Cakobau: the first (and last) king of Fiji

Cakobau was crowned the first king of Fiji 150 years ago, but within three years his kingdom had crumbled, replaced by British rule. Toby Wilkinson chronicles the imposing warlord’s remarkable reign

Black and white image of a group of five men sat on the floor in a room in Fiji. One of them is pointing at another with a serious expression on his face.

On 5 June 1871, an unlikely ceremony took place in the ramshackle colonial settlement of Levuka, on the tropical island of Ovalau, at the heart of the Fiji archipelago. Before a motley crowd of European settlers – sugar-cane planters, gun-runners and the assorted jetsam of empire – and a few native Fijians, a tall and imposing local chief was proclaimed the king of Fiji.

The first and last person to bear that title, the man at the centre of proceedings was better known to his subjects as Cakobau (pronounced “Thakombau”). Born circa 1815, his personal journey, in the space of half a century, from cannibal to king to British subject, is one of the more incredible stories from the era of Pacific colonisation. As this year marks the 150th anniversary of his accession, it seems an appropriate moment to bring him back to life and tell his story anew.

The Fiji islands were first sighted by a European called Abel Tasman in 1643, but it was not until 1800 that western “civilisation” began to encroach on the traditional Fijian way of life. In the wake of sandalwood-traders, who stripped Fiji of much of its native forests, came the “beach-combers”, outlaws who had fled justice in their home countries and come to live among the Fijians as gun-runners and interpreters. These ne’er-do-wells married local women and exercised a degree of influence over the native chiefs. In the early 19th century, Fiji comprised about a dozen major chiefdoms which, since long before European contact, had been engaged in endless internecine battles. The cannier rulers recognised the military advantage to be gained from western firearms and used them to pursue hegemony.

Foremost among these ambitious chiefs was the ruler of the tiny islet of Bau, located less than half a mile off the coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. Measuring barely a mile in length, and covering an area of just 20 acres, Bau came to exercise a degree of influence out of all proportion to its size. Its rulers were famed as warriors – they bore the proud title of vunivalu (“warlord”) – and they harried their neighbours relentlessly. All along the coastline of Bau, rock-built docks served the great war canoes that set out on regular expeditions to subdue the vunivalu’s rivals.

Eating one’s enemies

Bau’s ascendancy began in 1832, when the island’s unpredictable ruler, Tanoa, was deposed and fled into exile. That could have marked the end of his dynasty’s rule, had it not been for the cunning and determination of his son, Cakobau. Pretending to side with the rebels, he secretly laid plans for a surprise attack. The result was Tanoa’s restoration in 1837 (the year of Queen Victoria’s accession), after which Tanoa reigned, but Cakobau ruled, pursuing political advantage with single-minded determination. In one respect, father and son were very alike: Tanoa had a penchant for human flesh (Mary Wallis, an American who wrote a book about her visits to Fiji with her husband from 1845 to 1849, described him, with gleeful horror, as “one of the greatest cannibals in Feejee”), and Cakobau shared his father’s taste. The ovens of Bau were frequently filled with the enemies of the chief.

Some anthropologists have sought to deny the existence of cannibalism in Fiji (or indeed anywhere else), arguing that it was a figment of the western imagination, designed to degrade indigenous peoples and justify colonisation. But this ignores the weight of evidence from Fiji, including artefacts and multiple independent accounts. As the Fiji Museum itself explains: “Cannibalism was a normal and ritualised part of life, integral to Fijian religion and warfare.” It was part of a complex culture where eating one’s defeated enemies was “an act of vindictive vengeance reaching beyond the grave”, and “the ultimate insult in a society based upon ancestor worship”. Neither Tanoa nor Cakobau sought to deny cannibalism, rather asserting it as an integral part of their traditional customs.

Despite his predilections, Cakobau attracted the admiration of western visitors. Wallis found him “not destitute of dignity”, and a fellow American called Charles Wilkes described him as “extremely good-looking, being tall, well made and athletic. He exhibits much intelligence both in his expression of countenance and manners. His features and figure resemble those of a European, and he is graceful and easy in his carriage.”

The Napoleon of Fiji

In his battles with neighbouring chiefdoms, Cakobau continued to enhance his reputation as a fierce and skilled warlord. Wallis declared: “I think that he may truly be called the Napoleon of Feejee.” And western envoys found it increasingly convenient to focus on a single ruler with whom they could do business. For instance, in 1844 the British consul in Honolulu sent a letter to Cakobau in which he addressed him as Tui Viti (“King of Fiji”).

