Volume 59 1950 > Volume 59, No. 4 > Fishing for flying fish in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, by I. G. Turbott, p 348-367
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Illustrations to Article in Vol. 59, No. 4, 1950

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Figure 1. Making flares in preparation for night fishing, Nuitao, Ellice Islands. Dry fronds are being bound together with strips from green coconut leaves.
Figure 2. Crew ready for fishing, showing scoop net and bundle of flares wrapped for protection from heavy surf. The man on the extreme right is carrying the small tightly woven flare from which the fishing flares are lit. Nuitao, Ellice Islands.
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Figure 3. Crew of five as in Fig. 2 in position as for fishing beside canoe. Note scoop net held by canoe captain, who is standing in fishing position. A spare scoop net is carried, as shown behind the fourth man. Nuitao, Ellice Islands.
Figure 4. Canoe about to be launched after being carried down from village. Nuitao, Ellice Islands.
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Figure 5. About to move out through the surf on a calm evening. Note scoop nets resting towards stern, and bundle of flares placed on outrigger. Nuitao, Ellice Islands.
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THE low lying coral atolls of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Central Pacific, appear to provide an ideal environment for flying-fish. They live in their thousands in the deeper water outside the reefs during the day and towards evening move in to feed in the shallower water near shore.

As a food, both to native and European palate, they are highly sought after. The Gilbert and Ellice people value especially the oil content of the head, which is commonly eaten very shortly after the fish is brought to the shore.

Generally speaking the people of these islands have little food that they can store for future use. Flying-fish, however, often provide a welcome exception. Immediately after a large catch, the entire family of the fisherman sit down and eat as much as they possibly can. The remainder of the catch is dried in the sun for future use or sometimes split into two halves and salted.

Recently a trade in salted flying-fish has developed in the Colony. The fishermen on the outer islands catch the fish, salt some of these down, sell them through their Island Co-operative Society, which in turn sells to a central society at Colony Headquarters. The latter then sells to locally domiciled employees working at Headquarters who find it difficult in a congested area to find adequate native food-stuffs.

By the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders flying-fish is regarded as being second only to bonito, as a bait for fishing for sharks, swordfish, tuna, etc.


There are two seasons for taking flying-fish in the Gilberts, known locally as the “North” and “South” seasons. The months of the “North” season are from April - 350 to September and that of the “South” season from October to March inclusive.

The “South” season is reputed to be the better for fishing because the Gilbertese say that during that season seven small stars appear in the southern sky bringing good luck. Particularly in the Southern Gilberts, in the islands of Nikunau, Tamana and Arorae, do the people firmly believe that the rising of the seven stars coinciding with the “South” season is the better time to fish flying-fish. In the north, the old men do not adhere so rigidly to this seasonal qualification, and, as in the Ellice Islands, consider this fishing dependent on local weather and purely a matter of skill and chance all the year round. It is interesting to note that these seven small stars were the stellar constellations used in the systems of deep sea navigation, known to the old Gilbertese navigators in their early voyages across the Pacific.

In the Gilberts during the “North” season, a current often appears running south and west. This tends to carry the fish away from the atolls and they are then very scarce, particularly on the western coasts. The currents, however, are not consistent. There might well be two or three nights when fish are abundant during this so-called “off season.” Moreover, on the reef islands, which have no lagoon to the east, the fishermen paddle completely around the island and fish on the western side. The old men firmly say that the current seldom runs from west to east.

During the “South” season, observers on shore watch and locate shoals of fish lying just before sunset one hundred yards or more outside the line of breakers. Numerous shoals indicate an abundance of fish and the fishermen look forward to a successful evening's catch.

There appear to be few facts to substantiate this claim to a “North” or Good Weather season and a “South” or Bad Weather season. Certainly from December to March high winds and strong ocean currents are expected, sometimes harassing shipping and canoes. (Up to the date of writing—March, 1950—there had been no marked seasonal change in the 1949-1950 period.) The fisherman himself is very noncommittal. For him a good season brings food and possibly a little surplus catch. Bad seas and currents mean difficulties, and the added effort of grasping every opportunity to shoot out through the breakers to fish.

