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The i-wau and warrior culture of 19th-century Fiji

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The i-wau and warrior culture of 19th-century Fiji

Amongst all the Pacific cultures, Fiji has shown perhaps the most innovation in the development of efficient and fearsome weapons. A wide range of weapons was made and i-wau, or depending on dialect i-ravu (clubs) of various types were particularly favoured.

The Fijian totokia, sometimes called i-tuki, 'pineapple club', is made to look like the sacred pandanus fruit. The point can pierce bone without shattering it. This club would have been used by a specialist and high-status fighter.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 31064.

What's in a name?

Although there was a wide range of i-wau, particular forms were keenly observed and adhered to. These are described in English as paddle, gunstock, spurred, pineapple, rootstock, pole and throwing clubs. As with many Pacific arts, i-wau draw upon forms found in nature and their local names help to root them firmly within the Fijian natural landscape. For instance, the pole club - gadi - takes the name of the tree it is carved from. The paddle club - i-culacula - is named after a type of sea-crab and the gunstock clubs are called gata (or qata), after their likeness to snakes.

Decorative form and function

As with much Pacific material culture, i-wau were regularly adorned with intricate patterns and geometric designs, which would have been applied by specialist artisans after the weapon itself was made. Perhaps this helped to add some spiritual virility to the object that would accompany the person to battle, helping the person to fight or die. There was almost certainly a dual function to the grip adornment of the i-wau. In combat this area would be firmly grasped beneath the skin, transferring power between the fighter and the club, but also helping him (or her) to keep a firm physical hold on the weapon.

Keeping score

Within museum collections, Fijian weapons sometimes have distinctive notches, drilled holes or even human teeth cut or inlaid into them. These may indicate a warrior 'keeping score' of his successes in direct combat.

Ceremony and performance

As in wider Pacific culture, combat was not distinct or detached from other cultural performance types. Dance, in particular, could have widespread themes of war and aggression. In some cases a dance was performed, weapon in hand, before battle. For more ceremonial occasions, oversized, lightweight or colourfully adorned dance weapons were used to represent the real thing. The dance would be based on the physicality of the fighter, his movement, poise and positions used in combat. There is a 'club dance', which is called meke ni wau.

The next generation

As well as holding a valuable spiritual function, routines like the meke ni wau were useful training for children. Practising them would strengthen the necessary muscles and building flexibility and agility that would help the next generation to become successful and prestigious fighters in their own right. Developing an embedded physicality of combat could not only secure the individual status of your children, but would also prove vital to the continuing success of the community at large.

Cite this article

Moriarty, Tessa. 'The ‘I-wau’ and the warrior culture of 19th century Fiji'. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Published: 2 June 2015.

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