This note from a reader : "France explains politely but devastatingly that the myth began not in Fijian prehistory but with the missionaries Carey and Fison, and was brought to full flower... as a result of a competition in Na Mata. Fijians, as we know, are great story-tellers, and the challenge of a competition would have certainly brought forth the highest flights of fancy they could muster. Lutunasobasoba (another myth) and the Kaunitoni story was the result. I don't think it is mentioned in the France paper, but somewhere not long ago I read that the person who won the competition was none other that Basil Thomson's own clerk - mission educated and also used to his boss's ruminations about voyages."
Peter France: The Kaunitoni migration: notes on the genesis of a Fijian tradition. In: The Journal of Pacific History. Bd. 1 (1966), S. 107–113
The Fijian people are linked by tradition with the Vikings of the
Sunrise. Their ancestors set out, it is said, from a land far to the west, and
sailed along the course set by their chief, towards the rising sun. The chief's
name was Lutunasobasoba; his canoe was called the Kaunitoni. As they
approached the Yasawa islands a great storm arose, scattering the canoes
before the wind and driving them onto the western shores of Viti Levu
at a place which was given the name 'Vuda* in memory of the event (Vuda
= 'our origin*). The brother of Lutunasobasoba, who was called Degei, set
out across the island in search of land on which the tribes could settle, and
he chose the high mountains to the north-east. Lutunasobasoba was taken
there, and a house was built for him, using only the leaves and wood of
the pandanus tree, which is called in Fijian na kau vadra. The settlement
prospered, and became known by the name of the chief's house, which was
'Nakauvadra'. Eventually, on the death of Lutunasobasoba, there was a war
which resulted in the dispersal of the people all over the islands.
This is the legend of the Kaunitoni migration; unlike most Fijian oral
traditions, which relate the exploits of local gods and heroes, it is told from
one end of the group to the other. It has been given a place in authoritative
books on Fijian history1 and custom,2 and has been used as corroborative
evidence for the speculations of ethnographer3 and archaeologist4 in their
reconstructions of Fijian pre-history.
At the present time, a resurgence of interest in the prehistory of Fiji is
taking place, and the Director of the Fiji Museum is planning extensive
archaeological investigations, with the primary aim of 'providing a chron
ology of settlement for the whole Fiji Group*. 5 According to the traditions
of the Fijian people the most significant event in the settlement of the group
was the arrival of the Kaunitoni migration, to which Gifford has already
assigned a date, and a pottery horizon.6 At a time when we are almost
certainly on the eve of new discoveries, perhaps a few historical notes on
the Kaunitoni tradition may be of some interest.
When the details of a legend violate normally accepted standards of
probability, the hearer, whose empathetic interest is stirred by assurances of
the high antiquity of the tale, is apt to disregard these details as irrelevant
to the central truth of what he is being told. Perhaps this may account, in
some measure, for the acceptance of the Kaunitoni migration as a historic
event, when the briefest dispassionate consideration of the legend as reported
above must give us pause: the interpretation of Vuda as 'our origin' would
never occur to a Fijian, unless he had first been told that that is what it
meant;7 anyone who is familiar with the precipitous rocky and barren
heights of the Nakauvadra range would find it hard to credit the selection
of this particular locality as an area of first settlement by people who live
from the soil; nor would it be easy to find a material less suitable for the
construction of a chiefly house than the pandanus tree.
And what of the antiquity of this legend which is held in such veneration
at the present time? It is remarkable that one of the most authoritative
and painstaking of early investigators into Fijian customs and legends
remained ignorant of what is now the most widely known of all traditions:
after 13 years of patient research so productive of data on all aspects of
Fijian customs Thomas Williams wrote:
In considering the origin of the present inhabitants of Fiji, we seek in vain
for a single ray of tradition or historical record to guide us through the
darkness of a remote antiquity. The native songs are silent in the matter,
and no hint of a former immigration is to be heard.8
Williams kept an interleaved copy of Fiji and the Fijians in which he
entered expansions of his ideas and observations, hoping to incorporate them
in a second edition. He noted opposite the above paragraph his opinion that
the absence of native traditions on the first peopling of the islands was
strong evidence of the great antiquity of the early migrations, in contrast
with other islands of the Pacific:
Had it [Fiji] been peopled but a few generations, traditions to this effect
might reasonably be expected, as in the case of the New Zealanders,
Rotumans, and Samoans. These have traditions of the first arrival of their
forefathers. Fiji has not, and is not alone in wanting traditions of origin.9
Williams* interest in the traditions of Fiji was shared by his missionary
colleagues Hunt and Waterhouse, who investigated and described in detail
the history and legends of the Fijian people: both recorded that there were
no traditions of migration from another land.10
A secular authority of the same period, who had lived his whole life
among the peoples of the South Pacific, and had acquired, at any rate in
his own opinion, a unique affinity with, and knowledge of, Fijians was
William Pritchard. His statement on migration traditions is characteristically
unequivocal: In Fiji there are no traditions in any way indicating the direction of their
primeval migrations. On the contrary, a tradition states that the Fijians
were created in Fiji, and did not migrate from any other land.11
And he is echoed in this by his friend Seemann who was unquestionably
one of the most perceptive and impartial of early observers.12
In 1865 a systematic attempt was made to collect and preserve Fijian
oral traditions from all parts of the group: the missionary Jesse Carey sent
a circular letter to all native teachers asking them to record all the legends
of the people amongst whom they were working. The replies to this request,
consisting of over 250 foolscap sheets of closely written script, in all dialects,
are preserved in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.18 In this, the most compre
hensive extant collection of Fijian legends, the deeds of over 300 gods and
ancestors are celebrated. There is no hint of a migration; no mention of
Lutunasobasoba; no landing at Vuda, and no canoe called the Kaunitoni.
