Extending the Hand of Kinship and Respecting the Right to Choose
Lucy de Bruce is from the Kailoma community of Fiji. Kailomas are the descendants of indigenous Fijians and European settlers who became the first ‘blended people’ of the Fiji Islands during the early nineteenth century. They are also known as Vasu. Over the years the category has grown to include other blood mixtures, although the emphasis is always in relation to one’s Fijian ancestry. Both Lucy’s parents are first generation interracials, while she is a first generation of the two mulattoes. She has close relatives, both native and interracial, throughout Fiji. Lucy currently resides in Sydney, Australia, where she is completing a doctorate degree on the mixed-race identity in Fiji. She travels regularly to her homeland and is interested in researching Kailoma social history as she believes that very little is known about her people. She feels that much information on Fiji is centred on its two rival ethnic groups: Native Fijian landowners and ethnic Indians – descendants of indentured labourers brought to work the sugar cane plantations in the late nineteenth century. Lucy believes that a factor much overlooked in regards to Fiji’s recent civilian coup, led by George Speight, was the Fijian coup leader’s own racial identity and his claim to represent ‘Indigenous Fijians’. While she does not dispute Speight’s claim to this identity, she offers a closer look at Fijians of similar backgrounds to see how they fit into Fiji’s race-conscious society. In thinking about the coup she ponders the question of the Fijian identity and its relationship to equitable citizenship. The following excerpt is from a submission she prepared recently for delivery, by her brother William, to Fiji’s Constitutional Review Commission on the topic of Fijian Unity. She admits that the mixed-race identity is complex and diverse and that some Kailomas may not agree with her. However, she is firmly of the belief that the effects of colonisation on Fiji’s interracial community and their diverse “histories” should be brought to a wider audience to take their place alongside ‘monoracial’ histories that have long enjoyed popular readership concerning the Fiji Islands.
To The Hearing Committee on Fijian Unity
A Position Paper Submitted on Behalf of the Vasu/Kailoma Interest Group of Fiji
It is with respect and a deep concern that we bring to your attention a matter concerning issues of identity, race categorisation, and ‘a sense of belonging’, as experienced by many members of our small community. We, the Vasu/Kailoma, as some of you will know, are the descendants of indigenous Fijians and other races. In the days before and after colonisation our community was commonly known as ‘halfcastes’ or ‘Part European’. Other labels proposed on our behalf were ‘PMEND’ (People of Mixed European and Native Descent’, ‘Euronesian’, and ‘Anglo-Fijian’). Many people of racially-mixed descent also identify with the label ‘part European’. Following independence, ‘Part Europeans and other groups who were not from the three major racial groupings (Fijian, Indian, Rotuman), were lumped together as general voters under the banner of ‘Others’. This category is fraught with complexities and cultural-diversity as to render its usefulness negligible.
This submission therefore, is made on behalf of those mixed-race individuals and their families who are descendants of Indigenous Fijians and who share Fijian aspirations and a preference for the Fijian identity.
Regardless of these labels, many of us still relate to the Fijian term, ‘Kailoma’, to describe ‘Part Europeans’ of Fijian heritage. The word means “intermediate place”, and many of us feel it accurately sums up our anomalous place in Fijian society and is devoid of racial overtones. On the local scene, we, the Kailoma/Vasu are known to be the descendants of early European settlers and Fijian women. However, as mentioned above, other ‘mixed’ people with Fijian blood also identify with the Kailoma/Vasu label.
Under the colonial system the Kailoma interracial identity proved problematic for imperial administrators. Their caste-conscious classificatory system followed a divide-and-rule policy which was designed to maintain social control and keep group interaction to a minimum. Invariably, the Kailoma child proved a disruptive challenge to the colonial system. Kailoma’s hybrid identity highlighted the contestations and hypocrisies associated with empire building. It exposed issues of concubinage and miscengenation (forbidden sex) between coloniser and subjugated natives and was deemed an unspeakable act by Whites. The early products of such liaisons were strongly condemned and ostracised by Europeans. Fijians, on the other hand, were more sympathetic towards their half-siblings. They called them ‘Vasu’ (kin) and the Vasu was extended full membership of one’s mother’s clan. Nevertheless under colonial rule, the Vasu/Kailoma was viewed with suspicion and perceived as a threat to native policy. Imperial administrators, informed by eurocentric theories of ‘savage races’, felt the Kailoma needed to be watched. The colonial record is filled with references denigrating the Kailoma character (‘the degenerate halfcaste’, ‘the debased halfcaste’,’ ‘the lazy/untrustworthy halfcaste’, the ‘dull-witted halfcaste’, etc.). Clearly we were not the ‘noble savages’ of the European imagination.
