A History of Fiji in Brief
Fiji has a colourful history of early Labita and Melanesian settlement, the development of Pacific Islander tribes, European colonisation and political unrest resulting in four military coups. In this brief history of Fiji, we look at the snapshots of history that make Fiji the islands they are today.
While you’re here, you might also be interested in Who are the People of Fiji? and Fiji Village Etiquette: What to Do When Visiting a Fijian Village.
Early Fijian History
Fiji’s early history has been interpreted through archaeological findings and through the storytelling of the local Fijians. We know that the Lapita people resided in Fiji through Lapita pottery findings, while many Fijians know the legend of the first settler who arrived in Fiji, Lutunasobasoba.
Lapita and Melanesian History
With evidence of Lapita pottery and other findings related to the Lapita people found around Fiji, it is estimated that the first settlement in Fiji was in 1220 BC. The Lapita are said to have originated from Southeast Asia and inhabited several other South Pacific Islands.
Around 1000 to 500 BC, Melanesians started to settle in Fiji, who are said to be the closest ancestors to the present-day Fijian people.
In Fijian folklore, many recognise Lutunasobasoba to be the first person to settle in Fiji and establish their tribal system. It is said that he first arrived in Vuda, on the west side of Viti Levu, from East Africa. In legend, Lutunasobsoba was immortalised as a snake god called, Degei.
Early Fijian Settlements
Little is known about the very early Fijian village life, other than evidence that they had hill fortifications and tribes lived quite isolated from each other, forming their own dialects and beliefs. Commonplace items were wooden carvings such as war clubs, tanoa (kava) bowls, wooden head pillows, tapa clothing and jewellery. Tattooing and raised scars around the mouth were also part of the Fijian look.
Learn more about the aspect of the Fijian culture in The Guide to the Fiji Culture for Travellers.
The Arrival of the Europeans
Avoided for its treacherous reefs, Fiji didn’t really connect with the Western world until around the 1800s. A few brief encounters were made in the early European exploration days, such as Dutch navigator Abel Tasman sailing past the island of Taveuni in 1643 and British navigator James Cook making note of Vatua Island in the Lau Islands of Fiji in 1774.
Europeans didn’t start to take serious notice of Fiji until around 1804 when merchant ships started to arrive in Fiji after they discovered sandalwood on Vanua Levu, of which they took for trade.
Any other Europeans settling in Fiji during the early 1800s were either convicts or mercenaries, often becoming go-betweens for Fijians and merchants. During this time, the tribal chief, Cakobau traded for muskets with merchants leading to tribal warfare which saw him decimating regions.
It was as early as 1835 that the first Wesleyan missionaries came to Fiji to convert Fijians to Christianity. They established themselves in Levuka of the Lomaiviti Islands. Learn more about the religions in Fiji in the Guide to the Religions in Fiji.
Cakobau, the King of Fiji
There was one chief, during the time of the early European discovery in Fiji, that sticks out in the history books, Cakobau, the chief of Bau. While Cakobau benefitted from trading weapons with mercenaries to dominate regions, in 1853, several disaffected chiefs rebelled against Cakobau by stealing his US Navy gunship and killing around 70 Fijians. In addition, a fire had ravaged Bau and destroyed his war temple, said to have been seen as a sign of the gods’ abandonment by Cakobau.
Later that year, Cakobau converted to Christianity, which helped missionaries spread their message steadily throughout the islands. Cakobau was able to continue winning tribal wars with the aid of King George of Tonga who had also be converted to Christianity. With a string of successes, Cakobau proclaimed himself the King of Fiji.
The Road to Colonialism
Cakabau’s history soon started to catch up with him, first with King George of Tonga battling to gain control of the Lau Islands and by being in debt to the US Government. In his time of trouble, Cakabau turned to the British based in Levuka, promising sovereignty of Fiji in return for the British paying off his debt. Britain denied on the grounds that Cakabau didn’t represent the united people of Fiji.
It wasn’t until later in the 1800s that more Europeans came to Fiji to exploit the land for cotton plantations, the recruitment of slaves (blackbirding), and whaling. Once Fiji started to show its “worth” to the British and Cakobau had established a government, backed by other tribal chiefs, did the British take Cakaobau up on his offer. On October 10 1874, a few of Fiji’s high chiefs and representatives of Queen Victoria of Britain signed the deed ceding sovereignty to Britain.
Indenture of Indian Labourers
During the early days of British colonisation in Fiji, an outbreak of measles wiped out about a third of the Fijian population. Without a large workforce to work in the planned sugar and copra plantations, Britain brought in indentured labourers from India to work the plantations. The first shipment of labourers came in 1879. The deal was for the labourers to work five years before they returned home, however, many chose to stay in Fiji. By 1904, Indian merchants a further influx of Indians arrived.
Indentured labour was abolished in 1920 after 60,553 Indians has been brought to Fiji.
Since then “Indo-Fijian” are a core part of the Fijian culture bringing a touch of India into the multicultural mix that is Fiji. From business to politic, food and art, their contribution to the making of Fiji is present everywhere you go. Check out Who are the People of Fiji for more on the subject.
Independence and the Four Coups
After World War 2, the focus in Fiji was on politics and separation in the political system between the Fijians and the Indian labourer descendants, now commonly known as “Indo-Fijians”. While Fijians were content with the colonial administration, Indo-Fijians were restricted in their livelihoods due to low sugar payouts, the inability to buy freehold land and their hostility to Britain after India independence from Britain in 1947.
Moves toward self-government were made in 1953 with a Legislative Council. Full independence was granted to Fiji on October 10 1970 after 96 years of colonial rule. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara of the Lau Islands ruled the nation first 17 years, favouring Fijian affairs over Indian priorities.
The First Two Coups
In 1987, the government were under the pressure to oppose political power to both the Indo-Fijians and Fiji’s westerly chiefs. A colonel from the military, Sitiveni Rabuka, stormed parliament on May 14 and took over the county in a bloodless coup, handing over the power to Governor-General Ratu Penaia Ganilau, the high chief of Cakaudrove.
Ratu Penaia Ganilau responded by ruling the military takeover being unconstitutional, so Rabuka staged another coup on September 23. Rabuka rose to power himself, wishing to cut ties with the Commonwealth and serve the interests of the Fijian people. However, Rabuka lost seats in the government and subsequently, Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.
The Last Two Coups
Mahendra Chaudhry, an Indo-Fijian of the Fiji Labour Party won the 1999 elections. On May 19 2000, Geoge Speight, a Fijian businessman, stormed parliament with an armed gang and took the government hostage. 56 days later, Speight released the hostages and was arrested. Fiji’s political unrest continued until a fourth and final coup in 2006. Headed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the coup was in response to his disapproval of prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, returning to parliament after it was a condition for him not to stand for re-election after being the interim prime minister in the 2000 coup.
Today, Fiji is no longer under political unrest and is safe for travellers to visit. Take a look at what it’s like to visit Fiji in How to Plan a Trip to Fiji.