Beyond the sea, sun and sand – Nukulau’s eventful history

Nukulau structures destroyed by a cyclone. Picture: WWW. JUSTPACIFIC.COM

Nukulau, known to many as a picnic spot in the Suva peninsula, has an interesting history behind it, a remarkable one beyond the island’s abundance of sea, sun and sand.

An aspect of the islet that most know is the fact that it was connected to the ceding of Fiji to the British Crown in 1874.

According to historical records, in 1846, John Brown Williams, an American, had purchased the island for a mere thirty dollars, way below its value and most probably from landowners of nearby Rewa villages.

Williams is said to have lived on the island in a wooden two-story house he built.

During one American Independence Day celebrations, a canon blow up started a fire at Williams’ house.

The belongings he managed to save from the blaze were later looted by villagers.

A second fire in 1855 destroyed his house. Williams held Ratu Seru Cakobau, the Vunivalu of Bau, responsible for the looting.

The total compensation of over $US43,531 was demanded, this figure covering Williams’ losses, valued at a mere $US5000, and claims by other settlers.

Cakobau’s inability to pay the debt, coupled with the fear of a possible US invasion and annexation, led to a series of negotiations that ultimately influenced the decision to cede Fiji to the United Kingdom in 1874.

What followed was almost 100 years of British rule which ended in 1970. Many historians now believe that the US compensation claim was likely exaggerated.

But the interesting tale of Nukulau Island and its subsequent link to cession did not end there.

From 1879 to 1916, the island received thousands of Indian indentured labourers brought in by British colonial rulers to work on Fiji’s commercial plantations. Nukulau was a reception and quarantine centre.

practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities of Europe from the scourge of the plague epidemic.

For instance, ships arriving in Venice, Italy, from infected ports were required to anchor for at least 40 days before landing.

This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words Quaranta Giorni which mean “40 days”.

Hence, outbreaks of cholera from passenger ships prompted a reinterpretation of the law to provide governments in those days with more authority in imposing quarantine requirements.

Hence, when the first shipment of labourers came in the Leonidas, authorities were extremely cautious.

The ship’s arrival brought about fresh fears of diseases like measles, which is 1875, killed almost one-third of Fiji’s indigenous population.

After the Leonidas arrived in Fiji on May 14, 1879, the same day ill-fated Syria arrived five years later, its passengers were quarantined in the old capital, at a limestone islet between Ovalau and Moturiki, called Yanuca Lailai, now sometimes called Lost Island.

According to Agent-General of Immigration, William Seed’s recollection, houses on Yanuca Lailai were initially built to accommodate about 350 people.

To accommodate the extra 150 people, 700 Fijian men were sent to Yanuca Lailai from Ovalau and Moturiki to construct twenty more Fijian bure.

“It took the islanders three days to complete the bure, together with a hospital, storehouse, and quarters for the depot keeper. Later thirty more houses were added for married couples and others with families,” Seed noted.

The administration then was so anxious about the possibility of an epidemic, that officers frequently inspected the police boats and the schooner.

On one occasion a soldier was flogged when he was found sleeping during night inspection.

Describing the quarantine procedure, The Fiji Times article of May 18, 1879, recorded: “All letters are placed in a carbolic acid bottle, and are of course fumigated before delivery.”

“ Communication with the vessel under these circumstances is, of course, slow, but from what we learn there are 373 male and 149 female coolies on board, independent of children, all of whom are under the charge of Doctor Welsh. We hear also that two
buffaloes are on board.”

Later, Nukulau was operational. The island acted as a welcome stopover point for labourers who were exhausted by weeks of sea travel, sick of cramped and unhygienic ship conditions and fed up with seasickness and other illnesses.

Recounting the journey from India to Fiji, Indian educationist and politician, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya wrote that the condition under which the labourers lived on board the cargo ships “was not good at all”.

“There was not enough care for the modesty of the women, and all castes and religious rules were being broken and it was no wonder that much-committed suicide or else threw themselves into the sea.”

The journey was long and dangerous.

Many lost their lives through hunger, torture and suicide because they could not bear the cruelty and suffering onboard the ships.

