NO MAN IS AN ISLAND

(Reflections on a visit to Pacific Regional Seminary 1998)

 ‘No man is an island’ said the poet, but ‘Rumpole’ drones on, marooned on a mindset four continents and two millenia removed from us. This was ‘fin de siecle’ Suva, after all, and no legal occasion. If only the Honourable and expatriate old codger would bring down the gavel on his learned Latin meanderings, Pacific Regional Seminary’s graduands could get on with it - into the 21st and ‘Pacific century’ and home, somewhere in their sea of islands.

It was a day for holier thoughts than I could presently muster. Had not His Honour read his Summing Up? Somerset Maugham would be obligatory reading for a Judge of the High Court one would have thought: "When I have heard judges on the bench moralizing with unction…I have wished that beside his bunch of flowers at the Old Bailey, his lordship had a packet of toilet paper. It would remind him that he was a man like any other".

Suva has its touches of Maugham, even without the Judge. There is something still quaintly colonial about this city built on what was described as a ‘pestiferous swamp’ back in 1881. Maugham would be at home in any one of a dozen wooden-shuttered houses on the hill, or swaggering about the Royal Suva Yacht Club down the road a bit. The very roads give the game away - Kings Road, Queens Road, Princes Road. But there are reminders, many of them, that this is the South Pacific. There is another kind of quaintness of a most engaging kind that can bring a policeman to say: "It makes me proud to be the station officer at Samabula (on the occasion of the installation of a set of traffic lights!). It looks beautiful, especially at night. We’re now like cities overseas". Now who would want to be like Sydney? Melbourne? Suva, I noticed, has its Toorak, but some city planner changed his mind, and the Polynesian Company’s dream of grandeur became the site for the gaol instead.

The tourists, by and large, don’t see Suva. For a capital city, it must be a world first to have your international airport several hundred kilometres away, and the tourists who come to Nadi are more likely to head straight out to the Yasawas or Taveuni or somewhere else exotic and expensive. Come by boat, however, and they can really poke their nose into whatever is happening in town. Not even Hobart’s famed Constitution Dock has quite the intimate relationship with the CBD that King’s Wharf has.

I came not as a tourist, so Suva was good enough for me. I came to observe, to get the feel of the place, to break a little bread together with brothers who know the scene; cousins might be a more apt description of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to whom large areas of the Pacific had been entrusted in those days of Vicariates Apostolic, and who now have a Pacific Union centred on Fiji. I was privileged to share more than their bread, and to be a member for a while of their Pacific family, one of the youngest religious families you are likely to meet either side of the dateline. "Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs". Maugham again. I think it is right for the Salesians to be here in Suva.

From the MSC house on the hill there is a pretty fair view of the outskirts of Suva towards USP, and beyond, beyond the reef and into the Pacific. A visit to this central campus of the Pacific’s very own university is a must for someone wanting to have access to everything that was ever written about this part of the world. And it takes a large library to contain all that. ‘This part of the world’, after all, is one third of the earth’s surface, 71%of its oceans, the new centre of the world. Fiji and Fijians belie the concept of small. So do Tuvaluans, Tongans, Niueans and the rest of this huge interrelated pool of Pacific peoples. Now admit it, you don’t know where Tuvalu is, nor Niue for that matter? You thought they were little dots in the ocean somewhere? I mean, what does small ‘mean’? A small military? Economy? Population? Small in relation to what? Have YOU sat beside a Tongan or Fijian or Tuvaluan for hours on end - or worse, between a Tongan and a Tuvaluan - while your 737 beetled its way across hours of ocean?

The world is a lying ball. I’ll bet my last Samoan Tala/dollar (which I can’t exchange anywhere, it would seem) that the countries of the Northern hemisphere have been exaggerated on the maps. And it’s the coloniser’s perception of space, their epistemology, transmitted then through colonial pedagogy which perpetrated spatial notions of distinction, difference, discreteness and isolation in ‘this part of the world’. Looking out from the hill behind Suva, I have to say I see it differently now. The Pacific is enormous. Fijians are big, big-hearted. The cultural diversity here is huge - ethnic Fijians, Indo-Fijians, Sino-Fijians, Banaban-Fijians, Solomon-Fijians, Austro-Fijians. The melting-pot mixture might occasionally be abrasive but it’s also expansive, exciting and dynamic. And if the next resource frontier for an insatiable global economy is the sea and the seabed, then the Pacific is no longer a pitiable confetti of microstates but the great oceanic realm of the future.

I’m waxing lyrical I know. It must have been that extra bilo of yaqona - kava you might know it as. No, the truth is that I was born and lived on an island in my early years, that people wished to call ‘small’. But that’s only because they lived on what they preferred to call a ‘continent’. The definition of islands as small is entirely arbitrary, and often pejorative. Ask any Tasmanian.

One thing is for sure. You cannot deny the Fijians the grandness of their pan-Pacific vision, nor the greatness of their humanity. You cannot deny that of any man, woman or child. No man is an island, remember?

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