Radical roots in Fiji

The impact of colonialism on Don Dunstan

SOUTH AUSTRALIA’S REPUTATION for progressive reform extends back to its origins in Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s scheme for imperial systematic colonisation. Wakefield’s grand plans, which inspired followers and shaped several colonies in Australasia, aimed to rid Australia of convict transportation and to assist respectable free settlers. While land policy would limit the expansion of the frontier and regulate class relationships, those who worked hard would be able to acquire land, and settlers would have a voice in the framing of their laws. Wakefield’s scheme was born in the milieu of early nineteenth-century British philosophical radicalism. Jeremy Bentham died before South Australia was settled, but he was a keen supporter of its planning, and suggested that it be named to reflect its radical promise: ‘Felicia’, ‘Felicitania’ or ‘Liberia’. Regardless of just how well the state has lived up to those early rosy hopes, its sense of reformist exceptionalism has been woven into its history. One of its most important political leaders, Don Dunstan, the democratic socialist and nationally influential premier from 1967–68 and 1970–79, self-consciously adopted this tradition by titling his 1981 political memoirs Felicia.

Though he never set foot in Australia, Wakefield’s politics were to be shaped by his own imperial experience in Canada and New Zealand. His colourful life story is widely, if only partially, known. But what is less well known is that the state’s nation-leading reforms in the 1960s–70s also had imperial roots. Dunstan was born and grew up in Fiji, and much of his passionate commitment to racial equality, as well as his antipathy to colonialism and to petty official tyranny, derived from what he observed there. He knew and would say that his experience in Fiji had shaped his politics.

Dunstan was a trailblazing reformer, an advocate of social justice and civil liberties whose pioneering legislative initiatives included the first racial discrimination act, the first Aboriginal land rights, and the first sex discrimination act in Australia. Under Dunstan, South Australia was the first jurisdiction in the country to decriminalise homosexuality. He introduced full constitutional democracy to South Australia, and turned it from a provincial backwater into a state synonymous with food, wine, the arts and multiculturalism.

While his name became inextricably linked with South Australia, it was Fiji that shaped him. From his infancy, parts of his schooling and his first career as a lawyer, to his involvement in the Movement for Democracy in Fiji late in life, Fiji was always a part of Don Dunstan. Its climate and vegetation, food culture, language and music shaped his sensibilities. Its social fabric and racial politics created his strong sense of justice and political values. In 1974, he told a television audience: ‘I was born and brought up in Fiji and, having a Fijian nurse-girl, I could speak Fijian as soon as I could speak English. The Fijians are an intensely musical people. My earliest memory is lying in bed and hearing groups of Fijians drift by to the koro [village] and they’d always sing; it was quite spontaneous when they were going anywhere, and they’d sing in close harmony because they had an acute musical ear.’ The musicality of Fijians may well have been a reason Dunstan developed a passion for playing the piano (well enough to perform for others), and contributed to his belief in cultural diversity.

DONALD ALLAN DUNSTAN was born on 21 September 1926 in Suva. At the time of his birth, his father Francis Vivian Dunstan was the Suva store manager for the merchants Henry Marks and Company, and the family lived in a house overlooking Suva’s main wharf. But when Don was two, Viv, as he was always called, took the position of store manager for Morris Hedstrom’s in Nausori, the town thirteen miles to Suva’s north-east dominated by a Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) mill. CSR was an Australian company, a core part of Australia’s commercial dominance in Fiji. Since the late nineteenth century, Australia’s business interests in Fiji constituted a form of colonialism – and a direct link between Australian settler colonialism and crown rule there. Don’s early childhood and adolescence were spent in Nausori. His mother, Ida May (Hill) Dunstan, lived the privileged but restricted life of the white colonial housewife, caring for Don and his sister, Beth, who was two years older. Nausori’s population of Indian labourers and families, the local villages of Fijian landowners, and the white CSR managers, missionaries and families constituted the world Dunstan first knew.

Fijian food shaped his tastes and senses as much as the music. In an essay published shortly after he died in 1999, Dunstan recalled:

[I]n Fiji, as a small boy there was the constant challenge of the new. I readily accepted the fruits I grew up with in our little sugar mill town – bananas were a favourite (I loved them mashed with sugar). There was always papaya with lime juice for breakfast and I feasted on pineapples, mangoes, tropical mandarins, passionfruit and granadillas. I learned to love the fresh river fish and the wonderful taste of mud crabs caught in the estuaries. Since I had eaten it from the hands of my Fijian nurse-girls as a baby I could feast on the staple Fijian starch food – dalo – (a grey-fleshed taro which they simply boiled and fed me in gooey lumps) although objectively it really tastes like soap!

