The Fijian islands are strewn across the Pacific’s southwest corner and it is the vastness of that mighty ocean that has defined the country and helped it become the nation it is today. Since humans first arrived 3500 years ago, the trade winds have blown in people from Melanesia, Polynesia, and finally Europe and the Indian subcontinent, all of whom have played their part in shaping Fiji’s history and culture.
According to oral folklore, the indigenous Fijians of today are descendants of the chief Lutunasobasoba who, along with his companions, reached Vuda (near Lautoka on Viti Levu) in their canoe Kaunitoni. Though this story hasn’t been independently substantiated, the Fijian government officially promotes it, and many tribes today claim to be descended from Fiji’s first chief. What is clear however, is that Fiji's early culture was shaped by several waves of seafarers from across the region.
Crossroads of the Pacific
Fiji was settled by a wave or waves of Polynesians and Melanesians from Papua New Guinea who had descended from earlier Austronesian migrations from Southeast Asia.
The so-called Lapita people, possibly arriving from New Caledonia, left the earliest mark in the archaeological record through their distinctive pottery. It is theorised that a thousand years later new arrivals from Melanesia assimilated, displaced or killed the descendants of the first Polynesian colonists and it was the blending of these two cultures that gave rise to the indigenous Fijian culture of today.
Around 500 BC a shift from a coastal, fishing lifestyle towards an agricultural one occurred; this along with an expansion of population – probably due to further immigration from other parts of Melanesia – led to an increase in intertribal feuding. War was a highly ritual and organised business, and cannibalism eventually developed as a ceremonial way of humiliating defeated foes. New architecture developed around this martial culture, with villages moving to ring moat-fortified sites during times of war. Spirit houses were a central part of every village; here priests would commune with ancestor spirits and keep consecrated objects such as war clubs and flesh forks (used in ritual cannibalism). Polygamy was widespread, as was the practice of strangling widows on the death of their chiefly husbands.
Fiji was part of a well-developed network of western Polynesian islands. Its Samoan and Tongan neighbours were sources of trading goods, cultural exchange and intermarriage. Political alliances were sealed by the presentation of tabua (polished whale teeth) and exchange of masi – intricate handprinted cloth made from the paper bark tree, brought over by the original Fijian settlers. Travel between island groups was by enormous double-hulled canoes (drua). The largest reached over 30m and could carry over hundred people, and were sources of great chiefly prestige – as well as vehicles of war.
While there were extended periods of peace, by the end of the 18th century, Fiji was undergoing intense social upheaval due to the consolidation of chiefly power blocks in Viti Levu, and external pressure from the powerful Tongan kingdom next door.
When Cultures Collide
In the early 19th century, Fiji was dominated by two great chiefly confederacies, Rewa and Bau, who were fighting for dominance of the islands. Into this mix came the first European explorers, who came looking for natural resources, and brought gunpowder and the word of their Christian god in return. Fiji's trajectory took a brand new path.
Early European Encounters
Europeans sailed the Pacific during the 17th and 18th centuries, ostensibly to find terra australis incognita, the great ‘unknown southern land’ later called Australia. Some of them bumped into Fiji on the way.
The first European to sail the area was a Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, who sailed past in 1643 on his way back to Europe from Van Diemen’s Land. His descriptions of treacherous reefs kept mariners away for the next 130 years. English navigator James Cook stopped over on Vatoa in the southern Lau Group in 1774 and his countryman, Captain Bligh, passed between Vanua Levu and Viti Levu after he was thrown off the Bounty in 1789. The channel is known as Bligh Water in memory of the mutinied captain.
By the early 19th century European whalers and traders of sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) began to visit as better maps of the surrounding reefs were developed. Fragrant sandalwood was highly valued in Europe and Southeast Asia. Tongans initially controlled the trade, obtaining sandalwood from the chiefs on Vanua Levu and then selling it to the Europeans, but when a shipwrecked survivor of the Argo, Oliver Slater, discovered the location of the supply, news quickly spread of its whereabouts. In 1805 Europeans began to trade directly with Fijians, bartering metal tools, tobacco, cloth, muskets and gunpowder. By 1813 the sandalwood supply was exhausted, but firearms and the resulting increase in violent tribal warfare were lasting consequences.
