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Fiji and the Fijians 1835-1856

Chapter IX — the practice of medicine

page 126

Chapter IX
the practice of medicine

The Gospel of Christ and the religious teaching of the missionaries had failed to attract converts, mainly because it was utterly beyond the comprehension of the natives. They had no idea of its ethical or spiritual significance, and there is no instance on record in these early years of a native making a public profession of Christianity for the first time simply and purely as the result of a change of heart or spiritual regeneration. All the early conversions were merely nominal or formal. Profoundly disappointing as this was to the missionaries they were forced to admit it by the relentless logic of fact. Writing from Vewa to one of his colleagues at the close of 1847 John Hunt said:

The work of conversion has been going on among our people gradually during the last 3 years. You are aware that there are generally two conversions—one from Heathenism to Christianity as a system, a second from sin to God. Both these are of the greatest importance. Without the first there is no hope of the second. We seldom witness anything like penitence in a heathen. Generally it is not until they have professed Christianity for some time that they sincerely seek the Lord.

Hunt's confession comes after many years of experience, and it furnishes the key to the policy of the missionaries after the scales had fallen from their eyes and they had looked facts straight in the face. The first step was to get the natives into their churches by some means, and then by personal contact, education and the study of the Scriptures lead them on to a real conversion. They had found that they could not turn Heathens into Christians by a single page 127conversion; there must, therefore, be two conversions. For the second the Gospel was in their opinion the grand instrument; for the first they had to rely on extraneous aids such as the preaching of hell-fire, the insistence on a holiday once a week; but the most efficacious of all their "auxiliaries" was the use of British medicine; and, fortunately, after 1839 they had among them a trained British surgeon, Dr Richard Burdsall Lyth.

In their selection of candidates for work in the Pacific Islands the Society in London tried to secure for each district a few men who, in addition to their religious fervour and doctrinal integrity, had some special training in language and literature, medicine and printing. David Cargill was a Master of Arts who had made a study of language in his university course. The Society relied upon him to compile a grammar and dictionary of the Fijian language; James Calvert and Thomas Jaggar were trained printers. Nearly all the missionaries who went to Fiji had picked up a few scraps of medical knowledge before leaving England; but Lyth was a trained surgeon. There is a vast amount of medical work done in Fiji to-day in the leper hospital at Makongai, and in the various institutions in Suva where native medical practitioners go through their courses of instruction to fit them for work in various parts of the South Pacific. Dr Lyth is the founder of medical practice in Fiji. He not only had wide experience himself; he taught the missionaries, and especially those who lived with him, nearly everything they knew about medicine.

The missionaries who were in Fiji before him did treat native patients; but only for very simple complaints, and not always without apprehension. There were native doctors in Fiji, and not all of them were frauds. Some understood the medicinal properties of herbs, and applied them with good results. Their cannibal indulgences afforded page 128them excellent practice in surgery. David Cargill in one of his letters to London in June 1839 says that "in estimating the character of the Fijian's genius his knowledge of surgery and medicine, and his skill in managing and curing many diseases of the human frame should not be forgotten. He is a tolerable anatomist (learnt through cannibalism), a fearless surgeon and thinks he is acquainted with every herb in the country." Dr Lyth, whose opinion on such subjects is more valuable, tells us that they could cut up a body with surprising rapidity and accuracy. They were, indeed, too fond of the knife (a piece of split bamboo), and used it for all manner of complaints. "It is truly astonishing," he says,1 "how the Fijian's are duped by themselves and others to have their bodies cut in all parts for every complaint. I have a young man at present under my care called Dendre, cut for a pain in his back, who is literally running away in consequence, there being two or more fistulous running sores."

