Volume 66 1957 > Volume 66, No. 4 > Notes on a Fijian club with a system of classification, by R. A. Derrick, p 391-395
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- 391
With a System of Classification

THE CLUB WAS the Fijian warrior's favourite weapon. He had his spears, from ten to fifteen feet long and often richly carved, efficient bows and arrows, and slings for throwing stones; but, although these had each its special use, none approached the club in popularity. Whether his tribe was at war or at peace, he was seldom without it, for until the latter half of last century no Fijian left the precincts of his house unarmed. Whenever he left his village, even to work in his garden, he carried his club on his shoulder; and should he meet a man in the path, the club remained in that position, at the alert, until on friendly recognition both men lowered their weapon in greeting.

Even in time of peace, when a man had occasion to visit a friendly village, he would not go unarmed lest the people should say, “He despises us; he comes without weapons.” He therefore carried a dress or token club, of size and style suggestive of a policeman's baton or truncheon, and enriched as befitted his rank. With this he went through the motions of lowering the club in friendly greeting and other customary actions of courtesy.

The range of types and styles of club was exceptionally wide. High degrees of skill and patient care were given to the fashioning of clubs fit for the use of chiefs; and although certain types appear to have been more in favour than others, there was ample room for personal choice in pattern and enrichment.

Among the earliest published sketches of Fijian clubs were those appearing in the Atlas Pittoresque accompanying the Narrative of Dumont d'Urville's first voyage to the Pacific (1926-29), and in Fiji and the Fijians (Thomas Williams, London, 1858). D'Urville was in Fiji waters on this occasion only for a short time (May-June, 1826), and his artist recorded only a few weapons; but the sketches are reasonably accurate. In Williams's book, on the other hand, some of the twenty-one Fijian clubs illustrated are somewhat distorted and out of proportion, especially as to relative lengths of shaft and head, the drawing evidently having been made by an artist in London from the missionary's sketches or descriptions.

Capell's Fijian Dictionary (Sydney, 1941) lists twenty-one names for clubs of various types; a few of these, however, are local names or examples of the Fijians' gift for picturesque description, and are not names generally adopted for specific club types. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Fijians themselves classified their clubs with a nice appreciation of function and design.

The classification put forward in these notes (Table 1) closely follows that of the Fijians, who had special names for most of the - 392 types of club here distinguished. These names are short and easily recognized; and since they have long been associated with particular types of club, it seems best to adopt them and so avoid cumbersome equivalents and technical jargon.

In the descriptions which follow, the several parts of a club are referred to as the shaft, with its proximal or grip end, its grip, and its distal end (generally merging into the head). In some cases it is necessary to distinguish between inner and outer carved faces or edges of the head.


Type 1: Striking Clubs (Plate 1): Pole clubs or cudgels. Fijian, Mbowai.

  • (a) Plain, slightly thickened at distal end (Nos. 1-4).
  • (b) Tongan style, much heavier at head (No. 5).
  • (c) Carved at distal end of shaft (Nos. 6-10).

Type 2: Crushing Clubs (Plate 2): Heavy mace-like clubs, for cracking skulls.

  • (a) Natural root clubs. Fijian, Vunikau (Nos. 1-3).
  • (b) Mace-headed root clubs. Fijian, Waka (Nos. 4 and 5).
  • (c) Studded mace-headed clubs. Fijian, Ndromu (Nos. 6-11).

Type 3: Cutting Clubs (Plates 3 and 4): Edged and bladed, for inflicting contusions or wounds, or for splitting heads (Plate 3).

  • (a) Spurred or “gun-stock” clubs:—
  • (i) with cutting edge on inner curve of head. Fijian, Nggata (Nos. 3 and 4).
  • (ii) with cutting edge longer and more highly developed. Fijian, Thali or Sali (Nos. 5-7).
  • (b) Bladed clubs (Plate 4).
  • (i) “Lotus”-headed. Fijian, Nggunggu (Nos. 1 and 2).
  • (ii) Paddle-shaped head. Fijian, Thulathula (Nos. 3 and 5).
  • (iii) Spade-shaped head. Fijian, Thulathula (No. 4).
  • (c) Battleaxes (with iron heads). Fijian, Valevatu.

Type 4: Piercing Club (Plate 4): “Pineapple” or pandanus type, with beaked heads: for puncturing skulls. Fijian, Totokia (Nos. 6 and 7).

Type 5: Missile or Throwing Clubs (Plate 5): Mace-like, with light shaft for throwing. Fijian, i Ula.

  • (a) Natural root for head. Fijian, i ula kambo (Nos. 1 and 2).
  • (b) Mace-headed, spherical. Fijian, Ndrisia (Nos. 3 and 4).
  • (c) Mace-headed, carved (fluted or studded). Fijian, Tavatava (Nos. 5-10).

