The Plight of the Kai Solomoni

On Monday we published  an account of the meeting of the PM with descendants of Solomon Island indentured labourers (Kai Solomoni) who were celebrating the 34th anniverary of Solomon Island Independence.  This is my review  of Rev. Winston Halapua's book on the Kai Solomoni.

Halapua, Winston, Living on the Fringe: Melanesians of Fiji. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suva. 2001. pp.152. 1
Between 1865 and 1911 some eighty thousand indentured labourers arrived in Fiji, some to return home after their three, five or ten year indenture, some to be recruited again, but many to stay and make Fiji their home. The first indentured labourers were from nearby islands— mainly from Kiribati, Malekula in Vanuatu, and Malaita in the Solomons— but their high mortality rates, opposition to ethnic Fijian involvement in the new money economy, and the ongoing demand for manual labour on the European-owned plantations, saw labour recruiters turn first to Calcutta and then to Madras for new labour. By 1891 there were 15,000 Pacific Islanders and 47,000 Indians in Fiji.
It is about the descendants of one these groups, the Melanesians (or Kai Solomoni) living in a scatter of semi-informal settlements in Suva’s urban ‘fringe’, that Winston Halapua (an Anglican minister who worked with the Solomoni for 13 years) wrote the Masters sociology thesis on which this book is based. His is a story of a largely forgotten people, now genetically far more Fijian than Solomoni, who, due to official neglect, inappropriate legislation and urban regulations, misdirected church philanthropy, their non-acceptance by ethnic Fijians, and their own material and psychological insecurities, are culturally, economically and geographically marginalized.

The language and everyday culture of those living in Solomoni settlements is Fijian; they fulfill the traditional obligations to their Fijian landlords with gifts and labour, but their tenure is insecure, they have no rights to land, and they receive none of the extra assistance which Government provides for ethnic Fijians in work, business and education. The irony is that, by tradition and in modern law, illegitimate children born to unmarried Fijian women enjoy the full rights and privileges of a Fijian, but legitimate children of Fijian women married to Kai Solomoni have no rights as Fijians.2 Neither Solomon nor Fijian, they are culturally marginalized.

Economic marginalization is evident in limited educational attainment, and high levels of casual and unskilled work, chronic unemployment, poverty and destitution; and geographic marginalization in the location of their settlements —in the shadow of cliffs, flood-prone river valleys, the edges of mangrove swamps, and other urban “fringe” locations.

The book is organized in three broad sections. The first traces the marginalization of the Melanesians as the demand for their labour changed and they moved from cotton, to sugar and copra plantations during the 19th century. By the turn of the century, most had moved to Suva in search of work. Conditions in the Suva settlements in the 1920s were described by an Assistant Colonial Secretary as “shocking and a disgrace to the town.” Most inhabitants were illiterate. One writer described them as “landless, homeless, workless, stateless, and without real leaders” and another as “a pathetic community … with very few possessions of any kind.” Unemployment and destitution were commonplace.

Progressively, from 1915 onwards (and much to the relief of the Colonial Administration) the Anglican Church assumed responsibility for Melanesian welfare. Church leaders thought improvements would come if the scattered settlement populations could be brought together in one centralized settlement where “Melanesian culture, identity, security and hope” might be restored. In 1941 such a settlement was established on a 250 acre leasehold site at Wailoku outside Suva’s western boundary. Halapua describes how the dream turned sour as the community took “one more step into the margins of Fiji’s society and economy as a secluded category, stigmatized, largely unemployed, and supervised by the paternalism of pastoral care.”

The second section traces, in some detail, the problems of Wailoku and four other Melanesian settlements. At Wailoku, Church patronage denied the people self-determination. Settlement headmen, appointed by the Church, had neither traditional nor government authority, and were largely ignored by the people. In the other settlements, a major problem was their limited size as their populations grew, and lack of security as urban growth put pressure on their informal tenure relations with the Fijian landowners. As leases expire over the next few years many could find themselves homeless.

The third section explores ideas on dependency, paternalism, class, ethnicity, and inferiority. Halapua calls for an end to the dependent relationship with the Church and an end to Government ignoring the “legal rights of fourth and fifth generation Melanesians who have made Fiji their home.”2 He sees inter-marriage as a means of integrating Melanesians, and urges Fijian women married to Solomoni to claim their childrens’ vasu3 rights. He sees Wailoku as an instrument of Solomoni marginality and makes much of the fact that no leading Melanesian resides in any Melanesian settlement. “Wailoku,” he writes, “has been in existence for over 50 years and is still pervaded by a stagnant atmosphere that stifles opportunity and advancement.”

The book provides a useful description of a neglected people and their settlements, past and present. Publication could also contribute to improvements in their condition. But it is a frustrating book in many ways. It suffers from its origin and long gestation as a thesis; its aims are an unclear mix of sociology, history and pastoral influences; its theoretical base is limited and dated; and there is no “cross-referencing” to any study of other marginalized people, in Fiji or elsewhere. But what is especially disappointing —and surprising, given Halapua’s concern with paternalism and dependency— is the absence of any Solomoni voice, either distilled by Halapua or directly expressed by the people themselves. His arguments would carry more weight if they had been “tested” against survey findings and endorsed by the people about whom he writes. As it is, we do not know how Solomoni perceive their present conditions or what they want for their futures. We have to take Halapua’s jump from description to prescription on trust.

