The Life and legacy of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna

Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna in the library of Borron House. Picture: FIJI MUSEUM

I must thank the Coalition government of Mr Sitiveni Rabuka for reviving the Ratu Sukuna Day so that we can celebrate the life and achievements of Fiji’s greatest leader and statesman.

Because Ratu Sukuna died in 1958, 65 years ago, coupled with the fact that the previous Bainimarama government removed the commemoration of Ratu Sukuna Day since 2010, it is hardly surprising that very few of our people below the age of 65 know anything about him.

He was a distinguished scholar, soldier and statesman.

More importantly, he also laid the basis of economic development of the colony at the back of the sugar and related agro-based industries. This he did when he made possible the opening of indigenous Fijian traditional land for all those who needed land.

The benefits and effects of the opening up of iTaukei land supported the country’s development during the 1950s and 60s as Fiji moved towards independence.

The revival of Ratu Sukuna Day reaffirms our rights as indigenous peoples by retaining our cultural institutions and heritages in compliance with international Conventions (such as the ILO Convention 169) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN- DRIP, 2007).

Today I would like to first of all look at the various aspects of Ratu Sukuna’s life and achievements which, in turn, will give us more understanding about his character and motives of his actions.

As a tauvanua or commoner, commenting on a high chief such as Ratu Sukuna, I will do this with some reluctance and trepidation.

I am also conscious of our generational difference, since Ratu Sukuna was a contemporary of my grandfather, Josaia Tuwai Lausiki.

Ratu Sukuna: Lineage, Early Upbringing and Education

Ratu Sukuna was born into a chiefly family of Bau. His father, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, was the son of the Bau chief and the so called ‘rebel’ leader-Ratu Mara Kapaiwai.

His mother, Adi Litia Maopa, was the eldest daughter of Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba I, the heir of the Tui Nayau, Taliai Tupou, and Adi Moce, daughter of Ratu Epeli Nailatikau of Bau. Ratu Mara Kapaiwai of Bau, born in 1815, was the son of Ratu Vuibureta and Adi Mere Veisaca.

Ratu Vuibureta was the sixth son of Ratu Banuve Baleivavalagi, the third Vunivalu of Bau, from 1770- 1803, and Adi Litia from Lakeba. Throughout his life, Ratu Sukuna was regarded as a credible contender of the title of the Vunivalu of Bau.

Although he was not accorded a chiefly title of Bau, Ratu Sukuna was installed as the second Tui Lau in 1938 following the traditional consultation between the Yavusa Tonga of Sawana, Lomaloma,and the endorsement of the Tui Nayau, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba II.

The title Tui Lau had been vacant since the death of the late Enele Ma’afu’otu’itonga, 1816-1881, who was buried at Lakeba on February 6, 1881.

Ratu Sukuna had very impressive direct connections and lineage between Bau and Lau and acknowledged connection with the chiefly mataqali Valelevu, Ai Sokula, of Cakaudrove. This is reflected in his name Lalabalavu as in Josefa Lalabalavu, usually shortened as Lala.

Ratu Sukuna was married twice, first to Adi Maraia Vosawale (1903- 56) in 1928, and later to Maca Likutabua (1934-2000) in September 1957, eight months before his death.

Neither marriage produced any children, and his successor, as a Tui Lau, was his nephew, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Ratu Sukuna’s early education was at the Wairuku Indian School in Ra.

This was the first Indian School in Fiji, and was founded by Pandit Badri Maharaj in 1898. Pandit Maharaj served as a member of the Legislative Council from 1917-1929.

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi I was the Roko Tui Ra at the time and he approached the school for the enrolment of Ratu Sukuna. One of the teachers in the school was an Englishman, and a graduate of Cambridge University.

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi also approached him to be a private tutor as well for the young Ratu Sukuna out of his concern that the young chief should have the best education possible. Ratu Sukuna proved to be an exceptional student and he was later sent to the Whanganui Collegiate School in New Zealand.

At Whanganui Ratu Sukuna not only excelled in his studies, he was also a good sportsman.

He played rugby and cricket for the school and was the boxing champion. He was also a keen debator.

He wanted to remain in New Zealand and complete his studies there but his source of funds dried up and was forced to return to Fiji in 1907 when he joined the Fiji Civil Service as a class 5 clerk.

His good command of English led to his early promotion and it was not long before he was appointed as Chief Translator for the government.

In 1909 he was invited to return to Lau by his uncle, Ratu Alifereti Finau to become an assistant master of the Lau Provincial School in Lakeba. In 1910 he also became the Member of the Board of Examiners in Fijian language and Visiting Examiner for Queen Victoria School(Nasinu) and Levuka Public School.

