Cotton, slaves, war, and measles in colonial Fiji

Second of two articles on Land Labour and Epidemic Disease in the capitalist penetration of the Pacific 
First part here.

Almost one hundred years after the Sydney Cove epidemic, a similarly catastrophic epidemic hit the people of Fiji, and once again this happened in the midst of military conflict between settlers and the indigenous people. In this case, the disease was measles.

Settler interest in Fiji had been aroused as a consequence of the American Civil War of 1861-65. When that war disrupted the supply of cotton from the United States to the textile mills of Britain, the price of cotton rose spectacularly, and this spurred a search for other places with soils and climate suited to growing cotton. Fiji was one such place; large numbers of settlers descended on Fiji from Australia, the United States, and elsewhere from the 1860s. They established cotton plantations, and kidnapped Melanesian labourers from New Hebrides (Vanuatu), the Solomon Islands, and from Fiji itself, to work them as slaves.

Cotton plantation, Fiji, ca 1875. Photo: National Library of New Zealand

There followed a decade of lawlessness, unscrupulous land-grabbing, kidnapping of slaves (so-called ‘Blackbirding’) and open warfare. As the settler-supported forces of the Kingdom of Bau and its Christian chief, Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau, subjugated new areas through these wars, prisoners of war thus acquired were sold off to distant plantations as slaves, and the land they had occupied was sold off to the planters. (For a truculent contemporary account of these wars, by a planter who participated in an operation against the highland tribes, under the command of a veteran of the US Civil War, see  this letter in the Adelaide Observer of 16 December 1871. “All the coast natives are gathering together, and the King [Cakobau – JR] is going to conquer them, and sell all their land, sending them away to other islands to work,” the author writes.)

Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau, between 1870 and 1879. Photo: Francis H. Dufty, National Library of Australia

By the early 1870s, Cakobau had, through a combination of conquest and alliance, established his supremacy in the coastal regions of Viti Levu, the largest island. Settlers in this region purchased large areas of land in this region with muskets, powder, and lead. 1 The price of cotton collapsed following the end of the Civil War, but the settlers remained, and switched to growing sugar. It was at this point that Britain annexed Fiji in 1874, with Cakobau appointed Vunivalu, or Protector, under the British Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson. The interior highland region of Viti Levu had still not been subjugated by Cakobau. It remained under the Kai Colo, a grouping of highland clans who fiercely resisted the settler encroachments, the Christian missionaries, and the depredations of Cakobau’s forces.

Melanesian workers on Fiji cotton plantation 1860s. Photo: Fiji Museum

To celebrate Fiji’s annexation to Britain, Governor Robinson, who was also Governor of New South Wales, invited Cakobau and his two sons to visit Sydney. A measles epidemic was raging in the city at the time; all three caught the disease. They were still convalescing (and still infectious) when they returned to Fiji on the warship Dido.

The highly contagious nature of measles was well known, as were the catastrophic consequences of introducing the disease to a population with no prior exposure. As recently as 1860, measles had wiped out one quarter of the population of New Caledonia and the New Hebrides.2 The Fiji Times published an article on 27 January 1875 expressing the hope that Sydney’s outbreak of measles would not spread to Fiji “as among natives it would spread rapidly.”3

Nonetheless, although Cakobau’s illness had been correctly diagnosed, the colonial administration decided not to quarantine the Dido on its arrival in Fiji. Within weeks measles was ravaging the islands. An Australian newspaper reported that “The disease had been most virulent at Levuka [the Fijian capital at the time] and the immediately adjacent islands, on some of which the death rate had been as high as 50 per cent of the population. In the Windward Islands it had been less – in some places as low as 10 per cent. It is estimated that in the whole Fiji group the native population has been decreased about 30 per cent… So many natives have fallen victims to the measles, there seems to be no one left to till the ground or attend to domestic arrangements in the Fijian towns at the back of the island.”

Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, Governor of Fiji ca 1880-82
Photo: National Library of New Zealand. Ref: 1/2-004969-G

The highland clans of Viti Levu, cut off from the coastal clans by war, might yet have escaped the epidemic. What happened next is recounted by Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, who replaced Robinson as Governor in 1875 in his book Letters and notes written during the disturbances in the highlands (known as the “Devil Country”) of Viti Levu, Fiji, 1876.

“In the month of January 1875,” Gordon writes, “the then Administrator of the Government, Mr. Layard, met at Navuso, on the Rewa River, a large number of representatives from the tribes of the interior of Viti Levu. At this meeting, which was attended by between 900 and 1000 persons, the mountaineers agreed to renounce heathenism and abandon cannibalism, to live peaceably among themselves, and to acknowledge thenceforward the supremacy of the Government. Most unfortunately, this meeting exactly coincided in point of time, with the unhappy introduction of measles into the [Fiji Island] group, which caused the death, in a few months, of at least 40,000 persons. Some of those who had come from Levuka to attend the meeting, had already been attacked by the disease. The infection spread from them to others, and on the breaking up of the meeting it was diffused simultaneously through almost every part of the highlands. The Kai Colo Chiefs and their attendants carried the seeds of the disease with them to their homes and communicated it to their tribes, among whom it spread rapidly, and with fatal effect. Of the Chiefs who had attended the meetings nearly all died very shortly after their return to the mountains. It is not surprising that they should have believed themselves to have been intentionally poisoned or bewitched by the new rulers of the country, and it is natural that this belief should have been largely shared by their people.”

The 40,000 deaths amounted to one-third of the entire population of Fiji.

Levuka, Fijian capital, in 1880 Photo: Fiji Museum

If the failure to quarantine the ship bringing measles from Sydney could possibly be put down to gross ineptitude, or perhaps to an unwillingness to inconvenience the Chief Cakobau, the same could not reasonably be said of the decision to convene a meeting of a thousand people from across the archipelago, while an epidemic was already spreading throughout the islands, and to allow infected members of the crew of the Dido to circulate freely among those at this meeting.4 (And just in case that might not be enough to ensure the spread of the disease throughout the meeting participants, several of the chiefs were brought to Levuka, the centre of the outbreak, in the lead-up to the meeting.)

Even if it is conceded that the meeting may have been planned before the epidemic broke out, it is impossible to believe that no one foresaw the consequences of proceeding with such a meeting during an epidemic. These actions must have had the explicit intention of spreading the pestilence to the highlands.

The indigenous people not only had good reason to “believe themselves to have been intentionally poisoned or bewitched by the new rulers of the country,” they also clearly understood the reasons why. A report in the Melbourne Argus in March 1875 says “The disease has made its appearance in several of the families of the white residents, especially the children, though some adults have been also visited by it, but as none of the whites have died, the natives are greatly perplexed. They say it is a big sickness which has come from Sydney, and why do not the whites die as well as themselves … They say further that the white men brought the sickness to Fiji, that the natives may all be killed, and the white men get all the land.” [my emphasis – JR]


The events in Fiji illuminate the key problems of capitalist penetration of the Pacific: land and labour. It proved relatively easy to establish capitalist trading enterprises throughout the Pacific, which in some cases included raiding and pillaging operations on the region’s resources (such as the plunder of Fiji’s sandalwood for trade to China).5 Capitalist relations of production based on wage labour, however, were another matter altogether. Wage labour was incompatible with customary systems of communal land tenure that existed in the Pacific islands, where the whole community had access to land to meet their needs for food and fibre.

Everywhere that the commercial plantations of cotton, sugar, rubber, and copra were established, they grappled with this obstacle. The capitalist planters required, first, land for their plantations under capitalist ownership and control, that was beyond any rights of access by the local population, and second, a population of labourers who had no access to land of their own, and who were thereby forced to work for wages.

