Cannibal Cutlery: Story of a Fijian Fork

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

One of these things is not like the otherrrrrrr..."

I held in my hands a piece of yellowish wood about the length of a letter opener. That famous kids’ ditty from public TV bounced cheerily in my head as I looked it over, puzzled. What made it so great that it shared a curio cabinet shelf with the charismatic and immensely popular shrunken heads?

A moment before I had been dusting inside one of our curio cabinets here at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, and my attention had been caught by this simple wooden object. There were four prongs encircling one end and a sort of handle on the other. No ornamentation, no paint, no varnish.

A small string tag dangled from one of the prongs. "CANNIBAL FORK FIJI," it read.

Really?!  I was aware of the foolishness of standing mere inches from an armful of bona fide South American shrunken heads, and feeling indignant. In such company, why take so against this homely utensil?

Nevertheless, I felt mildly outraged at this example of cultural ignorance and silly exaggeration. I locked up the case and repaired to the nearest computer for some research. Cannibal fork, my eye. I’d see about that!

And I did. See about that, I mean. What follows is what I found.

The verdant Pacific island group known as Fiji has played host to humans for about 3500 years. It wasn’t until the 1600s that Europeans stumbled upon the islands, and by that time the original Polynesian pioneers had grown into a robust society of fierce warriors.

Explorers such as Captain James Cook noted with alarm that the cuisine of Fiji islanders included a remarkable (and disturbing) source of protein: the flesh of their enemies. (I had to admit that the nickname, "The Cannibal Islands," was come by honestly after all.) Eventually Christianity, introduced by intrepid missionaries, wended its way through the islands and the practice of cannibalism began to die out.

Reverend Thomas BakerBut not soon enough for the Reverend Thomas Baker (here pictured). In 1867, he and his entourage of Methodists trekked to the isolated village of Nubutautau and were made welcome by the chief. The story goes that the chief fell in love with the stylin’ minister’s hat, and placed it upon his own head…Good-humored grins all around…but when the missionary made to recover his property, he made the faux pas to end all faux pas – the faux pas that ended his life, in fact. Punishment for touching the chief’s noggin was death, brutal and instantaneous. And the reverend went from main guest to main course in the blink of an eye.

The Reverend Baker earned the distinction of being the last official victim of cannibalism in Fiji. And our modest Fiji cannibal fork earned its place upon the shelf.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

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