Anna Kent reviews Nicholas Halter (Ed), Suva Stories: A history of the capital of Fiji, ANU Press 2022.
Suva Stories is an appropriate name for this title, bringing as it does an eclectic mix of stories together to tell many histories of Suva, the capital of Fiji, from a variety of different social, economic, racial and historical perspectives. The editor, Nicholas Halter, has collected these stories from a wide-ranging group of contributors, including academics, politicians, diplomats and business people – all with unique perspectives and ways of understanding Suva.
The book is arranged in three parts. Part 1: Foundations, addresses the pre-colonial and early colonial history of Suva. The second part – Creations – seeks to explain Suva through the institutions of the city. The third and final part – Reflections – is a collection of more personal chapters reflecting on lives and moments in Suva.
The book is far more than a colonial history of Suva, despite the fact that from its establishment as a town it existed as a colonial capital. That is not to say that the colonial history is absent, and indeed many of the more academic chapters rely heavily on the colonial archives. But the chapters are rarely “just” colonial histories. Most of the authors demonstrate in their writing a clear and strong personal investment in Suva; for instance, Robert Nicole describes it as ‘our capital’. This intimate connection to the subject gives the book a depth and resonance that is often absent in more conventional histories.
Striking across the whole book are the descriptions of the racial politics of Fiji, and Suva more particularly. In some chapters this is the explicit focus of the work, such as Chapter 10 on Race Relations, but in others it is the ever-present backdrop. These include descriptions of the early colonial structure as the ‘Pacific version of apartheid,’ (Sevudredre, 161) or Halter’s description of Fiji’s colonial prison system as a way to understand the ‘institutionalised and racialized colonial hierarchies.’ (Halter, 188) Chapters on the Supreme Court (Kate Stevens), St Giles Asylum (Jacqueline Leckie) and others discuss the explicit efforts of the colonial administrations to divide the capital, and by extension Fiji itself, along racial lines – the Europeans, the iTaukei and Indo-Fijians. The relationships between these three groupings shift and change over time, indeed Stevens concludes her chapter on the Supreme Court noting that ‘Suva quickly became cosmopolitan in ways that officials, missionaries and chiefs felt was problematic, and some of the cases in the Supreme Court reflect this contested urban diversity.’ (Stevens, 245). It is these changes that create a fascinating element of connection between the sometimes-disparate subject areas addressed in each chapter.
Because of the varied nature of contributors, the style of chapters is also varied. Some are extensively footnoted and academic in style, while others are more relaxed and personal. For this reason, reading the book from cover to cover was a little jumbled as an experience. However, readers would be rewarded by approaching the book in a less linear fashion – dipping in and out depending on interest and inclination.
Of the personal reflections, the chapter by Vijay Naidu – Suva: Resilient Coup Capital? – provides some fascinating insights into the implications for politically active Fijians (both Indo-Fijian and iTaukei) of the coups of the 1980s and 2000s. These include Naidu’s own story of hiding from the military, and stories of violence and fear from others in Suva. He focuses largely on the 2000 coup, noting that this ‘period of prolonged turbulence was the most disruptive and violent.’ (400)
This book provides readers with an insight into the way in which Suva was created and has evolved – from a pre-colonial time – to become the current ‘central hub of social, economic and political dynamics in Fiji.’ (Naidu, 423) It is a book I wish I had read before spending three weeks in Suva in 2019 for my PhD research, where I tried (unsuccessfully) to understand the city where the contests over the history (and present) are plainly visible. It is a book I suggest would be useful for diplomats, academics and others seeking to understand the background of some of the complicated dynamics that play out in Fijian culture, society and politics in the current day. As the recent election has shown, Fijian politics is complicated and continues to be shaped by colonial and more recent (coup) history. Australians are not known for a deep and nuanced understanding of our Pacific neighbourhood, so books like this that delve into the complexity of a society in a variety of ways offer a wonderful opportunity for those seeking more.
Completed over the pandemic, this book is a testament to the dedication of Nicholas Halter. This could not have been an easy project to bring to completion, with such a diverse group of contributors. That it is available Open Access via ANU Press is a wonderful outcome, so the people of Suva can more easily read this very personal history of their own city.