When European explorers landed in the Fiji Islands in the late 18th century, they were astounded by the brutality and widespread practice of cannibalism.
Evidence of cannibalism has been found as far back as 500 b.c., with saw and butcher marks apparent on human bones. By the 1800s—with the arrival of European weaponry and Christian missionaries—Fijian culture underwent dramatic change. Trading sea cucumbers for guns, they quickly sought power. One tribe even managed to use the guns they had obtained to commandeer a ship with cannons to attack neighboring tribes.
During the same time that war broke out, missionaries began changing their cultural practices, forcing them to dress differently and end their marriage and funeral rituals. As conflicts broke out, missionaries were killed and eaten. The reasons for cannibalism varied throughout its millennia-old history, but, at the time, cannibalism was regarded by islanders as the ultimate sign of disrespect.
Cannibalism rituals were brutal, and many observers report the bodies would be treated with the utmost savagery. As the flesh cooked in the skin burned, tribe members would twist off bits of meat with specially-carved cannibal forks. Some members of the tribe—like priests and shamans—were forbidden from touching the “unclean” meat and would be fed by other tribe members.
The most prolific cannibal is said to have consumed 872 people. Chief Ratu Udre Udre would place a stone in a pile every time he ate a person to keep a record of his battle achievements. Rumors and legends abounded among Europeans about Fiji, and they became popularly known as the Cannibals Isles across the world.
As attacks on missionaries persisted, punitive expeditions were sent to the islands in some cases to wholly exterminate tribes. The islands experienced a brief native confederacy before imperialist powers took control. Widespread cannibalism ended before the turn of the century, with tales only persisting to encourage tourism. Today, cannibalism remains a part of their history, but villages have since formally apologized to the descendants of the people they ate.