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During any one month of the “South” season, fish are equally plentiful on any day, depending of course on local weather conditions. At the time of the “North” season, however, when the fish are less abundant, natives believe that the best time for fish is either during the first three days of the new moon or at the full moon and the ensuing three days. Especially at full moon, the fish approach the land in well formed shoals.


Fishing is always carried out on the ocean side of the atolls, outside the line of the surf and breakers. No instance was found of fishing for flying-fish inside lagoons. The exact distance offshore varies according to the method of fishing used, as described in detail in Section 4. Briefly, for line fishing or trolling during the day, the best area appears to be from half to two miles offshore, dependent on local weather conditions. At night when flares are used, the flying-fish are found anywhere from the breaker line to four hundred yards further out to sea.

At the time of the “South” season, the old men say that the fish run nearer to the land than during the “North” season.


The general term for flying-fish fishing in the Gilberts is “te tatae.”

There are four main methods of catching flying-fish:—

  • (i) Night fishing from canoes with flares and scoop nets when the moon is full (Gilbertese—te tatae).
  • (ii) Night fishing from canoes with flares and scoop nets when there is no moon.
  • (iii) Fishing with scoop nets from canoes just before sunset and immediately after sunset until quite dark (Gilbertese—te kababa).
  • (iv) Day fishing with a special line, hook and floats, or trolling behind a sailing canoe (Gilbertese—te Ai-onauti).

To facilitate explanation, each method is discussed under two heads: (A) preparation, and (B) the actual fishing.

  • (i) Night fishing from canoes with flares when there is a full moon.
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(A) Preparation:

(a) Canoes: During the day the owners of the canoes check their craft to ensure that they are seaworthy and in a fit state to shoot the line of surf.

(b) Flares: When it is decided that the conditions are suitable for fishing the women and children are told to make the flares for the evening's fishing. These are made from fallen dry coconut fronds (Figure 1). Two or three thoroughly dry coconut fronds are rolled together and tightly bound with the green leaves stripped from the midrib of a green frond. Sometimes these dry fronds may have been collected on the day of fishing—or sometimes the womenfolk lay in a store of fronds near their house, and dry them thoroughly for use later.

Flare used for fishing when there is a moon are bound with the green leaves, the latter wound round at spaces of eight to nine inches apart. The last green binder is tied approximately one foot from the top end of the frond and the other binders twisted so that, when the flare is lit and burns down, another binder may be easily loosened without unrolling the remainder of the flare.

A suitable length for flares for fishing on a moonlight night is nine feet and an average number taken in a three or four paddle canoe would be twelve flares.

In the Gilberts it is usual for the family of a particular fisherman to prepare his flares. In the Ellice Islands it is normal for the village elders to order each female of a certain age in the village to prepare three flares and place them in a communal pile in or near the village meeting house. In the evening, the fishermen help themselves to the required number.

(c) Scoop nets: The net, approximately three feet long by two feet wide, is bound on the end of a pole which may vary from eight feet to twelve feet in length (Fig. 2). Depending on individual taste some fishermen prefer a large net; others a light, small net. The fisherman checks his scoop net before fishing. Today the net is made from fishing line bought in the island stores—before the arrival of traders the nets were made from “te kora” (Gilbertese)—the native twine made from the dried husk of the coconut. See section (iv) A, b.

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(B) Fishing:—

Just before sunset the crews of the canoes assemble on the beach near their craft. The bundles of flares are brought from the village. If the surf is heavy the flares are wrapped in rough coconut leaf matting and the second man in the canoe takes care to hold the bundle up in front of him to keep them dry (Fig. 2). If the waves are small the flares are placed along the outrigger. The number of men in a canoe varies with its size, but the one at the stern must be skilful in choosing the correct moment to go out through the surf; if they make one mistake, the canoe capsizes or swamps, the flares are wet and the night's fishing is spoilt for that canoe. (Figs. 4 and 5.)

