By Dr. Tupeni Baba

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Nov. 13) – The restoration of the qoliqoli [traditional fishing grounds] to indigenous owners represents the outcome of a long struggle by the indigenous Fijians led by their chiefs, especially those who were signatories of the Deed of Cession and their descendants, to ensure the return of their resources in land, forests, rivers and qoliqoli, in accordance with Fijian chiefly custom.

What stood in the way for the achievement of the goal of this struggle or quiet revolution were the settlers as represented by the planters, traders, industrialists and others whose understanding of the meaning of the annexation of Fiji was at odds with those of the chiefs and the Fijian people.

The idea of creating a competent body to allow aggrieved chiefs and their people to present their historical grievances for consideration is an important part of this process. Since the 1880s, Fijians have used the Native Lands Commission to deal with many issues specifically relating to land, so the process of dealing with competent bodies to discuss and settle issues and grievances has been part of their history and consciousness. It is not unrelated to their traditional way of dealing with Fijian disputes except that the partners to their historical grievances are often non-Fijians and usually, they are the settlers or people with settler mentality. This is why the Indigenous Claims Tribunal which will deal with all types of historical grievances relating to their resources is so central to the so called chiefly and indigenous Fijian struggle.

It is often difficult for non- Fijians to understand why the chiefs who were signatories to Cession decided to sign away or hand over unconditionally all their people’s resources to Queen Victoria in return for being governed by her, her heirs and successors.

The chiefs had raised and sought clarifications on the implications of this move with and from Sir Hercules Robinson, before the act of Cession was finalised. One of them said: "We would like His Excellency to make clear to us what our position will be in the event of Cession taking place with regards to our fishing and forest rights. We are confident that His Excellency will give us the kindest consideration"

Soon after Cession in 1875 and again in 1879 and 1880 at the Council of Chiefs meeting in Waikava, Cakaudrove; on Bau, Tailevu and, Mualevu in Lau respectively, the chiefs actively sought the return of their resources especially their land and qoliqoli. The process with regards to the return of their land quickly got off the ground with the work of the Native Lands Commission headed by Wilkinson in the 1880s, and later by Maxwell in the early 1900.

With regards to their qoliqoli, the chiefs maintained that it was owned in a similar way as their land and should be treated similarly. At the end of the Council of Chiefs meeting at Mualevu in November 1880, the Roko Tui Lau, Ma'afu, as the host of the meeting said in concluding the meeting: "There is, however, one other matter which gives us concern, namely our reefs.All reefs have ownership from the past down to the present time; that is clear to us and it is a matter which has often given rise to quarrelling and disputes. We beg of your Majesty (the Governor Sir Arthur Gordon) that they may be registered with our lands or that some regulation be made that the rights of the owners may be fixed on a clear basis as with our lands."

The above concluding statement by Ma'afu at the Council of Chiefs meeting in Mualevu was part of a detailed Memorandum of Sir Arthur Gordon that he sent to the Colonial Secretary as background to his dispatch of November 15 which contained the Native Lands Ordinance xxi of 1880. He referred to this Ordinance in the dispatch as follows: "This is one of the most important ordinances which was been passed by the Legislature in Fiji. It is the result of five years of careful thought and inquiry."

So the qoliqoli issues were always treated in a similar way as native lands and the chiefs wanted it. As mentioned by the Roko Tui Lau, Ma'afu that some regulation be made that the rights of owners may be fixed on a clear basis as that of native lands.

The chiefs had a sympathetic Governor in Sir Arthur Gordon and he was able to move promptly on the return of Fijian land in spite of the strong pressures by the settlers and planters who were keen to purchase land in Fiji. Sir Arthur Gordon was the architect of the colonial land policy and accepted the Fijian notion of ownership that all lands, forests, foreshores and qoliqoli were owned irrespective of whether they were being occupied or not, at a particular time. The settlers on the other hand widely shared the opposite notion of terra nullius', that unoccupied land or empty spaces' were not owned and this has been questioned in the well known Mabo Case in Australia, not long ago.

The chiefs and Sir Arthur Gordon himself, had to struggle against the strong views of the settlers and this was more evident when Sir Arthur finished his term as Governor at the end of 1880. His dispatch, he wrote at Mualevu, was one of the last he wrote as Governor and as he wrote, his emotions came to the fore as he realised he had not completed the work on the return of qoliqoli in his six years as Governor. This was why he saw the need to include the closing statement of the Roko Tui Lau, Ma'afu, in his detailed Memorandum that followed his dispatch of November 15, 1880.

The result of the chiefs requests on the qoliqoli came in the following year, 1881, and was read to the Council of Chiefs meeting on April 14 in Nailaga Ba, by the new Governor, William Desvouex. He said to the chiefs at the Opening:

"I have to tell you with regard to your representation on the subject of the reefs, that the matter will be carefully investigated and that it is her Majesty's desire that neither you nor your people should be deprived of any rights in those reefs, which you have enjoyed under your own laws and customs; and I may tell you, on my own part, that measures will be taken for securing to each Mataqali the reefs, which properly belong to it, exactly in the same way as the rest of their land will be secured to them."

Many of the successive governors including William Desvouex, were unable to carry through successfully this task until well into Fiji's independence as the settlers and planters increased their pressures to open up more land for alienation and commercial use. Even one governor, Governor Im Thurn in the early 1900, supported the settlers and planters case openly.

In 1907 he sent a petition from the Planters Association signed by six prominent planters to the Colonial Secretary seeking the opening up of unoccupied land for their commercial development. He stated that the planters' case was a reasonable one and the tone of his comments showed he shared their views somewhat.

The case was discussed in the British Parliament and Sir Arthur Gordon at that time, as Lord Stanmore was greatly disturbed by the move. His work he felt had not been carried out in accordance with the express wish of the Queen Victoria. As he stood up in the House of Lords and spoke he said he was on that occasion, speaking as Turaga i Taukei' (land owning chief) in view of the two islands in Fiji the Fijian chiefs had given him, through a Crown Grant in appreciation of his services to the Fijian people.

"On two separate occasions her late Majesty did me the honour to convey to me her commands from her own lips that I was to tell the Fijian people that their lands were theirs and should never be taken from them," Stanmore said. "I told them on the authority of our Sovereign and I do trust the pledge then given, will be maintained."

The move by the planters and settlers were defeated and in the colony, Lord Stamore was criticised and publicly vilified in The Fiji Times (Fiji Times in November, 1908), which was controlled, by the settlers and planters in Fiji. This reflected the pressures that were exerted on future governors following Sir Arthur Gordon that it took more meetings of the great Council of Chiefs like the meeting in Bau in 1982, the insistence of the Alliance Government, the support of the SVT Government and now the SDL and the multi-party Government to bring this important issue to Parliament.

The emergence of the current Qoliqoli Bill is an outcome of a long struggle by the chiefs beginning with the signatories of the Deed of Cession to return to Fijian people what they owned according to their understanding of what they were expected as chiefs when they agreed to give Fiji unconditionally to Queen Victoria in 1874. It appears that the holders of opposing perspectives to the current debate have much to learn from our local history.

Dr Tupeni Baba is an academic and politician, who founded the New Labour Unity Party. He is also the co-author of "Speight of Violence." He is a senator in the Qarase Government.

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