Fiji: Where the British manage to bring disaster both when they arrive and when they leave

A man proudly showing off his home grown hibiscus — not the only thing Birmingham has in common with Fiji

My visit to the Melanesian isle of Fiji was another reminder of just how little I know about the world. I’d expected a tropical island paradise with a brutal colonial history, but I hadn’t expected the post-colonial experience to be so damning.

These volcanic islands have been inhabited for around 4000 years and had a rich history before the Europeans started circling and the British took over in 1874. History has shown that when my continental ancestors arrived in a new country, they would normally either making the Indigenous People work, kill them, ship them off to other places, or a blend of the three. In Fiji it was a bit more complex. The Fijians not only refused to work, but they also refused to pay taxes. The British responded by either accidentally or purposefully bringing in measles, which killed 40,000 Fijians and then followed up this trauma up with the “Little War” in which we burnt villages and moved many of the remaining Fijians off their land, replacing them with indentured sugar cane labourers from India. Four hundred and sixty-three Indians arrived on 14 May 1879, and by the time the scheme ended in 1916, 61,000 had arrived. By 1977 — seven years after Fiji gained independence, the Economist reported that ethnic Fijians were a minority of 255,000, in a total population of 600,000 of which fully half were of Indian descent. By 2016, however, this had changed dramatically, 56.8 per cent were Indigenous Fijians and 37.5 per cent Indo-Fijians

Fijian curry is fantastic

This week’s book, Kalyana by Rajni Mala Khelawan, tells the story behind these statistics, from the perspective of an Indian family who arrived as part of the first 463 Indians and stayed until Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka staged a coup, took power and started stealing land and power from Indo-Fijians. The book talks of how separately the Indigenous and the Indo-Fijians often lived even before the coup and about the cruelties that the titular character’s family inflict upon her. It may be one family’s story of leaving Fiji behind, but it makes clear why the ethnic make up of Fiji has changed so dramatically. I thought I would feel sad not to be reading a book by an Indigenous Fijian, but as history is written by the victor, I often prefer reading the stories of those who have been oppressed. Sadly in Fiji, it seems oppression is everywhere and the struggle for equality continues to this day.

Fijian chair with coconut milk

In addition to an Indo-Fijian book I had to accept that I would be cooking Indo-Fijian food. It was just too hard to find ingredients and vegan Indigenous recipes. What I did end up making was, I am pleased to admit, an absolutely delicious fish suruwa, kaddu and roti. I used the vegan white fish we always buy from the Chinese supermarket and this was the easiest roti recipe I have ever found, making bread that ripped apart perfectly. The key ingredient of the suruwa was coconut milk, as is so often the case with these island nations, and that little fact brings us perfectly to this week’s film…

His Majesty O’Keefe, a 1954 Burt Lancaster film which is loosely based on the life of Irish-American Captain O’Keefe, who hoped to make his fortune getting the local people to harvest copra, the white bit of a coconut which is rich in oil. His initial plan fails as the Indigenous people see no reason to change their lifestyle and refuse to work with him. Although the film is set on the Micronesia island of Yap, the film was shot in Fiji and all the Indigenous People and customs/dances portrayed in the movie were Fijian. It is as dated as you would expect, but was a great film to remind yourself of the dodgy politics of the 1950s.

Talking of dodgy politics, this week’s drink was Fiji water, one of the most unethical drinks in the world! It is plastic bottled water shipped around the world for the rich and soulless to quench their thirst. I headed to Waitrose so I could join their number and was not surprised that it tasted like Birmingham tap water! I used it to make another Indo-Fijian recipe Fiji Style Masala Chai which was delicious, especially as I did as all Fijians should do and swapped the dried milk for coconut milk!

So that just leaves us with music, of which I couldn’t find much and so I will only recommend the Fijian-Australian rapper Jesswar who I loved, and this album of traditional Fijian music which I was less enamoured with! To be honest I still feel like I haven’t learnt enough about Fiji, but time has run out and so I must run to Finland.

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Armchair traveller

Zero carbon lockdown travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.