Pacific Islanders in the NZEF

Page 4 – Fijian and Gilbert Island Contingents

The Fijian and Gilbert Islands Contingents 1918

Fiji, as a British Crown Colony, sent contingents of men and reinforcements to serve directly as part of the British Army. To begin with Britain would only take Europeans from Fiji, but in 1917 the Fiji Labour Corps was accepted to unload supplies at French and Italian ports.

When Fiji offered an ethnically mixed contingent in 1918 the Secretary of State for the Colonies referred the matter to the New Zealand authorities, who agreed to take the men. The Fijians arrived in Auckland in August 1918 and went into training at Narrow Neck with the fourth Cook Islands contingent.

An offer also came from another British colony, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, where 25 members of the Gilbert Native Police were keen to enlist. London referred this offer to Wellington. It was accepted and these men arrived in Auckland in July 1918.

These colonies paid the expenses of their men in the NZEF. However Sir James Allen, the New Zealand Minister of Defence, found it unacceptable that the Gilbertese were paid considerably less than their European comrades. He decided to meet the cost of increasing their pay to the same level. Allen felt that if Europeans, Māori, Niueans and Cook Islanders in the NZEF all had the same standard pay rates, other Pacific Islanders should be treated equally.

The combined group of Cook Islanders, Fijians and Gilbert Islanders was sent to Wellington in October 1918 for embarkation overseas. The onset of the influenza epidemic saw them quarantined and returned to Auckland. Several died and the rest were repatriated following the Armistice. For the Gilbert Islanders this was a very lengthy process. Because of quarantine restrictions and lack of shipping, it was almost a year before they arrived home.