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ETHNONYMS: Kubuna, Mbau, Tui Kaba


Identification. The name "Bau" was originally that of a house site (yavu ) at Kubuna on the Wainibuka River in the interior of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, but today "Bau" usually refers to the small offshore islet, home of the Paramount chiefs, and "Kubuna" to those who claim kinship with the chiefly families, or those who "go with" Bau in the wider politics of all Fiji.

Location. The Kubuna moved down the Wainibuka and then the Wailevu (Rewa) river valleys to occupy the northeastern coast of the Rewa Delta and the Kaba Peninsula Before making a home for their chiefs on the small islet of Bau, at 17°58 S, 178°37 E. This islet is no more than 8 hectares in extent and 15 meters above sea level at the highest point.

Demography. When Bau was at the height of its power, the population on the islet is said to have been 4,000. The paucity of available data permits no more than a guess as to the number of its supporters. Mid-nineteenth-century estimates varied between 100,000 and 300,000 for all of Fiji, of whom perhaps half supported Bau, but traditions tell of disastrous epidemicsassociated with the earlier arrival of Europeansravaging the population by as much as 40 percent. The 1986 census revealed Fijians in the provinces that "go with" Bau totaling 175,000.

linguistic Affiliation. The language is one of 300 "communalects" (dialects largely confined to one community) that exist among the contemporary population of 300,000 Fijians. In the early nineteenth century, a lingua franca based on the communalects of Bau and Rewa was used by Fijians from different parts of the islands when they wished to communicate, and European missionaries chose Bau for translation of the Bible. Europeanized Bauan, sometimes also called Old High Bauan, has now become the basis for Standard Fijian, which is in the Oceanic Branch of Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Although Fiji has been inhabited for at least 3,500 years, much intervening history has been lost to memory. All of the great chiefdoms of eastern Viti Levu trace their founding ancestors to the Nakauvadra Mountains near the north coast, but existing genealogical information cannot be held to relate to earlier than the sixteenth century. The Bau had two great chiefly lines, that of the Rokotui Bau, the sacred chiefs, and the Vunivalu, war chiefs and executive chiefs. After moving to the islet, the Bau began extending their influence. The Vunivalu Naulivou exploited musket-bearing European beachcombers to such effect that at the time of his death in 1829, Bau seemed well on the way to establishing a Fiji-wide hegemony. Rebellion in 1832 halted this inexorable rise, and as the century advanced, relationships between Bau and other chiefdoms, and between Fijians and Europeans, became increasingly complex. Missionaries arrived at Bau in 1839. Their progress was limited during the early stages of the war between Bau and Rewa, which dominated Fiji's politics during the middle years of the century, but in 1854, the Vunivalu Cakobau converted to Christianity, and the climactic battle of Kaba, in 1855, took on the character of a struggle Between pagan and Christian power in Fiji. Thereafter, European influence increased. Fiji was ceded to Great Britain in 1874, with Cakobau signing the deed as King of Fiji. The British colonial administration adopted a fairly benign paternalism towards all Fijians. Alienation of land was stopped, but evolution of Fijian society and adaptation to change were severely limited. The old chiefdoms such as Bau became relatively insignificant, although some of the chiefs were involved in administration. With independence in 1970, and even more so after the military coups of 1987, however, the chiefly confederations have once again come to the fore.


Although the focus of the chiefdom was Bau Island, there were many tributary towns and villages, each with their own territory up and down the Tailevu coast, along the north coast of the delta, and on nearby islands in the Koro Sea. During the period of greatest turbulence, villages were Elaborately defended. Those in the swamplands of the delta, in particular, were surrounded with impenetrable barriers of fences and ditches strengthened with concealed and upraised spikes. Special structures included the temple to the ancestral god of the paramount chiefs, the house sites of the most important families, which were built on rock-stepped platforms, and the stone-bordered canoe docks, representing political supremacy. In order to provide more land, terraces were leveled and foreshore reclaimed, and a bridge was built to connect the islet with the mainland more than a kilometer away. During the time of friendship with Rewa, a 2-kilometer canal was dug linking adjacent channels of the great river to provide easier access between the two centers of power.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Bauan Fijians were subsistence horticulturists, raising root crops such as taro and cassava on a swidden basis on the drier Tailevu coastal lands, but planting swamp taro in carefully mounded and ditched plots in the Rewa Delta. Fishing and collecting the resources of mangroves and the nearby reefs provided important additional food. Trading with Europeans began when the latter discovered stands of sandalwood on the northern island of Vanua Levu in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and it greatly intensified when the technology associated with the drying of sea slugs (trepang) was brought to Fiji from China in the 1820s. The chiefs of Bau deployed their supporters in order to acquire the cash they needed to buy guns, ammunition, and, in the case of the Vunivalu Cakobau of Bau, a schooner for his personal use. Today, 60 percent of the total population lives in villages, largely still with a Subsistence economy and the continued obligations of communal life, but rural-urban drift is creating problems. More Fijians work for wages and seek employment in towns, resulting in a lack of housing, employment, and education opportunities and a weakening of the resources of the villages. Since the coups of 1987, the Fijian-dominated government has sought to redress imbalances that it perceives between Fijians and Indians, originally brought to the country by the colonial administration in 1878 to work in the plantation sugar industry that eventually became the basis of the colonial economy.

