go to content go to search box go to global site navigation


Vitian history

Shaped over 35 centuries, Fiji's precolonial history is a complex blend of influences by Polynesian, Melanesian and, to a lesser extent, Micronesian peoples who came and either left or stayed.

The original inhabitants of Fiji called their home Viti. These were Lapita people, probably from Vanuatu, who arrived about 1220 BC and stayed for only a short while before disappearing from the archaeological record. Their descendants, who became assimilated with people who arrived from Melanesia, were coastal dwellers, who initially relied on fishing and seem to have lived in relative peace. Around 500 BC a shift towards agriculture occurred along with an expansion of population - probably due to further incursions from other parts of Melanesia - that led to an increase in intertribal feuding. Cannibalism became common and in times of war, villages moved to ring-ditched fortified sites. By around AD 1000 Tongan invasions had started and continued sporadically until the arrival of Europeans.

Eventually the islands became known to Europeans as Fiji. The story goes that Captain Cook asked the Tongans what the name of the islands to their west was. He heard 'Feegee', the Tongan pronunciation of Viti: so 'Fiji' came from an Englishman's mishearing of a Tongan's mispronunciation!

While there were extended periods of peace, Fiji was undergoing intense social upheaval at the time of the first European settlement in the early 19th century, and these regular tribal skirmishes lead Europeans to believe that it was in a constant state of war.

^ Back to top

European explorers & traders

The goal of Europeans who sailed the Pacific during the 17th and 18th centuries was to find terra australis incognita, the great 'unknown southern land' later called Australia. Some of them bumped into Fiji on the way.

Abel Tasman became the first European to sail past the Fiji islands in 1643, and his descriptions of treacherous reef systems kept mariners away for the next 130 years. The English navigator James Cook visited uneventfully, stopping on Vatoa in the southern Lau Group in 1774. After the famous mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, Captain Bligh and his castaway companions passed between Vanua Levu and Viti Levu, through a channel now known as Bligh Water.

Tongans had long traded colourful kula feathers, masi (printed bark cloth) and weapons with the eastern Fiji islands. From the early 19th century, European whalers, and traders of sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber), tackled their fears of reefs and cannibals and also began to visit.

Fragrant sandalwood was highly valued in Europe and Southeast Asia. Tongans initially controlled the trade, obtaining sandalwood from the chiefs of Bau Bay on Vanua Levu, and then selling it to the Europeans. However, when Oliver Slater - a survivor of the shipwrecked Argo - discovered the location of the supply, he spread the news of its whereabouts and in 1805 Europeans began to trade directly with Fijians, bartering metal tools, tobacco, cloth, muskets and gunpowder. By 1813 the accessible supply of sandalwood was exhausted, but the introduction of firearms and the resulting increase in violent tribal warfare were lasting consequences of the trade.

Considered a tasty delicacy in Asian markets, bêche-de-mer was another lucrative commodity. The intensive harvesting and drying process required hundreds of workers for a single bêche-de-mer station. Chiefs who sent their villagers to work boosted their own wealth and power, and it's estimated that 5000 muskets were traded during this period. It, too, was a short-lived trade, lasting from 1830 to 1850.

^ Back to top

Expanding chiefdoms & Tongan influence

By 1829 the chiefdom of Bau, in eastern Viti Levu where trade with Europeans had been most intense, had accumulated great power. Bauan chief Cakobau, known to foreigners as Tui Viti (King of Fiji), was at the height of his influence by 1850 despite having no real claim over most of Fiji. But in 1848, Tongan noble Enele Ma'afu had led an armada of war canoes to capture Vanua Balavu in northern Lau. He became governor of all Tongans in Lau and by 1854 he was a serious threat to Cakobau's power. By the late 1850s, the Tongans were the controlling force in eastern Fiji.

^ Back to top


In the 1830s London Missionary Society pastors and Wesleyan Methodist missionaries arrived in Southern Lau to find converts and to preach against cannibalism.

Progress was slow until the chiefs started to convert. Powerful Cakobau somewhat reluctantly adopted Christianity in 1854. This was a triumph for the Methodist Church, who later sent Reverend Baker out to spread the gospel in the western highlands of Viti Levu. In 1867, unfortunately for him, he was killed and eaten by locals who resented his manner and the imposition of ideas associated with Bau.

Christianity became accepted for its similarity to the existing beliefs of tabu (sacred prohibitions) and mana (spiritual power), and most Fijians adopted it alongside their traditional spirituality. Many villagers continue to worship their ancestral gods through such practices as kava ceremony, tabu areas and codes of conduct, and the symbolic tabua.

