Post-363: The Future of Fiji (and the World) as Seen From 1859

(Expanded from a draft from mid-August 2015. I was reading about Fiji at the time before I was to spend twelve hours in that mysterious, tropical island-country as part of one of my returns-to-the-USA in late August 2015. I was coming from Brisbane, Australia, visiting my cousin, Mel. W. The long layover in Fiji was also the cheapest option. From my perspective fortuitous as it would give me a foray into Fiji on the cheap.



In the weeks before I was to briefly spend time in Fiji in August 2015, I looked around for material. One thing I found to be so amazing as to be worth recording here. It is something published in March 1859, which concludes with a series of futurist predictions about Fiji and the world. Reading these predictions from 1859, I am amazed.

The predictions have (nearly) all come true:

(Final two paragraphs of an anonymous, ten-page book review appearing in The Knickerbocker [March 1859 issue] . The reviewed book is the 1858 Fiji and the Fijians by Thomas Williams and James Calvert (ed. George Stringer Rowe). The Knickerbocker was a New York literary magazine with an 1833-1865 publication run. It was similar in style, and likely a partial antecedent to and/or inspirtation for, The Atlantic [first issue published in 1857]). The entire March 1859 edition of the Knickerbocker is online here.)

Fiji Sunset — approximately the view I had. (Updated in Sept. 2019 with website move; I cannot now recall whether I took this picture, but it looks exactly like mine and what my memory tells me.)

First, my own brief experience in Fiji, then an attempt to evaluate the Knickerbocker writer’s predictions with the distance of 159 years of time elapsed since publication. Summary: Very accurate.


A Brief Foray into Fiji, Late August 2015

Fiji is not like any place I have been, before or since.

I formally entered the country and have the passport stamp to prove it, which means I am counted as one of the 67,831 U.S. citizens who entered Fiji in calendar year 2015 (that is 186 per day). I see that two-thirds of foreign entries into Fiji in 2015 were Australia and New Zealand citizens, a combined 506,000 (1,386/day).

When you drop into a new place, not really knowing what to do or how things work, a lot of what happens depends on luck and the good-will of strangers. It is always that way. Planning does help, but often even a well-formed plan starts fraying or falls apart entirely upon contact with the real world. You make the best of it. My plan was had been to get a short taxi ride from the airport to the center of the large town nearby, walk around a while, then go back to the airport. Not very ambitious, but this was just one stop on an ambitious week-long return to the USA. Other stops included Hong Kong [1.5 days]; Malaysia [one day]; Gold Coast/Brisbane, Australia [three days]; Christmas Island (Kirimati) [about two hours only]; Hawaii [two days]; Seattle [half day]. Doing it this way is the kind of win-win the careful traveller with flexible timing can sometimes get: cheapest cost and many built-in (long layover) stops with no need to pay for accommodation.

As soon as I emerge from the airport, my plan is immediately rejected by consensus of the loitering Indian taxi drivers.  “There is nothing in town.” “All you’ll find is people trying to sell you things.” They implied they would especially target/accost a White outsider to buy trinkets.

Their criticism immediately seemed plausible. With only a matter of hours and with very little money to work with, what options were there? There is also the old dilemma of whether to trust anyone in such a case: Is this guy running a scam?

I said, Okay, what do you suggest I do instead? The leader of the Indian taxi-loitering group produced a sleek brochure for a resort. He said one of the resorts nearby lets in foreigners even if they are not paid guests. I am not sure if he somehow got a payoff for sending people there but it didn’t seem there was any way the resort would know it was this particular taxi guy who sent me. I asked how far away that was. Not too far. I asked about the fare. Not much (by U.S. standards at all).

I didn’t want to hang around the airport. It was not the most comfortable or welcoming place. In contrast to the taxi group outside, the airport staff inside was dominated by ethnic-Fijians. A mix of people were moving around, and there seemed not enough space anywhere. Most foreigners were ferried off to resort shuttle buses. Soldiers were about. All the soldiers appeared to be native-Fijian soldiers, with full gear. I was told, I think by the taxi driver later on the ride, that they had just returned from the Golan Heights. The concept of heavily armed, tropical Fijians keeping peace in the Golan Heights seems surreal.

The next thing I know, I am in the back of a taxi (not the same one as the guy who handed me the brochure) and zooming away. The driver, a local Indian, perhaps 40 years old,  talkative, interested in rugby. We pass through an ethnic-Fijian village or two. Outside the window are lots of locals standing around. Enormous people built like linebackers. The driver seems a little apprehensive about driving through the ethnic-Fijian village but waves to them as we pass through. We arrive. The resort security waves us in when they see a White foreigner (me) in the car.

Going there was the right choice. I arrived under afternoon blue skies but sunset came soon. For some reason there were few to no other resort guests on the beach at sunset. The beach sunset looked something like the tropical picture in this post above, which I find online but I believe was taken at the same resort.

The taxi driver was also happy to be there, as I presume he is seldom able to enter these kinds of places. He offered to take me back to the airport in the later evening and then receded away as I headed inside the resort proper and towards the beach. I know he spent at least some of the next hours inside the resort, because a few hours later I saw him in there loitering around the open-air bar area. We talked a while there, too. Seeing him standing up and not in the driver’s seat of a car revealed his typically Indian thin build. He was grinning and happy to be there.

