Genealogy research in Fiji

Levuka 101-0129_IMG_300x200I have recently spent a week in Fiji researching my father’s family. My father is a part-European Fijian whose European ancestors arrived in Fiji in the early to mid-1800’s. Since civil registration began only in the 1870s with the Cession of Fiji to Great Britain there are very few records from before this time to show when people were born, married or died. There is very little available online for Fijian research – it’s all microfilm and paper documents. The Fiji Genweb is a good place to start.

My trip to Fiji was unexpected and so I was not as prepared as I would otherwise have been for some serious research. I had not looked into addresses, opening hours, holdings and catalogues. I had seen a few references to original records in literature so I knew to go to the National Archives of Fiji, for example, but I didn’t know where it was, how accessible the records were, or how long a search would take.

The websites of these institutions are not as informative as we have come to expect in Western countries. There are no online catalogues or contact details.

National Archives of Fiji

The National Archives has a reading room at their main facility in Suva. Their website gives minimal information on what they hold but I found the staff to be helpful and informative, guiding me in the direction of useful records. The reading room is hot, with overhead fans and open windows providing the only cooling. If you can avoid the summer months – November-February – then I would advise it. Digital cameras can be used. They close for lunch most days from 1pm to 2pm.

Among the many records they hold are the Land Claims Commission Reports from the 1870s and 1880s. When Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874 one of the first tasks undertaken by the new government was to require all non-indigenous landholders to apply to have their holdings confirmed. The majority of claims were allowed and titles issued, but a great many were not.

The files contain the resulting report by the Commissioner and quite often the original application form, evidence taken, interim reports and occasionally maps of the relevant land. As the land was often acquired by the claimant’s father or grandfather the report may be the only evidence of prior generations, as civil registration of births, deaths and marriages was only introduced by the British at the same time.

There is an index in the reading room that points you to the file number, which can then be ordered. What is provided is a photocopy of the pages in the original file, which can be digitally photographed.

The birth, death and marriage indexes and registrations filmed by the LDS Church up to the 1960s are also held. These films can be ordered from Australia, and I do order them, but the convenience of having all the films on-site allows a lot of research to be performed in a much shorter time.

Catholic Church

The first Riley to enter Fiji was said (by my father) to be a Catholic lay preacher who settled in Verata on the east coast of Viti Levu and donated land given to him by the local chief to the Church to build a mission. I spent a day looking for evidence of this in the Catholic Church archives in Suva, next to the cathedral in Pratt Street. The first missionaries were French, and much of their correspondence, diaries and reports are available to study. They are in French so I took lots of digital photographs and now have to sort through them for names of people and places I recognise, as I don’t speak or read French.There is also correspondence with the Colonial Secretary and other government officials.

Parish registers are kept within the parishes, so the very helpful sisters were unable to help me find records of baptisms or marriages from before civil registration began. I will have to visit the parish church, in Natovi, next time.

Suva City Library

The library holds many books on history and culture that may be useful to the family historian. I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the air-conditioned Reference Library upstairs. Photocopies are 20 cents (Fijian) per page and must be paid for at the main desk downstairs. The receipt is then given to the librarian in the Reference Library along with the book to be copied.

Wesleyan Methodist Church

The Wesleyan Methodist Church is the oldest established church in Fiji, with the first missionaries arriving in 1835, and has the largest membership today. I reasoned that if the only religious presence is Wesleyan and you want your baby baptised then you will have him baptised by a Wesleyan. A phone call to the Church told me that the archives have all been transferred to the National Archives of Fiji. A catalogue of holdings for the Methodist Church in the National Archives told me that permission from the Church is required to look at most of the records. So that will be a job for next time.

There is, however, a bound photocopy of the first Wesleyan registers of baptisms and marriages in the Reading Room of the National Archives of Fiji. I spent a very enjoyable half hour browsing through this and I found some relevant names. The original whites followed some local customs, one of which was multiple wives. I do not know if the wives were consecutive or simultaneous but the missionaries persuaded many of them to formally marry one wife, and some of these marriages appear in the pages of the register.

