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A chief and saviour? 36 days ago

Vatubalavu people
tells of dark history

In every province of Fiji, there exist stories of fierce warriors who were well known for their prowess in the battlefield as they were in their stewardship of chiefdom and its peoples.

However, the stories were often retold either with some exaggeration or minus vital information that would truly bring to life those times before the “white man” first landed in Fiji and before the history of Fijian people began to be recorded.
One such place exists in the highlands of Navosa in a sequestered region that has recently become well known for Indian hemp cultivation, as highlighted in the news media. Navosa and its surrounding deltas are ideal tobacco growing areas. The agro-based practice was first established in the turn of the 19th century and continues today, making Fiji’s tobacco one of the most sought after internationally in the turn of the century much like the Cuban cigars earned its fame during colonial times.

The people of the village of Vatubalavu, in the hinterlands of the Sigatoka Valley in the Navosa region tell of a chief Ratu Tevita Nagusudradra, his surname translated into “bloody mouth”, who many would regard as cruel and sadistic but with closer study appears a wise and humane one.
It appears that the chief helped lead a tribe that was not only self sufficient and orderly but above all possessed one of the region’s known most powerful army of warriors who leapt into local history books as having been the last bastion against the complete colonialisation of the Fiji Isles in the 1870s.
Navosa is a region separate from Nadroga, its neighbour and its people stand firm of their separate entity. They believe that for administrative purposes, the colonial rulers of that time, decided to merge their province with Nadroga.
The Navosa region covers part of an area known as Colo West (the cradle of mainland Viti Levu) linking it to the provinces of Naitasiri, Ba and Ra, extending down to the coastal villages of Namatakula right through to Korotogo and including Vatulele Island.

“We heard through stories told to us by our forefathers that they brought a cloth (sulu) to our men who were believed to have been very strong and ferocious warriors in the old days, one of which was our chief, Ratu Tevita Nagusudradra, said a descendent Ratu Jone Rokovesa who now lives and leads the people of Vatubalavu.

“Those bringing the cloth came from Nadi through the Nausori Highlands and they came to a place called Nasaucoko where some warriors saw them approaching and they went down to meet in a place called Koroisota near Vatumali. Nagusudradra after analyzing the situation realized that the best way was for his people to accept the cloth but there was strong opposition from other people in the village,” Rt Jone said.

The people of that region speak of a “cloth” (sulu) that was brought to their forefathers by colonialists, cloth meaning the proposal that they not only submit to colonial rule but also accept the Church – to shed their traditional mode of dressing using leaves and barks for modern-day attire.

Their refusal to bow to colonial rule warranted a government garrison to be positioned in Nasaucoko to subdue the ferocious peoples of the Navosa and surrounding districts. The area was well known for its inhabitants who killed and cannibalized Reverend Thomas Baker, a missionary who traipsed the mountainous region for the church.

In the early 1870s, white settlers had begun to move into areas in the north western side of Viti Levu and a massacre of a settler family, the Burns in Ba triggered a war in June 1876, fought between tribal warriors and the colonial constabulary which saw to the aligning of the Ba chief to the colonial rulers. Once they had acquired the support of the Buli of Ba and Nadrau, they then proceeded to tame the Navosa people.

What followed was the setting up of colonial bases in the hinterlands and along the coast of the province now known as Ba and Colo West according to R A Derrick in his book History of Fiji. A gun toting troop consisting of a spattering of white settlers and the bulk made up of native men from around Fiji, were trained to wage war against the most rebellious regions. Following the victory in Ba, the colonial flag was hoisted n 1874 but most natives in the Colo and Navosa regions resisted and did not recognize the takeover by the colonial rulers mostly due to the influence of a cult leader from Ra named Navosavakadua who promised followers that the colonial rulers would be overcome through the return of ancestral Gods.
Three colonialists whose names are carved into national history - Knollys, Le Hunte and Carew, led the army of native constabularies made up of Fijian men from the regions of Naitasiri, Lau, Kadavu, Cakaudrove, Bua, Vuda and Sabeto. Nagusudradra was a vital link between the army and a section of the rebellious pagan native warriors. One of the tribes was under the rule of Naqaqa (the champion) who was based in a village called Matawalu and who was one of the most notorious of the rebels.

In that war, the Fijian chiefs who worked with the colonialists and who had been earlier subdued included, the Buli Ba, Buli Nadrau, Na Colauli, a Ratu Tevita and a Ratu Sakiusa who formed the council of war with the colonial masters. The war although lacking in physical confrontation and engagement was more psychological as the natives were subdued through imprisonment and a series of executions.
Captain Knollys in the book In the Devil’s Country of Fiji wrote in his journal which included letters and correspondences between the three colonial leaders that, “the Wainimalas have burnt the village of Nasue and Matawalu. The two men from Naqaqa came to the Roko (Wainimala) as informants and were sent back. A letter from Carew telling me that 14 men had been executed at Nadroga out of 400. Nagusudradra and Nabukatavatava presented a vakadinadina (evidence) of whales’ teeth and masi confirming what had happened to the Naqaqa people in Ba and the savages were soroing (submitting). Sent a letter to Carew and Le Hunte through Nagusudradra requesting them to keep the Wainimalans quite”.
“They came to Matawalu and at first, Nagusudradra refused but another attempt was made this time the cloth was sent from Bau. A war broke out on those hills you see behind us and an order was sent out by the chief that those who opposed the cloth be brought to justice through a prison system that they called the virisoni (prison),” Ratu Jone recalled who also acted as a guide during the Vitian team’s visit to the village.
“The guilty or suspected were imprisoned on a hill overlooking the village and if found guilty were clobbered to death in full view of witnesses from the surrounding areas.”

