Fiji: Trade & Colonialism

Hello again dear readers! After a few days on holiday, we are back with the ABC of World History. Today I take you yet to another set of islands in the southern hemisphere: Fiji. I really wanted to bring more attention overall to the area of Oceania as part of this tour of the world moving away from eurocentrism and acknowledging the colonialist issues caused by many European powers throughout history which are in large still palpable today. So, Fiji sort of helped kill 2 birds with one stone. I don’t have enough time or space her today to tell you a lot about the history of this wonderful place, but I hope this will inspire more people to do research regarding these parts of the world as there are not a lot of accessible works out there in English for the public to read.

Quickly and for context: Fiji is in the south Pacific and the archipelago itself has 330 islands and 500 islets. Fiji used to be part of the British Empire and was a colony until 1970 when it gained its independence. But today we will be talking about the changes that happen to Fiji once proper contact with the Western powers is established in the 19th century and why this happened.

‘They Came for Sandalwood’: Western Trade & Fiji

Fiji was first visited in the 17th century by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. However, it wasn’t until 1804 that the first proper maintained contact between westerners and Fijians took place. The first people that showed a interest in the lands of Fiji were traders, and they went there for a very precious resource in ever growing demand: sandalwood.

Sandalwood is one of the worlds most expensive types of wood. It is yellowy, has a fine grain and it is an aromatic wood. Even amongst aromatic woods, sandalwood is particularly prominent as its smell can keep for years on end. This fragrance has been valued for centuries, and it was often consumed in the shape of sandalwood oil extract. The type of sandalwood that grows in Fiji is called Santalum Sayi which also appears in Tonga, and the oil extract is often for fragrances and cosmetics. Another cultural aspect to consider about sandalwood overall is that it plays an integral for Hinduism and Jainism practices and considering that part of Fiji’s population comes from the Indian subcontinent, I am sure you can all see why traders would want a piece of Fiji.

Fiji’s second largest Island, called Vanua Levu in fact used to be called sandalwood island for the abundance of this type of wooded areas. The traders began exploring the area assessing the resources particularly in Bua Bay. And this began an abrasive and deeply traumatic process of deforestation in the area. By 1815 the resources in the island were depleted. However, the frantic trade and exploitation of sandalwood alongside the trade industry regarding sea cucumbers (still very precious to this date as foodstuff and for medicinal purposes) brought other changes to Vanua Levu and Fiji overall, which would shape its future. The newcomers to the archipelago often coming from Europe or the United States, brought with them many new diseases as well as muskets. And with these foreign merchants and the increase of trade, the Fijians were introduced to cash economy, a concept foreign to the kinship rules of Fijian society where ownership for the land or goods was simply not a rule. For the Fijians things were there at their disposal, to be eaten, enjoyed, communally, and responsibly according to John Wesley Coulter.

The sea cucumber trade was what in 1820 drove the traders to establish the first proper westernised style town. The settlement was placed in Levuka, in the island of Ovalau, Fiji’s 6th largest island. This town used to be the capital of Fiji. The majority of the trade of sea cucumber from Fiji was destined to China where the demand was much higher than the supply of the produce they had. In this way, the merchants profited hugely from this enterprise. In the meantime, the local Fijians were use and farm hands and often paid not just in cash but with fire weapons. Both of these factors argues Brij V Lal are what drove Fijian society to great turmoil and instability throughout the 19th century. In the process of these exchanges and westernisation of the islands, something else slipped into Fiji and started stirring its people: Christianity.

Religion, Colonialism and Power Politics

With the elaborate excuse and exaggerated reality that gained Fiji the popular name as the Cannibal Islands, the foreign powers used cannibalism which they believed to be amoral and inhuman to spread their believes over the natives. The new religion (lotu) changed Fijian culture and its people. According to some westerners’ accounts such as those of David Whippey, an American sailor who worked as a mediator between the locals and the foreign communities, the Fijians had very little to gain, but heeded the call of the missionaries because they believed the merchant ships that came from afar brought for them a world of opportunities.

The lotu spread from Tonga and started not just Christianising the Fijians but also replacing aspects of Fijian identity with Tongan cultural elements which can still be seen now in the adoption of the sulu as a form of traditional dress. All these things stirred the resent and unrest of the Fiijians. In the turmoil amongst the different chiefs in Fiji, a Tongan leader, Ma’afu, started spreading his power over the Lau Archipelago in Fiji, in 1847. And amongst this struggle rises another figure who will become crucial to determine the future of Fiji: Cakobau, who was the chief from Bau. Without getting into the much complicated power politics between Cakobau and the other Fijian chiefs, Ma’afu and his expansionist Christian agenda, and the constant interference and profiting ventures of foreign powers (particularly the UK and the USA), all I’d say is that the fate of Fiji was destined to be left to the powers who went there to get its sandalwood and sea cucumbers, who years later will introduce other plantations such as cotton and coconut, further changing the landscape of their islands and the fabric of their society. And it was from this moment, in 1855 (with the exception of the 3 years of the Kingdom of Fiji in 1871-1874) that Fiji would have to wait over 100 years and go through more conflicts to finally find their freedom and footing as their own selves once again.

I hope this has inspired you all to look to other parts of the world and understand how everything in history is interlinked and how once again we can’t move forward if we cannot reconcile our past demons with the present. On that note, we shall see you next week where we explore a new country starting with the letter G.

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