DAVID BURNESS: a personal tribute

Written By : Jim Anthony. (Dr James Anthony was a pioneering Fiji trade unionist who became an academic. He lives in Hawaii)* I have always admired people who stick their
13 Jul 2011 12:00

Written By : Jim Anthony.
(Dr James Anthony was a pioneering Fiji trade unionist who became an academic. He lives in Hawaii)*

I have always admired people who stick their necks out unselfishly for other people, even though the cause might be personal as well.
David Burness is well known for taking the FNPF to court over its pension scheme proposal.
So just who is David Burness?
David and I are less than a year apart in age. He’s younger than I am by about six months.
He was born in August 1936 and I was born in March 1935. I have known David pretty much as long as I can remember.
David’s family and mine are closely linked – all told our families go back more than one hundred years.
David’s namesake, David Wilkinson, his maternal great grandfather (about whom I will say more in a minute) was the man who adopted, and raised, the Indian orphan, Parbhudaia, who would later conceive and give birth to my mother, Angelina (see my book, Sex Across the Color Line, The Case of Parbhudaia aka Minnie Wilkinson and Sir Henry Scott, Lautoka, 2007).
My grandmother-to-be was adopted by David Wilkinson on the 2nd of November, 1897 when she was but four years of age. My family’s relationship to David Burness’ family goes back to that day, more than a hundred years ago.
David’s mother was a Wilkinson.
Her name was Etta. Her biological mother was a Fijian woman of rank from Wainunu, Bua.
Other details of David Burness’s biological maternal grandmother are lost in the mists of history from a time when it was not all that ‘cool’ to acknowledge that one side of your family was ‘native’–to use a crude expression that has now, happily, gone into disuse.
But one fact is clear: David Burness can trace his ancestry on his mother’s side to Fijian lineage. David Burness is part-Fijian.
There is more to David’s lineage that sets him apart as a man of distinction. David is like his mother Etta whom I knew very well over many years. David is quiet, unassuming, private, thoughtful, gracious, very carefully calibrated.
He’s long been a man who has stayed out of the public limelight. In many ways David is an old fashioned gentleman.
He is now, almost 75, somewhat of an elder statesman, a man who carries his age well-as his father Fred Burness, whom I knew as a young boy, also carried himself.
The entire Burness clan-David’s three brothers (two, Bobby and Ian, have passed on) and Donald an internationally known orchid cultivator are very private and privately generous people-people of, and with, good hearts.
David Burness has at least one distinguished paternal ancestor that we know of.
His lineage is linked to that of the brother of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns (the surname Burness having been abbreviated to Burns).
We tend to know people at least partly by who their ancestors are and what they have done, what their ‘track record’ is.
David Wilkinson, David Burness’s maternal great grandfather was born in 1833.
He came to Fiji as a young man, probably in his late twenties. He learned to speak Fijian (Bauan) fluently and developed an uncanny ‘in culture’ understanding of Fijian culture., a rare gift. He acquired a detailed knowledge of the many forms of Fijian protocol.
As just a young man in his early 30’s David Wilkinson served under Captain Jones, Her Brittanic Majesty’s Consul for Fiji and Tonga.
He was Secretary and Adviser to the chief, Tui Bua, a position he held for ten years.
He accompanied the then British Consul on official visits to various chiefdoms in Fiji in that volatile period that preceded Cession in 1874. For several years he was Captain Jones emissary, the British Consul in Levuka, to important meetings with ranking Chiefs of the day, including, in particular, the Vunivalu of Bau, Ratu Cakobau.
David Wilkinson continued his diplomatic work after Captain Jones was succeeded by Consul Marsh.
In the company of R.S. Swanston, David Wilkinson helped form the Confederation of Lau (Tovata) incorporating the ruling Chiefs of Lau, Cakaudrove and the Tongan Chief, Ma’afu.
David Wilkinson was the chief interpreter who translated the Deed of Cession when it was signed in 1874 and after that event he was appointed Chief Interpreter to the Colonial Government, his appointment being gazetted in the first Fiji Royal Gazette of 10th October, 1874.
I have deliberately abbreviated David Burness’s maternal great grand father’s long string of achievements as a distinguished and highly valued colonial public servant of many years standing. David Wilkinson’s life was one seamless story of unstinting contributions to public service.
In 1905, when David Wilkinson was about 72, a tad younger than his great grandson David is now, he wrote an 18 page double spaced typed letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies pleading his case, in elegantly crafted prose, for a decent pension.
Who would have thought, that more than a hundred years later, David Wilkinson’s great grandson would emerge from his quiet niche in retirement and become publicly involved on pretty much the same issue?
One might make the paper thin case that Fiji has changed in many ways since those distant days of 1905. A more perceptive and humane view-a deeply Christian view perhaps-might be that the changes that Fiji has undergone in more than a hundred years are merely paper thin, full of sound and fury, not signifying very much. The present FNPF imbroglio is a grim reminder out of Alice in Wonderland: “the more things change, the more they remain the same”—or, get worse.
David Burness: you have done your distinguished ancestor, your great grandfather, David Wilkinson, proud. Your great grandfather, whose first name you carry, gave unselfishly of his life and his many talents, to the first people of this land, the taukei ni vanua, whose genes and whose ‘blood’ are yours too.
You are a great credit to your dad, Fred Burness, who was, like you, a quietly prudent, gracious, humble man invariably committed to the public good.
Your mother, Etta, too, was a woman of extraordinary courage, sound judgment, modest and unstintingly loyal to old friends like my grandmother, who came into your family, as an innocent, fragile child. Etta accepted my grandmother as her very own sister and never wavered in her love and loyalty to her, beginning that night sometime around 1914 when my yet to be grandmother disclosed to Etta that she was with child. Etta held Parbhudaia, renamed Minnie, in her arms that night and cried herself to sleep as they both sobbed long into the night.
Your family raised my granddmother, fed her, cared for her and above all, loved her as if she was of your own DNA. I am my grandmother’s oldest grandchild. In all the turbulent years that have gone by I have never lost my respect and admiration for your family-in a very real sense, our family.
I stuck my neck out in 1959 for a cause which I believed then, and still believe now, was entirely worthy.
You have stuck your neck out now as a continuation of what is a family tradition.
I salute you for your courage and the deep and abiding humanity that lies at its core.

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