The story was that after he had agreed to wear the cloth, he then convinced the Tui Navatusila to do the same prior to Misiveka (Mr Baker’s) killing. History says that the right reverend was killed because he abused protocol when he offended the chief by touching his head, a taboo in Fijian tradition still observed now.

“They were good friends and after Tui Navatusila killed Misipeka (Mr Baker), the church and government started coming up the hills to ask the people to accept Christianity or they would be killed,” Ratu Poate Drole another descendent of Nagusudradra and an elder of Vatubalavu said.

Ratu Poate said Nagusudradra later accepted the church and when some of his people rebelled, he was witness to their execution.

“The reason there was so much oppostition to the “cloth” was because immediately after the cloth arrived, an epidemic struck the people of this area.”
The story of the people of Vatubalavu helps one understand the close link between the Melanesian cultures and somehow links up with the story of the first known Fijian to land on Fiji, Lutunasobasoba who landed on Viseisei in Vuda.
The Vatubalavu version is that one of Lutunasobasoba’s kinsmen, Roko Mautu had a son called Roko Tubuna whose mother was believed to have been from Nadi. Roko Tubuna is the man who later led the tribe from which the people of the village of Vatubalavu originates with ancestral links to Ba and Nadrau and it is not hard to imagine relations among the peoples of these provinces due to their geographical alignment.

“There were people already here when my forefathers came. It was believed that we were the descendants of Roko Tubuna, a grandchild of Lutunasobasoba. When he came here, he was looking for land to settle on and stood on a hill overlooking the area in which the village stands now when the earlier settlers saw him and asked that he joined them. He did and was given the title to lead the people,” explained Ratu Poate.

He tells of how his forefather Ratu Tevita was a feared man who ruled his kingdom with a hard fist and iron will but under whose leadership many sought refuge because he was an excellent protector of his people.

Ratu Poate relates how his forefather Ratu Tevita then called everyone living in his chiefdom to settle in a village called Matawalu in a valley surrounded by hills.
“He was a fierce warrior and was quite ruthless. Anyone who disobeyed his rules would be imprisoned and killed. In those days, our forefathers chose to live on mountaintops was so that they had a panoramic view of the land and could see advancing enemies. To this day, there are still mounds there remnants of their living there but during Nagusudradra’s time they moved down to that valley because by then he had amassed a powerful army who protected the village,” Rt Poate said.

The old village sites on mountaintops were later used as lookouts. On those hilltops remain stones and mounds evidence of earlier habitation. Village head and guide Ratu Jone showed the Vitian team rocks that were placed in a diagonal position used in those days for execution.

“The rocks were placed so that the executioner could step on those stones to hit and kill the sentenced person. The larger one is where the person handing out the execution order would sit to watch the proceedings.”
It is obvious that from those elevated vantage points, anyone on lower grounds and the surrounding areas could clearly see the killing and those held prisoner in the forts. In modern day warfare such tactic is used as a psychological tool to scare people and to purge rebellion or rule breaking.
“Between those hills, they chose a high ground on which they dug trenches surrounding it in which our warriors would lie and await advancing enemies or strangers who strayed into the area who were later killed for food. Those who came under Ratu Tevita’s rule who disobeyed the law, were put into prison and tried. They were either given punishments or killed on those very stones. The practice was still carried out even after Christianity arrived,” he said.

In the language of the region, where koro would mean a village in the common Bau dialect, koro for the people of Navosa means a hill or delana. Vatubalavu village belongs to the tribe of Noikoro which includes several villages in the upper district of Navosa.

Naqaqa who was leading the rebels under whom it appears that Nagusudradra was either a close relative or a subordinate was overcome by the Wainimala warriors who were part of the native constabulary.

Knollys recorded in his journal,” the Wainimala people came to Baleiwai (Matawalu) and found the magiti (feast) ready. “Who is this for,” they asked. “This” replied the Naqaqans is for the valu (war) that is coming from Nadrau”. “What valu? There’s no valu coming from Nadrau of Colo.There’s no chief with them. Mr Carew is the turaga ni valu (chief of war) of all of us. You must got to him.” “Nay” said Naqaqa, “but we have the true word from Ba, if the chief of the valu at Nadrau tells us to go to Mr Carew, we shall go.” The Wainimalans then destroyed and burnt the food and town.”

