The first inhabitants of Fiji date back to ancient times. According to Fijian legend, the great chief Lutunasobasoba led his people across the seas to the newly-discovered islands of Fiji. Most experts agree that the first people to land on Fiji were from Southeast Asia and that they had entered into the Pacific via the Malay Peninsula. The Polynesians most likely arrived in Fiji over 3000 years ago, although they were conquered by Melanesian invaders around 1500 B.C. Both the Polynesians and the Melanesians mixed to create a unique culture and a highly developed society long before the first Europeans settled on the islands.
European Arrival in Fiji
The first European arrivals in Fiji had been accidental. The first discovery was made in 1643 by a Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. The second to land on Fiji was English navigator Captain James Cook in 1774, and he also continued to explore the islands during the 18th century. However, much of the credit of the discovery and recording of the Fiji Islands went to Captain William Bligh, who sailed through Fiji in 1789 after the mutiny on the Bounty, a British Royal Navy ship. At around the early 19th century, shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from the Australian penal settlements were the first Europeans to land and live among the Fijians, while missionaries and sandalwood traders came around at mid-century.
The name Fiji was first conceived by Cook. The Fijians had called their land “Viti,” but the Tongans called it “Fisi,” and so it was by the differences in foreign pronunciation that the islands are known as they are today. As European populations in Fiji increased, they gained greater influence on Fijian culture as well, and it was during this time that houses and canoes were built, Western-style clothing was first adopted, confederations were formed and wars were fought on a larger scale without precedent but ended more abruptly. Christianity had also spread throughout the islands, and cannibalism, which had once been practiced in Fiji, soon ended.
However, the “golden age” of Fiji took a turn for the worst in 1874, when Fiji was ceded to Great Britain, and deadly epidemics nearly wiped out the entire indigenous Fijian population. The colonial government, though, took the Fijians’ side, and the population was eventually restored.
Indian Arrival in Fiji
In 1879, Indians first arrived in Fiji as indentured servants to work on the sugar plantations until 1916. After the indentured system was abolished, however, most chose to stay in Fiji ever after they were offered passages back to India, and the majority became independent farmers and businessmen. Today, Indians make up a significant portion of the Fijian population and have greatly impacted its culture, though they have also faced discrimination throughout the years.
20th Century and Today
The 20th century brought about major economic and political changes in Fiji. A major sugar industry was developed, as well as productive copra milling tourism, and other secondary industries. Fiji’s economy has been strengthened by these important industries, which have helped pay for medical services, education, infrastructure and an expansion in other public services and works.
In 1970, Fiji gained its independence from Great Britain, although it has dealt with some governmental and racial issues. A military coup took place in 1987 to prevent the shifting of power to an Indian-dominated coalition party. In 1990, a constitution was granted that gave non-ethnic Fijians a disproportionate say in the government, although they were given greater rights when the constitution was amended in 1997.
Another coup occurred in 2000 after the first Indo-Fijian Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry was elected as Prime Minister of Fiji a year earlier. Chaudhry had been taken hostage by a Fijian businessman, George Speight, who demanded an end to Indian political participation. An ethnic Fijian-dominated government led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase took over after the incident, although the government was later ruled unconstitutional in 2003 because it did not include members of the Labor Party as they had refused to join after Chaudhry was excluded from the new government.
In 2006, Commodore Bainimarama executed a third coup against the government of Qarase and declared himself Acting President of Fiji. The coup was ruled illegal in 2009, and all members of his cabinet were suspended. However, Bainimarama was later reappointed his position as Prime Minister, and all Cabinet members had their positions returned to them as well.
Governmental and political issues still take place in Fiji today, though they do not affect visitors to the islands. Fiji is also now recognized as the focal point of the South Pacific and plays a major role in regional affairs as a result of its recent developments in sea and air transport and communication.