Once was Heyday of Respectability

The amazing scene displayed in front of me that fine morning in late November 1953 was most picturesque: the largest number of camakau: outrigger canoes I had ever seen – setting sail for Suva Harbour with their sails billowing in the gentle prevailing south easterly breeze. And if it had been captured on a canvas by a maestro there and then, the scene would remain for me a permanent reminder of the grandeur of old.[1] For apart from its scenic gracefulness and beauty, the scene depicted, to me, the soul of the people and their generosity, unselfishness, single-mindedness and collective endeavours. Looking back now, reflecting on the various ceremonies and traditional exchanges that we have witnessed over the years, large and small, I realize that so much has been lost and has changed and I wonder what will become of our sense of respectability and dignity in our descendants.

These camakau were from Kadavu Province and after overnighting on Dravuni, were on their way to Suva to join others from other provinces and to form the floating flotilla of vessels to welcome newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Fiji, on her then royal yacht, SS Gothic (see picture). I didn’t know how many camakau were there and I didn’t count. But in my mind as a seven year old, there were many!

Various communities had obviously responded to requests to participate in this welcoming ceremony to Her Majesty. Both the central and provincial governments would have made the requests to the vanua, communities through their interlocutors and chiefs. For the Dravuni people, they had missed out initially in the selection of communities to participate. However, Roko Tui Kadavu intervened on the basis of redressing protocol and offered his own camakau to be used, but to be crewed by representatives of the Natusara clan comprising the people of Dravuni and Buliya.

The picture presented to me that morning spoke volumes about the extent people would go in responding to the clarion call for allegiance and homage from higher authorities. Admittedly, this occasion was exceptional in that it involved the country’s monarch at the time. However, it was still indicative of comparable situations in the past. I am reminded, for example, when a delegation of 200 men from Kadavu visited Roko Tui Dreketi in September 1838 “to affirm the tributary alliance of Kadavu with Rewa and to seek ongoing peaceful relations.” Reverend Cross was a witness in the elaborate ceremony that ensued. The gifts presented by the Kadavu men comprised 50 canoes, 50 whales teeth, 200 spears and a large quantity of masi.

Time has changed since then and societal norms have adjusted to remain relevant and meaningful to the new economic standards, challenges and expectations. New values and protocols have also evolved. The three principal factors that had contributed in the visualization of the scene I describe above – the monarch’s pull of influence, the government and the chiefs’ clarion call to national duties and the people’s generous response have all undergone transformation over the years.

Fijian homage to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has subsided in the first place. Queen Elizabeth II is no longer Queen of Fiji but she still remains the Head of the Commonwealth (formerly British Commonwealth). It can be said that her pulling-power as a star attraction may have waned somewhat and if she visited tomorrow the degree of lavishness that awaited her may not meet the high standards of yesteryears. That downward trend is likely to continue.

The mana of the chiefs to put out clarion calls for expressions of unquestioned beneficence from the people has also been compromised. The chiefs’ dignified collective status, for example, has been lowered and tarnished. The Great Council of Chiefs has been disestablished by the current government. The respect that generations of Fijians have reverentially bestowed their chiefs has been rendered undignified when chiefs themselves have been castigated and told ‘to go and drink home brew under a mango tree’ if they had nothing better to do.  That demeaning faux pas by the leader of government was uttered at the height of a period of darkness that this country has come through.

This process of debilitation directed at the chiefs does not stop there. The chiefs’ share of rents from the lease of native land, for example, has been reduced through the equalization of rental income amongst members of land-owning units. Chiefs are therefore severely constrained through lack of resources in carrying out their organizational and leadership roles in their respective communities. It could be imagined therefore that the effectiveness and efficacy of their clarion calls for communal and national duties would be severely subdued.

The government’s direct role in the erosion of the chiefs’ mana and authority is only fanning the corrosive impacts of globalization and modernity on Fiji’s cultures, traditions, lifestyle and costs of living.

The people’s response to any clarion call from their chiefs today is thus very much dependent on an individual’s economic and financial capacities. Gone are the days of effusive generosity. Gone are the days of collective duties first and family and self, second.  It can be said that economic power and disposable dollars are central in all decisions relating to expenditures nowadays.

There is evidence that people are feeling the economic crunch and are cutting corners to be able to cope with their lives. Often the re-prioritization of family spending has unduly favoured non-essentials and this has given rise to unexpected and more serious problems. Moreover, cultural and traditional obligations are undergoing transformation. Traditional protocols are being abridged or re-defined. The dignity of traditionalism is devalued in the interest of economizing.

Whilst it could be said that the proportion of citizens in the middle class in Fiji has grown, there is still lingering poverty. Certainly, there are pockets of severe poverty around. It can also be said that the economy has generally been growing and that aggregate demand has been increasing. However, the persistence of poverty, unemployment and social ills indicate that there are redistributive deficiencies in the economy. The resultant inequality in the economy should be at the centrality of our collective concerns; and government policies and regulations need to be reviewed. If such inequality continues, we can only dream of the respectability that had once prevailed.

[1] I had longed for a similar artistic expression in an earlier posting: “Dravuni victorious at the Canoe Race during HM Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation Visit 1953.”

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