It is interesting to note that the three colonialists appeared to disagree on certain aspects on how the natives should be dealt with through their correspondences to one another and journals in the book. In a letter to the supreme authority, Governor Thurston, Le Hunte wrote, “Carew’s letters and mine to you about the soro of the Noiyakoro towns and my refusal of the joint attack on Naqaqa before Knolly’s arrival there proposed by the Wainimala people were sent to you to Nadroga and rather mysteriously arrived here again, unopened and unaccounted for yesterday”.
It seems that Nagusudradra was under immense suspicion by the colonial rulers while acting as runner and mediator between them, Naqaqa and the other rebel chiefs. He might have realized he was fighting a losing battle and that the tide of change had to be accepted in order to save his people from complete annihilation. He had to sacrifice the few to save the many.

When writing to Knollys, Carew has this to say about Nagusudradra, “Nagusudradra has been to loma ni koro (inside the village) and asked them to give a lololo (bunch) of yams as a share of the feasting to you when you go to Naqaqa, my impression is that they don’t know which way to turn themselves and although the action in Nadroga (executions) will have an effect in keeping the worst of the chiefs from soroing, yet it will surely alarm those who have not, or may consider themselves not have, qualified for the same treatment.”

In another account, Carew says, “the old man (from Matawalu) the Bua men captured the other day but who ran away again, arrived last night bringing us notes. He says Nagusudradra gave them to him and told them to invite me to a parley at Vatumali today. But I decided not to go to him. I think it should be most improper for me to go and to meet and to parley with him, the construction and the proper construction would be that I held out delusive hopes and constructive promises. I shall send word to him to either give himself up to me at Nasaucoko. Gusudrdra is a bad fellow, but there are many worse ones out there. He is enlightened and has been to Bau. I wonder if it would be a good plan if the Governor gave him a conditional pardon and let him capture Tawase, Tiloko, Momo, Bisiki and co.”

The old village site of Matawalu is quite expansive, the size of a football field and remains untouched to this day. Walking through the old village site, one can sense the eerie silence that envelopes the site. Cows and horses graze in the surrounding areas outside of the village occasionally straying to the site disturbing stones and knocking down structures.

“I remember growing up and hearing stories about the old village site. Some say that voices and clapping could be heard sometimes. The stones were neatly placed but cows stray here to graze and they have disturbed the stones. I even found a large earth pot and some tabua (whale’s teeth) hanging from the trees as a child. We don’t come here often and this place has remained untouched because we respect it,” guide Rt Jone said.

The old village site itself remains under foliage of centuries-old fruit trees and plants that were planted there by its former inhabitants. Moss encased carefully placed stones used as foundations for dwellings can be seen scattered throughout the area. The feelings one gets when entering the site is reverence like when you enter a cathedral with its lofty trees.
From higher grounds one can decipher earlier settlement as is common throughout Fiji with fruits and ornamental trees growing in abundance on a certain sport in the absence of abodes.

There is a ground that might have been used for games and for large gatherings or public engagements and a dias raised at one of the corners of the ground which could easily have been the site of the bure kalou (ceremonial hut) or a pavilion of some sort. One can easily assume that this was where offering were made or where the chief would sit and view activities happening on the grounds. From the existing markings, one can tell that here existed a highly organised and orderly society.

The Vitian team is led to a small level area a few meters away from the old village site covered in a carpet of light coloured dry bamboo leaves by the river. At this spot Ratu Jone explained how the men would engage in unnatural practises to appease their Gods before competing in any activity such as a war or a game.

“This place is called Nanaga, which in our dialect means “taboo place” and here the old men in the village used to tell us how in the old days men practiced homosexuality. It was a religious practice to the demon Gods before the men set out to war or compete in a game, they would leave their homes and stay here where they would copulate with each other and was believed that this was where they demons would tell them if they will win and lose,” both Ratu Poate and Ratu Jone Rokovesa related much to the surprise and interest of the Vitian team.

Further research uncovers that as incredulous and unbelievable such information may be, homosexuality in indigenous cultures existed and could still be currently practiced.
Much in how baneful life was in those days, it appeared there was some semblance of democracy because the chief sought the advise of his people before making important decisions.
“After they accepted the church, he died, and his people knew that they were at last free to go where they pleased so they were all scattered to other areas and live there to this day but they know they have connection to us up here.
“They chose to go where their own people had moved to before. Being a strong chief, meant living longer and Ratu Nagusudradra was regarded in those days as a very strong warrior and they came and sought refuge under his leadership,” he said.
The story in Vatubalavu is that when Ratu Cakobau, the chief of Bau went to Britain to meet Queen Victoria to cede Fiji to her, Ratu Nagusudradra was tasked to go to Bau and keep vigil there. He returned with a pack of a dozen dogs that was given to him as a gift.

Villagers were perplexed, not understanding the meaning of the gift but in later years learned to appreciate the token. The Colo West region is well known as being one of Fiji’s best wild boar habitats, a common diet for villagers in the rural areas.

“We always wondered what that meant. Later on we realised why the dogs because now, when we go down to town, our people are always bringing dogs back with them for pig hunting,” he said.

Today Vatubalavu has become a sleepy normal village nestled on a valley a few miles away from the former village of Matawalu. While life goes on as normal for its inhabitants, villagers of Vatubalavu cling to their past albeit a dark and cruel one.

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