Up to 1839, when the competition was between missionaries who had no real knowledge of medicine and surgery, and native herbalists, surgeons and witch-doctors, there was little to choose between Heathen and Christian practitioners. Even the witch-doctors who worked by means of charms and tricks sometimes produced amazing results, not from any knowledge of medicine; but because among the races of the Pacific mind has an extraordinary influence over the body, especially in its occult imaginings. The Fijians believed that ailments were due not to natural causes, but to witch-craft and magic, and that they could only be cured by individuals with supernatural knowledge and power. The missionaries found that the fear of witchcraft was the most tenacious of all the native superstitions. It was this peculiar mentality of the race that made the witch-doctors and priests page 129so powerful. In these circumstances it was not to be expected that the practice of the witch-doctor and the skilful treatment of the native herbalists and surgeons would be supplanted by that of unskilled Europeans, notwithstanding the efficacy of a pill or a dose of salts for simple ailments. For the treatment of complicated cases and diseases peculiar to the tropics Lyth's predecessors were not so well equipped as the native doctors. Cargill knew this and frankly Confessed it. But after Dr Lyth's arrival in July 1839 there was a great change. It was then a competition between a trained British surgeon and native doctors. Lyth did all he could to make the men who resided with him more efficient in the use of medicine, and helped every one of his colleagues by means of correspondence and conversations at the District Meetings. They on their part were eager to learn. They knew that successful medical practice would help the mission. It is interesting to note how reluctant the missionaries were at first to confess that they were obliged to seek the salvation of souls indirectly by this means. It seemed to them a degradation of their high calling. John Hunt arrived in Fiji in December 1838 and set to work with enthusiasm, preaching the Gospel first at Rewa and then at Somosomo; but his enthusiasm was of no avail, and a letter which he wrote on 30 April 1840 shows the trend of his thought: "If they can be made to believe that it is the true God who in answer to prayer makes medicine effective, it may lead some at least to abandon their idolatry." Obviously he was then drifting toward the use of extraneous aids; but he would like to associate the result more closely with the Deity than the human agent! He was exercising the will to believe, though for the time he was rather uncomfortable. Three years later his misgivings have passed away, and he says boldly:2 "Administering page 130medicine is very important as it is a direct way of attacking the gods of Fiji and getting hold of the understanding and feelings of the people." That shows that John Hunt had learnt a valuable lesson in Fijian mentality in those three years. There was no need to try to persuade the Fijian that it was God who made their medicine effective, they would jump to that conclusion at once. Every cure effected by the missionaries was to them a demonstration of the power of Jehovah. It was by this time the settled policy of the missionaries to make full and free use of medicine in order to attract people to the mission, and to devote special care to the ruling chiefs and their families so that, in the event of success, especially after the failure of the native doctors, they would get all the advantage of a wide advertisement and a royal recommendation.

The first conspicuous success of this class of cures came at Lakemba in 1842. In April of that year Tuinayau's favourite daughter Tangithi fell ill. For a time there was some competition between Calvert and the heathen priests for the control of the case. In the early stages of the contest the priests were most in favour. But the gods demanded an unusually large offering as well as the restoration of their temples. The whole heathen population of the island was ordered to assist in making the offering worthy of the occasion. True to a certain sporting instinct within him Tuinayau declined, notwithstanding the urgent recommendation of the chiefs, to make the Christian natives contribute their share: the propitiation must be exclusively heathen. A stupendous feast was prepared, and the temples were renovated. But, alas! Tangithi got worse! The priests had overreached themselves and they were now at their wits' ends to find a sufficiently plausible excuse for the failure. Calvert was again called in, and on his arrival made full use of his advantage. He denounced the trickery of the page 131priests—much to the annoyance of the women at court—dwelt long and emphatically on the fact that it had utterly failed, and then at the request of the king gave Tangithi some medicine. The documents are silent as to the immediate result; but it may be taken for granted that he failed too, for the offerings to the gods were renewed and continued till 28 June, when Tuinayau announced that he would waste no more on the unresponsive gods. On that day the king allowed his daughter to become a Christian, and Calvert returned not only to administer his potions, but also to pray for the restoration of the girl's health. He was taking a risk; but he did not mind that now: the utter failure of the heathen priests and doctors had put him in a strong position. Jehovah could not possibly suffer more disparagement than the heathen gods. At the worst it would be a draw! A little later the king asked Calvert to take Tangithi to the mission house: Jehovah must have no reason to suspect interference by heathen priests or gods. If Calvert did not succeed now he, too, would be at his wits' ends to find a plausible excuse.

