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Fijians

by  Jacqueline Leckie

The four military coups since 1987 have prompted many Fijians to look for a more secure life in New Zealand. Representing varied ethnicities and political views, members of the Fijian community preserve their differences and share their heritage through religion, sports and cultural events.


The Fijian community

Ethnic groups

Fijians in New Zealand, as in Fiji, consist of different ethnic groups. Their ancestors come from places as diverse as Europe, China, India, Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific islands. The two largest groups are indigenous Fijians (Taukei and Rotumans), and Fijians of Indian descent (Indo-Fijians or Fiji Indians).

Fiji’s ethnic complexity is a consequence of British colonisation between 1874 and 1970. Official policies separated the indigenous, Indian, European and other communities in economic, administrative, political and social spheres. A striking feature of colonisation was the indentured labour system. Between 1879 and 1916 about 60,000 Indians were hired to work under harsh and restrictive conditions in Fiji’s sugar industry. The workers called themselves Girmitiyas, a word which evolved from the English word ‘agreement’. A unique Indo-Fijian culture developed, which explains why many Indo-Fijians are distinct from other New Zealand Indians. It also underlies different political and economic causes of migration.

Population

How big is the Fijian population in New Zealand? The answer depends upon how Fijian identity is defined. In 2013, 14,445 people said they had Fijian ethnicity (up from 9,864 in 2006), while 10,929 claimed Fijian Indian ethnicity (5,616 in 2006). However, 52,755 New Zealand residents of various ethnicities were born in Fiji (up from 37,746 in 2006). The latter group included many ethnicities, especially Indo-Fijians (probably counted under Asian or Indian ethnic categories). Moreover, the total number of New Zealanders with Fijian ancestry is even higher because of the rapidly increasing percentage of New Zealand-born Fijians. In 2013, by place of birth, Fijians were the largest Pacific group living in New Zealand.

Occupations

Finding suitable work has not always been easy. The exodus of Indo-Fijians from Fiji to New Zealand during the late 1980s coincided with high unemployment in New Zealand. Discrimination was also a problem. Many had to accept less skilled jobs, and some opened shops. Nevertheless, in 2013 Fijians had the second-highest labour force participation and highest annual median income among Pacific groups.

Fijians are now well represented in the professional, technical, service and retail sectors. Others work as machine operators, assemblers, and in forestry. Fijians are more likely to be self-employed or employers than other Pacific Islanders.


First waves of immigration

Links between Fiji and New Zealand

During the 19th century Fiji attracted New Zealand planters, traders and missionaries, and on several occasions it was suggested that Fiji be made a state of New Zealand. A powerful economic bond between the two nations was the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. This was an Australian company with plantations in Fiji that produced sugar, mostly destined for a refinery at Birkenhead, Auckland. New Zealand helped uphold Britain’s colonial power in Fiji, and sent troops at Britain’s request when Indian workers went on strike in 1920. New Zealand unions protested, initiating close bonds between organised labour in New Zealand and Fiji.

Increasingly, New Zealand became involved in Fiji’s administration. In 1936 nursing in Fiji came under New Zealand supervision. During the Second World War New Zealand was responsible for Fiji’s defence, and later established an air base at Laucala Bay. And in the 1960s many Fijian students learned more about New Zealand than their own country, following the adoption of the New Zealand School Certificate system. As a result, Fijians became familiar with New Zealand and New Zealanders, and this may have influenced immigration patterns.

Settlement before 1945

Before the Second World War, few Fijians came to live in New Zealand. Until 1936 there were fewer than 1,000 Fijian-born residents, and in 1945 the number was 1,173. Some temporary residents included the children of the Indian élite, who were educated in New Zealand.

Fijians pose as Māori

The Fijian government rejected Indo-Fijian volunteer soldiers during the Second World War. Both indigenous Fijians and Europeans were concerned at the power that military training might give Indo-Fijians. Memories of the 1920 strike, and concern at the nationalist movement in India fuelled these fears. Some Indo-Fijians subsequently enlisted in the 28th (Māori) Battalion in New Zealand using false names.

Post-war Fijian settlement

After the Second World War Fijians with predominantly European ancestry were allowed to settle permanently in New Zealand. Others gained permanent residence through marriage to New Zealanders. However, the small Fijian community at this time consisted mainly of temporary residents who were tertiary students or contract labourers. The earliest were a few Fijian female domestic servants. In the 1950s Indo-Fijians worked as temporary scrub cutters in Whanganui.

