In The village site changed with Time, I discussed “the most infamous cargo brought in by the crew of the ‘Argo’ – being the Asian cholera, which became known as the ‘wasting disease’ or lila balavu to the Fijians. I added that: “The lila balavu reached Dravuni, like it did in many parts of Fiji, and the results were devastating. Many people, of all ages, died. Mass graves were dug by those who escaped the epidemic. And they were not many.”
The epidemic was just the first in a long line of events that darkened the early period of the 1800s. The most historic and perhaps the most bizarre event that characterised that period was the visitation of a three-tailed comet from out of space and perhaps from outside our solar system.
Historians vary in their identification of the ‘Argo’ and the year it sailed to Fiji. Former USP Art Director, Mara Jevera Fulmer discussed this dilemma in her paper: ‘Visual Language: A 19th Century Comet in Fiji.’ Sir Basil Thomson (1908), for example, only referred to a ‘vessel’ named Argo that was wrecked on Bukatatanoa Reef in the Lau Group. Beauclerc (1911) referred to the ship as a ‘man-of-war’ but gave no nation of origin. Derrick (1946) referred to a ship named Argo which was said to have cleared Port Jackson (now Sydney) on September 1805. It was recorded as being a whaling ship with general cargo, registered in London. Wilkes (1845) referred to the Argo as an English brig that was lost on Bukatatanoa in 1806. Taylor (1982) gave this account: “a small American schooner called the Argo arrived on a private trading voyage and her cargo which included the inevitable supply of spirits, found a ready market” in what is now Sydney Harbour. That was in the year 1798.
I have referred to these various dates in my post referred to above. I also added that other information available to me had put the actual date of the wreck of the Argo to January 1800.
From various accounts, the three-tailed comet, was both a messenger underlying the significance of past events and also a harbinger of similar events yet to happen. Notwithstanding that, records still do not agree on the dates of this celestial phenomenon.
The earliest dates of the phenomenon came from Fulmer who connected the sighting of the comet to the death resulting from the wreck of the ‘Argo’; and that would put a date closer to 1800 rather than 1805. Sir Basil Thomson put it at November 21, 1805 and he even entertained the idea that the comet may have been ‘Encke’s comet’. However, he did not discount the idea that it may also have been ‘the famous comet of 1807’.
The Lake Afton Public Observatory in Wichita, Kansas provided information, but only as it relates to ‘great’ comets; and the likely dates given were September 1807, September 1811 and June 1819 (cited by Fulmer). This information did not refer to ‘Encke’s comet, implying that it was not a ‘great’ comet in the definition of the Observatory. Be that as it may, Encke’s comet was first recorded in 1786 and it has been appearing periodically having a 3.3 year cycle. If we project its periodicity forward, the comet was likely to have appeared in 1802 and 1805. These dates are supportive of Fulmer’s and Thomson’s claims.
Furthermore, the Observatory did confirm “that a ‘three-tailed’ comet is quite a likely phenomenon due to the changing nature of comets in their orbits.” This three-tailed comet, according to Fulmer “appeared just before dawn after the first sign of light began to appear in the east…The central tail was the largest and shone with an appearance like the rainbows. The right and left tails were equal in size but smaller than the middle one, and their appearance was white. It was visible for 37 nights and was then lost sight of.” Beauclerc, writing in 1911, concluded that it must have been a very bright comet: a description that seems to align with that of Encke’s comet as given by Wikipedia: a comet that has “shortest period of a reasonably bright comet.”
As a messenger of past events, the comet reminded a lot of people of all the unusual events that were happening, starting with the lila balavu. There was also a total eclipse of the sun and this is dated 21 February 1803. Historians have also recorded incidents of a hurricane and a tidal wave during this period.
As a harbinger of major historical events, the comet was associated with the subsequent death of the third Vunivalu of Bau, Ratu Banuve Baleivavalagi who died in February 1803.
Events like the appearance of the three-tailed comet to early Fijians who were superstitious would have been of significance and to be recorded for oral tradition/traditional historicity. The means of recording would obviously vary from person to person or from one community to another. Some would have recorded it as lyrics of traditional chant or as ‘itukuni’ to relate to younger generation during traditional talanoa sessions. In Cakaudrove in Vanua Levu, the means of recording that traditional artists chose was in the design of their masi/masikesa, printed barkcloth.
A masikesa from the 1840s or earlier, titled as ‘exploding star’ design (printed in a post card sent to Fulmer by Sagale Buadromo, Fiji Museum Director) showed a series of stars. A single star has its centre unpainted while many large points come out from the circumference of the black inner circle. The three ‘tails’ (in one instance, a fourth ‘tail’ appears) seem to come out from between the larger star points.
This blog demonstrates how historical events, especially those of cosmic and celestial significance, impact oral history. In this specific case, the choice of oral historians for a visual language representation is not lost to contemporary historians even though the authenticity of the dates of those events are part of the ongoing discussion.
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