But he did succeed, or, at least, Fortune was kind. On 10 July Tangithi began to recover, and from that day it was her custom to while away the hours of convalescence by learning how to read the Scriptures. When the sickness had passed away she said: "If I had died in my illness I should not have known a good thing," and by "good thing" she meant the Christian religion. Tangithi remained true to the lotu, but her life was full of sadness. She had for long been betrothed to Tanoa, and when he claimed her for a wife she had to go. Tuinayau being his tributary would not have dared to offer any resistance to Tanoa's will even if he had felt disposed to do so. There is no reason to think that he did. He was still a Heathen, and he had not yet renounced his claim to Jemima of Ono. The rest of poor page 132Tangithi's tragic life does not concern us here.3 What does concern us is a statement made by Calvert in a letter which he wrote to London informing the Committee that Tangithi's recovery had "caused a great stir in this and other lands."

When the great Pope Hildebrand challenged Henry IV before the high altar at Canossa to prove his integrity and the truth of the charges which he had made against the Lord's anointed, the Emperor shrank from the test, and great was the effect of Hildebrand's victory on the mind of Europe. Turning from great things to small the position was somewhat similar in Fiji though the parts played by the actors were reversed. Tuinayau had, in effect, challenged Calvert to prove his own power and that of his God. Calvert accepted the challenge—and won. The struggle against Heathenism in Lakemba was in the balance long after that; but it was not so severe as it had been hitherto, and progress was more rapid. Tahgithi's recovery was a piece of rare good fortune for Calvert and the Methodist mission at Lakemba, the more so because she was beloved of the native women of Tumbdu, and worked assiduously in the interests of Christianity before she went into exile at Mbau.

After Dr Lyth's appointment to Lakemba in 1844 good fortune was superseded by skilful treatment, and the prestige of the mission was greatly enhanced thereby. Patients from far and near sought his aid—powerful chiefs among them—and his dispensary at Buthainambua was besieged when the epidemics were raging. By the year 1846 Lyth and Calvert were using their knowledge of medicine with great effect not only in their contests with Heathenism, but also in their rivalry with the Roman Catholic priests who had settled in Lakemba in 1844. The priests had set up a page 133dispensary too; but events soon proved that they had made a mistake in entering the lists against an expert.4 In 1845 one of the priests, François Roulleaux, had fallen seriously ill, and Lyth tended him till he was restored. This was in the days before the quarrel between them had become bitter; but later on Calvert took care that the people should know what Lyth had done for Father Roulleaux. In a letter which Calvert wrote on 17 August 1846 there is no trace of any lingering diffidence about the use of medicine to promote the interests of the mission. He says:

Having skill in medicine is no ordinary blessing…. Most of us had a few scraps of medical knowledge in England. Here we have learned a good deal…. Most of us have been with the Doctor who has given us line upon line and precept upon precept so that ourselves and our increasing families and our people and the Heathen, too, are greatly blessed in this respect. In addition to the innumerable former advantages of medicine we have now that of its being a mighty—and allowable—engine in our favour against Popery. Our medicine cured the priest. At first he was grateful, now he says "the Lord only saved me."5

Before the end of 1848 the missionaries had succeeded so well in making medicine an auxiliary of religion that it was regarded as the proper thing for those who were ill to join the lotu in order that they might warrant the favour of Jehovah and get the full benefit of British medical treatment. In a letter written on 25 August of that year Calvert informs us that "when the King's wife was ill her priestess advised her to lotu." She did, and "the priestess on hearing that she had lotued approved, and advised that all those who were ill should lotu." It is clear that in the Lakemba circuit page 134medical practice was as the missionaries described it—a powerful auxiliary.

