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Fiji Bure

The Bure which was the Fijian title of His Excellency's official residence, on the western side of the island, was the focal point for diplomatic life on Fiji during the final years of the colonial administration. The recollections of June Knox-Mawer provide an interesting insight into life in Fiji for the people employed in the colonial administration at that time.


The Bure - to me nothing more than the Fijian title of His Excellency's official residence on the western side of the island - was to become the focal point of my life in Lautoka. The Governor, Sir Derek Jakeway, had told me I might use it as a place to write whenever it was not in use. It stood on a hill a few miles outside the town. The road up to it went past a row of decrepit wooden shacks on stilts, known as the Sugar Lines, where the Fijian women called out a greeting to you from their wash-tubes in the shade of the ivi trees. Farther on was the golf links dotted with female figures in white sunhats toiling grim-faced under the blazing sun in pursuit of a small white ball. These were the wives of the Mill officials.  Then round another sharp bend in the road, one was suddenly confronted by what looked like a print from a nineteenth-century book of exploration, the classic house of a Fijian chief, high on a grassy mound, the silvery-brown thatch roof rising steeply from the bamboo walls and massive gable posts. Closer to, one saw glass in the windows, double-doors on hinges. The house was, in fact, a superb replica of the traditional bure built not more than twenty years ago by Fijian craftsmen, to a European plan. Going inside was like stepping into the shade of a forest - the same tree-smells and forest textures of reed walls and mats, the leafy lining of the peaked rafters soaring up into shadow, the polished trunks of trees supporting the whole great room.

Mysteriously blending with this most Fijian of atmospheres were the typical furnishings of middle-class pre-war England - chintzy sofas and chairs, standard lamps and coffee tables, and in the corner a square-cut desk with crested blotters and a monumental ink-stand. Here I sat to write, tense with trepidation at first, then as the days went by in a state of euphoric disbelief, staring out at the great sweep of blue Pacific sparkling below the flame trees, the purple cloud-shapes of the Yasawa islands on the horizon.

The guardians of this Anglo-Fijian shrine were an elderly couple called Petheli and Elenoa who lived in a small wooden house at the back of the Bure. Every morning by the time I arrived, Elenoa had finished dusting the shrine and would be busy with her own washing and cooking. a tall stork-like woman, she would rush out to greet me as though each day was the first, taking my hand in hers, leading me up the steps and chattering away in a hoarse whisper as she settled me at the desk.

Illustrations by Pearl Binder

Later on there was a voice at the window, gruff and low, which always made me jump.

'Bula, marama!'

A grey-stubbed head would appear, a villainous grin on a simian face, and then the guarded form of Petheli as he straightened up behind a bed of red-hot pokers. He had a passion for digging new flower-beds, sometimes circular sometimes grave-shaped, which erupted all over the lawn like giant mole works. They were then adorned with seedlings and cuttings, with which Petheli established an unnervingly human relationship.

'Dis feller here,' he would remark, scratching his head and gazing intently down at a scrap of hibiscus, 'Don't tink he like dis place too much.' Then, with a jerk of his thumb towards a clump of poinsettia, 'He wanna go along dose what-you -call - he gunna climb up high, get lotta little ones dere.'

'What-you-call,' was Petheli's favorite English expression, invoked with a multitude of meaning whenever his vocabulary failed him. A much-travelled Fijian, he had served in the merchant navy and would sometimes sit down to talk of his times at sea.

'I been Brittania,' this travelogue would always conclude 'Place called Cardeef. Ver' had place, ver' bad people by the docks there.' With a disparaging twitch of his flat Polynesian nose,

How come you belong to that place - what-you-call - Wales? Wales is Cardeef, marama?'

While I reassured him that it was also a great deal else, Elenoa would side in with a tray of tea which also bore a pile of yams or cassava - a sampling from their own meal. Sometimes it would be an old tin mug, sometimes a teacup with the vice-regal crest, whichever was nearest to hand in the store-room, and once I stirred my tea with a spoon engraved with a V.R., from the days when Fiji was another 'jewel in the crown' of Queen Victoria. Sunlight, slanting lower through the shutters as the hours went by, filled the air with gold-dust. Sometimes there was a rustle in the eaves as a lizard rippled across the reeds like a shadow, and then in the late afternoon the hiss of the garden-hose, beneath the windows, the sudden bitter sweet infusion of cold water on parched earth, puffed into the air, sharp as cigar-smoke. Finally, from Petheli's house, the sound of a hundred voices soaring into hymn meant the start of the Fijian programmes from Suva radio, and time to go home.

Every now and again the calm of life at the Bure was shattered by news of an impending visit by the Great, in one form or another. Petheli's face was a mask of dismay as he broke the news to me one morning. 'The D.O. say the Queen's mummy gonna stay here next month!' another time it was Prince Charles, and the next 'The Dook and Duchess of What-You-Call' - which proved to be the Kents. More often it was a Colonial Minister or one of his officials on a seemingly unending commission of inquiry into political progress towards 'limited self-determination'. 'Another swan's the unofficial title for such expeditions. Or it might even be a visit from the Governor himself on tour of the Western district.