The other commodity that brought trade to the area, bêche-de-mer, was an Asian delicacy. The intensive harvesting and drying required to process the seafood required hundreds of workers at each bêche-de-mer station. Chiefs who sent their villagers to work boosted their own wealth and power, with an estimated 5000 muskets traded during this period. Bêche-de-mer was a short-lived trade, lasting only from 1830 to 1850.
A New God
In the 1830s London Missionary Society (LMS) pastors and Wesleyan Methodist missionaries arrived in southern Lau to find converts and preach against cannibalism, helped by the recently converted Tongans.
Conversion of chiefs became the most successful strategy, with the powerful Cakobau adopting Christianity in 1854, on the recommendation of the king of Tonga. Acceptance of Christianity was further made palatable by its similarity with existing beliefs of tabu (sacred prohibitions) and mana (spiritual power). Early adoption, however, usually meant that Christianity was infused with traditional spirituality rather than supplanting it outright. Villagers attended church but also continued to worship ancestral gods through such practices as the kava ceremony, and codes of conduct.
A whaling settlement was established at Levuka, on Ovalau, in the 1830s, and became a major port in the South Pacific for traders and warships. In 1840 Charles Wilkes led a US expedition that produced the first reasonably complete chart of the Fijian islands. He also negotiated a port-regulation treaty under which Cakobau and his subchiefs were paid for the protection of foreign ships and the supply of provisions.
However, this seemingly mutually beneficial relationship was fraught with tension. Relations began to deteriorate in 1841 when Levuka was razed by fires, which the settlers suspected Cakobau of instigating. Later, during the 1849 US Independence Day celebrations, the Nukulau island home of US consul John Brown Williams was also destroyed by fire, and locals helped themselves to his possessions. Williams held Cakobau (as nominal king of Fiji) responsible for the actions of his people and sent him a substantial damages bill, which was a significant source of Cakobau’s debts.
When the American Civil War created a worldwide cotton shortage, Fiji enjoyed a cotton boom that indirectly stimulated blackbirding, a trade in labourers. Europeans brought Melanesian Pacific Islanders, particularly from the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), to labour on the Fijian cotton (and copra and sugar) plantations.
Initially, people were coaxed, bribed and tricked into agreeing to work for three years in return for minimal wages, food and clothing. Later, however, chiefs were bribed and men and women traded for ammunition.
On completion of the three-year contract, regulations required that labourers be given passage back to their villages, but more often than not they were dropped at the first island the captain saw fit outside of Fijian territorial waters.
By the 1860s and ‘70s the practice had developed into an organised system of kidnapping. Stories of the atrocities and abuses inflicted by recruiters resulted in pressure on Britain to stop the trade, and in 1872 the Imperial Kidnapping Act was passed, but it took the interception of Royal Navy ships to finally bring blackbirding to an end.
The Colonial Period
The end of the American Civil War in 1865 brought a slump in the world cotton market, which severely affected the Fijian economy. In the following years new arrivals brought diseases to Fiji, such as measles, which had dramatic effects on the Fijian population.
By 1873 Britain was finally interested in annexing Fiji, citing the need to abolish blackbirding as justification. In reality, they were also interested in protecting Commonwealth commercial interests and bailing out an economy that was drastically overspent. Taking advantage of this interest, Cakobau, who had acquired new debt, again approached the British consul to cede the islands to Queen Victoria. Besides financial stability, Cakobau believed cession to British rule would also bring Christianity and civilisation to the islands. Fiji was pronounced a British crown colony on 10 October 1874, at Levuka.
From Girmitiyas to Indo-Fijians
To maintain good relations with its subjects, the colonial government combated exploitation of indigenous Fijians by prohibiting their employment as plantation labourers. However, plantation crops such as cotton, copra and sugar cane, while extremely profitable, demanded large pools of cheap labour. If the colony were to avoid blackbirding then a new labour source had to be found.
In 1878 negotiations were entered into with the Indian colonial government for indentured labourers to come to Fiji on five-year contracts. After this term the labourers (known as girmitiyas) would be free to return home. Indian indentured labourers soon began arriving in Fiji, at a rate of about 2000 per year.
