Fiji, Scotland and the making of Empire

Fiji, Scotland and the making of Empire

An exhibition of the University's Fijian collections, highlighting the 19th century Scottish involvement in missionary activity and colonial administration in Fiji.

Fiji became a British colony because leading Fijian chiefs, in the face of financial and other difficulties in the mid-19th century, including Tongan ambitions, requested permission to join the British Empire. Many of the items on display in this exhibition were donated by North-East Scots who worked in Fiji as members of the first colonial administration led by Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon (1875-80). They acquired the objects by gift or purchase and kept them as souvenirs or as examples of a culture they thought was under threat – Fiji had experienced a devastating measles epidemic in early 1875, just prior to Gordon’s arrival.

The exhibition displays some objects that probably date from this period, including objects that show the rage of resources that Fijian craft-workers were able to use, whale ivory, cloth made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree and wood. Among these is an impressively large bowl carved from a single piece of wood that was used to serve yaqona, a mildly intoxicating drink. This was usually drunk as part of a formal ceremony, such as at the installation of a chief. Such ceremonies also saw the exchange of valuable items, such as sperm whale teeth, tabua, that are also on display. The back of a finely-made civatabua, a breast-plate made from sections of sperm whale teeth, shows the remarkable abilities of skilled craftsmen who made boats for oceanic voyages by drilling and tying planks together. Another prestigious object that is now the most important and famous Fijian object in the University’s collection is also on show; a whale ivory hook depicting twinned female goddesses with a Tongan ancestry.

European traders and whalers also brought muskets and gunpowder, particularly from the early 19th century after Fiji was found to a source for fragrant sandalwood and then for bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers), which are a delicacy in China and South-East Asia. On display in the exhibition are two of the thousands of American muskets that arrived during the bêche-de-mer trading days of the 1820s and 30s. Unusually, these ones have been decorated by Tongan craftsmen living in Fiji with inlaid whale ivory plates and white glass beads, converting them into prestigious weapons. A musket can also be seen depicted on a piece of bark-cloth, alongside more traditional patterns and symbols.

The first Governor was Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, son of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen. He brought with him as private secretary his relative Arthur J.L. Gordon, and as medical officer William MacGregor, the son of an Aberdeenshire farm-worker who studied in Aberdeen and Glasgow. Perhaps as a prominent member of the Gordon clan, Sir Arthur decided to allow the Fijian chiefs to continue in power and announced that ‘any useful native customs shall be retained, but improper customs shall be given up’, encouraging traditions such as the drinking of yaqona and the exchange of tabua. This approach was later followed by MacGregor in New Guinea and Nigeria, becoming known as ‘indirect rule’ and an important feature of the British Empire in the 20th century.

This exhibition is a reminder of the complexities of the North-East of Scotland’s contribution to the British Empire and continuing international politics. It is also shows the complexity and beauty of Fijian culture as it has developed over the past few hundred years as part of the network that links Pacific Islands and the wider world.

The exhibition is a collaborative endeavour of the University of Aberdeen Museums and the Fijian Art project. Fijian Art is a major research project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, and based at the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, and the University of Cambridge. It aims to promote public awareness and appreciation of Britain’s internationally significant collections of Fijian Art. This project will also see some of Aberdeen’s rarest Fijian items being exhibited in museums across Europe in the coming years.

King's Museum, Old Town House