There is no fixed rule as to the number of canoes going fishing from a village. This would depend on the whim of the canoe owners and fishermen. Separate records were kept by the writer and Uriam, a native magistrate, over a one month period in two villages, one in the Northern Gilberts and one in the South. At Rawannawi village, Marakei Island, Northern Gilberts, with a population of approximately 900, the average number of canoes fishing each night was seventy-five. From Tamana Village, Tamana Island, Southern Gilberts, with a population of approximately 1,000, the average was one hundred and twenty-five.

Once out over the surf, the canoes form up in rows of four or six and wait until the moon appears. One of the older fishermen then cries out “time for fishing” and the flares, one of which is usually lit on each canoes before leaving the shore, are loosened out so that the smouldering becomes a bright fire. In the Gilberts the man in the bow of the canoe then stands up on the gunwales, holding the lighted flare straight up in his left hand and the scoop net in his right. In the Ellice, the man in the bow stands on the bottom of the canoe, using both hands to fish, and the second man in the canoe stands behind him holding the flare. The canoes meanwhile move slowly forward, the flying-fish being attracted to the light. Considerable skill is necessary on the part of the fisherman to scoop the fish out of the water into his net. If the fish is swimming away he must judge to perfection the speed of his canoe and fish and place the net in the correct position; if the fish is lying still on the surface - 354 the net is brought down, hard over it, a flick of the wrist and the net is turned with the fish struggling inside. Those swimming a foot or more underwater must be caught by inserting the net quickly in the water in front of the fish, a sudden stiffening of the arms, and a quick withdrawal from the water. It is an art made perfect only after much practice.

The canoes move forward steadily when fishing under a full moon; the flying-fish swim quickly in the moonlight.

It is usual for the man in the stern also to have a net and sometimes one of the centre paddlers has a smaller, two to three feet long net. Those fish that evade the net of the main fisherman at the bow of the canoe are more than likely to be caught in these other nets.

The binders on flares used in this fishing need be untied only one at a time, the resultant flame being smaller than is needed when fishing on a moonless night. If the flare is loosened too much, the flame becomes too bright and the flying-fish disperse in the moonlight. As one flare is used, a new one is passed up to the man in the bow and lit from the old flare before it is thrown away. Twelve flares are normally sufficient for moonlight fishing, each flare burning as long as twenty minutes, giving a period of fishing of approximately four hours. If, however, the fish are very plentiful, the canoe might put in to shore, replenish its supply of flares, and continue fishing.

In the centre of the canoe, it is the custom on some islands to place a woven coconut basket. When the flying-fish is netted, the fisherman half turns and flicks the fish out of the net into the waiting basket. More skilful fishermen do not bother to look behind them, but with a dexterous twist of their wrists flick the fish over their shoulders with uncanny accuracy into the basket. Where no basket is taken, the fish are left to flounder in the bottom of the canoe.

The sight of up to one hundred or more canoes in rows passing regularly up and down some four hundred yards outside the line of the surf, flares lit and the bodies of the fishermen glistening in the moonlight, presents a vivid picture, not easily forgotten by anyone watching from the shore. Sometimes the fishermen call out or sing, breaking the stillness of the night as they work, or sometimes the - 355 families of the fishermen, waiting on shore, chant a song of good luck for a bountiful catch.

  • (ii) Night fishing from canoes with flares and scoop net when there is no moon.

(A) Preparation:

(a) Flares: The flares used for fishing when there is no moon are made of the same material as in (i) above, except that the binders of green leaves number about seven and are spaced at least one foot apart, i.e., further apart than for fishing in moonlight.

(B) Fishing:

The time for fishing is as soon as it is properly dark. The flare is then loosened out and two or three binders unravelled simultaneously to give a brilliant light. While the flare is burning brightly, the canoe is allowed to drift; then as more binders required to be loosened to keep up the light, the canoe is moved forward fifty to seventy yards, where it drifts again until more binders must be untied. The fishing is carried out during this period of drifting. As the flares are more quickly loosened and therefore burn more quickly, a greater number are taken than when fishing in moonlight. If possible the flares for moonless night fishing are made from longer coconut fronds. An average number taken per canoe is twenty.

On moonless nights it is found that one or two canoes fishing alone are more effective than a large group. The flying-fish concentrate on moving to the one circle of light.

