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Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas

Chapter II — Fiji—"Where Romance Still Lives"?

page 17

Chapter II
Fiji—"Where Romance Still Lives"?

There are two hundred and fifty islands of various sizes in the Fiji Group: the largest, Viti Levu, is eighty miles long and sixty miles wide, and it lies in the torrid zone eighteen degrees south of the equator. Viti Levu, like its neighbouring islands, is surrounded by a coral reef which forms a partial barrier to any invading force. There are, however, numerous gaps in the reef where the coral has not formed owing to the fresh water flowing from the months of rivers: the coral insect does not build in fresh water. The foreshore is either a beautiful beach of coral sand or a vile-smelling, mangrove swamp. The mangroves grow in the mud at the mouths of the rivers and the swamps are numerous. The beaches are invariably fringed with coconut palms beyond which, to the interior, hills rise steeply and quickly become a succession of jungle-covered mountains. The highest of these mountains is Mount Victoria, 4341 feet, in the north of the island. There are some small areas of flat land near the coast; these being the deltas of the larger rivers.

Owing to the trade wind from the south-east, climatic conditions are not consistent throughout the island. The north-western sector is known as the dry side, although it has had up to a hundred inches of rain in a year, while the southeastern sector is subject to torrential downpours nearly every day. Inland on the ranges several inches have been known to fall in an hour. Because of this heavy rainfall the island has hundreds of swift-flowing rivers, which cut their way through many gorges and contain innumerable treacherous rapids. The three main rivers, Rewa, Singatoka, and Navua, are comparable in size with the largest rivers in New Zealand. These rivers frequently flood but the run-off is so rapid that page 18théy soon go down again when the rain ceases.

Fiji is in the hurricane belt, and it has received the full force of a hurricane several times in the present century: sometimes only the weaker, outer fringe of a hurricane strikes and little damage is done. It is because of the hurricanes that the jungle is matted and commonly called impenetrable: the older and larger tree are blown down, thus enabling the secondary growth to thrive. This secondary growth of twisted vines and saplings has to be cut before anyone can get through it, and in some places it is so thick that it takes hours to cut a few yards. The Fijians always carry cane-knives, and they keep their tracks just passable by constantly chopping off bits of undergrowth, here and there, as they travel along.

Viti Levu has only one road around it, and this keeps mainly to the coast, winding in and out and up and down the foothills to such an extent that most people become car-sick after travelling a distance on it. The Colonial. Sugar Refining Company has built small railways through its cane fields near the coast, but there are no roads or railways inland. The only way to reach the interior of the Island is to walk on not very well deiined tracks. Where there are no tracks one has to follow up winding rivers: in fact most trails follow rivers, cutting off the bends where it is possible to wade. When crossing these rivers it takes much experience to pick up the track again on the other side, because of the dense foliage which grows to the water's edge.

Apart from the infrequent hurricanes, the wind in Fiji generally amounts to a light breeze, which is not sufficient to dispel the humid climatic conditions brought on by the heat and almost incessant rain. Human beings were never meant to wear clothing in the torrid zone, and even the Europeans living a life of comparative ease soon find their clothes saturated with perspiration. The Fijians, wearing a light cotton sulu (skirt), perspire freely too, but they keep themselves clean with frequent swims or compulsory showers of rain. The Fijians anoint themselves with coconut oil which is odorised with native plants. This scent is not always attractive to European nostrils, and the native body-odour is often page break
Some commandos on their way to Namuamua via the Navua River.

Some commandos on their way to Namuamua via the Navua River.

Bale and Jope, the two leading interpreters, who were with the unit from its inception.

Bale and Jope, the two leading interpreters, who were with the unit from its inception.

Fijians poling a punt over the rapids of the Navua River.

Fijians poling a punt over the rapids of the Navua River.

page break
Fijians on guard duty at Guadalcanal. This photo was taken at base camp—they were not dressed like this for patrols.

Fijians on guard duty at Guadalcanal. This photo was taken at base camp—they were not dressed like this for patrols.

Len Barrow and Ken Crass with their patrol of Solomon Islanders.

Len Barrow and Ken Crass with their patrol of Solomon Islanders.

page 19falsely attributed to a disinclination to perform ablutions.

