Tabua (pronounced “tambua” – the b has a ‘mb’ sound) are pierced and braided whales’ teeth, originally taken from the lower jaw of sperm whales. Fijians consider them to be kavakaturanga (chiefly items).
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.
Pacific Cultures curator Sean Mallon highlights some personalised tabua from the collections.
The tabua pictured below are beautiful kavakaturanga, but they are also interesting for the names and images that appear on them – marks or engravings of who has owned the tabua, who they were made for, and where they have been. They are little inscriptions that remind you of people, a kind of whale tooth graffiti.
Like graffiti, the authors are often anonymous and histories or meanings are obscure. This tabua is marked with the name “Jove Rokowi” and the word “NOWA”. Who was Jove, and what does NOWA refer to?
To make tabua, the whale teeth are polished and sometimes rubbed with coconut oil and turmeric to darken them. In some cases, the teeth are smoked in a small tent-like structure covered in barkcloth in order to turn them a rich tobacco colour.
This example is dark in colour and inscribed with lettering that has accumulated dirt or grit in its scratchings. The word appears to be “VERE” – another name?
This tabua is associated with the 19th century Fijian chief formerly Ratu Ravisa of Viwa who took the Christian name of Elijah. Elijah had converted to Christianity in August 1845, and was active in the mission work of the Wesleyan church. He was killed in September 1853 while trying to help end conflict on Lovoni district of Ovalau.
While tabua are a uniquely Fijian object, whale teeth are also important in other societies.
European sailors used to carve and colour them in their spare time (this was called scrimshaw).
This tabua has been decorated like scrimshaw with images of women in a European style dresses on either side of the tooth.
This tabua is decorated with silverwork and was presented to New Zealander Mr Ben Taylor in the early 1940s. Taylor was headmaster of the Taveuni school in the Taveuni region in northeastern Fiji.
It’s an example of a tabua presented to people who were not Fijian, but who had a special relationship and made a notable contribution to a Fijian community.
Whale teeth were shaped into necklaces and other ornaments in many parts of the Pacific, including Sāmoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai‘i, and the Marquesas Islands.
Māori 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.