Work schemes

Fijians immigrated temporarily under various work schemes between 1967 and 1987. They laboured in arduous, low-paid agricultural and scrub cutting work in the lower North Island or in tussock grubbing in North Canterbury. By 1969 work included fruit picking, forestry, vegetable and tobacco cultivation, and halal slaughtering. Initially most who worked under these schemes were Indo-Fijians. But by the 1970s and early 1980s, they were increasingly indigenous Fijians, partly because of the Fijian government’s preferential policies. Some of these temporary workers remained illegally in New Zealand and eventually became permanent residents. Auckland became the principal centre of settlement, followed by Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Dunedin. A community of indigenous Fijians settled in Whanganui.


Post-1987 immigration

The 1987 military coups

Thousands fled Fiji after two coups in 1987. These coups, in which the military overthrew the government, caused profound economic, personal and political insecurity, particularly for Indo-Fijians, and prompted massive emigration to Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. The initial exodus was sudden, and migrants were forced to leave behind family, friends, homes, possessions and jobs. During subsequent military rule in Fiji, many more emigrated as institutional discrimination against Indo-Fijians intensified. Emigration also increased in the late 1990s as land leases came up for renewal and Indian farmers faced the likelihood of becoming landless. Indigenous Fijians also experienced severe economic insecurity and widespread redundancies, which led to some emigration to New Zealand.

The pro-democracy movement

After the 1987 coups some politicians and activists fled to New Zealand. They formed local branches of the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji (CDF). The CDF lobbied for the restoration of the deposed government and democracy in Fiji, and also publicised human rights abuses there. The Operation Sunrise network fundraised for the pro-democracy movement in Fiji. The CDF condemned Fiji’s 1990 state constitution and vigorously campaigned for a constitution that was more inclusive and democratic.

The 2000 civilian coup

Fiji’s democratic future appeared positive after the adoption of a new constitution in 1997. But in 2000 a civilian coup took members of the government hostage for 56 days. This unleashed months of violence targeted at Indo-Fijians, but as the crisis intensified indigenous Fijians also became casualties of violence and economic collapse. An attempted mutiny in the military confirmed Fiji’s instability. The violence of 2000 prompted thousands of Indo-Fijians who had remained in Fiji or returned after 1987 to leave permanently. It also caused other ethnic groups to emigrate. The political situation has continued to be unstable, and there was another coup in December 2006. Between 1996 and 2013, the number of Fijian-born residents in New Zealand increased by 34,000.

The Blue Ribbon campaign

In 2000 the CDF was reactivated to condemn the violent overthrow of the People’s Coalition government. When pro-democracy supporters in Fiji launched the Blue Ribbon campaign, their counterparts in New Zealand also wore blue ribbons, as a symbol for the release of the hostages in Fiji. Subsequently the Fiji Movement for Justice and Freedom’s branches in New Zealand have raised funds and urged international compensation for displaced cane farmers in Fiji.


Fijian culture in New Zealand

As more immigrants arrived, change accelerated within Fijian cultures in New Zealand. Many cultural values and practices have been maintained, but some are under threat.

Language

Fijian, Fiji Hindi and English are the main languages of Fiji, and many residents of Fiji understand the language of another ethnic group. But settlement in New Zealand is eroding linguistic flexibility, particularly among recent younger migrants and New Zealand-born Fijians. Some Indo-Fijians see little value in maintaining Fiji Hindi in New Zealand. While there have been some efforts to promote language classes for Fijian children, keeping the language alive depends upon family use and contacts with Fiji.

Religion

The social and spiritual networks of Christian, Hindu and Muslim religious groups have helped sustain Fijian cultures in New Zealand. Fijian Christians are mainly Methodist and Catholic, and in the main centres these churches offer services in Fijian and fellowships for women. The Assemblies of God attract some Fijians, including a minority of Indo-Fijians.

The dramatic post-1987 immigration from Fiji led to a huge increase in Hindu religious activities in New Zealand, including mandir (temple) building, celebration of festivals, and pujas and mandalis (religious gatherings). A smaller proportion of immigrants from Fiji were Muslim. They have contributed to New Zealand’s culturally diverse Islamic community.

