Professor Lal was born in Labasa on the northern island of Vanua Levu, Fiji, in 1952. He completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of the South Pacific, a Master of Arts at the University of British Columbia and a PhD at the Australian National University (ANU).
He returned to the University of the South Pacific as a lecturer in 1976 before taking up the role of Assistant Professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa from 1983 until 1989. He was Professor of Pacific and Asian History at ANU from 1990 and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his work as an educator and researcher in the field of Pacific history in 2015, the year he retired from ANU. Professor Lal was a Founding Director for the Centre of the Contemporary Pacific and a member of the Fiji Constitutional Review Commission. His teaching and research inspired a generation of students from across the world to embark on academic careers, including, and importantly, those from the Pacific Islands.
An outspoken supporter of democracy in Fiji, Professor Lal was expelled from the country in 2009 following a radio interview focusing on the political situation of the time. In 2015, he was permanently exiled from his homeland. Despite his sadness and anger, he spoke of continuing to “stand up for the principles and values” of democracy that he believed in; a commitment reflected in his publications and scholarly activities.
Professor Lal was a prolific and established author; his book publications include Broken Waves: A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century (1992), Pacific Islands: An Encyclopaedia (2000), and The Encyclopaedia of the Indian Diaspora (2006). More recently, he contributed the chapter ‘The World Becomes Stranger, the Pattern More Complicated: Culture, Identity, and the Indo-Fijian Experience’ to Indian Diaspora: Socio-Cultural and Religious Worlds (2015) and published Leveling Wind: Remembering Fiji in 2019.
Professor Lal founded the prize-winning journal The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs and in his spare time, enjoyed writing creative non-fiction such as his autobiography, Mr Tulsi’s Store: A Fijian Journey (2001). Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki FAHA spoke of the “light touch” with which Brij Lal wrote, and the ease with which he blended “an observant eye and a wry sense of humour.”
When speaking of the purpose of his work, Professor Lal said:
“What I have sought to do in my work is to give voiceless people a voice, place and purpose, the sense of dignity and inner strength that comes from never giving up no matter how difficult the circumstances. History belongs as much to the vanquished as to the victors.”
Brij Lal was an inspiring scholar and passionate supporter of democratic principles; his commitment to elevating the voices of those often unheard continues to inspire in research circles.
Professor Lal passed away on 25 December 2021. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Padma, his children, the wider Lal family, his friends, and to Professor Lal’s colleagues.