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  • B.M. Allsopp

Chiefly - an adjective unique to Fiji?

In the last few weeks, I've been humbled by the generosity of readers who volunteered to read an advance proof of Death by Tradition, the second Fiji Islands Mystery, to be released in August. Eagle-eyed readers have reported misplaced commas, missing quotation marks and other slip-ups which I have now corrected. But it surprised me that several readers questioned my use of the adjective chiefly to describe the possessions, titles or behaviour of Fijian chiefs and their families, eg. chiefly manners. One or two even found my use of the word confusing.

Right: Tui Cakau, a provincial chief, officiates at a chiefly ceremony.

What's in a word?

In my early days in the lovely islands of Fiji, my ears pricked at this different use of chiefly, but I soon absorbed this quirk of Fijian English and adopted it myself. Perhaps this use of chiefly is exclusive to Fiji. I'd really like to know if you have heard the word in another context.

Above all, I don't want to confuse readers, so I spent hours agonising, searching for a word I could substitute for the 17 instances of chiefly in Death by Tradition. I considered aristocratic, noble, lordly and even royal. But none seemed quite right. My aim is to give readers an authentic glimpse into Fiji, and none of those candidate words fitted. Undecided, I shot an urgent email to both my editor and proof reader, neither of whom had commented on chiefly in their reports. They both advised keeping the authentic Fijian English word, which they felt contributed to creating a unique cultural setting. I've decided to follow the experts' advice: chiefly is staying. I hope you'll learn to like it.

Until now, I've avoided tangling with the intricacies of the Fijian class system here, because I understand only the basics and would hate to offend Fijians by getting it wrong. But now is the time, especially as one of the characters in my new book is the chief of a remote village at the end of the road.

Fijian Chiefs

At the top of Fijian society are hereditary chiefs who command enormous respect from their subjects. Elaborate ceremonies with prescribed language and behaviour surround the chiefly class, who are addressed by titles. Ratu for men and Adi for women are the most common. Like the aristocracy in monarchies like Britain, there is a hierarchy of titles and some chiefs are much more important than others. Unlike Britain, however, there is no king or queen. In pre-colonial days, chiefs competed for preeminence through marriage, extending alliances and outright warfare. For example, in 1854 the King of Tonga provided 3,000 warriors in 30 great war canoes to his new ally in Fiji, the brilliant Chief Cakobau, pictured in a previous post. This was how Cakobau defeated his rivals and became the most powerful chief in Fiji.

Chiefs and the British

Adi Cakobau, daughter of Chief Cakobau

When Cakobau's coalition of chiefs sought Queen Victoria's protection in 1874, the British did not change the Fijian feudal system. Indeed the first governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, was himself an aristocrat and preferred to work with and through the chiefs. Gordon placed a high chief (Roko Tui) in charge of each of 12 provinces. The Roko Tuis made up the Great Council of Chiefs which met annually. A mid-ranking chief (buli) supervised each of 84 districts and a village chief (turaga ni koro) was appointed to each village. Commoners were subject to their chiefs in line with traditional custom.

Left: Cakobau's daughter, here elevated to Princess, dressed as a Victorian lady, while retaining her Fijian hairstyle.

The British regarded the chiefs as peers and in 1906 Queen Victoria School was set up to educate their sons. The highest ranking studied at overseas universities including Oxford. The young man who was to become the greatest chief of all, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, was forced to discontinue his medical degree in New Zealand by his uncle. He was sent to prepare for his destiny as one of Fiji's three paramount chiefs by studying history at his uncle's Oxford college, Wadham, then development economics at London School of Economics. Ratu Mara led Fiji from colony to full independence in 1970, when he became the first prime minister. He guided the young nation successfully in this role for the next 22 years. He then succeeded to the presidency where he continued his influence for the next 17 years. Ratu Mara died while I was living in Fiji. It was as if the country had been flattened by a tsunami, such was the shock and sense of loss. He embodied all the chiefly virtues.

Chiefs today

Since 1970, Fiji has been a peaceful independent country, although three parliaments have been ousted by coups in the last twenty years, demonstrating a tension between the new and the old ways. In 2010, the leader of the 2006 military coup, Voreqe Bainimarama, abolished the Great Council of Chiefs, whose fine building is now used for conferences. Fiji's chiefs may be down, but they are not yet out, as one of Fiji's three paramount chiefs and former Minister for Education is leader of the opposition in parliament.

Left: Ro Teimumu Vuikaba Kepa, Leader of the Opposition and the late Ratu Mara's sister-in-law. She doesn't look ready to back down, does she?

Fijians are steeped in their beloved traditions and sometimes elders voice a preference for the security and stability their feudal system provided.

You can find more about Fiji on my website, in the Fiji Gallery and Fiji Resources page. As ever, I'd welcome your comments and questions about this post.

until next month,

Bernadette (B.M. Allsopp)

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