Queen Elizabeth and Fiji
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
Despite her 96 years, Her Majesty's death came as a shock. A very sad one. Since then I've followed television coverage of the ceremonies proclaiming King Charles III and preparations for the Queen's funeral. As I watched the flag-draped coffin arrive in Edinburgh, I recognised a Fijian among the pallbearers.
Private Peni Tubuna, Royal Regiment of Scotland
I found out he was Private Peni Tubuna, Royal Company of Archers, the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Peni was offered a place in the British Army during his final year of school and is now just 21 years old. Service in the British Army is considered a high honour by all Fijians, because it's competitive, offers career advancement and generous conditions. But just as important to Fijians, if not more so, has been the chance to serve the Queen.
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, Since then the British monarch has been their 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, many in the Prince of Wales Royal Regiment and also the SAS. I've written of their bravery and self-sacrifice in other blog posts: Fiji's Victoria Cross hero and SAS Sergeant Labalaba.
Peni said, “Two months ago, we were asked to volunteer to become pallbearers for Queen Elizabeth II's funeral. It was solely based on performance... It felt so surreal, I was happy yet nervous at the same time. But we did a lot of rehearsals within the (last) two days."
Peni's own high chief in Rewa, the Roko Tui Dreketi, revealed that Peni's family has hereditary duties to her own family entailing digging graves, carrying coffins and performing burials. Is it likely that this reserved young soldier's appointment as a royal pallbearer is a coincidence? Is it likely his status at home is recorded on his British army personnel file? It's unlikely we'll ever know.
The Queen and the Republic of Fiji
Fijians marched in Queen Elizabeth's coronation procession in 1953 as part of the Colonial Contingent. She expressed her gratitude when she paid her first visit the following year, arriving on the royal yacht. Fijians have loved her ever since.
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, economic and political competition between the indigenous Fijians and the ethnic Indians increased. Fears grew that Indians in government would take over Fijian land, culminating in a bloodless military coup led by Colonel Rabuka in 1987. Rabuka took over government, revoked the 1970 constitution and declared Fiji a republic.
Of course, the Queen made no public comment, but 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. Fijians compete for places in the British Armed Forces.
The Queen came to Fiji six times, the last in 1982. However Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Princes William and Harry have paid many more recent visits. On each occasion, the population flocks to welcome the Queen's children and grandchildren. Some royal visits are more private: Princess Anne visited on business for Save the Children in 2014. In his role as Colonel of the Royal Regiment, Prince Charles called on the parents of a Fijian soldier who died on active service, to pay his personal condolences and deliver a letter from his mother. For this visit, press and cameras were not permitted anywhere near the bereaved parents' rural house.
I can only conclude the Republic of Fiji is indeed a republic with a difference. As Private Peni Tubuna's high chief, Ro Teimumu Vuikaba Kepa declared, "Fiji will forever have a soft spot for the monarchy...We were not colonised by conquest, but rather we ceded ourselves to the British crown for protection. 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...(Queen Elizabeth) is still my paramount chief."