^ Back to top

Commercial settlers

By the 1830s a small whaling settlement had been established at Levuka, on Ovalau, which became one of the main ports of call in the South Pacific for traders and warships. In 1840 Commandant Charles Wilkes led a US expedition to Fiji that produced the first reasonably complete chart of the Fijian islands. He also negotiated a port-regulation treaty whereby the chiefdom of Bau was paid for the protection of foreign ships and the supply of provisions.

This 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 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.

Cakobau came under increasing pressure and in 1862, still claiming to have power over all Fiji, he proposed to Britain's consul that he would cede the islands to Queen Victoria in return for the payment of his debts. The consul declined, but the rumours caused a large influx of settlers to Levuka who bickered among themselves, and disputes erupted with Fijians over land ownership. The town became a lawless and greedy outpost, on the verge of anarchy and racial war. Cakobau's huge debt was not cleared until 1868 when the Australian Polynesia Company agreed to pay it in exchange for land.

^ Back to top


The worldwide cotton shortage prompted by the American Civil War resulted in a cotton boom in Fiji that indirectly stimulated blackbirding - the trade in labourers. Europeans brought other Pacific Islanders to labour on the Fijian cotton (and copra and sugar) plantations.

Most were islanders from the southwest Pacific Islands, especially the Solomon islands and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Initially, people were coaxed into agreeing to work for three years in return for minimal wages, food, clothing and return passage. Later, chiefs were bribed and men and women were traded for ammunition. By the 1860s and 1870s the practice had developed into an organised system of kidnapping, and stories of atrocities and abuses by recruiters resulted in pressure on Britain to stop the trade. In 1872 the Imperial Kidnapping Act was passed, but it was little more than a gesture as Britain had no power to enforce it.

^ Back to top

The Colonial period

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865 came a slump in the world cotton market. In the following years, epidemics swept the country: an outbreak of measles wiped out about one-third of the indigenous Fijian population. Social unrest was on the rise.

Nevertheless, by 1873 Britain was interested in annexing Fiji, citing the need to abolish blackbirding as justification. On the grounds of Cakobau's earlier offer, Fiji was pronounced a British crown colony on 10 October 1874 at Levuka.

If the chiefs could be persuaded to collaborate with the colonisers, then Fiji would likely be more easily, cheaply and peacefully governed, so the colonial government protected Fijian land rights by forbidding sales to foreigners. This successfully retained land rights for the indigenous owners, and 83% of the land is still owned by indigenous Fijian communities. Give or take a dissenting chief or two, it also helped to maintain peace.

Levuka's geography hindered expansion, so the administrative capital was officially moved to Suva in 1882.

^ Back to top

Indentured labour

In a further attempt to maintain good relations with its subjects, the colonial government prohibited the employment of indigenous Fijians as plantation labourers. Fijians were increasingly reluctant to take full-time work for wages, preferring traditional subsistence work that satisfied their village obligations and was less regimented.

Plantation crops such as cotton, copra and sugar cane had the potential to make the Fiji economy self-sufficient, but demanded large pools of cheap labour. Indentured labour seemed the perfect solution. In 1878 negotiations were made with the Indian colonial government for labourers to come to Fiji on five-year contracts, after which time the labourers, or girmitiyas, were free to return to India, though free passage for the return trip was only available under certain conditions. They began arriving in Fiji at a rate of about 2000 per year.

About 80% of the labourers were Hindu, 14% Muslim, and the remainder mostly Sikhs and Christians. Overcrowded accommodation gave little privacy, people of different caste and religion were forced to mix, and social and religious structures crumbled. Despite the hardship, the vast majority of girmitiyas decided to stay in Fiji once they had served their contract and many brought their families across 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.

^ Back to top

Power plays & the World Wars

Fiji's colonial government discouraged interaction between Indians and Fijians. Indians, restricted from buying Fijian land, moved instead into small business, or took out long-term leases as independent farmers.

The 1920s saw the first major struggle for better conditions for Indians and increasing labour unrest. By siding with the Fijians, Europeans diverted attention from their own monopoly on freehold land and their power and influence in the civil service. It was convenient to blame all problems on the Indian community and to exacerbate fears that the size of the Indian population would surpass that of indigenous Fijians.

Fiji had only a minor involvement in WWI: about 700 of Fiji's European residents and about 100 Fijians were sent to serve in Europe. The conflict in the Pacific during WWII was much closer to home. Around 8000 Fijians were recruited into the Fiji Military Force (FMF) and from 1942 to 1943 fought against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands.

^ Back to top

Independence & increasing ethnic tension

The 1960s saw a movement towards Fijian self-government and, after 96 years of colonial administration, Fiji became independent on 10 October 1970. 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. Fiji's first postindependence election was won by the indigenous Fijian Alliance Party (FAP). But despite an economic boom in the immediate postindependence years, by the early 1980s there was a decline in the price of sugar and the reality of the country's accumulating foreign debt began to hit home.