The girmitiyas were a diverse group from all over India, with 80% Hindu, 14% Muslim and the remainder mostly Sikhs and Christians. Overcrowded accommodation gave little privacy, different castes and religions were forced to mix, and social and religious structures crumbled. Despite the hardship, most girmitiyas decided to stay in Fiji once they had served their contract and many brought their families from India to join them.
By the early 1900s India’s colonial government was being pressured by antislavery groups in Britain to abolish the indenture system. In 1916 recruitment stopped and indenture ended officially in January 1919. By this time 60,537 indentured labourers were in Fiji.
Independence & the New Political Landscape
Most Indians stayed in Fiji after their period of indenture and leased land from indigenous Fijians or organised through newly formed trades unions. These moves brought them increasing political clout, particularly after World War II and India's independence from Britain in 1947. Although Fiji's Legislative Council expanded to allow locally elected members in 1953 (splitting power between Europeans, indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians), the calls for the British to leave Fiji completely grew ever louder. Indian voices often led the way – much to the consternation of many indigenous Fijians.
The Early Coups
With the FLP labelled ‘Indian dominated’, racial tensions got out of hand. The extremist Taukei movement played on Fijian fears of losing their land rights and of Indo-Fijian political and economic domination. On 14 May 1987, one month after the elections, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka took over from the elected government in a bloodless coup, and formed a civil interim government supported by the Great Council of Chiefs.
In September 1987 Rabuka again intervened with military force. The 1970 constitution was invalidated, Fiji was declared a republic and Rabuka proclaimed himself head of state. The following month Fiji was dismissed from the Commonwealth of Nations.
The coups returned power to an elite minority, with Indo-Fijians effectively removed from the political process. Conflicts resurfaced: between chiefs from eastern and western Fiji, between high chiefs and village chiefs, between urban and rural dwellers, and within the church and trade-union movement. Economically the coups were disastrous, with the two main industries, tourism and sugar, severely affected. Development aid was suspended, and from 1987 to 1992 about 50,000 people, mostly Indo-Fijians, emigrated.
Rewriting the Constitution
In 1995 a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) presented its findings. It called for a return to a multiethnic democracy and, while concluding that the position of president should be reserved for an indigenous Fijian, proposed no restriction on ethnicity for the prime minister. The government acted on most of the CRC’s recommendations and a new constitution was declared in 1997.
The government acted on most of the CRC’s recommendations and a new constitution was declared in 1997. After Rabuka made a formal apology for the 1987 coups, Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.
The 2000 Coup
In the May 1999 elections voters rejected Rabuka’s slate. The FLP won the majority of seats and its leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, fleetingly became Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister.
Many indigenous Fijians feared for their traditional land rights and began protesting. Many refused to renew expiring 99-year land leases to Indo-Fijian farmers. On 19 May 2000 armed rebels entered the parliamentary compound in Suva and took 30 hostages, including Prime Minister Chaudhry. Failed businessman George Speight quickly became the face of the coup, demanding the resignation of Chaudhry and President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. He also wanted the 1997 multiethnic constitution rescinded.
Support for Speight was widespread, and Indo-Fijians suffered such harassment that many fled the country. Although the coup lasted only around eight weeks, increasing lawlessness resulted in the army, led by Commodore Josaia Voreqe ‘Frank’ Bainimarama, instituting martial law. After long negotiations between Speight’s rebels and Bainimarama’s military, the 1997 constitution was revoked.
In March 2001 the appeal court decided to uphold the 1997 constitution and ordered that Fiji be taken to the polls to restore democracy. Lasenia Qarase, heading the Fijian People’s Party (SLD), won 32 of the 71 parliamentary seats in the 2001 elections. Claiming that a multiparty cabinet would be unworkable, Qarase defied the constitution by including no FLP members in his 18-strong cabinet.