At Lakeba, he met up with a young English Headmaster, Arthur Maurice Hocart, who later distinguished himself as an anthropologist through his scholarly works on the Lau Islands of Fiji

Ratu Sukuna as a Scholar, Soldier, and War Hero

Ratu Sukuna’s friendship with Mr A M Hocart kept alive Ratu Sukuna’s interest in scholarship.

Hocart himself became a well known anthropologist with specialisation and interest on the Lau Islands.

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi asked the colonial Governor, Sir Francis Henry May,for Ratu Sukuna to study at a British University since he had passed the Matriculation examination while at the Whanganui Collegiate School.

Sir Francis was able to persuade the Colonial Secretary in London for Ratu Sukuna to take a one year leave of absence to study history at Wadham College, Oxford,in 1913. When war broke out in 1914, he joined the French Foreign legion after being rejected by the British Army on racial grounds.

He was wounded and was later awarded the Medaille Militaire (military medal) for bravery.

He returned to Fiji towards the end of 1915. In 1917 he returned to France with a new Unit, the Native Transport Detachment.

As a war veteran he was able to raise funds to complete his studies at Oxford.

He completed his degree in History in 1918 and moved on to the Middle Temple in London for his law qualification.

In 1921 he became a barrister at law at the Middle Temple. He was the first iTaukei to be awarded a university degree.

Ratu Sukuna continued his connection with his military duties through his appointment as the Honorary Aide-de- Camp to successive Governors up to the formation of the Fiji War Council at the outbreak of the Second World War when he was back into active service as Lieutenant Colonel and appointed as Recruiting Officer for the Fiji Military Forces.

The Fiji Military Forces distinguished itself with its active service record in the Solomon Islands, the Pacific Theatre and was able to demonstrate its leadership skills in peacetime Fiji when opportunities arose.

In recognition of Fiji’s contribution to the War efforts, Fiji was invited to take part in the Victory Parade in London in june 1946.

Ratu Sukuna as Public Servant in The Native Lands Commission, Fijian Affairs Board and the then Council of Chiefs

One of Ratu Sukuna’s greatest achievements was his role in the establishment of the Native Land Trust Board.

Most of the land of indigenous Fijians was owned by the Mataqali or clans but worked by Indo-Fijian farmers.

Prior to 1940 each clan individually negotiated the terms of leasing the land to those who farmed it, resulting in a wide variation of lease terms. As most landholdings were small, few mataqali were able to develop their plots to any large degree.

The then colonial Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, proposed establishing of a central body to hold the land in trust and to lease it to willing farmers on terms that would be uniform throughout Fiji.

The pressing need of the time was to provide land for a growing population of Indo-Fijian farmers without expropriating it from its Fijian owners, and to do it in a way that was consistent.

As early as 1933 Ratu Sukuna had recognised this problem, and had told the Great Council of Chiefs: “We regard the Indian desire for more permanent tenancy as a natural and legitimate consequence in an agricultural community setting in any country.

But how was this desire to be reconciled with the need to protect the interest of present and future landowners?” The Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) scheme emerged as a solution.

Persuading the various mataqali to accept the scheme was far from easy.

The land owners were being asked to surrender the control of their land, and entrust its administration to another authority that can act in the national interest as well as that of the owners.

Almost single-handedly Ratu Sukuna set about explaining the proposal to every mataqali in Fiji.

Rather than relying on radio broadcast or printed flyers ,he determined to take the proposal in person to every village in the country. He literally criss crossed the length and breadth of the whole country.

After explaining to the people, he would leave to allow the idea to percolate and would return later to answer more questions.

If necessary he would return again and again, gradually build ing a consensus in favour of the scheme.

Finally after a long and vigorous debate, the Great Council of Chiefs approved the scheme in what Sir Philip Mitchell, the then Governor, described as ‘’ one of the greatest acts of faith and trust in colonial history”.

Ratu Sukuna himself was assigned the task of examining each landholding and deciding what portion should be reserved for the present and future needs of the mataqali, and what portion should be made available for leasing.

All this time Ratu Sukuna had been the Secretary for Fijian Affairs. In 1944 he established the Native Regulations Board later renamed the Fijian Affairs Board.

Then in 1950 he was appointed as an Advisor to the British delegation to the UN Fourth Committee at Lake Success.

He said that while self government was indeed the goal in the South Pacific it would have to be a kind that the local people could understand and work with.

Ratu Sukuna was created a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1939 and was awarded a knighthood(KBE) in 1946 in recognition of his services to Fiji.

