Sep 07, 2022 I Brent Swancer

The Reverend and Explorer Thomas Barker and the Time He Was Eaten by Cannibals in Fiji

There are numerous tales of exploration into fantastical new lands throughout history. We just seem to love those stories brought back from these intrepid souls who would be brave enough to travel over that horizon to find new people and lands that most of us could never even dream of. One such rather dark tale of adventure and exploration comes to us from the islands of Fiji, where there once was an incredibly brave missionary who would end up marking his place in history by becoming the only known European explorer at the time to be captured and actually eaten by a savage cannibal tribe. 

Born in Playden, Sussex on 6 February 1832, Thomas Baker was a Methodist missionary who arrived in what was then the rather faraway and exotic land of Fiji in 1859, where he was appointed as the “Missionary to the Interior.” This title involved him conducting missionary work in villages in the remote mountainous regions of the Fijian island of Viti Levu, where the native people had little knowledge of Christianity. At the time, the Fiji Islands were still considered to be an untamed and uncharted land full pf primitive savages, and tales of cannibalism from explorers were so common that the islands were sometimes called the “Cannibal Islands,” so this was considered to be dangerous work. It was made even more dangerous because not only were many of the tribes wary of outsiders and resistant to Christian teachings, but a warlord of the neighboring island of Bau, by the name of Cakobau had recently converted to Christianity and proclaimed himself to be the King of Fiji, something many of the tribes on the other islands, including Viti Levu, vehemently disputed. Since Cakobau had become a close ally of the Western missionaries in the region, missionary work was beginning to be seen as a sort of propaganda campaign to bring the other islands under his rule, and so these foreign missionaries were seen as suspicious, sometimes even labelled as spies. As war began to break out between the two factions, to these tribes who opposed the self-proclaimed Chief Cakobau, to convert to Christianity was increasingly being seen as synonymous with admitting subservience, so missionaries on Viti Levu, who had long been at least tolerated by the natives, now faced hostility or even violence.

Jungle in Fiji

It was largely for this reason that when Rev. Baker arranged an excursion into the interior of the island in July of 1867 many of his colleagues and students strongly advised against it. It was too dangerous, they warned, and besides, Baker was just on the verge of taking a year off of missionary work to spend more time with his wife and their three daughters. It seemed imprudent to risk a trek into that uncharted, inhospitable interior with its treacherous terrain and intertribal fighting going on, but Baker was insistent that he make one more trip out to make contact with remote uncontacted villages on the other side of the island, which would take him deeper into unexplored jungle than he had ever been before. He felt a calling to do so, he said, and could not be persuaded to give up his crusade into the interior. When he departed into that thick jungle into the unknown, he did so with a party of seven Fijian followers, a Fijian minister by the name of Setareki Seileka, and very little to protect themselves if they faced danger. Baker had always relied on God to lead the way, eschewed weapons, and so his party wasn’t even armed. Baker did not feel he needed weapons, and would once say of it:

I feel every confidence in going about among the heathens, but I always endeavor to keep my eyes and ears open, and reckon every event I meet with…and trusting alone in God for defense. I believe I shall be secure.

It was not easy going. The jungle was the thickest and most brutal Baker had ever encountered before and the villages they passed were not welcoming at best, and downright overtly menacing at worst, and there was always the threat of cannibalism, which of course all present had heard macabre and lurid stories of. On one occasion at a village called Vunibua, Baker was caught in the rain and needed to change his clothes, and as he did he would remark in his diary of how the villagers stared at him with malevolent, possibly cannibalistic intent, writing, “I had to change to my skin before a bure full of heathens who feasted on me with their eyes very much to my discomfort.” They relaxed a bit when they reached the village of Nabutatau, in the Navosa Highlands of western Viti Levu, because this was a place that had once been visited by the British Consul, who had spoken of being warmly welcomed by the people there. Yet, this was to prove to be farm from a welcoming visit.

By the time the expedition of missionaries reached Nabutatau times had changed. Tribal warfare had engulfed the island and missionaries were seen as loyal to the enemy and spies. The chief of the village, who had once welcomed the British Consul with open arms and even accompanied him on part of his journey, no longer wanted outsiders there, in particular missionaries. While the expedition was not faced with violence at first, they were offered no food and nowhere to stay. Although Baker was able to convince them to let them stay things were tense, and unbeknownst to the group a hostile chief of a neighboring region who deeply distrusted foreigners had sent out an order to villages to kill the missionaries in the form of a polished and oiled sperm whale tooth called a tabua. These were highly coveted and deeply sacred objects that were very valuable and worth much in Fijian society at the time, and this one came with a messenger who said that whoever was to kill the expedition of missionaries would be able to receive the tabua in return. Most of the villages Baker has passed had refused, the messenger going from village to village ahead of the party, and now the tabua had reached Nabutatau. At first the chief of the village was not going to accept it either, but a series of unfortunate events would change this. Adolf Brewester, a British Fijian administrator and the Governor’s Commissioner for the Provinces of Colo North Adolf, would write of what happened:

When Mr Baker arrived at Nabutatau, they had no intention, at first, of accepting the tabua and killing him, but determined to pass it on as the other tribesmen had done. He sealed his own fate, however, by what his host considered a gross breach of good manners. The young chief, now the head of the tribe, whom I have mentioned as having been educated in the Provincial School at Nandarivatu, gave me their version of the affair. He said, that when Mr Baker arrived in their village he was hospitably received, and spent the night there. In the morning he produced a comb and used it in his toilet, and then laid it down on the mats. His host, the leading chief, picked it up and stuck it in his own fuzzy locks. He did it quite innocently, as property was, as regards ordinary people, in communal use, and the upper classes could certainly take anything they fancied. Native combs, too, were worn stuck into their owner’s hair. They were very necessary appanages, from the verminous state of the big-heads, being constantly required for scratching. The knowledge of this probably offended the real owner’s sense of cleanliness and decency, and he snatched it from the chieftain’s head. He could not have committed any deadlier offence.

The head is the sacred part of the body, and there dwells all the mana or mysterious power of a man. More especially is this the case in regard to a chief, as he is generally the shrine of the ancestral god, and as such is himself divine. He is the representative of his god-like forbears who have preceded him to the spirit world, and whose worship he has to perpetuate here on earth. As such, when he moves about among the people, he is accorded the tama or sacred acclamation, as the holy father of the tribe. So revered is his head that none but the hereditary priests can dress it. After doing so they must not handle food, and have to use skewers with which to pass it to their mouths, or have to be fed. The divinity of the chief’s head by contact entered their hands, rendering them tambu (marked for death).

It was considered to be an unforgivable, egregious offense, and so it is likely this that led to the expedition’s doom. When Baker’s party left the village, they were followed by some of the village men, and at a designated place these men pounced, killing Baker and five of his men with rocks and an axe, while two managed to escape by careening away screaming into the jungle. The bodies of these fallen expedition members were then paraded about the village square, dismembered, chopped up on a large flat rock, cooked, and eaten, the remains tossed 500 feet down a ravine into the Sigatoka River without a proper burial. When the two survivors managed to reach civilization and word got out that this white missionary had been killed by cannibals in the island interior there was outrage from the British, who demanded that the Fijians bring the vicious killers to justice. Unfortunately, this would only lead to more bloodshed, and Brewester would write:

Thakombau (Ratu Seru Cakobau), who by that time had become the titular King of Fiji, was induced to send up country armed expeditions to avenge the murders. His columns started from various sources, but they acted independently of each other, and were without discipline or cohesion, and with one exception were ambushed and cut to pieces before they ever got near their objective. One of them got wandering about in a part of East Tholo, to which I was afterwards posted, and through which Mr Baker had passed, where the people had refused the tabua and had warned him not to proceed. An armed military force of tribesmen, other than their own, was not to be tolerated, and the hill men drew it into an ambush, from which but few escaped. I was shown the scene of it, a pretty little valley with a mountain brook, the waters of which, I was assured, ran blood on that memorable day. As all these punitive expeditions failed, no immediate vengeance fell upon the people of Vatusila, and they were emboldened to commit attacks upon the white men, the cotton planters on the Mba or northern coast of Viti Levu.

Reverend Thomas Baker

The chief of Nabutautau would eventually be captured and imprisoned, but the others who had been responsible for the slayings were never caught. Nabutautau would continue to lead a fierce and bloody resistance against British colonial forces even after most other chiefs ceded Fiji to Britain in 1874, ever defiant and most certainly unapologetic about what had happened to Baker, and only finally being forced to surrender in 1876 by an imposing force of 500 Fijian soldiers. In the ensuing years it was thought that the killing of Baker’s group had brought a curse upon the village, as their crops failed and other calamities hit them, causing many to abandon this place forever. It was this belief in a curse that prompted the villagers to erect a memorial in memory of Baker’s death in 1905, and there have been many ceremonies carried out since, most recently in 2003, when descendants of those villagers who had killed Baker finally offered a formal apology for the murders in a traditional reconciliation ceremony called a matanigasau

Today, the village still stands, and here one can find the memorial, the rock used to cut up Baker and his men, as well as the oven used to cook them, and the rock used to attack them and one of Baker’s sandals, his Bible, and comb are on display at the Fiji Museum in Suva. Over the years there has been some debate as to why exactly Baker was killed. Some historians believe that the story of the comb was most likely exaggerated or fabricated, as Baker had been living in Fiji for 8 years and would have been well aware of the customs and taboos. It is perhaps more likely that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and was killed and eaten simply because he was a missionary. Lance Martin, an archivist at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, has said of it:

The story about the comb may be a bit of a myth. It seems Baker got caught up in some sort of inter-tribal feuding relating to his right to travel across the island. He was ambushed as he and his companions were leaving a village one morning. He was cut up on a flat rock at the base of a ravine. His body was anointed and then eaten.

Considering that only the chief of the village told the story about the comb and no one else had witnessed that, it may have been a piece of lore conjured up to hide the real reason they were killed. We will likely never know for sure. What we do know is that Baker was the first and only known European missionary to be killed and eaten by cannibals in Fiji, marking it as a unique, yet gruesome case of exploration into a strange exotic land. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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