torika bolatagici

Opening address by Dr Roderick Ewins for photographic exhibition Kurunavanua: Fijian Bodies and the Economy of War

featuring the work of Torika Bolatagici. Red Wall Gallery, Hobart, April 19, 2009

When Torika decided to have this exhibition of her recent work here in Hobart, and then asked me to open it, neither of us could have imagined quite how topical it would be.  Over Easter and every day since, our media have been full of stories about one particular Fijian soldier, Commander Frank Bainimarama, who is currently in control of Fiji’s government, and the military he leads.

I am certainly not about to turn this into a debate about the coup, but I would say that if the world’s leaders understood more about Fiji’s social and political history, from pre-contact to post-Independence, and something about the peculiar position the military occupies in Fiji, they might be better able to find ways toward resolution of the problems. In this exhibition, Torika is inviting us to think about those very things. There is a nice essay in the brochure, and there is no need for me to cover the same ground. It might though be useful to think for a moment about how the Fijian perception of themselves as a warrior race developed.

Despite the coups, most Aussies still think of Fiji primarily as a place to go on holidays with the family, where they will relax on beautiful white beaches and be served by smiling Fijians. It was a very different story for the first tourists. Captain Bligh and his longboat full of mutiny refugees sailed through the middle of Fiji, and at one point were forced to outrun a canoe full of warriors intent on catching, killing and eating them. Talk about adventure tourism! Bligh had sailed with Captain Cook, and already, based on stories that legendary explorer had gathered in Tonga, Fiji was known as the Cannibal Isles. The images of imagination Bligh and his men would have had, then, were certainly not of smiling waiters and housemaids.

If I may diverge for a moment and tell you a nice story I have always enjoyed. For many decades the most prominent Fijian was a chief called Ratu Sukuna. He attended Oxford and was a thoroughly urbane man, but loved playing up the cannibal stories and filling his English friends’ children with delicious horror. There is a nice story told of him returning from Britain to Fiji by ship, and because of his known important status, being seated at the Captain’s table. The first evening out, he strode in wearing his sulu vaka taga, coat and tie, and took his seat with every eye in the room on him. Playing the role to the full, he cast an eye down the menu the steward handed him, then passed it back. “Nothing there I fancy,” he said loudly enough for all to hear, “bring me the passenger list”.

This is, however, merely the most sensationalised aspect of Fiji’s very real warrior culture. No male in the Fiji of those days could undergo full manhood rites without first killing someone, and early observers tell us that adult males would not feel fully dressed without a pair of throwing clubs stuck in their waistbands, and as often as not, a large club or spear in hand. Hardly surprising that the Fijian male self-image was that of a warrior above all — the only ones to survive were. And it has been the self-image most proudly clung to, despite a century and a half of Christianisation, and a century of British colonisation.

It is interesting that the rhetoric of much Christianity is astonishingly warlike too — Onward Christian Soldiers, Soldiers of the Lord, and so on. Stuff that was easy for Fijians to relate to, particularly given that battles certainly were fought in Fiji between converted tribes and those who were not. And despite their proclaimed intention of imposing Pax Britannica, paradoxically the incoming British colonials were quick to capitalise on these warlike instincts as a means of imposing order. Old postcards are full of photos of armed “Native militias” and “Native police”, drilling in large numbers, and many of those wearing tunics and carrying rifles had a very few years earlier been fighting with clubs, spears, slings and bows and arrows. Very early on they were employed to suppress obstinate highland tribes who had no wish to bend the knee to Britain, and there was little in the attitudes or behaviour of many of their British officers that the recruits would have found too different from their own.

In World War I Ratu Sukuna, in England,  sought to enlist — many Fiji Europeans had done so. But the British army disdained using “natives” in its forces, and the only way he could enlist was to join the French Foreign Legion, where he served with great valour and distinction, earning the Croix de Guerre. By the Second World War attitudes had changed, and Fijian soldiers were deployed in the Solomons and Bougainville, earning a VC among other things. Then subsequently they served in Malaya dealing with the “Troubles”.

So the warrior image of the Fijian soldier survived right through the colonial period, and being a soldier remained one of the most prestigious pursuits a young man could aspire to. But throughout this period they had received the same treatment Fijians generally had received at the hands of the British — their loyalty had been taken for granted, and their services had been paid for at cut prices.  On the island where I have done much of my research in Fiji, returned World War 2 servicemen spoke to me of the manner in which they had been praised warmly by the British and Americans for their extraordinary valour and contribution to the Pacific War. In Fijian society, such words would signal considerable reciprocal rewards. But on demob they received merely back-pay, plus an axe, caneknife, file, and digging fork. It was felt as a sharp rebuff and caused serious disenchantment.

