By Sanjay Ramesh

In Fiji, the indigenous Fijian chiefs hold a special place in Fijian culture. Even before European contact, chiefs played an important part in village administration and in larger political and military discourses.

However, the Fijian social order went through a great transformation after European contact. A new religion, muskets and steel implements created what is known as the "chiefly oligarchy," based on the political experience of predominantly eastern Fiji.

The traditional Fijian order was based on a hierarchical form of leadership, where the chiefs, priests, warriors and commoners formed an intricate, interdependent and inter-related social structure. This unique form of social organization changed with European contact and in its place came a three-tiered structure of British colonial administration, chiefs and a small but influential white settler community.

Not only was the traditional Fijian social order restructured, it was given new meaning and form with the formation of Fijian Administration, which became a pillar for cementing indigenous Fijian cultural interest and to a larger extent British indirect rule. However, the ascendancy of the chiefs and in particular the Great Council of Chiefs provided social and political stability in times of change and social upheaval.

Fijian Chiefly Hegemony

The chiefs are an important component in the indigenous Fijian social structure. Before and after European contact, the chiefs remained at the apex of the Fijian social pyramid. However, in most of Fiji, more rigid patrilineal descent groups were able to establish strategic alliances and form powerful kingdoms or matanitu.. From these kingdoms emerged influential chiefs who competed for hegemony through incessant warfare. In this paper, I will address, the pre-Cession political structure of Fiji and the strategic alliance between the chiefs and the Europeans, which led to the formation of a chief-assisted colonial historic bloc and the role played by the Great Council of Chiefs and chiefs generally in strengthening indigenous interest and providing stability and good government.

The eastern chiefs of Fiji became powerful political power brokers in the first half of nineteenth century and used their structural position to mobilize tribes during warfare and disaster. As might be expected, the strictest taboo or tabu had to do with the chiefs. No person might reach for an object above the chief’s head without first asking for and obtaining permission. Warfare was chronic and there were many causes for this. Abduction of women by competing villages, rivalry between chiefs, and outright aggression to increase one’s position or tributary. Historian R. A. Derrick has critically looked at the indigenous Fijian warfare strategy.

A party would steal upon the sleeping village, surround it, and at the faint light of day, fire the houses. Then the stage was set for one of those scenes of horror that made Fijian’s name infamous. Men, women, and children were butchered as they ran from the burning houses.

Younger women were taken as prizes, and the butchered bodies were later eaten at cannibal feasts.

Endless feuding was a permanent character of pre-Cession Fiji, but there also existed an interdependent relationship between the chiefs and his subjects, who were responsible for collectively organizing security and subsistence within the communal mode of production. Chiefs, priests, warriors and commoners participated in a complex hierarchical social order within clearly defined protocols and social discourses. However, Tongan contact in mainly eastern part of Fiji modified existing indigenous social organization.

The Tongans had strong relationship with eastern Fijians. There were long established movements of people, ideas, and objects between Tonga and Fiji.

By 1700, if not earlier, this traffic had become regularized in the form of Tongan and Samoan bark clothes, mats and whale teeth for Fijians canoes, red feathers, pottery, and sandalwood. Most of the transportation was done by Tongans but in Fijian type canoes (bartered directly from Fijians) or built by Tongans in Fiji.

As a result of trade and movement of a large number of people, there were by 1840 a number of Tongans residing in the Fiji Islands. Some of them were living as craftsmen or traders or mercenaries in Fijian villages, and some in colonies of their own. The long and extensive contact with Tonga produced a hierarchical political organization in the eastern part of the Fiji Islands, particularly in Bau, Lau, Bua, Macuata, Cakaudrove, Lakeba and Moala. In eastern Fiji, a Polynesian form of hierarchical social structure existed long before European contact. Shelley Ann Sayes explains the political hierarchy in the Fijian province of Cakaudrove.

