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Reverend Thomas Baker: Eaten by a Cannibal Tribe in Fiji on July 21, 1867

On July 21, 1867 Reverend Thomas Baker was killed and eaten by a remote tribe of Fiji in exchange for a whale’s tooth.
A display memorializing Thomas Baker's fate in the Fiji Museum in Suva
A display memorializing Thomas Baker’s fate in the Fiji Museum in Suva.

Thomas Baker, a Methodist preacher from Sydney, arrived in Fiji with his wife in 1859. He had eagerly accepted the appointment, as he felt there was still much pioneering work to be done in the Cannibal Isles. Other missions, such as Tonga, were well established – there were no more heathens to convert. On the Fijian island of Viti Levu, however, there were still inland tribes secluded within the rocky, fortress-like walls of the island’s interior who had yet to see a missionary.

Related: Udre Udre, Fiji’s most prolific cannibal

Upon his arrival, Baker made several trips to villages in those mountainous regions. Cakobau, chief of the small island of Bau, had recently converted to Christianity and declared himself king of Fiji, waging wars with those secluded tribes who wanted nothing to do with it. To those tribes, Baker was a threat, maybe even a spy working for Cakobau. Baker was well aware of the dangers involved, as evidenced in his journal. He wrote of an incident in which he got caught in the rain in the village of Vunibua and needed a change of clothes: “I had to change to my skin before a bure full of heathen who feasted on me with their eyes very much to my discomfort.”

Though he was cautious, he never traveled with weapons of any kind. He wrote, “I feel every confidence in going about among the heathen, but I always endeavour to keep my eyes and ears open, and reckon every event I meet with…and trusting alone in God for defence. I believe I shall be secure.”

In 1867, with tensions growing between Baker and his senior superintendent, who refused to give him credit for his work, he decided it was time to take leave. At a meeting in June he requested to return home for a year with his wife and their three daughters who were born in Fiji, “on account of personal and family affliction.” His request was granted, but before he left he wanted to make one more trek. His goal was to reach some previously uncontacted villages on the far side of the island, an expedition that required going deeper into the rugged and largely unexplored interior than he had before.

Baker and eight native assistants departed the mission at Davuilevu on July 13, 1867 for the inland. They were completely unaware that at the same time, a secret offering from the chief of nearby Navuso had been dispatched to the first village on Baker’s journey in hopes of eliminating the threat once and for all.

Cannibal sacrifice at the spirithouse in Bau
Engraving from Fiji and the Fijians (1858) depicts a cannibal sacrifice at the spirithouse of Bau.

The offering was a polished and oiled sperm whale tooth called a tabua. They could only be obtained from beached whales, or through trades with the Tongans, making them rare, sacred, and highly coveted. Along with their strangled wives and war clubs, chiefs were buried with their accumulated tabua. They were often given as gifts of atonement, or in exchange for goods or services, such as food, shelter…and sometimes more malevolent purposes. The prized tabua could only be accepted if the request was to be fulfilled. In the case of the tooth that preceded Baker on his journey, the Navuso chief’s request was “kill the white man who follows.”

The chief of the first village turned down the offering, not eager to incur the wrath of white men and their endless arsenal of weapons. So the messenger carried the tabua to the next village, and the next. Despite warnings that Baker should turn back, he insisted on going forward with the belief that there was no danger ahead. The other members of his party were growing ever more fearful, but felt ashamed to leave Baker on his own. As they proceeded deeper into the interior, the tabua followed from village to village, each refusing to carry out its terms.

Baker’s tenuous good fortune changed when he reached the Vatusila people in their village of Naqaqadelavatu.

Fiji kai colo mountain warriors
Kai colo (mountain warriors) photographed c.1873 by Francis Herbert Dufty.

According to the story told by the tribe in the years following Baker’s death, Chief Wawabalavu originally had no intention of accepting the tabua. The party was welcomed hospitably and allowed to stay the night. Wawabalavu was determined to pass the tabua on just as the previous tribesmen had done. That is, until the good reverend committed the grossly offensive act of touching his head.

The morning after the party’s arrival, the story goes that Baker had left his comb lying on his mat in the chief’s hut. As all property was for communal use, especially for the upper class, the chief thought nothing of picking it up and putting it in his hair. Heathens who had not yet become lotu (christian) were known for their large, filthy mops of hair (which is why they were often referred to as the big-heads), and wore combs for scratching. Disgusted and irritated by the chief’s disregard for his property, Baker snatched the comb back.

