Sunday, January 15, 2006

5 Seven days in Fiji - A short history of Fiji

A short history of Fiji as seen through the eyes of an itinerant American

Sundays in Fiji are a day of rest. Nominally almost half of the population of Fiji is Methodist. Historically the native chiefs would pledge themselves to Christianity while it was convenient but the lure of eating ones enemies constantly proved overwhelming to some. There are some alive today who knew someone who was a cannibal. See “The Whale Tooth,” Jack London's fictionalized story of the killing (and eating) of missionary Thomas Baker. Civilization is a thin veneer at best and when a violent cultural tradition collides with modern pacifistic civilized ideals a cultural tradition of violence usually wins. I kept this in mind when I asked about Fiji’s history and politics. I’m not an expert in Fiji history and what I am going to report is just an accounting of Fijian history as seen through my eyes.

Two characters of marginal repute unwillingly created modern Fiji. The first was an ambitious local chief named Ratu Seru Cakobau who was elected Fiji’s first president in 1865 by a short lived confederacy of Chiefs. The second was a corrupt American Charge' d' Affairs who had an active import/export business. On the 4th of July 1849 he had a party with fireworks that ended up burning down his house and warehouse. The natives took advantage of the situation and looted what remained. Over the next twenty years, a bill for damages mounted and eventually the United States threatened annexation over the non-payment of the so-called debt, sending two sorties of warships over the years.

Political unrest and instability ensued, as western influence grew stronger. In 1871, with support of the approximately 2000 Europeans in Fiji, Cakobau was proclaimed king and a national government was formed in Levuka. His government, however, faced many problems and was not well received. To pay the American debt King Cakobau agreed to sell 200,000 Fijian acres to the Polynesia Company Ltd. which was consortium intending to grow cotton in Fiji. Things had started well enough when King Cakobau pledged the land which, unbeknown to the Polynesian Company's representatives in Fiji, were not wholly his to give. In return, the Company agreed to settle the indemnity levied by the United States government. An advanced payment ensured that his Fijian Majesty's problems with the United States government were over.

In early 1871, other problems were just beginning with investors showing concern about the land purchased for the Polynesia Company Ltd. Eventually, all the Company actually got for their money was approximately half the land it had originally been promised. Cakobau's feudal allies in the Suva Bay area, where some of the land in question lay, agreed to the transaction; but the chief of Rewa, the king's avowed enemy did not. Despite spirited onslaughts by the natives, by the middle of May 1871, eighteen of the forty allotments were ready for planting. What is now the town of Suva and a suburban reserve had been cleared as well.

King Cakobau actions were not well received by the Counsel of Chiefs and on October 10, 1874, after a meeting of the most powerful chiefs, Fiji was unilaterally ceded to the United Kingdom. This was the end of Ratu Seru Cakobau and the beginning of Pax Britannia in Fiji.

Fiji's first Governor under British rule was Sir Arthur Gordon. Sir Arthur's policies were to set the stage for much of the Fiji that exists today. In an effort to preserve the people and culture of Fiji, Sir Arthur forbade the sale of Fijian land to non-Fijians. He also instituted a system of limited native administration that allowed the native Fijians much say in their own affairs. A council of chiefs was formed to advise the government on matters pertaining to the native people.

Apparently the native Fijians were (and I can say still are) a happy lot and were not inclined to seek employment in the cotton and sugar cane fields. In order to provide cheap non-native labor for the plantations, the government looked to the crown colony of India. On 14 May 1879, the "Leonidas", the ship with the first indentured laborers from India, arrived in Fiji. Today, Indians (“FBI’s,” Fiji born Indians) make up over 45% of the population and clearly dominate the economy of the main island of Viti Levu.
If you think the United States has racial problems please visit Fiji. The tension between the Fiji and Indian population is palpable. As you enter the country there is a form that anyone traveling on a Fiji passport is required to fill out. It asks what race you belong to, the choices being: Fijian, Indian, other South Pacific Islanders, Caucasian and other. As you exit the country those of clearly Indian extraction are searched. As I stood in line expecting to be searched I received one of those, “I’m not here to search you, stupid,” looks from the Fijian inspector as she waved me though.

To the uneducated eye there isn’t all that much difference between Fijian and Indian people walking down the street. All have very dark skin, the Fijian people being mostly Melanesian rather than the lighter skinned Polynesian and the Indian people are mostly just as dark skinned. I made the mistake of mentioning my observation twice, once to a Fijian and once to an Indian. The difference, I was told, are that the Fijian people for the most part have more curly hair then the Indians and that, for the most part, the native Fijians are a stockier, bigger people than the Indians and that the Fijians have broader faces than the Indians, for the most part. There are Indians that look like Fijians and Fijians that look like Indians. It’s really hard to tell walking down the street but the conflict is there and is real.

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