Over the past century the Fijians have built up a conventional attitude towards Europeans, and before the New Zealand commandos could train the Fijians effectively, they had to understand the prevailing economic, political, and social conditions; especially from the Fijians' point of view. This history cannot give space to a complete account of life in Fiji, but the following are important aspects which affected the relationship of the two races in the commando units.

In 1874, Fiji became a British Colony which, ever since, has been controlled by the British Colonial Office, through an English Governor assisted by District Officers. There is also a Legislative Council of local residents, and a Council of Fijian Chiefs.

In the Fiji Group there are about one hundred and ten thousand Fijians, the same number of Indians, and, in normal times, five thousand Europeans. About half of this population is found on Viti Levu. The Europeans are engaged in the administration of industry and government. At present the chief wealth of the country is derived from sugar, copra. and gold, though ninety per cent. of this fertile island is undeveloped because of the sparse population.

Suva is the capital of the colony, and the first question most soldiers asked when disembarking there was—"Where did all the Indians come from?" The answer is that sixty years ago labour was required to develop the cane fields for the sugar industry. The Fijians had no use for money and, as they preferred to live in a natural state, in their villages scattered throughout the island, few of them could tie induced to work in the cane fields. The Fiji Government began importing labour from India. Thousands of these labourers arrived and were indentured for ten years. At the expiry of their contracts they were entitled to a free passage back to India, but their prosperity induced a large proportion of them to remain in Fiji. The number of Indians in the Colony is now equal to, and threatens to surpass, the number of Fijians. The Fijians resent the fact that the Indians have page 20usurped so much power in their country because of a predilection for business—not that the Fijians want to run stores, tailors' shops, and taxis—but they feel the pinch of civilisation as it is being pressed upon them. There are no Indians in the interior of the island, for they are either cane farming near the coast, or they crowd into the townships to cater for the tourist traffic. The tourist sees only the coastal fringe, and therefore gets a false impressions of this tropical isle.

The Fijian is one of nature's gentlemen in spite of some dark chapters in his history. His cannibalistic tendencies of earlier times have been exaggerated to give the impression that cannibal feasts occurred every day, when in reality they occurred only at infrequent intervals. From 1880 to 1854, missionaries had an uphill struggle to convert the Fijians, but when the leading chief, Thakombau, eventually adopted Christianity—such is the Fijians' response to leadership—a complete transformation took place within a few years.

Fiji is the dividing line between Melanesia and Polynesia, and the Fijian native seems to possess the best qualities of both races. Nowhere in the world are you likely to find men of more outstanding physique, and the Poly-Melanesian type does not run to fat as readily as the Polynesian. Some of the Fijians are coal black, and their tremendous crop of bushy black hair makes them look ferocious to the transient tourist; yet this impression could not be further from the truth. The Fijian is a happy-go-lucky fellow with a desire to live and let live, and he rarely loses his good temper. He is child-like in his simplicity, but this is due only to lack of education. When he has been given the chance, as some chiefs have, of attending European colleges, for a reasonable period, he can hold his own mentally as well as physically. Several New Zealand colleges boast of the Fijian scholars they have turned out. The education system in Fiji, however, has not yet reached a very effective state, and the majority of Fijians have to be handled like sensitive, but intelligent, children. The Commandos were successful in training them only because they bore this fact in mind.

The Fijians live in tribal groups of up to several hundred and their villages are nearly all built to the same pattern— page 21two rows of huts with a spacious lawn between. They cut the grass by slashing it with their broad-bladed cane knives; the result is as short and neat as if done with a lawn-mower. Their huts, called "bures" are made with a framework of timber and bamboo covered with dried leaves or reeds. The bure floor, which is raised a foot or more from the ground level, is covered with a layer of dried grass, then carpeted with a mat made of plaited pandanus leaf. The natives rarely possess furniture, and they don't bother to make tables or chairs: they sleep and eat on the floor; and they use the broad leaves of the banana tree for plates. Fires are kept going inside the bures to smoke out the insects and dry out the thatch which would rot very quickly otherwise.

An inland village is always situated on the bank of a river or near a creek, wMch serves as a water supply above the village; a washing place at the village; and a sanitary system below the village. This system is fairly hygienic provided two or three villages are not close together on the same river.

