The Custodians of the Gift
Thirty years ago, right after finishing law school, I went to Sāmoa.
My flight to Apia via Nadi was delayed in Nadi’s airport for several hours.
While I was killing time with a trip to Lautoka town’s market and back
to the airport, my cab driver, Babu Ram, explained why the airport was
overwhelmed: many Indo-Fijians were fleeing the country, seeing little future
in staying in Fiji. The Indo-Fijian diaspora had started less than two years
before on 25 September 1987, after an army colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, staged
his second coup d’état. Rabuka declared Fiji a republic on 7 October 1987,
abrogating the Constitution of Fiji and declaring himself Head of the Interim
Military Government. The Commonwealth responded with Fiji’s immediate
expulsion from the association, and the tensions between indigenous Fijian
and Indo-Fijian ethnic groups were starting to crumble Fiji’s model of biracial
A month later, on my way back home from Sāmoa I decided to stop in Fiji
again, and to spend a whole week in its capital city, Suva. Obviously, there
were not many tourists around. Perhaps this explains why, with no reservation, I was able to get a large room, with a rusty fan and a lot of dust and nostalgia, in the Grand Pacific Hotel, Fiji’s grand old lady on Suva’s waterfront. Almost immediately after I left, the hotel closed down for two decades. When I asked the name of a solitary island whose silhouette was visible in the twilight to the south of my room, I was told it was called Beqa and was known in Fiji as “the island of the firewalkers.” I was also told that, back in the day, the firewalkers used to perform outside the hotel and across the street at Thurston Gardens surrounding the Fiji Museum. The next morning, I went to the museum.
I was not the first Italian scholar to visit the Fiji Museum; that was likely
Vittorio Beonio Brocchieri, an Italian political science professor turned popular journalist. Brocchieri describes his hasty visit to the museum, which had only recently opened on the upper floor of the Carnegie Library on Victoria Parade, in his Vita Selvaggia (“savage life”), published in 1938. I discovered the book in the library of my maternal grandfather, a World War I Horse Artillery Colonel also named Guido. He probably found it quite amusing, particularly because he was in dissent with the racial laws being passed at that time by the fascist regime in Italy. What I found remarkable is that, right next to it, my grandfather kept another book by Brocchieri, Camminare sul Fuoco (walking on fire), which chronicles his journey in 1963 to observe the Anastenaria firewalking and religious healing in Langada, Greek Macedonia.
In the book, Brocchieri only briefly mentions that firewalking has also been
reported in Polynesia, citing Frazer and Lévy-Bruhl.
Beyond coincidences emerging from my family archives, as for my own
visit to the Fiji Museum, I remember nobody could give me a straight answer
about the firewalkers of Beqa, beyond just pointing at their island, and I found
no clues at the museum either. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I returned
to Fiji ten years later, joining a Pacific prehistory project launched in the
summer of 1999 by the Fiji Museum under the direction of Terry Hunt, at
that time teaching archaeology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. By
the summer of 2002 my research goals were set, and I conducted a month of
preliminary fieldwork in Beqa. My most prolific period was from October
2004 to July 2005, when I lived between the chiefly village of Dakuibeqa and
Suva’s Domain. I made shorter visits to Beqa in 2008, 2010, and 2013.
Mention firewalking to just about anyone and the response is likely to be
skepticism or a remark about the paranormal.
To be very honest, I experienced some skepticism myself when, in October 1992, I was invited to walk through a bed of gleaming white-hot stones along with a large number of Maohi and Māori people, and other nonnatives attending the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands. I was there to prepare a documentary film for Italian television and to interview Raymond Teriirooterai Arioi Graffe, grand prêtre des cérémonies traditionnelles tahitiennes, said to be the only person left in French Polynesia able to conduct the firewalking ritual (Pigliasco and Francalanci 1992).
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