Long before the Internet existed, people communicated via landline phones. Unlike today’s wireless, digital, and satellite technology, communications used to be made possible by cables laid on the seabed, traveling thousands of miles from one country to another.
Fiji, like other Pacific countries, was fortunate to be a British colony. And like all members of the Crown’s vast empire, Fiji was connected to the rest of the world via communications infrastructure built by the British in the late 19th century.
Fijians in the 21st century would have no idea the challenges cable-layers faced as they braved the elements and choppy seas to connect the Pacific to the world.
The device you hold in your hand, sits on your lap, or sits on your desk, and what you can do with it because it’s connected to the Internet—all of this has been made possible by the global laying of undersea fiber optic cables that pierced the abyss running, carrying information from one corner of the world as pulses of light in a glass tube, connecting our land masses and all of us on them.
The history of telecommunications in the Pacific began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Fiji has always played a central role as a British colony and later as an independent country.
It is said that the sun never set on the British Empire and between 1860 and 1900 telegraph cables were laid to create a network connecting all parts of the Empire. Sir John Pender and his Eastern and Associated Telegraph Company, later known as Cable and Wireless, were instrumental in this.
The All Red Line, a cable so named because it passed through countries marked red on the map as colonies, left Britain and ran west across the Atlantic to Canada and Bermuda, south to Barbados, Ascension Island and St Helena and east to Cape Town in southern Africa, overland to Durban, then across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius and the Cocos Islands, where branches to India and Perth, Western Australia and across to Queensland broke off.
In an article published on atlanticcable.com entitled Pacific Cable 1902-1926, telegraph enthusiast Bill Glover said the Pacific Cable found its advocate in Sir Sandford Fleming.
Born in Scotland in 1827 and apprenticed as a surveyor at the age of 14, he emigrated to Canada, where he founded the Royal Canadian Institute with some friends.
He worked prominently on the Canadian Railways, Missing Lines and later Engineering. Mr Glover said Sir Sandford lobbied the Canadian government for a trans-Canadian railway in 1862 and was appointed chief engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) project in 1871.
Sir Sandford was privy to the fact that a cable would run alongside his proposed railway and continued to campaign for the British government to help with the CPR and run the Pacific cable, but London said if the colonies wanted a cable they would have to they do it themselves pay.
Sir Sandford considered it of imperial importance that the British possessions of the Pacific should be linked by undersea cables.
After several failed attempts to get the project off the ground and further lobbying by Sir Sandford, a committee was set up to study all aspects of such a plan.
A report by Admiral Sir Arthur Mostyn Field highlighted Fanning Island in what is now Kiribati as a suitable location for a cable station, and so it was decided that the Pacific Cable would link Australia, New Zealand and Canada via Norfolk Island, Fiji. and Fanning Island – around the world on the All Red Line.
In July 1900, the Pacific Cable Scheme, which would set the terms for the operation of the Pacific Cable, was formed with a board consisting of eight members, three from Great Britain, two each from Australia and Canada, and one from New Zealand, who in turn would elect a chairman.
The UK government raised £2 million to cover construction costs and was only liable for 28 per cent of the loan in the event of failure, the remainder being split between Canada and Australia (28 per cent) and New Zealand (16 per cent), with profits and losses are shared equally.
Tenders were called and the contract was awarded to Telcon on December 31 of the same year. Captain SA Garnham, then third mate on the cable ship Britannia 2, recorded the voyage, which began in London in March 1901, anchored in Sydney Harbor on 7 May for coal and arrived in Brisbane to board the start laying the cable.
A cable house was built and they began plumbing towards Norfolk Island, making landfall on June 12 and sounding various bays to find the best spot for a cable landing.
Material for a cable house was offloaded to be built by the islanders. They left Norfolk on June 21 for New Zealand, anchored in the Bay of Islands on the 29th and then sounded out various bays to find a good place to land, then returned to Norfolk Island for the connection to Fiji to manufacture.
Captain Garnham’s logbook described the seabed between Norfolk Island and Fiji as very uneven, which delayed the operation as they had to turn back and find a better bed for the cable. Material for a cable house was landed and on August 3 they set out for Fanning Island.
The expedition’s deepest depths were found between Suva and Fanning Island, reaching as deep as 3410 fathoms, about 4 miles deep.
They arrived on August 23 and headed to Vancouver. In 1926, the Pacific Cable Board decided to duplicate the Fiji cable between Vancouver, the busiest section of the cable. As a loaded cable, the new one would allow a transfer rate of 1000 letters per minute versus 200 on the old cable.
Peak times for traffic occurred at opposite times of the day. Peak traffic from England to Australia would be sent over the new cable, while the significantly lower reverse traffic would be sent over the original cable, and vice versa.
Over time, more cables were laid and eventually the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji took over Cable & Wireless’ assets and established government commissions to operate the various cables.
The Pacific Cable was decommissioned after the laying of the Commonwealth Pacific Cable in 1963, still a telegraph cable but capable of so much more.
Cable and Wireless exited Fiji in March 2012 with the sale of its 49 percent interest in Fiji International Telecoms Ltd to Amalgamated Telecoms Holdings Ltd for US$10.6 million (US$24 million).
While the original cable house is now gone, the FINTEL building on Victoria Pde in Suva still stands as one of those examples of colonial architecture with more purpose than most realize.
The next time you walk past the FINETL building or see a cable ship in port, take a minute to understand that because of these technological developments, over time you will be sending this email, watching this video and on social Networks can access media and talk face to face with loved ones on the other side of the world.