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Nukulau Island is a small islet belonging to Fiji. It is close to Suva, Fiji's capital, which lies about ten kilometers to the west. It is an island rich in history, which has played a pivotal role in Fiji's demographic and political development over the past 160 years.
Nukulau played a role in the ceding of Fiji to the British Crown in 1874. In 1846, John Brown Williams, the American consul, had purchased the island for a mere thirty dollars. He subsequently lived there, in the wooden two-story house he built, until 1849. On 4 July of that year, during American Independence Day celebrations, a store belonging to Williams was destroyed in a fire which started from a canon burst, and his belongings that he had salvaged from the fire were subsequently looted by Fiji natives. A second fire in 1855 destroyed Williams' house. Williams held Cakobau, the Vunivalu (Paramount Chief) of Bau and self-proclaimed Tui Viti (King of Fiji) responsible for the looting, and, supported by the United States Navy, demanded US$43,531 in compensation, to cover Williams' losses, valued at US$5000, and claims by other settlers. Cakobau's inability to pay the debt, coupled with fear of an U.S. invasion and annexation, led to a series of negotiations with the United Kingdom. After a failed attempt to establish a stable constitutional monarchy under the effective tutelage of the Australian Polynesia Company, the negotiations culminated in a decision to cede the islands to the United Kingdom in 1874, ushering in almost a century of British rule.
Historians now believe that the U.S. compensation claim was greatly exaggerated and largely fabricated (see Robson, A.E, Prelude to Empire, 2004, p.84 (citing Calvert 1856 and Freemantle 1856)).
The colourful history of Nukulau Island did not end with the advent of British rule. From 1879 to 1916, the island served as a quarantine centre for thousands of Indian indentured labourers brought in by the British colonial rulers. After health checks, they were subsequently employed on Fiji's sugar plantations, or else repatriated to the Indian subcontinent.
In 2000, a prison was opened on Nukulau, to house George Speight and other perpetrators of the 2000 coup that deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry's government. On 18 December 2006, Fiji's military ruler, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, announced his decision to close the prison and convert the island into a public park, as it was before 2000. The prison was costing too much money, Bainimarama claimed. Prisoners, including Speight - who is now serving a life-sentence for treason - would be transferred to other prisons, Bainimarama said. The prison was closed on 20 December and its occupants moved to jails on the Viti Levu mainland. On December 26, the first locals were able to visit and enjoy the island. Today, if you want to visit, a small fee of $2 per person is charged to help with the upkeep of the island. Barbecues are available and camping is possible - a permit must first be obtained.
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