Fiji Guide

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Rotuma

Measuring only 13 kilometers in length and 4 kilometers in width, Rotuma is rugged, carpeted with lush vegetation, and fringed by white sandbeaches and coral reefs. Rotuma consists of one large island and a number of islets that lie offshore, including the remarkable Hafliua (Split Island) which is bisected by a massive fissure large enough to take a small boat through.

The highest point on the main island is Mt. Suelhof (256 meters). The population, which is spread along the coastline in a series of villages, is approximately 2,600. The interior of the island is comprised of gardens and bushland, with coconut trees in abundance. A government station is located at Ahau on the northeast coast and an unpaved vehicular road circles the island.

Climb Mt. Suelhof (256 meters) and get a local to take you to Hafliua (Split Island) which is bisected by a massive fissure large enough to take a small boat through.

Rotuma is blessed with rich soil that grows a number of crops including yams, mango, papaya, taro, bananas, oranges, melons, and just about anything you place in the ground. Its beaches and ample coral reefs are unblemished by commercialism. The adjacent sea and lagoons are filled with Hawk’s Bill turtles, dolphins, manta rays, parrot fish, and soft coral. Rotuma was settled by Polynesians centuries ago, most likely from Samoa orTonga. It was ‘discovered’ by Europeans when Captain Edwards of thePandora came across it while searching for the Bounty mutineers. He named it ‘Grenville Island’. A favorite of whaling ships in need of reprovisioning, in the mid-nineteenth century Rotuma became a haven for runaway sailors, some of whom were escaped convicts. Some of these deserters married local women and contributed their genes to an already heterogeneous pool; others met violent ends, reportedly at one anothers’hands.

In the 1840s both Roman Catholics and Wesleyans established missions on the island. Conflicts between the two groups, fueled by previous political rivalries among the chiefs of Rotuma’s seven districts, resulted in hostilities that led the local chiefs in 1879 to ask Britain to annex the island group. On May 13, 1881, seven years after Fiji became a colony,Rotuma was officially ceded to Great Britain. The colonial legacy can still be seen today in the variety of old churches that dot the landscape. Rotumans are culturally conservative and maintain their customs in the face of changes brought about by increased contact with the outside world.

The Rotuman language is unique although it shares some vocabulary with Polynesian languages, especially Samoan and Tongan. After the third grade, students are taught in English, and nearly all Rotumans are at least bilingual; many also speak Fijian and some are fluent in Hindi as well. Traditional ceremonies are performed on numerous occasions, including weddings, funerals, installations of chiefs, and on religious occasions. They are also conservative Christians, spending much time engaged in church-related activities. They are gracious to strangers, but expectvisitors to the island to respect the custom of the land and to be modest in dress and behavior.

Until recently one needed an invitation from a resident just to set foot on the island. It was impossible to buy an airline ticket and visit this community without permission. Rotuman elders were reluctant to allow tourists of any stripe to set foot on this fragile island. There are still no hotels on Rotuma, although accommodations can be arranged for brief visits. The feelings of the Rotuma Council of Chiefs towards large numbers of visitors has not changed, but the door to outsiders is now ajar for the first time. The numbers of visitors to the island will be strictly regulated and it has not yet been determined the numbers of guests that the island will host on a yearly basis. Estimates are that the number of visitors, at least for the first year, will not exceed 100. Air Fiji flies to Rotuma once a week out of Suva. For more information on the Island and its culture, Alan Howard, a University of Hawaii Professor has put together an extremely thorough Rotuma website that is well worth perusing.

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