Vunivalu of Bau installed after 33 year wait

Ratu Epenisa Seru Cakobau (centre) being escorted into the village.

On a day when ancient Fijian ceremonies were revived and magnificently on display, Ratu Epenisa Seru Cakobau was formally installed as the Vunivalu of Bau on Friday 10th March 2023.

The much anticipated installation of the Vunivalu of Bau brought to closure a long-standing dispute about who should be the rightful successor in title to the previous holder, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, a former Governor General of Fiji.

The installation of the new Vunivalu of Bau was enabled by a recent meeting and agreement within the Tokatoka Vunivalu, that Ratu Epenisa Cakobau be accorded recognition.

On a sunny day filled with pomp and pageantry, hundreds of people gathered on the chiefly island of Bau to witness the historic event. 

Bau Chief Installation
Ratu Epenisa and church leaders.

Bau has played a central role in the affairs of Fiji for over a century, having produced a head of state, vice presidents and numerous Cabinet ministers.

It played host to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she opened a meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs on the island in October 1982.

The position had been vacant for more than 33 years since the death in 1989 of the previous Vunivalu, Ratu George Cakobau, the father of the newly installed Vunivalu, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau. 

The long delay in naming a successor to the last Vunivalu of Bau was due to a lack of consensus about who should succeed to the title, given the number of potential aspirants for it.

The late Vunivalu was first married to Adi Veniana Gavoka from whom he had three children, including a son, Ratu Jioji Cakobau, elder brother of the present Vunivalu. Ratu Jioji died in 2018.

The Vunivalu is the paramount chief of the Kubuna confederacy, and referred to as the ‘Turaga Bale Na Vunivalu of Bau, Tui Kaba’.

It is regarded as one of the most senior chiefly titles in Fiji.

Kubuna comprises the provinces of Tailevu, Naitasiri, Ra, Lomaiviti (and parts of Ba).

The other confederacies are Burebasaga headed by the Roko Tui Dreketi, Ro Teimumu Kepa, and the Tovata confederacy, whose paramount chief is the Tui Cakau, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, the current Speaker of Parliament.

The solemn installation ceremony of the Vunivalu (soqo ni vei buli or veivakagunuvi) took place under a large marquee on the village green before a hushed crowd respectfully seated on the perimeter of the grounds.

The chiefly installation was preceded by a two-hour long church service at the Ratu Seru Cakobau memorial church, which was led by the President of the Methodist Church in Fiji, Reverend Ili Vunisuwai.

Dressed in a light grey suit, a visibly emotional Vunivalu thanked his family and friends for their support. 

The Vunivalu was accompanied to the church by his wife, Adi Varanisese Loloma, who now assumes the title of Radi Levuka, and their children,  who had flown in from Sydney for the installation.

The Radi Levuka comes from the chiefly Toronibau clan from Batiki, in the province of Lomaiviti, which has close traditional ties with the Vunivalu. 

Following the service, Ratu Epenisa was escorted to Mataiwelagi, the residence of the Vunivalu, by his traditional herald or matanivanua, Aisea Komaitai and Rev Vunisuwai, where he changed into his chiefly regalia of traditional white masi.  

Bau Chief Installation
The Cakobau family.

The path to Mataiwelagi was guarded by the Vuakaloa, warriors from the Gonesau clan in Nakorotubu, Ra which has close links to the Vunivalu.

The Vunivalu was resplendent, and adorned with a ‘wasekaseka’ or necklace of young boars’ tusks worn on rare ceremonial occasions, and only by persons of high birth.

Ratu Epenisa is the great great grandson and namesake of Ratu Seru Cakobau who ceded Fiji to Great Britain in 1874.   

The Vunivalu was presented the ceremonial bowl of yaqona by his cousin, the Roko Tui Bau Ratu Timoci Tavanavanua, and head of the Yavusaratu clan, signifying his conferral and acceptance of the prestigious chiefly title.

In his acceptance speech, the new Vunivalu acknowledged the challenging responsibilities that go along with the role, and pledged his commitment to his people and subjects.

Ratu Epenisa is the son of the late Vunivalu, Ratu Sir George Cakobau (and Lady Lelea Cakobau), who was installed on 18 September 1959.

On the latter occasion, Ratu Sir George was presented with yaqona by the late Ratu Doviverata, Roko Tui Bau, and father of Ratu Timoci Tavanavanua, the present title holder.

A purported installation of Ratu Epenisa five years ago ended in ignominy, and was aborted following the intervention of armed soldiers who descended upon Bau in the early hours of 9 June 2018, and escorted him and his herald off the island. 

The army’s role in blocking the Vunivalu’s installation was widely criticised at the time, the presence of soldiers on Bau seen as a mark of disrespect of an island which is regarded by many Fijians as sacred.

The Vunivalu’s wife and family relocated to Australia soon after this, over concerns about their safety.

Amongst those present to witness the chiefly installation on Bau were the Roko Tui Dreketi, Ro Teimumu Kepa, the Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, members of the Cabinet, and other dignitaries and chiefs.