The 2006 Coup
While Speight’s coup was quick, there was much that was unresolved. The Qarase government’s draft Promotion of Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity (PRTU) Bill divided the country during 2004 and 2005. Though the aim was to heal the wounds of the past, opponents saw the amnesty provisions for those involved in the coup as untenable. One of the opponents of the bill, Commodore Voreqe 'Frank' Bainimarama, presented a list of demands including dropping the PRTU and other controversial bills. In late 2006 he gave a deadline to Qarase and began military exercises around Suva to support his intention.
Qarase met several of the demands, agreeing to put three contentious bills on ice, but it wasn’t enough. Fiji's fourth coup since independence took place on 5 December 2006 when President Ratu Josefa Iloilo dissolved parliament on Bainimarama’s order and Qarase was put under house arrest. Several key groups did not approve of Bainimarama’s coup, including the Methodist Church and the Great Council of Chiefs who refused to meet without Qarase, but it was to little avail when Bainimarama declared a state of emergency.
In 2009, the constitution was annulled and the Court of Appeal was disbanded after it ruled the 2006 coup illegal. The same year, Fiji was suspended from participation in the Pacific Islands Forum and dismissed (again) from the Commonwealth of Nations for failing to return to democracy. In 2012, Bainimarana consolidated power even further by abolishing the Great Council of Chiefs.
A new constitution was promulgated in 2013, promising a popular vote in 2014. When elections were finally held, Bainimarana was returned as prime minister with a large mandate, with hopes that this time around Fijian democracy could be made to stick.
On 10 October 1970, Fiji became independent after 96 years of colonial administration. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was the country's first prime minister, and he led Fiji for 17 years. In the rush towards independence, important problems, such as land ownership and leases and how to protect the interests of a racially divided country, were not resolved. Despite an economic boom in the immediate post-independence years, by the early 1980s the price of sugar had fallen, and given the country’s dependence on it, the drop resulted in massive foreign debt.
Economic woes exacerbated ethnic tensions. In Fiji most shops and transport services were (and still are) run by Indo-Fijian families. Stereotypes developed portraying Indo-Fijians as money-obsessed, despite the fact that most belonged to poorer working classes and the fact that Indo-Fijians – unlike indigenous Fijians – could never secure land tenure on their farming leases.
Fiji’s first government (the Fijian Alliance Party) became associated with economic failure, and greater unity among workers led to the formation of the Fiji Labour Party (FLP). In April 1987 an FLP government was elected in coalition with the National Federation Party (NFP). Despite having an indigenous Fijian prime minister, Timoci Bavadra, and a cabinet comprising an indigenous Fijian majority, the new government was labelled ‘Indian dominated’ because the majority of its MPs were Indo-Fijian.
Tabua (carefully polished and shaped whales’ teeth) were originally believed to be shrines for the ancestor spirits, but subsequently became powerful diplomatic symbols. The acceptance of a tabua, which is a powerful sevusevu (a gift presented as a token of esteem or atonement), binds a chief to the gift-giver. Originally tabua were rare, obtained only from washed-up sperm whales or through trade with Tonga. However, European traders introduced thousands of whale teeth and replicas made of whalebone, elephant tusk and walrus tusk. These negotiation tools became concentrated in the hands of a few dominant chiefdoms, increasing their power – traditionally, a chief’s body was accompanied to the grave by a tabua.
They were, and still are, highly valued items and essential to diplomacy. In 1995 Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka presented Queen Elizabeth with a tabua as a gesture of atonement and apology for leading the two 1987 military coups; in the following month Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.
Chief Cakobau: King of Fiji
By the middle of the 19th century the chiefdom of Bau, in eastern Viti Levu where European trade was most intense, had accumulated great power, with the help of European muskets and the war canoes of Tongan allies. Chief Seru Epenisa Cakobau (pronounced Tha-kom-bau) was at the height of his influence by the 1850s and asserted himself as the king of Fiji (Tui Viti), although this claim wasn’t accepted by all chiefs and many regarded him as, at best, first among equals.
By 1862 Cakobau has acquired some large debts, and with the Tongans now eyeing up his territory, he proposed to Britain’s consul that he would cede the islands to Queen Victoria in return for financial aid. The consul declined, doubting Cakobau’s claims on the kingdom, but the rumours caused a large influx of settlers to Levuka, who bickered among themselves. Disputes also erupted with Fijians over land ownership, and the town became a lawless and greedy outpost that was on the verge of anarchy and racial war.
