Fiji and King Charles' coronation
Updated: May 15
Were you invited to the coronation of King Charles III yesterday? Neither was I, but quite a number of Fijians were. Starting at the top, His Excellency the President Ratu* Wiliame Katonivere and First Lady Filomena Katonivere sat in Westminster Abbey with other Commonwealth leaders and were also guests at the Buckingham Palace reception on the eve of the coronation. They are seen here chatting to HRH Prince Edward, King Charles' brother. (*Ratu is a title used by male Fijian chiefs.)
Indigenous Fijian society has a hereditary aristocracy of chiefs who often command higher respect and obedience than today's democratic national government. In 1874, when Fiji's chiefs, overwhelmed by lawless foreigners, sought British protection, they ceded their islands to Queen Victoria. Significantly, an ancestor of the current President of Fiji was one of the signatories to the 1874 Deed of Cession. Since then the British monarch has been Fijians' paramount chief. There is no greater privilege for a Fijian than to loyally serve the monarch.
Today, more than a thousand serve in the British army, including Corporal Iowane Veramu in the crack unit The Household Cavalry. He was honoured to be part of the escort for King Charles and Queen Camilla after the coronation. Fiji Village reported Cpl Veramu never imagined that he would participate in such a grand event as the King's coronation.
Cpl Veramu was not the only Fijian in the coronation procession. Just as Fijians marched in Queen Elizabeth's coronation procession in 1953 as part of the Colonial Contingent, eight members of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces joined other Commonwealth contingents yesterday. Unfortunately, I don't have permission to use this great photo of them here. Fiji's flag was among those from Commonwealth nations lining the route to the Palace and carried by flag bearers.
The British monarchy and the Republic of Fiji
After 96 years as a British colony, Fiji became independent in 1970. A hugely popular young Prince Charles officiated at ceremonies in Suva and elsewhere. The new nation and Commonwealth member appointed Queen Elizabeth as head of state, her executive duties carried out by her Governor-General. However, in a bloodless military coup led by Colonel Rabuka in 1987. Rabuka took over government, revoked the 1970 constitution and declared Fiji a republic.
International reaction was generally hostile. The Commonwealth suspended Fiji's membership. Some countries, including Australia, responded with trade sanctions and suspension of aid. However, ten years later under a new democratic constitution, Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth. Prime Minister Rabuka visited the Queen in London, where she accepted his customary gift of a whale's tooth in apology for breaking his vow of allegiance to her as an officer of the Fiji army.
A republic with a difference
Fiji has been a republic since 1987. Yet 20 years later when I lived there and even today, this would not be obvious to visitors. The currency still bears her portrait and the flag has the Union Flag in one corner while the British lion tops the coat of arms.
Whenever members of the royal family visit Fiji, the population flocks to welcome them. In his role as Colonel of the Royal Regiment, Prince Charles called on the parents of a Fijian soldier who died on active service in 2004, to pay his personal condolences. For this visit, press and cameras were not permitted anywhere near the bereaved parents' rural house.
Fiji is indeed a republic with a difference. High chief Ro* Teimumu Vuikaba Kepa declared, "Fiji will forever have a soft spot for the monarchy...The British honoured our way of life, they preserved it by setting up the Council of Chiefs to help them administer the colony of Fiji." (*Ro is a title used by female Fijian chiefs.) It's ironic that Mr Sitiveni Rabuka, who declared a republic after his 1987 coup, became Prime Minister again last December. Rabuka plans to re-establish the Council of Chiefs which his predecessor abolished.
Fijians will certainly have given three hearty cheers for King Charles and Queen Camilla yesterday.