Like the other European families of their class, the Dunstans had servants. Beside the Fijian nurse-girls when the children were babies, there was an Indian man cook, who occasionally had a young Indian boy helper, and Moses the Fijian gardener. Moses would mow the lawn, and tend the garden, including a vegetable garden that helped to feed the family along with the ducks and chickens they kept. It was a world of white privilege that had been established in 1874 when Fiji became a British crown colony, and entrenched by the importation of indentured Indian labourers from 1879.

The indentured labour system was terminated in 1920, six years before Dunstan’s birth, but the Fiji in which he grew up was starkly stratified by race. The sugar plantations and mill towns of the preceding decades were a brutal world where the Indian ‘coolies’ were driven hard by overseers by day, and forced to live in crowded hovels called lines. White CSR managers lived in fear of ‘coolie’ uprisings and murderous assaults. But white men charged with killing an Indian or a Fijian were frequently absolved by the courts. Denied land ownership, from 1924 Indians could become small tenant farmers, which enabled a degree of self-sufficiency, though they often juggled such farms with jobs as servants and labourers. Many were illiterate. At least in some areas, part-Europeans lived in their own townships, segregated and treated as a caste unto themselves. Fijians held rights to their traditional village lands but most lived in poverty. The Europeans, including the Australians, were not all rich by any means, but they held the political and social power, living in relative ease supported by labourers and servants and enjoying a lifestyle only possible for a colonial ruling class.

Dunstan’s various media interviews give us a few details of growing up in a household with Indian and Fijian servants. But we can glean further insight as to what this may have been like for a child on a daily basis from Fiji – Memory Hold the Door, a memoir privately published in 1996 by Betty Freeman, Fijian-born daughter of Australian parents. Freeman was born in 1916, so her childhood in Ba on the north-west coast of Viti Levu (the opposite coast to Nausori) was ten years earlier than Dunstan’s. But Ba was also a sugar mill town, and Freeman grew up in a household on ‘CSR hill’, with a social structure very like that in Nausori. Her father was the CSR chief engineer. In this colonial world, the white men were ‘sahibs’ and the women were ‘memsahibs’. Despite the strict rules by which her childhood was governed, Freeman observed and interacted with the household servants closely. Like other European residents, including Dunstan, she picked up various Fijian and Hindi names and phrases. She knew Ungapa, the family’s illiterate but skillful cook, and the other ‘houseboy’ well. After the family had finished breakfast, and while the ‘houseboys’ were eating theirs outside, Freeman would sit and chat to them. They would speak to her, she recalled, in fluent English they would never use with her parents, telling her of small events around the household such as chickens hatched, a calf born or a mongoose trapped and drowned. She would even peek through the slats from under the house to watch them perform their ablutions in the outside bathing area, which she described as modestly conducted. Morning callers to the house included ‘John the Chinaman’, with his baskets full of vegetables. The neighbourhood’s shared daily routine included the strictly observed practice that the ‘memsahibs’ would shower only when the ‘houseboys’ were away for a break in the mid-afternoon. The local primary school enrolled any child with a European surname (while charging a small fee), which meant that the mixed-race children who inhabited their segregated settlement called Newtown were admitted. But, Freeman recalled, the children all knew that they would never mix across the racial barrier outside school.

For Dunstan, growing up in such a household and town fostered his sense of racial injustice. This was a world where ‘sahibs’ and ‘memsahibs’ wielded, to varying degrees, public, political, economic and social power, and their households were microcosms where racial and class inequalities and anxieties played out intimately on a daily basis. As Freeman’s stories enable us to glimpse, unequal relations in colonial households were personal, negotiated, and could be mediated with degrees of familiarity – and even affection. It was not only that Australians’ gender expectations were confronted by Indian men doing the cooking and some of the laundry, and ‘memsahibs’ enjoying degrees of leisure and privilege – along with privations and, at times, hardships – familiarity with Indian and Fijian food, language, music and singing, even their religious festivals and practices, could have cumulative effects, perhaps not least through knowing individual servants, workers and neighbours well. Like Betty Freeman, Dunstan’s life was shaped and coloured by Fiji, despite being born to Australian parents. In Dunstan’s case, both Viv and Ida were thoroughly South Australian in their birth, family backgrounds and upbringing. In various ways, South Australian customs and attitudes must also have shaped the household in Nausori.