If, as Halapua states, the settlement environment perpetuates marginality, what is it that produces this effect? Insecure leases? Dependency on church and other authorities? An indefinite cultural identity? Poor wages and lack of work? Inadequate education? Lack of leadership? The absence of positive role models? What is cause and what is effect in this cycle of deprivation, and what weight should be given to each element? The anecdotal evidence that a handful of Solomoni who live outside the settlements have “succeeded” is hardly sufficient to show that extra-settlement residence and integration with Fijians is the way forward. The study would have been more valuable if the Wailoku survey covered more than employment and wages, and parallel surveys and interviews had been conducted in other Solomoni settlements and among those who had “integrated” into the larger community.

It is, however, extremely difficult to obtain information on Solomoni from official records which classify them either as “Other” (along with everyone else who is not an ethnic Fijian, Indo-Fijian or Rotuman) or as “Other Pacific Islander”, a miscellany which, in merging the identities of all Pacific Islanders, produces data of little value to any one. One cannot but observe that the unintentional denial by government of an identity to Solomoni could be part of their dilemma, and part of the solution.

Privileged access to 1996 Census data, however, does allow some comparisons to be made between Melanesian households at Wailoku, Fijians in urban villages in Greater Suva3, and Suva Fijians as a whole. This is not the comparison desired but a worst-to-best gradient would support Halapua’s contentions. More Wailoku household heads were subsistence farmers (48%); over half were not employed, and of these fewer worked for Government and almost none were salaried workers. Five percent had no schooling, one-third had not progressed beyond primary school, and less than 20 percent (compared with 25 percent of urban villagers and 40 percent of urban Fijians) had progressed to upper secondary school. On average, Wailoku housing was slightly better than that of urban villagers but its households had far fewer material possessions. They had no cars, almost no telephones, and fewer household appurtenances.

Halapua’s contentions on some features of life at Wailoku vis a vis life in a Fijian urban village or the wider urban Fijian community thus gain some support from the Census data, but the evidence is by no means conclusive. We do not know whether similar conditions exist in other Solomoni settlements, and we are no closer to an understanding of the intricacies of cause, consequence or solution. Nor, in a city where one-quarter of Fijian and Indo-Fijian households live in destitution or poverty, do we know the extent to which Solomoni at Wailoku (and, possibly, at other Solomoni settlements) may be considered especially deprived. Hence the frustration.

Halapua calls for a prime ministerial committee comprising Melanesians, Church and Government representatives, and “two consultants on poverty” to identify the problems and recommend solutions. Senior Melanesian community spokesmen consulted by the reviewer but not, surprisingly, by Halapua, seek (1) a multi-ethnic council to address minority issues; (2) Australian and British contributions to Solomoni development: “not from guilt but for historical reasons”; (3) a national census to establish Solomoni numbers and needs; (4) Government affirmative action for Solomoni, especially on education and land; (5) a Melanesian Trust Fund.

The book raises important issues about a largely forgotten and depressed people, and for this reason alone it is an important contribution to Pacific Islands and human rights literature, but Solomoni and others will need to continue Halapua’s work if more questions are to find answers, and a Fiji government finally accepts responsibility for the descendants of a people its colonial predecessors abandoned a hundred years ago.

 Crosbie Walsh
Asia Pacific Viewpoint  October, 2001

1 For nearly 30 years the Institute has published books on the Pacific Islands written, in most part, by Pacific Islanders. Editorial work in the present book is of a high standard, with two exceptions. Sixty-six decimal points in Table 2.1 need to be moved one place to the left to avoid mortality rates in excess of one hundred percent! In the map of Pacific Islands (page 18) many island locations shown bear little to no relationship with geographic reality.

2 Solomoni with Fijian mothers could, however, claim a vasu relationship with their mother’s elder brother which would confer some rights of mataqali (landholding unit) membership, but not the ownership of land. In practice, vasu relationships must be claimed by the ceremonial “presentation” and acceptance of a child; the relationship belongs to the individual, and is not automatically passed down to subsequent generations; and the relationship should be sustained and reciprocal. The Fijian scholar Nayacakalou wrote that a vasu “is a member but not a real member.” In short, few Solomoni are able to enjoy this relationship with their Fijian relatives, and it is not clear what benefits it would bring if they could.

3 Officially recognized peri-urban settlements inhabited by traditional landowning units and organized along quasi-traditional lines. Greater Suva incorporates Suva City, Lami and their census-defined urban areas.


Nik Naidu said…
Good review Croz. I used to live next to a setttlement of Kai Solomoni people behind Nailuva Road near USP in Suva, and was close friends with many of the youth. While Indo-Fijians have received acknowlegement of their plight during the indenture period, the Solomon Islanders were largely ignored, and their quiet struggle and adaptation in Fiji has largely gone unnoticed and unsupported. This is one Fiji history's sad tragedies
Anonymous said…
The kai Solomoni will be the forgotten colony of leppers of Makogai. Insignificant men and women making a significant chapter of Fiji's history. I hope one day they will be liberated.
Benuro said…
maybe someday, they will all be set free

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