In a previous post entitled, Three-tailed Comet Marked an Unprecedented Early 1800s in Fiji, I demonstrated the connection between major events in the country and their representation in subsequent oral/traditional history. In this case, it was the appearance of a three-tailed comet influencing visual art by way of a masi design in Cakaudrove. The unusual comet was interpreted by many to be a messenger, warning the early Fijians at the time of the series of disasters that were tormenting the country, including lila balavu or the Asian cholera, total eclipse of the sun, hurricane and tidal wave.
The lila balavu, which presaged the series of disasters, was also considered in the same league as the three-tailed comet by the traditional artists of the time. It also had its influence on oral/indigenous history.
The lyrics of a meke, traditional dance, composed at the time and cited and recorded in the 1898 Report on the decrease of Fiji’s population by Native Magistrate Ilai Motonicocoka translate as follows:
“the strangling rope is a noble thing……
they fall prone, they fall with their sap still in them….
the lila is spreading far and wide….
Many die, a few live on.”
– See page 31, Fiji’s Times: A History of Fiji, Kim Gravelle
On the severity of the lila balavu, Motonicocoka reported that the sick “reeled about and fell down, and where they fell, they lay……Our villages began to be empty…..and from time of the lila, the practice of strangling persons who had lain ill for a long time began and it was called yateba.”
One of the areas hardest hit was Bau, where hundreds of people were buried in common graves. It is also reported that whole villages, including Davuilevu and Korolevu in the Toga district, were emptied by the sickness and by famine which followed, caused by people too weak to garden and ironically by the reckless use of food in funeral feasts.
Even after fifty years of the event, Rev William Cross still wrote: “Its progress through the group was fearfully rapid and destructive; in many cases it was of the greatest difficulty that persons could be found to bury the dead……Those who were seized died in the most excruciating agonies,”
Two major events of unprecedented bearing – one terrestrial and the other, extra-terrestrial, both had sufficient éclat on the minds of oral and non-oral traditionalists and they were moved to do what they did to benefit and educate future generations.
Whilst the three-tailed comet was particularly momentous for its cosmic and astronomical rarity, the lila balavu, apart from its destructiveness, a rarity in itself, was equally momentous for its unexpected and uninvited dȇbut.