A Shoe’s Sole

18/03/2013 12:41

There is a curious piece in the Fiji Museum in Suva, the islands capital. It is simply the sole of a shoe. Yes, the sole of a shoe. And that's an uncommon element for a museum, it looks like out of place. Usually museums, maybe with the honorable exception of clothing and footwear, do not often display these kind of pieces. The phrase harder as the sole of a shoe could summarize and justify the presence of the relic.

This one in particular belonged to the Reverend Thomas Baker. Coming from Essex, England, he led the London Missionary Society in Davuilevu. In a proselytizing journey to Nabutautau village on Sunday July 21, 1867, Baker touched the tribe chief head, an act that was taboo. It was the last mistake in his life. The shoe’s sole was all that remained of his person and attire once cooked the whole body. Curiously a kind of carved wooden holders are sold in the own museum shop, which represent, by way of facsimile, the same were used to eat human flesh. They have four punches, like ours. The difference is that aren’t arranged in parallel in the way we’re used, but form a double row of two. I bought a new pair that I still keep but I have not used yet.

Looks like as they were commonly used in the late eighteenth century in that area of Melanesia keeping away for a while western navigators landings, at least until sandalwood trade encouraged misprice the real danger to be sharing a table with some Fiji inhabitants. Not as a guest, of course, but as a main course.

As divine representatives on earth, neither chiefs nor priests could touch any food. Their hands and lips were taboo. They must be feed by a wizard who put the food in their mouths avoiding any contact with the lips. On special occasions wooden holders were used. These were considered nearly sacred, had their own name, were jealously kept and could not be touched by anyone else.

Cannibalism was a common practice in Fiji, as in the Solomon and New Caledonia. However, in Fiji, Baker is the only westerner known to be devoured.

One hundred thirty-seven years have left in 2003 when the inhabitants of Nabutautau, Viti Levu, descendants of Baker cooks, invited the Reverend heirs. In a ceremony, attended even by the Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and other six hundred people, the village chief, Ratu Filimoni Nawawabaluvu, personally apologized to the family for having eaten his ancestor. Some members firmly believed that the town suffered a curse since that time. After the meeting it appears curse ended. They started the construction of a road and a school bearing the name of the missionary: Thomas Baker's Memorial School.

Returning to the late eighteenth century, it would not be a surprise on the coasts of the islands a landfall of defectors from any vessel crew, or conversely, abandoned as a punishment. Some of them served as interpreters in the native contacts with Western explorers. Others even benefited from contact with the population, as a Swede named Charlie Savage, a remarkably appropriate name for his character. Savage put his foot on the coast of Nairai island. The reason was the sinking of his ship, the Eliza. Savage trafficked in guns, basically muskets recovered from the vessel. The Swede, coming from Tonga and speaking fluently the dialects of the islands, was in tune with Naulivou’s ambition of supremacy. Naulivou was already chief of the island of Bau. With the help of guns, so far unknown by the natives, the chief began wars with other Fijian tribes until he got supremacy in the archipelago. Savage became a character, he was rewarded with several good family wives. Seven years later, September 1, 1813, Savage's adventures ended during a skirmish on the beach against a tribe of Wailea. His skull was kept as a kava bowl, a traditional Fijian brew.

© J.L.Nicolas


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