Appraising the Success of the 1859 Fiji Predictions

The beach at sunset was silent but for the waves and the faint laughter of the handful of others along the beach. BEing there and was like a step back into the pre-industrial world; it all would have been recognizable to Moby-Dick-era observers. The resort, in fact, marketed itself as the site of the first landing of the ancestors of the Melanesian Fiijians’ ancestors, centuries ago.

This preservation presentation of things in an apparently pristine state is a vindication of the 1859 predictions (see especially #5 below).

Specific Predictions in the Final Paragraph

  1. “a chain of empires along the coasts of the Pacific”
  2. “electric wires shall have brought the whole world within speaking distance”
  3. “improved arts of locomotion shall have reduced ocean-travel from days to hours”
  4. “these islands will rise into great worldly importance”
  5. “They will have the charm of beauty and the convenience of loneliness”
  6. “They may be winter residences for merchants doing business on either continent”
  7. “they may be solitary retreats for scholars elaborating theories and prosecuting studies”
  8. “they may be haunts of fashion and pleasure”
  9. “Civilization will yet surely claim them [Fijian islands]”

Correct: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9
Questionable but relatively correct: 4
Incorrect(?): 6, 7

I find elsewhere that over 40% of Fiji’s GDP is from tourism, another vindication of the 1859 prediction (#8, #9).

Even #6 and #7 may be correct for all I know, and the authors anyway qualify them with “may be.” Their stronger assertions are almost all definitely and impressively correct (possibly excluding #4, but this is subjective).

The existence of the product “Fiji Water” is still another vindication of the spirit of the 1859 article. I bought a bottle of Fiji Water at a gas station in Fiji on the way back to the airport, mainly for the novelty of it and to see what the price would be. The price was somehow comparable to what it costs on the shelves of the grocery store in the USA, ten thousand of miles from the source.

As for his general prediction, confidently made, of a “chain of empires along the Pacific” (#1), this was written at a time when the population of the primary modern city anywhere along the Pacific, San Francisco, had just hit a mere 50,000 in population, with the rest of enormous California at only about 300,000 (but rising fast). Ten years earlier, just before the Gold Rush, there had only been 1,000 people in San Francisco.

Japan, too, had only signed a trading treaty with the USA a mere months before the reviewer wrote his 1859 prediction of a highly modernized Pacific Rim. There was no way to know that this boom along the Pacific would last over the next sixteen decades and counting.

Did the writer get anything wrong? The most important thing he misses in his series of predictions about Fiji is the major impact the British Empire would have on the racial-cultural balance of the islands. The British began (I learn) to bring in Indian labor to Fiji starting in 1879, a formal labor program that ended in 1916. They had a similar policy elsewhere, but in Fiji the number of natives was smaller, and if the program had continued, Fiji today could easily be majority Indian.

Who Wrote the Review of Fiji & the Fijians?
The review is anonymous. Washington Irving (1783-1859), associated closely with The Knickerbocker, seems to me a plausible candidate. A man born in 1783 may have predicted with great accuracy the world as it would be two-hundred-plus years after his birth.

Other possibilities are the magazine’s editor Lewis Gaylord Clark (1808-1873), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), or any of the the other regular contributors.



Misc. Observations on the Racial-Cultural Balance in Fiji

The native Fijians, related to Papua New Guineans and others in the Melanesian meta-ethnic group, are large and physically tough people, dark but obviously distinct from Subsaharan Africans. My immediate impression from brief experience was that they are handily out-competed economically by the Indians of the islands. This is hardly a new impression but seems a long-held observation/stereotype/fact of Fijian society over the past century-plus.


I understand that the Indians, at their peak, about  equalled ethnic-Fijians in number. Today, ethnic-Fijians  outnumber Indians 3-to-2. All the taxi drivers at the airport that sunny day I recall being Indian, as I say. I wish I could now recall what the Indian taxi driver said about Fijian politics. What he said at the time was guarded, and some of it I recall not understanding. I think he was implicitly politically disgruntled because the Indians are now definitely outvoted by the Fijian majority, which also controls the military. Independent Fiji’s first and last Indian-led government was, I learn, overthrown by a coup in May 2000. (There have been three coups in Fiji since 1987.)

Today’s Fiji looks like another example, then, of Lee Kuan Yew’s maxim about democracy: “In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.”

Speaking of religion. Census figures suggest that all ethnic-Fijians are nominal Christians, another outcome in line with the 1859 article (the paragraph right above the prediction paragraph). The dominant church is Methodist, the denomination of at least one of the missionary-writers of the book whose Knickerbocker review I am here reviewing. Less than 1% of ethnic-Fijians are Mormons, unlike certain other Pacific islands. The Indians are 77% Hindu, 16% Muslim, 6% Christian, roughly the religious balance of India itself.

The smartphone I used at the time had an “FM Radio” function and while in Fiji I made a point to listen to all the stations I could pick up. There were a few in English, others in a language I could not recognize and presumed was Fijian ([very] distantly related, so they say, to Malay and Tagalog). A large number of stations were what I presumed to be Hindi and played Indian music.

From this I can only conclude that after generations on the islands, Indian Fijians maintain their language, culture, and group-cohesion, even so far from the Hindu heartland. With the removal of the British Empire (independence, 1970), there is no larger identity for the Indians to attach to, and assimilation into a Melanesian culture seems impossible. I thus presume that a consolidation of Indian identity has occurred in Fiji since the 1970s, along with the latent political disgruntlement above mentioned.