Several of Torika’s images here refer to the fact that in the 1950s, Fijian naval recruits were exposed to radiation in the H-bomb tests at Christmas Island, with little protection, and as usual in such cases, they have suffered a range of cancers, deaths, and birth defects among their offspring. Also as usual, the British government has disputed any connection between these things and the tests, and denied any responsibility.

Post-Independence, Fiji suffered the familiar financial difficulties that their previous exclusion from managing their own economies caused in virtually all post-colonial countries. Employment was difficult to obtain, but the army secured contracts with the United Nations for peacekeeping duties, in Lebanon and elsewhere, and this offered not only employment but coveted warrior status to young men, and the ability to send home much-needed money. In 1980 I was a guest at the “warrior re-naming” ceremony held just outside Suva for a young soldier returned from Lebanon (by sheer coincidence, also a member of the extended family of Samisoni Bolatagici, namesake and very possibly a relative of Torika’s). In time-honoured fashion, the women of his extended family stripped him to his undies, smeared him with oil and turmeric, and re-dressed him in barkcloth finery. He had not killed anyone, but in all other respects the ceremony would have been totally recognisable to his ancestors.

Since then Fijians have served in many theatres, recently notably Iraq, particularly as “security guards” for private contractors. The story is often a familiar one of exploitation by those to whom these are not fine young men but just bodies who can fire a gun, and often be shot. Torika eloquently alludes to this situation with several of her photographs here today. The pictures of a young man with targets on his muscular torso says it very well. When 11 Fijians had died in one month in 2006, the Age newspaper commented:

Fijians were sought after by ArmorGroup, Mr Hoffman said, “because they’re well trained in the skills we require for working in high-risk environments”. They were often paid less than other nationals because their roles involved less responsibility, he said, not because of their country of origin. The Iraq industry is booming in Fiji. An estimated 1000 Fijians, mostly former soldiers and policemen, are working as private security guards in Iraq and Kuwait, while 100 soldiers are leaving the military each year. At more than $300 million a year and about 7 per cent of GDP, remittances from foreign workers are Fiji’s second-highest source of foreign exchange dollars, and climbing. More than $11.6 million comes back annually from Iraq.

The amount and importance of those remittances of course holds the young men hostage: their families are dependent on the money earned either inside the military or beyond it as, effectively, mercenaries. A Fijian scholar recently wrote this comment (abbreviated):

When the Tui Namosi demanded all of his ‘subjects’ (soldiers, navy personnel) to return to the village following the 2006 coup they refused.  There was an anonymous letter sent to him from the barracks which stated that he still had their support as their chief but financially it was impossible for them to leave unless he could guarantee he could pay their wages, as family relied on them for a financial input that was becoming harder to obtain from other sources.   …Several senior military officers and a number of soldiers estimate that the majority of military personnel do not support the interim government, but what they do have is ‘financial loyalty’ which is as strong as chiefly loyalty.  And the sanctions {Australia and NZ are seeking] will only solidify this ‘financial loyalty’ as it is the villager who ultimately impacted, putting further pressure on [breadwinners].

These are just some of the issues that Torika is tackling with this exhibition, and I think it is a courageous and important viewpoint that she is putting before us. The dark moody photos combine ideas of history, pride, strength and vulnerability — the situation of young Fijian men today. I hope everyone who looks at the exhibition will be moved and unsettled by it, and go away with a deeper perception than they came with.

Thank you all for bearing with my long speech, and thank you Torika for your interesting exhibition.

© Rod Ewins 2009.

A postscript, October 8, 2009

Due in large part to lobbying from the Australian and New Zealand governments, and no doubt to the efforts of former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, now envoy to the United Nations, the UN has last month announced that it will employ no further Fijian soldiers in its Peacekeeping forces. This is ostensibly so as to not “reward” the military regime for taking control of the country in an illegal coup. But of course the loss of income that it causes will primarily hurt not the government, but the hundreds of Fijian families for whom their young men’s pay has been their only source of income. It is an extraordinarily churlish response to a force that has had nothing to do with the politics back home but has loyally served the United Nations for decades and earned the highest respect for its courage and professionalism. It is also worth noting that Fijian troops were never among the most numerous in the UN’s peacekeeping forces, those were and are from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, and Nepal, with Ghana, Jordan, and Rwanda close behind. Hardly a list of the world’s exemplary democracies, yet Fiji is singled out for “punishment” for flouting democracy. As the Americans say, “Go figure!”  Rod Ewins.


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