The historical significance of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna


Ratu Sir Josefa Lalabalavu Sukuna is an inspiring figure in Fijian history who embodies the virtues of a resilient and visionary leader. His foresight is woven into the fabric of modern Fiji, reflecting his profound influence on the country’s social, economic and political development. In order to understand his significant role in shaping modern Fiji, we must examine the multi-faceted contributions and approach he took in his role as a traditional leader, military officer, politician, and statesman who laid the foundations for contemporary Fiji.
Born on April 22, 1888, in the chiefly village of Bau, Ratu Sukuna was destined for leadership. He hailed from a noble lineage, a member of the Tui Kaba clan, one of the most prominent and influential Fijian chiefly families. This heritage imbued him with a deep sense of responsibility towards his people from a young age.

Ratu Sukuna’s formal education began at Wairuku Indian School in Rakiraki, to the West of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, before he joined Wanganui Collegiate School in New Zealand, a premier institution that nurtured his intellect and broadened his horizons. In pursuit of further education and to learn more about the world, he continued his education journey at Wadham College, Oxford, where he pursued his Bachelor of Arts. This was a transformative experience for Ratu Sukuna as it introduced him to global political ideas and governance structures that would later influence his vision for Fiji.

While at Wadham College, World War I broke out, and he volunteered to serve in the French Foreign Legion, showcasing his courage and dedication. This happened at a time when racial prejudices and colonial attitudes were rife. However, his bravery and leadership were recognised as he fought with distinction and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, an honour bestowed on someone for their bravery and gallantry. This was a significant moment for Ratu Sukuna as his military experience, and service would prove critical to honing his leadership skills and deepening his understanding of the complexities of global conflict and colonialism.

Upon returning to Fiji, Ratu Sukuna began his political and administrative career, which would define his legacy. His vision for Fiji was one of unity and progress, rooted in respect for traditional Fijian customs while embracing necessary reforms, something that has stood the test of time and continues to be at the heart of most governments that have led Fiji over the past several decades.

One of his most significant contributions was the establishment of the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) in 1940, now known as the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB). Ratu Sukuna recognised the importance of land to indigenous Fijians and sought its protection while promoting its sustainable use. Through the NLTB, he ensured land could be leased to generate income for Fijians without compromising their ancestral rights. This innovative approach balanced traditional land tenure systems with the economic demands of modernity.

His visionary leadership resulted in his appointment as the first-native Speaker of the then Legislative Council and recognised his commitment to bridging the gap between the colonial government and Indigenous Fijians. As such, he shaped his policies and economic development aspirations in a way that didn’t affect the Fijian way of life. This was reflected in his speeches and writings from this period, reflecting his profound understanding of governance, negotiation ability, and unwavering dedication to his people.

He also recognised that education was the cornerstone of progress and championed the establishment of schools and scholarships for Fijian students, believing that an educated populace was essential for self-governance and economic development. This laid the groundwork for a more inclusive and equitable education system in Fiji.

While Ratu Sukuna was perceived as an architect of Fiji’s modern development, he was also a staunch advocate for the preservation of Fijian culture and traditions and understood that true progress could not be achieved by erasing the past but by integrating it into the future. Hence, he promoted traditional arts, crafts, and ceremonies, ensuring that Fijian identity remained robust amidst the tides of change.

It can be argued that Ratu Sukuna’s visionary leadership paved the way for Fiji’s transition from a colonial outpost to a vibrant, independent nation and the institutions he helped establish, particularly the NLTB, continue to play a crucial role in Fijian society. His advocacy for education and cultural preservation has left an indelible mark on successive generations.

The economic policies instituted by Ratu Sukuna also aimed at ensuring that Fijians benefitted from their land and resources by establishing a framework for land leasing, thus facilitating economic opportunities for both Fijians and immigrants. This approach helped create a more balanced and diversified economy for future growth that can be seen today.

His efforts to promote understanding and cooperation between different ethnic groups in Fiji pioneered and persist today. Ratu Sukuna believed in the potential for unity in diversity, a vision that continues to resonate in contemporary Fijian society and also helped foster a sense of social cohesion in the nation’s early years of self-governance.

Ratu Sukuna’s emphasis on cultural preservation sparked a renaissance of Fijian arts and traditions, ensuring that traditional Fijian knowledge and practices were preserved and celebrated. This cultural revival has fostered a sense of pride and continuity among Fijians.

It is worth noting that Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna’s life is a testament to the power of visionary leadership that is reflected in his innate ability to navigate the complexities of colonialism, his dedication to his people, and his innovative approach to governance and development. As Fiji continues to evolve, the principles and institutions he established remain vital to its progress.

Through his life and work, Ratu Sukuna demonstrated true leadership that goes beyond personal ambition, focusing instead on the welfare of the people. His legacy is a beacon, guiding Fiji towards a future that honours its past while embracing the opportunities of the modern world.

Happy Ratu Sukuna Day!

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