The political organization of Cakaudrove approximated the Polynesian model- an extensive pyramid of groups capped by the lineage and following a high chief. The head of vanua Cakaudrove, the Tui Cakau who was the member of the i Sokula lineage was the paramount chief of the matanitu. Subordinates of the Tui Cakau thought of them (members of the i Sokula lineage) as sacred, the descendants and representatives of the ancestral gods and as such, gods themselves.

Even though eastern Fiji had hierarchical social structures; the interdependence of the chiefs and his people was intact. But with European contact, the Fijian social system was radically restructured. "The introduction of firearms was perhaps the most momentous effect of the coming of Europeans, for it added a new feature to indigenous wars and radically altered the balance of power between indigenous kingdoms." The principal native kingdoms at the time of contact were Rewa, Verata, Bau, Cakaudrove, Macuata and Bua. The major power configuration lay in eastern Fiji, and on contact certain kingdoms were transformed into hegemonic entities. A shipwreck in Lakeba enabled the first Europeans to realise the richness of Fiji’s natural resources. Sandalwood was a priced commodity and the European traders saw a great opportunity to make money. With the Europeans came their way of life: muskets, steel implements, flint, navigational equipment and foreign goods. "From the islands in eastern Fiji- Matuku, Lakeba, Oneata, where the first white men landed- evidence of a strange new world emerged beyond the horizons of Fiji and Tonga spread westward throughout the group."

According to David Routledge, the sandalwood trade had involved limited contact between Fijians and Europeans. But R.A. Derrick notes that every stick of wood had blood upon it. "Chief vied with chief in laying claim to patches of trees that had suddenly become valuable: They drove their people to cut logs, quarrelling over the spoils." Peter France, like David Routledge, believes that the effect of the sandalwood trade was limited. " The effect of this trade on the lives of Fijians was limited to the provision of iron tools and glass beads for the common people and to military assistance for the chiefs of a small area on the west coast of Vanua Levu."

The introduction of guns and iron tools radically changed the indigenous social structure. Chiefs could now command large armies and inflict unparalled casualties on his rivals. Those chiefs who had access to firearms also snubbed established Fijian protocols and ventured to increase their territories and procure concubines. The interdependent relationship between the chiefs and their subjects was changing with European traders developing close relationship with many Fijian chiefs from the east. Not only that, but Europeans also started to influence chiefs and changed their largely communal outlook. This in turn created a gap between the chiefs and his subjects, who were mobilized to assist Europeans in harvesting sandalwood and later beche-de-mer.

Traditional weapons- spears, arrows and clubs became ineffective in warfare. "After 1830s with increased trade, the novelty wore off. Possession of a musket was an essential requisite of a properly equipped warrior and their significance declined somewhat." In particular, the introduction of arms helped Bau to achieve hegemony in eastern Fiji. Bau was first to obtain muskets and a European sharpshooter, Charles Savage, became the chief warrior of the kingdom of Bau, and led murderous white mercenaries in battle against other chiefdoms. With the rapid ascendancy of Bau, Muskets became integrated in the Fijian way of life.

The structural power of Bau superceded that of its rivals, and soon Bauan hegemony became a fact of life. It became imperative that Bau protected its hegemonic position and the best candidate to lead Bau in post-contact Fiji was young chief, Ratu Seru Cakabau. Cakabau. "In his youth Europeans were known through worthless beachcombers and the ghastly memories of the sandalwood trade. He lived the best years of his life through a violent period of bloodshed and cannibalism and he took a leading part in all its horrors".. Cakabau became the most influential chief by forming alliances with the European traders, missionaries, and mercenaries. Cakabau was the upholder of privilege and the exploiter of ancient custom. However, Cakobau also learned from the Europeans the art of war and politics and as such, he became the most feared and respected indigenous warrior. But Buan politics, including those of all eastern Fiji, became firmly embedded in the global economy. Priced commodity, like sandalwood and sea cucumbers, attracted large overseas investors.