The colonial solution to the ‘halfcaste problem’ was our permanent relegation to the social fringes of Fijian society under the dubious banner of ‘Part-Europeans’. This way the Vasu/Kailoma could be monitored and officially ‘spoken for’ by our European superiors. They even condescended to give us “Part-of” their identity, hence the dog tag ‘Part-European’. Such was the machinery of the colonial system which so effectively carved up entire Fijian clans, regardless of kinship systems or routine social interactions.
The Vasu/Kailoma became the innocent victims of a colonial social engineering project. Under British rule, racial categories were standardised and incorporated into official policy. Yet before British annexation we were simply Fijian, regardless of our bloodmixtures. Indeed, many of Fiji’s early Kai loma were the children of European traders and Fijian women who were routinely absorbed into Fijian society. Many were the children of chiefly women whose menfolk had offered them to European men in exchange for European goods and weapons. It stands to reason, therefore, that there is no such thing as a ‘pure Fijian race’ since many Fijians, particularly those of high rank, have Kailoma/European blood flowing in their veins (!). Vasu/Kailoma history is tightly woven with Fijian history.
But such was the legacy of our early European history and the ensuing colonial period that had sought to control natives according to Anglocentric ideals based on notions of European supremacy. Criteria such as skin colour, class background, and social standing were all part of the colonial yardstick for measuring ‘native’ and ‘non-native’. It was the most insidious form of racism with far reaching effects – the psychological scars are still with us today. Yet Fiji was not alone in this regard. Under colonial rule, numerous indigenous communities across the world were divided-up and categorised differently in relation to their natural families. It happened with Aborigines, Maori, Anglo-Indians, American Indians, Eurasians, Durban Coloureds, Caribbean Coloureds, South American and Philippino Mestizos, and many more. Closer to home it happened in Western Samoa. An interesting difference, however, is that following independence in 1962 Western Samoa absorbed most of its ‘Part-Europeans’ and re-classified those with Samoan blood as ‘Samoan’.
Many countries have followed suit, notably Maori and Aborigines whose former ‘part-siblings’ are now routinely absorbed into the Indigenous fold following the wave of indigenous revivalism and the prospect of more votes for Maori/Aboriginal leaders. None of these initiatives have transpired without growing pains. Nonetheless they are a testimony to the maturing of a nation and the capacity of indigenous people to grow in self-awareness.
In light of these circumstances, it cannot be underestimated how dangerous the implications are for Fijians to continue in the vein of a divided people. The turbulent times we have witnessed in this last coup should urgently signal that Fijians need to do some serious soul searching in relation to the Fijian identity and to issues of group belonging among its forgotten and alienated members. We need to look closer at the legal definition of what is meant by ‘a Fijian’ – where the lines have increasingly blurred between landless Fijiians, urban Fijians and Kailoma Fijians. We need to consider comparative international precedents for absorbing interracial subjects back into indigenous systems. This might call for a twin system that distinguishes between the lifestyles of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ Fijians. If Fiji is to continue as a democracy, then an unambiguous legal framework for defining ‘Fijian’ is long overdue.
The contemporary Kailoma identity needs to be ‘re-sketched’ in the popular imagination. We, the Vasu/Kailoma have been here in Fiji from the earliest of contact days. We have a distinguished military record and have served our country faithfully alongside our Fijian brothers. We were there in the Solomons during World War Two; in Korea; Northern Ireland; the Falklands; in crack commando units of the British Army; and in United Nations peacekeeping forces. Indeed, every place that Fijian soldiers have served, we have served. We have earned our stripes.
Today the Kailoma identity is fragmented and in deep crisis. Since independence our community has suffered from an inferiority complex due, in large part, to its marginal identity and its anomalous race category. For too long we have sat on the sidelines as passive onlookers witnessing much of the political and economic activity that bypasses our participation and contribution. We lack confidence and have internalised much suffering and pain that comes from being a member of an invisible group.
We hope that this overview will provide this Hearing Committee with an opportunity to reflect on the Kailoma situation in Fiji today. What’s more, we hope that you will consider the notion that “race is a socially constructed phenomenon” and that the racial category we occupy ignores the daily interactions and social relationships that actually exist between Kailoma and our Fijian relatives. It is our hope that the Office of the Vasu can assist with our dilemma, and that the ‘hand of kinship’ can be extended to members of our community WHO CHOOSE to re-classify as ‘itaukei’ (indigenous) and vote with our Fijian relatives.