NAUSORI WAS THE Fiji headquarters of CSR, which had begun its Fiji operations by establishing plantations and building a large sugar mill there in 1880. When the Dunstans arrived in 1928, the mill produced about twelve thousand tons of sugar per year. It was essentially a company town. Social divisions were inscribed on local geography. Don would recall: ‘It was always referred to as “the hill” in Nausori, which is where the officers of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company lived. All the officers lived on the hill, the mechanics and other people who were regarded as more lowly lived on the flat.’ The Dunstans’ house was down on the flats in walking distance of the Morris Hedstrom store, but they socialised a good deal on ‘the hill’. In consequence, their world would have been shaped by the CSR’s notorious social rankings. Not only did it matter if families lived on ‘the hill’, they were regarded as either ‘in’ or ‘out’, depending on whether they were in the ‘officer’ class. Only chief engineers were officers, which made life difficult for second and third engineers who were still expected not to socialise with the mechanics. Company wives were expected to fall into line: they were to socialise only with the other women deemed appropriate according to the husbands’ positions. And these psychologically potent distinctions were just among the Europeans! The Dunstans were admitted to this rarefied social world because of Viv’s position as manager of the largest store, though not all those in commerce would have been so favoured. Local planters and any government officials would also have been ‘in’, while missionaries were not always considered acceptable – and there was a Methodist mission just the other side of the Rewa River.

From 1937 to 1939, Don attended Suva Boys’ Grammar School. Fundamental to Suva Boys’ Grammar were its racial restrictions. Dunstan would joke disparagingly that the headmaster must have had a light meter: to be admitted to Suva Boys’ Grammar you had to be of at least 51 per cent European parentage. His best friend at school was part Fijian – though Dunstan would say he looked completely European. Dunstan ran into trouble with his parents over this friendship. His friend wanted him to go and stay at his home on his parents’ small island in Suva Harbour, but Ida and Viv refused. Nor would they allow Don to bring his friend home. Don thought this ‘absolutely absurd and hurtful and bad’. In these years he also became friends with a boy whose father ran the Methodist mission, and a teachers’ college for Fijians, across the river from Nausori. There, Don met some young Fijian men he liked, but would not have been allowed to have them home.

AT DIFFERENT POINTS in his life, Dunstan wrote fiction and sometimes poetry. In 1944, as an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide, he – along with Donald Simpson, his old friend from St Peter’s College – briefly edited a literary magazine they called Grist, which, rather optimistically, they aimed at students ‘throughout Australasia’, including senior high-school students. In fact, the magazine was both short and short-lived. The edition dated 5 June 1944 lists Dunstan as editor; he penned the editorial, two poems and a short story titled ‘The Compliment’. This story reveals just how much Fiji occupied his thoughts and memories, even when he had not been there for some time. Set in Nausori, the story contains descriptions such as: ‘Nausori was a town of smells, he thought. Crabs and curry, incense and coconut oil, dust and garbage – the compound smote one’s nostrils.’ It boasted insider knowledge, such as an allusion to a film starring the singing cowboy Gene Autry, who was ‘Fiji’s box-office favourite’. The plot involves a police superintendent determined to prosecute the local Irish publican for selling liquor to ‘natives’ who did not have the requisite permit to buy it. The new, ambitious and punitive superintendent hides uncomfortably in the field behind the Rewa Hotel one long evening to try to catch this illicit trade in action, but fails. To his chagrin, the publican had been fully alert to his vigil. This brief story is replete with references to Fiji’s social fabric, such as the ‘cook boy’ speaking Hindustani in the hotel kitchen, the stylish Fijians lounging outside the picture theatre, and ‘the half-caste girl’ in the box office. At least as striking is the antipathy towards the police at the heart of the story, showing that this theme, important later in Dunstan’s life, had its roots in what he observed growing up in Fiji, including racial discrimination.

In 1947, when Dunstan was twenty-one and a law student at the University of Adelaide, he lived in the prestigious St Mark’s College. Among the short reports that the master of St Mark’s made routinely on each student, in October 1947 he wrote:

Mr Dunstan, the son of the manager of Morris Hedstrom in Fiji, aspires to follow in the footsteps of Wilberforce and others in the crusade against the exploitation of the coloured races. He is one of the very few socialists the college has ever had; he is a utopian socialist working on constitutional lines.

