The Wayback Machine -
Oceania - A Short History of Fiji

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Early European contact with Fiji comprised sealers, whalers, missionaries and traders who all impacted in different ways on the lifestyle of the local people. The history of Fiji is one in which European contact was primarily directed towards profit and trade with the impact on the local people being of lesser concern.


The early exploration of Oceania was largely motivated by greed and any nautical entrepreneur who promised rich pickings could be fairly sure of receiving financial backing for his journey. It was this way with the Portuguese and later the Spanish who, when they grew tired of showing the flag, were replaced by the Dutch. The Dutch, like those who went before them made the usual overtures of friendship but their ultimate aim was always business. If the symbol of the Spaniards had been a bloodied Christian cross, then that of the Dutchman would have been a well-adjusted set of grocer's scales.

It was almost 200 years after Drake's circumnavigation of the globe in 1578 before the British-with the French in hot pursuit-returned to the Pacific with any serious pioneering intent. As with the Dutch, it was trade that brought America to the Pacific. Once the north-west were depleted of sea otters and the South American beaches stripped of seals, the sealers of New England headed further south in order to satisfy a growing demand in China. Sea otter fur was especially prized in the Canton markets but once those creatures had gone, and seals were in ever shorter supply, sandalwood was considered the next best thing to trade. Fragrant and fine-grained, it was ideal for making boxes, chests and small items of furniture. The white sandalwood of India was common, that of Hawaii particularly prized; so from the 1790's onwards, American traders moved freely about the central Pacific Islands, filling their holds with sandalwoods.

Besides enjoying the sensation of fur and the perfume of sandalwood, the Chinese were extremely fond of soup - sea slug soup. Trepang, sea cucumber or beche-de-mer, as it was widely known, was widely available in huge numbers in shallow Fijian waters. Soon those oriental market forces were bringing trading ships to Fiji in ever growing numbers, and where there are ships, there are ship wrecks. The Eliza of Providence, Rhode Island, was in Fiji for Sandalwood until she was wrecked. Among the wreckage washed up was the survivor named Charles Savage, who, when faced with a host of hungry hostiles and the need for rapid thought, ensured his further survival by trading salvaged fire arms for his life.

Passed from hand to hand by a succession of curious natives, Savage came to the attention of Naulivou, Ratu Mbau, and as the chief's military advisor, Savage set himself up in style. He taught the warriors how to shoot, surrounded himself with nubile women, and turned the Mbauans into a formidable fighting force. For five years, they were able to wreck havoc until a raiding party led by Savage was ambushed; the white commander was killed and served up as "long pig". Although guns soon became general on the Fijian islands, Mbau never lost the supremacy given to it by Savage and this supremacy was retained by Naulivou's nephew, Cakobau.

The grey whales that once had been so plentiful in North American waters were no longer present in any significant number and soon British and New England whalers were a frequent sight in Oceania. The advent of seagoing whaleman had a deadly impact on the Polynesians. They were a mixed bunch, including convicts taken aboard in Port Jackson, along with men of social standing.

Whalers took longer than seal boats to fill their holds and sometimes they were away from home for up to four or five years at a time. When a ship arrived in New Zealand's Bay of Islands, it was observed by the U.S. Consul that her decks were almost instantly lined with native women. These women had a simple enjoyment of sex and the sight of the welcome whaleman - combined with the lure of goods such as highly prized nails made of iron proved to be irresistible. The tragedy was that of the innocence of the East bartering its favours with the outright lust of the West, and in the meeting that followed, the Polynesian women were seen as practising prostitution and their degradation inevitably followed. Not that the seamen were bothered by any such morals of consideration, far from it. Indeed, desertion was common in the South Seas where, because of the sunny climate, the means of subsistence was readily procured and sensual appetites readily gratified.

Unlike the whaleman, who took and gave nothing in return, the missionaries who came in their wake, did not come empty-handed. Grimly evangelical in purpose, they brought the word of God to the islanders and took away their joy. If beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, then so too does sin. In the eyes of the missionaries, the islands were seen as lazy and promiscuous and worse still, they practised infanticide, carried out human sacrifices and worse of all, they were more than a little partial to eating human flesh.

Nowhere, unless perhaps in the hinterland of Fiji where cannibalism was common, were any of these practices widespread; human sacrifice in most places was taboo; infanticide likewise was rare. Nevertheless, the impact of the missionaries was every bit as traumatic mentally as was the impact of the whalers physically and, indeed, the islands had never fully recovered. Indeed, when the missionaries converted the mighty war-lord of Mbau in 1854, they must have felt they had changed life on Fiji forever, yet that change had been imperceptibly under way for years.