Industrial Arts. Traditional crafts of Fiji included the making of pots, woven mats, and fine bark cloth by the women, and, by the men, the carving of whalebone ivory (sometimes inlaid with pearl shell) and a wide variety of wooden artifacts, including spears and clubs, bowls for the ceremonial drinking of kava, and the great seagoing double-hulled canoes that permitted speedy passage between the Islands of Fiji and to Samoa and Tonga to the east.

Trade. Bauan power rested on the ability to maintain a wide network of tributary relationships that involved the supplying to it of all the resources of the land and sea, including the crafts mentioned above. Europeans were integrated into the system whenever possible, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Division of Labor. In traditional times, family units spread widely over the land, cultivating and collecting. The division of labor was acccording to both age and sex. Men produced a far greater proportion of the family's food, for agriculture was and remains the domain of men. Young girls might collect taro leaves, but otherwise they would not go to the gardens. Fishing by line or net and the collection of molluscs and other products of the reef are women's work, as is the fetching of water, most cooking, and the care of house and children. Young children of 8 or 9 might help their parents, but lack of responsibility usually lasts until 14 or so. The heavier tasks fall on the younger men and women. The domestic seniority system serves to organize household production; this arrangement was especially true of the traditional extended family.

Land Tenure. Land was held by the "family," which was defined more or less inclusively in different parts of Fiji. During the period of its rise to power, Bau struggled with Rewa for control of the delta and sought to impose a tributary relationship on those they conquered. The colonial government defined principles of land tenure retrospectively, creating homogeneity in place of a system built on dynamism and change. They based their system at least in part on Bauan norms.


Kin Groups and Descent. Fijian society is organized into a hierarchy of kinship groups of increasing orders of inclusiveness. At Bau, the chiefly yavusa was divided into four patricians: the two chiefly mataqali, a warrior clan, and a herald clan divided into two subclans associated with each of the chiefly lines. With the rise to political importance of the chiefly confederations since the 1987 coups, clan relationships at the individual level are becoming more important once again.

Kinship Terminology. The system is of the Iroquois type, with some special features. There is the usual sharp distinction between cross and parallel relatives, but bifurcate merging occurs in all but the second descending generation, in which kinship reckoning is simply generational. Among the chiefly families of Bau, the vasu relationship, between ego and mother's brother, was used to cement ties with other chiefdoms. The vasu was able to make particular demands on the material wealth of his maternal uncle's kin group, frequently doing so in the interests of his own chiefdom.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, the preferred marriage alliance was between cross cousins; marriage between tribes was possible only after formal request. Nonsororal polygyny was practiced, and a man's status was defined by the number of his wives. The great chiefs married many times, usually in the interests of extending political power. This meant that all of the chiefly families of Fiji were closely related, often many times over in succeeding generations. In such situations, the status of the first wife was distinctly superior. The title of the principal wife of the Rokotui Bau was "Radi ni Bau," and his Second wife was titled "Radi Kaba." The principal wife of the Vunivalu was called "Radi Levuka." Marriage ceremonial was more or less elaborate depending on the rank of the participants. Patrilocal residence was the norm, and divorce could be effected easily by either party.

Domestic Unit. The traditional extended family consisted of several married pairs and their children, inhabiting separate dwellings but sharing and cooperating in one cook house. Typically, men of the family would be closely related to the paternal line, but a daughter and her husband might also belong. The senior male would use the ancestral house site (yavu).

Inheritance. Dwelling houses are allocated by the family head and remain under his control, as do garden plots and other family property such as canoes. At his death, his surviving senior sibling determines the disposition of the house if the deceased has no mature sons. In the case of the great chiefs, the council of the whole tribe (yavusa) would determine succession and with it all rights to property.