In Fiji, a chief was considered divine, a shrine of the ancestral god and representative of his forbears. The head is the most sacred part, where a man’s power dwells. Touching him was an insult to his honor, which is why the unique four-pronged cannibal forks were used to feed the chief the flesh of his enemies.

While many believe it was unlikely that Baker would make such a grievous error, it is said that this unpardonable act sealed his fate, and the Vatusila decided to accepted the tabua.

Soon after their departure from the village that morning, Baker’s group was attacked on the road. The reverend, along with most of his Fijian followers, were clubbed and decapitated with an axe. Not wanting to share the full blame for the murders, they then carried the bodies eight miles up the Sigatoka valley to Nandrau, where they filled the earthen ovens with flesh and feasted with their neighbors. Two men managed to escape, and returned to the mission with the grim news.

Cannibal fork used to eat Reverend Thomas Baker, on display at the Fiji Museum in Suva
Cannibal fork (I cula ni bakola) used to eat Reverend Thomas Baker, on display at the Fiji Museum in Suva.

Many years later author Adolph Brewster wrote in his book The Hill Tribes of Fiji (published in 1922) that he met with the chief of Nandrau, who told him about the incident. The chief admitted to having eaten part of Baker as child. He said the Vatusilas, to whom his mother belonged, sent one of Baker’s thighs to his father, who wanted nothing to do with it and had it tossed out. He and several other small boys found the thigh, cut it up, and cooked it themselves in the traditional manner, wrapped in banana leaves with spinach.

Cursed

When word of the missionary’s demised reached Bau, Cakobau dispatched swift justice. The resulting bloodshed, as well as the mysterious unrelated deaths of three of Chief Wawabalavu’s sons, were the first realizations by the Vatusila that they had brought a curse down upon themselves by eating Baker and upsetting the christian God. A descendant of Wawabalavu built a stone cairn memorial sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s at the location where Baker was killed, and the land was offered to the church in atonement.

Reverend Arthur J. Small, who arrived at Bau in 1879, made a pastoral visit to Vatusila at some point during his tenure as the longest-serving Australian Methodist missionary in Fiji. During his visit, he was given an arm bone that belonged to Baker, which had apparently been left in the fork of a molikana tree all those years. Upon his return home, he gave it to a man named Reverend LeLean, who held a quiet funeral ceremony and interred the bone beneath the pulpit of the Baker Memorial Hall of Davuilevu.

Shaddock tree with human bones in Fiji
Fork of a shaddock tree stuffed with human limb bones in Fiji.

30 years after the murder, the sender of the tabua was still unknown. Though the chief of Navuso was long dead, his remorseful son finally confessed to his father’s transgressions in hopes of ending ongoing illness and misfortune. He offered a string of tabua to the Wesleyan Mission, who granted him absolution.

Today, what remains of the village is abandoned. The chief’s hut and other thatched buildings still stand. There is a large stone in the center of town with a plaque (in both English and Fijian) that reads, “Obedience all the way to death: The Revd. Thomas Baker and his Fijian assistants met their death in this very place on the morning of the 21st July 1876 during a missionary tour of the interior of Viti Levu.”

The stone where he was beheaded, along with the axe believed to have been used for the execution, also remain nearby as a memorial. A flat stone near the river is said to be the place where the bodies were butchered.

In hopes of escaping the curse, the Vatusila moved just down the hill to Nabutautau, a village only barely accessible by a dirt road that turns muddy and impassible with the frequent tropical storms. They have no electricity, medical facilities, or telephones, and up until the recent addition of Thomas Baker Memorial School funded by the Fijian government, children had to walk 15 miles to the nearest school.

Over the years, the Vatusila were the butt of many jokes, mostly involving claims that they ate Baker’s boots because they didn’t know they weren’t part of his feet. In 1993, the impoverished village repented by presenting the cooked soles of Baker’s boots, with teeth marks, to the Methodist Church of Fiji. Still, their blight persisted.

A decade later on November 13, 2003, they invited Baker’s living descendants to the village to offer them an apology directly. Ten of Baker’s descendants arrived in Fiji, including his great-great-grandson Geoff Lester from Australia. They were joined by the prime minister of Fiji Laisenia Qarase, the Great Council of Chiefs, Nabutautau chief Ratu Filimoni Nawawabalavu, the great-grandson of the chief who ordered Baker’s death, a Methodist pastor descending from a surviving member of the Baker party, and hundreds of villagers from the area.

The forgiveness ceremony began with the ritual drinking of kava and a reenactment of the events leading up to Baker’s death. They then held a Christian service, followed by a traditional Fijian apology culminating, after six hours, in the “symbolic cutting of the chains of curse and bondage” and Baker’s relatives releasing balloons into the air. They were then presented with offerings of woven mats, tabua, and a slaughtered cow. The family assured the tribespeople that they held no resentment for the acts of their ancestors, and they believed Baker’s spirit was at rest.