Type 6: Dress or Token Clubs (Plate 6): Smaller and lighter than war clubs. Fijian, Ngandi.

  • (a) Cudgel or baton clubs.
  • (b) Missile or throwing clubs, light.

Type 7: Ceremonial Clubs: Mainly of types 3a and 4, but heavier and more massive than war clubs.

Type 8: Dance Clubs: Fijian, Kiakavo (Plate 3, Nos. 1 and 2): Generally of spurred or “gun-stock” type. Shorter, and lighter in weight than war clubs.

- i
Fijian Clubs, for Striking. 1-4, Pole Clubs, plain; 5, Tongan style Club; 6-10, Carved pole Clubs. (By permission of the Trustees of the Fiji Museum.)
- ii
Fijian Clubs, for Crushing. 1-3, Natural root Clubs; 4 and 5, Mace-headed root Clubs; 6-11, Studded mace-headed Clubs. (By permission of the Trustees of the Fiji Museum.)
- iii
Fijian Clubs, for Cutting. (Spurred or “Gun-stock” type. 1 and 2, Dance clubs (kiakavo); 3 and 4, Nggata clubs; 5-7, Thali or Sali clubs. (By permission of the Trustees of the Fiji Museum.)
- iv
Bladed and Piercing Clubs from Fiji. 1 and 2, “Lotus”-headed Clubs; 3 and 5, Paddle-headed Clubs; 4, Spade-headed Club; 6 and 7, “Pineapple” Clubs. (By permission of the Trustees of the Fiji Museum.)
- v
Missile or Throwing Clubs from Fiji. 1 and 2, Natural root Clubs; 3 and 4, Mace-headed (spherical) Clubs; 5-10, Mace-headed (carved or fluted) Clubs. (By permission of the Trustees of the Fiji Museum.)
- vi
Fijian Dress or Token Clubs. (By permission of the Trustees of the Fiji Museum.)
- 393

Nature and art both contributed to the fashioning of certain types of war club, some being formed from the butts of uprooted trees, the heads of others being shaped in the growing tree and requiring attention for months and even years. On the other hand many were carved from slabs of hardwood split from the tree; others again were simple bludgeons, cut from the heartwood of selected trees and balanced with precision.

War clubs were neither too heavy for effective use in fighting, nor too light to inflict a shattering blow; each warrior's club was suited to his physique, rank and personal taste.

Ceremonial clubs were usually more massive than war clubs, being made for carrying and not for fighting. The entire surface of some is carved in fine and intricate patterns, others are embellished with bindings on the shaft, enriched with red feathers. Some of the ceremonial clubs are so large and heavy that one may well wonder what manner of men could have wielded them.

The grip of a war club was usually carved in a fine network of traditional patterns; and a well carved grip may be regarded as prima facie evidence that a club is genuine and not made merely to sell. Absence of a carved grip does not, however, necessarily indicate that a club is either spurious or modern; the grips of some war clubs were bound with fine braiding, others were provided with pommelled ends, others again were plain with slightly flared ends.

The shafts of war clubs were round in section, usually measuring at the grip about 1¾ inches in diameter. Those of the bladed cutting clubs, on the other hand, were oval in section, like an axe handle, since it was important that such clubs should not turn in the hands. In these, pommelled grips are common; and typical measurements at the grip are 1⅞ inches and 1⅝ inches for major and minor axes respectively.

The length of a war club was a matter of personal preference and of balance; usually it was not less than 3 feet 4 inches and not more than 3 feet 10 inches. The lengths of the clubs illustrated in the accompanying plates may be judged from the 36-inch rule included with them. Dance clubs (Type 8) were made considerably shorter than the heavy war clubs.

Missile clubs were provided with shafts or “handles,” usually from a foot to fourteen inches in length, slightly flared at the grip, slender in the middle section, and flared again towards the head. The shafts were invariably round in section, typical measurements being 1⅛ to 1¼ inches at the proximal or flared end, and ¾ to 1 inch in the middle section.

The spurred club (Type 3a) was one of the most favoured types. It is sometimes confused with the dance club (Type 8); but, although there is a certain superficial resemblance between them, both having spurs, there are important differences of both function and design. The fact that a simplified version of the spurred club is widely used for dancing is an indication of the popularity of the type.

The essential features in clubs of Type 3 are: a well developed spur, effective for warding off a hostile club; and a cutting edge on the - 394 inner curve of the head and merging into the shaft. Both spur and cutting edge are more highly developed in Type 3b (Thali or Sali) than in Type 3a (Nggata).

The dance club (Type 8, Kaikavo) has its spur, but entirely lacks a cutting edge; and the head is of no greater thickness than the shaft.

