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GENTLE LAUTOKA

Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, November 18, 2012

The very first mention of Lautoka or its surroundings was in the legend of the start of the ancient religion of the Naga. The legend of the religion of the Naga was recorded by one of the first Commissioners in Fiji Adolph Brewster in the late 1800s.

In his book 'The Hill Tribes of Fiji', Brewster says the legend of the Naga was brought to Fiji by two individuals named Visina and Rukuruku. The pair landed at Vitogo, which is a village near the present day city of Lautoka.

Another popular legend of spear wielding chiefs actually described how the city got its name. But to whom this legend belongs to I didn't find out. However it is quite a pleasing analogy in finding out the amount of modern historical literature available about Lautoka.

Of course as always, the birth and significance of any town is due to its economic capability and it is largely to that extent did Lautoka rise from the gentle and grassy hills on this north eastern corner of Viti Levu to become Fiji's second city.

Methodist missionary John W. Burton succinctly put it in his book 'The Fiji of Today' which was published in 1910 where he says, "If any illustrations were needed of the things possible to capital and enterprise, scarcely a better one could be found than sugar in Fiji. Ten years ago the country around Lautoka for example were mere scrub, swamp and tangled brake.

Today thousands of acres of healthy cane ripen in the warm sun. The district then was a wilderness, save for a few unimportant native villages surrounded by higgledy-piggeldy gardens".

In June of 1903, after pouring a quarter of a million pound sterling into the project and spending two years developing its largest mill in Fiji, the CSR Lautoka Mill started crushing sugarcane. It is a job which this mill is still reverently doing up to this day.

The work had started in 1899 where workers not only built the mill but also built the living quarters for the CSR workers and management and also recreational facilities like a tennis court, a football ground and other creature comforts on this frontier.

The colonial government followed suit and established a government at Natabua, some four miles away out of the town area, complete with a court house, a police station, a jailhouse and other administrative facilities needed to oversee the growth of the sugar industry.

According to the late Philip Snow, a former colonial administrator, in his book, 'The Years Of Hope', that Lautoka as a town was initially populated by the Indian coolies and their European bosses. Actually they were all Australians save for a few Irishmen and an odd Englishman appearing within the CSR ranks.

Lautoka first as a town and later as a city emerged from this well to do beginning and with it brought also a few characters that were local legends in their own right and we're fortunate enough that their deeds had been immortalised in the written words.

One such person was Arthur Tedder, who later became Lord Tedder and also the Chief Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Tedder's first appointment in His Majesty's colonial service was Fiji and specifically Lautoka. He was based there when the First World War broke out. He recounted this tale later in 1960 when on a visit to Fiji as Air Marshal.

Tedder said that the Colonial Secretary personally asked him to oversee the defences of Lautoka because of intelligence that two German warships, the Schornhost and Gneisenan were in the vicinity. In fact when the call came in, Tedder who was just an administrative assistant then was the only person present in the office. The provincial commissioner and his assistant were both out of the office when the call came.

He took it to heart and managed to scrounge together 20 odd rifles and an assortment of men and that was the closest Lautoka came to seeing action in WWI. Tedder reminisced in 1960 that the colonial secretary was very concerned with the coal supply in Lautoka.

But in the very same year, 1944, Tedder was transferred back to England where he began his meteoric rise in the Royal Air Force.

Another character that played a famous role not only in Lautoka but also along the cane belt area is the gentlemen I had alluded to earlier, the missionary Burton.

Of course as history knows it, Burton was more sympathetic towards the indentured labourers that were working the sugarcane fields of Fiji at the time. He was charged by the Methodist Church to work amongst the Indians and to find some among them, those who can carry the burden of the cross.

In fact Burton's work amongst the indentured labourers in Lautoka and the surrounding areas was also an important contributing factor that led to the worldwide abolition of the indenture system.

He was seen by many as a social campaigner and the whistle blower on Indian indenture in Fiji.

In a small booklet he circulated in Fiji and Australia in 1909 Burton says the indenture system in Fiji is like slavery save for the name and the term of years and adds that the coolies themselves call it narak, which is Hindi for hell.

When the indenture system was abolished in 1916 Lautoka's population swelled with the release of this massive workforce from their yokes.

This meant a complete change in demographics and traders from India started migrating to Fiji as the second wave of the Indian diaspora started to take root in the 1920s.

By 1929, Lautoka was officially declared a town but the administration or the day to day running of the town was still firmly in the hands of the central government and of course, with some influence from the CSR.

It had to wait some more years yet before a local government system was set up and a pharmacist Clarence Angleson Adams became its first mayor.

Another character that came to the fore in the 1930s was the Australian born Pat Costello, the forerunner of the Costello family that still call Lautoka their home.

He came to Lautoka as a hotel keeper, and in 1915 built the Shamrock Hotel which is now called the Lautoka Hotel.

Born Patrick Costello in Queensland, he is credited with being the first man to find gold in the Nasivi River because the Scotsman who found it, William Bothwick was under his employ at the time and Costello himself funded the prospecting expedition.

Costello first came to Fiji in 1909 as a 20 year old and found work in Suva and after working for Morris Hedstrom, later Brown & Joske, Costello went into business for himself.

Don Chaput an American museum curator described Costello as a shrewd investor, a wild raconteur and a man who knew most of the roads and leading personalities on Viti Levu.

Costello was also described as the wild and gregarious Irishman and even R. W. Robson, editor of the Pacific Islands Monthly who knew Costello well says he was always seeking pleasure and interest, wherever it might be found.

The Fiji Times even recalled that Costello had a bright and cheerful personality and the traditional humour of his Irish ancestry.

But to the man himself, he would reply, and of course with a glass in hand and laughing heartily at himself say that he is just a country publican, two steps ahead of the debt collector.

It is true that Fiji gold made Costello a wealthy man, but Costello was a successful man prior to the gold find. Costello had interests in hotels, shops, and ranches, from Suva to Lautoka.

He was also an auctioneer, estate and commission agent, representative of the Royal Insurance Company, proprietor of Lautoka Electric Supply, grew tobacco at Labasa, owned an island off Ellington where he raised goats for the local market, and maintained a cattle ranch at Sigatoka.

Again, the world was plunged into war in the late 1930s and Lautoka with a good port facility was in the fore of things apart from Nadi and Suva.

With the aerodome and the airstip in Nadi, Lautoka was besieged by the New Zealand and American forces who were enroute to the war theatre of the Solomons and Bouganville.

As attested to by Snow, American naval task force made appearances in the Vuda-Nadi Bay area complete with Aircraft carriers. Later it was found out that the American fleet included the aircraft carrier the USS Saratoga as well as the battleship Colorado. The Saratoga was coming from Hawaii on its way to Guadalcanal while the Colorado's area of operations was between Fiji and Vanautu. The task force was commanded by Vice Admiral Harry W. Hill.

And furthermore, most of these sailors and fly boys as they call them those days used to take leave and go into Lautoka for shopping or to have a drink or two. And that goes too for other American soldiers, battleships or aircraft fleets that call into North Western Viti Levu.