This type of stories by the girmitiyas later found their way in books and historical texts, and some of these shared vivid experiences encountered on Nukulau.

“It was here that the recruits were washed with phenyl and examined to give the certificate of fitness so that they could be auctioned,’ quoted the book, My Roots, From Basti to Botini by Ram L. Prasad.

“My grandpa and grandma were bought by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company based in Sigatoka and were transported to Matutu where they were given eight feet by eight feet grass huts that were not fit for human inhabitation. Wet and hard floor and a few blankets were allocated to them.”

“Their first ration of rice, dhal, sharps, salt and oil was also handed to them. If they completed their daily tasks well for a month, they were paid ten shillings for that month.”

K.L.Gillon, in Fiji’s Indian Migrants (1962) provided more insight into the quarantine period.

Gillon said all ships to Fiji carrying labourers from India, except the Leonidas, went to the port of Suva, where passengers were “transferred to barges and towed by steam launches or tugs to Nukulau”.

They were inspected by the Agent-General of Immigration and given a thorough medical examination.

“The unfit were set aside for return to India or detained in the depot for medical treatment,” Gillon said, “those who declared they were husband and wife were registered as such and in allotting immigrants to employers, care was taken not to split families…”

After about a fortnight, the employees collected immigrants through an agent in Suva and they were taken away to their plantations by barges and steamers.

“Most of their caste scruples gave in, without their traditional leaders and elders and generally without kin, they were resigned to the future very vulnerable,” Gillon wrote.

Dr Kamlesh Sharma in Gulaami – Slavery in Fiji, gave a few detailed insights on Nukulau too.

He said the accommodation was made all of the wood and corrugated iron roofing. A separate block was set aside for medical examination facilities while another was set aside for those who were sick.

Labourers were allowed to exercise and walk around on the island’s main grounds under the watchful gaze of police guards, which reminded them they were not free people.

They seemed fascinated by being on a small islet surrounded by seas and white sand, something they had not come across in their life.

“Our villages were mainly inland in rural India and all we knew were land, bore wells and occasional rivers,” Dr Sharma quoted a labourer as saying.

A normal day on Nukulau started at 4am when everyone was summoned by the guards to rise and converge at the grounds for mandatory daily exercises.

Then time was given for “washing up” before breakfast was served, often including tea, biscuits, rice and dhal.

Though basic, this was generally better than food on the ship. The meals were cooked by a group of volunteer girmitiyas.

After breakfast, everyone was required to assist with the cleaning of the lodging barracks and the general compound.

By this time, because of their distance from the motherland, their accommodation spaces and their need of a company in a foreign place, the caste system which was strictly observed back home had slowly started to diminish.

Dr Sharma noted that whatever remained of the caste system, the hard body contact during games and entertainment on the island “further broke down barriers”.

Lunch was served around 12.30pm and consisted of plenty of rice and dhal (again) to fill everyone up.

After lunch, games would continue followed by dancing and singing of Indian folk songs. Once it was dark everyone moved
inside for dinner before retiring for the night.

Some of the games played by the girmitiyas included gulidanda (uses two sticks), kabbadi (tagging) and kusti, wrestling, the latter two being contact sports that could be played within a small area.

“When I looked over the horizon towards the main island, I used to stare at the lights out of the room window before I got tired and hit the floor to sleep as there were no beds,” Dr Sharma quoted a labourer saying.

“Hard timber floors were our bed and closing the windows provided some protection from the mosquitoes and sand flies that appeared to love Indian blood.”

The next day would again begin with the yelling of the police guards at 4am.

This set schedule continued on a daily basis.

However, the day of departure on Nukulau was different. It was more like an emotional and painful farewell.

Labourers were summoned to the grounds by room number with all their belongings.

“In my group, there were 60 individuals. We stood in a line, waiting for instructions. In front of us was a table with a white sahib sitting on the chair with a dozen police guards,” Dr Sharma’s book read.

They were reorganised into bigger groups of 80 and as a result, some associations and friendships forged during the weeks of travelling to Fiji were severed.