The early wars through which Cakobau, supported by the settlers, established his ascendancy, achieved these twin goals to a limited degree. By force and violence, the people were evicted from some areas of land, which were turned over to the planters. But in Fiji, the military relationship of forces precluded driving this process to completion. Attempts by the Cakobau government to force Fijian natives to work for wages by imposing money taxes also failed, despite the prosecution of hundreds of ‘tax-evading’ villagers, who then had to work off their sentences of a year’s unpaid labour on the plantations.6

The capitalists had to settle for removing these obstacles one by one, with various forms of slavery bridging the gap.

Through the measles epidemic, whole family lines and even whole communities were obliterated, leaving land with no living person who could claim customary title to it; other regions were left severely depopulated. Settlers pressed their advantage against the weakened clans along the Sigatoka River, where the most fertile land lay just beyond their grasp, provoking incidents that could provide the pretext for the government to send an armed expedition, confiscate the land and capture and remove its remaining occupants.

At the same time, popular anger aroused by the epidemic generated renewed struggles against the colonial rulers responsible. A revolt against British domination flared up anew in the Highlands. Clans which had converted to Christianity threw out the missionaries and reverted to the old religions.7

Part of the Fiji Armed Constabulary, with Captain Louis Knollys in command, which suppressed the Kai Colo rebellion in 1876. Photo: Fiji Museum

British troops were not available to Governor Gordon; his suppression of the rebellion was carried out by 1200 Fijian Christian troops from lowland areas loyal to Cakobau, with weapons supplied by the New Zealand colonial government.8 They plundered and burned every village along the Sigatoka river and left highland communities further depopulated. Some 40 rebels were hanged or shot at the end of the fighting. Even so, part of the price of ending the rebellion was that Gordon ended the private trading in Fijian land. Henceforth, colonial rule in Fiji would operate through the chiefs, not over their opposition.

Moreover, while the epidemic may have eased the process of acquiring land for the capitalists, at the same time it worsened their problem of finding labour to work it. Such was the immense death toll, among both indigenous Fijians and the Melanesian slaves (whose death rate was greater than 50%), that the supply of labourers to work the plantations was greatly reduced, with no immediate prospect of recovery through natural population increase. In the wake of the epidemic, the British governor made plans to bring indentured labourers from India to meet this need. The first Indian labourers arrived in 1879; over the next three decades more than 60,000 were brought out.

The Indian indentured labourers were one small step removed from the conditions endured by the Melanesian and Fijian slaves. Their death rate was slightly lower. But the Indian labourers also lived and worked in dehumanising conditions, under a regime of punishment, hunger, violence, disease, and despair. The labourers themselves called it ‘narak’ – hell.9 It was only when the truth of these conditions was reported publicly in India, at a time when India was itself in the throes of an anti-colonial revolt in the early twentieth century, that the public outcry led to the indentured labour system being slowly brought to an end by the Indian administration. More than half of the indentured labourers never returned to India when their terms of indenture expired. Thousands stayed on as tenant farmers or free wage workers in Fiji, some ended up in Australia and New Zealand.


This is the context in which to return to the case of the influenza epidemic in Samoa, and to consider why the New Zealand administrator acted to worsen its effects on the Samoan population. As in Fiji forty years earlier, the social consequences of the influenza epidemic in Samoa were enormous. There was hardly a family which didn’t lose at least one member. In some cases, entire families and villages were wiped out, lines of inheritance came to an end – and the possibility for rapid land alienation was opened up. Underlying Colonel Logan’s expressions of racist hatred, I believe that the goal which guided his criminal actions and omissions was to clear the land of its indigenous occupants.

Indentured labourers on rubber plantation in Samoa, ca 1900. Photo: Alfred Tattersall, National Library of New Zealand Ref: 1/2-020691-F

When New Zealand grabbed the western Samoan islands from Germany in the opening month of the Great War, they had been a colony of Germany for fifteen years. For more than a decade prior to the 1899 annexation by Germany, the rival imperialist powers of United States, Britain, and Germany had vied for possession of Samoa. Each of these powers had intervened in the clan rivalries within Samoa, supporting opposing factions in their efforts to gain a secure foothold for themselves. On two occasions they supported civil wars between the Samoan clans, during which German, British, and American gunboats bombarded Samoan villages, and there were operations on land by both US and British Marines. These civil wars, and the economic burden they placed on the Samoans, opened up a part of the land to foreign ownership.

