Cuttlefish and the rat

Dr. Rod Ewins found this telling of the cuttlefish and rat story in the Mitchell Library from Rev Richard Burdsall Lyth a missionary in Fiji during the 1840s and 50s.

Dr. Rod Ewins is a material culture researcher, mainly focused on Fijian material culture, who appears in some of the Sharing Stories: Pacific Collection movie gallery. He is a fourth generation Fiji-European, growing up in Fiji until leaving to go to Sydney for university. He has been actively researching Fijian ethnography for the last 30 years. Rod found this telling of the cuttlefish and rat story in the Mitchell Library from Rev Richard Burdsall Lyth, a missionary in Fiji during the 1840s and 50s.

'The cuttle-fish and rat, a Tongan fable'

The Jikota [heron?], Unga [hermit crab], & Kuma (rat) went a [sic] voyage together. The Jikota struck a hole through the canoe’s bottom with its beak, and flew away. The Unga sund [sic] to the bottom of the sea and crept home. The rat swam until being nearly exhausted; it met with a cuttle-fish (koe feke) which he respectfully and earnestly solicits to allow him a passage on its back, shich being granted he takes his place on the feke’s back and reaches the shore in safety.

Finding himself safely landed on the beach, and at a sufficient distance from his deliverer, he calls out to the cuttlefish to feel on its head which he finds covered with the rat’s excrement. Indignant that the kindness it had rendered the rat should be thus abused, it instantly started off in pursuit of the offender, who betook himself to a hole which it entered and thought to have escaped through another opening that offered and thus got clear of his angry pursuer. The cuttle-fish, determined not to be outdone by the rat, called an owl to its aid. Being thus reinforced the cuttlefish took its stand at the entrance and stationed the owl at the outlet, which the rat essaying to pass was nibbled up by the owl and devoured.

Tongan mode of catching the cuttle-fish

The cuttle-fish, they say changes its colour so as to be of the colour of a stone or any other body it may be in contact with, that renders it extremely difficult to find. The bait by which the Tongans catch them is a stone covered with a cowry shell made as to resemble a rat. This being made to twirl about in the water, arouses the anger of the cuttle-fish — it immediately lays hold of the bait with a firm grasp, when in its turn, it is seized by the head and secured.

Lyth, Richard Burdsall. 1840s-1850s. Fijian and Tongan reminiscences. Mitchell Library, CY Microfilm Reel 207, B549 vol.2. pp.60-62


The Mitchell Library, Sydney, New South Wales

Finton Mahony , Intangible Heritage Officer
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