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Notes on the Geography of Fiji: Fiji

Disgusting, these modern conveniences! You can fly to Fiji from Los Angeles and Honolulu, or from Seoul, Hong Kong, or Singapore, or from Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. No fun at all.

We should go back to 1922, when you boarded at Southampton, Liverpool or Glasgow, then sailed to Canada. No kidding. Across by CP or CN to Vancouver, and from there onto the steamers Niagara or Makura, operated by the Canadian and Australasian Royal Mail Line. Daily service? Ha! Each ship sailed bimonthly and stopped at Honolulu and Suva (on Fiji) before continuing to Auckland and Sydney.

You say you're starting in the States? No problem. You take the Union Steam Ship Company's steamer (I forget its name) from San Francisco to Wellington. There you take a train to Auckland and--no escaping it--the trusty Niagara or the Makura on their return swings to Suva. Pretty exciting, huh!

Still unhappy? No problem: the New Zealand Shipping Company and Shaw Savill & Albion both run steamers from Southampton to New Zealand via Panama. You still have to take the Niagara or Makura for the last leg. One catch: the Niagara sank after striking a Japanese mine off Whangarei, on New Zealand's North Island, but that was later on and, besides, nobody died.

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Yes, there are other ways, but what's the point in talking about them?

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More our speed, probably. This is the harbor at Nadi (pronounced Nandi), which didn't even exist (well, wasn't on the maps) back in 1922. How do I know this? Because I'm looking at the map published that year at the back of The Hill Tribes of Fiji, by Adolf Brewster-Joske, who, despite his name, was the long-serving British commissioner of the Tholo Province, on the north coast. Brewster, who found it more congenial to go by the Anglo-sounding name A.B. Brewster, spent 40 years in Fiji and is accordingly full of information. He tells us, for starters, that Fiji is not the proper name of the place: instead, "the majority of the natives themselves call their country Viti" (p. 36). So where does the name Fiji come from? The short answer is Tonga. Brewster says that Captain Cook arrived there in 1770 and recorded as Fiji the name Fisi, which was what the Tongans called Viti. (Don't worry; this won't be on the midterm.)

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What's drawing the yachts? That's a very good question, because it sure isn't the white-sugar sand of tourist promoters.

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How about this? Curb your enthusiasm.

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Nope: hard to believe that this is what draws the owners of superyachts docked here. Adjoining Nadi, Denarau is a private island developed for tourism in the 1970s by an American, Dennis McElrath.

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Sad story, no?

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It gets worse.

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Except for the mountains, you might think you were in a belly-up part of Florida.

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So we've left the private island and driven a mile or so to Nadi, which is a real place, though overwhelmed by foreign hordes.

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Aside from the tourist-trinketers, Nadi also has a real market, here late in the day. What are those bundles, you ask?

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Welcome to kava, piper methysticum, grown widely across the Pacific and made into a drink that's mildly sedative without being soporific.

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Hungry? There's taro, too, probably Colocasia esculenta. American gardeners know the genus, from its big leaves, as Elephant Ear.

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Ginger, bananas, and dynamite pineapples. (The Fijian dollar is worth about half a U.S. dollar.)

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Want to escape the tourists? It's easy. Here, we've come down the west coast an hour to Sigatoka (pronounced Singatoka).

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Sad to say, parking meters are a feature of the main street. They were invented in Oklahoma City, in case you didn't know. When they got to Fiji, I don't know. It's probably related to tourism, but tourists aren't the whole story here. That's obvious from the caramelized chhatris or rooftop pavilions at the back.

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Another sign of Indian immigrants: the family name comes from Bilimora, a town on the coast north of Bombay but closer to Surat. The building is pretty stylish. Late '40s, maybe?

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Yes, yes, we have numbers: between 1879 and 1916, 63,000 Indian immigrants arrived; 24,000 returned home after satisfying their labor contracts, but with natural increase Fiji by 1921 had 60,000 people of Indian descent. They constituted a bit over a third of Fiji's 157,000 people.

You need more data? Poor soul. Try The Colony of Fiji, 1874-1924 (Government Printer, Suva, 1924).

In a snit, Brewster writes (pp. 300-301): "I think that when I left, the Indian settlers in my district were happy and contented... Subsequently Indian lawyers and agitators arrived and stirred up sedition and discontent.... After that some of Gandhi's adherents appeared upon the scene and there were riots and strikes..."

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There was a Muslim contingent, too, as this mosque in Sigitoka shows.

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Which raises the not-so-difficult question of why the British imported Indian workers. The narrow-gauge track hints at the answer. There were about 350 miles of it, all the property not of the government but of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, which operated in Fiji from 1880 to 1973.

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The company's nationalized refineries are still in business, minus the choo-choo. Brewster warns (p. 26) that "the Singatoka [River] rises rapidly, rolling down its channel in a solid wall of water."

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The company was Australian and at first relied on sugar produced by native Fijians, who grew the crop reluctantly as an alternative to a British-imposed tax. The British eventually decided that indentured Indians would do better. Some worked for European planters selling to the CSR, others directly for the CSR. In the 1920s, however, the company subdivided its 100,000 acres into 400- to 1,000-acre lots leased to European tenants; some of the Indians stayed on.

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Most of the crop was grown on the drier north side of the island; the south side was too wet--a lesson learned the hard way--but the north side was wet enough that irrigation wasn't needed. It was a try-and-try-again process, including several refineries, most of which closed but four of which continue to operate today (including the biggest, at Lautoka, north of Nadi). Production is on a slowly declining path, but in 2015 the island produced about two million tons of cane. For the Indians who never escaped sugar, Fiji is a long way from the tourist's destination.

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In Brewster's time, a circumferential road had finally been completed around the island, but there were no roads across the island. He hoped for a railroad and wrote (p. 268) that the island could "be crossed almost entirely from north to south" by following "the valleys of the Rewa and Wainimbuka at easy gradients without any serious engineering difficultuies. It could be electrified also by the water power from the numerous brooks en route, and a short tunnel through the Natunu Gap would bring it down to the level coast plains."

About 1900 the colonial government, working jointly with the sugar company and the Union Steamship Company, did manage to build a 125-mile telephone line across the island. Brewster's railroad, however, never came, and even this road, heading north from Sigitoka, deteriorates badly in 10 or 15 miles.

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Here's a good stretch of the same road as it passes the Sigatoka Agriculture Station. Brewster writes (p.275), "As the roads progressed we planted the sides with all sorts of useful trees, cinnamon, cinchona, Liberian coffee, and many other ornamental shrubs and plants...The trees grew and flourished and afforded a welcome shade to the passers-by."

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What's cooking?

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Here's somebody plugged into the wider world.

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Yes, yes, you want to know all about this, and I'm going to disappoint you. No excuses: you just have to get a fellowship and spend some time looking around. I have a damned flight to catch. All I can tell you now is that we're in the Namosi Valley, with the Waidina River ahead of us at the foot of a dramatic andesite cliff. Carry on.

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How did the hills get cleared? Good question. Get cracking.

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