Syria shipwreck rescue efforts of 1884 leads to communal reconciliation in Fiji

Syria shipwreck rescue efforts of 1884 leads to communal reconciliation in Fiji

Syria shipwreck rescue efforts of 1884 leads to communal reconciliation in Fiji

Updated 20 October 2017, 14:35 AEDT

What began with indigenous iTaukei villagers rescuing Indian survivors of a shipwreck 133 years ago has now become a movement towards reconciliation that both sides hope could have a positive impact on Fiji's future.

In May 1884, the vessel Syria ran aground on Fiji's Nasilai reef and local villagers helped rescue and shelter the survivors.

But what began with indigenous iTaukei villagers rescuing Indian survivors of a shipwreck 133 years ago has now become a movement towards reconciliation that both sides hope could have a positive impact on Fiji's future.

Earlier this year, the descendants of Indian indentured labourers, or girmityas, who survived the wreck of the vessel on a reef near Suva were recognised as 'luvendra na ratu' or children of the chief.

In May, a ceremony adopting the descendants as part of the vanua or people of Rewa was presided over by Ro Teimumu Kepa, the Roko Tui Dreketi, or Paramount Chief of Dreketi and head of the Burebasaga Confederacy.

She says while there have been tensions between the indigenous iTaukei or Fijian people and the Indo-Fijians who were brought to Fiji by the British to work in the sugar cane plantations, personal relations have usually been good.

"Those on the grassroots, they have a very good relationship, until it comes to election time when the politicians come in," she told the ABC.

"[Politicians then] start saying, you know, how different people are from one another, then that kind of bad feeling comes in."

That first ceremony in May has since been replicated in the west of the main island of Viti Levu, with a ceremony in Nadi at which traditional chiefs in the Ba province accepted the 'luvendra na ratu' status of girmitya descendants in the area.

Both indigenous iTaukei including chiefs and Indo-Fijians participated in the ceremony, which saw the girmitya descendants present the chiefs with three whales teeth as ceremonial gifts.

One of the Indo-Fijians taking part, Jagganath Sami, says relations between Fiji's two main communities in the west of the main island of Viti Levu have been harmonious for a long time, and is getting better all the time.

"Largely we get along very well. Even post-coups, race relations in the west haven't been bad," he said.

"Because in the cane belt areas we cane cutters are [living with] the iTaukei or indigenous Fijians and the tenants are Indo-Fijians, [we] have been living together and dealing with each other all the time."

Jese Saukuru, spokesman for the Council of Chiefs of Ba, agrees, saying this will help make race relations in Ba much easier in future, and will help ease tensions over land tenure, especially in the sugar industry.

"They've been accepted into our system now, so what happened on Friday … is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

"What will happen is now that they've been accepted by our chiefs… it'll boil down to the very grassroots where you'll see landowners from the iTaukei side will establish close relationships with the tenants, mostly they are Indo-Fijians or girmit descendants, the luvendra na ratu".