Shoals of sprats,
attracted by the ship lights, were sacrificing
themselves on the landing deck at the rear of
the boat, allowing the captain to bait his hand-line
for larger fish. A tall Australian, one of the
passengers, eager to impress his new bride, scooped
up a handful of the small fish and crammed them
into his mouth, swallowing them live.
Most of those
sailing on the Mystique Princess, a cruise ship
operating out of Lautoka, Fiji, were on their
honeymoon. It had been raining for three days
in a part of the world where the brochure photographs
suggest it never rains. The cyclone season should
have finished - but it was raining and one was
on its way.
Inside the dining
room a Japanese woman joined our table with her
husband. She was wearing a T-shirt with a photograph
of herself in a bunny-girl outfit. "I got
it in Las Vegas," she said. Her husband looked
on proudly. Love and the weather makes people
do curious things.
We worried about
the cyclone. Many of the palm groves on the Yasawa
chain of islands, visited by the cruise ship,
were in tatters from a previous storm earlier
in the season.
the Yasawas are far more hospitable today than
they used to be. Captain William Bligh and his
castaways sailed by there after the mutiny on
the Bounty in 1789. They were fortunate to outsail
two pursuing Fijian war canoes - double-hulled
boats called druas. Capture by the Fijians was
dreaded by European mariners.
The first missionaries
to Fiji tended to get eaten. The tactic was to
convert the chief before he converted you...into
lunch. It was touch and go at times. "One
missionary, called Thomas Baker was eaten whole,"
said Alan Florian, cruise director. "The
only bits left were his shoes, which they couldn't
the first white missionary - the London Missionary
Society sent converted Tahitians initially - lasted
longer than most before he appeared on the menu.
Some of the cannibalistic practices made grisly
but absorbing reading for Victorians already primed
on gothic horror.
was routine for the average Fijian chief, sometimes
raw and bit by bit while they were still alive
and standing in his presence. One missionary,
William Wyatt Gill, described the method of cooking
thighs, the prime joint of human. The meat was
wrapped in leaves and placed on preheated stones
set in the ground in a lovo oven, the traditional
cooking method of the Pacific.
It is no surprise
to find that David Cargill, a Wesleyan missionary
who established a written form of the language
for the islands, was chosen to go there during
a meeting held in his absence. The locals would
play football with people's heads outside his
house, just to unnerve him. He went mad in the
end before he became yet another foreign delicacy
to grace a Fijian chief's table.
All this was at
a time when the British were colouring the world
pink. Today Fiji is largely Christian, it has
the Queen's portrait on its dollar notes and has
just rejoined the Commonwealth after 10 years
outside following a coup in 1987.
The Queen might
view the request with mixed emotions. Initial
elation will be tempered by the knowledge that
rejoining the commonwealth would demand a royal
visit, not itself an unpleasant venture. But the
participatory feasting involves the compulsory
drinking of Kava, called Yaqona in Fiji, a drink
made from ground roots of a plant in the pepper
family. It tastes and looks like diluted mud.
We drank the brew
on a visit to Malakati, a village of about 250
people on Nacula island. It was raining so we
were entertained to the local dances in a village
hall. The dances included a version of the Meke
or farewell dance traditionally performed by the
wives of chiefs upon their husband's death before
they were ritually strangled to keep him company
in the spirit world.
That a few days
in Fiji should be dominated by stories of death
and strangulation might have had something to
do with the influence on the psyche of the unseasonal
rain and cloud. It was impossible even to lie
under a coconut tree without a sense of unease.
Death by coconut
is not unknown, according to Eroni Puamau, marketing
officer for the Fiji Visitors' Bureau. "There
was a chap killed by a coconut as he slept in
the north of the island a while back. It is something
we have to take seriously," he said. Most
resorts now remove the coconut before they mature.
Still, it is best to check the state of coconut
emasculation before you rest your head for the
afternoon on that palm-fronded beach.
The normally sunny
beaches had been transformed into the sort that
in Britain would be dotted by windshields and
sandcastles. The snorkelling was fine because
it was just as wet beneath the surface as above
but the colours of the fish and corals were faded
without the brightness of the sun.
There were compensations,
however. One of the honeymooners, an American
folk singer, was persuaded to forgo the odd early
night to entertain the rest of us. I would like
to say that we sang under a starry sky by swaying
palm trees but we never saw the stars.
We escaped the
hurricane with a few hours to spare, jetting out
for New Zealand. The stop in Auckland allowed
time for lunch at a vineyard. I ventured into
a stretch of forest, this time coconut free.
head," said my companion as we passed by
a tall tree. Large tree orchids nestled in its
branches. "They can kill if they fall on
you," she said. "We call them widowers."
I never knew that trees could be so hazardous.