Fiji- The Indian Connection

Fiji’s natural and cultural history show a strong influence from the faraway subcontinent.

fisherman, Lautoka

Fisherman, Lautoka

Fiji is a jewel of a destination. Islands like these, in the far southwest Pacific, hardly seem real to Canadian eyes, with their jagged green mountain ranges sloping steeply downward into calm azure waters.

Do people really live their lives in places like this, with such staggering beauty (and stifling heat?) Of course they do, and the people of Lautoka, a small coastal town on Fiji’s largest island Viti Levu, are among the most polite and outgoing of any I have met in my travels. Walking around town, I soon learned the local greeting, “Bula,” though I spent the first few hours parroting “moolah” “oola” and even—absurdly— “hola” before someone finally explained it to me.

merchant, Lautoka

Merchant in the market

It’s a handy turn of phrase: not only is it an all-purpose greeting, but everyone—and I mean everyone in Lautoka—takes a moment to say hello to you on the street. It amazes and delights me when I meet local people who don’t seem to have an ounce of cynicism or disdain for the hordes of foreigners who arrive each year. Fiji is a tremendously popular place for Australians on package tours.

We were interested in the local bird life, and made our way to the edges of town where the big tropical trees are. One of the first species to catch our eye was the Indian mynas, and along with it them the jungle myna, a slightly darker and smaller version of the former. These birds are anything but shy. Squawking, screeching and occasionally sweetly singing, mynas are everywhere: on the street, on the lawns, in the hedges. Originally native to India, they were introduced as caged birds and wasted no time in making areas like Lautoka their home. (The city of Vancouver had a population around East Hastings Street for a while; they finally died out about ten years ago.)

jungle myna

Jungle Myna

It took us a while to find a native species; unfortunately some of them have trouble competing with the mynas. But we found Vanikoro flycatchers and reef herons and migrant tattlers from the north. And I whooped with delight to see the Fiji parrot finch; I used to breed finches, and always coveted the exotic green-and-red parrot finches. This species is found nowhere else in the world.

Fiji parrot finch

Fiji parrot finch

Later, another Indian native caught our eye: the weasel-like mongoose. We saw them skulking along creek beds and at the edges of fields. They were brought here in the 19th century as a form of biological control; it was hoped they would eliminate the introduced rats. The experiment went predictably awry and the mongoose, an eater of birds’ eggs, has had a devastating effect on the ecology of the larger islands.

Lastly, we caught sight of the red-vented bulbul. These dark songbirds, with their scarlet vents (“vent” is bird-speak for the area around the rear orifice) were busy trying to rid a big broad-leaf tree of a plague of insect larvae. They seemed to be having quite a field day with them.

bulbul

Portrait of a bulbul

I’m not sure how the bulbuls came to be here from their native India; maybe they too were once a caged bird. I wonder if they were brought here by the Indians who arrived in the nineteenth century, a reminder of the homeland they left behind.

The arrival of thousands of Indians was one of the last chapters in the story of human migration to these islands, or more precisely of human trafficking. The native Fijians, a Melanesian people, had been here for at least three thousand years, and Fiji’s isolation (and formidable reefs) sheltered them from the earliest wave of European exploration. But eventually, the foreign entrepreneurs came, eager to turn a profit in cotton and sugar cane. Labour shortages gave rise to the practice of blackbirding, where unscrupulous recruiters from Britain and Australia traveled from island to island across the South Pacific, offering lucrative contracts to those who would come to work the fields. Tricked into signing contracts they couldn’t possibly understand, these indentured islanders found themselves little more than slaves, working under sometimes brutal conditions.

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The British finally put a stop to blackbirding in 1872, but the labour shortages (compounded by measles and other European-introduced epidemics) persisted. The governor-general consented to the import of indentured Indian labour under more formal five-year contracts. Many of the Indians chose to stay at the end of their terms, and ultimately the Indian population of Fiji swelled to a near-majority.

This ethnic mix of native Fijians and Indo-Fijians creates an uneasy dynamic today. The Indians, speaking a dialect of Hindi unique to the islands, have become the de facto merchant class here, and their success inspires both jealousy and admiration among the natives. They’re still considered foreigners almost 150 years after their arrival; the constitution specifies that only those of native descent have the right to be called Fijians, and only the natives have access to much of the islands’ property.

father and son

The matching watches!

The status of the Indo-Fijians is just one of the sticking points that make current Fijian politics so very dynamic. The country has had four coups d’etat in recent memory, with each leader vowing to grant (or take away) further rights to the Indo-Fijians, as the case may be.

None of this ethnic tension is on display, though, as we walk among the markets of Lautoka. While it’s clear who is native and who is of Indian descent (there appears to have been very little intermarriage), all seem to get along when there’s business to be done, and all are warm and friendly to passers-by like us.

We will return to Fiji in the weeks to come. I look forward to experiencing more of its remarkable diversity, both natural and cultural. I have never seen anywhere quite like it.

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2 Comments

  1. I was in Fiji in 1970, with my sister (we were ten and twelve) and our parents. It was stupendous. There was a swimming snake in shallow clear water above off-white sand; you mentioned swimming snakes.
    My mother bought pretty little sea shells from a handsome little boy. The most exotic one was marked 10¢. In our hotel room later, we learned that tiny 10¢ sticker concealed a tiny hole in the giraffe-patterned shell. my mother thought it was funny to have been duped by that little boy, so my sister and I did, too.
    There were lizards in the hotel, roads of hard-packed sand, and a kava-kava ceremony that was a little wanton, if that’s possible. It started with the passing of a bowl of the odd-tasting liquid from which all present drank. It ended with a dance in which we tourists were interspersed with Fijian men in an arrangement very like the bunny-hop. I don’t know how I survived that. I was shy and the Fijian men weren’t really dressed, by my standards.
    From there to Tahiti, where I played in the waves with a lone Tahitian girl on a black sand beach. I don’t think we exchanged words, but we were playing together: there was no one else in the water. I was thrilled by pomelos and had one for breakfast every Tahitian morning. Then a dash through the best known parts of Australia, where an opal mine, a place with marvelous cockatoos of every configuration, and leaving my Penguin paperbacks (Enid Blyton and Tove Jansson) in a cab and getting scolded are most of what I remember. It was the only trip my family ever managed, other than annual returns by station wagon to Canada to visit relations and my parents’ old friends.
    It’s nearly the only trip I’ve been on. (I was flown to Paris twice to work on CD-ROMs in the 1990s.) Still, if I had the ability, I wouldn’t think twice about repeating it, even without having gone anywhere but those islands, France, and the edges of Canada and Mexico. Some day. (I have, in Los Angeles, a Pomelo tree so productive its branches sometimes snap, unable to sustain the offer of so much fruit without my taking it more of it than I do.)

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