Saturday, 13 October 2012

Fiji - Bula Poly-Mela-Micronesia!

Currently being based in London, I can only really dream about travelling to Fiji.  It's more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometres) from London to Suva, Fiji's capital - that's literally the other side of the Earth!  Still, one can but dream and, during the next few weeks, I want to virtually travel to Fiji using the media of books, movies, music and food.  I invite you to join me on this virtual journey!

Poly- Mela- or Micronesia?

This is my second time to blog about an Oceanic nation - way back when I started this blog, in 2009, I blogged about the Micronesian nation, Kiribati.  Fiji is officially part of Melanesia, so I'm starting with the question - what's the difference between Poly- Mela- and Micronesia?

This terminology is European, not surprisingly and the words come from the Greek words for 'many' (πολοί Poly-), 'black' (μέλας Mela-) and 'small' (μικρό Micro-) - so Polynesia means many islands, Melanesia means black islands and Micronesia means small islands.  

So is there a difference between the three?
Tanoa, King of Ambau
The easiest answer is yes. Although all of Oceania shares inter-related languages and cultures, there is a notable difference between the countries of Melanesia and those of Polynesia.  Melanesian culture is closer to that of Papua New Guinea and it's possible to trace a continuum of ethnic identity from Papua, all along the various island groups (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu) to Fiji.  These islands were called Melanesia because of the darker skin colour of their inhabitants - a bit un-PC by 21st century standards, but Melanesia literally means 'islands where the blacks live'.  


Fiji is right on the edge of this cultural divide and, although they are considered to be Melanesians, many Polynesians consider Fijians to be 'not so distant relatives'.  There is also one Polynesian island in Fiji, Rotuma, which is quite far from the main island groups and has a very different language and culture than the rest of Fiji.  I think the Polynesian islands are the ones we think of most, when we think of the South Pacific - Polynesia is all about Tahiti and French Polynesia,Tonga, Samoa, Easter Island etc.  Polynesia also includes Europeanised places like Hawaii and New Zealand.  The origins of the Polynesian people are quite obscure - some people believe they also came from Papua, some say China and Taiwan. 


Pacific cultural area by Kahuroa
I can't see anything that distinguishes the Micronesian islands from the rest of Oceania, apart from their remoteness on the northern edge of the South Pacific and the fact that they are all really tiny with no larger islands like Viti Levu and Vanua Levu in Fiji, or Tongatapu in Tonga.  The Micronesian countries are some of the most obscure and smallest in the world, including Kiribati, Palau, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia!  

I'm pasting in a map of the Pacific Cultural area, which I think is a really good visual aid to understanding the region.  This has been released into the public domain by wiki-user Kahuroa.  

For research purposes, I bought a second-hand copy of Lonely Planet's Fiji (7th Edition 2006).  The pen-marks and notes inside indicate that it's been well-used on someone's diving trip to Fiji and I could swear that the pages still hold a faint scent of the faraway south seas! I'm looking forward to learning about Fiji, I hope that you are too!

Image credits:

All images used in this post are in the public domain, including the drawing of Tanoa, King of (Am)Bau, which is from the David Rumsey map collection.  

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