Ethnic tensions became apparent as the economy worsened. In Fiji most shops and transport services were (and still are) run by Indo-Fijian families. A racial stereotype developed portraying Indo-Fijians as obsessed with making money despite the fact that, like indigenous Fijians, the vast majority belonged to poorer working classes and - unlike indigenous Fijians - would never secure land tenure on their farming leases.

The FAP was perceived to be failing indigenous Fijians in their hopes for economic advancement. Greater unity among workers led to the formation of the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) and 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' as the majority of its MPs were Indo-Fijian.

^ Back to top

Military coups of the 1980s

The victory of the coalition immediately raised racial tensions in the country. 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, only a 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, which were supposed to benefit all indigenous Fijians, in fact caused immense hardship and benefited only an elite minority. When the Indo-Fijians were effectively removed from the political process, tensions within the indigenous Fijian community were exposed. These included conflicts 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.

The economic consequences of the coups were drastic. The economy's two main sources of income, tourism and sugar, were severely affected. Development aid was suspended and from 1987 to 1992 about 50, 000 people - mostly Indo-Fijian skilled tradespeople and professionals - emigrated.

^ Back to top

Tipping the scales

On 25 July 1990 a new constitution was proclaimed. It greatly increased the political power of the Great Council of Chiefs and of the military while diminishing the position of Indo-Fijians in government. Indo-Fijian political leaders immediately opposed the constitution, claiming it was racist and undemocratic. As the 1992 elections approached, the Great Council of Chiefs disbanded the multicultural FAP and in its place formed the Soqosoqo-ni-Vakavulewa-ni Taukei (SVT; Party of Policy Makers for Indigenous Fijians). Rabuka returned to the scene as interim prime minister and party leader of the SVT. Changing his hardline approach, he was twice elected, in 1992 and 1994.

^ Back to top

The 1997 Constitution

In 1995, a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) presented its findings. It called for a return to a multiethnic democracy and, while accepting that the position of president be reserved for an indigenous Fijian, proposed no provision of ethnicity for the prime minister. The government acted on most of the CRC's recommendations and a new constitution was declared in 1997.

In the same year, Rabuka apologised to Queen Elizabeth for the 1987 military coups, presented her with a whale's tooth tabua as a gesture of atonement and the following month Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.

^ Back to top

The May 2000 coup

In the May 1999 elections, voters rejected Rabuka's SVT and its coalition partners. The FLP won the majority of seats and its leader Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister.

Many indigenous Fijians were far from pleased. Convinced that their traditional land rights were at stake, protests increased and many refused to renew expiring 99-year land leases to Indo-Fijian farmers. On 19 May 2000, armed men 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, claiming to represent indigenous Fijians. He demanded the resignation of both Chaudhry and President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and that the 1997 multiethnic constitution be abandoned.

Support for Speight's group was widespread and Indo-Fijians suffered such harassment that many fled the country. Chaudhry, despite having suffered broken ribs during a beating by his captors, refused to resign. Finally, in an attempt to bring the situation to an end, President Ratu Mara unwillingly announced that he was removing Chaudhry from power. Speight's group demanded Mara's resignation as well and, with lawlessness increasing and the country divided over his role, Ratu Mara relinquished power. The head of Fiji's military, Commander Frank Bainimarama, announced martial law. After long negotiations between Speight's rebels and Bainimarama's military, and after eight weeks in captivity, the hostages were released and the 1997 constitution was revoked.

International disapproval for the coup was meted out as trade sanctions and sporting boycotts. Travellers were given warnings to steer clear of Fiji. The economy, particularly the tourism sector, was hit hard and many businesses folded.

In March 2001, the appeal court decided to uphold the 1997 constitution and ruled that Fiji be taken to the polls in order to restore democracy. Lasenia Qarase, heading the Fijian People's Party (SLD), won 32 of the 71 parliamentary seats in the August 2001 elections. Claiming that a multiparty cabinet in the current circumstances would be unworkable, Qarase proceeded to defy the spirit of the constitution by including no FLP members in his 18-strong cabinet.

In the meantime, Speight pleaded guilty to treason. He was given a death sentence that was quickly commuted to life imprisonment, likely out of fear of further protests and rioting. Ironically, Speight is serving out this sentence on the small island of Nukulau off Suva. This is the island where, in 1849, the looting of the US consul's house acted as an impetus for cession of Fiji to Britain; one of the major products of cession was the coming of the first indentured labourers, the presence of whose descendants sufficiently enraged Speight to instigate the 2000 coup.

^ Back to top