Socialization. The rigor and principles of family ranking are a microcosm of larger kin groups and communities. Children are subordinate to their parents, but they are also ranked relative to each other by birth order. Aboriginally, they were ranked first by order of marriage of their mothers and then Between full siblings by birth order. The first child (ulumatua ) has a special status. Obedience and respect are demanded of the child by the father; after infancy the child is constantly taking orders. Punishment by the father is the main disciplinary mechanism, and the mother is more indulgent than the father, particularly towards boys and young men of the family.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The social organization of the chiefdom was extraordinary complex, with all aspects of its existence ringed with ceremony. Each individual identified with a hierarchy of increasingly inclusive groups: extended family, subclan, clan (yavusa), federation of clans (vanua), and political confederation (matanitu). The focus of the chiefdom was the chiefly clan, which was supported and defended by two groups of hereditary fishers, who also had the role of defending the chiefs from attack by land or sea.

Political Organization. As head of the political confederation, the chiefly clan of Bau sought to maintain a network of tributary relationships through its subclans. This arrangement implied a degree of political instability, and, indeed, the history of the first half of the nineteenth century was one of a ceaseless struggle for power. Warrior subclans were spread as a shield along the north coast of the Rewa Delta and at the base of the Kaba Peninsula, separating Bau and Rewa. More distant ties were based on acknowledged ancestral kin relationships. As such, they required to be constantly reinforced within the Contemporary play of political forces. The colonial administrative system and that of the immediate postindependence period Divided the old chiefdom of Bau between several new administrative units, but in postcoup Fiji the chiefly confederations are again assuming political significance.

Social Control. Reflecting a preference for avoiding direct confrontation, gossip, ostracism, and social withdrawal have always been important forms of social control. Fear of divine retribution was and remains a powerful sanction at both the individual and the community level. The colonial government made Fijians subject to its judicial system, but since the 1987 coups there has been an attempt to reincorporate traditional principles into the legal system.

Conflict. There were ceremonial ways of asking forgiveness where there was a wish for reconciliation, ending with the drinking of kava. The vasu could also defuse potential conflict, being able effectively to represent the female side in a patrilineal society.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In traditional times, religious belief centered on the deified founders of clans, frequently worshipped in animal form. In addition, each group had its own set of animal and plant totems, deemed to be inhabited by ancestral spirits. The missionaries succeeded in driving ancient beliefs underground, but they surfaced several times at the end of the nineteenth century, usually in the form of atavistic cults as vehicles for anticolonial opposition. Today, Methodism claims the support of most Fijians, although there is an important Roman Catholic minority.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, priests formed hereditary clans, exercising important divinatory and healing roles and acting as the voice of the ancestral gods.

Ceremonies. These were mainly associated with life cycles and with intergroup relationships. In ancient times, there was a ceremony of first fruits, when the various tributaries of Bau brought offerings of food to the Rokotui Bau and later to the Vunivalu, these usually being in the form of delicacies for which particular groups were well known. This ceremony was conducted according to the traditional calendar.

Arts. Singing and chanting, dancing, and joke telling were the traditional arts. The sexes never danced together and had quite different dances. Both danced standing and sitting. The women used delicate hand movements, while the men often danced with fan and spear or club, or with sticks.

Medicine. Disease was understood as deriving from malevolence of the spirits, particularly after the violation of taboos. Women collected and compounded herbal cures, while men applied thema reflection of the belief that men possessed heavenly power (mana) whereas the strength of women came from the earth. Massage was also an important healing technique, but women massaged only women, and men only men.

Death and Afterlife. The ceremony associated with death was extremely elaborate, particularly when the status of the deceased was high, reflecting its importance in traditional belief. Tributary groups would come to pay homage to the corpse and to the bereaved family, cementing ties in the process. After the burial of a high chief, a taboo was laid on the waters around Bau, and the women, having kept vigil over the corpse for four to ten days, would cut their hair; only after 100 nights of mourning would the taboos be lifted. Wives were strangled to go with their husbands into the spirit world, for on the way lurked Ravuyalo, who killed the spirits of those who failed to accompany their spouses. The unmarried were buried with a club for their own defense.

See also Lau


Nayacakalou, R. R. (1975). Leadership in Fiji. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Ravuvu, Asesela D. (1988). Development or Dependence: The Pattern of Change in a Fijian Village. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific.

Thomson, Basil (1908). The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom. London: Heinemann. Reprint. 1968. London: Dawsons.

Williams, Thomas (1858). Fiji and the Fijians. Vol. 1, The Islands and Their inhabitants. London: Alexander Heylin. Reprint. 1982. Suva: Fiji Museum.


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BAU Physics baryon asymmetry of the universe
• British Association Unit
• business as usual

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