In 1852, Tanoa died and Cakobau succeeded as vunivalu. With Bau and its subject territories at his feet, he fully intended to live up to his moniker as Tui Viti. Standing in his way, however, was a new group of white people recently arrived in the Fiji islands: missionaries. In the 1850s, the London Missionary Society was in full cry, and reports of cannibalism in Fiji fuelled their converting zeal. They were particularly focused on Bau, for, as their spokesman James Calvert explained: “The hearts of the missionaries were stirred because they saw here the centre and stronghold of all the horrors and abominations that darkened Fiji.” Tanoa had been prepared to welcome the missionaries, but Cakobau was fiercely opposed. His resistance found unlikely support in the more dissolute elements of the white settler community, who, according to Calvert, “had reason to fear that their own licence would be restricted by the establish- ment of Christianity”.

What eventually changed Cakobau’s mind was not any amount of preaching by Wesleyan missionaries, but the disastrous prosecution of a war with neighbouring Rewa. Despite a steady flow of armaments, Bau had started to lose ground, and its ruler was beginning to contemplate defeat. Cakobau, whose rise to power seemed to have been ordained by the traditional gods, began to lose faith in the old religion. On 22 April 1854, the king received a letter from George Tupou I, the ruler of Tonga (an archipelago neighbouring Fiji), who had converted to Christianity, urging his Fijian counterpart to do likewise.

Just a few days later, Cakobau announced his decision to lotu (“convert”), and he did so at a service on Sunday 30 April. Three years later, he and his queen were publicly baptised. His conversion, swiftly emulated by many others across western Fiji, effectively brought to an end the old cultural system that had sparked the Bau–Rewa conflict and dozens like it.

With peace established, Cakobau’s rapaciousness soon found new outlets. For example, on hearing that the kings of Tonga and Hawaii each had a ship, he ordered two.

It was the beginning of a downward spiral of spending and debt. There were political troubles to contend with, too. For some time, Tonga had been expanding its sphere of influence in eastern Fiji, with the intention of subjugating the whole country. With pressures on his finances and threats to his throne, Cakobau began to wonder if the intervention of a foreign power might be his only salvation.

In 1858, he approached the British consul, offering Queen Victoria full sovereignty over Fiji. But the British were wary of taking control of a territory wracked by internal conflict and spiralling debts. London sent two commissioners to investigate and then dithered over a decision for four years. Eventually, in 1862, the British gave their answer: a polite refusal. But Cakobau was not wholly disappointed. In many ways, his move had worked. Attracted by the possibility of annexation, more British had settled in Fiji, reining in Tongan ambitions.

Meanwhile, the American Civil War had pushed up the price of cotton, leading to a surge in white planters in Fiji. By 1866, there were around 400 Europeans in the islands; their informal capital was Levuka on Ovalau, a place of industry and commerce, but also drunkenness, fights and racial discord. Relations were not helped by Cakobau’s own attitude. He borrowed large amounts of money from the traders of Levuka to finance his lavish spending but took a haughty approach when asked to repay it. When one creditor had the temerity to press his case, Cakobau silenced him with the words: “I did not send for you. However, white men make good eating: they are like ripe bananas.”

Royal ambitions

Eventually, the settlers lost patience. They demanded a government that would protect their property and recognise their rights. In 1865, they persuaded Cakobau and his fellow high chiefs to form a Confederacy of the Independent Chiefs of Fiji, with Cakobau as president. Within two years, however, it had unravelled. In its place, the settlers decided to create a kingdom of Bau. This suited Cakobau, who had not given up his ambitions to rule as a genuine Tui Viti.

His coronation as king of Bau on 2 May 1867 was a colourful and faintly ludicrous affair. The crown, created for the occasion for the princely sum of four-and-a-half dollars, was made of zinc, with a few decorative baubles. When placed upon Cakobau’s immense coiffure it provoked laughter among the gathered assembly; only the king’s natural air of authority and dignity prevented the occasion from descending into chaos. (Cakobau is said to have worn the crown only once before throwing it into the sea.)

