The history of Fiji - to date


The fabled origins of the indigenous people in Fiji is Africa, and more specifically Tanganyika, although this is still taught as fact in schools it is widely disputed by historians.

Historians state that the first settlers were Polynesians who started settling the Lau Islands group on Fiji's eastern borders about 3,500 years ago, while Melanesians settled the Coral Coast on Fiji's biggest island, Viti Levu, about 2,500 years ago. While the exact origins of the Fijian people are lost in time what has resulted is a rich diversity in language, some aspects of culture and politics.

Over the generations the two groups have largely merged, while Fijians from Melanesian origin do tend to dominate most areas the Polynesian (Tongan origin) can be found in the Lau Islands and, for example, at the village of Naroro near Sigatoka. At Naroro is the centuries old Tavuni Hill Fort beautifully restored and maintained by our host Sirelli and his family. Sirelli's ancestors built their village on the top of a hill and fought off many attacks by Melanesian Fijians who commonly came down the Sigatoka river and then cannibalized the unfortunate victims who they captured. The Tongans of Tavuni Fort were only displaced in the 1800s by the British. The killing rock and temple have been fully restored at Tavuni and give a remarkable insight into the past. Just forty minutes away on the Coral Coast is the largely Melanesian village of Namatakula - here our hosts Simon and Judith Batibasaga reflect just how closely the two groups have merged - with identical village hierarchies and culture in most areas.

Vanua Levu

Two of the most important words in Fijian culture - and the name of a major Fijian Island.

Important to all indigenous Fijians are the words "vanua" (all encompassing word describing his life but also meaning, people, air, land, rivers, language, seas, spirits, history, kinship ties within a tribe, as well as all things that they come in contact with both living and non-living); and "levu" or traditional land. Thus the names of the major islands "Viti Levu" (Big Island) and Vanua Levu - reflecting this importance.

Clan - hierarchy, culture and land ownership

All indigenous Fijians belong to a clan which is located in a village. Every clan in the village is represented by an elder, known as a matagali (matangali). The matagali appoint a Ratu (Chief) or Toreni Koro (Headman) who represents them in all village matters and who goes to regional meetings with the Provincial Chief. There are fourteen provinces in Fiji (three on Viti Levu). The provincial Chiefs are all members of the powerful Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) which vets all laws passed through Parliament and gives the final stamp of approval before they are adopted. The base unit, the Fijian village, is still autonomous today and can make decisions for their village and its levu outside the laws of the appointed Fijian government. Through the generations the clans in the village have protected and supported even the most disadvantaged in its community - resulting in a unique community based culture that is as strong today as it ever was, having said that, every member of the clan is expected to do his or her duty with the group's survival being his or her most important task. Most marriages are between Fijians from two different villages - the wife always goes to the husband's village but her commitment to her village remains. This commitment depends on the families ability to financially contribute, but is a very real commitment when there is a fund raising drive in the village.

Clans are given tasks within the village. God plays a very important role in the village with the villagers believing that their "vanua" will be good if they perform their tasks well.

Fijians believe that there are two types of people, "taukei" - the indigenous people who are of the land, look after the land and own the land, and the "vulagi" who are visitors to Fiji (including the Indians brought into Fiji in the late 1800s to harvest Fiji's major cash crop, sugar cane. Vulagi are not seen as belonging and therefore not obliged to care for the land. The Fijian categorises everybody into these two boxes - while we might be a "taukei" in our homeland we are a "vulagi" in theirs and visa-versa.

As Dr Iliatia Tuwere, a Fijian theologian and academic summed this philosophy up to Fijians living in New Zealand in 2004, "It is good to always remember that in Aotearoa, we are visitors and will remain so. It does not matter how long we have been here in New Zealand, whether it has been for forty or more years, we are and will always remain visitors here; we are however taukei of Fiji."

As you will have seen land ownership is a key foundation of Fijian culture and for this region it has been fiercely protected from the first settlement of whites and Indians back in the mid-1800s. Today over 80% of land in Fiji remains in the hands of the indigenous people - although some of this is leased for up to 99 years through agreement with the village matagali to hotels and, mainly, Indian farmers growing sugar cane. Large hotels like the Warwick (on the Coral Coast) and Fijian Hotel are on leased land - you might be surprised to find that the Fijian serving you in these hotels is a member of the village matagali leasing that land. The primary reason that land is leased is to create a small (but slave labour-like income) for the village. The Fijian staff normally earning under F$2 per hour.

It is this issue of land ownership that has been the source of much trouble in Fiji since its independence - including the latest coup in 2000. We will look at that issue shortly.

The arrival of the white man

Before, and long after the arrival of the first whiteman, Fijian villages sprung up throughout the Islands (there are over 500 islands with about 150 inhabited today). Names like Abel Tasman, James Cook and the ill-fated William Bligh all visited Fiji during their voyages of discovery - but only passed through. The first major impact came when an American schooner, Argo, was shipwrecked on Vanua Levu, the crew discovering major forests of sandalwood which was fetching gold-like prices in China.

