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Melanesians of Wailoku

Sailosi Batiratu
Sunday, December 23, 2012

THE world is now a smaller place with the advent of new technologies which make global communication, transaction, money transfers among other things instantaneous. And the effects of what happens on the other side of the world can be felt in a group of islands in the South Pacific.

That is exactly what happened during the second half of the 19th century.

In the US, several Southern states or slave states had declared their secession and formed the Confederate States of America.

This group was also known as the Confederacy or the South. In 1861-1865 the Confederacy fought the American Civil War against the Union also known as the North. The conflict had its origins in the issue of slavery.

The North prevailed and slavery was abolished in the US.

So what did this have to do if anything for people on our side of the world? What was the consequence for some Pacific Islanders?

For one, the civil war drove up the price of cotton on the world market. This meant it was an attractive crop and so there were more people interested in planting cotton. The sharp increase in the price and more people entering the field as planters meant there was a demand for more farm labourers.

In Fiji the early planters had quickly come to realise one fact. The indigenous Fijians were not readily inclined to wage-earning work. They could work but it seemed the type of work and the length of their working day was to be at their discretion. When they wanted to work, then they would. Otherwise they just wouldn't bother.

So the planters had to look elsewhere for more willing labourers.

The situation faced by the planters was not made any easier when Fiji became a British colony.

The then governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, had implemented a policy forbidding the recruitment of native Fijians as labourers. So they looked abroad.

Aduru Kuva in his book, The Solomons Community in Fiji, says the boats often seen in island waters then were those of labour recruiters.

He writes that the majority of the 23,000 islanders were from the Solomon Islands with the remainder from the then New Hebrides, now Vanuatu.

Winston Halapua in his book Living on the fringe: Melanesians of Fiji, says there were 27,027 contracts of indenture were entered into.

However their tenure as farm labourers was short-lived as figures showed mortality among the Melanesians was very high. This was not because of the conditions they encountered on the farms, it was more because of the illnesses of which they had not experienced and against which their systems had not developed an immunity. They were replaced by workers sourced from the Indian sub-continent.

As more and more of the indentured contracts belonging to Melanesians expired there was a pressing need to settle them somewhere where they could to a certain extent maintain some form social cohesion that they had in their homeland.

According to Halapua the Anglican Church in Fiji established Wailoku as a Melanesian settlement.

On page 16 of his book Halapua writes: "Although the Anglican Church created Wailoku settlement as a central home to bring together the scattered Melanesians in Fiji in order to restore their sense of identity and self-esteem, this goal was not achieved and Melanesians remain marginalised."

He said the first boatload of labourers arrived in 1864 with 180 workers all from Vanuatu.

Gathering facts for another story and after sharing several bilo of yaqona at Lami Village with Esiromi Ratini of the mataqali (landowning unit) Nasevou, he had briefly shared that the Melanesians at Marata Village in Wailoku were on their land. That portion of land he said was where their land abuts that of Tamavua Village.

Ratini said their ancestors had agreed to giving this piece of land after having been approached by Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna. According to him, his grandfather Vetaia Seni, who had lived from 1858 into the early 1900s, had entered into the deal with that statesman and chief, Rt Sukuna.

Halapua puts the date of the establishment of the Melanesian community at Wailoku as 1941. Ratini said they had not wanted the Melanesians and their ancestors to lease the site of where Marata Village now sits. He said it was at the insistence of the Anglican Church that leases were drawn up.

Even if some leases are not paid, Ratini says they of the mataqali Nasevou will not renege on what their ancestors had agreed to.

Ratini says there is a bure at Marata Village in which their elders and the representatives of the Melanesian community had reached that initial agreement.

He said a pit was dug and in it was buried things, called ria and other material used in black magic practices, the Melanesians had brought over.

Ratini said two tertiary students had once attempted to unearth the contents of the pit.

They were unsuccessful and also did not complete their studies because they lost their mental faculties.

Marata Village headman, turaga ni koro, Jo Teana when asked about the state of affairs in the village says they have inorporated all the practices of iTaukei villages. He said there were regular village meetings. There are days set aside for cleaning the village and its surrounding areas. Teana said some among them were adept at traditional iTaukei presentations.

He confirmed the existence of the bure, among the 50-plus houses of Marata Village, which I had heard about in Lami. He also confirmed the bundle of yaqona over which their ancestors had reached an agreement with the elders of Nasevou.

Teana says three of the five villages at Wailoku are on Nasevou land. They are Marata, Koio and Balikula or Waitebala.

Teana, who was first headman in 2005-2006 and again in 2011 until the present, says that while they are very grateful for the area in which they live there are two things which the descendant of Melanesian labourers, among them the 300 to 400 villagers of Marata, would want to be different.

First of all is a change in their circumstance that would allow them to own land.

Teana says they have been leasing at Wailoku for a very long time and would dearly love to see that change.

The other is what he feels could be better distribution of scholarships to their children. Teana says it seems the distribution is against their children from pursuing studies in the field of law and the other professions.

Teana says they have joined several political parties including the United General Party in the hope that politics would be the vehicle to change for the better among Melanesians.

He says they are hoping government, after deciding that we are all to be known as Fijians, will implement some changes that will eventually see them owning land.

He laments the fact that their ancestors were brought over to work for the then colonial government but they have been on the margins ever since.

Speaking with Teana about the Melanesians of Wailoku brought back the words written by Levy M Laka after he had conducted a study in 1983.

"The insecurity of the land faced by the Wailoku community comes because our forefathers came from the Solomon Islands and that do(es) not entitle us to any land rights even though our mothers are Fijians. We have no rights, no say, no share in whatever land that belongs to our mothers."

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