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Tavua town, lingering legacy of the gold fields

Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, December 09, 2012

At a corner of Tavua Town lies a plaque which marked the 70th anniversary of the gold mining operations at the town's goldfields where gold diggers first started with digging with their shovels in the November of 1932.

Before gold was discovered, the Tavua flats, which was well watered by the Nasivi River, was home to many planters and their plantations of rice, coffee and then eventually the Colonial Sugar Refinery took over and planted the whole valley with sugarcane.

Even though Tavua Town lies along Fiji's cane belt, it is more famous for its gold than anything else and has been so through the many years.

Gold was first discovered in Tavua by an old Scotsman William Borthwick and his companion Jack Sinclair an old CSR man. Both men were working for Pat Costello, the hotelier who was a popular Lautoka man at the time.

Borthwick first hit gold on November 1932 and from this rose the town of Vatukoula, thought it took many years later to develop. That job was left to former Australian deputy Prime Minister and businessman Edward "Ted" Theodore.

Much of the Vatukoula and the Tavua gold fields that we know of today were developed by Theodore who came to Fiji just a few years after the gold discovery.

With his business associates funding his mining activities in Fiji Theodore set about sinking the first underground mine shaft in Vatukoula before working to build a mill. He also planned the township that sprung up around the mine.

Theodore was the first man who convinced both the colonial government and Fijian chiefs to free the iTaukei people to work the mine.

This was the first time that the iTaukei people were allowed to leave their villages to find employment as the colonial government's policy at the time discouraged the use of the iTaukei as paid labourers.

An exodus of iTaukei men and their families to Vatukoula ensued with majority of them coming from the Ra and Tailevu provinces.

But under an order from Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna many iTaukei men from other provinces all made their way to Vatukoula

Theodore meanwhile gained the trust of the Tavua people that they made him an honorary chief and he was known as Ratu Edward Theodore and he even lived in a thatched bure. Of course his bure had all western amenities inside it.

It was known both in Fiji and Australia at the time that the Emperor Gold Mines was Ted Theodore as Ted Theodore was Emperor.

The golden years of the gold fields is still reflected in the old part of the town, which of course is the where the government station was located.

Tavua Hotel which has outlived its colonial splendour is still standing and operating and so too the Farmers Club where a sign still proudly stands.

Perhaps as a reminder that apart from gold, the farmers who first made use of the Tavua Valley are still around.

In between the sugar industry that dominated the Tavua landscape still survived the gold rush that ensued in the 1930s.

Up to this day, there are still the famous patchworks of sugarcanes right next door and as legend has it right on top of the goldmines.

The goldmine ran uninterrupted from that time right up until 2006 when it was closed down for the first time. Previous interruption had only been because of changes in management.

At its peak before the 2006 closure, the Vatukoula goldmine employed people living as far as the Rakiraki and Ba townships.

But a lingering legacy of the gold fields, is the unresolved industrial strike of the early 1990s by mine workers.

Tavua Town special administrator Arun Prasad says the closure in 2006 prompted another migration out of Vatukoula, Tavua, Ba and the surrounding areas.

"There was a very heavy migration from Tavua to Nadi, Lautoka and Suva, especially to Nadi where many of the former miners, businessmen and traders settled.

"We don't blame them because they have to make a living but the town (Tavua) went down on its knees," Prasad says.

Prior to that, the gold boom in the early 1990s which saw the price of gold skyrocketing in world markets, Tavua was finally declared a municipal town in 1992.

This brought it fresh hopes for a town which was up until the 1980s was just a one horse town, brief stopover between Ba and Vaileka in Rakiraki.

A hangover from this period is the fact that Tavua still has its main taxi stand and bus stand right on the Kings Rd.

Prasad says plans are already in place to move the bus and taxi stands to another part of town because the area where the stands are is getting congested.

"We had initially thought of moving the bus and taxi stand behind the market but that place now has other buildings springing up there and so the plan is to move it to another part of the town. This will clear the main carriageway for the town," he says.

Another problem that Tavua has to deal with is a squatting population at a place called Bangladesh which Prasad says the municipality hopes to formalise soon with the building of a housing sub division.

"We want to control this within the town boundaries and also in the semi urban areas and we're hoping to secure long-term leases so that we can build a housing sub division for these squatters," Prasad says.

However Prasad says the town is now optimistic following the reopening of the Vatukoula mine and much recently the announcement of a tax-free zone and other incentives in next year's national budget.

"The mine plays a vital role in the economy of Tavua as it looks after the whole welfare of the town that's a very important industry for the town," Prasad says.

He adds that the declaration of a tax-free zone from Korovou Town in Tailevu right up Tavua will definitely open more opportunities for the town in terms of investment and this is coupled with the recent upgrading of the Kings Rd.

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