Saturday, September 2, 2006

Bau - An island full of history and grace beyond its size

- 3 September 2006.

Mention Bau island and I picture Ratu Seru Cakobau’s long white beard, thatched Fijian homes and a long list of traditional protocols and taboos. It must be those history classes in primary school that made it hard for me to think of the island as anything but one with a lot of history and political importance beyond its size. But I’ve been told that Bau island has changed rapidly over the years, losing its historic identity to western influence. I wanted to see for myself. As our boat made its way through choppy waters to the island, early this week, I wondered if there was still much to see and write about.
About 400 metres from the shoreline, the island became clearly visible. I could see the hill with lush vegetation in the middle, the white oval roof of the church and hundreds of homes squashed together by the waterfront. We landed in front of the Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi’s home, a big wooden home by the waterfront. I quickly noticed two things - the cleanliness of the village and the absence of children and animals.
I assume they had been taken elsewhere so that they were not in the way of the Methodist Church conference which the island was hosting. The village green or rara still looked much the same size ten years ago with the oldest Methodist Church in the country standing proudly on one end and Vatanitawake (traditional meeting house) on the other. The number of houses on the island has increased almost three times. They are packed like sardines on the waterfront, right around the island. You could possibly touch the walls of two homes if you walked through with both arms stretched out wide. There are no more thatched bure’s just fancy homes with modern designs complete with statellite dishes, telephones, electricity and flush toilets. It was like walking through the up market residential area at Namadi Heights or Nasese in Suva. It took me about 15 to 20 minutes to walk right around the island which included walking through Mataiwelagi, the residential compound of the Cakobau family.
As I entered the gates, I noticed there were four buildings in the compound - an old yellow shed and the residential home on the other end. In the middle was the meeting hall called Vunirara and a simple structured house built on a raised stone foundation called Delalasakau. Vunirara is a big Fijian bure with walls made of timber and the roof of corrugated iron instead of the usual thatched leaves. Built in 1974 Vunirara used to be the home of the late Vunivalu of Bau, Ratu George Cakobau until he passed away in 1989. A year later it was damaged by Cyclone Kina but repaired by the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei government following a motion put forward in parliament by the late AD Patel. Ratu George’s son Ratu Epenisa said that over the years the Government had donated funds to maintain Vunirara which they now use as a meeting hall. Today Vunirara sits tall on a raised foundation with a polished wooden floor, expensive timber walls, a high roof with mahogany posts adorning the inside.
Towards the sea sits Delalasakau built in 1982 to accommodate Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the island.
It looks simple from the outside but the inside looks like a 5-star suite with the kitchen and dining area on one end of the room and a huge comfy bed and a sofa on the other. A small washroom separates the two and on the outside a small veranda with chairs and a table is overshadowed by swaying palm trees. The home looks cosy with traditional ornaments, handicrafts and several pictures of the queen - one on top of a cabinet, one on the dressing drawer and another on the table. A portrait of Ratu Seru Cakobau greets you as you walk through the main entrance and to the left is a dark round mahogany table with a paper weight that looks like an elephants tusk. Ratu Epenisa said the table and the paper weight were used during the signing of the papers when Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874. He said the home was always vacant unless there was a special guest on the island like the President of the Methodist Church, Laisiasa Ratabacaca, who was on the island this week to attend the church conference.
The Cakobau residential home looks like a mansion and is looked after by Ratu Epenisa. It is also home to his brothers and sisters who live on the mainland or overseas except for Adi Litia Kaunilotuma who has her own home a few metres from the entrance to Mataiwelagi. Beside her home is a track climbing up a small hill and on top of the hill is Na Sau ni Tabua (sacred burial ground) where bodies are kept in an air-tight bure-like structure with concrete walls and a tall roof totally made of marble. Beside it is the Methodist pastor’s home looking down on the village. Ratu Epenisa said the position of the home on the hill indicated the people’s high regard for their Christian faith. Directly below the home is the church and leading down to it is a concrete stairway with safety railings on one side. A few metres down the stairway a footpath branches to the left leading to Bau District School, an L-shaped building with a small lawn the size of a netball court.
If you stand in front of the building you can clearly see the Tailevu east coast with Viwa island to the north and Ovalau to the west. After walking downhill, I sat down under a tree by the waterfront to rest my feet. I realised there were no white beaches just huge black stones packed in mesh wires and stacked against the coastline to prevent soil erosion. Ratu Epenisa said the island was slowly being eaten away by the raging tide and huge waves crashing on the shoreline. He said it was the island’s next big project to dredge the waterfront, reclaim land and built a sea wall. If this was not done, Ratu Epenisa said Bau island could disappear in 100 years considering its small size and vulnerable coastline.To my left there was a pond filled with a green slimy liquid. According to the villagers the pond never runs dry and is often used for bathing when there is a water shortage on the island.
There were hundreds of people in the village that day attending the conference yet you could hardly hear a noise except for the speakers in the middle of the ground. I noticed how the women wore long attire reaching the soles of their feet; all men wore pocket sulu’s and bags were held by hand instead of being carried on the shoulder. I also noticed how elderly visitors would walk around the village with both hands cupped tightly in front of them or held to their backs. It was a solemn sight indeed which clearly indicated the respect people still have for the island and the chiefly family even though there was very little left in its history to talk about, Ratu Epenisa said.

The sau tabu (the sacred burial place)

Bau children enjoying a bath in the green pond that never runs dry.