“Announcement was made that each group would be allocated to the white plantation owners and from that day onwards, we would be required to serve them for five years as indentured labourers.

Some wanted to join other groups, but were “kicked and pushed back” into their new allocated groups.

They were warned to refrain from mischief and disobedience or face severe punishment.

They cried and wailed, but that was all they could do on a foreign island, in a foreign land.

Unlike the previous days, the last day on the island seemed like living in an environment of fear and intimidation.

“My group was first to be taken to a waiting boat. We cried and held hands but were forced, dragged, kicked and spat at…we had no choice…”

From the island, groups were allocated to different areas of Fiji.

Many would never see each other again.

“One on the boat, we looked back to the remaining shipmates in silence and tried to wave goodbye with tears rolling down our cheeks.

“I felt as if I was being torn apart through separation from my best mates, who had cared so much for me on the 56-day journey
from Calcutta.”

According to Seed migrants who were part of the Leonidas trip remained in quarantine (Yanuca Lailai) until 15 August 1879, a period of three months.

During this period, 15 more died, mostly from dysentery, diarrhoea and typhoid.

The survivors, after a period of convalescence, were brought back to Levuka for allocation among the planters.

Records by the National Archives of India show that most of Leonidas’ passengers were taken to Qila in Taveuni (89 people), Mauniweni in Naitasiri (68), Colonial Sugar Refining Company in Nausori (76) and Rabi Island (99).

In the 1960s, many decades after the last quarantine, there were moves by the administration at the time to “de-proclaim” Nukulau as a quarantine station and transfer it from under the ambit of the Medical Department to the Lands Department.

This was to allow the island to be developed as the first in a series of national parks and playgrounds.

Before this, it was a place of “white and sand beaches, coral and good swimming spots and a popular weekend spot for Suva boat owners,” The Fiji Times said.

Also, in the 1960s the Royal Suva Yachts Club had a clubhouse on the island.

Before this, before Suva became the capital, one-story agrees that Nukulau was the spot of a fierce battle between two fleets of giant war canoes.

Reverend Father Aubry, one of the pioneer Catholic missionaries, who was wrecked and drowned here when returning from Kadavu, is believed to have been laid to rest in a little burial place on Nukulau.

According to University of the South Pacific language scholar, Paul Geraghty’s article based on Colman Walls’ Historical Notes On Suva, Nukulau also “received” the body of Suva chief Saketa who was clubbed to death at the present landing place at Naililili, Rewa.

Sakata’s body is said to have drifted down to Nukulau, staining the ebbing tide with his blood.

The island was also shunned in the olden days because it was believed to be the home of the malignant demon Batidua (the onetoothed devil) whose temple was at Tokatoka on the Wainibokasi.

In 1964 Nukulau was looked after by caretaker Frank Fleming, who had also looked after Makuluva in 1948, but had to move to the larger of the two islets after huge waves caused havoc on the Makuluva.

A few years ago, the Rewa Provincial Council mooted plans to build an $8 million resort on the island as a means of assisting in the development of the province.

The Fiji Times of March 31, 2008, said the traditional landowners of Nukulau wanted it back so that their future generations may “benefit from development projects” formulated and given to the government.

The plans included conference facilities, accommodation for 200 guests, staff quarters, a police post, a jetty, picnic spot and a children’s playground.

The resort was to be an environmentally-friendly one, featuring a modern restaurant and bar.

On the part of the government, there have been a few plans to develop Nukulau together with Laucala and Makuluva Islands, much like Nadi’s Denarau Island concept.

Nukulau is supposedly classified as crown land and is believed to have been originally owned by the clan members of  Naocodogo of the Village of Vutia in Rewa.

Today, apart from being a picnic spot, Nukulau is famous for being the former home of George Speight and other perpetrators of the 2000 coup that deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry’s government.

In December 2006, the island prison was converted back to a public park, as it had been before 2000 and many years before that.

  •  History being the subject it is, a group’s version of events may not be the same as that held by another group. When publishing one account, it is not our intention to cause division or to disrespect other oral traditions. Those with a different version can contact us so we can publish your account.

More Stories