I have just jetted back across the Pacific after three weeks in Fiji, mostly at the National Archives of Fiji. The opportunity to spend time in Fiji, and especially in the archives, has broadened and deepened my understanding significantly.
Reading newspapers from the decades that I’m writing about has given me a much greater understanding of the conversations and debates that were happening at the time, outside of the archival documents I’ve seen. In my spare time I was reading Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson (a book I would highly recommend), which has made the other things I’m reading, seeing and doing especially connected to the past.
It has at times been difficult to not get too distracted by what else was in the news in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s though – the Onassis family was of particular interest to the editors of the Fiji Times over many months. I was entertained by the story of Robert Tomarchin, rescued from Henderson Island with his pet chimpanzee Moko and taken to Pitcairn Island. If that’s not strange enough, Tomarchin claimed he landed on Henderson after falling from a Russian satellite! He was later found as a stowaway on a boat returning to Pitcairn, where Moko had stayed after Mr Tomarchin had been ordered to return to the US. It took a lot of self-control to stop myself from Googling Mr Tomarchin to find out what has become of him!
But more moving and more importantly were all the stories I found of students who obtained scholarships from the 1950s to the present. The Fijian government archives reveal tales of young men and women given an opportunity, they contain stories of adventure, endurance, discovery and intellectual growth. But there are also stories of loneliness, sadness, grief, racism, fear, anger and failure. Sometimes these stories end up reading more like soap operas, where, in the perspective of the bureaucrats, the student becomes the unlovable character who has thrown away the opportunities given to them.
These stories highlight the difficulties experienced by students—as well as their families, and the bureaucrats who managed them—when things did not go to plan. In previous jobs I have been the Liaison Officer, trying to convince a student to return home despite failure, and reading these stories in the archives takes me back to those difficult conversations and moments. There are also stories of academic achievement, and the wonders of Google also allow me to (sometimes) connect the stories in the archives with snippets of the lives that come after.
And there is the life outside of the archives. Catching a bus every morning with the wind blowing in my hair was a fantastic commute. Trying out local food (I became a regular at the Hot Bread Kitchen near the archives), learning the coin sizes, and puzzling over the impact of the actions of the Australian government on Fiji in both the past and the present.
My thesis will be richer for this trip. I am very thankful for the opportunity to travel and for the invaluable assistance of the wonderful staff at the National Archives of Fiji.