Graves of American and British soldiers killed in action during the Samoan civil war of 1888-1889. Photo: Alfred Tattersall, National Library of New Zealand Ref:1/2-020958-F

In 1899, after the second civil war and international mediation, Samoa was divided between Germany (which took the western islands of Savai’i and the most populated one, Upolu, in exchange for relinquishing its claims to the Solomon Islands) and the United States (which took possession of the eastern islands of Tutuila and the Manu’a islands).

New Zealand, British, Australian and French servicemen raise the Union Jack at the German-built Apia courthouse in August 1914 Photo:

The German administration set up plantations of coconut, cacao, rubber, and bananas on land they had gained, and a large trading enterprise which dominated the copra trade. Here they confronted the same problems as the Fijian planters: insufficient land available to the planters, and the unwillingness of the natives to work for wages on the plantations, as long as they could meet their food needs from the land still under customary ownership. Rather than work for starvation wages, Samoans preferred to produce their own copra and sell it to the German trading company. The German planters and their administration adopted the same solution as their counterparts in Fiji: bringing indentured labourers from the Solomon Islands, and later from China, to work under conditions of semi-slavery on the plantations. The New Zealand administration inherited this system in 1914, and had every intention of continuing it indefinitely.

Did the New Zealand administration also adopt the other method of the Fijian colonial administration, and of the British authorities in Australia and North America before them, of using epidemic disease to clear away the indigenous obstacles to acquiring further land, when the opportunity presented itself in 1918?

While it cannot be conclusively proved, this explanation would be consistent with those historic precedents – including the relatively recent precedent in Fiji.  And at least in the case of two individuals, the Administrator, Colonel Robert Logan, and the master of the Talune, Captain John Mawson, this provides a more complete explanation of their actions than their supposed ‘ineptitude.’ Nor was there ever any suggestion of criminal charges against either of these two individuals by higher authorities in New Zealand.

Mulifanua coconut palm plantation, German Samoa, ca 1905. Photo: Alfred Tattersall, National Library of New Zealand, Ref: PAColl-3062-3-56

The biggest difference in Samoa was that there was a new class witness to the crime. While the use of epidemic diseases against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, and Fiji took place before the working class had come into being in those colonies (nor even in the imperial centres, in the 18th-century cases) that was no longer true in the case of Samoa. By 1918 a working class had emerged in New Zealand, represented by Harry Holland, with a degree of class consciousness and political independence from the capitalist rulers. Moreover, the Melanesian and Chinese indentured labourers constituted an incipient working class in Samoa itself. The working class placed a greater value on human life than has the capitalist class at any point in its history, and this influenced the outcome of the events, ensuring that the administration paid a higher political price for its crime.

Such was the anger towards the New Zealand authorities responsible for bringing the epidemic to Samoa that a movement of opposition to the New Zealand administration took shape immediately in its aftermath and grew in breadth and power over the next two decades. This movement, which took the name Mau, mounted a sustained challenge to the New Zealand administration’s rule over Samoa, and dashed the hopes of Logan and his successors for easy capitalist penetration of the islands.



  1. Disturbing History – Resistance in early colonial Fiji, by Robert Nicole, pp17-19.
  2. A History of Fiji, Kim Gravelle, Book 2, p57
  3. ibid, p54
  4. ibid, p54
  5. ibid, Book 1, p30
  6. Nicole, p21
  7. ibid, p26
  8. Gravelle, Book 2, p61
  9. ibid, p69

One response to “Cotton, slaves, war, and measles in colonial Fiji

  1. Pingback: Scientific medicine, the weight of history, and the measles epidemics in Samoa and New Zealand | A communist at large·

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