I remember the first time I saw HRH Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain: It was during her coronation on June 2, 1953 [pictured at right] — and one reason that event sticks in my mind is because it was also the first time I can remember watching a program on the new medium of television.
Our school teacher asked us to watch the historical coronation of the young queen on one of the first worldwide television broadcasts, and she made arrangements for kids whose parents didn’t have a TV yet (that was still a few years in the future for us) to watch with a classmate whose family did.
The program aired during school time, so they even let us out early. Only black-and-white TV was available in those days in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I grew up — it would be another 15 years in the future before I started watching color TV regularly — and the image was somewhat fuzzy; but the experience has stuck in my mind ever since.
As has the time in October 1982 when I personally got within about 10 feet of Queen Elizabeth as a photographer for the Polynesian Cultural Center:
The PCC had sent me, Baden Pere and Emil Wolfgramm to observe the Great Council of Chiefs in Fiji, which was held that year on the island of Bau, home of the paramount Cakobau chiefs.
But we first saw Her Majesty in Suva, Fiji’s capital, as she entered the packed stadium [pictured below] accompanied by Ratu Sir George Cakobau, then Governor-General of Fiji and a direct descendant of the paramount chiefs:
In fact it was Ratu Seru Cakobau [note: his name is also sometimes spelled Cakombau or Thakombau, the latter closer to how it’s actually pronounced] who, along with the other high chiefs of Fiji, ceded their islands to Queen Victoria and Great Britain in 1874. Fiji became a crown colony, and a few years later Sir Arthur Gordon, the first British Governor-General, set up the Great Council of Chiefs so the indigenous hereditary leaders of those islands could make knwn the wishes and feelings of the Fijians on communal and national issues, respond to government proposals, and exercise their rights to address the queen on matters relating to welfare of Fijians.
Much has changed since Fiji gained independence in 1970, and more recently since various political upheavals, but it’s my understanding that Her Royal Highness, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, is still the titular Queen of Fiji . . . and despite a little more than a decade of independence from the “old sod” of England at that point, everyone in the stadium that day was quite excited — including me — to see the queen [pictured below in the stadium stands].
Please forgive me if my familiarity of modern Fiji history if as fuzzy as those early coronation images on TV; but in any case, she certainly was the Queen of Fiji in October 1982, and as such, she and her husband arrived in Suva on the royal yacht, Brittania, where as a mark of deep respect and island protocol Ro [a title similar to ratu] Tevita Logovatu — the paramount chief in the Suva area and a former “chief” of the PCC’s Fijian village — presented her with her first tabua or highly esteemed whale’s tooth in the Cavu-i-Kelekele ceremony.
On October 23 her highness traveled to the small island of Bau, where she officially opened the Great Council and presided with Ratu Sir George Cakobau, then Governor-General of Fiji and great-grandson of Ratu Seru Cakobau. I was among the thousands of people and dignitaries waiting for her to arrive.
Getting to the island of Bau for our delegation each day we went was a bit of an adventure: We would drive from Suva, where we were staying in the Grand Pacific Hotel, to Nausori Landing — about 15 miles away. There we boarded a “punt” — a long-narrow low-canoe-like vessel that usually only had a couple of inches of freeboard above the water — for the approximately 10-minute ride out to the island.
On the big day the queen came by royal launch, of course, and as it approached the shore, the Fijians blew conch shells and waved masi or tapa-cloth banners. I had positioned myself very close to where she actually stepped ashore [pictured below], and later I also had very good sight lines of her from the official photographer’s gallery.
Adi [a title of respect for women] Litia Kaunilotuma, the Governor-General’s daughter, walked down a path hundreds of yards long that was completely covered in woven mats and attended by Fijian women sitting on the edges, and presented the queen with another tabua.
Then surrounded by a corps of vati or muscular young men carrying long spears and dressed in masi wrappings that were anciently reserved for only the bravest warriors, Fiji Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara — who visited the Polynesian Cultural Center on several occasions — and others escorted Her Majesty to the rara [a village commons or green similar to a Samoan malae or Maori marae; both vowels are long] in front of the newly constructed meeting house where the Council convened.
In a very stately open-air program on the rara — with dignitaries all dressed in suits or otherwise formal traditional wear, the Queen declared the council open and spoke of Fiji’s close ties and allegiances to Great Britain. She also recognized the island nation’s military support in the world wars and their more recent peace-keeping efforts in the Middle East.
Then the fun began: Lunch…featured fresh-baked dalo (taro) and vonu [similar to the Hawaiian word honu for “turtle”], pork, delicious filets of walu — the “king of fish” in Fiji, which I think is the same or similar to ono in Hawaii — and Indian curries.
The afternoon was filled with marvelous entertainment: Groups of 400-plus dancers from the Lau Islands performed fabulous meke or traditional songs and outstanding lakalaka, or traditional dances. The Lau group were particularly interesting to us because they sang and danced in what I would call excellent Tongan style, due to the considerable interaction and intermarriage between the Tongans and Fijians in the area for centuries, but they spoke only Fijian.
Throughout the council, while the chiefs conducted business, various groups of Fijians in their finest costumes performed similar numbers on the rara; and as the council closed, one of the most amazing island ceremonies I have ever seen began: The tevutevu or traditional presentation of wedding gifts for the marriage of Ratu Mara’s daughter and one of Ratu Cakobau’s sons.
The island protocol was incredible:
- Similar to the malae or marae concepts, it’s my understanding that Fijians consider the rara as tapu or sacred; and therefore certain behavior had to be observed when walking on it. For example: You’re not supposed to carry anything on your shoulders while crossing the rara, so the dozens of young men who were creating what I think were called daudalo — multiple circles of taro produce still attached to the stem (meaning it’s a double gift of not only the corm, but can also be replanted) — that got up to about six-feet high and must have contained hundreds of taro — would take them down and hold them at their sides as soon as they entered the green. Likewise every other shoulder-borne burden was lowered.
- There were also huge stacks of uvi — a white yam that Samoans call ufi.
- Lots of live, squealing pigs.
- Hundreds of live vonu, flipped on their backs and flapping their arms and legs.
- Hundreds and hundreds of yards of new material, tied end to end in long bright streams that were paraded around the green.
- Huge piles of woven mats, and many bottles of scented coconut oil.
- Dozens of carved tanoa or kava bowls, and huge rolls of magimagi or braided coconut-fiber sennit cord — some of them formed into big balls and others into long tube shapes.
- Large stacks of masi (tapa cloth).
- Two beautifully carved sailing canoes with lauhala [woven pandanus leaf] sails.
- A big stack of modern masi: large tins of crackers that are popular in the western Pacific islands.
- Big piles of 50-kilo bags of rice and sugar
- Rows of three-gallon kerosene cans.
All of these gifts and more were given, and in typical island style, later exchanged. In my 40-plus years in the islands, I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
[NOTE: Parts of this entry were previously published
in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s November 12, 1982 Update newsletter]