The spurred club is commonly known as the “gun-stock,” from a fancied resemblance of the spurred head to the stock of a gun; the resemblance gains something from the straight shaft of a dance club, which suggests a gun-barrel; and when such a club is held by the head, as it occasionally is in dancing, the suggestion of a musket is strong. The name is, however, apt to be misleading, for there is no evidence that these clubs were, in fact, imitations of the musket or derived from it. On the contrary, their wide distribution and their high stage of development, even amongst the hill people of the interior, suggest that this was a traditional form, in use long before the introduction of firearms at the beginning of last century. The writer's view is that the spur was functional and not imitative, serving a similar purpose to that of the guard of a sword. With a club so provided, a twist of the wrist would be sufficient to check or ward off the swing of an opponent's weapon without loss of position favourable to a retaliatory blow.

A higher development of the bladed club is seen in Type 3b. Clubs of this type are in principle a thin blade attached to a shaft of oval section. Many such clubs are elaborately carved on the heads, or even over their entire surface; and it may be supposed that some at least of these were for ceremonial purposes.

The so-called “Pineapple” club (Type 4) is so unlike the others, in both function and design, that it might be supposed to have been developed under European or other external influence. There is no evidence to support such a supposition. This club is illustrated in Dumont d'Urville's Atlas, so that it was certainly in use in the 'twenties of last century. Nor does the Fijian name for it—Totokia—afford any clue as to its origin. It was provided with a massive globular head, elaborately carved in traditional pattern suggestive of the fruit of the pandanus or the pineapple, but not necessarily derived from these. It was not, however, used as other war clubs were, for delivering a shattering blow. The operative part was the pointed “beak,” which with the globular head was cleverly aligned to the arc followed by the head when the club was swung by wrist action; it was designed to pierce the victim's skull, inflicting a fatal wound. To achieve this purpose no wide arm-swing was necessary, the mass of the head giving sufficient momentum when the club was moved through a short arc. The Totokia was therefore a favoured weapon for assassination, since the blow could be delivered from behind, without swing likely to warn the intended victim.

The missile club (Type 5, i Ula) was provided with a heavy mace-like head, often elaborately carved and fluted, and a disproportionately light shaft or handle by which the club was thrown. The law of mechanics suggest, and experience confirms, that such an object cannot be thrown with the shaft streaming behind like the tail of a comet, or indeed thrusting forward in the opposite direction. This disposes of - 395 certain theories that have been advanced as to the method of its use. When thrown, the missile club turns slowly, end for end in the direction of flight, irrespective of its lateral velocity, which may be considerable. It may well be that the shaft would sometimes strike the victim first; but even if that happened, the mace-like head would pivot on it to deal an effective blow. Indeed, this was the weapon which the early settlers are said to have feared most.

Dress or token clubs (Type 6), hitherto scarcely noticed or recorded, played an important part in Fijian life and manners; and many of them are as delicately carved as the war clubs which they represent. The dress club was to the Fijian warrior what the sword was to the Elizabethan gentleman. Its function and use have been described earlier in these notes. Though usually of the pole or baton type, dress clubs were also of the missile type—too light, indeed, to be effective as weapons of offence, but wrought with the patient skill given to the fashioning of heavier weapons.

Dance clubs (Type 8) are commonly of the simplest spurred or “gun-stock” type, carved from a natural crotch or forked branch, and rarely cut down to the heartwood. They are therefore lighter than war clubs, and more easily wielded in the flourishes and evolutions required in dances. The shafts are usually plain, or braided on the grip or even throughout their length with sennet of coconut fibre; and they are frequently provided with pommelled or knobbed ends. Lightness is not, however, the only characteristic of the dance club: it is also less highly finished than a war club, if only because softwood and sapwood do not lend themselves to fine craftsmanship.

The heads of war clubs, ceremonial clubs and dance clubs were frequently decorated with paint, in some combination of the limited range of colours available to the Fijians (blue, white, yellow, red). This was done in an impermanent water colour, and traces of it may be seen on many clubs in collections.

Most of the club types here described or illustrated are characteristically Fijian, and not related to those used in other Pacific island groups. There are a few exceptions. During several centuries before the arrival of the European there was intercourse between Fiji and Tonga; and as this gathered momentum, there resulted a diffusion of culture, and an exchange or modification of traditional patterns of material culture. This was especially true of the Eastern (Lau) Group of Fiji and of the windward coasts of the large islands. There, parties of Tongans would spend several years, or even settle permanently, in order to build the Fijian type of double canoe, which the Tongans were adopting as superior to their own. In return, these Tongans gave to the Fijian chiefs their services in war. Fijians also visited Tonga, but on a smaller scale. Thus, Fijian clubs have been collected in Tonga, and Tongan clubs have been collected in Fiji. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that certain types of club used by the Fijians (notably the Mbowai or pole clubs) bear evidence of Tongan influence.