In less than ten years all sandalwood stands were logged from Fiji. And the European traders found a new marketable commodity called beche-de-mer. Beche-de-mer is the dried flesh of the sea cucumbers. This commodity was highly valued in China, and "the rise in beche-de-mer trade in Polynesia and Melanesia was closely linked with that of sandalwood, often providing an alternative income to traders faced with the depletion of the sandalwood resource". The beche-de-mer trade demanded that the islanders learn new tasks and sometimes undertake labor under European direction. The beche-de-mer lasted a little longer than the sandalwood trade (1822-1850) and during this period, traders and beachcombers started to settle on the islands. With growing European interest in Fiji’s resources, information soon reached imperial centers on possible opportunities for economic and religious investment.

On 12th October 1835, the first members of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society arrived in Fiji in the persons of Reverend William Cross and Reverend David Cargill. Cross and Cargill realized that the conversion of the chiefs was a prerequisite to mass conversion, which would mark the beginning of real progress. The whole thrust to evangelize indigenous Fijians gained momentum in 1838 when John Hunt, James Calvert, and Thomas Jagger brought to the island the printing press. The missionaries and their agents utilized existing knowledge of the Tongan language to publish a Bible in the indigenous text. Through the religious teachings of Jesus Christ, indigenous Fijians were encouraged to abandon past customary practices.

The missionaries were nothing more than political agents of various imperial interests and their presence on the island of Fiji was aimed at changing the customs of land. In attacking the gods of the indigenous Fijians, the missionaries were modifying the power of the chiefs. A Fijian chief derived spiritual power from the ancestral gods and by discrediting their belief; Christian teachings reduced and to an extent decimated prevailing customs. However, Christianity was not accepted with open arms and for a while, there was fierce warfare between converts and holdouts. The issue of religion, nevertheless, was settled in 1854 when chief Cakobau acceded to a request of the King of Tonga and the Wesleyan Mission and converted to Christianity. By the mid nineteenth century, the indigenous Fijian traditional social order was successfully transformed via European contact, but the new arrangement rested on a fragile base. There were sporadic attacks on European property and one incident involved alleged outrages against an American citizen. Following a series of attacks, the focus shifted from religious indoctrination to political stability and here the Europeans again played a decisive role in establishing a central authority in the person of Ratu Seru Cakobau, who was officially installed as "Tui Viti" – the King of Fiji.

A stable government, modeled along the European and American political experience, had to be established without delay in order to attract investment and trade. By the 1860s, the beche-de-mer trade had dropped off significantly and other export commodities like coffee and cocoa were experimented by the white settlers in Fiji. A short-lived cotton boom occurred when world cotton shortage, caused by the American Civil War (1861-1865), prompted many would-be planters to the island and thus increasing the stake in land and local politics. The cotton boom was short, but within this period, there was a surge in migration and in 1871, white settlers convinced maritime chiefs to establish a representative government. Led by Ratu Seru Cakobau, the government was set up for the economic benefit of mostly white settlers. Not least among their motivation was the need for security and the possession of land. However, unfortunately, factions emerged within the white community, resulting in the demise of the Cakobau government.

The initiative to establish a stable government enabled white settlers to form political and economic alliance with the chiefs of eastern Fiji. Most significant ally was Cakobau, who was keen on consolidating his authority on all parts of Fiji. In 1873, using the killing of a settler community as an excuse, the Cakobau government launched an invasion against the defiant Hill Tribes of interior Viti Levu. After defeating the rebels, Cakobau expropriated their land and sold it to the white settlers. The shift had occurred in the Fijian socio-political realm. A group of chiefs under the leadership of Cakabau had formed an alliance with the white settlers and with European help were asserting their hegemony over the rest of the island. The introduction of money, Christian religion, steel tools, and European weapons forced the chiefs to move further into the European camp. In doing so, the chiefs alienated the commoner. However, traditional protocol subverted any widespread commoner rebellion against the chiefs. Those who objected to the white men were quickly silenced. The new post-contact interdependency was between a fledgling white settler community and a group of eastern chiefs, who provided labor and space for Europeans to conduct their business whereas the Europeans provided the means for political stability. However, this arrangement did not work very well as resentment grew among the indigenous population on the motives and designs of the white men. Seeing their investment under threat, the Europeans in Fiji engineered the cession of Fiji to a willing imperial power. After a series of attempts, the British Government finally accepted the offer of cession.

