Obituary for Brij V. Lal, AM, FAHA, OF (Officer of the Order of Fiji)

1 Jul 2022

Brij Lal died in his home in Brisbane on Christmas Day 2021 from complications related to pulmonary fibrosis. Brij was an Emeritus Professor at the ANU, and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry since he moved to Brisbane in 2016. Born in Tabia, Labasa, Fiji on 21 August 1952, he was from humble parentage, descended from Indian indentured labourers, he became the finest historian Fiji has produced, a world leader in Pacific history, and also in studies of the Indian diaspora. Amazingly productive, he published 58 books in his career—sole author and edited—plus he was involved with editing the Journal of Pacific History for decades. There was also the usual stream of articles, chapters, encyclopaedia entries, book reviews, and constant media work. He was chairman of the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau at the ANU, and founding director of The Centre for the Contemporary Pacific at the University of Hawai`i. If you check his productivity on the ANU library website there are 1,000 hits (and then it times out). My estimate is that he published about 10 million words since the 1970s. The obituaries have been pouring out: champion of democracy and Fiji’s finest scholar; a giant on the international academic stage; the architect of the 1997 Fiji Constitution; and a star in the firmament of Pacific history. People also add that he was an all-round very nice guy, always with a sparkle in his eyes, dedicated to his family, and a ‘cricket tragic’ of the first order.

Brij graduated from the University of Fiji in 1973, became a junior lecturer, then completed his Masters degree in Canada and his PhD at the ANU. His PhD was a pioneering quantitative study of 45,439 Girmitiya (Indian indenture) contracts to Fiji. He returned to Fiji and the USP before taking up a position at the University of Hawai`i. At the beginning of the 1990s he returned permanently to the ANU. His 1993 Broken Waves is considered the best book ever written in the history of Fiji. By the 1980s his interests had widened to include the political history of contemporary Fiji. He always gave a moral dimension to his writing and adhered to liberal democratic principles. He abhorred the ‘coup culture’ which developed in Fiji onwards from the 1987 coup. Awarded an Order of Fiji for his dedication to the nation, he and his wife Padma were permanently banned from Fiji in 2009, an act of vindictiveness by the government over his outspoken criticism of their destruction of Fijian democracy.

In later years he travelled the world, expert in the 19th century Indian diaspora, He wrote important biographies of A.D. Patel and Jai Ram Ready, and began to write what he called ‘faction’’, literary historical studies of Indo-Fijian life, which drew on his up-bringing. He is survived by his wife Padma, an environmental scientist with similar academic qualifications, his children Yogi and Niraj, and their families. I first met Brij when he spent a semester teaching at UPNG in 1985 and I will miss him greatly. As his friend and colleague Bill Gammage commented, ‘a bright light has gone out’.

Emeritus Professor Clive Moore