Necklace of polished sperm whale teeth
A necklace of tabua, polished sperm whale teeth.

In the years since, the village received funding for a school from the government, leading them to believe the curse has finally been lifted. They avoid the old abandoned village, and are still wary of restless spirits wandering the thick jungle around them.

The Legend of Chief Udre Udre, Fiji’s Most Prolific Cannibal

Fijian chief Udre Udre is believed to have eaten more people than any other cannibal throughout history.
The tomb of cannibal chief Udre Udre in Fiji
The tomb of Udre Udre, notorious Fijian cannibal.

While natives of the Cannibal Isles were known for their voracious appetite for human flesh, the legend of one particularly insatiable Fijian chief continues intrigue and/or nauseate.

Ratu Udre Udre, a chief from Rakiraki in the northern area of Fiji’s largest island Viti Levu, used stones to keep a running tally of how many bodies he ate. In 1849, some time after the chief’s death (c.1840), missionary Richard Lyth recorded a gruesome discovery at the chief’s tomb: a long row of 872 stones, with many gaps where some stones had already been removed. After a conversation with Ravatu, one of Udre Udre’s sons, Lyth wrote, “Ravatu assured me that his father ate all this number of human beings. He added a stone to the row for each one he received. They were victims killed in war. He ate them all himself, he gave to none.”

When the chiefs of Rakiraki would go to battle alongside Udre Udre, they would give him the bodies of their victims. Ravatu also told Lyth that his father ate nothing but human flesh. What he couldn’t eat in one sitting he would keep preserved in a box so he always had a steady supply at hand. It is believed Udre Udre ate somewhere between 872 and 999 people in his lifetime, earning him the honor of being named Guinness World Record’s Most Prolific Cannibal.

Vintage photo of cannibalism in Fiji
Staged photo depicting acts of cannibalism in Fiji.

Stone walls, a lovo (oven) pit used for cooking people, and the remnants of house mounds mark the location where Udre Udre’s village once stood. The people of a nearby village believe the spirit of the renowned cannibal still resides there, and warn outsiders to stay away.

The tomb of the chief can be found a few kilometers from the village along King’s Road surrounded by many of his original rocks.

Related

Fiji Islands: Welcome to the Cannibal Isles

The exotic islands of Fiji have a dark history of violence, cruelty, and cannibalism that culminated in the shocking death of Reverend Thomas Baker 149 years ago.
Welcome to the Cannibal Isles: The Death of Reverend Thomas Baker
Welcome to the Cannibal Isles…

In his travel guide to Fiji, author David Stanley wrote, “It has been said that the Fijians were extremely hospitable to any stranger they did not wish to eat.” For the first ever Cannibal Week here on Cult of Weird, we’re exploring the bizarre history of cannibalism on Fiji, the exotic tropical paradise once feared by sailors as the dreaded Cannibal Isles.

Related:

When missionaries first arrived in the 1830s, they horrified by the Fijian way of life. They recorded eye-witness accounts of men buried alive in the post holes of new huts, widows strangled to line the bottom of their husbands’ graves, and piles of human remains eaten to celebrate everything from a new chief to the maiden voyage of a canoe. They wrote of captured enemies forced to gather the firewood and dig the earthen ovens that would be used to cook them, men casually eating their wives at their leisure, people butchered but kept alive to watch their flesh be consumed.

Despite living in constant hostility and fear, not a single missionary was killed until Reverend Thomas Baker made his final journey into the rugged and secluded interior of Fiji’s largest island. On July 21st, 1867, Baker and his party of native Fijian Christians were killed and eaten by a remote tribe of inland Viti Levu. According to legend, they ate everything except Baker’s boots, which they boiled for a week but were still too tough to chew.

Vintage postcard of the cannibal temple at Bau
Vintage postcard of what used to be the cannibal temple at Bau, c.1910

For years after, the tribe believed bad crops, mysterious deaths, and other troubles were an indication that they were cursed. They made several attempts to atone for their actions, which included giving their land to the church, and building a memorial cairn for Baker. In 2003, they invited Baker’s descendants to their village where they conducted a traditional forgiveness ceremony in hopes of lifting the curse once and for all.