The Chief-Assisted Colonial Historic Bloc

On October 10, 1874, the chiefs of eastern Fiji-Vunivalu Cakabau,Maafu,Ratu Epeli, Tui Bua, Savenaca, Esekeli, Tui Dreketi, Ritova, Katonivere, Ratu Kini, Matanitobua and Nacagilevu ceded Fiji to Britain. The cession was inevitable, because the Cakabau government (1871-1874) was virtually bankrupt and the European population wanted a stable political authority to protect their economic interests.

The provisional Governor of Fiji, Sir Hercules Robinson, inherited the task of administering Fijians. Borrowing from the political and social organizations of eastern Fiji, he grouped the islands of the colony into provinces, based on boundaries of the old state, and within the province a number of divisions were created, each compromising a group of villages related by kinship. Each of these administrative units –the village, the district, and the Province-was placed in charge of a Fijian, and there was a chain of responsibility from the lowest level to the highest.

The British colonial authorities at once restructured the native administrative system by giving exclusive jurisdiction on native affairs to the Council of Chiefs. The Boselevu Vakaturaga, the Great Council of Chiefs, was a new institution, based on the collective experience of the chiefs in the Cakobau Government. Despite dominated by the chiefs from the maritime provinces, the Great Council became the official custodian of Fijian land, culture, tradition, customary rights and social relations. Besides that, the Council helped to entrench British indirect rule in Fiji by ensuring least resistance to the new order from the indigenous masses.

The Great Council of Chiefs was also an agent of propaganda for the Colonial Government. The Deed of Cession was interpreted in a way that created the popular myth of a protective colonial policy towards the natives. "In the Fijian popular mind the lands had been given by the chiefs to the Queen Vakaturaga, that is, by way of a chiefly presentation which entitled them to expect that the Queen in her reciprocal generosity would return the lands to be shared and used by the people". The first Governor to Fiji, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, cemented a protective colonial policy by strengthening the Great Council of Chiefs. Gordon was a conservative at heart and campaigned against self Government in the North American Colony of New Brunswick. His apparent lack of success left him bitter and disillusioned. However, he was very well read and had intimate knowledge of the cultural destruction of the indigenous peoples of North America, West Indies and Australia. As a convert to preserving indigenous way of life, Gordon was determined to safeguard indigenous Fijian culture. But according to historian Peter France, Gordon’s understanding of indigenous Fijian affairs was fundamentally flawed. To begin with, Gordon did not speak or write Fijian and was further estranged by his adoption of the position of a high chief.

Gordon claimed that the Provincial, district and village system was deeply rooted in indigenous Fijian tradition. But this was not the case for all of Fiji. In western Viti Levu different forms of social organization and hierarchies existed. Nevertheless, Gordon saw Roko Tui (the Provincial chief), Buli (District Chief) and Turanga-ni-koro (the village head) working well with the colonial administration and as a result, a Fijian Administration was imposed on all of the islands. Indigenous Fijian labor was regulated by a paternalistic tax policy, which stipulated that every male Fijian between the ages of sixteen and sixty be liable to contribute twenty days labor on public works in his province. This included road works, improving provincial offices, hospitals and gardens. By this arrangement, Gordon ensured that Fijians worked on their land and were not directly involved with the colonial economy.

