Tabua Tooth Length 16cm (6.25ins) x 7.5cm (3 inches) x 5cm (2 inches).
Very heavy, massive thick old, Sperm whale tooth
Sinnet Cord 110cm (43 inches)
This old tooth is extremely dense and heavy with partially hollowed out gum nerve end. The tooth has been well polished and neatly bored across the pointed end to provide a suspension point through which to pass the coconut thread for making the four-element plaited sinnet. At the wide end, another hole has been bored for the attachment of the sinnet, which has been square plaited with four strands of coconut fibre.
This polished tabua may have been stained with cargo or tumeric to give it a deep orange colour. Alternatively this result was obtained by smoking the tooth over a smouldering fire of sugar cane or masawe roots. Once prepared, the tooth was wrapped properly and put into a kato or basket with a polished stone called a "tina ni tabua". A plaited chord of magimagi or pandanus leaf was attached to each end of the tooth.
Before the sperm whales, the early Fijians used tabua made from the buabua or kura tree. The tabua (Tam-BOO-wah) or whale’s tooth is obtained from the sperm or cacholot whale and plays an important role in Fijian ceremonies. They are presented to distinguished guests and are exchanged at betrothals, weddings, births, deaths and when personal or communal agreements or contracts are entered into including the condoning of sinful act.
Traditionally, it is a great honour to be accorded with a tabua because of its sacredness and the value attached to it. It is an infringement of the Fijian law to take a tabua out of Fiji without expressed and written permission from the Ministry of Fijian Affairs.
Tabuas have been in use in Fiji for over 150 years. Prior to this, wooden bua-ta (Boor-TAR) were used. These were highly polished woods from the bua tree (frangipani tree) and shaped similar to the tabua now in use as traditional offerings. The tabuas were polished with coral sand, coconut oil and leaves of a tree known as the masi-ni-tabua. The shiny effect maintained permanently through constant handling and also from the long-lasting effect of the solution initially rubbed on them.
When the whalers first visited Fiji, they brought ashore whale’s teeth to use for trading purposes. Fijians were struck by the similarity of these to the wooden bua-ta. The Fijians thus named them tabua, derivation from the Fijian word tabu (tar-MBOO) meaning sacred. Originally whale ivory tabua were very rare items, as the teeth were available only from beached whales or from trade with neighbouring Tonga, where the practice may have originated. When the practice became more widely known in the early 1800s thousands of fake teeth were made from ivory.
A highly polished surface is today as much esteemed in a tabua but size, especially the thickness as judged when looking down directly over the tabua is the main criterion for its value.
When a tabua is about to be presented to a high chief, an elder among those performing the presentation announces a formal and stern greeting known as turivukitabua, (TOOREE-Varkey-TAMBOO-wah) by uttering these vowel and consonants WAH………..OI-ee……..OI-ee……. On hearing the expression, the chief understands that the presentation is about to take place and his spokesman replies in the same vein. The ceremonial team formally referred to a tabua as kamunaga (CAR-moo-NUNG-ngha), and this word is used during all ceremonial presentations. Up to this point, the tabua or kamunaga remains unseen but now the individual who is to make the presentation produces it holding it in his left hand and the cord in his right. He begins by addressing the Chief formally in mentioning the chiefly traditional provincial title before the short speech of welcome. At the conclusion, the spokesman would reiterate the special traditional greeting before handing over the kamunaga to the Chief.
Apart from the element of goodwill in every presentation, it is frequently a vehicle for a request, and acceptance of the tabua implies that the recipient is honour bound to carry out his request. The Tabua takes precedence over everything else and occupies first place in Fiji ceremony, whether for family, intertribal or state occasions. It is regarded as a sacred bond between two parties. It is also used as a symbol of peace and disputes or quarrels can be smoothened over by its presentation
Today, the presentation of a tabua is often a gesture of goodwill, respect or loyalty from the persons presenting it and the detailed ceremonial ritual is always carefully carried out. It is also often presented at ceremonies associated with births, deaths, marriages, the naming of a child, on departing or returning from a long journey, or after a yaqona ceremony particularly when a chief has been installed and on many other occasions and also the condoning of the violation of traditional law of the land .
In Pacific Island society, some objects can have a 'spiritual' value that far outweighs their actual ‘market’ value. In Samoa, ‘ie töga (fine mats) and in Cook Islands, tïvaevae, are exchanged as gifts on special occasions. Tabua play a similar role in Fijian society. Tabua are considered by Fijians as a kavakaturanga or ‘chiefly thing’. They are not worn but are presented at important ceremonies, including weddings, births and funerals. Tabua used to be the most effective way to give weight to an apology or atonement, in the same way the presentation of ‘ie töga strengthen an ifoga in Samoan society. The occasion where tabua are presented also determines their spiritual value.
While the tabua is a uniquely Fijian object, whale teeth are used in other societies. European sailors used to carve and colour whale teeth in their spare time - this was called scrimshaw. Whale teeth were shaped into necklaces and other ornaments in many parts of the Pacific, including Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai‘i and the Marquesas Islands. Mäori also used whale teeth to make rei niho (whale tooth pendants) which were worn by people of high rank. However, nowhere else in the Pacific do whale teeth have the power or meaning of tabua in Fiji.
Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna receiving a tabua
The late Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna is considered to be Fiji's most outstanding leader of the 20th century, and is honoured by having a public holiday named after him - Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna Day. Here he is shown being presented a tabua in August, 1955, three years before his death.
Andrew Arno, ‘Cobo and tabua in Fiji’ (American Ethnologist, vol. 32 no. 1, February 2005)
Fergus Clunie, Yalo i Viti (1986)
Rod Ewins, Fijian Artefacts (1982)
Frederick McCarthy, ‘The Whale’s Tooth Tambua of Fiji’ (Australian Museum Magazine, vol. 11 no. 3, 15 Sept 1953)
Asesela Ravuvu, The Fijian Ethos (1987)
Kingsley Roth, ‘A Composite ‘Tambua’ from Fiji’ (Man, vol. 37, August 1937)
Marshall Sahlins, Moana (1962)