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Thomas Baker is well known for being the last person to have been cannibalized in the Fiji islands. The scene happened on Viti Levu, in the Nabutautau highlands, on the July 21, 1867.
As a Wesleyan missionary, Baker was sent, together with his wife, to the Fiji Islands on April 5, 1859. He moved to the new Methodist missionary settlement in Davuilevu, along the Rewa River.
In July 1867, Baker initiated an expedition in order to spread gospel in the inland region of Viti Levu. Baker and seven Fijian companions got caught in an ambush before being killed and eaten by their assailants.
In 2003, a ceremony was organized by the people of Nabutautau to implore Baker's forgiveness. The weapon used to kill him is still exhibited in the village, and what is left from his boiled shoes is presently on view in the Suva Fiji Museum.
Some Fijian artifacts from Thomas Baker's former collection were given in 1944 by one of his daughters to the Australian Museum.
Thomas Baker's journal, preserved in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, depicts the period from 1850 to 1866. Starting with a small introduction about his family going from England to Australia, Baker describes each day from his departure to the Fiji Islands until his death in the Viti Levu highlands. Over the pages, we follow the adventures of this pious man, going from one island to the other in order to preach God's words.
A section of this journal is particularly interesting for us as it describes the acquisition of this temple sculpture: "August 7th , [...] I spent the day in conversing with the people from house to house, during which time I purchased two human figures or images, being the heads of certain posts in the heathen temple. We sawed their heads off in the sight of all the people, giving as payment two large knives which were greatly prized by the owners. Perhaps these images had not been worshipped, but when an individual was clubbed and taken in war, they would take and present him before the said images." Unfortunately, the second torso hasn't been found yet.
The account of the previous day allows us to understand where this object was collected:
"I resolved to start for the island of Viwa, having heard favourable accounts of them, resolving to try and induce them to Lotu [Christianity]."
Viwa, an isolated coral island, is the most western land of the Fijian archipelago. According to Baker, people from this island were known to be belligerent: "The next thing was a consultation as to the wisest step for introducing ourselves to a people whose fame has gone out through all the "earth", not for Christianity, but for deeds of blood". According to his information, it appears to be that Viwa Islan was kept away from the missionaries' influence, its population having preserved their warlike traditions.
Human representations in Fiji are extremely rare. The most accomplished study on this subject, entitled Fijians Studies, was published by Karl Erik Larsson in 1960. The author identified 19 anthropomorphic statutes mostly preserved in public collections: United States National Museum (Smithsonian), Washington, D.C., Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburg, University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (UMAE), Cambridge, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, National Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig. But also coming from "missionary" collections (Methodist Missionary Society) and from private collections such as the Oldman and Rousseau collections (op.cit., pp.33-35). Even though this study is ancient and that some figures must have been forgotten or discovered since, it is certain that these objects are extremely rare.
Within the group, Larsson distinguishes these figures according to their size. Baker's torso would be related to the tall figures corpus: the tallest one (140 cm.) was collected by Reverend Williams Floyd in the 1870's, who donated it to the Canterbury Museum and is now preserved in the Suva Fiji Museum (FM#74.45), another one (106 cm.), carved in high relief, collected by Charles Wilkes in 1840 part of the Washington Smithsonian Institute, and finally, a head (20 cm.) most likely coming from a tall figure (UMAE). Wilkes statue was described as an "idol" he got from the "spirits house" chief. The other Fijian anthropomorphic figures listed are much smaller (between 30 to 40 cm. high for most of them).
As for the collecting dates of these figures: five were collected in 1840 by Wilkes, two were collected before 1860, and five others were collected in 1875 by von Hügel and Knollys. We don't know about the acquisition dates of the other pieces but we can trace their presence since the end of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th century. Thomas Baker's sculpture has been collected in the same time frame going from 1845 to 1875. This period matches to deep political and religious changes in Fiji, mainly due to the western influence. Furthermore, the price paid by Baker (two tall knives) for two figures coming from the sacred temple tells us about the important value of western goods for newly converted Fijians.
We can stylistically compare this temple sculpture with its geometrical face to the well-known yagona anthropomorphic bowls. See Clunie (1986, fig.130) for a bowl from the Suva Fiji Museum that was collected by the Methodist Missionary Society, Hooper (2006, fig.251) for another one collected in 1841 now in the British Museum (1842, 12-10, 127), and Oldman (1958, pl.69) for another one coming from the well-known antique dealer's collection.
Baker's notes lead us to the function of these two sculptures: "when an individual was clubbed and taken in war, they would take and present him before the said images."
According to Fergus Clunie, this ritual, as well as the fact that these statues were part of a temple, indicates that they are representations of war Gods. Furthermore, he points out that Baker unfortunately didn't record the names of these Gods. Thanks to offerings, the spirits of these Gods would incarnate these wooden images. The dark brown patina of this piece, very similar to the surface of some yagona bowls and of other religious objects, including God effigies, would be due to repeated application of oil and soot coming from the constant fires burning in the temple. (Personal communication, September 2013 - we would like to thank Fergus Clunie for the precious information he shared with us).
There was a multitude of Gods in Fiji, each district and each tribe venerating their local divinity. Temples, called bure kalou, house of Gods, or kalou-ni-valu, house of war Gods, that were left to abandon in periods of peace and then restored during wars, received food and object offerings. Inside the temple were gathered many weapons, staff, clubs, bows and arrows covered in soot emanating from the fires. These offerings were sculpted for the Gods or given after a glorious victory. During the so kalou ceremony, priests, chiefs and notables referred to the God before starting a battle by offering him whale tooth (tabua) and libation bowls (yagona). The result of this consultation could lead to cancel a military campaign, on the contrary, to ensure the support of the powerful war God.
Thomas Baker's description matches with a preparatory ceremony preceding the cannibalization ritual studied by Clunie (2003, p.57). After a battle, prisoners were brought back to the village of the winners. "Captives destined for the oven were clubbed down before being offered to the gods in sacrifice". (op. cit.).
Art Historical Legacy of the Subject
Human bust is a recurring subject in occidental art for ancient but also for modern artists. Even though Baker's sculpture has certainly not been admired at by any of these artists, the strength emanating from its geometrical lines, reminds us of modern art pieces, such as some of Picasso's works.
Unpolished, the surface shows the marks of the tool that has been used to create the sculpture. The face and some of its details such as the nose wings or the notches creating the chest are extremely simplified. A 1907 wooden sculpture by Picasso, most certainly inspired by an extra-European object that he could have seen in the Trocadéro Museum, is a good example. Furthermore, the paintbrush's touches used for the Head and Shoulders of the Farmer's wife in 1908, gives us the illusion of a comparable faceted wooden surface. These similarities aren't that surprising as it is now well-established that Picasso was inspired by African and Oceanic art, and that he owned these works in his personal collection.