So it was in all the other circuits.

John Hunt had lived at Somosomo with Dr Lyth for three years before he took charge of Vewa, and had applied himself with his customary zeal to a study of medicine. At Vewa he was determined to make the fullest use of it in furthering the interests of the mission. He was particularly anxious to make a favourable impression on the chiefs living at Mbau. Before he had been at Vewa a year a great portion of his time was taken up dispensing medicine and visiting the sick; sometimes he had as many as twenty or thirty patients. Among others he had treated old Tanoa the King of Mbau, one of his sons and three or four of his grandchildren, as well as several chiefs of Mbau. Next year one of Thakombau's daughters was placed under his care, and a son of one of the highest chiefs in Mbau.6 It did not enable him to get what he had been hoping for—the establishment of a mission centre at Mbau; but he was rewarded with a promising concession in recognition of his medical services. "The only way," he says, "of obtaining access to Bau appears to be by giving medicine, and this means has already been owned of God in the past year…. We have now our regular services in Mbau twice on the Sabbath…. Many are favourable to Christianity in Mbau, and none we know of oppose it openly." This was the first step in the direction of the grand objective of missionary policy in the west—the establishment of a mission centre in the capital of Tui Viti. But for the present Thakombau firmly declined to concede more than that. "We are at war and cannot attend to Christianity at present," he said. "Ovalau and Koro are our lands, you can go to them; but we shall not become Christians at Bau." Thakombau was page 135a man of his word and John Hunt knew it. "We have no prospect of having a mission house built at Bau," he said, and the chief reason was that the king was rarely free from war, and the missionaries discouraged his subjects from fighting, even to the point of making them disloyal. It would be too risky to have such people settled right at the heart of his kingdom in the capital.

Most of the missionaries suspected Thakombau of hostility to the Christian religion and in their correspondence accused him of it. But John Hunt knew better, and was frank enough to tell them that he had never known Thakombau to say an ill word of Christianity, or prevent any of his subjects embracing it if they desired to do so. John Hunt, too, took a more serious view of a subject's disloyalty to his king than most of his colleagues did. That Was very much to his credit.

At Vewa itself the number of professing Christians was increasing; but chiefly because they hoped to enjoy the benefits of lotu medicine. "Generally when sick they use all the means at their command, however expensive, consulting gods with costly offerings, and employing a variety of native doctors. If these fail they come to us for English medicine and accept the English God." About thirty had embraced Christianity, he says in one of his letters, because they were benefited by medicine either personally or in their families.7

At Rewa the natives appear to have been attracted to Christianity more by the fear of hell-fire than from any trust in English medicine. This is no doubt due partly to the fact that Cross, Cargill and Jaggar, who served there before work was suspended in 1844, knew or thought they knew more about hell than medicine. Nevertheless it is clear from an entry in Cargill's Journal under date 6 December 1839 that the Rewans thought the practice of page 136medicine and the lotu were very much the same thing. "Most of the Rewa people," he says, "have imbibed the notion that the design of Christianity is to heal disease and prolong the life of the body, and we are doing all we can to disabuse their minds of this notion." Perhaps it was just as well in view of a statement made by Cargill:8 "They want an assurance that the new religion will save their bodies from death and every temporal calamity before they will accept," which in plain language meant that the Rewans did not want to be bothered with the lotu at all. That was the truth. From 1841 the number of professing Christians declined, and in 1844 the mission was in a condition of stagnation.

