Colo Navosa: Local History and the Construction of Region in the Western Interior of Vitilevu, Fiji

Article excerpt


One source of disjunction between historical and ethnographic studies, arising out of their different research methods, is that of locational scale. Much ethnographic work tends to focus the limited local contexts of direct reference on where individuals and face-to-face social groups interact, while most historical work includes much wider areas. In fact, ethnographers have been justifiably criticised in the past for focusing too narrowly on the limited local area where the people of a village or a town neighbourhood reside, overlooking the significance of the shared distinctive social and historical influences of region. For its part, history, in some cases in order to reach beyond the activities of elites to those of the rest of the populace, is using 'regional histories' to examine geographically narrower areas of study. However, both ethnographers and historians need to consider the criteria they use to define these regional units.

In both disciplines local areas are often treated as if they were self-evident, to be defined in purely physical geographic terms, especially where an island, an archipelago, a valley or other naturally bounded area is involved. However, the identification of region is only partly dependent on such objective factors; regions are also socially and historically constituted. Moreover, matters may remain ambiguous, with several potential definitions of local region existing in contention. Factors from outside the local social group, such as external political influence over an area, can also affect what is the area that can be said to constitute the local region. All these issues need to be made explicit.

Vitilevu(2) is the largest of the Fijian islands, having a relatively extensive, mountainous and thinly-populated interior, with a surrounding more densely-populated coastal lowland. The context for social action is wider than a village, or even a clan territory which extends over several villages. On the basis of ethnographic work in several localities within the island's western interior, but without initially using explicit criteria, I have acquired a working conception of what constitutes a useful study region, an area about which generalisations can be usefully made. I now propose to make explicit why the particular area I use is a significant unit of local historical and ethnographic description and analysis.

This account happens to be of particular necessity because many other scholars of Fijian society and its history have employed different regional units for making their generalisations about this part of the country. Many writing since World War II have used the whole of western Vitilevu, coast and interior (Capell and Lester 1942, Durutalo 1985, Norton 1977, Samy 1977). On the other hand, an earlier generation of observers tended to see the interior, east and west together, as a distinct regional unit (de Marzan 1987 [1907-13], Brewster 1922, Kleinschmidt 1984 [1877-78]), a practice also followed by some modern scholars (Ravuvu 1987, Kaplan 1988). Thus I must explain why I have rejected both of these more established scholarly regional divisions, and have taken the western interior as the relevant specific area whose history is to be examined.

Of course, each of the above spatial divisions is no less correct than the others, for its own purposes. Moreover, these three alternatives (among others) represent different possible ways for the ethnic Fijians living in the area (very few ethnic Indo-Fijians live there) to think about their locality and its history. They offer alternate ways for individuals to identify themselves with others with whom they have ongoing social relations beyond their own immediate villages and kin groups, people with whom they share attachment to place, as well as the details of cultural practice and with whom they can share stories about local history. In this paper I want, among other things, to try to reflect this local perspective, without, however, exaggerating the evidence for an ideological identification with region. …