It’s telling that Dunstan evinced his passion for racial justice as early as his university days, and made it so clear that even the conservative master of St Mark’s felt the need to mention it in his report. This is the passion that would drive Dunstan to instigate reforms of national, as well as state, significance.

IN 1965 HE played a key role at the ALP conference that removed the words ‘white Australia’ from the ALP policy. Dunstan served on the committee that made this recommendation to the Federal ALP executive, and presented the report, as he said, ‘in ringing tones, hailing the end of the Labor Party’s support for the White Australia policy’. It was a moment of which he was particularly proud. Near the end of his life, he was also proud to recall that, as the first ever minister for Aboriginal affairs, he had ‘ended “protection”, “assimilation” and removed all discriminatory legislation and regulation, introduced and had passed Australia’s first Aboriginal Land Rights legislation, and the first Prohibition of Racial Discrimination Act’.

In 1968, when Don Dunstan was honoured with an invitation to deliver the prestigious HV Evatt Memorial Lecture, which often deals with foreign policy in recognition of Evatt’s time as minister for external affairs as well as being first president of the United Nations, he chose to speak about the Pacific. His lecture was a plea for Australia to be more engaged with the nations of the Pacific and to give them more aid, not least because of Australia’s historical commercial exploitation. The lecture was something of a geographic, economic and political tour of the Western Pacific. But it was Fiji to which he devoted the bulk of the lecture. Fiji, he asserted, ‘presents the greatest problem in the whole area, and the greatest need of Australian assistance’. Traversing Fiji’s history of colonisation, land titles, the extent and consequences of the sugar industry, he pointed to the involvement of various Australian and local companies, mentioning Morris Hedstrom by name. He stressed the inadequacies of educational provision, and then turned to political tensions and constitutional limitations. He argued that Indians were disadvantaged politically, even while Indians and Fijians found common ground in their resentment of Europeans. Fiji was just as much Australia’s responsibility as New Guinea and Papua, Dunstan contended: ‘Fiji’s lack of development, Fiji’s communal tensions and the constitutional problems arising from them have grown from Australian exploitation and neglect. It is time immediately to right this by measures available to us’ – in which he included significantly more foreign aid. Dunstan urged the lifting of immigration restrictions against Fijians and Fijian-born Indians, concluding his lecture with the plea: ‘I fail to understand why we should bring migrants all the way from Europe when on our doorstep we have people to whom we owe much – and for whom we do nothing.’

Fiji’s mix of imperially imposed class and racial discriminations, with a rich and vibrant culture shaped by both the indigenous and imported populations, gave Dunstan a life-long sense of both what should be abolished in South Australia and what, through government reform, it could become. In these ways, Fiji inflected the democratic socialism he adopted as a student at the University of Adelaide.

DUNSTAN BECAME A critic of British colonial tenacity (in places including Cyprus) and an advocate of Australia becoming a republic. He came to believe that Australia should embrace its Asia--Pacific location. Through developing direct relations with Penang, Malaysia, for example, he believed that South Australia could become a beacon of change in this way too.

His childhood in Fiji also shaped his passionate interest in food and his belief in living in harmony with one’s climate. Dunstan’s genuine curiosity about, and enjoyment of, food inspired him to become an excellent cook, to publish his own cookbook and, towards the end of his life, to be a restaurateur. In a section of his cookbook advocating an Australian cuisine that carefully blended Asian and European elements, he disparaged the 1970s Australian version of ‘curry’, recalling the ‘delicious goat and chicken curries at the table of my father’s great friend, Battan Singh.’ Both his own appreciation of food and wine, and his determination that Adelaide should take full advantage of its salubrious climate, drove him to reform licensing laws to enable outdoor dining – what would become the café lifestyle, another area in which South Australia led the way. And his years in the tropical discomfort of Suva developed his belief in practical codes of dress, including wearing shorts to work, which he did for years before the photograph of him wearing pink shorts on the steps of Parliament House was taken, which became such a clichéd trope often used to demean his bisexuality. Dunstan’s success in South Australia became, in turn, an inspiration for reforms that might be made in Fiji itself. Even after Fiji became independent in 1970, racial, legal and economic inequalities continued. From 1987 to 2006, Fiji suffered four coups, and its constitutional democracy was badly fractured. In the late 1980s, Dunstan took an active leadership role in the Australian branch of the Movement for Democracy in Fiji. His same commitment to democratic ideals and belief in the possibilities of political reform, which had made his state the great example of Australian social progress during the ‘Dunstan Decade’, were now directed towards repairing and improving his beloved Fiji.

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