After receiving a second knighthood (KCMG) in 1953, Ratu Sukuna was appointed the first native born Speaker of the Legislative Council in 1954.

Although it was only partially elected and had few of the powers of the modern Parliament of Fiji, the Legislative Council provided a venue for Fiji’s future leaders to gain experience in the workings of government.

In 1956 Ratu Sukuna encouraged the formation of Fiji’s first political party, The Fijian Association under the leadership of Ratu Etuate Tuivanuavou Cakobau.

Ratu Sukuna in Yacata,1945 – Apolosi R Nawai and the Viti Kabani

Apolosi Ralawaki Nawai (1885- 1946),from Narewa, Nadi announced his scheme for the establishment of a Fijian company, Viti Kabani, in 1912.

He calculated that when trading bananas, European middlemen made approximately 10000 pounds on an investment of 2000 pounds.

Under his scheme Fijians would pool their resources together, cut out the middlemen,control their own enterprise, and reinvesthe profits in a company.

By the turn of the century bananas had become Fiji’s second largest export earner, behind sugar, with New Zealand as its main overseas market.

As the company became popular and picked up business, the company’s agents quickly assumed the role of village authorities in opposition to the National Administration and the Fijian chiefs.

The trading company was therefore seen by the European middlemen (kai valagi) as a threat to their daily earnings, and the authorities and the courts were encouraged to suppress the activities of the Viti Kabani.

As a consequence, Apolosi Nawai was exiled to Ituitu, Rotuma, for seven years from November 1917 by the Governor, Sweet- Escott.

After his release in 1924, he was exiled to New Zealand, this time from 1941-1945. After his release in 1945 Ratu Sukuna isolated him to inaccessible places in the Colony.

First he was taken by Ratu Sukuna to Yacata, 30 miles south of Taveuni, where the inter-island cutter normally called in with food supplies once every 4 -6 weeks.

In Yacata he was looked after by Eroni Delai(b. 1924),brother of VC holder Sefanaia Sukanaivalu( b.1919) (I gathered this information from the villagers in 1951 -53 while I was a student at the Yacata Village School)

From Yacata Apolosi Nawai was taken to Yanuca Island, of the northern end of Taveuni, where he died on 15th April 1946.

Ratu Sukuna and the GCC After the laying of the foundation stone of Queen Victoria School at Matavatucou on 19th July 1950, the Governor’s party including the members of the Great Council of Chiefs travelled to Ratu Kadavulevu School.

The visitors were accorded a full Fijian ceremony of welcome by the boys of RKS who also performed a lively meke i wau(club dance)

In 1957 the Great Council of Chiefs visited Queen Victoria School and in his address to the school community, Ratu Sukuna conveyed the belief of the Council that the school was incomplete without a centre of worship, a chapel.

On 23rd June, 1958 the Council again visited the school, this time led by the new Secretary for Fijian Affairs, Mr Charles Knott.

They took part in the ground breaking ceremony for the new chapel and also donated seed money towards the chapel fund.

Concluding Remarks Chiefs, like Ratu Sukuna, remain aloof from their subjects .In today’s parlance, we can say that there is always a ‘space’ between a chief and a commoner.

That’ space’ or aloofness promotes respect and veivakaturagataki. In Ratu Sukuna’s case the ordinary people treated him with deference, reverence and awe, with trepidation, even veneration. In his speeches, actions, dealings,…. the message he espoused revolved around discipline, hard work, perseverance and propriety.

In sum, we may say of him as Cassius said of Caesar in Shakespeare’s play: “…his legs bestrode the narrow world Like a Colossus, and we petty men Walk under his huge legs, and peep about….”

But peep about I will ! And what exactly do I see ? He was a scholar, a statesman, a soldier, a sportsman, a man of two worlds, a visionary, an enforcer of the law and of Fijian protocol, a protector of indigenous rights, language and culture, customs and decorum.

He was definitely far ahead of his time. He was both irrepressible and irreplaceable. He has left his own distinct imprint on the sand of every facet of Fiji’s life.

Wherever one looks in Fiji we see the results of his involvement, from Rotuma to Kadavu, from the cane fields of Nadi to Udu Point, from the Yasawas to Ono-i-Lau.

In some locations there are plaques marking his association, but mostly there is only the silent but poignant testimony in a school (Ratu Sukuna Memorial School), public park(Suva), road (Suva).

Such is the measure of this Colossus of a man.

This article contains excerpts from a lecture delivered by former Fijian diplomat and senior civil servant, Emitai L. Boladuadua, during the Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna Memorial Lecture held at the FNU Auditorium on May 25, 2023. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

More Stories