What next?

Research in Fiji takes longer than in Sydney, and I didn’t get done as much as I would have liked. It was hot, the person I needed wasn’t available, and it took longer than I expected for things to happen. Next time I will be better prepared. I will revisit the National Archives to look at Wesleyan records, Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, and other records that I will uncover from my advance preparation, and I will try some other repositories:

LDS Family History Centre

The LDS Church is quite active in Fiji, as elsewhere. My information (admittedly hearsay) is that they are only open one day per week and the day that I visited (Thursday) the building was locked up. If I had looked at their website (and if the website is accurate) I would have known that the Centre I visited closed at 3pm that day. I was also told that they have records not available elsewhere in Fiji, although I don’t know what those records might be. I will try again next trip.

University of the South Pacific

The University of the South Pacific covers all countries of the South Pacific region. The main campus library has an online catalogue which would be worth checking before a visit, as would the Pacific Collection. The library contains many books, theses and papers that would be useful for historical research.

They also have an online bookshop (in US dollars) with a good range of books on Fijian history and culture and quite high delivery costs by courier. Get to the bookshop in person if you can.

The Fijian Museum

The museum of any country is always worth a visit to get an idea of life in a previous era. The Museum has published reprints of books of historical interest, including accounts by the first Wesleyan missionaries, and sells them in their shop. I’d been to the Fijian Museum on a previous trip and didn’t get the chance to check their bookshop again. They also have an excellent journal. You can join the Friends of the Fiji Museum through their website.

Department of Lands and Surveys

The Department of Lands and Surveys has maps and plans and records of ownership of land in Fiji. Only 10% of Fiji is freehold, with 90% being Crown or Native Title. Land title searching can be difficult at the best of times so I’m holding this one off until I’m better prepared. I want to find out what happened to the land after the formal Claims in the 1870s were approved.

Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages Department

I did not have any reason to go to the Registrar, as the indexes and registrations I need are on LDS microfilm. I had already built a spreadsheet of index entries for the births, marriages and deaths of non-indigenous nationals with some film numbers and so I could request the films immediately at the National Archives. I would have done more of this than I did but it was just so hot, and the microfilm reader does not focus well on the whole frame at once, requiring two photos for each registration. Still, I was leased with the birth registrations that I got.

Sources:

Websites:

For websites follow the links above.

Books:

Calvert, James. Fiji and the Fijians, Vol. II, Mission History, Edited by George Stringer Rowe. Suva, Fiji: Fiji Museum, 2003; first published in London in 1858.

Walsh, Crosbie. Fiji: An Encyclopaedic Atlas. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific, 2006.

Young, John. Adventurous Spirits, Australian Migrant Society in Pre-Cession Fiji. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1984.

Comments

  1. Carole, I found your blog very interesting. If it is any help to you, my neice and nephew are named afrer the Rileys of Fiji.
    Matthew b 1971 was named after his father Matthew Nacoke b1941 who was named after his father’s brother, Matthew Riley. Matthew Nacoke’s dad was Jack Riley and I think they had a younger brother, Peter. They had a younger sister, Elizabeth Maude Riley who is the namesake for Matthew Nacoke’s daughter Iliseci Maud. I guess Jack Riley would have been born around 1910/20. The Riley’s father was also named Jack and the family lived on Naigani Island , part of Verata province. Check out Naigani on google earth at 17 35 07 south and 178 40 39 East. The family were all living there in 1975 but the plantaion is now the site of Naigani Island Resort. You will see the village on the opposite side of the island. The small island off shore from the resort is accesible at low tide and was used by the Rileys as their burial ground except for great grand father Riley who is buried on a hilltop on the island.
    regards Terry t1807@optusnet.com.au

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