Flows of Faith pp 215-231 | Cite as

Passports to Eternity: Whales’ Teeth and Transcendence in Fijian Methodism

  • Matt TomlinsonEmail author


Christianity is often considered a religion of transcendence, in which divinity “goes beyond” human space and time. Recent anthropological scholarship has noted, however, that claims to transcendence must be expressed materially. This chapter examines the ways in which Fijian Methodists attempt to achieve a kind of Christian transcendence in which they escape negative influences of the vanua (land, chiefdoms, and the “traditional” order generally). They do so by offering sperm whales’ teeth to church authorities in order to apologise and atone for the sins of ancestors. Such rituals do not achieve the transcendence they aim for, however, as the whales’ teeth–the material tokens offered to gain divine favour–gain their ritual value precisely because of their attachment to the vanua.


Fijian Methodists Christian transcendence vanua church authorities powerfull political force ‘chain prayers’ 



This chapter is dedicated to the memory of the Tui Tavuki, Ratu I. W. Narokete. The final version has benefited from the criticisms of Matthew Engelke and Rod Ewins, as well as the expert linguistic advice of Sekove Bigitibau. Thanks also to Apo Aporosa and Matti Eräsaari for their observations on counterfeit tabua. All errors are my own.


  1. Arno, A. (2005). Cobo and Tabua in Fiji: Two forms of cultural currency in an economy of sentiment. American Ethnologist, 32(1), 46–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. BBC News. (2003). Fijians say sorry to eaten Briton’s family. Accessed 15 October, 2003.
  3. Buatava, V. (1996). In the footsteps of Mosese: The foundation years of Roman Catholic Catechists in Fiji, 1842–1893. In D. Munro & A. Thornley (Eds.), The covenant makers: Islander missionaries in the Pacific (pp. 173–185). Suva: Pacific Theological College and Institute for Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.Google Scholar
  4. Bush, J. E. (2000). Land and communal faith: Methodist belief and ritual in Fifi [sic]. Studies in World Christianity, 6(1), 21–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cannell, F. (2006). The anthropology of Christianity. In F. Cannell (Ed.), The anthropology of Christianity (pp. 1–50). Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Clunie, F. (1986). Yalo i Viti/Shades of Viti: A Fijian Museum Catalogue. Suva: Fiji Museum.Google Scholar
  7. Comaroff, J. (1985). Body of power, spirit of resistance: The culture and history of a South African people. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  8. Crapanzano, V. (2000). Serving the word: Literalism in America from the pulpit to the bench. New York: The New Press.Google Scholar
  9. Derrick, R. A. (1950). A history of Fiji (revised ed., vol. 1). Suva: Government Press.Google Scholar
  10. Engelke, M. (2007). A problem of presence: Beyond scripture in an African Church. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  11. Ewins, R. (2009). Staying Fijian: Vatulele Island barkcloth and social identity. Adelaide: Crawford House Publishing.Google Scholar
  12. Fiji Sun. (2010). Police Hold 845 Tabuas from Raids. Accessed 26 February, 2010.
  13. Hames, I. (1972). I Remember…: Personal Memories of a New Zealand Missionary in Fiji. No city listed: Hames family.Google Scholar
  14. Hooper, S. J. P. (1982). A study of valuables in the Chiefdom of Lau, Fiji. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge.Google Scholar
  15. Hooper, S. J. P. (2006). Pacific encounters: Art & divinity in Polynesia, 1760–1860. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.Google Scholar
  16. Keane, W. (2002). Sincerity, “modernity”, and the protestants. Cultural Anthropology, 17(1), 65–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Keane, W. (2006). Anxious transcendence. In F. Cannell (Ed.), The anthropology of Christianity (pp. 308–323). Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Keane, W. (2007). Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  19. Kleinschmidt, T. (1984). Theodor Kleinschmidt’s notes on the hill tribes of Vitilevu, 1877–1878. H. Tischner (Ed.), S. V. Waine (Trans.). Domodomo 2(4), 146–190.Google Scholar
  20. Larsson, K. E. (1960). Fijian studies. Göteborg: Etnografiska Museet.Google Scholar
  21. London, J. (1939). South sea tales. New York: Jack London Society.Google Scholar
  22. Mataika, R. (1996). Methodists to set up business arm. Fiji Times, p. 1.Google Scholar
