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Suva's contemporary history has its roots in the fickle mismanagement of Chief Cakobau of Bau, who, with the help of King George of Tonga, proclaimed himself Tui Viti, or King of Fiji in the 1850s. Cakobau promptly took it upon himself to give away bits and pieces of Fiji to foreign settlers, while concurrently acquiring giant debts with American immigrants. By 1862 his inability to pay the debts off became apparent when he attempted to cede Fiji to Britain in exchange for debt clearance.

Up until this time, the only Europeans in the Suva area had come from Melbourne, seeking new sources of fortune after the decline of the gold rushes and subsequent downturn in the Australian economy. In 1868 the opportunistic Aussies formed the Australian Polynesia Company and agreed to clear Cakobau's debts with the Americans in return for the right to trade in Fiji and also a large chunk of land, 90 sq km of which covered the Suva Peninsula.

While it was not his land to trade, the powerful Chief Cakobau had the Suva villagers relocated and welcomed new Australian settlers to the area in 1870. The settlers cleared dense reed from what is now downtown Suva and attempted, unsuccessfully, to grow cotton and sugar cane. In an effort to increase land values, two Melbourne merchants, Thomson and Renwick, encouraged the government to relocate the capital from Levuka to Suva with incentives in the form of land grants. As Levuka had little room for expansion the government officially moved to Suva in 1882. In the 1880s Suva was a township of about a dozen buildings but by the 1920s it was a flourishing colonial centre.

In May 2000 Suva's Parliament Buildings became the site of a hostage drama when George Speight and his militia held 36 government officials captive for almost two months.