The Cannibals and the Missionary - The Strange Tale of Taveuni's Oldest Church

In Fiji, on the West side of the island of Taveuni, at the village of Wairiki, is the Catholic Mission Holy Cross, with a school, a seminary and an extraordinary history. The church itself was built in 1907 on a hillside overlooking Somosomo Strait. Made of stone, it has beautiful stained glass windows imported from France. The interior has no pews as the services are held in the Fijian style with the parishioners seated on woven pandanus leaf mats that cover the floor. Regardless of one's religious beliefs (or lack thereof), it is a treat to attend a mass and hear the beautiful harmony of the choir singing in Fijian.

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The origins of this church go back to 1863 when a French Marist missionary helped Taveuni in war with Tonga. The Fijian Islands were not united under one rule at that time. That the Fijian people practiced cannibalism had been well known to Europeans. The practice was done in the belief that one gained the spiritual strength of one's enemy by eating his flesh. Special four pronged forks were used as it was bad form to touch one's lips with the meat. In Hawaii in the late 1970's, I once had the unique pleasure of selling a set of Fijian cannibal forks to the actor Vincent Price who was enroute to Fiji to film an episode of a Canadian cooking show. But I digress.

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Fijian Chief With Weapon of Choice

Anyway, in the early 1860's, the Kingdom of Tonga, having conquered much of the rest of Fiji, was intent on conquering Taveuni and sent thousands of warriors in canoes to do just that. Oddly enough, the Marist priest had studied military history in Europe, and provided the Fijians with a fighting strategy that helped them turn back the Tongans just off shore of the present mission's location. The defeated warriors were reportedly cooked in "lovo" - pit ovens - and eaten with breadfruit.

As a thank you to the priest, the Fijians gave him land and laborers to help him found his mission. Many were converted to Catholicism in the following years and the practice of cannibalism came to an end on Taveuni. Today, about half of Taveuni's 14,000 residents belong to the church.

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In case you are wondering (or worrying) about the present day culinary tastes of Fijians, the last occurrence of cannibalism in Fiji was in 1867 when a chief on the island of Viti Levu killed and devoured a Wesleyan Methodist missionary, Thomas Baker. It is said that the chief had borrowed a comb from Baker without asking. Even today, island cultures do not have the same concepts of property that Westerners do and are used to sharing things. But Baker became angry and insulted the chief by pulling the comb out of his hair - a fatal case of culture clash. A descendant of the chief recounted, "We ate everything, 'even tried to eat his shoes." If you go to the Fiji National Museum in Suva today, you can see one of Baker's shoes on display. Last year, the village where this occurred invited representatives of the church in England to visit Fiji and receive a formal apology for Baker's death, 138 years ago. They felt that doing so might put them in better stead with God and improve their fortunes.

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So don't fear being invited to dinner in Fiji. You won't be the main course! But when you visit Taveuni, do take a look at Wairiki's beautiful church, and as you gaze at the lovely ocean view, think of the odd and gruesome events that led to this mission's founding.


Uruguay Soccer Team said...

I can see how the Fijians might have found transubstantiation an appetizing idea, but might have been disappointed with the small portions.

Anonymous said...

Tastes like chicken!