Twenty years later a similar collection was made by Edward O'Brien
Heffernan, who had travelled all over Fiji as planter, private secretary to
a Bauan chief, and native advocate to the Land Claims Commission.
Heffernan*s collection, preserved among the Stanmore Papers at the
Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, contains 50 legends and
traditional chants from many different areas of Fiji. His knowledge of
Fijian culture was extensive after more than 20 years of close contact, but
it did not, apparently, include the legend of the Kaunitoni migration.
The only traditions of origin discoverable by the above authorities were
those which ascribed the creation of all things to the supreme god, Degei,
who had the form of a serpent, and lived in a cave near the summit of the
Nakauvadra range.14 Local gods were plentiful, but were celebrated in
legend and song more for the wild obscenities of their sylvan antics than
for their influence in human affairs. Fijians do not seem to have looked
beyond Degei for an explanation of their origins, and it was not until later
in the century, when their oral traditions were subjected to the scrutiny
of investigators familiar with the theories and techniques of the newly
established and rapidly expanding science of anthropology, that further
revelations were made.
In 1892, Basil Thomson, an amateur anthropologist and enthusiastic
observer of Fijian culture, published a brief note in which he recorded a
legend from a native of the island of Beqa, that the ancestors of the Fijians
had been washed up on the west coast of Viti Levu.15 There is no mention
of the name of the canoe, nor of the chief who led them. Thomson continued
to search for elaborations of this tradition, and in 1895 he was able to
reveal to the readers of the Journal of the Anthropological Institute the
legend of the Kaunitoni migration in all its details, commenting, with
perhaps a touch of complacency, that the tale was 'never before, I believe,
published in England1.16
Further distinction was lent to the legend by its inclusion in Thomson's
well-known book, The Fijians, the version there printed being described as
a commentary by Thomson's clerk, Hai Motonicocoka, on some fragments
of an early poem.17 In 1908, the year this book was published, the legend was
widely known in Fiji, and David Wilkinson quoted it in an address to the
Fiji Society, remarking that it would undoubtedly be known to most of those
That the story was widely known and accepted by Fijians as a traditional
account of their origins seems to have been the general opinion of writers
from this time on, though Burton, as late as 1910, echoes his missionary
predecessors in denying its existence.19 The only serious challenge to its
authenticity had little influence, possibly because it was published in French:
J. de Marzan wrote that, in his experience, Fijians invariably claimed that
their ancestors came from the Nakauvadra mountains20?this in 1907; and as
late as 1926 Mgr Blanc gave his opinion in support of Quatrefages,21 that
the Fijians thought themselves to be autochthonous, and that the memory
of their previous migrations had been lost.22
Those writing in English, however, turned their attentions to specul
ations on the racial composition of the Kaunitoni migration, accepting the
fact, and even the approximate date of its occurrence.23 Speakers to the
Fijian Society referred, in passing, to the legend,24 and the Methodist
Mission monthly periodical carried its details to all readers.25 The tradition
gained authority from its acceptance in European antiquarian circles, and
its wide diffusion in the form of the printed word between the decorous
covers of a church magazine. Perhaps the ultimate seal of authenticity was
conferred in 1964, when the Fiji Broadcasting Commission, in a series of
weekly talks, presented the Kaunitoni legend to its largest audience.
