreement, and I will take care that it shall be fulfilled." Much more conversation passed between us, which it is needless to repeat, when we retired from the body. I was by this time intimate with many of the natives. I had a house and farm, and most of my property was rendered sacred—or, as it is called in the country, tabooed—so that any person injuring it might be destroyed.

The old mother took me to her house, and we had much conversation respecting the sandel-wood that I had agreed with her son for. She wept much during our conversation, and anxiously spoke of Riccammong's principal wife. " You know," said she, "that she paid great attention to the white people—that she fed them, and cloathed them. Alas ! unless some of her friends rescue her, she must follow my son to the grave. I know of no friend she has in the world," added she, embracing me, "but yourself. Are you willing to save her?"—" I would do my utmost to save her.—" Run, then," said she hastily; "wait not a moment; there is still a chance of her life being preserved." I was ignorant what it was necessary for me to do to effect the purpose, and inquired of the mother. She added quickly, " You know that you have the authority of a chief. Bring to the place of funeral a valuable present, hold it up in your hands, on your knees repeat the words : I beg the life of this woman ; and her life may be spared. But," continued the old woman quickly, "if you save her, you will have a right to her. I do not wish any person to possess the widow of my son." I told her I only wished to save her life; when she embraced me weeping, and I went away. I had unfortunately nothing on shore with me sufficiently valuable for the purpose ; I therefore ran down ,to the boat to go off to the brig, which was thirty miles distant. We pulled on board as fast as possible, and I took one of the largest whale's teeth, which I knew to be more valued there than gold. With a fresh boat's crew we pulled back again. I was certain there was not a moment to spare. On my reaching the shore, I leaped out of the boat, and ran to the spot where the ceremony would take place. The caloo, however, was my enemy—indeed, he was the enemy of all the white people ; he had even predicted that the increased intercourse with thee whites would endanger the nation. Hearing what I had intended to do, he had hastened the ceremony. He was a man apparently above the ordinary occurrences of life ; whether through hypocrisy or a real hardness of heart, he seemed to be bereft of the ordinary affections of men, and, I am inclined to think, much instigated by hatred towards the white people. He had, under the cloak of religion, already bereft the widow of Riccammong of life. The mother had endeavoured with all her power to prolong the time; the widow also, equally anxious to escape, had used her utmost efforts to avoid the fatal cord, but all was in vain. The priest, with a look of sanctity, explained to the people that it was necessary; that men only had a right to interfere in these concerns; that it was the law, and that he was determined, for reasons known only to himself; that the usual sacrifice should take place immediateiy. It was therefore done as he had commanded, and the widow of Rlccammong was strangled about a quarter of an hour before I arrived with the whale's tooth. My departed friend had three wives, two of whom were strangled; the third was saved by the influence of her relations, who were persons of great influence.

When I saw the bodies together, and that I had endeavoured in vain to save the widow, I was excessively agitated, and, in the first impulse of my disappointment, went to the corpse of the widow and kissed it. The caloo was standing near it ; he was a man that could contain his passions. I knew of his hostility towards me ; I up-braided him with the strongest expressions I could think of; but, smothering every mark of passion, he merely answered coolly, " It is the law."

Since that time I have been present at several ceremonies of the same kind, but all of them are nearly the same in their performance ; it would not be worth while therefore to speak more on the subject.

The people of these islands are cannibals. They inhabit a great many islands which have no appropriate names on the charts, but all of them have their peculiar native designations. The largest of these islands are divided into several districts, and there is often war among, people of the neighbouring places.

