On an earlier History page entitled: “The unstoppable march of Christianity”, I flagged the return of grandfather Livai Veilawa from France and Italy in September 1918, having joined and participated in Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna’s Fiji Labour Corps or Fiji Labour Detachment. Ratu Sukuna was a great Fijian chief and leader who died in 1958.
Ratu Sukuna was refused being enlisted in the British Army in 1914. He then crossed over to France to join the French Foreign Legion. He enrolled in the French Foreign Legion on 8 January 1915. It was not long on 9 May of the same year when he received his first citation from the Croix de Guerre for bravery. A second citation from the Croix de Guerre followed quickly in September, later in the year, when he was wounded in the Battle of Champagne. He did not receive the Croix de Guerre, but was awarded the Medaille Militaire, a first for Fiji.
In January 1916, he set sail to return to Fiji on RMS Niagara, arriving in Suva about two months later on 30 March. Ratu Sukuna was greeted as a hero, first on the Suva Wharf and later at the Suva Town Hall. But in another 14 months on 18 May, 1917, he was back in Europe with the Fiji Labour Corps.
Ratu Sukuna had successfully negotiated a contract for the Fiji Labour Corps to load and unload cargoes (transport duty) from ships berthing at Calais, France, and at another port in Italy, as Fiji’s contribution to the war effort in Europe. To recruit the right kind of people for the task at hand, Ratu Sukuna went to the Suva Wharf to see for himself the talents that existed there – the men with hardened physique and attitude loading and unloading cargoes from cargo freighters day in, day out. At the end of the recruiting period, Livai Veilawa, at 28 years old and single, had done enough to impress the great chief, and he thus joined the 100 men enroute for Europe. I believe that he was the first kaidravuni to have traveled abroad to Europe.
Henry Marks & Co had offered the government 10,000 pounds to cover the cost of “raising, equipping and transporting to England and France, 100 Fijians for transport duty at Calais”. The Fiji Labour Detachment was then born, affectionately known then as the Marks’ Boys in recognition of the grants from Henry Marks & Co. Ratu Sukuna and 15 paramount chiefs accompanied the Boys.
Their major function was to load and unload ships supplying the Allied troops. K. Gravelle’s ‘A History of Fiji’ notes that it wasn’t particularly noble duty, yet it was recorded that, wherever Fijians worked, they reduced the manpower needed by 30%. Paramount chiefs and commoners worked together, at Calais, at Marseilles, and then in Italy. King George V inspected the Labour Corps while they were in France. They wore British Army uniforms for the occasion. Soldiers or dockworkers, what was most important, and the The Times (London) mentioned it in June, 1918, was that “ Fiji……did a great deal more than those who knew the islands best thought possible. It had not occurred to anyone that the realities of the great issue could have burned so deeply into the hearts of these simple islanders…..” Years later, these ‘simple islanders’ would prove to the world that they were capable of a far greater war effort than unloading ships.
Grandfather Livai, had left Naqara Village (the village of his mother) on Ono Island, Kadavu, to come and work on Suva Wharf for much needed employment and income. The family was still living outside Dravuni at the time. This self-imposed sojourn at Naqara began when great grandfather Simione Ravana chose to settle there instead of returning to Dravuni after his posting as a Methodist catechist after 1894. This sojourn was to continue for another six to seven years at least.
When Livai returned in 1918, he rejoined his family back in Naqara. He met Lanieta Rokomoqe, his bride-to-be, in Nakoronawa, Nakasaleka, on main land Kadavu, during one of the celebrations to welcome back the Kadavu heros from Europe. The marriage of my grandfather and grandmother was celebrated in Naqara. My father, Maciu Waqanisau, was born there in 1923. It was sometime after that when the family returned to Dravuni, and Natavasara welcomed back its occupants after years of self-exile.
It was in 1931 when Ratu Sukuna’s and my grandfather’s paths crossed again on Dravuni during the Veitarogivanua, the enquiry into land ownership, clan origin and affiliations and chiefly titles. But for my father, it was a long wait until 1987 before he had an opportunity to try to retrace his father’s footprints to Europe.
Shakespeare Cliff in Dover
Grandfather Livai Veilawa would have been impressed with these white cliffs of Dover when he set sail for Calais. The Boys travelled from Southampton to Dover by train.