White Women in Fiji, 1835-1930: The Ruin of Empire?

White Women in Fiji, 1835-1930: The Ruin of Empire?

by Claudia Knapman

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First published in 1986, White Women in Fiji 1835–1930: The Ruin of Empire? challenges assumptions and assertions about the role of European women in multiracial colonial societies. Author Claudia Knapman uses a combination of interviews, newspaper, and other sources to picture the lives of European women in Fiji between the 1830s and 1930s. She offers a new and challenging interpretation of the nature and interrelationship between racism and sexism in colonial societies. As Knapman points out, gender has been used to argue that racial disharmony came with the presence of foreign women. White women in Fiji’s colonial society were stereotyped as discordant forces in the domestic sphere whereas Knapman shows that their domestic work was crucial to the maintenance of white society and that women were no different from men in contact situations and rather than an antagonistic element, they were crucial to establishing interracial relations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781921902383
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Series: Pacific Studies Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Claudia Knapman is an author who received the J. G. Crawford Medal for academic excellence.

Read an Excerpt

White Women in Fiji 1835â"1930

The Ruin of Empire?

By Claudia Knapman

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 1986 Claudia Knapman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921902-38-3


White women ... the ruin of empires?

From the beginning of the nineteenth century Europeans have resided in Fiji. Shipwrecked sailors, deserters from sandalwood ships, convicts escaped from the Australian colonies and adventurers were the earliest representatives of western civilisation. The fast European women and children were the families of London Missionary Society missionaries from Tahiti. They were forced to live on the small islet of Kia, off Vanua Levu, while the brig Hibernia was laid up for repairs from November 1809 to January 1810.

During the 1820s and 1830s the beachcombers, with a handful of European traders and pilots, became members of the first European community adjoining the Fijian village of Levuka. With the arrival of the Wesleyan missionary families, the Crosses and the Cargills in 1835, a mission station was established on Lakeba in the Lau Islands. These were the first European families to regard Fiji as their home.

Only a few more missionaries' wives and Mary Davis Wallis, who wrote an account of her six years of travel and residence in the group whilst her husband traded for bêche de mer, are known to have lived in Fiji during the 1840s and early 1850s. Her Majesty's Consul estimated that in 1858, there were only 30 to 40 Europeans in the islands. Anxious to encourage settlement he publicised Fiji's agricultural potential in Australia and New Zealand. In 1860 prospective cotton planters arrived in increasing numbers from those colonies, some of them accompanied by wives and children. By 1866 about 400 Europeans were settled in Fiji, and by 1870, two thousand.

These immigrants needed land on which to grow their crops and build their houses and trade stores, and labour to develop and work their plantations. Such requirements brought them into conflict with the Fijians and disputes over land, labour and social and political order proliferated. Fijians chose not to meet the demands for contracted labourers and from 1864 onwards labourers were introduced from the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and other Pacific Islands. With the influx of agricultural settlers came supporting commercial and professional people, and the beach town grew into the port and business centre, Levuka.

Expanding European interests made questions of law and order crucial. Various attempts were made during the 1860s and early 1870s to establish indigenous governments under high ranking Fijian chiefs, but conceived on European models. The first national government was set up at Levuka by the settlers in 1871, with the paramount chief Cakobau proclaimed King of Fiji but in practice under the control of a European Executive. Within a short time it had lost credibility with Europeans and Fijians, faced financial difficulties and growing problems of lawlessness. Great Britain accepted an offer of cession from the Fijian chiefs in 1874 and Fiji became a Crown Colony. Meanwhile, the price of cotton had fallen, many planters were bankrupt and a large number departed. Others tried a variety of crops, notably copra and sugar.

The first substantive Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, arrived in 1875. He aimed to maintain order, introduce a system of revenue sufficient to provide for the colony's expenses, and to save the Fijians by protecting their traditional social organisation from what he believed were the destructive effects of contact with European civilisation. Gordon saw the planting community's demands for converting Fijians into a reliable labour force and for access to Fijian land as the main threats to the continued survival of Fijian society, its members depressed already from the ravages of the 1875 measles epidemic, in which an estimated 20 per cent of the population died.

The formulation of a separate code of laws, the prohibition of further land alienation and legislation restricting the movements of Fijian labourers were intended to preserve Fijian social structure and customs, providing time for adjustment to the modern world. The labour supply was met by male and female Indian labourers, the first immigrants arriving in 1879. They were free to remain in Fiji after completion of five years labour under contract to a single employer. Financial support for the administration was met in part by Fijian communal taxation in cash crops but, in addition, resource development with overseas capital was required. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) of Australia bought land in Fiji in 1880, employing Indian labour to grow cane for its first mill established at Nausori in 1882. By 1903 four CSR mills were crushing cane. In 1915 the Government of India initiated the end of the indentured labour system, the last shipment of labourers arriving in Fiji in 1916. All indentures were cancelled at the beginning of 1920. The Indian community's hope for improvement led to the strikes and riots of 1920, and Europeans were compelled to realise that Indians would not remain forever a docile labour force.