I had bought a bolt of canvass of the master of a vessel that was there, and he demanded a very large piece of sandel-wood for it, ten times as much as it was worth. I was, however, obliged to consent, and took him on shore to a place where I knew a piece large enough was lying ; for I was well known on the island, and had some authority : but he was a stranger ; and it was very dangerous for perfect strangers, ignorant of their language and customs, to trust themselves far from the shore. We had arrived at the log, and, having measured it, and found it not quite so large as was agreed upon, were talking about our bargain, when an old woman, well known to me, appeared with a large basket upon her shoulders. She came up to us, and, without addressing me as was usual, exclaimed in a dismal tone, " War, war, war."—I immediately knew that some-thing was wrong, and that all was not safe.—The man that was with me would have fled to the boat ; but I advised him to stay by me, who was known, and could speak the language ; whereas, if he were seen by himself running to his boat, there was a probability of his being killed. He remained, therefore, with me, and, when we had waited some time, a native acquaintance came up. I inquired of him the meaning of the old woman's expression, when he informed me that they had been at war ; that they had killed the Chief of Hyparcar; that they had had the good fortune to seize upon his body; and that they would feast upon it to-morrow, inviting me to be of the party.

To enable me to have so intimate an intercourse with these people, I had to encounter many dangers and to conform to many of their disgusting customs. This horrible custom, however, of eating human flesh, I had hitherto been able to avoid ; but it was necessary that I should seem to acquiesce even in this, and, as the natives did, take a delight in it. To the native's invitation, therefore, I gave a ready assent, seemed to rejoice at the circumstance, and explained to him that, as I had just arrived from a cruise, and had not tasted of fresh food for some time, it would be particularly welcome to me. I then went about my other concerns ; and in an hour or two the native that had accosted me in the morning came up to me, and, as if by accident, led me to the log of sandel-wood we had been bargaining for. The body of the captive had been laid beside it. It was that of a man above six feet high ; there was a large wound across the forehead, and another at the top of the head, as if from the blows of a club. I started back at the sight, and the native exclaimed with emphasis, " Are you afraid ?" " Sanga, sanga," said I (" No, no ") ; " I hope to feast on him to morrow."

The people of these islands always eat human flesh cold ; they roast it one day, and eat it the next ; and before the body is cut to pieces the caloo performs a Iong ceremony. I went with my native friend to the priest's house ; he was then about to perform the usual incantation. He had a long staff in his hands ; and having placed one end of it on the ground, he exercised himself violently in reeling to and fro with it, till, overcome with the exercise, he fell down, and the attendants carried him into his house. He then said something in the manner of an oracle, which, as it was explained to me, meant that they would succeed in what they were about to undertake, refer-ring to a battle that was intended.

The multitude then went down to their dead enemy, and with pieces of wood or bambo, made very sharp, cut off his hands at the wrists, his feet at the ankles, his legs at the knees, and his thighs near the middle, dividing the bone with an axe, which they had purchased from one of the vessels that had been at the island. The head was cut off very low toward the breast, and they placed it on some hot ashes that had previously been prepared in a hole dug for the purpose ; and when it had remained there a sufficient time they rubbed off the hair with shells, and replaced it with the other parts of the body in the hole, surrounding it on all sides with stones that had been made very hot. They then covered it up till it was completely roasted. I told the natives that I expected they would allow me my share of it ; that I was then going on board, but that I should not fail to come on shore on the morrow ; but that, if I should be pre-vented, I desired they would send my share on board the brig. The men of Hylai (for that was the name of the place) promised that I should not be disappointed, and I then left them.

On my going on board, I told my mate what was going forward, and desired that, when the human flesh should be brought on board for me, he should say I was gone on shore ; and that when they should tell him what they had brought he should seem disgusted, and refuse to receive it on board ; that he should say that, although the Captain was fond of it, yet that he hated it, and that they might carry it on shore again, for he would not receive it. On the following day it was done as I desired ; they brought the roasted human flesh alongside, and the mate refused to admit it on board, at the. same time ex-claiming violently against the custom. They at length went on shore with it, very much disappointed, and threatening that, if they met with him, they would kill him.