  23. Miller, D. (2008). The comfort of things. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  24. Pareti, S. (2003). Fiji villagers apologize for cannibalism. Accessed 29 November, 2009.
  25. Parke, A. L. (1997). The Waimaro carved human figures: Various aspects of symbolism of unity and identification of Fijian polities. Journal of Pacific History, 32(2), 209–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Quain, B. (1948). Fijian village. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  27. Ravuvu, A. D. (1987). The Fijian ethos. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.Google Scholar
  28. Robbins, J. (2009). Is the trans- in transnational the trans- in transcendent?: On alterity and the sacred in the age of globalization. In T. J. Csordas (Ed.), Transnational transcendence: Essays on religion and globalization (pp. 55–71). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  29. Roth, K. (1937). A composite ‘Tambua’ from Fiji. Man, 37, 121–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Roth, K. (1938). Fiji: Tambua. Ethnologia Cranmorensis, 2, 27–33.Google Scholar
  31. Royce, J. S. H. (1855–1862). Diary. Microfilm MS499, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.Google Scholar
  32. Royce, J. S. H. (1859). Extracts from Journal. Methodist missionary society archives, School of Oriental and African Studies Library, FBN 5, no. 222.Google Scholar
  33. Ryle, J. (2001). My God, my land: Interwoven paths of Christianity and tradition in Fiji. Ph.D. dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, London.Google Scholar
  34. Ryle, J. (2010). My God, my land: Interwoven paths of Christianity and tradition in Fiji. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  35. Sahlins, M. (1985). Islands of history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  36. Schütz, A. J. (Ed.). (1977). The diaries and correspondence of David Cargill, 1832–1843. Canberra: Australian National University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Thomas, N. (1989). Out of time: History and evolution in anthropological discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Thomas, N. (1991). Entangled objects: Exchange, material culture, and colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Thornley, A. W. (1979). ‘Heretics’ and ‘Papists’: Wesleyan-Roman Catholic rivalry in Fiji, 1844–1903. Journal of Religious History, 10(3), 294–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Thornley, A. W. (2002). Exodus of the I Taukei: The Wesleyan Church in Fiji: 1848–74/Na Lako Yani ni I Taukei: Na Lotu Wesele e Viti: 1848–74. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.Google Scholar
  41. Thornley, A. W. (2005). A shaking of the land: William Cross and the Origins of Christianity in Fiji/Na Yavalati ni Vanua: Ko Wiliame Korosi kei na i Tekitekivu ni Lotu Vakarisito e Viti. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.Google Scholar
  42. Toko, A. (2007). The role of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma in discovering pathways to reconciliation in Fiji’s context of coups. Master of Theology thesis, Pacific Theological College.Google Scholar
  43. Tomlinson, M. (2006). Retheorizing mana: Bible translation and discourse of loss in Fiji. Oceania, 76(2), 173–185.Google Scholar
  44. Tomlinson, M. (2007). Mana in Christian Fiji: The interconversion of intelligibility and palpability. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 75(3), 524–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Tomlinson, M. (2009a). Efficacy, truth, and silence: Language ideologies in Fijian Christian conversions. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 51(1), 64–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tomlinson, M. (2009b). In God’s image: The metaculture of Fijian Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  47. van der Grijp, P. (2007). Tabua business: Re-circulation of whale teeth and bone valuables in the central Pacific. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 116(3), 341–356.Google Scholar
  48. Williksen-Bakker, S. (2002). Fijian business—a bone of contention. Was it one of the factors leading to the political crisis of 2000? The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 13(1), 72–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wood, A. H. (1978). Overseas missions of the Australian Methodist Church, vol. II: Fiji (Vol. II). Melbourne: Aldersgate Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Asia and the PacificAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

Personalised recommendations