INDIAN LABOR SAVED INDIGENOUS FIJIAN WAY OF LIFE

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR

September 22, 2001

[See: Indian Threat To Fijians]

Robert Churney erroneously believe that because indigenous Fijians didn’t feel like working on sugar plantation, the Colonial authorities brought Indian indentured workers instead. The facts suggest something else and the only way to discover the motive of the Colonial Government of Fiji after Cession in 1874 is to analyze the ideas expressed by Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, who was the key architect for developing and implementing a "protective colonial policy" towards indigenous Fijians.

Gordon was clear in his mind that indigenous Fijians would suffer the same fate as indigenous people of Australia and America if they were compelled to work on sugar estates. Not only that but at the inaugural meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs in 1875, the chiefs were unequivocal on indigenous Fijian labor. The chiefs were united in their view that use of Fijian labor on sugar plantation would destroy the "Fijian way of life." Gordon had all the sympathy for this line of argument as he too was convinced, both by his own experience in West Indies and in North America, that indigenous Fijians needed to maintain as far as possible traditional economic discourse as opposed to a capitalist colonial one. The idea of a protective colonial policy towards indigenous Fijians was given a boost, following a massive reduction in Fijian numbers after a measles outbreak on the island.

The Colonial Government chose to use the existing indenture labor system, operating with some success since the collapse of slavery in 1835. Robert Churney should understand that the 1874 Deed of Cession formed a compact between the chiefs of Fiji and the British Sovereign, where the chiefs remained the "official" custodians of indigenous Fijian custom and the Colonial authorities were given the space to develop a viable economy and provide stable government for the Colony.

Indigenous Fijians were generally discouraged from taking up any commercial activity and all attempts to start a business were scuttled by the Great Council of Chiefs and its colonial allies. Well before Indians moved into commerce in the 1930s, an indigenous Fijian, Apolosi Ranawai, started Viti Company, which proved to be an immediate success among indigenous Fijians. Frightened by the surge in the popularity of the company, the Europeans registered their own company with the same name and sought chiefly intervention to circumvent a thriving indigenous business. Not only Ranawai but others like him often found themselves facing the club of the Great Council of Chiefs and the wrath of the colonial administration.

With indigenous business initiatives squashed by the chiefs, the only group to take over from the Europeans in business were the Indians. While Indians moved into commerce following the Great Depression, the Europeans remained suspicious of Indians throughout the colonial rule. If Churney cares to look at various colonial compulsory removal orders, he will begin to appreciate that there was a collusion between the indigenous Fijian chiefs and the colonial authorities to keep indigenous Fijians out of cities and towns.

Indigenous Fijian participation in national economy was never a priority of the indigenous Fijian chiefs until after the events of May 1987 when it was "officially" acknowledged that Fijians were seriously behind in terms of their participation in commerce and a knee-jerk reaction to this issue came from the indigenous Fijian leadership in the form of concessionary loans and other incentives for Fijian business.

Perhaps the history of Fiji would be entirely different had the Indian laborers not been introduced by the colonialists. But a closer look at the colonial regime indicate that if the Indians were not brought to Fiji, labor for the plantation would have been provided by either Fijians or Japanese. In any event, if such an eventuality were to occur, indigenous Fijian communal way of life would have been destroyed long ago. It is therefore imperative that the Indigenous Fijian leadership acknowledge that Indians have largely shielded indigenous Fijians from the pervasive effects of colonial exploitation. As for indigenous Fijian non-participation in commerce, the blame for that lies squarely on paternalistic chiefs and their equally paternalistic colonial allies.

Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D. Email: sanjay_ramesh@yahoo.com.au 

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