The Influence of the Fijian Council of Chiefs in 19th Century Colonial Fiji

Dias, Dayna
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University of Hawaii at Manoa
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The system of colonial government that was established in Fiji after the 1874 Cession to Britain, was a controversial attempt to incorporate native chiefs into governmental positions. In contrast to French and other Pacific colonies in the late nineteenth century where indigenous political institutions were simply bypassed; in Fiji, a serious attempt was made to keep the spirit of indigenous institutions alive. Sir Arthur H. Gordon and John B. Thurston, were two Governors who genuinely sympathized with the Fiji an people. Their intention was to identify and preserve those features of the ancient society which they considered valuable. The Fijian Council of Chiefs, the focus of this study, was perhaps the most crucial element in the Native Administration that they created. It succeeded in bringing indigenous political leaders into the administration in a prestigious advisory body which recommended Fijian legislation to the Governors and became the official voice of the Fijian people. Many documents have been written on the contributions of British officials in Fiji. The European settler community, which opposed Fijian protectionism, was an articulate group whose myopic arguments against the "paternalistic" Fijian Administration have been widely accepted. Until the more recent publications of Deryck Scarr and others, most historians had failed to look beyond European viewpoints; the voice of the Fijian people themselves remained unheard. The unpublished minutes of the proceedings of the Fiji an Council of Chiefs, provide an expressive record of Fijian reactions to the tumultuous change of the post-Cession period. The recommendations they made to the Governors and the lengthy discussions recorded during their meetings, provide a rare opportunity to examine the earliest Fijian responses to colonial subjugation. The work of the Council of Chiefs in codifying and revising Fijian customs provided the foundation for the retention of village life in Fiji, assumed chiefly authority in internal Fijian affairs and continuation of a distinct Fijian culture and economy despite external change in the country. The specific ideas and-judgments of the Fijian chiefs as expressed during the meetings of the Council from 1875-1896 are presented in this paper so that their accomplishments in advancing a stable new social order and creating an atmosphere conducive to peaceful relations with the dominant European community, may be clearly appreciated. The Fijian chiefs were deprived of real legislative power. However, through the protective legislation they recommended, particularly in land, labor and social laws, and their conscious adherence to the essence of Fijian custom; the intimate bond between these chiefs and their people survived the first impact of European colonialism and continues to nurture Fijian unity and a marked cultural pride.
52 pages
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