Fiji has never been a European settler society. During the first decade of the twentieth century, when land sales were permitted temporarily, there were renewed hopes amongst the white population that it might follow the Australian or New Zealand pattern. Enough regarded Fiji as their permanent home to receive a voice in the government of the colony. These settlers regarded themselves as pioneers of a superior civilisation, with a right to develop the land left 'unused' by Fijians, whose declining numbers were seen to testify to their eventual extinction. It was a dream shattered by the early 1930s.

The demise of the white sugar planter followed the end of indenture, with the drying-up of the source of cheap labour. On the Rewa River and at Labasa white planter society had disintegrated by 1920, and the more prosperous planters in the dry zone of Viti Levu gave up their plantations by the middle of that decade. By the early 1930s copra planters were in a desperate situation, the effects of the Great Depression forcing many to leave. 1930 may be regarded as the end of an era for white settlers.

The figures for the populations enumerated in censuses from 1879 to 1936 are given in Table 1. The evidence for belief in the inevitable decline of the Fijian people is shown starkly, contemporary Europeans being unaware that the continuing decline was a long-term effect of the measles epidemic. The size of the Indian population, and its rapid growth, should be noted also. The Indian figures show a marked imbalance of sexes, males numbering double the number of women in the census years showing the largest discrepancies, 1891 and 1901. The European population did not fall below 2000 after 1880, but neither did it grow as fast as the aspirants to a white settler society had hoped. The figures show a progressive decline of high masculinity ratios. Overall, the figures reinforce the immense significance of the impact of introduced disease on the Fijian population, of the decision to import Indian labourers, and of the audacity of white minority control.

With political, economic and social dominance in the hands of a small white minority, with Fijian privileges and a neo-traditional way of life codified and legalised in a separate administration, and with Indian status determined by a background of despised servitude, the divisions in the population were institutionalised in racial terms.

Despite the importance of the European minority, specific attention to European women and children in nineteenth and early twentieth century Fiji has been limited to three recent works on early Wesleyan missionaries' wives: a published biography, an unpublished thesis and a novel. This emphasis reflects an abundance of unpublished source material on the Wesleyan missionaries, which lends itself to moving accounts of self-sacrifice by their wives. The biographer, Mora Dickson, notes that:

What pioneer wives had to endure was seldom recorded in conventional history books ...

Nobody paid any attention to the women who supported the pioneer endeavours, who set up home in strange circumstances and bore their children miles from anywhere.

In their daily lives the earliest missionary women faced innumerable health problems — frequent pregnancies, dysentery, influenza, worms, ophthalmia, headaches, mastitis, hæmorraghing and general exhaustion — along with psychological and physical stresses arising from unsettled political conditions, exposure during hurricanes, lack of privacy, poor living conditions, ailing and dying children, fear, attacks on property, food and supply shortages, war and cannibalism and social isolation. However, the heroic treatments of the early missionaries' wives are not acceptable representations of the experiences of all missionaries' wives or of other European women and they are descriptive rather than analytical. Most other appearances by European women in the history books are brief, incidental and superficial.

John Young's study of the frontier society of the 1860s and early 1870s is the only work which approaches examination of some European women in any detail. In his view, white women have one major claim for inclusion in the historical record, that being the 'feminine frontier's' destruction of harmonious relations between Europeans and Fijians:

It was not, then, the attitude of the male settlers, nor the Fijian authorities, but the arrival in Fiji of an influential number of European women which led to developing racial antagonism.

... the feminine frontier reached Nadi and inter-racial conviviality was accordingly abandoned.

Women are said to have exerted social pressure on standards of dress, behaviour and housing; and to have encouraged social functions such as balls, picnics and concerts, catering for Europeans. In effect, Young saw that they made European society self-conscious and that the other side of the consequent improvement in manners was a belief in racial superiority, resulting in a deterioration in race relations. Domestic tension, from female sexual jealousy, was thought to be responsible for the less frequent occurrence of liaisons between European men and Fijian women and the discouragement of racial tolerance.

This writer's comments applied only to townswomen in the late 1860s and early 1870s. However, the summary statements are unmistakably general in implication, the link between white women and racism being the single recurring statement made by other writers on Fiji about white women as a group.

Writing of the same period in her work on the growth of Pacific port towns, Caroline Ralston approached the issue more guardedly:

While the activities of planters and land speculators increased economic and political tensions in the beach communities, the arrival of a significant number of white women, which occurred at about the same time, introduced a further discordant element into society.

... in particular the arrival of planters, speculators and expatriate women increased inter-community tensions and created social barriers.

But she did endorse the general proposition:

The hypothesis that the permanent residence of expatriate women in multi-cultural frontier settlements is not conducive to the maintenance of harmonious community relations gains weight from the experience of Fiji ...