At Somosomo Hunt and Lyth preached the Gospel assiduously, trying hard to weed from the hearts of the people the wild roots of their heathen faith; but they failed utterly, and at the end of six months it was clear to them that they would have to fall back on extraneous aids that appealed more directly to their personal interests. In April 1840 Hunt reported signs of awakening interest. A native suffering from liver complaint had been given up by the Fijian doctors, and Lyth decided to take him in hand. The case attracted public attention, and many were disposed to regard it as a test of the power of Jehovah. John Hunt was not without misgiving in facing the ordeal. He had just buried his little child, and Mrs Hunt had been very ill; if this man now under their care died, the natives would conclude that the lotu was false. But the situation could not be much worse than it was so far as mission prospects were concerned, and Lyth decided to go on. The old priest in Somosomo assured Hunt, "with great satisfaction," that the man would not recover. But he was mistaken. Lyth's skill pulled the patient through, and in April he was "nearly page 137completely restored." The result was highly satisfactory—for a time. One of the king's invalid brothers, Ratu Tuei, embraced Christianity "no doubt for the only reason of obtaining health of body," says Hunt, and another chief "for the same reason;" a few days later a third patient "of some respectability" lotued. These were the "signs of prosperity" referred to by Hunt; but they soon flickered out. All three died shortly afterwards, and the people lapsed into the belief that the heathen gods in their wrath had punished them for their disaffection.

The darkness deepened and only once afterwards was it pierced by a bright ray of hope. Tuikilakila had fallen ill, and all the invocations of his priests and offerings of his people failed to soften the wrath of his offended gods. At last, in their despair, Dr Lyth was called in. It was a splendid opportunity and Lyth did his best. To his intense satisfaction the patient showed signs of improvement under his treatment. Tuikilakila was impressed. His rugged mind was softened, and he treated the missionaries with greater respect and kindliness than he had shown them hitherto; he even threatened, on one occasion, to club some of the women of his court for sneering at the white man's medicine which had so often relieved him of pain. Dr Lyth's hopes soared up like fire. As was his custom, he used the advantage of the occasion to ply the king with questions about the condition of his soul, and instead of flying into a rage, Tuikilakila listened attentively and pondered. Old Tuithakau, sincere Heathen as he was, would have placed no obstacle in the way of his son's conversion, if that were the only means of saving his life. A perusal of Lyth's Journal at this time shows that in his opinion Tuikilakila was almost persuaded to become a Christian. But it was not to be. After his recovery he went to war, and his gods favoured him with success. Jehovah, who page 138hated war, could not be expected to help him in that grim necessity; for the missionaries preached that war was wickedness. The chance of making a convert of Tuikilakila passed away for ever. Lyth gives his own reasons to account for the king's heathenish obstinacy. They are partly right; but mainly wrong. The lotu took the fighting spirit out of men, and that was positively dangerous in a place surrounded by covetous revengeful enemies as Somosomo was.

In their desperate straits the missionaries had as usual tried the blasphemous doctrine of hell-fire; but, fortunately, this brought them no profit at all in Somosomo for a reason that surprised and baffled them. Early in 1841 a native of Taviuni gave out that he had been on a visit to Devil's Land and also to Heaven. In the former place he had found plenty of good food; but in Heaven all the cupboards were bare. Hunt met the man, argued with him and assured him that his report must be false because there was no way by which he or any other man could get from Hell to Heaven: the Devil took care to keep all his people there. "To this," adds Hunt, "he could make no reply"! This from the author of Entire Sanctification! To such pettifogging inanities could the most saintly of all the missionaries be driven in his attempts to support a doctrine that is a disgrace to any religion. Immediately after giving an account of this interview Hunt says "these people are great dreamers sleeping and waking." It would be easy to make a stinging rejoinder about the ill-effects of some poisonous teaching on the practice as well as the dreams of some converted natives; but—let it pass. Most people know something of the cruelties that have been perpetrated in this world's history on the pretext of rescuing immortal souls from the tortures of hell-fire.

