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Forging History: The Coronation, the Commonwealth and Republicanism in the Pacific

Finn van Herten


Source: Apollo Magazine

Pacific nations are as diverse in their histories as they are in their domestic politics.


But this dynamic complicates debates around Commonwealth membership in Pacific nations, where histories of colonialism, violence and displacement pair up with what are today, in most cases, parliamentary democracies.


Now, King Charles’ coronation has thrust reflections on both republicanism and the Commonwealth back into the Australian limelight.


So, what attitudes towards the Commonwealth have prevailed across the Pacific? And what histories have underpinned changing opinions on Britain and the Commonwealth?

Tumultuous histories


The British Empire’s earliest official engagements in the Pacific were, perhaps unsurprisingly, often accompanied by displacement and attempts at assimilation.


For example, Australia is gradually coming to grips with its history of blackbirding in the mid-19th century, when it had not yet been federated.


Over 60,000 South Pacific Islanders were kidnapped or coerced from areas including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea to perform indentured work on Queensland’s sugarcane plantations. Most were eventually deported under Australia’s Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901, which formed part of the broader White Australia Policy.


Somewhat similarly at the same time, over 60,000 indentured Indian workers were brought by Great Britain to Fiji to work on the islands’ sugar plantations. Though not technically slaves, owing to the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1834, conditions remained exploitative and recruitment practices deceptive.


This legacy has even precipitated hurtful political rhetoric in modern Fiji, including a bid by Fijian nationalists in 1975 to deport all Fijians of Indian descent to the Indian subcontinent.


Other British colonial exploits in the Pacific include the British Western Pacific Territories (BWPT) administrative entity which governed island territories between 1902 and 1976. Throughout this period, the BWPT governed islands which today constitute Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and territories which are now part of the Realm of New Zealand.


Independence from the British Empire in the Pacific was often hard-fought. In the New Hebrides, today known as Vanuatu, the archipelago’s Indigenous Ni-Vanuatu people were effectively stateless for the 74 years to 1980 under the Condominium of New Hebrides.


In addition to civil and political disenfranchisement across the region, British entities extracted massive quantities of natural resources from the islands. On Banaba Island in modern-day Kiribati, the Pacific Islands Company mined phosphate, and subsequently failed to fulfil environmental restoration commitments. By 1979, the Company’s industrial successors had left the island almost entirely depopulated.


British rule in the Pacific was reasserted after the Second World War when imperial Japan occupied several Pacific territories across the Micronesian and Melanesian subregions, including Tarawa, the capital of modern-day Kiribati. Pacific representatives featured in victory celebrations in London following the end of the war.


Britain’s decolonisation of the Pacific was the result of pressure from the UN, domestic politics and the islands themselves – again, sometimes hard-fought. But to explore the broader nature of Britain’s departure would require far more detailed analysis. W. David McIntyre’s “Winding Up the British Empire in the Pacific Islands” is a great book for those wanting to read more about the British Empire’s longevity in and decolonisation of the Pacific.

The Commonwealth and republics


Meanwhile, as Pacific nations gained independence, the Commonwealth also evolved. Today, the Commonwealth of Nations consists of 56 independent countries covering more than 30% of the global population.


Eleven of these nations are found in the Pacific. However, many may be curious to learn that only Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands retain the British monarch as head of state. The remaining member states are republics, many of which feature ongoing parliamentary democracies. Tonga is the only outlier, as they have maintained their own constitutional monarchy (and technically were never colonised).


In discussing republicanism in the Pacific, we must remember that the tropes of leaving the Commonwealth and declaring a republic are far from one and the same. But the myth that one precludes the other has increasingly persisted. James Mehigan at the University of Canterbury clarified recently in The Conversation that Australia and New Zealand could remove King Charles as their head of state today and still retain Commonwealth membership.


The merits of this international grouping are an entirely separate matter for all countries to consider. And it really is a matter for all countries, as membership criteria is no longer tied to a country’s involvement in the fraught colonial foundations of the British Empire. Rather, membership is founded upon a country’s commitment to democratic values, human rights, the rule of law, tolerance and peace, as per the Commonwealth Charter.


The Commonwealth’s most recent additions were Gabon and Togo. Their applications for membership were seen by many as a response to souring relations with France, which had formerly colonised their territories. Importantly, they were motivated to join the Commonwealth by the prospects of access to Anglophonic business and development opportunities.


As well as allowing for diverse membership, the Commonwealth Charter also allows nations to be suspended for breaches of modern Commonwealth values. Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth between 2009 and 2014 after Frank Bainimarama’s government refused to hold elections until 2014.


Today, the Commonwealth provides support to its Pacific member states through advocating in areas such as climate change, democracy promotion, and advancing the general interests of small states. The Commonwealth considers all eight of its Pacific Island members and Papua New Guinea to be small states. Naturally, these causes make the Commonwealth an attractive grouping to those countries.

The Coronation of King Charles III


The coronation of King Charles recently threw the Commonwealth and republicanism back into public discourse.


New Zealand PM Chris Hipkins recently stated that he would like to see New Zealand become a republic, though he acknowledged that currently there is no “groundswell” of public support for a change. Meanwhile, the Albanese Government has floated ideas of another republic referendum in a later term of government, and there is now an Assistant Minister for the Republic.


The coronation still meant a great deal to countries that attended the ceremony, with leaders, representatives or royals from Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands and Tuvalu largely expressing honour in representing their states on the day.


Additionally, Papua New Guinean PM James Marape even refuted arguments by pro-republic critics, citing Papua New Guineans’ natural comfort with hierarchical systems, acquired heritage from UK-PNG histories, and British support for PNG’s development. He also claimed the Commonwealth offers PNG an international platform for conservation and climate change advocacy.


Evidently, it is apparent that varying historical and modern-day relations to the British monarchy led to a variety of different reactions in the Pacific to the coronation.


Vanuatu-based reporter Daniel McGarry noted that British colonialism is remembered differently according to the experiences of specific countries. Additionally, he noted some Commonwealth members may be proud of their membership despite not holding the monarchy in such high regard.


Nonetheless, several Pacific nations demonstrated their affinity with the British monarchy after Queen Elizabeth’s death in September 2022. During her reign, the Queen visited all of the Commonwealth's Pacific member states, and as a sign of respect representatives from these nations attended her funeral.


Evidently, the contemporary relationship between Commonwealth states in the Pacific, the modern-day United Kingdom and its institutions remain quite strong, even if public attitudes towards the monarchy are mixed and sometimes apathetic. The Monarchy's endurance in many ways is owing to the concept that Commonwealth membership is not solely attached to Britain's colonial history, and as a result many states are not reconsidering their membership.


 

Finn van Herten is completing his final year studying a Bachelor of Communication (Social & Political Sciences) and Bachelor of International Studies (China major) at the University of Technology Sydney. He is currently External Affairs Analyst at PremierNational, a government relations and corporate affairs consultancy. Finn has broad interests in seeing Australia develop collaborative relationships with Pacific nations, and the quality of Australia's bilateral engagement with China.


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