It might seem, from the above, that the publication of the Kaunitoni
legend was an early vindication of the emerging anthropological sciences;
that Thomson, being familiar with the characteristics common to primitive
cultures, was able to discover an important oral tradition long hidden from
earlier, untrained observers; that the long-concealed migration legend was
finally revealed to Thomson, after three years of patient research, because
he knew what he was looking for.
In a sense this last observation is correct. The legend emerged because,
by the early 1890s, quite a lot of people knew what Thomson was looking
for. The mission schools had introduced Fijians to the knowledge of distinct
racial groups occupying different areas of the world, and several of the
mission teachers had evolved definite views on the origins of the Fijian
race. A graduate of the Navuloa mission school, who studied there from
1892-1894, has described the history lessons in which he was told of the
African origins of his ancestors.26 The school made use, he writes, of a book
written by Carey, who taught at Richmond, Kadavu, and the eminent
anthropologist Lorimer Fison, who was the principal at Navuloa. The
book established indisputable links between Fiji and Tanganyika, on
linguistic grounds, and because settlements bearing the names of Fijian
villages, including Vuda (of which the currently understood translation was
given), were to be found along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Carey com
pared the customs of Fiji with those of the city of Thebes, and concluded
that the ancestors of the Fijian race had been nurtured in that centre of
Under the stimulus of these teachings, interest in the racial origins of
Fijians grew, and the editor of the Fijian language paper, Na Mata,
announced in 1892 that a competition would be held in order to select and
preserve a definitive version of the legendary history of the people. The
criteria which guided his selection were, unfortunately, not announced, but
the entry which found favour with him was published in 17 monthly
episodes commencing in September 1892. It told of the departure of the
ancestors from their native city of Thebes; their journey up the Nile, and
settlement on the shores of Lake Tanganyika; the eventual quarrel with
neighbouring tribes which resulted in the great migration from Africa to
Fiji, led by the chief, Lutunasobasoba, on his canoe, the Kaunitoni; and the
establishment of a settlement at Nakauvadra. Later instalments described
in detail the spread of the Kaunitoni voyagers and their descendants to all
parts of Fiji. It was this story which, shorn of its Egyptian and African
incidents, was translated and published by Thomson in 1895 and which, as
described above, subsequently established itself among the traditions of the
The establishment of an oral tradition authenticating the teachings of
mission schools was not solely motivated by the natural courtesy of graduates
towards their mentors; new forces of enquiry were at work in Fiji, and it
was the pragmatic habit of Fijians to satisfy all investigators who represented
authority. Legend acquired a new significance: no longer did the visitors,
half-stunned with yaqona, call for the old tales of gymnastic encounters in
bathing places, which celebrated, with hilarious ribaldry, the sexual prowess
of ancestor-gods. The clerks of the Native Lands Commission sought for
evidence of how the tribes came to be occupying the lands they claimed, and
the obscenity of legendary explanations no longer guaranteed their acceptability.
So the Kaunitoni legend was born, of missionary parentage, and nurtured
by the enquiries of the Native Lands Commission. Its general acceptance
at the present time is one of the products of Fiji's transition from a geog
raphical expression to a nation; it has the same socially cohesive qualities
as the national coat of arms and the flag. But it is no more closely related
to Fijian culture than they; it does not, apparently, antedate them.
DEGEI (HEAD GOD)
Degei was the head god of Fiji, and created all other gods, men, and things.
After having done all this he seems to have knocked off work, or all active part in
carrying on the system he had created.
He lived in a cave at Nakauvadra?in Rakiraki, coiled up in the form of a serpent
and lying beside a great fire made of whole trunks of trees, and receiving in the centre of
his coils the souls of men who die on earth, that is the souls not eaten on the way by
other gods and spirits, for the poor souls had so many enemies on the roads from earth to
Degei, that oneonly wonders that Degei had any souls at all to look after.
There were many roads which souls could take on leaving the upper earth, the two
principal were severally called Nai Cobocobo, one on Vanua Levu?the other at
Raqiraqi ?Na Viti Levu.
Degei had many sons?the eldest of whom was called Rokoua, and because both father
and son will be often mentioned in the next story, I thought it best to give some
explanation of their position in Fijian mythology.
Degei at times when bothered into it is still able to assert himself, goes in sometimes
for a gale of wind, or a flood, or a large crop, and also does a little trading through his
sons. Fijians have a tendency to give their Gods the attributes of mortals as they know
mortals, (that is themselves) and Degei seems to take the same position that an old Fijian
chief would take, too old to work orperform any exertion with pleasure to himself, and
whose greatest enjoiment is to lay by the fire and do nothing, yet still with a latent power
in himself when urgent necessity calls it forth.