The use of medicine as "a powerful auxiliary" was on a higher plane altogether, and it justified itself even in somo-page 139somo. In their report for 1840 Lyth and Hunt told the committee that "the great reason why these people are disposed to receive Christianity is that they may possess bodily health." Events proved that the people of Somosomo would have little or nothing to do with Christianity; but also that they were quite willing to avail themselves of the benefits of British medicine right up to the time of the abandonment of the mission in 1847. On the eve of his departure Thomas Williams wrote to say that he had "15 sick persons on his hands, and that the people's confidence in English medicine continued."9

James Calvert did well to pay a tribute to Dr Lyth for the services which he rendered to his colleagues. Mrs Hunt was "brought back from the margin of the grave" by his unceasing care. In October 1843 he travelled from Somosomo to Lakemba to treat James Calvert when he was dangerously ill. He was on his way to Nandy where Mrs Watsford was lying in a critical condition, when the hurricane overtook him at Ovalau and drove him back to Vewa with the loss of his medicines and medical apparatus. When William Cross decided to stay in Fiji after the District Meeting in 1842 it was on condition that he should be sent to Somosomo where Dr Lyth might tend him. Lyth was with John Hunt from the beginning of his last illness till his death in October 1848, watching over him with the tenderest solicitude. He and Hunt with their families had shared the same house at Somosomo, and never an impatient word had passed between them. They were as brothers and remained so till death separated them. John Malvern10 tells us what a great comfort it was to be on the same station with Dr Lyth. Had Lyth done nothing more than carry on his practice in the interests of his colleagues and the natives, page 140Christian and Heathen alike, he would have deserved an honoured place among those who have served Fiji well.

But the student who wishes to make an adequate estimate of the value and extent of Lyth's medical practice must look beyond the many folios containing his own Journal, day-books and correspondence, and search the records of his fellow missionaries. Even then he is not likely to get a complete survey. Lyth was an exceedingly modest man on all occasions except those in which his religious prejudices were challenged either by Roman Catholics or Heathens and then he could see red and talk blue. But he is too diffident to write much about his medical practice, and he was too deeply conscious of the paramount importance of his religious work to think it worth his while to make a record of many of the most important and successful of his cures. Indeed, he feels it is necessary to apologize at times for spending so much of his time dispensing medicine and visiting the sick.11 He was deeply wounded when one of the priests at Lakemba accused him of being more interested in the cure of bodies than of souls, and proceeded to justify himself to the reader of his Journal by a spirited pronouncement on the relative values of medical and religious service. That was unnecessary. It is quite clear to the most casual reader of his voluminous correspondence that medical practice was never, in his opinion, an end in itself, but simply a means, justified, as he says, by the example of Christ himself, for advancing the true interests of the mission.

Some people will no doubt be inclined to suggest that Dr Lyth did more for Fiji and the Fijians by his medical than his religious work. Before deciding about that it will be well to give some attention to the training of native teachers and native assistant missionaries in this period for which Dr Lyth was chiefly responsible.

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dr Richard Burdsall Lyth

dr Richard Burdsall Lyth

1 Dr Lyth's Journal, vol. ii, pp. 149-50 (M.M.).

2 See his letter dated 4 June 1843 (M.M.S.M.).

3 The story of her sufferings up to 1855 is told by Calvert in Fiji and the Fijians, vol. ii, pp. 114-15.

4 In a letter dated 28 August 1845 Calvert affirms that the medicine dispensed by the priests was nothing more than a mixture of wine, water and sugar; or of eau-de-Cologne and water.

5 But Calvert does not explain that he and Lyth had been using abusive language about the Roman Catholic religion which was the reason why the priests had not only changed their opinion about Father Roulleaux's recovery, but also why they had told the Methodist missionaries not to come to their house again lest they should be put to necessity of turning them out! Furthermore the Methodist missionaries themselves, whenever they were extricated from dangerous situations, very frequently ignored the human agent, and gave all the credit to Providence.

6 See John Hunt's letter dated at Vewa 15 May 1844 (M.M.S.M.).

7 See his letter of 30 August 1844 (M.M.S.M.).

8 See his report dated 21 September 1839 (M.M.S.M.).

9 See his letter of 28 August 1847 (M.M.S.M.).

10 See his letter dated at Lakemba 9 October 1851 (M.M.S.M.).

11 See Lyth's Journal, vol. vii, p. 46, under date 13 January 1851 (M.M.).