The first white settlers started farming the trees and marrying the local Fijian women. Their arrival resulted in pressure being brought about to appoint a centralized political system with one king or Vunivalu. Through marriage Ratu Seru Cakobau was appointed Vunivalu despite the fact that he represented the relatively small province of Bau. Under Cakobau cannibalism flourished and the first white settlers were horrified by his war-making, cruelty and cunning to lord over Fiji during the 1840s.

The first missionaries arrived in 1830 in Lakeba in Lau but the Provincial Chief refused to have anything to do with them. A few years later the first Wesleyan missionaries arrived at the same settlement but this time they came with the blessing of the Tongan paramount chief, Taufa'ahau, and the Polynesian Chief in the region, Tui Nayau, had little choice but to allow him to preach. Thus started the first conversions of the people to Christianity and away from cannibalism.

During this time the continuing wars waged by the Vunivalu, Cakobau, saw his hold over the region start to collapse. A fire and damage to the property of the US commercial agent, John Williams, in 1849 resulted in Cakobau being billed for his losses. His claim came with the weight of threatened action by the imperial American power if he did not pay his bill of under $100. Under siege Cakobau resorted to Christianity, and through this formed an alliance with the Tongan Paramount Chief Taufa'ahau reinforcing his position in the Fiji Islands.

However, in 1872, the growing power of the remotely placed Lauans in the east continued to threaten Cakobau as they refused to bow to his demands. It was at this time that Cakobau issued Fiji's first money to be redeemed by the government. This was a move that put further pressure on the Vunivalu as his lack of understanding in monetary matters spelt the end of his fragile empire. Unable to contain the growing Lauan power, a growing revolt within the white population and his inability to meet his debts Cakobau appealed to London for assistance ceding his country to Britain on the 10th October 1874.

Under British power

Sir Arthur Gordon was the first Governor appointed to Fiji. He decided that it was too complex to change the village culture and hierarchy of the indigenous population. To avoid causing trouble over the population's most prized possession, land, and to meet the needs of his colonial master's demands for the cultivation of sugar cane Gordon imported workers from India. The first shipload arriving at Nukulua near Suva in May 1879. By November 1916 the British had brought in nearly 50,000 Indian labourers - both male and female.

The workers or "girmitiya" had a very different culture to the indigenous population and when their indenture ended in 1920 they started leasing lands from the Fijian villages for leases of up to 99 years - through a body called the Native Lands and Title Board (or NLTB). Under British rule there had been very little contact between the Indian workers and the Fijians who were kept in their villages but by 1956 90% of all Fiji's sugar crop was harvested by Indian farmers..

During this period the Indian population exploded with the 1936 census reflecting just 43% Indian but by 1946 the Indians outnumbered the indigenous population with 120,874 to 118,083. By 1954 Indians made up 48% of Fiji's population against an indigenous 43%. The British government realized that they had lobbed a hand grenade into Fiji with racial tensions between the indigenous peoples and the Indians and land ownership being the catalyst despite this fact, on 10th October 1970 Prince Charles handed Fiji its independence as the colonial power walked away from the problem that it had created. The position was further exacerbated by the domination of all areas of commerce by the Indians while most indigenous Fijians remained impoverished in the village. In effect the traditional landowners had been left under the financial control of the descendants of the Indian labourers brought in by the British one hundred years before.

Turbulence follows independence

The Fijians initially held onto power through infighting between Indian political groups but this all changed in 1987 when the largely Indian Fiji Labour Party (FLP) under Timoci Bavadra took over effective control of the government. Within months the first coup took place with Sitiveni Rabuka, an army Lieutenant, successfully throwing out the Indian government leading to an exodus of over 50,000 Indians and resulting in the indigenous population once again holding a narrow majority.

Among the founders of the FLP was the widely respected Indigenous Fijian, Tupeni Baba who used his influence to help the Indian dominated party to once again, in 1999, to secure power. The overwhelming majority of seats fell to the FLP with the Fijians believing that Baba would be selected as Prime Minister. He wasn't.

The powerful secretary of the FPSA and Fijian Sugar Cane Association (FSCA), Mahendra Chowdrey, was waiting in the wings and at a loaded meeting of a few senior members of the party Chowdrey was selected as the new Prime Minister - outraging many indigenous voters who felt deceived. On the 19th May 1999, exactly a year after his election a second coup was orchestrated by George Speight. While Speight's coup is seen by many as being inappropriate the cause for which he stood was widely applauded by all sectors of Fiji's indigenous population - including senior members of the Church. Chowdrey, with over two thirds of the Parliament under his control was working on changes to the constitution which would have weakened the hold of the indigenous people over their lands.

A few months later George Speight stood down and was arrested for treason. While in prison he was selected by the people of Tailevu to represent them in Parliament. As a prisoner he could not take up the position so his brother Sam Speight jnr was elected. George Speight was tried and initially faced execution before this was changed to a life sentence.

Following the coup a Fijian Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, was installed and still serves in that capacity today. As of May 2005 the Fijian Government was stable and the issues relating the ownership of Fijian land resolved without blood shed - largely thanks to the 2000 coup. It is likely that George Speight will be released from his prison island just kilometers from Suva - this move will follow the introduction of a Reconciliation Bill into Parliament later this year.

It is likely that George Speight will be elected to Parliament when the 800,000 Fijian people (Indian and indigenous) go to the polls in 2006.