Whatever the occasion the three of us, Petheli, Elenoa and myself, experienced the same pangs of apprehension as the Land-Rovers bounded up the drive, discharging bevies of young administrative officers with pink knees and armfuls of files. They made long and earnest inspections of the premises, instructing Petheli on this and that as they inspected. After this terrifying impact with reality. Petheli and Elenoa would jerk themselves out of their pottering ways into a frenzy of activity. The concrete block of V.I.P. bedrooms at the back of the Bure was unsealed and flung open to the daylight. Sanderson-printed curtains were bundled out for laundering, the vice-regal bedclothes aired and spread and baby frogs who had wandered up the plug holes removed from the bathrooms. Air-conditioning roared through the master suites at hurricane force as Elenoa toyed with the switches. Petheli unearthed a pile of yellowing photographs in black frames and soon the walls were adorned with the plumed heads of sepia-coloured Governors of the past, various ghostly clusters of robed and uniformed officials poised in perspiring handshake or salute and some very dark scenic views of beaches and palm trees. Most were speckled with a tropical lights of one kind or another, but Petheli regarded them with a satisfied air.

'Englis people like dese tings,' he pronounced, as he delicately adjusted the last one to hang at the appropriate slant to its neighbour.

Finally, the wives of the Administrative Officers and a pose of Sugar Ladies would join forces in crisp morning lines to wire up large symmetrical arrangements of frangipani hibiscus and bougainvillea, as demonstrated by the local Flower Club, while Elenoa feverishly polished the V.R. teaspoons. When The Great finally arrived, it was an odd sensation to stand drinking gin-and-tonic as a guest in that familiar room at the ritual reception party - a feeling both proprietorial and alien mixed up together.

Despite the chintzes and the coffee-tables, cocktails seemed an anachronism in the Bure. I prefer to remember it as it was on a very different kind of evening, the furniture pushed back, the mats spread with a feast of turtle and crab and roasted pigs, the oiled shoulders of the Fijian singers gleaming in the lamp-light. It was a welcome for Lord Elwyn-Jones, on his way through to a legal conference in Australia. A yaggona ceremony was performed by a tribe from the interior, small dark-skinned mountain people, and speeches in Welsh and Fijian rose to a crescendo with the bestowal on our guest of the title 'Vuni-Lewa' - or 'Root of the Law' - an instant translation of Attorney-General, as he then was.

An hour or so later, a string of buses disgorged a dancing party from Vunda village, rustling with garlands and leafy skirts, and long after midnight we sat out beneath the eaves of the Bure to watch them whirling and pounding on the moonlit lawn below.

The success of the evening was due almost entirely to our new friends the Daus, a Fijian couple who lived in he bungalow next to ours and who had between them skilfully woven the delicate web of diplomacy and intrigue, essential to the organization of all such Fijian occasions, Iferemi was a teacher of English, tubby and ebullient, his wife Matilda a gentle pretty woman in her forties. Shortly afterwards they invited us to an even grander event of their own - the wedding of their niece Eta. The venue on the gilt-edged cards was the Coronation Methodist Church in Lautoka. The bride, a golden-skinned creature whose beauty was circulated on calendars and posters throughout the land as the current holder of the national title of Miss Hibiscus, wore a gown of white silk, a veil and coronet of gardenias.

'She is a nurse at the hospital, you know,' whispered a relation in the pew next to me, a stout lady resplendent in a magenta two-piece. 'And Dickie is a Librarian.'

Her eyes rested approvingly on the figure of the groom, a slight young Fijian with a fashionable Van Dyke beard, nattily clad in a pearl grey morning coat, black-and-white check shirt and pinstripe trousers. His groomsmen, both European were in identical outfits, the bridesmaids demure in lavender. The hymns were sung in Fijian to staunchly Wesleyan tunes. Afterwards the photographers clicked away round the doorway. Matilda dabbed at her cheeks with a handkerchief and Iferemi ran a resigned finger round his starched white collar. A fleet of multi-coloured taxis with satin ribbons on the bonnets, took us all back to the Dau bungalow.

The lawn at the back was lined with white-covered tables for the buffet reception.

'Radike Qereqeretabua.' the young man with the beard announced himself as he shook hands with us at the entrance. It means 'Whale's-Tooth-Formed-Out-Of-Stone.' He smiled apologetically. 'I find my English friends always want to know the meaning of names - or my Australian friends, rather. Everyone calls me Dickie.'

He was on study-leave from the Australian National Library, he told us. Called on later to make a speech, his elegant composure did not desert him. From his breast pocket he brought out a small book with purple suede covers. 

' "My heart is like a singing bird ..." ' he intoned, resonantly.

One or two of the older Fijians looked puzzled. A grizzled dignatory leaned forward on his stick, a hand cupped to his ear. At the last lines, "Because the birthday of my life, is come to me", there was polite applause. The bridegroom explained that today was in fact his birthday, and Christina Rosetti was his favourite poet. Together the happy couple cut the three-tier cake, and the assembly rose to drink the health of 'Her Most Gracious Majesty.'