[E. O'Brien Heffernan, 7 Sept. 1877], MS 8(11). Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and
1 R. A. Derrick, A History of Fiji (Suva, 1946) , 7.
2 See, for example, G. K. Roth, Fijian Way of Life (Melbourne, 1953), 54; B. Thomson, The
Fijians: A Study in the Decay of Custom (London, 1908), 6; A. B. Brewster, The Hill Tribes
of Fiji (London, 1922), 81.
3 A. Capell and R. H. Lester, 'Local Divisions and Movements in Fiji', Oceania, XI (1941),
313-41, XII (1941-2), 21-48.
4 E. W. Giffora, 'Archaeological excavations in Fiji', Anthropological Records, XIII (1949-52),
199, and 'Mythology, Legends, and Archaeology in Fiji', University of California Publications
in Semitic Philology, XI (1951), 177.
5J. B. Palmer, 'A Programme for future investigations in Fiji', Appendix 2 in Colin D.
Smart, Preliminary Report on Archaeological Fieldwork in Kab ara, Southern Lau Islands,
Fiji, processed (Suva, 1965), 28.
6? Gifford, 'Archaeological excavations...', 235.
7 The possessive suffix is normally applied to words denoting kindred, or parts of the body;
'Vuda' could mean 'our roots' if the tradition was that the Fijians had emerged from the soil
there, but it cannot be appropriately applied to the landfall of a migration.
S Thomas Williams, Fiji and the Fijians (London, 1858), I, 17.
9 Author's copy of the above, interleaved with notes by Williams. Sydney, MitcheU MS Library, B457.
10 1. Hunt, 'A History of Fiji*. Sydney, Mitchell Library, MS B552; Joseph Waterhouse,
The King and
People of Fiji (London, 1866), 12.
11 W. T. Pritcnard, Polynesian Reminiscences (London, 1866), 393-4.
12 B. Seemann, Viti: An Account of a Government Mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands
in the years 1860-1 (Cambridge, 1862), 394.
18 M.O.M., Papers of the Methodist Church of Australia, Department of Overseas Missions,
164, item 4. Sydney, Mitchell Library.
14 See, for example J. S. C. Dumont d'Urville, Voyage de la corvette L'Astrolabe . . .
1826-9 (Paris, 1830-33), IV, 696; J. Eaglestone, Journal of Captain John Eaglestone, MS, 1835,
Salem, Mass., Peabody Museum, pp. 16-20; R. B. Lyth, 'Reminiscences of Tonga and Fiji', 1840,
Sydney, Mitchell Library, MS 549, vol. I, 89; J. Hunt, Memoir of the Reverend William Cross
... (London, 1846), 120.
15 B. Thomson, 'The Land of our Origin?Viti, or Fiji', Journal of the Polynesian Society,
I (1892), 143-6.
16 Idem, 'The Kalou-vu of the Fijian', Journal of the Anthropological Institute, XXTV
17 Idem, The Fijians: A Study in the Decay of Custom, 6-10.
18 D. Wilkinson, 'Origin of the Fijian Race', Fijian Society Transactions (1908-10), 19.
J. W. Burton, The Fiji of Today (London, 1910), 39.
J. de Marzan, 'Le Tot?mism aux Iles Fidji', Anthropos, II (1907), 404.
21 A. Quatrefages, Les Polynesians et leurs Migrations (Paris, 1864), 140.
J. Blanc, Histoire Religieuse de l'Archipel Fidjien (Toulon, 1926), 60.
23 A. B. Brewster, 'The Chronicles of the Noemalu Tribe, or Dwellers in Emalu', Fijian
Society Transactions for 1920 (Suva, 1921), 6, and The Hill Tribes of Fiji (London, 1922), 105, 259;
Capell and Lester, 'Local Divisions and Movements . . .'; Derrick, A History of Fiji, 7; Gilford,
'Mythology, Legends and Archaeology in Fiji*.
J. Ewins, 'Early Migration to Fiji of man at present known as the Fijian Race',
Fijian Society Transactions for 1919 (Suva, 1920); R. H. Lester, Magico-Religious Secret
Societies of Viti Levu, Fiji', Fiji Society, Transactions and Proceedings, II (1941-4), 118.
25 E. Rokowaqa, Ai tukutuku kei Viti (n.p., n.d.), passim.
2* Ibid., S.
27 Ibid., 7.
28 The writer of the Na Mata articles signed himself by the
which means 'Hurricane clouds'. There is no other indication of his identity; but there is no
doubt that the version which Thomson printed is a close translation of that which was
published in Na Mata, and, on Thomson's authority, it is possible to identify 'Denicagilaba' as
Thomson's clerk, liai Motonococoka.