The Gordon inspired Fijian chiefly administration was further strengthened by Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, who himself a chief had an intimate understanding of the colonial machinery through his position as the District Commissioner of Lau. As the most gifted of the young chiefs, he was educated in New Zealand and England and received his law degree at Oxford University at a time when most indigenous Fijians were still struggling with basic literacy. Sukuna became the official spokesperson for the Council of Chiefs and with his legal training worked with the colonial authorities in codifying indigenous Fijian land laws in a new Native Land Trust Ordinance (NLTO) of 1940. Before this ordinance, there was Native Lands Ordinance, which came under pressure from various Governors who saw it as an antiquated piece of law, aimed at appeasing indigenous chiefs. Sukuna, however, saw land as integral part of indigenous Fijian custom, and was concerned about pressures to open up land for settlement by mostly Indian farmers, who were brought to Fiji as indentured workers from 1879 to 1916. The prime objective of NLTO was to strengthen the protection of indigenous Fijian land interest by reserving ample area for their communal needs in the future. Furthermore, the Ordinance also enabled provisions for the allocation of suitable land for the settlement by others and provided security of leaseholds.

Ratu Sukuna, unlike indigenous Fijian chiefs before him, had a grand vision for indigenous Fijians. He studied in detail the existing colonial inspired native land and Fijian administration laws and found them inadequate for preserving and protecting indigenous Fijian interests. For Sukuna, indigenous Fijians had special requirements, which could only be addressed by an indigenous Fijian institution that flowed directly from the authority of the Great Council of Chiefs. As a result, Fijian Affairs Board was established in 1944 to address indigenous Fijian economic and social concerns. The Fijian Affairs Board would link up with the existing Provincial, District and Village system and provide "official" line of communication to various leaders and proxies within this structure.

Following the death of Ratu Sukuna in 1958, the ascendancy of indigenous Fijian chiefs was continued by young Lauan, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. By then, the Fijian Association was formed in 1954 to provide intellectual support for the indigenous Fijian chiefs, who had declared in a letter to the colonial government their collective right to govern Fiji. By the 1960s, the Colonial Government and the chiefly historic bloc established by the Deed had reached full circle and the views of indigenous Fijian chiefs would form the basis for constitutional and political change in Fiji. This was achieved firstly by the formation of the Fijian Association and secondly with the consolidation in 1966 of the indigenous Fijian Alliance Party.

The Alliance Party ruled Fiji from 1970 to 1987 until it was defeated by a multiethnic coalition led by late Dr. Timoci Bavadra. However, following, the defeat of the Alliance, indigenous Fijian chiefs including the Great Council of Chiefs continued to play a crucial political role in providing post coup stability and political order. Chiefly hegemony was restored in December 1987 under the chiefly leadership of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and late Ratu Penaia Ganilau. The stabilizing influence of the Great Council of Chiefs and the chiefs generally continued following the disastrous events of 19 May 2000. However, George Speight and his group openly challenged the historical hegemony of the chiefs during the 56-day siege of the Fiji Parliament. But the Great Council of Chiefs showed that it had the tenacity to dispel the challenge to its traditional authority, which remains deeply rooted in indigenous Fijian culture. The only threat to the Great Council of Chiefs are Council members themselves, but indigenous Fijian protocol provides the necessary flexibility to debate and resolve issues in an amicable way.

In conclusion, chiefly hegemony remains firmly embedded in indigenous Fijian social and political tradition. The constitutional role of the Great Council of Chiefs in appointing the Chief Executive or the President under the 1997 Constitution cannot be overemphasized. Not only that but important cultural and social issues facing indigenous Fijians are collectively addressed by the Council and in a historic development, other communities in Fiji, in particular Indo-Fijians, are now able to make representations to the Council on issues affecting their community. This demonstrates that the Council has clearly matured over time and has successfully risen to accept new challenges and provide necessary political leadership in Fiji during periods of social instability and bad governance.

Sanjay Ramesh is a researcher on indigenous Fijian social issues. He is employed at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Sydney, Australia.

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