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Settling a Score

On July 4, 1849, the American consul John Brown Williams's home caught on fire following a cannon explosion during his celebration of America's Independence Day. Seeing the house aflame, locals ran over and looted it, and afterward felt no moral obligation to return the consul's things. Brown held Ratu Cakobau, the self-appointed Tui Viti (King of Fiji), responsible for $5,000 in property (some believe he greatly inflated the value). Cakobau faced a dilemma: He could accept responsibility for the debt and simultaneously affirm his purported rule over the Fijian people or he could turn over both the debt and leadership. He decided to accept responsibility and ignore the debt, hoping it would go away.

American gunboats called at Levuka in 1851 and 1855 to encourage Cakobau to pay the debt, which had by this point been inflated to $45,000. In 1867 a U.S. battleship entered the harbor and threatened to bombard the town. The following year Cakobau granted the Australia-based Polynesia Company almost 200,000 acres in exchange for payment of his debts; the company wanted to produce cotton in Fiji as world prices soared because of the American Civil War.

With that problem solved, Cakobau was still unable to unite the tribes of Fiji, which had always denied his claims to rulership over the island group, and defended their autonomy in battle with varying degrees of success. A confederacy of chiefs with three regional governments had broken up in 1867 after just two years. On October 10, 1874, he ceded rule over the Fiji Islands to Queen Victoria, signing the deed of cession in Levuka. The capital was relocated to Suva in 1881 because of Levuka's exposed harbor and the surrounding mountains' limitation of its growth.

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