... the insidious segregation that followed the residence of white women in beach communities did undermine the easy inter-racial and inter-group contact of earlier years.

One reason was the increase of respectability and social ritual that followed their arrival, but Ralston insisted that these women were only fulfilling roles that were expected of them and that they should not be considered more racially prejudiced than European men. However, she admitted that sexual jealousy stimulated expatriate women to denounce mixed marriages. Overall she remained uncertain about European women's contribution to inter-group tension, as her comment on the racial hostility of 1871 indicates: 'What responsibility lay with European women for this erosion of understanding cannot be precisely ascertained.'

Martin McDonnell accepted the word of an old planter and cited Young's work to re-affirm that the lack of racial mixing sexually and general aloofness from Fijians was the choice of white women rather than white men. He found reasons for this in their alleged idleness and loneliness and inability to cope with servant management. Niel Gunson limited his attention to pre-colonial missionaries' wives claiming, in a brief treatment, that they took much longer than the men to overcome their initial aversion to islanders, suggesting more deeply rooted antipathy to other races.

The most insubstantial and improbably sweeping generalisation is made by Peter France, in his otherwise closely reasoned study of customary land rights and the problems which ensued from European settlement. He claimed that 'As in the rest of the Empire, the final and irrevocable estrangement from native society came with the arrival of the European lady'. She is held responsible for putting an end to the easy social relationships with Fijians, which were part of a network of obligations contingent upon setting up households with Fijian women.

Given the importance of racial divisions in Fiji's history, the involvement of otherwise largely ignored white women in the problems of race relations is more than a little intriguing. Perhaps the appeal to the rest of the Empire and other multi-cultural frontier societies, explains the assurance with which the assertion has been put forward for Fiji. There is no shortage of supporting comparative statements. European women in multi-racial colonial societies have a particular reputation.

Writers on India have set the tone. Edward Thompson and G.T. Garratt felt that when racial cleavage became more marked, after the Mutiny of 1857, 'the growing number of English women who began to settle in India with their husbands increased the tendency of the white population to form ... a caste'. Percival Spear, attributing racial estrangement at least in part to the increasing number of women in the English settlements, found it ironical that 'the same influence which improved the morals of the settlers increased the widening racial gulf. He asserted that women's insularity and their fear of the unknown provoked an 'attitude of airy disdain and flippant contempt and the acquisition of homes and families gave them [men] something to lose which they had never had before, and thus made them victims of the same fear'. Kenneth Ballhatchet concluded that English women widened the distance between the ruling race and people in various ways: by hastening the disappearance of the Indian mistress, by fostering social exclusiveness as hostesses and by initiating a protective response in English husbands against assumed Indian lasciviousness. The theme is expressed for the general reader in popular histories like Colin Cross's work on the British Empire: 'The process of isolation of British and Indians from each other was accentuated by the arrival of ever-larger numbers of British wives'.

Turning to Africa, O. Mannoni insisted in his study of the psychology of colonisation in Madagascar that European women were far more racist than men. He suggested that a great psychological change had taken place in which the feeling that Europeans were in the Malagasy's country had been replaced with the feeling that it belonged to them, and that this 'may in part be due to the racialist influence of the European women'. Sexual jealousy was seen as a significant element, along with an urge to compensate for female inferiority by domination of social inferiors. Directing attention to the growing number of European women in Rhodesia, Lewis Gann and Peter Duignan found that 'As soon as they arrived they began to enforce a rigid colour bar in the sexual sphere'. Rita Cruise O'Brien was more cautious in her study of the French in Senegal, but accepted the general proposition:

Whether one can explain the growing insulation of the white minority in terms of the changing social structure, the increased domesticity of European life or of the more racist attitudes of European women remains open to question. It may have been a combination of all three.

Michael Banton observed of ruling minorities in colonial Africa as a whole that 'Once there is a fair proportion of women in the minority community they increase the social pressures upon non-conforming males'. He formalised this position affirming that 'The stronger their influence, the more exclusive Europeans were likely to be', but remarked also on 'the very general observation that European women expressed stronger prejudice towards Africans than the men did'. As in Mannoni's study, sexual jealousy and the limitation of contract with Africans to employer-servant relationships are the reasons tendered for this prejudice.


Excerpted from White Women in Fiji 1835â"1930 by Claudia Knapman. Copyright © 1986 Claudia Knapman. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1: White women ... the ruin of empires?,
2: Biological reproduction of Empire,
3: Women's work in the home,
4: Women's work outside of the home,
5: Aspects of daily life,
6: Leisure: individual interests and sociality,
7: Ideology of racial and sexual identity: the 'Black Man' and the 'White Woman',
8: Race relations and white women: the arrival of European women and the 'white mistress',
9: Ordinary women: extraordinary myths,

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