And what of Cakobau’s huge debt? This was not cleared until 1868 when the Australian Polynesia Company agreed to pay it in exchange for land. Clearing his bills encouraged Cakobai to form a government in Levuka in 1871, but it quickly ran into trouble when it tried to pass laws and raise taxes in the previously lawless town. Money and political troubles again drove Cakobau to look to the British for support. ‘If matters remain as they are, Fiji will become like a piece of driftwood on the sea, and be picked up by the first passer-by, he wrote to the colonial secretary. 'Of one thing I am assured, that if we do not cede Fiji, the white stalkers on the beach, the cormorants, will open their maws and swallow us.’ And with that, Fiji finally passed into British hands.
The Reverend Baker’s Last Supper
Thomas Baker, a Wesleyan Methodist missionary, was killed on 21 July 1867 by the Vatusila people of Nabutautau village deep in Viti Levu's isolated Nausori Highlands. A few years earlier Baker had been given the task of converting the people of the interior to Christianity. Baker’s predecessors had been able to convert many groups peacefully and he was advised to keep to these areas. But whether due to impatience, martyrdom, foolhardiness or the urge for success, he ignored the advice and with it crucial cultural know-how.
The highlanders associated conversion to Christianity with subservience to the chiefdom of Bau. As they were opposed to any kind of extended authority, knocking off the reverend may well have been a political manoeuvre. However, a second and more widely believed theory maintains that it was Baker’s own behaviour that brought about his nasty end. Apparently, the local chief had borrowed Baker’s comb to festoon his voluptuous hairdo. Insensitive or forgetful of the fact that the chief’s head was considered sacred, Baker grabbed the comb from the chief’s hair. Villagers were furious at the missionary for committing this sacrilege and killed and ate him and seven of his followers in disgust.
In 2003, believing they had suffered a curse of bad luck as a result of their ancestors’ culinary habits, the people of Nabutautau held a tribal ceremony to apologise to the descendants of the missionary. Around 600 people attended, including Thomas Baker’s great-great-grandson, and Prime Minister Lasenia Qarase.
Fiji in Arms
Fiji had only a minor involvement in WWI, as colonial authorities prevented many Fijians from enlisting. Most famous among these was Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, Fiji’s great statesman of the 20th century, who fought for the French Foreign Legion after his enlistment papers in England were refused.
The conflict in the Pacific during WWII was much closer to home. Fiji itself was used as an Allied training base from an airstrip at Nadi that today has become the international airport. Around 8000 Fijians were recruited into the Fiji Military Force (FMF) and from 1942 to 1943 fought against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands.
Today Fiji, considering its size, has fairly large armed forces, and has been a surprisingly major contributor to UN peacekeeping missions in various parts of the world. In 2004 Fiji was the first country to volunteer troops to protect UN officials in Iraq, while in 2014, 45 Fijian peacekeepers in Syria’s Golan Heights dominated the news when they were kidnapped by Islamist fighters in that country’s civil war. All were later released unharmed.
UN Peacekeeping is an important income stream for the country, but while the overseas role of Fijian soldiers also generates national pride, some critics have noted Fiji’s post-independence history of coups and suggested that peacekeeping may have given the army an outsized picture of the role it has to play at home.
Where Are the Chiefs?
One of Fiji’s most powerful institutions was the Great Council of Chiefs, which was founded by British colonisers in 1876 to advise the government on indigenous matters. It was comprised of hereditary chiefs, although its paramount chief was, of course, Queen Victoria. Its hereditary nature was abolished after independence, including the right to nominate members but it remained an exclusively indigenous organisation. Its powers grew after the military coups of the 1980s and introduction of the 1990 constitution, which gave it the right to nominate members of the senate. The council refusal to recognise Frank Bainimarama’s seizure of power in 2006 led to its suspension, and ultimately, its abolishment in 2012 – bringing to a close nearly 130 years of formal political power for the chiefs. These days, the political influence of Fiji’s chiefs is restricted primarily to the social and cultural spheres.