Fishing on moonless nights in these small groups is seldom successful on the weather side of the island as there the flying-fish tend to dive deeply. In the lee, however, the fishing is generally fast and furious while the flares burn brightly.

  • (iii) Fishing with scoop nets from canoes just before sunset and immediately after sunset until quite dark.

(A) Preparation:

The canoes and nets must be carefully checked. Flares are not required.

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(B) Fishing:

This type of fishing appears to be peculiar to the three most southern of the Gilbert Islands, i.e., Nukunau, Tamana and Arorae. These three islands are entirely surrounded by a line of breakers and have no lagoon.

The weather must be very moderate or calm before attempting this fishing. About one hour before sunset the canoes are launched and paddled out through the breakers, where the fishermen rest just outside the line of surf. The canoes must not move out into deep water or the flying-fish, which are coming in from the ocean, will scatter. About half an hour before sunset the shoals of fish start to move in more quickly towards the shore. These are sighted by the fishermen, who now split up into groups of six canoes, three canoes moving in between the line of breakers and the shoal of fish, and three canoes paddling on the ocean outside of the shoal. The canoes paddle along as the shoal moves, keeping the fish swimming quickly until they become exhausted. At this stage they float, wings outspread, on the surface; the six canoes quickly converge, and the fishermen, working with the greatest possible speed, scoop the fish into the canoes. Even though the fish quickly recover their energy, they still do not appear to dodge the canoes. Instead they swim about inside the circle of canoes, some twelve inches or more beneath the surface. A catch taken by this method averages 100-150 per canoe.

The best time of the month for this fishing is undoubtedly at the time of the new or full moon. The old men of these islands say that at every new or full moon, the fish move into the breakers to shake off their spawn. This may well be true, but observations would indicate that if the flying-fish are plentiful off these islands, they move into the breakers in shoals, whether or not it is this season.

  • (iv) Day fishing with a special line, gorge and floats, or trolling behind a sailing canoe.

(A) Preparation:

(a) Gorges: Before the introduction of European materials to the Gilberts, these were made from a strong hard local wood. They were slightly curved and about two inches long, both ends being sharpened, i.e.,

Today the fisherman uses a gorge made from box-wire.

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(b) Lines: The cord used for this fishing is made from the fibre of the coconut husk. The dried mature husk is placed in the lagoon or in special pools in the sea where they are left for a period of up to six months until they become quite soft. They are then removed from the water, placed on a flattened stone and beaten with a heavy club until the fibres of the husk are softened. After thorough drying in the sun, it is the women's work to roll these fibres into string. Each husk is taken separately and stranded according to the size of the string required, i.e., for house building the strands are heavy, for general use medium strands are used, and for the cord for a flying-fish line, very fine strands are used. When they have stranded the husks, the women roll them into twine on their thighs. Twine making is generally regarded as one of the most tedious and heavy tasks in the work cycle of a Gilbertese woman's life.

(c) Floats: Old coconuts are collected, and the kernel removed. A three inch piece of wood is tied to one end of the line and then placed inside the float. The hole is then tightly corked, allowing only the string of the line to protrude about twelve to eighteen inches.

The loose end of the line is then tied to the centre of the hook and the float and line is ready for baiting.

(d) Bait: Rock crabs provide the bait for this type of fishing. It is often the younger members of the fisherman's family who collect the crabs, by the aid of flares, the night before a day's fishing.

(B) Fishing:

(a) Once the preparations are complete, the fishermen launch their canoes and sail or paddle, during the daytime, to a distance of about one to two miles offshore. There the hooks are baited by tying some of the flesh from the crab to both ends of the gorge. Previously, long strands of women's hair were used to tie on this bait; today thread purchased in the store is used. Any number of floats are then scattered over the ocean at a distance of about ten to fifteen yards between each. When a flying-fish is caught it will attempt to fly away but is brought back by the float. The fisherman must be ready in his canoe with a wooden club, because it is quite common for a shark, swordfish or tuna to be in the vicinity of the floats waiting to catch the flying-fish. A - 358 fisherman might set out with his lines, his floats and bait to go flying-fish fishing and come home with a shark, swordfish or tuna, depending on his dexterity with the club, or guile and cunning in enticing one of these deep water fish to take the larger hooks he always has in readiness.

