When I worked as a freelance sound and lighting technician with a new film crew for CBS, we traveled with presidential candidate George Wallace in the 1964 and 1968 campaigns. The feisty Alabama governor always spoke to partisan crowds, and one of his favorite expressions, repeated in every speech, was: The chickens are coming home to roost. I don’t know if that’s of
southern origin, but it never failed to produce a thunderous response, for everyone know he derided the Washington politicians for their past actions, and now they were going to pay for it when he was president.
I think of those scenes often when I read about the turmoil of Fijian politics, the squaring-off of the indigenous Fijians and the Indian population. The Fiji Islands were a British colony from 1874 to 1970; from 1879 to 1916, more than 60,000 indentured laborers were imported from India to work the sugarcane plantations. After their terms of five years’ servitude and another five years’ residency, instead of returning to India, many stayed, leasing land from Fijians to become small-scale farmers or to open shops. But they were animosity that exists today. The near-million-population of Fiji is about evenly split between the Melanesian Fijians and Hindi-speaking Indians. The ethnic pot that has been simmering for the last half of the 20th century has boiled over several times in the past 15 years. There were two coups in 1987, and in 1999 government officials were held hostage for a lengthy period.
The Fiji Islands, or Republic of Fiji Islands, are made up of more than 800 islands, occupying 7, 095 square miles. The large islands are of volcanic origin with mountains, the highest peak on the biggest island, Viti Levu, at 4, 344 feet. Fiji is approximately 3, 000 miles southwest of Honolulu and about 1, 900 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. Though belonging to the Melanesian ethnic group, early extensive contact with Polynesia, particularly Tonga, drew the Fijians closer culturally to the Polynesians.
The islands were settled some 3, 500 years ago. The first European to sight the islands was that traveling Dutchman, Abel Tesman, in 1643. It was not until early in the 19th century, however, with the discovery of the valuable sandalwood on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, that European and American contact intensified. The vigorous trade that followed almost stripped the island.
Warfare among the clans and chiefs continued until the British established control in 1874. Today, almost 60% of the population is rural, concentrated in fishing or farming villages of less than 600. These Fijians live by subsistence farming in communal villages. Many Indians also live in small communities, often leasing land from the Fijian landowners for subsistence crops and sugarcane as a cash crop. As the Fijians and Indians look to the future, many compromises are going to be necessary. Visitors to Fiji hope they can be accomplished peacefully.