Each village has gardens which supply all the food a Fijian requires. The gardens are maintained collectively, though each male has a claim to personal holdings. Women keep them weeded. The staple diet is "dalo"—(taro— Coloca-sia antiquorum—a root vegetable, of which there are many species, and which is best described as a cross between a potato and a swede. It is most nutritious, and is greatly responsible for the physique of the Fijians. Even though the Fijian is self-contained he still likes a variety of food from the outside world, when he can get it. He keeps a supply of tea and sugar for special occasions, and he buys tobacco to mix with his own obnoxious weed which would lift the head off a steam engine. He obtains his salt from sea water in the old-fashioned way. Fish is plentiful, and the bananas, paw paw, etc., that he plants in his garden, need little attention, so he has ample opportunity to indulge in his favourite pastime —"kava" drinking.

Kava is made from the crushed yanggona root (piper-methysticum) mixed with water. It tastes and looks like soapy water, but most Europeans can accustom themselves to it, and page 22find it very refreshing after physical exertion in this hot climate. The natives take their kava-drinking very seriously, and often indulge in elaborate ceremonies over it. The participants squat cross-legged in a circle round a huge, carved wooden bowl filled with the liquid. A prayer is said over the bowl, and then a coconut shell called a "mbilo," is filled at the bowl and handed to the most important visitor present. He gulps the kava down in one draft—(it is bad form to take a breath half way, or leave any dregs at the bottom of the mbilo). Some mbilos hold more than a pint, and after a few drinks it is difficult to conform to etiquette. While one man is drinking, the rest of the company clap hands and ejaculate words of approbation. The mbilo is refilled and handed to the most important local man present, then handed to others according to rank, until the entire company has had a drink —the Fijians have definite class distinctions in spite of their socialised economic system. The rounds of drinks continue until the bowl is empty (except on the very formal occasions): then the men sit around until another brew is made. This is the social life of the Fijian, and the sensitive native takes it as an affront if anyone passes through his village without drinking at least one mbilo of kava with the "Turanga-ni-koro" (head man of the village.)

The Turanga-ni-koro performs the duties of mayor in each village. He also issues orders for the daily tasks of weeding, hygiene, and the like. There is a higher chief, called a "Mbuli," who supervises several villages and also collects taxes. Above the Mbuli there is a "Roko," who is appointed and paid by the government. The Rokos are the Fijian advisers to the European District Officers. A Roko's duties are not very onerous in this slow moving world'. Apart from a few notable exceptions, the Fijians lack good natural leaders, and they follow any "Pied Piper" until they find him out.

Ever since King Thakombau ceded his territory, the Fijians have respected the British in these islands, and they show exceptional loyalty to those in authority. They look to the white man for guidance, and they have become used to regarding the Europeans as their bosses. Before the soldiers arrived in Fiji, no white man of any standing in the com-page 23munity did manual labour; and when the Fijians found New Zealand soldiers working beside them on the wharves and on defence works around the coast, they could not understand the new relationship. At first the natives thought that the soldiers were of a low class, but they soon detected the difference between the soldiers sincere friendliness and the patronising friendliness of some of the local Europeans. The New Zealand soldiers have since become so popular with the Fijians that the local residents fear that a great deal more will be expected of the white man after the war; and some fear that the soldiers have upset the traditional white man's prestige.

The white people in Suva find the tropical life very easy. The average man can afford native servants to wait on him, and some exalt themselves in a temporary superiority of which the Fijian is fully aware but powerless to combat. Class consciousness and colour consciousness are inevitably accentuated in such a small community, in spite of the efforts of some administrators to overcome them.

As the commandos were to work closely with the Fijians, it was necessary to break down some of the traditional barriers; this was not easy. The Fijian liked being bossed by good leaders, but the subservient kind of discipline was not the kind the commandos wished to develop; they wanted self-reliant scouts who would show initiative and volunteer information without being diffident about approaching their senior officers. The Fijians take note of every little action of the white man, and the commandos had to be most meticulous in their conduct.

Whatever the mixture of attitudes, the New Zealanders set out to train the Fijians with the utmost goodwill emanating from both races.