Fiji’s Sugar City
“Golf balls don’t fall off trees you know.” --Mohan Singh to his son, Vijay
Hall of Famer and former world number one golfer Vijay Singh may be Fiji’s most famous citizen. A native of Lautoka, he practiced his game by hitting… ahem… coconuts, which did fall off trees and were a great deal more plentiful than golf balls. Vijay’s family was part of the Indo-Fijian community, which for most of the 20th century made up the vast majority of Lautoka’s population.
The Immigrant Story
For the record, Lautoka is on the Fijian island of Viti Levu, sister island to Vanua Levu. And tribal law forbids foreigners from owning land in all Fiji. Fijians are traditionally people of the sea and were never forced to work the land, especially the sugar cane plantations. As laborers were desperately needed for these agricultural tasks, Indian workers, called girmityas, were imported by the shipload between 1899 and 1903. These people labored backbreakingly hard in the cane fields and prospered then stayed on after their initial labor contracts ran out. Sugar is still the town’s main industry and the reason for the city’s nickname. Recently, many Indian families have emigrated as the winds of political change have gone against them while indigenous Fijians have moved into the area creating a more balanced population.
Sugar, for the record, represents one half of the islands’ economic base—the other is tourism. In fact, sugar served as the lifeblood of Fiji’s economy for the majority of the last century. The sugar cane processed in local sugar mills is shipped overseas along with local copra and lumber. As you wander about, you might want to munch on a stick of freshly-cut sugar cane from the local marketplace. Savor it as you wander about the waterfront watching this whole yummy operation unfold.
Sugar, you see, is never far away, even in the tourism arena. On your way to visit such attractions as the Garden of the Sleeping Giants, Raymond Burr’s fabulous orchid garden, the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple, or one of the highland villages scattered across the island, you’ll pass by not only the Lautoka Sugar Mill but also mile after mile of thriving cane fields.
Long, Long Ago
Well before the first European cast his eyes upon Fiji, a powerful chief named Lutunasobasoba washed ashore in a dugout canoe with many of his followers. Some anthropologists believe, whether the legend is true or not, that the original inhabitants of the Fijian Islands did arrive from Southeast Asia with stops along the way in the Indonesian Islands.
The first record of a European sighting was made by Abel Tasman, the intrepid Dutch explorer for whom Tasmania is named. The year was 1643. It’s assumed he never actually came ashore but sailed on by searching for that elusive great southern continent. The infamous Captain William Bligh not only ran afoul with Fletcher Christian but with the Fijians as well. While adrift, following the mutiny on the Bounty, Bligh and a handful of companions managed to outrace Fijian warriors who were in hot pursuit of Bligh’s longboat near the Yasawa Islands (part of Fiji). In fact, the nearby body of water is still known today as “Bligh Water.
Fearing these painted warriors, most travelers avoided Fiji in earnest. Then, at the dawn of the 19th Century, sandalwood was found growing wild on the island of Vanua Levu. Within ten years of this discovery, virtually all this valuable wood had been harvested and shipped off to China.
Whaling fleets and Christian missionaries followed, as was the tradition with so many Pacific islands. However, unlike many islanders, the Fijians resisted converting to Christianity and resisted with a vengeance. More than one missionary met his fate by becoming the main course at the local feast.
Turmoil reigned until the ruling king, Cakabau, threw in the tapa cloth and asked Great Britain’s Queen Victoria for assistance. Ultimately, his kingdom became a British colony in 1874.
Speak Like A Local
While English is spoken everywhere, it’s fun to learn a few words in the local language. Fijian consonants can be confusing therefore, without going into a full explanation of the pronunciation, we’ll just illustrate a few words that could be useful during your stay. The pronunciation is noted in parentheses.
Good morning Ni sa yadra (ni sah yan-dra)
Hello Bula (mbula), kaise in Hindi
Good-bye Ni sa moce (ni sah mothey)
Please Yalo vinaka (yalo vee-naka)
Thank you Vinaka (vee-naka)
When all else fails, a simple smile will do.