Fijian legend tells of the great chief Lutunasobasoba, who led his people across the seas to the new land of Fiji. Most authorities agree that people migrated into the Pacific region from Southeast Asia, and the first settlers arrived in Fiji about 3,500 years ago. They likely came from the Polynesian islands of northern or central Vanuatu, or possibly the eastern Solomons. These first inhabitants are known as the “Lapita people” after a distinctive type of fine pottery they produced. From Fiji, these people moved on to settle Rotuma, Tonga, and Samoa, and eventually crossed vast distances to populate Hawaii, Rapanui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa (New Zealand).
Fiji appears to have experienced at least two periods of rapid cultural change in prehistoric times, probably due to the arrival of new immigrants. Prehistorians have found that a volcanic eruption in southern Vanuatu around the 12th century B.C. corresponds to the disappearance of a certain type of pottery there, and its sudden emergence in Fiji. There is evidence of an influx of Melanesians around 500 BC, and a back migration of Tongans in the past 500 years. Fijian culture is consequently quite diverse, and often defies generalizations. Fiji was never unified politically until colonization.
Early Fijians had a hierarchical culture in which status and descent passed through the male line. Society was structured as a feudal aristocracy under the leadership of chiefs, who were thought to embody the mana, or power, of an ancestral spirit. Warfare was continual and cannibalism was prevalent, yet the early Fijians also developed one of the highest material cultures in the Pacific. They built extraordinary ocean-going canoes and produced beautiful tapa cloths, pottery, and plaited mats.
The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted the northernmost island of Fiji in 1643, but did not land. The next European visitor to the islands was Captain Cook, who anchored off of Fiji in 1779. It was not until ten years later, though, when Capt. William Bligh sailed through the islands making careful observations (despite being chased away by Fijian warriors), that Europeans first had an accurate picture of Fiji. The name “Fiji” is actually the Tongan name for the islands, promulgated by Captain Cook. The native name for the islands is “Viti.”
The first Europeans to settle in Fiji were escaped convicts from Australia, who earned a welcome by introducing firearms to the chiefs. The reputation of Fijians as fierce warriors and cannibals, as well as the difficulty of navigating the reefs around the islands, initially dissuaded most travelers from visiting. In 1804, though, news that sandalwood grew abundantly in Fiji began a rush of trade there, despite the dangers. This period was marked by intensifying warfare among chieftains, and Europeans who took sides or were involved in misunderstandings did not always survive.
The arrival of missionaries in the 1830’s began a sweeping cultural change in Fiji. Though Christianity was not immediately embraced by the fierce Fijian warriors, it began to take root when Fiji’s most powerful chief decided to convert for political reasons. Cannibalism and warfare ceased with the adoption of Christianity, and Fijians began to wear Western attire.
The 1860’s brought many European and Australian settlers hoping to establish cotton plantations, and the need for a central government became clear. After a failed attempt to unite the nation under the leading Fijian chief, the islands were eventually ceded to Britain in 1874.
The Colonial Period
Modern Fiji was largely the creation of its first British governor, Sir Arthur Gordon. Gordon decided that it would be easiest to rule Fiji indirectly through the existing chiefs, and set up a limited native administration that allowed Fijians a large say in their own governance. He protected the communal lands upon which the chieftain system was based by prohibiting land sales to non-Fijians. However, he also supported the development of plantations on leased native lands, and Fiji developed a major sugar industry that was largely owned by Australian companies.
Fijians could not be required to work on the plantations, and there was soon a great shortage of labor. As a solution, Gordon began bringing in indentured laborers from India. When the immigration ended in 1916, there were over 60,000 Indians living in Fiji. More than half of them decided to stay after the indenture system was abolished in 1920, and their descendants now form almost half of Fiji’s population.
Fijians fought with the Allied troops in the Second World War and distinguished themselves in the Solomon Islands campaign. They were so skilled at jungle warfare against the Japanese that the listing “missing in action” was less appropriate than “not yet arrived.”
Government and Race Relations
Although race relations in Fiji are generally harmonious now, racial issues have been hugely influential in Fijian politics. The membership of the Legislative Council that was formed in 1904 to advise the Governor began with six seats for Europeans and two for ethnic Fijians. In 1916, the Governor appointed an Indian member, and reforms in 1929 led to a more equal membership of Europeans, Fijians and Indians. The council remained divided along racial lines, though, and the Europeans tended to side with the Fijians against further demands for equality from the Indians. Indians therefore pushed for Fiji’s independence from Britain, while Fijians, who had come to view the British as protectors, were hesitant. After much discussion, a constitution was finally adopted that created a legislature with some members appointed on racial lines and some elected from a general roll. Fiji became a self-governing nation within the Commonwealth of Nations on October 10, 1970.
After independence, the Fijian government was dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, an ethnic Fijian. The Indian-led opposition party gained a majority of seats in 1977, but did not form a government due to concerns that Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian rule. In 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra won the general election. Though Bavadra himself was an ethnic Fijian, he was supported by the Indo-Fijian community and formed the first majority Indian government. Less than a month later, he was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka.
More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other ethnic minorities left the country in the two years after the 1987 coup, and the Fijian government has had a fairly tumultuous history since that time. In 1987, Fiji became a republic under Rabuka, but was eventually readmitted to the Commonwealth in 1997 under a revised constitution. At present, Fiji is governed by a bicameral parliament that comprises the President, an elected House of Representatives, and a nominated Senate.