Fiji: Windows on a turbulent history

By Graham Reid

Museum exhibits give an insight into Fiji's tumultuous past, writes Graham Reid.

Reverend Thomas Baker was eaten on the island of Viti Levu. The locals then tried to eat his boots, bits of which are displayed in the Fiji Museum.
Reverend Thomas Baker was eaten on the island of Viti Levu. The locals then tried to eat his boots, bits of which are displayed in the Fiji Museum.

Give them credit, they were persistent.

When the Reverend Thomas Baker, a Methodist minister, unintentionally insulted a chief on the Fijian island of Viti Levu in 1867, he and six of his Fijian followers were hacked to death and eaten. Baker has the dubious honour of being the only European Methodist to be dispatched in such a way.

But the locals didn't stop with him. They also tried to eat his boots, with bits of one on display in the Fiji Museum, 10 minutes walk from downtown Suva.

There in a glass case you may also see Rev Baker's Bible, the bowl he was served up in and a large wooden fork.

This small but fascinating museum offers an insight into many aspects of Fiji's social, religious and political history.

One especially intriguing exhibit reveals 19th century missionaries spread the idea Fijians were descended from Egyptians. This lead to a local paper in 1892 telling of the journey from Thebes up the Nile to Lake Tanganyika and then on to Fiji in the Kaunitoni canoe.

The visitor is greeted on entry to the museum by the impressive 97-year-old outrigger Ratu Finau - "the last Waqa Drua" (ocean-going canoe) - which has a main hull 13.4m long and massive steering oars which needed four men - four Fijian men, remember - to operate. This, we are told, "is a relatively small canoe in comparison to those from the 1800s".

The museum not only offers artefacts such as 3000-year-old Lapita pottery and distilled history - such as how the population fell from 250,000 to 85,000 between 1800 and 1921 through the ravages of imported European diseases - but oddities of specific interest to the New Zealand visitor.

Here, for instance, is a 1991 wedding dress made of masi (tapa) by New Zealander designer Annie Bonza. You can see examples of Maori designs being incorporated into Fijian carving. And there is the bamboo fishtrap which coincidentally looks like a vuvuzela and is called a "vuvu".

With all this on offer a day in the museum is one well spent. Just getting there is an interesting walk from downtown cosmopolitan Suva and its mix of multi-ethnic shops through architecture which ranges from handsome colonial to odd Art Deco and 70s embarrassments.

The museum is located in Thurston Garden with a large clocktower dedicated to the first mayor of Suva, G J Marks, who was drowned in the St Lawrence River, Canada, in 1914 when the SS Empress of Ireland sank.

Nearby is the ghost of one of the saddest of Suva's old buildings, the harbourside Grand Pacific Hotel, which is now a neglected ruin. Renovated it could be the Raffles of Fiji, but today young soldiers use it to lounge around lazily.

I asked if I could look inside, was waved on with a smile, and the young soldier accompanying me joined in bemoaning its condition as we stood in the grand hall looking at the blue ocean beyond.

The presence of soldiers is a sign that politics is inescapable in present-day Fiji. And the museum offers a reminder that such turbulent times are not unusual.

Its displays tell of the Kingdom of Fiji and the short-lived Cakobau Government (1871-74) which printed its own paper money in the years before the country became a British colony; of the shameful "blackbirding" (coercing or kidnapping of people from other islands, notably the Solomons, to work on Fiji's plantations); of the dwarf priest who was sold to Barnum, Coup and Costello's American circus to raise funds for the government in the late 19th century; of the indentured labourers from India (the practice only ended 100 years ago); and of Moy Bak Ling who went from Duan Feng in China to the Australian goldfields as a 17-year old but fled the appalling conditions and sailed solo to Levuka in 1855 where his carpentry shop was the first Chinese business established in Fiji.

Today, a kilometre or so from the museum, the Chinese Government is building an enormous new embassy behind towering walls and using labourers brought in from the mainland.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Pacific flies every Friday (and Monday, from August) direct to Nausori Airport, Suva from Auckland, departing 8am and arriving 11.05am. Return flight Suva to Auckland departs 12.15pm arriving Auckland 3.20pm. For package deals see airpacificholidays.com.

Fiji Museum: For information on the Fiji Museum see fijimuseum.org.fj.

Further information: On general tourism matters see fijime.com.

Visitors are advised to check the New Zealand Government Travel Advisory for up-dated information about risks of travel in certain regions.

Graham Reid flew to Suva courtesy of Air Pacific and Destination Suva.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 21 Sep 2014 08:34:13 Processing Time: 1577ms