A portrait of Ratu Seru Cakobau

In search of a warlord

The island of Bau may be small in size but it is home to the Vunivalu of Bau who is the paramount chief of the Kubuna Confederacy. The title - which means warlord of Bau - is generally considered the highest chiefly title in Fiji overlooking five provinces - Naitasiri, Tailevu, Lomaiviti, Ra and part of Ba. The title is not strictly hereditary but belongs to the Tui Kaba clan based on the island. Since the last Vunivalu, Ratu George Cakobau, passed away in 1989, the title has been vacant through recently moves began to find a successor. On June 9, 2005, Ratu George Cakobau Junior announced that the chiefs of the Matanitu o Bau (the traditional chiefly government of Bau) had selected four chiefly candidates to be submitted to the Tui Kaba clan which will be asked to select one as the next Vunivalu.
The Matanitu o Bau consists of the Roko Tui Cautata, Tui Viwa, Roko Tui Kiuva, Tui Drau from Dravo, Komai Nausori and the Roko Tui Veikau from Namara, Roko Tui Namata and Tora ni Bati from Buretu.
The four candidates selected were Ratu George Cakobau Junior, Ratu Epenisa, Ratu George Kadavulevu Naulivou and former Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli. A second meeting held a week later tentatively proposed Ratu George as the new Vunivalu. Adi Finau Tabakaucoro, a member of the Tui Kaba clan, complained on 27 June that proper procedures were not being followed. She said the Vunivalu should be elected by the whole clan rather than chosen by a few elders. She thought it was wrong to exclude from the list of candidates the name of Adi Samanunu because she was the eldest daughter of the last Vunivalu. However, Ratu Epenisa said the title of the Vunivalu has always been given to a male member of the family and therefore they would not consider any female.
He said their next meeting which will be amongst the Cakobau brothers should confirm the next Vunivalu. The first Vunivalu of Bau was Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa who was succeeded by his son Ratu Seru Cakobau in 1852. It was during Ratu Seru’s leadership that Bau island became a dominant force on Fiji’s history and political front. The history books state that Ratu Seru was a chief and warlord who united his country’s warring tribes under his leadership and reigned as Tui Viti (King of Fiji) from June 1871 to October 1874, when he ceded Fiji to Britain. Claiming that Bau had suzerainty over the remainder of Fiji, Ratu Seru asserted that he was in fact the King of Fiji. However, his claim was not accepted by other chiefs, who regarded him as merely the first among equals, if that, and he engaged in constant warfare for almost 19 years to unify the islands under his authority. In 1865 a Confederacy of Independent Kingdoms of Viti was established, with Ratu Seru as chairman of the General Assembly. Two years later, however, the confederacy split into the Kingdom of Bau and the Confederation of Lau, with Ratu Seru assuming kingship of the former.
Supported by foreign settlers, he finally succeeded in creating a united Fijian kingdom in 1871 and established Levuka as his capital. He decided to set up a constitutional monarchy, and the first legislative assembly met in November of that year. Both the legislature and the cabinet were dominated by foreigners. The United States government had recognized Ratu Seru’s claim to kingship over a united Fijian nation long before his claims were accepted by his fellow chiefs. In the long term, however, this was not to count in his favour. The American government held him responsible for an arson attack against the Nukulau home of John Brown William, the American consul, in 1849 (before Cakobau was even the Vunivalu, let alone King), and demanded $44,000 compensation. Unable to pay the debt caused by the Rewan chiefs, and fearing an American invasion and annexation, Cakobau decided to cede the islands to Britain. He was also motivated partly by the hope that British rule would bring civilisation and Christianity to Fiji. Ratu Seru, a former cannibal, had himself converted to Christianity and renounced
cannibalism in 1854. He retained his position as Vunivalu of Bau and lived quietly until his death in 1883. The Cakobau name is an honoured one in Fiji today. Many of the country’s leading figures have been direct descendants of Ratu Seru Cakobau, the first Fijian chief and warlord (Vunivalu) to unite all of Fiji’s disparate tribe under his leadership and was crowned Tui Viti (King of Fiji) in 1871. His great-grandson, Ratu George Cakobau also held the Vunivalu title and served as Fiji’s first native-born Governor General from 1973 to 1983.
Ratu George’s daughter Adi Samanunu, is a former diplomat and now the Minister in the Prime Ministers Office; while his son Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa is the president of the Alliance Conservative Party and Ratu George Cakobau Junior a former Senator. Another descendant, from the female line of Adi Litia Cakobau, is Ratu Epeli Nailatikau the former Speaker of the House. The former late President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara is also a descendant of the Cakobau’s, though not through the male line. The Vice President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, and the former Vice President, Ratu Jope Seniloli, are both from Bau and are closely related to the Cakobau family. Ratu George Cakobau Senior has five sons - Ratu Savenaca who lives in Yasawa, Ratu George Junior who lives in Mokani, Ratu Josefa Celua who lives in America, Ratu Epenisa who lives on Bau island and Ratu Tanoa who lives in Suva. His three daughters are Adi Litia Samanunu, Adi Litia Cakobau and Adi Litia Kaunilotuma.

1 comment:

  1. I noticed that both Ratu Epenisa and Ratu Joji (Jnr) names are in the list for the 4 candidates. My question is, will Ratu Epenisa bow out or withdraw his name since his OLDER brother is in the list.