Two days after this I went among them again. I thought I might turn the circumstance of the human flesh to my advantage. I pre-tended to be very angry with them, said that they had deceived me; that they had not sent me my share of the human flesh. They persisted in affirming that they had sent it alongside, and that the mate would not receive it. I inquired, I told them, when I went on board, and that no one had seen or heard of it, and, added I, f have been greatly disappointed.—Finding it therefore in vain to persuade me that they had sent it to me, they railed against the mate,, and repeated that if they met him on shore they would kill him.

Carrying on the deception, I immediately went to the mother of Riccammong. I told her that I was very angry that I had been disappointed and deceived. She spoke respectfully to me, as chiefs generally do when they address each other. In a very low submissive voice, she said (for even here there is prevalent a great portion of Eastern bombast), " If you are angry, me shall die." She then demanded what could be done to pacify me. I told her I must have a certain quantity of sandel-wood. She therefore immediately sent some of her servants to collect it for me; which appeased me, and I returned on board.

Soon after this, having collected my cargo, I left the place, and have heard no more of these people. They are a dangerous race to go among; and I was the only person of five vessels who had any authority among them, and was permitted to live on shore.

One of the most extraordinary circumstances among them is, the excessive value they set upon large teeth, such as those of the whale or sea elephant. So that persons going to procure sandel-wood from them generally take with them as many of these teeth as they can procure.

The principal things they barter for are axes, knives, or razors ; but they will give as much wood for one large tooth as for five or six axes. This regard they put upon large teeth is the more extra-ordinary, as they do not seem to make any use of them, except as ornaments.

When a native, by purchase or any other means, becomes possessed of a large tooth, he hangs it up in his house, and for the first few days scarcely ceases looking upon it and admiring it. He frequently takes it down, and rubs it with a particular kind of leaf, and polishes it; some of them almost for a month continue to labour upon it.

The vessels from Port Jackson usually carried the teeth of the whale or sea elephant; but some vessels from India carried elephants' teeth, which they cut into pieces, and made in the shape of other teeth. These, being very large, were considered of the greatest value, and procured vast quantities of sandel-wood. So great an account was set upon them, that some chiefs actually came from islands more than an hundred miles distant to see them.

They set no value on money. A ship called the Eliza, with several thousand dollars on board, was wrecked on a reef near one of these islands. The master of her put about four thousand of them in the jolly-boat, and made for the island that was most frequented, where he found a vessel from Port Jackson and got on board of her. The jolly-boat was left towing astern, and some hours had passed before the master of the shipwrecked vessel mentioned the dollars being left in the boat. It happened that this was done in the presence of the mate, who reported it to one of the sailors, and they removed them by stealth. Some of them they concealed in their cabins, and others the accomplice took on shore and buried. Some of the natives, however, saw him covering something up, and when he went away they dug up the dollars. On the following morning they were widely distributed among the natives, who parted with them for the merest trifles, such as nails, pins, or small pieces of iron.

A man called Savage, who had been some time among the natives at Tongataboo, about this time came to the island, and hearing where the wreck was, went to the place, and found the dollars lying in heaps upon the beach.

Such is the account given me by Mr. Siddons ; I cannot vouch for the truth of it, but am inclined to believe that it is mostly true. To many it may appear to be too much allied to the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, but I would not disbelieve it on that account. From many persons I have heard similar accounts, but very few have had the opportunity of seeing so much of these people as Siddons. There is a possibility also of some of the circumstances that I have mentioned in this account having been published before, especially in "The Missionary Voyage ;" which being the case, one account may be set against the other, and may either confirm the truth of it, or render it doubtful. Siddons lived on the Island, I believe, several years, and had house and lands ; perhaps wives. If he be not the Missionary himself mentioned in Pinkerton's " Geography " as having forsaken the original purpose of his visiting the Islands, namely, that of propagating the Gospel, for the more sensual gratifications of life ; at least it is probable that the one may have been known by the other, and may be mentioned accordingly. This account I heard from Siddons himself, and I thought it worth while to commit it to paper.

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