Three or four of the larger sailing canoes generally proceed on a day's fishing together. This is so that in the event of accident they may help each other.

The main fleet of canoes waits until the evening fishing. In day fishing the average catch is normally in the vicinity of fifty to one hundred flying-fish per canoe.

(b) Similar preparation of lines, hooks and bait is required for fishing by trolling behind a sailing canoe. The length of line used in trolling is, however, longer, being at least ten fathoms in length for optimum results. A small group of sailing canoes would depart just after daybreak and troll up and down throughout the day at a distance of one to two miles offshore, returning towards sundown with a catch varying in number from 100-150, depending on the number of flying-fish in the water, and depending too on whether the fisherman has had a day of trolling relatively unmolested by the bigger deep sea fish.


When fishing with floats or when trolling, it is customary for the fishermen to return to shore and divide the catch evenly amongst the families of the canoe-owner and the fishermen.

The distribution of the catch from fishing by flares or in fleets of canoes just before sunset, is often a very different and complicated system. The average catch per canoe using these latter methods, during the “South” season would be 100-200 per night, or if the canoe has come back to shore, replenished its supply of flares and gone fishing again, the catch sometimes totals 500 per canoe. During the “North” season the catch is much less. On a bad night the average might be ten per canoe; on a good night over 100.

The system of distribution varies on each island. One method used in the Ellice is described in section 7. In the Gilberts, if the owner goes fishing in his canoe, the normal method is called “te tiba raoi,” i.e., the fish are equally divided amongst the fishermen and the canoe owner. If he - 359 does not go fishing the owner may nominate the kind of sharing to be used for that evening. He may say “te tiba raoi” or he may say “te riakitoauea,” the latter method being that each fisherman takes home his own catch. A paddler (or an owner of a canoe not going fishing) would receive no fish at the end of the evening, and consequently this method is not common or popular. On the other hand the canoe owner might agree to a group of fishermen using his canoe, but withhold his right of nominating the method of distribution of the catch until the canoe returns to the shore. He may then say “te tiba raoi” or, if he is rather unscrupulous or harbour a dislike for one of the crew, he might say that the division must be even between the fishermen, the owner, the canoe, the outrigger, the paddles, the floats and the sail, etc. He is able to do this only once with one crew because the latter will not go fishing again in his canoe unless the method of distribution is nominated first.

It is also customary today for the fishermen to make a small gift of fish to a mission stationed on that island or to any European visitor present on the island during the fishing period.

It is the custom on some islands in the Northern Gilberts that half of an evening's catch must be sun dried and salted for future use. In the South, if any fish are salted down it would be purely a matter for the discretion of the owner. There is no hard and fast rule, but it is more dependent on supply and immediate demands.

The owner may wish to sell some of his catch, as has been described in Section 1; he might be the parent of boys or girls attending a Government or Mission Boarding School and therefore wish to send a present to his children; or it might be that he has many relations poorer than himself to whom he is obliged by custom to supply such dried fish if they so ask. These would be the reasons in the Southern Gilberts regulating the salting down of fish rather than any fixed island custom, as in the north.


(a) Canoe Captains: In the northern Gilberts and the Ellice Islands (Fig. 3), the fisherman in the bow of the canoe is the canoe captain and the director of operations during the evening's fishing. He may not be the canoe owner. - 360 He is chosen for the position because of his skill in flying-fish fishing. If the owner is skilful he will be the captain, otherwise he would take his place anywhere in his canoe, or possibly not fish at all.

In the southern Gilberts, the man at the stern is the canoe captain, either for trolling or night flare fishing. During the latter operation, however, when the fisherman in the bow is actually fishing, he would indicate where he wished the canoe to be paddled if he saw an abundance of fish.