Religious networks are necessary in order for indigenous Fijians to maintain traditional family customs in New Zealand. However, many have found it impossible to continue holding elaborate ceremonies. These are labour intensive, time consuming and better suited to a village environment. Some try to return to Fiji for ceremonies such as male circumcision.

Fijian food and commodities

Before 1987 Fijian immigrants found it difficult to get island and Indian ingredients. They relied upon a few Indian importers or friends bringing food from Fiji. Today, largely as a result of the settlement of Indo-Fijians in New Zealand, an extensive range of foods, clothing, utensils and Hindi videos is available.

What is grog?

Grog (yaqona, kava), a mildly intoxicating drink made from the root of the herb Piper methysticum, is enjoyed by most Fijians of all ethnicities. It is a recreational drink, although it has ceremonial status for indigenous Fijians. Grog sessions continue in New Zealand and unite different Fijian groups. Indo-Fijians have been mainly responsible for importing and distributing yaqona in New Zealand.

Sport

Sport and leisure activities reinforce Fijian social ties and also present Fijians positively to the non-Fijian population. Arthur Jennings was the first Fijian to play for the All Blacks, in 1967. Bernie Fraser was another outstanding Fijian star of the 1979 team. Since then many have played for provincial teams as well as the national side – All Black Joe Rokocoko among them. Fiji has also been well represented in netball: Vilimaina Davu was the first Fijian Silver Fern. Fijians helped revitalise New Zealand football through the activities of the New Zealand Fiji AFC, founded in 1993. Indo-Fijians are also prominent in the New Zealand Boxing Federation.

The media

Indo-Fijians have their own media services, which also cater to other Indians. Radio Tarana is a Hindi radio station based in Auckland. Community newspapers have flourished, and in 2001, the internet site Indian Newslink was established. Indigenous Fijians have slots on radio Niu FM, while community access radio is important to Fijians of all ethnicities.


A sense of community

The first Fiji association

In 1977 the Fiji Association was established in Auckland. It organised sporting and cultural events and sponsored Indian dancers and musicians from Fiji and India. The association has collected funds for hurricane relief in Fiji and to assist Fijians requiring medical treatment in New Zealand. It has also made submissions to public bodies in New Zealand on issues relating to Indian cultures and religions, immigration and education.

Other Fijian community groups

A myriad of community groups sustain Fijian culture in New Zealand. They tend to be ethnically divided, although the Fiji Club of New Zealand, founded in 2003, is not. The pro-democracy movement, which arose after the military coups of 1987 and 2000, is also multiracial. In the main centres Fijian community associations address common advocacy and welfare issues and offer sports and cultural programmes. Many community groups have also provided generous assistance to people in Fiji.

Fiji clubs have long given social support for Fijian university students, with the University of Auckland Fiji Club dating back to the 1960s. Indigenous Fijians have formed associations based on regions in Fiji. There has in addition been competitive fundraising between different Fijian confederations within some larger Fijian church congregations.

In 1996 the Fiji Women’s Society was founded in Auckland as a practical support group for women experiencing problems with domestic violence, immigration, children and legal matters. The Fiji Women’s Ruve Group, founded in 1995, connected health professionals with Fijian women and their families. The Naitasiri Women’s Group is an example of an organisation based on provincial and kinship links with Fiji that provides assistance to people both in Fiji and in New Zealand.

Fijian identity in New Zealand

Although Fijians in New Zealand have varied ethnicities and political agendas, they share a common national background. This identity remains important in New Zealand, but it is uncertain whether it will endure. Ties with Fiji remain strong, but are lessening among Indo-Fijians as more families emigrate. Indo-Fijians have specific cultural traits, but most tick the ‘Asian’ ethnic box in the census. Indigenous Fijians have greater kinship, cultural and land connections with Fiji, but these may weaken as the proportion of New Zealand-born Fijians who are not confident in their language grows. Yet some Fijians in New Zealand are now exploring their heritage and forging a new collective identity through religious, sports and social organisations.


Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Fiji.

  • 1874 census: 29
  • 1901 census: 224
  • 1951 census: 1,702
  • 1976 census: 6,671
  • 2001 census: 25,725
  • 2006 census: 37,746
  • 2013 census: 52,755

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Fijian: 9,864 (2006); 14,445 (2013)
  • Fijian Indian: 5,616 (2006); 10,929 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

More links and websites


How to cite this page: Jacqueline Leckie, 'Fijians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/fijians/print (accessed 26 June 2019)

Story by Jacqueline Leckie, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015