Fiji Feature


History of Fiji

The first Fijians arrived on the mainland around 1500 BC—shards of intricate pottery called "Lapita" discovered at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes date to around this time. The population spread throughout many of Fiji's islands, eventually developing mutually unintelligible dialects and frequently warring over territory and influence. The Fijians were a merciless people, killing women and children as readily as men in war, burying men alive as they filled in the holes dug for the foundations of houses, and launching their large, masterfully crafted drua (war canoes) over the bodies of slaves used as rollers. They ate the flesh of their murdered enemies and rivals; "Eat me" was a phrase commonly used by villagers to humbly greet their godlike chiefs. Fiji was nicknamed "the Cannibal Isles" by Europeans, who were informed by the Tongans of their ways.

This reputation caused both the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and Englishman Captain James Cook to resist landing on the islands in 1643 and 1774, respectively. Days after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, Captain Bligh was the first to glimpse the mainland.

In 1808 muskets were introduced by the shipwrecked Charles Savage, who later became notorious for his politicking among the Fijian chiefs and was eventually killed and eaten. The United States Exploring Expedition charted Fiji in 1840 and the first missionaries arrived later that decade. Ratu Cakobau, an ambitious chief, began consolidating power among the islands, appointing himself Tui Viti (King of Fiji) in 1854 without authority over most of the country. The following year he was aided by King George I of Tonga in suppressing a large resistance, further consolidating power but giving the Tongan leader entrée to influence in Fiji. Levuka, in the Lomaiviti Group, began to swell with settlers and Cakobau declared it the capital.

The U.S. consul held Cakobau responsible for a theft, and over the coming two decades he fell into debt with the U.S. government. See; a confederacy of chiefs he established fell apart after just two years and Levuka grew into a raucous stronghold of conmen, fugitives, and drunks. A short-lived Ku Klux Klan was established by Europeans at one point to challenge his rule. He tried once to cede the Fiji Islands to Britain while maintaining the title of King of Fiji, but this, combined with the fact that he did not control most of the territory, led Britain to reject the offer. In 1874 he tried again to cede control to the Queen, this time unconditionally, and his offer was accepted.

In 1877 the capital was moved to Suva. Two years later, the first ship with indentured laborers from Calcutta arrived. They harvested cotton, world prices of which had skyrocketed owing to the American Civil War, and grew sugarcane. About 70,000 Indians arrived over the next five years, with most choosing to remain in Fiji after their service was completed. Fijians served in both world wars, although they were accepted with less difficulty in the second. Fijian guerrilla-commandos fought behind Japanese enemy lines on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. It's said they were so adept at guerrilla warfare that, rather than Missing In Action (MIA), Fijian soldiers who were unaccounted for were labeled NYA—Not Yet Arrived.

In 1968 Fiji was granted independence and established a parliamentary government, the first elections of which were held in 1972. A bloodless coup in mid-1987 was followed by a second in September, which broke ties with the British government. In 2000 civilian George Speight and a group of followers stormed the Parliament building in response to the election of an Indo-Fijian led government. He took the prime minister and 35 others hostage for nearly two months before releasing them under the promise of asylum by military leader Commodore Bainimarama, who then arrested and sentenced him to life imprisonment. In December 2006 Commodore Bainimarama orchestrated a bloodless coup largely in response to proposed legislation to pardon Speight and others responsible for the 2000 coup attempt. At the time of writing, he remained the country's self-appointed prime minister and had promised general elections by the end of March 2009.

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