(b) Women going Fishing: Close female relatives of fishermen may be members of the crew for fishing. They never act as the No. 1 fisherman. The wife of a fisherman in the Ellice Islands might accompany her husband to hold the flare, or possibly a daughter or sister if the family has no younger males. Any woman or girl who is not a very near relative of the fisherman is forbidden by custom to go fishing.

(c) Supplying of Flares: In the Gilberts every member of the crew of a canoe must be prepared to supply at least three flares for the evening's fishing. He is barred from his place in the canoe and consequently a share of the catch until he supplies the three flares. In the Ellice Islands, as described earlier, the preparing of flares is carried out by all the women of the village. Crews of canoes may change from one canoe to another, but it is normal once a crew is formed to work together as a crew until sickness, work or a change of location makes this no longer possible. Crews may change from one canoe to another with the mutual consent of the owners.

(d) Adornment of Fishermen: Section 7 describes in full a ceremony carried out in the Ellice Islands in connection with fishing for flying-fish. The Ellice people are not so poorly off in lands or food supply as the Gilbertese. Fishing for flying-fish in the Gilberts is not regarded as a necessity and a pleasure—it is purely a necessity, to gather food for a family's existence. So it is that seldom in the Gilberts do the fishermen bedeck themselves in flowers or leaves as described for the ceremony in the Ellice Islands. Possibly the women may wear a garland of flowers in their hair, but the headdress of the Gilbertese male would be a locally made - 361 pandanus leaf fisherman's hat, worn for protection against sparks from the burning flare or for warmth during colder nights.

(e) Songs: The old songs previously sung by the Gilbertese would seem to be dying out. On most islands little is known of any songs particularly composed for flying-fish fishing. One song is still used at Marakei in the northern Gilberts and the words are supplied at Appendix I. It is quite common, however, in both the Gilberts and the Ellice Islands for the canoe crew to chant a hymn or sing a local love song while they wait for the darkness to fall or for the moon to appear. A fisherman might deliver a small prayer for a good evening's catch a few moments before the flares are lit and the fishing commences.

During the actual fishing, if the fish seem to be flying away from the canoe, either the fisherman in the bow, or all the crew, may call out or whistle to the fish; their belief being that the fish will then return. If, when the flying-fish return to the canoe, they remain about two feet under the water, one of the crew will stamp on the hull of the canoe, call out again, and the fish will jump to the surface.

(f) Daily customs followed by a fisherman on the day that he intends to fish in the evening: On awakening he will cut his toddy, the juice collected from the growing spathe of a coconut tree, and then eat the meal prepared for him by his family. The following foods are forbidden to a fisherman on the day he is going fishing: pandanus fruit, rice and “te bero”—a local plant something like a bean. If he breaks this custom it is believed locally that the flying-fish will immediately fly away from anyone who has just eaten of these foods.

The fisherman must not enter his “babai” (a locally grown coarse calladium) pit. It is said, that the mud in these pits has an odour which will cling to the fisherman and which is unpleasant to flying-fish. After his morning meal the fisherman must stay in the shade of his house sleeping and resting. If he does walk in the sun, the flying-fish in the evening will either not come to his canoe at all, or if they do, will fly away long before he is able to net any.

At about 3 p.m. the fisherman may arise, cut his evening toddy, and start preparing his nets, etc., for the evening's - 362 fishing. It is customary for him to have only the one meal until after the fishing.

A common custom followed for flying-fish as for other fishing is that a husband would not sleep with his wife either the day or the night before setting out. If he does, it is thought that the fishing will not be successful.

(g) Customs to be observed while the actual fishing is in progress: The fisherman's sleeping mat must not be used by anyone else while he is fishing.

The canoe shed must not be used for work or play while that canoe is out. Some fishermen select particular stones or wood from the sea or land which are then brought to the canoe shed for the canoe to rest on. The older people say that before the stones or wood were set in place, the owner would murmur a few magical words over them. Today this ritual is seldom followed. However, one fact appears to remain; that while the canoe is out fishing, these stones or pieces of wood, which are two in number, must not be touched or moved from their position, one for the bow and one for the stern of the canoe to rest upon.