It was the last English moment of the occasion. The murmur of conversation was drowned in a thunder of drumming. Without any apparent interval of dusk it was suddenly dark - a darkness shot with the dazzle of a dozen moving flares. From behind the shrubbery a horde of warriors emptied to the lawn armed with clubs, and naked except for kilts of crimson leaves. A roar went up from the crowd. Poised absolutely still in the flickering light, the dancers gave back an answering shout. Eyes rolled in grinning faces daubed with black paint. There was a warning rattle from the small lai-drum, a single voice took up the chant, and the dancing began - the old preparations for battle, without the battle, woolly pom-poms on the spear-points, streamers of crepe-paper around the clubs. Yet the re-enactment was in itself a ritual muscles taut as wound-up springs, white teeth clenched in masks of fury as the frenzied stampings and posturings reached a climax. One last whirling leap, the final war-cry dying away and then the corps-de-ballet gracefully collapsed in a frou-frou of foliage.

Amidst applause, the lali sounded again, lower this time and more solemn. A group of women emerged from the house carrying two large mats which they carefully laid on the middle of the lawn, about a yard apart. Then under the frangipani trees a superb procession came slowly into view. here was the bride once more, but now she was the bride of Fijian tradition, a slender figure barefoot and bare-headed, her hair brushed upright in the Fijian style. Layers of papery tapa cloth, pale cream overlaid with patterns of bronze and black had been gathered round her waist to form a skirt. A garland of wild flowers and curly bark-shavings framed her shoulders, scented with sandalwood.

Behind her came her attendants, her uncle who was giving her away, and the women of her family. one small blonde head stood out among the rest - my daughter's. Dressed in a miniature replica of Eta's costume, she carried the bridal train, frowning in concentration. All those secret conferences at the Daus' house over the past few days were suddenly explained. With a rustle the party seated themselves on one of the mats, the bride in the centre watching tense and bright-eyed as, from the opposite side of the lawn came the bridegroom's family to take their place on the other mat. Radike too had donned the Fijian skirt. So had his groomsmen, the American and the new Zealander.

Now came the central moment of the ceremony, a moment which illuminated the familiar phrase 'giving away the bride', man's most important ;piece of social property. Moving forward on his knees, Iferemi held up for all to see a large polished whale's tooth on a cord of sinnett. Once the price of life and death, it still produced a kind of frisson of approval among the onlookers. Immediately the tama went up from the men behind him, that strange mixture of chant and whoop and drawn-out sigh of respect. In this way Eta was formally handed over as a gift to the bridegroom's family.

Then there were speeches, floods of Fijian rhetoric, interspersed with sentimental songs from the villagers who had exchanged their weapons for guitars, and bamboo stems for beating time. A second feast was brought on, not from the kitchens, but from smoking earth pits at the back of the garden where pig and turtle and breadfruit, wrapped in leaves, had been cooking on hot stones since noon.

Illustrations by Pearl Binder

The ceremonial bowl of yaggona was still circulating when we left. On the way out, Eta drew me aside into the house.

'Come, I want to show you.'

Miraculously, the little European sitting-room had been transformed into a Fijian bridal chamber. Woven mats of finest texture with fringes of brilliant wool lay softly piled on the floor to form a bed. A dozen hand-made pillows surrounded them embroidered with mottoes such as 'Sweet drams' and 'Life-Long Happiness'. Overhead hung a canopy of tapa in heavy cream and brown drapes used in pre-European days as a mosquito net. In a corner, almost hidden among the finery, sat two very old ladies with legs comfortably out-stretched. They nodded and beamed at us, like custodians at a museum, then resumed their whispered conversation, wreathed in cigar-smoke, a pack of cards beside them.

The women of the two families had been working on all these things for many weeks, Eta told me - cousins and sisters, aunties and grannies. It was the custom.

'And do you know' - Eta dropped her voice as we stood in the doorway - 'after the wedding, in the old days, the whole family would sit around outside the mosquito net all night. Just to see everything went according to plan. Even now things tend to be a little - well - communal,' she added with a touch of primness.

'And you and Radike -?

'We're taking off right now to a hotel down the coast. Just like the tourists.' She giggled. 'Do you blame us?'

I didn't, but found it touching that so much loving care had been spent on an empty shell, decorative though it was. s with the two wedding ceremonies, it was another example of the Fijian skill in the art of compromise. Double-think, having the best of both worlds, whatever the grudging English called it, therein lay the secret of keeping everyone happy, it seemed.

In my own un-exotic Public Works Department bed that night the Rev. Thomas Williams informed me, in his missionary researches of the 1850s, that a traditional bride-to-be was tattooed around the thighs with pointed shells dipped in vegetable dye, kept indoors away from the sun to improve her complexion, clipped of her virginal locks, and given a matronly skirt of lax to wear instead of her casual fringe of friend leaves. She was then taken to the home of her husband's family where after due ceremonies, 'tremendous shoutings' greeted the formal announcements of consummation.

'Not even a heathen can leave the scenes of childhood and caress joy without tears,' the Rev. Williams concluded sonorously, 'and the betrothed girl often weeps freely.'

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