Aberdeen Fiji Museum: Discovering the treasures – from one edge of the world to another

[1] The King’s Museum at the University of Aberdeen campus.


Credit to my friend Dainius B. for co-writing this article. 

          Everyone has heard of Fiji. Paradise islands in the middle of the Pacific, sandy beaches and unending summer are the usual associations that come to our heads when we think of this country. However, every myth has a darker side to it. Just two centuries ago, Fiji was dominated by the warlike tribes that were fighting for domination and influence of the archipelago among themselves. Back then, European sailors were afraid of venturing into Fijian waters due to the dreadful name of Cannibal Isles that was given to Fiji. This name was earned for a reason – cannibalism was widely practiced among Fijian tribes. However, as Fiji underwent major changes during the 19th century, it chose to become a British colony. At first British declined opportunity to annex Fiji when proposal came in 1852, but political developments within the Fijian community led to another request to become a British subject in 1872 and this time it was granted.

The importance of Fiji as a British colony can be seen within the King Museum’s exhibition “Fiji, Scotland and the making of Empire”. It shows many remnants of colonialism that the Scottish, in particular, people from the North Eastern region, have contributed in the effort to control the Pacific Island. British colonialism, like other empires, exuded many notions of key trade links, this museum exhibits many artefacts that both the Western and Pacific Islanders. For example, the Europeans had brought whale skin, custom-made muskets (American as shown in the King’s Museum) and gunpowder to the Fijians, where, in return, had like the Chinese, had given key porcelain pieces. Amongst these were materials fabricated from whale ivory, cloth made out of mulberry trees, ciratabua or local Fijian armour produced from sperm-whale teeth.  

Fiji was a valuable target not just for the British Empire, but also for the Unites States and Tongan Empire, which also tried to exert regional influence before the Europeans started dominating in that area. Another form of colonialism and imperialism that the British Empire had used was spread of ideology through religion and missionary activity. Certainly, as you may know, the Europeans and Westerners brought with them a sense of chauvinism, one that believed any foreigners were inferior, in the sense that they were not as civilised or educated from European customs. Thus, by installing the Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon, the son of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, Arthur J.L. Gordon as his secretary and William MacGregor as medical officer, the Western style of administration was now in place. One of the first things that they had implemented was the eradication of any improper local customs. This was significant, as this meant that the British favoured the traditions of drinking the all-popular yaqona and the exchange of tabua or sperm-whale teeth, rather than the practise of cannibalism as aforementioned.


            Overall, British rule in Fiji has often been described as being very lenient and one of the best example of “indirect rule”. While British administration ended tribal warfare and cannibalism, it also tried to protect natives from being exploited and offered Indians to come from the British Raj to Fiji to work (around 40% of modern Fijians are of Hindi descent). Also during the Great War Fijians were not mobilised for the war effort, this happened only during World War II, when Fijian strategic location was of great importance to the Pacific theater.
            Today, Fiji is very different from that scenario, which was seen by the Scotsmen who visited it during the 19th century. Since Fiji regained independence in 1970, the islands suffered four coups and to this day there remain significant tensions between Hindi-Fijians and native Fijians due to the differences in culture and religion. Nevertheless, despite these things Fiji still enchants every visitor with its beauty and rich traditions of its people. If you wish to hear the Pacific waves crashing on the beaches under the setting sun and hear the laughter of people from the edge of the world – you can visit the exhibition at Kings Museum until 23rd of April.


[1] http://www.fotoflingscotland.co.uk/Scotland/Aberdeen/Old-Aberdeen/i-BfKGfd4/0/L/P7160991-L.jpg