It is difficult to say how rigidly these customs are adhered to today. It would be correct to say that they are all used at some time by individuals on some islands, but not as a universal rule for all fishermen in the Gilberts. Each island might have one or more customs which are followed on that island; or it might be that one individual on an island follows all the customs, while others in his village ignore them.


Vaitapu, Ellice Islands, was the scene of the ceremony described here. It consisted of fishing by flares when it became dark and before the moon appeared. This ceremony, known in the Ellice language as the “Tamanga,” is held at the period of the full moon.

Half an hour before sunset the men of the village proceed to the canoes on the beach. En route they collect, from a pile ready near the village meeting house, sufficient flares for the evening's fishing. Each canoe takes the same number of flares, which has been fixed by the village elders. - 363 These flares have been made during the day by the young girls and youths of the village, each family providing three flares.

As the men stand by their canoes, all the womenfolk of the village arrive. They proceed to place garlands of flowers, oiled green leaves, and green leaf skirts over the heads, necks, shoulders, arms, legs and waists of their male relatives. Visitors to the island, although they may have no blood relatives on that island, would find that they had many “temporary” relatives for that night. Oil, scent and powder is then rubbed or sprinkled all over the bodies of the men as their womenfolk dance and chatter merrily around. The men stand stolid, unsmiling and impassive during this ceremony. The women consider that the flowers, the oil and the scent, etc., will bring good luck to their fishermen, who will then bring back many fish for their female relatives.

As the dusk falls the beach presents a very colourful scene—men covered in flowers, oil and powder, while womenfolk, with flowers in their hair, dance and talk around the twenty or thirty large canoes.

Just before sunset, the canoes are launched to the accompaniment of clapping and cries of “good fortune.” The dangers of the surf are passed and the canoes assemble in rows of four in the calmer waters outside to wait until it is quite dark. Then at a signal from the leaders the flares are lit from a small, tightly woven flare which had been lit on shore and left to smoulder in the canoe. The captain of each canoe, the fisherman standing in the bow of the canoe, holds his scoop net in readiness, while his assistant, sometimes a female relative, stands up behind him holding the lighted flare. To hold this flare in the correct place so that the flame burns brightly, so that the sparks do not blow on the paddlers or fishermen, and so that the vision of other canoes is not smoked out, takes quite considerable skill.

The actual fishing then commences in earnest and the excitement increases as the fish are scooped in. The methods have been described in Section 4 (i). The basket to hold the fish in the centre of the canoe, as with the fishermen, is decorated with flowers and green leaves for their “tamanga.” Few fish escape the net of the experienced fisherman. At given signals, the canoes change places, those nearest the - 364 shore taking the outside and vice versa. This is to prevent any one canoe receiving an unfair advantage as the fish are generally feeding closest to the shore and therefore those canoes nearest the shore would have more opportunity for a large catch.

When the last flare has been used the canoes return to the beach, guided in through the reef passage and over the surf by a fire lit by the waiting womenfolk on the beach.

The full moon is now up. The catch is brought from each canoe to the village square near the meeting house, where the island elders and all the people have assembled in the form of a hollow square. The fishermen sit on the outside of the square facing the village elders. Coconut leaf matting has been spread in the centre, and onto this the fish are counted from each fishing basket, the man counting calling out the numbers at the top of his voice. This is so that others may check his count. The noise is considerable as five or six men count at once. The actual method of counting is interesting as the counters appeared to use three ways of calling out. Some counted normally in Ellice—one, two, three, etc., up to ten, laying aside the tenth fish to give a final check; others used Gilbertese, most of the Ellice people present, as the result of both working with Gilbertese people while in the employ of the British Phosphate Commissioners on Ocean Island and of general contact with Gilbertese, being able readily to count in Gilbertese up to ten; and others counted to ten calling out the names of eight islands in the Ellice Group and the two southern Gilbert Islands in the order—Arorae, Tamana, Nanumea, Nanumanga, Nuitao, Nui, Vaitapu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, Nukulaelae. Whatever method was used, the counter started again on reaching ten.

