Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Old Jail House

By Geraldine Panapasa

fijitimes - Sunday, April 19, 2009
There are fortresses and ancient ruins that tell stories of a piece of history forgotten over time.
In Fiji, one of those forgotten ruins is a prison fort in Naburenivalu Village in Tailevu.
Who would have thought the coral stone foundation held some of the very first prisoners in Fiji during the late 19th century.
The place where the foundation rests is called Nasese and the village it is in was relocated from the old coastal village of Namena, almost half an hour out to sea.
The morning we left for Namena was the same day the tsunami warning was issued after the Tongan earthquake on March 20.
By then, we were already halfway to our destination and I instantly remembered Features Editor Fred Wesley mention an old jetty I had to check out, something to do with the prisoners using the jetty to cross over to Levuka for work.
That thought coincided with the tsunami warning and a thought crossed my mind about witnessing firsthand a tsunami approach Fiji if I went out to see the jetty.
Not long after, the warning was cancelled and we finally reached Naburenivalu.
The house of Tui Nawainovo Ratu Filimoni Verebalavu welcomed us on the left as we entered the village to meet with the Turaga ni Koro Watisoni Lagicere.
The village slept quietly as roosters began to crow. As we neared a small stony climb into the village pathway, the prison fort stood seemingly forgotten, above the long weeds and grass surrounding the compound, and creepers that seemed to drain the life out of an important monument. This couldn't be it I wondered because for such an important foundation in the history of Fiji, the fort looked insignificant.
Our team down to Namena included Fiji Times photographer Eliki Nukutabu, Nai Lalakai reporter Anare Ravula and driver Durga Deo.
After we sought permission from Ratu Filimoni to conduct research on the old prison and the early village settlement, we headed out to sea.
The trek through the swampy forest was very refreshing for an urbanite like me. Watisoni pointed to a clearing through the trees and plants saying it was the path the prisoners took to reach the jetty.
Brief history of Nasese
According to records at the National Archives of Fiji, the earliest record of a Suva gaol was in 1887 when the Prison Service took over a mental hospital.
Matanivanua for the Tui Nawainovo Simione Loli Baleidaveta, 73, said the name of the prison was called Nasese. In Fijian, the word sese means 'wrong or foolish'.
"It was a place for people who committed a wrongful act. The people who went there were called 'na sese' also," Baleidaveta said.
In a publication by B.M Sellers in 1962 on The Development of the Fiji Prison Service, the gaol was a collection of huts behind a reed fence.
B.M Sellers was told by old colonists of a track along the beach that led to the gaol and the cemetery.
He mentioned it was not until 1912-1913 that serious attempts were made to provide a modern accommodation at the Suva gaol.
"It is interesting to note that one of the duties of a prison warden in those early days was to escort Hospital Sisters into Suva and back after dark," Sellers noted in his publication.
"The first prison was of course at Levuka and as settlement of the Colony took place, other prisons which were nothing more than 'back ups' were established," the publication said.
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    A brief summary of the establishment of the Fiji Prison has been published on the Fiji Prisons & Correctional Service website.
    According to the site, the first gaol was set up at Totogo Government Station in Levuka on October 10, 1874, historically when Fiji was ceded to Britain.
    It was administered by the police with the Gazetted appointment of a gaoler, a warder and one to be a gaoler and a police sub-inspector.
    Walk to Namena Village
    "The prisoners planted these tall trees which are lined all the way to the sea. Back then, this place was cleared. The resident magistrate's house was located opposite Ratu Filiomoni's house and from there, the resident magistrate would use his binoculars to check on the prisoners," Watisoni said.
    "He could see all the way out to sea and he would sit on the front porch with his big binoculars to monitor them.
    "This is the path they took to get to the jetty where they would be taken to Levuka to work and then brought back here in the afternoon by boat."
    The walk was about half an hour, it would have been less if I wasn't stuck a few times in the soggy mud which for a second felt like quicksand.
    We reached the seafront when the tide was coming in. It hadn't covered the old jetty completely and as Anare and Watisoni waded their way to the jetty, Eliki and I followed another guide through a narrow mangrove path.
    "There were no mangroves on this path to the jetty and only now it has grown in the direction of the path to the jetty," Watisoni said.
    The jetty was layers of rocks piled outwards facing Ovalau. It looked like a portion of a reef stuck inshore.
    "From here, the resident magistrate could see the prisoners," Watisoni said pointing back where we came from over the towering coconut and tavola trees in the direction of the resident magistrate's house.
    "Namena na koro makawa," he said guiding us to the right as we headed into the lush forest.
    Spider webs, buzzing mozzies and all kinds of creepy Fiji insects sprawled about on the ground and on plants as Watisoni and his son-in law led us to an ancient burial ground of one of their ancestors.
    Farther in was the almost disappearing foundation of a church set up by early missionaries, one mentioned by Watisoni was a missionary named Frederick Lingham.
    Square plots of land marked the different houses and it was very difficult to visualize what the village once looked like.
    "The villagers moved inland to where Naburenivalu is today but we don't know why the village name was changed," Ratu Filimoni said when we returned to do our traditional sevusevu in the village hall next to the resident magistrate's house.
    Outside the hall facing the roadside was a huge frangipani tree with wooden planks for seats.
    "This was planted by the first prisoners and it's still here today. It's as old as the prison fort," Watisoni said.
    But as true as the words of Ratu Filimoni sounded when he said not many people in Fiji knew about the prison, he agreed that the prison is significant and important not only because it housed some of Fiji's first prisoners but it was a place that served to rehabilitate and change people who had done wrong in life.
    The villagers of Naburenivalu constantly maintain the premises surrounding the old prison, pulling out weeds and creepers every now and then.
    While the prison lies dormant among the reeds at Naburenivalu, the villagers are hopeful the prison might turn into a national treasure.
    Not only does the prison hold a piece of history, it also highlights one of many forgotten remnants of early life in Fiji which is all the more reason for its preservation and maintenance.
    Prison Institutions in Fiji:
    * Suva Prison, Korovou - Suva
    * Women's Prison, Korovou -Suva
    * Nasinu Prison, Nasinu -Nine Miles
    * Levuka Prison, Delainasova, Levuka - Lomaiviti
    * Lakeba Prison, Tubou, Lakeba - Lau
    * Maximum Security Prison, Naboro Prison Complex
    * Medium Security Prison, Naboro Prison Complex
    * Minimum Security Prison, Naboro Prison Complex
    * Pre-release Centre, Naboro Prison Complex
    * Lautoka Prison, Natabua - Lautoka
    * Ba Prison, Namosau - Ba
    * Labasa Prison, Vaturekuika - Labasa
    * Taveuni Prison, Waiyevo - Taveuni
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