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Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, December 02, 2012

WE stopped on a street at Varadoli in Ba Town and all we could do was wait for Mahendra Billmoria in the comfort of the airconditioned twin cab as the Ba mid-morning sun beat down mercilessly on us.

He has gone to arrange for us to meet and interview one of the last surviving men who came to Fiji from India in the second wave of the indentured labour system.

Khalifa Abraham is a 94-year-old Muslim who came to Fiji as a 15-year-old boy in 1934 to seek his fortunes with his uncle and brother, who had made the journey across the Indian and Pacific oceans a few years earlier.

For a man his age, Khalifa's recollection of his early memories of his early days in Fiji is as vivid as if it happened just yesterday. And he is well spoken too I must add.

"I came from India on the royal mail and when we landed in Fiji we were taken to Nukulau Island where I awaited a boat to bring me to Ba. We left at eight in the morning and arrived at Ba at 10 at night and it was a long journey," Abraham says.

When Abraham landed in Ba, it was already thriving as a sugarcane producing town as the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) Company had already establishing a sugar mill on the banks of the Ba River in 1886.

But the true roots of Ba Town are somewhat more bloodied than any other of the present towns or cities in Fiji.

Ba was settled by cotton farmers all on the fertile Ba River valley, but according to former Colo North District Commissioner in the late 1800s Adolph Brewster, the people of Vatusila in the interior descended upon two white settlers, namely Spiers and Makintosh in 1871, killed and ate them.

The Vatusila were on the warpath having already sacked, plundered and massacring some 370 of the Nalotu people of Ba in a year earlier. The Fiji Times reported that a head count by local iTaukei preacher named Silas or Sailasa, says that the Vatusila chief Wawabalavu who had earlier eaten the Methodist missionary Thomas Baker led the Vatusila warriors to Nalotu. He says the 370 dead people were from the three villages of Navunimasi, Draunitavi and Nasaga. Only 104 managed to escape to Ba.

Following the deaths of Spiers and Makintosh, Cakobau's government's attempt to pacify the Vatusila failed, but reprisals from other settlers and their slaves and equally cannibalistic men of the Solomon Islands decent, brought on another attack on the settlers.

As reported by Brewster, instead of the Vatusila, it was the Karawa people who lived in the hills towards the west of Ba who killed a white settler named Mr Burns who was massacred along with his wife and children. The children were killed by holding their legs and smashing their heads against the veranda posts.

Peace in the Ba River valley was only brought by Fiji's first governor general Sir Arthur Gordon who in 1876 through his so called Little War pacified the Vatusila and all rebellious tribes of the interior of Viti Levu.

It was only a decade later did the CSR arrive in Ba with its retinue of indentured labourers from India and started a sugar mill on the bank of the Ba River and its plantation covering all fertile river flats.

Betty Freeman, who was brought up in Ba during these times as a daughter of a CSR engineer, described in her book, Fiji - Memory Hold the Door, the Rarawai Mill in the early part of the 20th century as a monster which roared both day and night with smoke billowing from its chimney, steam from its vents and whistle renting the air.

At night she likened its thousand electric bulbs to a well lit huge ocean liner.

"During crushing season black bagasse which issued from the chimney stack distributed smudges willy-nilly to our hair, faces, clothes, laundry and outdoor furniture and a sickly caramelised aroma from the by-product molasses hung over the district. This 'fragrance', evocative of childhood, as ambrosial to me now as to Chanel No.5," Freeman wrote.

And as I found out recently - Freeman passed away on the 7th of last month in Australia. Her obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, her family bade the familiar farewell of Ni Sa Moce. May she Rest In Peace.

Following the abolishment of the indenture and the introduction of the merchants of the Indian diaspora, did the young Abraham make the crossing to Fiji in 1934.

He hails from the province of Gujarat in India and was already a Muslim when he arrived. The only languages he knew at the time was Urdu and Gujarati.

"When my uncle and brother came, they had to learn English and Fijian in order to make business, and I came here to be a barber and all I know is how to cut hair," he says.

One of Abraham's best experiences as a barber during these early days was when he asked to cut hair a day after landing in Ba.

"My very first haircut was to cut a native Fijian's hair and it was all grown and bushy. Another time I was asked by two memsaabs to cut their hair. Its two European ladies! I was nervous because this is the first time for me to cut European hair but after I cut their hair they liked it," Abraham says.

Freeman's description of the barber in Ba Town in those days was not good from a child's point of view.

"At intervals an Indian barber was invited to set up a chair on the hall verandah and the small boys of the settlement were rounded up. The barber was feared more than the dentist and my playmates were not the ones to suffer a hair cut quietly. The same barber would be waiting on the lawn beside the office on a Friday afternoon when the mill labour was paid. Midday Saturday found him stationed under the mango tree by the church eager to remind the quarters' sahibs with blighted hopes, that a haircut could work wonders," she wrote.

Abraham remembered the migrant Indian merchants used to sleep along the veranda of their shops at night under a mosquito net.

Mahendra Billmoria recalled his father telling him of this because, at the time, many of these merchants were trying to establish themselves and only had the front of their shops as means of a bed.

Two of Fiji's famous retailing giants, Motibhai and RC Manubhai were part of this migrant merchant community in Ba Town's early days.

The Motibhai Group was founded by Motibhai Patel and his brothers, Prabhudas and Parshottamdas.

A young Motibhai came from western India in 1929 and worked at a leading grocery store of Ba at the time. Soon he started his own little store at Kumkum which is located on the bank of Ba River. Kumkum is the halfway point between the interior highlands and the coastal Ba area and it's the staging point for those going up into the hills.

Today, the company is a major retailing outlet in duty free goods as well as being a distribution and wholesale company in Fiji.

RC Manubhai, a famous hardware company was established in the mid-1920s, by brothers Dahyabhai Patel and Raojibhai Patel who arrived in Fiji from India to set up a small grocery store at Korovuto under the name of DV Patel & Sons.

From the mid 1940s to late 1950s, Raojibhai worked for a hardware store where he was later joined by his brother. In 1960, they decided to set up their own business and called it RCManubhai which sold groceries and hardware.

In the mid-1980s, RC Manubhai decided to concentrate on hardware due to growing demand in the construction, sugar, mining and engineering industries.

Another famous son of Ba Town, Vinod Patel who started the hardware giant of the same name, left school at the age of 16 , to become a breadwinner for his family.

After working at hardware shops in Ba and nearby towns, Patel along with his younger brother decided to start their own business.

And as they say, everything else became history, not only for Vinod Patel, but also for the sons of Ba who had become leading name in business like New World Supermarkets, Kasabias, Ba Motors, Motibhai, RC Manubhai, and Meenos to name some of them.

On the same note, it can be said that the birthplace of Fiji's tourism industry is Ba Town, as the man who is considered the father of Fiji's tourism industry Sir Hugh Ragg had his roots in Ba.

Sir Hugh's first hotel was the Ba Hotel which still exists today, and his first ever acquisition as he expanded his hotel chain, was the Lautoka Hotel which he bought in 1940. He later concentrated his hotel investments along the Coral Coast long before the Mamanucas and Nadi were developed.

But as Ba Town grew, there was a single event which nearly changed the history of the town - a fire in the 1960s that nearly destroyed the whole town.

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