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The ceremony of the “tamanga” was held on two consecutive nights witnessed. The details of the catch on each night were:—

(a) First Night:

Canoe Captain Second in Command Total per canoe
Pita Anitelea 88
Samuelu Savea 83
Tapungao Keniti 83
Sekia Eleasalo 81
Melitiana Esene 80
Kaitu Tafaki 76
Alani Selava 66
Kaisami Tafea 60
Tomu Anitipa 59
Kalepou Talapai 57
Tefito Vakafa 56
Tauetia Sakua 47
Koloa Saufatu 40
Selu Mae 33
Neli Ate 22
Matatia Vili 21
Total 952

i.e., average 59 flying-fish per canoe

(b) Second Night:

Canoe Captain Second in Command Total per canoe
Pita Anitelea 104
Samuelu Savea 86
Kaitu Tafaki 81
Tapungao Keniti 77
Tomu Anitipa 68
Kaisami Tafea 63
Sekia Eleasalo 60
Tefito Vakafa 59
Kalepou Talapai 56
Alani Selava 53
Tauetia Sakua 53
Setu Saufatu 52
Melitiana Esene 48
Neli Ate 40
Selu Mae 30
Total 930

i.e., average 62 flying-fish per canoe

- 366

These records were kept by a specially appointed scribe.

The island crier then announces the name of the captain, the second-in-command (man at the stern of the canoe) and the number of fish caught by each canoe. As each is announced, cries of admiration and clapping come from the people. Finally this part of the ceremony ends with the name of the captain of the canoe who has caught the most fish and the name of the captain who has caught the least being repeated. The former receives unanimous congratulations, for the position of best captain is one of high honour and much sought after by the young men. The name of the unfortunate who has had the misfortune to catch the least is greeted with much laughter and cries of derision. There are no hidden feelings with these people; their scorn is as spontaneous as their praise.

The actual distribution of the catch then commences. This is decided by the island elders and implemented by the village policemen.

First any European or particular visitor of the island would receive a share. Then the Mission of the island, the Native Government and Government institutions such as schools, etc. The hospital receives its share and any very old or sick residents of the island. Throughout this distribution, the people sit, clapping as the name of the person receiving the fish and the number is announced by the island crier. Then there is an awakening of interest amongst the mass of the people—the time has come for them to receive their share. The name of each family is called out and a representative quickly comes forward with a prepared woven coconut leaf basket, receives the share on behalf of the others and returns to the family group. Usually the heads of the flying-fish are immediately eaten raw—they are considered a great delicacy and full of valuable oils. The bodies of the fish are taken back to the family house and cooked for the evening meal. Any surplus is sun dried and stored for future use.

The entire catch is thus distributed most efficiently without argument and before the moon has had time to pass very far across the sky.

The ceremony of the “tamanga” ends with speech-making by the island elders in thanks to the fishermen for the excellence of their catch, to the families for providing the - 367 flares, and to the village policemen who had distributed the catch.

This is replied to by the Native Magistrate saying how happy everyone had been to join in the spirit and ceremony of the “tamanga.” He thanks the village elders on behalf of the people for arranging it.

A further description of this “tamanga” ceremony and general aspects of fishing in the Ellice Islands may be found in D. G. Kennedy's “Culture of Vaitapu” (New Plymouth, 1931).

1. Bon aio aron te tatae onauti 1. Here is the way of flying-fish fishing
Tauraoi ni bane e roko bongina Everybody is ready when the day comes.
Ti te moani kateteke naba As soon as it is dark
Tieri konami konami ka-kokonaingkami Try and catch what you can, when the day comes.
Be aroko bongina.  
Cho.: Kareke aromi n te tatae onauti Cho.: Everybody must fish.
E roko bongina anaia kaona Fill all your canoes.
Kakeboa wami karekei Tibara iai. Fill them right up and Divide the catch amongst us all.
2. Kam tabe n akawa. 2. You are busy fishing
Ni maninga nako And forget everything else.
E aro nanomi You have been very stupid
Kam aki ataia Because there is a black cloud in the sky.
Bon ai aron te nang  
Te nang ni karau Here the rain comes and puts all the flares out.
E a baroi ngkami  
E mate ami ai But there is a good catch of fish.
E tokanikai te ika.