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Disturbing History: Resistance in Early Colonial Fiji.

Disturbing History: Resistance in Early Colonial Fiji.

By Robert Nicole

University of Hawai'i Press:Honolulu,


pp. vix + 299 pages.

Hardback US $52

We have read histories of ethnic Fijians and their encounter with colonialism, and with key figures in the British colonial administration. We have also had a good many histories of the Fiji-Indian colonial experience of Indenture, perhaps most notably those of Brij Lal whom the author of this book readily acknowledges. We have had to wait a long time, however, for a monograph which examines both ethnic Fijians (i-Taukei) and Indo-Fijians within the same frame, both in relation to each other and in their decidedly different sets of experience with Europeans (some of whose descendents in due course came to be known as the Part-Europeans who for many decades now have played a significant--albeit largely scholastically neglected--part of Fiji's complex ethnic palette). I use the term 'sets' advisedly here for what Robert Nicole is at pains to emphasize is that neither Fijians nor Indians, nor for that matter Europeans, shared the same experience of British colonial rule, rather each category included different sets (and subsets) of colonial encounter; that is to say, different encounters among themselves, as well as with the machinery of British colonialism itself. In a word, life during the early decades of British rule, here confined to the years from 1874 to 1914, involved such different experiences along the colonial and resistance continua that we would best speak of them in the plural: as colonialisms (following Nicholas Thomas's lead) and resistances.

As well as addressing the leverage opportunities over others that colonialism provided particularly vanua chiefs from Bau and Rewa, in southeast Viti Levu, the author also examines in greater detail than anyone has previously, the various forms of resistance to internal colonialism (and here Nicole salutes Simione Durutalo's work) shown by tribes of the northern Viti Levu coast and, Colo, the mountainous western interior of the main island. Indeed throughout his narrative Nicole emphasizes the importance of geography, and i-Taukei sense of place and vanua when it comes to history. For that matter too, although the author wisely chooses not to go down this path, that sense of historical geography is also crucial to our understanding of social order and problems of 'democracy' arising since Independence in 1970 and, more particularly, since the coups beginning in 1987.

Sometimes resistance by Fijians and by Indians though rarely construed jointly, was structured, organized, and regarded as a serious threat by colonial governments; other times resistance was low-key, spontaneous and modest. Nicole closely scrutinizes both by way of case studies. Navosavakadua's Tuka movement in Ra is but one example of organized i Taukei resistance that comes in for close examination, along with Apolosi Nawai's Viti Kabani or Fiji Company, as local resistance to Bau and Rewa as much as to the British colonial administration. Another case of organized resistance, which by contrast to those just mentioned has had precious little attention till now, is the i-Takukei push for Federation with New Zealand that occurred around the turn of the twentieth century.

A less spectacular example of resistance than these by far, yet effective in how it lent weight to anticolonial sentiments and forces was the i-Tukei practice of simply walking away from their villages in protest at taxes imposed via compulsory extra garden work.

In the cane plantations, too, Indian resistance took on organized and less organized forms. On the one hand, strikes, non-compliance, and formal protestations from Wesleyan missionaries and from the Government of India; on the other hand, absenteeism, sabotage, the beating up of sardars, and the inspiration for resistance people found in their holy books and creeds. The resistance of women gets a chapter of its own, and though Fijian and Indian women had few opportunities for interaction, a fresh reading of the records shows both were active protesters, and in the Indian case as much active against the violence of their own men as resisting the violence of their white indentured employers.

Nicole's nuanced writing infuses each page. Binaries and primary colours are not his style, all is mottled, mosaic, complex, and teased out to present an immensely subtle picture and one that as I have already hinted, perhaps, it would pay not just scholars of Fijian history and anthropology to read, but the policy makers in Australia, New Zealand and further abroad.

Disturbing Histories puts to rest once and for all any lingering ideas there may be that British rule was on the whole passively received by i-Taukei, even if Indenture was not. As the title suggests it not only disturbs the colonial record, it disturbs the previous historiographies. It does this in the first instance by setting out the author's own ties with Fiji, which later led him out of the archives which lie at the heart of his work into more personal, ethnographic, village based talanoa inquiries. His use of John Kelly and Martha Kaplan's work, and hence acknowledgement of Sahlins type historical anthropology generally, incidentally, also adds immeasurably.

'Writing against the grain', as he calls it, Nicole leans on post-Marxism to note that Marxists missed 'the voices of ordinary people' and left it to the later school of subaltern studies to compensate. And that, broadly speaking, is what we get in this book, the notion, if not always the actual voices--for the colonial record has to be read 'against the grain'--of ordinary men and women. Voices from below. The two other major correctives he provides are a less eastern-centric history of Fiji and a less masculinist one.

Photos enliven the text and maps usefully guide us to the particular centres of organized resistance in various parts of Colo interior and coastal northern Viti Levu. Even those readers familiar with the literature of social movements in this part of Fiji will be glad of them. Fifty pages of endnotes, a two page glossary, and twenty in the bibliography, add to this most readable of books which betrays the author's background not just in politics and history--for he was a lecturer in them for many years at the University of the South Pacific--but in language and literature.

Disturbing History proves a great addition to the scholarly literature on Fiji and, ideally, one would wish to see it in due course inform social studies curricula not only at tertiary level but in the senior forms of Fiji's high schools where it has the capacity to generate the sort of critical thinking and proper appreciation of history that can only help individuals make better sense of their modern selves and their emergent national culture.

Christopher Griffin

Edith Cowan University
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Author:Griffin, Christopher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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