Saturday, June 17, 2006
Whaling and whales' teeth
In the light of this week’s voting on whaling with representatives from South Pacific small countries, I decided to post some comments about whaling and whales’ teeth in reference to Fiji. There are always two or three whales’ teeth in our household, one always hanging on the wall over a piece of Fijian barkcloth. They keep moving on though when there is a need for a ceremony. Also, we have a large photograph on our lounge room wall of a whale leaping, next to photograph of Michael Jordan also leaping!
The following notes are from cutting and pasting after a Google search.
In Pacific Island society, some objects can have a 'spiritual' value that far outweighs their actual 'market' value. The tabua plays a similar role in Fijian society. Tabua are pierced and braided whales’ teeth, originally taken from the lower jaw of sperm whales found stranded on Fijian beaches. As whale strandings were relatively rare, so were whales' teeth more valued as a result.
Tabua are considered by Fijians as a 'chiefly thing'. Ceremonial tabua have holes drilled through the tip and the butt, and a braided sennit cord is attached. The teeth are polished and sometimes rubbed with coconut oil and turmeric to darken them.
While the tabua is a uniquely Fijian object, whales’ teeth are used in other societies. European sailors used to carve and colour whales' teeth in their spare time - this was called scrimshaw. They were also shaped into necklaces and other ornaments in many parts of the Pacific, including Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai'i and the Marquesas Islands. Māori also used whales' teeth to make rei niho (whale tooth pendants) which were worn by people of high rank. However, nowhere else in the Pacific do whale teeth have the power or meaning of tabua in Fiji.
History of the tabua
Before the Europeans came to the South Pacific, the people of Fiji used a wooden token for various ceremonial purposes. Called the bua-ta, the token was a highly polished piece of wood carved from the bua tree. But, about one hundred fifty years ago, western whalers began to call at Fiji, offering whales' teeth in exchange for sandalwood and other resources. The natives were struck by the similarities between the whales' teeth and their ancient bua-ta and soon adopted them instead, naming them a tabua.
It is believed that the whale’s tooth, as an object of value, was first introduced to Fiji from Tonga at the end of the 18th century. However, long before the whale’s tooth, Fijians placed special value on other objects - such as rare shells for important presentations. Depending on the significance of the event, several hundred shells would sometimes change hands.
The tabua is an honorary bestowal, presented as a traditional welcome to important guests, when making a special request, to seal a betrothal, as a token of mourning and to solve disputes. Each presentation ceremony follows a rigid set of rules for occasions such as birth, marriage, death, the launching of a canoe, the welcoming of visitors, the installation of a new chief. It is also used as an exchange of apology after a disagreement. In modern Fiji, the tabua holds an indispensable place in the social and economic life of the Fijian people that far outweighs its intrinsic value.
Whalers in Rotuma - from "Voyage in the South Seas," etc., Captain Peter Dillon, 1829, vol. ii, p. 95.
(Rotuma) became a favourite resort for American whalers in the South Pacific, as many as nine being remembered at anchor at one time at Oinafa. From these were naturally many deserters, who came to live on the island. At first they were received with open arms by the natives and supplied with food, but in time their numbers became ~o great, and their behaviour was so bad, that they were left severely alone; from first to last it never went so far as to allow them to starve. Their number at one time cannot have been far short of 100, but fortunately they acquired no lands and few wives, so that they have, comparatively speaking, left little traces. Their children invariably remained on the island with their mothers, and were brought up just in the same way as a Rotuman child would be. It is recorded, to show their mode of life, that one beachcomber started from his house to make a circuit of the island. Of course he bad to stop and get drunk with each white man on his way, so that he was over three months (in getting home again.)
International politics and whaling
I don’t think whalers would get a welcome in Fiji these days, but I wonder how many South Pacific small nations have voted with Japan at St Kitts this week in favour of whaling? On the Inernational Whaling Commission website the following are listed: Kiribati, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, but not Fiji. I heard that the Solomon islands delegate absteined from one or more of the votes.