In the last two blogs we have learned more about Fiji in the 19th century and its connection to Scotland. This week Neil Curtis, head of museums and co-curator of ‘Fiji, Scotland and the Making of Empire’, tells us more about the connections between Fiji’s colonial past and its present.
Fiji became a British colony because leading Fijian chiefs, in the face of financial and other difficulties in the mid-19th century, including Tongan ambitions, requested permission to join the British Empire. Initially refused, a second request was granted in 1874, and Fiji became part of the British Empire. While settlers and missionaries had been acquiring local objects for many years, the arrival of Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon as the first Governor in 1875 saw him and members of his administration make some significant collections. These included his relative Arthur J.L. Gordon of Ellon Castle as Private Secretary and William MacGregor, the son of a farmworker in Towie as Medical Officer, both of whom later donated collections to the University of Aberdeen. The obsessive enthusiasm for collecting of Baron Anatole von Hügel, a Government House guest for two years, seems to have infected other residents. Ornithological specimens and ethnological items including weapons, yaqona (kava) bowls, whale ivory regalia and bark cloth were avidly acquired as Fijians adjusted to the new circumstances and made many of their traditional things available to Europeans.
The arrival of European and American traders and planters in the 19th century saw land being acquired for plantations under sometimes dubious circumstances, while the impact of missionaries led to most Fijians having converted to Christianity by about 1880. In the 19th century, Fiji had a number of chiefdoms whose relationships were marked by warfare and uneasy alliances. Some of the tribes resisted British rule, but were defeated in 1876 by a police force of Fijians led by a few Europeans, including Arthur J. L. Gordon. This short campaign, known as Gordon’s ‘Little War’, ended any serious resistance to colonial rule.
Perhaps as a prominent member of the Gordon clan, Sir Arthur decided to allow Fijian chiefs, as clan leaders themselves, to continue in power. He announced that ‘any useful native customs shall be retained, but improper customs shall be given up’, encouraging traditions such as the drinking of yaqona and the exchange of tabua (presentation whale teeth). This approach was later followed by William MacGregor in New Guinea and Nigeria, becoming known as ‘indirect rule’. It was a style of government that characterised many British colonies in the 20th century. One of Gordon’s first acts was to ban further land sales by Fijians to outsiders. To appease disgruntled planters, Gordon instituted a system of indentured labour, whereby over a 40-year period 60,000 workers were brought from India to work on plantations. Few of them chose to return to India and their descendants now make up c. 40% of the total population of about 900,000 people.
Fiji became independent in 1870, with a constitution that included a combination of a democratically elected parliament and a Senate which included representatives appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs to ensure that native Fijians retained their traditional land rights. Following the election of a government led by those of Indian descent in 1987, there was a bloodless military coup in 1987 led to Fiji becoming a republic. Parliamentary democracy was later restored but a further coup in 2006 has led to a complex political situation; a new constitution and elections are now planned for September 2014. Many Fijians have served, and continue to serve, in the British army, including the Black Watch and the Royal Scots Borderers.
As well as showing some important objects for the first time in many years, the exhibition is therefore also revealing the results of the latest research that has highlighted these surprising connections between the 19th century histories of North-East of Scotland and Fiji, with influences that have extended throughout the British Empire and to the present day. The Fijian Art project will also see some of Aberdeen’s rarest Fijian items being exhibited in museums across Europe in the coming years. In the meantime, the exhibition Scotland, Fiji and the making of Empire is open free until 23rd May in King’s Museum in the Old Aberdeen Town House and Lunchtime Talks are provided by our student volunteers three times a week.
Interested in Pacific collections across Scotland? Have a look at this brilliant blog which follows the progress of the The Pacific Collections Review, an 18 month partnership project supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, which aims to reconnect dispersed Pacific collections held in museums across Scotland and their histories – http://pacificcollectionsreview.wordpress.com/