The British consul at Levuka, too, was far from impressed. He warned British residents not to recognise the new regime. Without diplomatic support, the kingdom of Bau was doomed from the start. Pressure soon grew for a more stable, predictable government.

Matters worsened further in July 1867, when a Wesleyan missionary, Thomas Baker, was killed and eaten in a remote part of the main island of Viti Levu by villagers who despised both the new king of Bau and his new god. Cakobau had been powerless to stop the atrocity, highlighting the limits of his authority. The country was descending into chaos. In desperation, settlers in Levuka once more conspired with Cakobau, and on 5 June 1871 they proclaimed him king of Fiji.

But changing the ruler’s title changed nothing. Financial and political troubles beset the new regime on every side. With few options, Cakobau appealed to a British cotton planter, John Bates Thurston, to join his administration, first as chief secretary and later as acting premier. Thurston managed to navigate endless financial crises, and the settlers’ demands to “open up” Fiji (by which they meant the appropriation of native land). However, by 1873, both Thurston and Cakobau had come to the conclusion that annexation by Britain offered the only long-term solution.

For the second time, a formal request was sent to London; it took the British nearly a year to decide to send two commissioners to investigate. Meanwhile, events in Fiji were moving fast. First, the government fell in a vote on the budget, and the king dissolved parliament. Then there were demonstrations in the streets of Levuka and tax revolts. Fiji’s white settlers were now almost universally opposed to the administration they them- selves had created. They ridiculed the king, calling him “Cockaboo Rex”. Thurston, a man of unusually liberal views for the period, stood firm, believing that long-term justice for the Fijians outweighed the short-term interests of his fellow cotton-growers.

Eventually, the British commissioners were forced to accept the logic of cession. Cakobau explained, poignantly: “If matters remain as they are, Fiji will become like a piece of driftwood on the sea, and be picked up by the first passer-by… By annexation the two races, white and black, will be bound together… and the stronger nation will lend strength to the weaker.”

In September 1874, the governor of New South Wales arrived at Levuka to make the final arrangements. On 10 October, in the Council Room on Ovalau, the final signatures were added to the Deed of Cession. The signatories were Cakobau, 11 other high chiefs and a Tongan prince. Cakobau’s proclamation left no room for doubt: “Unto Her Majesty the Queen of Britain – We, King of Fiji, together with other high chiefs of Fiji, hereby give our country, Fiji, unreservedly to Her Britannic Majesty Queen of Great Britain and Ireland; and we trust and repose fully in her, that she will rule Fiji justly and affectionately… Signed: Cakobau R., Tui Viti and Vunivalu.”

The independent kingdom of Fiji had lasted just three years.

A century of colonialism

For the next century, Fiji was a colonial possession of Britain. But thanks to Thurston, who served under the first governor and eventually became governor himself, Fijians’ land and their rights to make their own laws were protected, and the native Fijians retained their culture, faring better than most colonised peoples. Britain was able to showcase Fiji as a model colony (in fact, it was the exception, not the rule). Cakobau’s wisdom in choosing Thurston as his chief political aide was perhaps his greatest legacy to Fiji.

The native Fijians retained their culture, faring better than most colonised peoples

Cakobau shaped his country in other ways, too. Because of Bau’s pre-eminence during the crucial years of conversion and colonisation, its dialect, just one of about 30 main tongues spoken across the archipelago, was adopted by the church and the press. This standardisation helped ensure the survival of Fijian as a language into the 21st century.

Cakobau remains a visible presence in Fiji today. In front of the parliament building on Victoria Parade, a seated statue of the king of Fiji commemorates the Act of Cession. At that ceremony, he presented his favourite war-club, known as the “blood-bather”, to Queen Victoria’s representative. Many decades later, it was given back to the Fijian people. Today, somewhat embellished, it serves as the parliamentary mace.

The vunivalu of Bau is still held in high esteem, and Bau itself is accorded a special sanctity as a royal island and heartland of Fijian culture. Cakobau’s emblem, the white dove of peace (an unusual choice for a warlord and cannibal), retains its place in the Fijian coat of arms. And, 150 years after Cakobau’s coronation, his regal motto, Rerevaka na kalou ka doka na tui (“Fear God and honour the king”), remains the national motto of the Republic of Fiji.

Toby Wilkinson is vice-chancellor and professor of history at the Fiji National University, a bye fellow of Clare College Cambridge, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society

This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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