Rod Ewins

12 July 2000

I have just heard a rumour that Cakaudrove, not to be outdone by the western Fijans, are now thinking about getting in on the act and re-asserting their own confederacy! I suppose it was logical enough to expect this in the present cauldron of disharmony and disunity, where age-old rivalries and assertions of particular identity can bubble to the surface unchecked.

The Tovata Confederacy, in which Cakaudrove has been grouped with Lau, was actually a result of the machinations of the Tongan chief Ma'afu, who came to dominate Lau in the mid-19th Century. He forged it and initially held it together by skilful political manoevring, but it finally got locked in place because of timing. It was formalised just five years before Cakobau's action in ceding Fiji to Britain. Indeed, their anxiety about Ma'afu's inexorable expansionism was one of the reasons Cakobau and his cartel of chiefs pursued that path, giving Ma'afu no option other than to sign on the dotted line. Then the British administration, as they did with everything else they didn't have a vested interest in changing for administrative convenience or to fit their notions of "the way things ought to be", set the status quo in concrete, and the Tovata e Viti it has been ever since.

But in considering this latest development, it should be understood that even Cakaudrove itself is far from homogeneous. On Vanualevu Macuata, Bua and Natewa were always fiercely independent kingdoms, and on Taveuni, the ancient kingdom of Vuna has always enjoyed higher spiritual status than Cakaudrove. The association of all these with one another was always an opportunistic and unstable one, and the old rivalries are still far from forgotten.

For example, when I was working in Natewa nearly 20 years ago, there was an official visit by Ratu Penaia Ganilau in his capacity as Permanent Secretary of Fijian Affairs (he later became Governor-General, then President). But of particular relevance to the Natewans was his paramountcy of Cakaudrove. The ceremonies that attended his visit were on the face of it a touching display of ritual expressions of loyalty from subjects to their chief. In private they expressed simmering resentment. They grumbled about the fact that, in addition to acknowledging his official government position, they had to honour him as the head of the confederacy to which they had been locked by the British administration. They complained that Cession had pre-empted well-advanced plans to break free of Cakaudrove, and they had been stuck there ever since! Over a century later, that frustration still smarts.

The complexity goes still further. Vuna, on the western tip of Taveuni (the Cakaudrove paramount's stronghold island), is a more ancient kingdom and its paramount, the Tui Vuna, is held to have higher spiritual/social status than not only the Tuicakau of Cakaudrove, but even of the Vuniivalu of Bau, long believed (at least by the European community of pre-Cession Fiji, and then by the British-Fiji government) to be the most powerful chief in the Group. The relationship between Vuna and Cakaudrove was and is, like others in the Tovata, far from one made in heaven.

To non-Fiji specialists, this must all seem very esoteric. I apologise for that, but stress that my intention is not to burden you with detail but rather to indicate how many fracture-lines have been thinly veneered-over by the British-constructed myth of a single homogeneous indigenous Fijian people. Those fractures may start to open up if the integrity of that construct is further tested. Though the British fixed on the three identifiable eastern confederacies at the time of Cession, in fact within and outside those there were dozens of geographical/political groupings, all in a state of constant flux, and all of whom considered themselves essentially if not totally autonomous. The past thirteen years have shown that just beneath the surface, they still do. If enough stress is applied to the putative "Fijian" group, I have a mental picture of it cracking all over, like the figures in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Outside commentators have been so satisfied by the simple "racial" divide between Fijians and Indians, that they have failed to perceive such internal divisions between Fijians, or those within the Indian community. Not only do Fijians not intermarry much with those whose origins lie in the Indian subcontinent, but nor, largely, do Hindus, Moslems, and Sikhs. Even caste and/or regional origin groups (Punjabis, Gujaratis, Bombayas, Madrasis and so on ) within those have always tended to stick to their own. Much has been written of the British government policy of keeping Fijians and Indians apart, and the blame for racial tension has been laid at that door. There is truth in that, but it was not a policy the administration ever had to work very hard at - each group remained overwhelmingly preoccupied with their own internal divisions, and with attempting to cope with the exploitation and neglect they were all suffering because of colonial policies. As is so often the case with disadvantaged groups, a survey of the records will show that over the last century violence and murder tends to have been far greater within and between the sub-groups in each ethnic group, than between Fijians and Indians. While tensions between them do certainly go back to the start of indenture, physical violence has been a more recent manifestation, particularly since the coups have given it licence.

Recent events, like those of 1987, will actually bring Indians closer together in their shared injustice, give them common cause with Chinese and Europeans, and generate the support of the world community. But the odium the vast majority of innocent Fijians are sharing with the guilty few, and events such as the breaking-off of the west and now the proposed splitting of the Tovata, show that quite the opposite is happening to the Fijians. They are in great danger of losing the cohesion that, while it may have originally been externally-imposed, offered them their most powerful tool for maintaining a distinct place in the global community.

While he fanned racial hostility for his own and his backers' ends, Sitiveni Rabuka came to realise that along with the economic disaster and international approbrium his coups had brought, he had unwittingly prised open a Pandora's box of ancient intra-Fijian hostilities. Latterly, he tried to cram the box shut again, most notably with his support of the 1997 Constitution. But his unsought and charicaturistic imitator George Speight, seeing only his own advantage, oblivious to and uncaring of what Rabuka had come to realise, has wrenched the lid off again. The effects this time have been more immediate and more drastic. Hatred is a supremely powerful social solvent, and it runs into every crevice. The bonds it dissolves are proving to be not only the tenuous ones that had been painstakingly forged between Fijians and Indians, but others that the world at large had forgotten were so fragile. The legacies of this coup, like those of 1987, will in the long term be at least as disastrous for indigenous Fijians as for other ethnic groups in Fiji, and the options available to Fijians for redressing them are very probably fewer.


Rod Ewins © 12 July 2000. This article is copyright. Apart from those uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (as amended), no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author.