Tabua: Power of Life or Death
A “Tabua” (pronounced tam-boo-uh) is an early- to mid-19th century Polynesian ornament representing wealth & status of the owner. Whale teeth were the basis of several island economies, and personal position. The acquisition of multiple tabuas was one way to become chief of a local tribe, and tabua presentations were a strong way to gain favor with the king.
The “necklace” supporting this 18.8-ounce tooth [Image #1] is 42-inches of braided, woven sennit (palm fiber), also called magimagi in the Fijian language, (pronounced maangi maangi). A small hole was bored in the tooth skirt using a pointed sea shell, and another in the tooth tip. This circa 1825 Fijian tabua was most likely worn about the neck as a sign of Royal authority. The deep yellow-orange patina was enhanced by oil and smoke from display proximity to council fires.
In some South Pacific societies, punishment for even the smallest crimes (like stepping on the king’s shadow) was punishable by death. The offering of a whale tooth by an offender could buy oneself out of debt, or erase a death penalty. In the case of an accidental death (like during fight training, mock battle, etc.), a tabua offered to the grieving family re-set the balance of life.
Visiting American whalers soon discovered that whale teeth were the most valuable item an islander could own, and were easily convinced by lovely, friendly, single women to co-habitate for the length of the ship’s port visit. Naturally, a small tooth was an adequate offering of gratitude to the young wahine.
Single, South Pacific women were very close to the bottom of the social ladder, with practically no rights. The possession of a whale tooth was immediate, undeniable power, i.e. a license to kill. More than one young woman murdered a rival, or a family antagonist, then wiped the slate clean with the presentation of a whale tooth. Soon, though, the South Pacific islands were flooded with whale teeth from very happy whalers, and the value of a tooth plummeted to ordinary ornamentation. This literally shook the foundations of certain island societies, and tribes invited Missionaries to establish schools, hospitals, & churches. Island kings with waning power also invited dignitaries & diplomats to introduce western style law & order, and the assimilation of the South Pacific was underway.
Today, Tabuas are still used in official ceremonies [Image #2] involving governing Fijian chiefs, and to cement relations between families or tribes, such as marriages, alliances, etc. [Image #3].
Fiji’s Treasured Culture
Whales & Whale Teeth in Fiji
Tabuas in Fijian Pre-History
Antique Scrimshaw Collection on WorthPoint