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Cannibals' descendants offer apology in 1867 death

NABUTAUTAU, Fiji -- Villagers in a remote Fijian community staged an elaborate ceremony of apology yesterday for the relatives of a British missionary killed and eaten here 136 years ago.

The Rev. Thomas Baker and eight Fijian followers were killed and devoured by cannibals in 1867 in the village of Nabutautau, high in the hills of the South Pacific island of Viti Levu. Residents say their community has been cursed ever since.

In a mixture of ancient pagan and modern Christian rites, the villagers have staged a series of ceremonies hoping to erase the misfortunes they believe have kept them poor. The rituals -- which started about a month ago -- culminated yesterday with the offering of cows, specially woven mats, and 30 carved sperm-whale teeth known as tabua to 10 Australian descendants of Baker.

"This is our third apology but, unlike the first two, this one is being offered physically to the family of Mr. Baker," Ratu Filimoni Nawawabalavu, the village's chief, said.

Nawawabalavu is the great-grandson of the chief responsible for cooking the missionary in an earthen oven.

Past apologies have not helped. In 1993, villagers presented the Methodist Church of Fiji with Baker's boots -- which cannibals tried unsuccessfully to cook and eat.

There are differing accounts of Baker's demise. A villager said last month the incident started when the chief borrowed Baker's hat. Baker tried to take it back without knowing that touching a chief's head was taboo and punishable by death.

Others say the missionary lent the chief a comb, then touched his head as he tried to retrieve it from the chief's tight, curly hair.

Villagers believe that since 1867, either Baker's spirit or disapproving gods have made sure that modern developments like electricity, a school, piped water supply, and other essentials enjoyed by most Fijian villagers have been kept from them.

It was only two weeks ago that a logging company cut a track to the village. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, who flew into the village by helicopter for the ceremony, is leading a campaign to improve life in isolated areas.

Fiji, a nation of 320 islands, is about 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney.

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