Read more: Reverend Thomas Baker eaten in Fiji

Check out the Cult of Weird gift shop for extremely limited quantities of Cannibal Isles curiosities:

Cannibal Isles t-shirts available now in the Cult of Weird shop
Visit the Fabulous Cannibal Isles t-shirt

Cannibal Isles boxes of curiosities available now in the Cult of Weird shop
Cannibal Isles Box of Weird

Watch for more stories from Fiji’s cannibal past throughout the week on Facebook and Instagram.

Who is Cannibal Tom?

Who is the elusive old Fijian called ‘Cannibal Tom’ in so many old photographs and vintage postcards?
Cannibal Tom
A photo of Cannibal Tom from an Underwood & Underwood stereoview dated 1906

I’ve spent the last few months immersed in the history of Fiji for the upcoming Cannibal Isles box sets, which will be available in the Cult of Weird shop in July. I’ve been digging through 150 years of seaman’s yarns, missionary journals, and news articles to understand the savage culture of the Fiji islands in the 1800s, as well as the volatile politics that culminated in Reverend Thomas Baker’s gruesome demise in 1867.

One face that routinely turns up in old photos and postcards while researching Fiji’s dark past is that of an old man with long, thick dreadlocks. Some photos refer to him as “Cannibal Tom,” while others are simply captioned “an old cannibal.” The most well-known photo is an Underwood & Underwood stereoview dated 1906. In this photo, the man is wearing a civa (pearl-shell) breastplate on his chest, and a sulu, a skirt-like wrap tribesmen traded their loin cloths for when they converted to Christianity. He holds a long pole in one hand, a machete in the other. The caption says “Cannibal Tom (80 years old), the last relic of Fiji cannibalism.”

Vintage postcard of Cannibal Tom

But who is this guy really? Is he a chief? A legendary warrior?

If I was going to put Cannibal Tom on your fridge, I would need to know more about him. That proved challenging, however, as there doesn’t seem to be a shred of historical references to the man in the photos.

When I came up empty handed, I decided to reach out to the Fiji Museum in The capital of Suva (which will be my first stop if I am ever able to afford a trip to Fiji) to see what they might know. To my surprise (and extreme gratitude) I received a response from the museum’s collections department. Strangely, though, it seems there won’t be any answers.

Apparently there is no official record or mention of Cannibal Tom in their archives, nothing pointing to the real identity of the man said to be Fiji’s last cannibal. Most of the photos were captured in the 1870s-80s when he appears to be 70-80 years old, so researchers believe he probably really was a cannibal as a young man in the 1840s before the early Methodist missionaries convinced the “heathens” of the Cannibal Isles to swap their war clubs for bibles.

Cannibal Tom fridge magnets
Cannibal Tom refrigerator magnets available now in the Cult of Weird shop

So Cannibal Tom, Fiji’s most famous (or maybe just most photogenic) cannibal, remains a mystery.

Early Accounts of Cannibalism

A collection of historical accounts of cannibalism within tribes of the Congo and South Pacific Islands by early missionaries.

CANNIBALISM IN THE FIJI ISLANDS

Cannibal feast in Fiji

Cannibal feast in Fiji

“October 31st, 1839, Thursday. This morning we witnessed a shocking spectacle. Twenty (20) dead bodies of men, women and children were brought to Rewa as a present from Tanoa. They were distributed among the people to be cooked and eaten. They were dragged about in the water and on the beach. The children amused themselves by sporting with and mutilating the body of a little girl. A crowd of men and women maltreated the body of a grey-haired old man and that of a young woman. Human entrails were floating down the river in front of the mission premises. Mutilated limbs, heads, and trunks of the bodies of human beings have been floating about, and scenes of disgust and horror have been presented to our view in every direction. How true it is that the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.”

“November 1st, Friday. This morning a little after break of day I was surprised to hear voices of several persons who were talking very loudly near the front fence of the mission premises. On going out to ascertain the cause of the noise, I found a human head in our garden. This was the head of the old man whose body had been abused on the beach. The arm of the body had been broken by a bullet which passed through the bone near to the shoulder, and upper part of the skull had been knocked off with a club. The head had been thrown into our garden during the night, with the intention no doubt, of annoying us and shocking our feelings.”

“These poor victims of war were brought from Verata, and were killed and brought away by victors to be roasted and eaten. Many women and children were taken alive to be kept for slaves. About 30 living children were hoisted up to the mastheads as flags of triumph. The motion of the canoes while sailing soon killed the helpless creatures and silenced their piercing cries. Other children were taken, alive, to Bau that the boys there might learn the art of Feegeean warfare by firing arrows at them and beating them with clubs. For days they have been tearing and devouring like wolves and hyenas.”
– Rev. David Cargill, Methodist Missionary, Rewa, Fiji, 1839

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