While leisurely floating away on a Fiji cruise, you wouldn’t guess that some of the early inhabitants of the islands were cannibals. Now, it’s not really the kind of cannibalism you imagine from popular culture: early Fijians did not just eat anyone because they were hungry. Cannibalism was a ritual act deeply embedded in Fijian religion and customs. If you want to learn more (and we promise there aren’t gritty details), read on!
Photo: Travel With Olga
Cannibalism in the South Pacific
The South Pacific was known as a major cannibal territory, with Fiji especially, as it was nicknamed “the cannibal isles”. Groups of Melanesian origin were particularly prone to practice cannibalism, and there are even documented cases of flesh-markets in some isolated parts of Melanesian territory.
Missionaries in the South Pacific were particularly keen to eliminate what they considered an inhuman and monstrous practice. The practice disappeared in the South Pacific with the rise of Christianity in the 19th century.
What is cannibalism?
There are four different types of cannibalism, but the one that concerns us here is a culturally sanctioned cannibalism practiced in ritual situations. In these cases, cannibalism is a religious or social act surrounded by rules and customs.
Cannibalism in Fiji
The accounts we have from 19th century describe the cannibalism in Fiji as being related to war. Often, the bodies of the losing party would be carried back to the village, cooked and served to the winners. In their minds, eating the flesh of their enemies meant imbibing their life essence and enacting revenge for their own dead. Everyone in the village would partake in human flesh: men, women and child.
Captives were also kept for eating but, according to witness accounts, were treated much more cruelly. They would be stoned to death or would be asked to cut the wood that would cook them and dig their own oven-pits.
Of course, European missionaries would watch in horror as these socially sanctioned acts were happening before their eyes. Cultural relativism wasn’t especially popular, and missionaries strongly believed that their acts were criminal in the sight of God.
The main focus of missionaries, therefore, was to first convince the Fijians that cannibalism was not something to be practiced. Some of them interpreted the cannibalistic practices as pure evil and cruelty, without considering other possible explanations.
The last cannibal
Ratu Udre Udre is considered the last Fijian cannibal. Research counts the amount of people he ate to about 900. Even though other influential chiefs had renounced the practice and accepted Christianity, Udre Udre persisted and brought cannibalism to previously unknown heights.
The Museum of Fiji still keeps artifacts from Udre Udre: a part of his dining table, some ceremonial forks he used to eat human flesh, and some of the stones he kept as a marker of the number of humans he ate.
The grave of Udre Udre is still there, near Vaileka. So while you’re staying in a Malaysia hotel and preparing for your Fiji trip, maybe make a plan to visit the grave and the Museum for more historical information about the real cannibalism of Fiji!