A Brief History of Cannibalism In Fiji

Cannibal Cave, Fiji | © Christian Peraita / Flickr
Cannibal Cave, Fiji | © Christian Peraita / Flickr
Photo of Juliette Sivertsen
29 March 2017

Fiji’s cannibalistic history is no secret, with cannibal dolls readily available to buy in souvenir shops and regular tours available to historical cannibal caves. There was even a public apology made in 2003 to the descendants of a Christian missionary who was cannibalised. Here’s what you need to know about Fiji’s dark past.

When did cannibalism occur in Fiji?

Cannibalism has a long history in the Fiji Islands, which were previously known as the Cannibal Isles. According to the Fiji Museum, there is archeological evidence to suggest that the practice of consuming human flesh dates back over 2,500 years in the islands. Excavations at certain sites have uncovered various human remains, with evidence of this brutal practice clear, due to butchering scars on the bones.

The last known recorded incident of cannibalism in Fiji was in the 1860s, with the death of missionary Reverend Thomas Baker.

Fiji Museum in Suva, which displays items from Fiji's cannibalism history | © Michael Coghlan / Flickr

Why did people eat other in Fiji?

The initial reasons for cannibalism in Fiji are a little sketchy, but it is clear that the practice continued for a number of tribal and spiritual reasons.

Have you ever heard the phrase keep your friends close and your enemies closer? It’s believed that Fijian chiefs ate the flesh of their enemies as a means of power, control, revenge and as the ultimate insult. It was also believed that if you consumed your enemy, you would inherit their knowledge. It was a brutal practice where victims were often tortured and even dismembered while they were still alive.

The entire process was steeped in ritual, from the abuse of the bodies, the chanting and drumming and the use of special pronged forks to eat the flesh rather than hands.

Cannibal Fork in Fiji | © Juliette Sivertsen

How did cannibalism end?

Christian missionaries began arriving in the Pacific from the 1830s. Many were horrified to witness acts of cannibalism, and some recorded their eye-witness accounts. As Christianity spread, Fijians began to turn away from this practice and to worship the Christian God, not the old Fijian gods.

The last known act of cannibalism occurred in 1867. Methodist missionary Reverend Thomas Baker, along with six other Fijian student teachers, were murdered and eaten in central Viti Levu. It is thought that their killings were mandated by a chief who resisted the spread of Christianity and conversion from the Fijian old religion. Reverend Baker is understood to be the only missionary or white man who was ever eaten.

The remains of Reverend Baker’s boots are held at the Fiji Museum in Suva.

Who was the most prolific cannibal?

The most prolific cannibal from Fiji – and the world – is Udre Udre, a chief who lived near Rakiraki in northern Viti Levu. He holds the macabre Guinness World Record of Most Prolific Cannibal, believed to have eaten between 872 and 999 people in his lifetime. He kept a stone for every person he consumed, and there are over 800 stones still decorating his grave site today. The exact number of how many people he ate is unknown, as some of the stones are missing.

What do Fijians think of cannibalism today?

In 2003, the Fijians from the village where Reverend Baker was killed and eaten formally apologised and begged forgiveness from the missionary’s ancestors. Locals believed they had been cursed since the killing and plagued with misfortune as a result of their ancestors’ actions and wanted to atone for their sins.

Rather than run from its past, the Christian nation has accepted cannibalism is part of its history, and are now even making money from it. You can walk into the Fijian souvenir shop Jacks and find yourself facing handmade cannibal dolls made of coconut shells, as well as wooden cannibal forks. There are tours to the Naihehe Cave – also known as the Cannibal Cave – where the last known cannibal tribe lived.

Of course, there are people who will always wonder if there are some islands in Fiji where cannibalism is still practiced, but Fiji remains a strongly Christian country where Sundays are sacred.

Cannibal Cave, Fiji | © Christian Peraita / Flickr