As soon as the deserters from whalers and trading vessels began to put their skills in boat building and other crafts at the Fijian service, they were often rewarded with intermarriage and grants of land; when required, these men fought in defence of their families and homes in what was a highly successful means of mutual support. In the 1860's, other white men in the roles of planters and merchants took up residence in the islands, and guns and other desirable items of trade were exchanged for parcels of land. Should one tribe attack another, then the Europeans could be counted on for help, and they, in turn, felt secure under the protection of one or other of the chiefs.

One such chief was chief Cakobau of Mbau. He was first described as sovereign and supreme chief of the Fijian Islands as early as 1844. Although he was but one war-lord of many, and with dominations in one limited area alone, he was encouraged by the white settlers and his entourage to proclaim himself Tui Viti, or king of all Fiji.

This was despite the fact that many chiefs in Fiji likewise regarded themselves as kings. In their eyes, the war-lord of Mbau was only the first among equals - if that.

Chief Ma'afu whose power base was the Lau group of islands to the east and south-east of Viti Levu, originated from Tonga in 1853, arriving as governor of the expatriate Tongans who had first come as allies to the lord of Mbau. Like Cakobau, he had regal aspirations. Like the lord of Mbau, he was a Christian but he was also cousin of Taufa'ahau, King of Tonga.

Left: Cakobau of Fiji.

In the normal course of things, Chief Ma'afu who arrived in Fiji, when his cousin, the King of Tonga was 56, could have expected to succeed the ruler within a few years,  but Taufa'ahau lived on for another 40 years. Understandably, his young relatives who tired of waiting and turned his eyes elsewhere. During the period from 1853 to 1870, Cakobau and Ma'afu were in conflict and the two chiefs drew the white men into action by using land as bait. This rivalry between the two contenders was to result directly and indirectly in a tortuous series of claims on behalf of the respective Europeans when Fiji was ceded to Great Britain in 1874.

Ma'afu, as a Christian convert, saw himself as a protector of the Wesleyan Mission in Fiji; Cakobau, likewise, looked favourably on the white sojourners in his land. After his conversion, he had learned to read and write and no longer took of human flesh. In 1858, he signed a Deed of Cession of the Fiji Islands to Queen Victoria. In doing this, he was motivated more than anything else by self-interest as Ma'afu had enlisted the support of the United States for his own claim to be ruler of Fiji, however, acceptance by Britain would confirm Cakobau in power.

Brtain, however, spoiled everything by declining the proposed addition to her Empire and did not recognize Cakobau as King of Fiji. The next year, however, the British consul persuaded the seven strongest chiefs of Fiji to form a confederation to meet annually to discuss matters of mutual interest. They also appointed Cakobau as President. This was counted two years later by Ma'afu who founded his own confederation where the Tongan law of leasehold prevailed in the matter of land sales.

Unlike Great Britain, the United States of America had chosen to recognize Cakobau as Tui Viti from the outset and the King of Fiji was ever after held responsible for the behaviour of the unruly mob that were his subjects. On the 4th July 1849, celebrations of that glorious day went sadly amiss and the U.S. Consul lost his house on Nukulau Island when a cannon exploded. Looting followed, for among the Fijians, a fire was always an occasion for legitimate plunder rather than for assistance in putting out the fire. 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.

Coconut oil had been the most important export in the first half of the decade but with the decline, then halt, in cotton production during the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, large areas of land in Fiji were acquired for cotton plantations either by foreign individuals or consortiums. One consortium intending to take advantage of the South Seas cotton boom was the Fijian Planting and Trading Company incorporated in Ballarat, Australia. In December, 1868, the Government Gazette for the Colony of Victoria noted the formation of the Polynesia Company Ltd. which was another consortium intending to grow cotton in Fiji.

Things had started well enough when King Cakobau promised 200,000 Fijian acres of 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. By September, 1868, 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 from the Polynesia Company Ltd. Eventually, all the Company actually got for his 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 shocking weather and poor health on the part of the surveyor, and spirited onslaughts by the natives, by the middle of May 1871, eighteen of the forty allotments were ready for final consideration. What is now the town of Suva and a suburban reserve had been cleared as well.

The ongoing arrival of European visitors including those in the labour business who would often display all the enthusiasm and ingenuity traditionally associated with happy amateurs hailing from the British isles, and the continuing exploitation of the people of Polynesia would eventually take another decisive turn.      


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