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  History of Fiji

Legend has it that the first Fijians, led by the Chief Lutunasobasoba, landed at Vuda Point, which is located just north of Nadi, after traveling for months across the Pacific on large canoes.

Though very few facts are known about the first settling of the Fiji Islands, there are many theories.  The most common belief is that the first inhabitants came via South East Asia, down the Malayan peninsula across to Indonesia, and from there, to New Guinea approximately 25,000 years ago.  They then spread throughout the islands of the Solomon Islands, the Gilberts, and the Ellice Islands, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia before arriving in Fiji.

Most seafarers of that time only were able to navigate very short distances with any certainty, therefore it only stands to reason that the first travelers that arrived Fiji could have done so a thousand or more years before this first recorded landing on Vita Levu.  They probably landed on some of the outer islands and established villages.  They then would have continued to explore.  Pottery shards from some of the outer islands of Fiji suggest that this might have been more than 4,000 years ago.  Whether this is just myth or the truth, no one knows for sure.  This is just one of the many legends of Fiji.

Fiji is, what is considered, the crossroads of the South Pacific and it was also settled by Polynesians.  Exactly how the Polynesians landed in Fiji is also subject to argument.  The most probable explanation would be that the explorers originated in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia.  They stayed longer and therefore had longer to diversify with greater racial changes.  They became taller and much lighter skin with more Asian features.  Pottery as mentioned above may hold the key to this theory.  As we follow the path of pottery across the pacific, since the pottery is one of the few artifacts that remains from these travels, we see that pottery discovered in Tonga and Samoa date later than that of Fiji.

How the travelers were able to sail, against the wind, since the trade winds in Fiji and these areas of the South Pacific blow easterly for most of the year.  This would allow, as Thor Heyerdahl theorized, travel from South America much easier than from South East Asia.  Captain Cook in his writings put forth a theory that might answer the question just before he died in Hawaii.  Captain Cook saw a very large obstacle to accepting a Polynesian origin in island Southeast Asia, the migration trail led through the South Pacific was subject to strong easterly trade winds.  These same winds would make it relatively easy for voyagers from South America to sail westward with the wind into the Pacific.  Steady trade winds would seem to present a formidable obstacle for any voyagers sailing eastward across the ocean.  Comparing South American Indians to descendents in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Tahiti show no cultural resemblance between the islanders and the Native Americans, so the idea has mostly been rejected of an American origin of the Polynesians.  The trail of linguistic and pottery evidence clearly marked the direction of migration, and another explanation must be sought as to how canoe voyagers could have moved eastward into the Pacific against the direction of the trade winds.  These canoe voyagers had very simple sails, their crafts were unable to tack into the wind and was therefore most efficient with a following wind rather than a head wind.

It was discovered that during the months of November, December, and January the trades frequently died down and are replaced by spells of westerly winds, and the South Pacific people must have then used these westerly winds to sail to the east.

Dutch explorer and exceptional navigator Abel Tasman explored the islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni in 1643.  Another famous explorer Englishman Captain James Cook sailed through the Lau Group of islands in 1774.  Captain William Bligh, who sailed with Captain James Cook's as a young Lieutenant during the 1774 expedition, is credited with the first charting of the islands.  Captain Bligh passed through Fiji in 1789 through the area just north of Vita Levu, after being set adrift in a small boat following the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty.  This area is now named Bligh Water.  He traveled through on his way to Timor from Tahiti in a 23-foot boat with eighteen loyal crewmembers.  He returned three years later in the HMS Providence to further explore and chart the islands, and to bring back the breadfruit from Tahiti.

During the 18th century British explorers visited additional islands in Fiji.  The population found by these explorers was one of a mixed Melanesian-Polynesian, the latter dominating the windward sides of the islands and the former the interiors.  There was a complex society with chiefs at its head.  The Lau island group was named the Exploring Islands by a U.S. survey expedition in 1840.

Fifteen years later, the discovery of sandalwood on the southwestern coast of Vanua Levu led to an increase of Western trading ships visiting Fiji.  Up until then, the only European contact with the Fijians had been limited to the occasional trading ship or shipwrecked sailor.  Sandalwood was highly valued in China where it fetched high prices.  Many beachcombers sailed from Australian ports in the hopes of making their fortune in this lucrative trade.  A sandalwood rush began in the first few years but it dried up when supplies dropped between 1810-1814.  The sandalwood trade also attracted many American ships in the early 19th century, and the chiefs of the Mbau in native wars used firearms salvaged from shipwrecks.  By 1820, the traders were back this time for beche-de-mer or sea cucumber considered a real delicacy in the East.  The sandalwood and beche-de-mer trade attracted many people to Fiji during this early trading period.

The first Christian missionaries arrived in Fiji in 1830 they were originally from Tahiti.  Permanent traders and the first European missionaries arrived in 1835.

All of this trade directly led to the rise in power of some of Fijian chiefs over others.  By the 1850s, the missionaries had gained influence over native Fijians and it wasn't long before most of the chiefs and through them, people of Fiji converted to Christianity.  The tiny island of Mbau, off the coast of Viti Levu, and its chief Cakobau was one such example.  Cakobau, became a Christian and a champion of the missionaries, and by 1854 one of the Fijiís most influential native chiefs.  Cakobau later proclaimed himself the King of Fiji (Tui Viti) and was quite instrumental in Fiji's dealing with Europeans especially the British.  The period between 1860 and 1870 saw an influx of European settlers into Fiji, with many making Levuka their home.  Many were here to make their fortune in cotton following the worldwide cotton boom.  In 1857 a British consul was appointed at Levuka.  In 1874 a deed of unconditional cession to Queen Victoria was completed between the British and Cakobau, and Fiji was proclaimed a crown colony.  The islands were colonized by Britain after this time.

The colonial government, under Fiji's first Governor Sir Arthur Gordon, brought in indentured laborers from India to work on sugar and cotton plantations from 1879.

Rotuma was annexed to the colony in 1881.  In the 1880s large-scale cultivation of sugarcane began.  A plan for federation with New Zealand was rejected in 1900.  The indenture system ended in 1920.

 

After 96 years of British colonial rule, Fiji became independent in 1970.  Following independence, it became a member of the Commonwealth and a member of the United Nations.

 

Fiji's constitution and complex electoral system reflect the differences between the Indian and indigenous Fijian racial groups on the island.  Most of the country's Indians support the National Federation Party, while the indigenous Fijians are loyal to the Alliance Party, which governed Fiji almost uninterruptedly since independence was achieved in 1970.

 

One of the predominate facts regarding the Fijians is that in one form or another they control over 90 percent of Fijiís land and have dominated the political process since independence.  This dominance can be seen in the way Fiji's first Governor Sir Arthur Gordon set up the process, which has evolved into the Native  Lands Trust Board.  So successful is this system, though not necessarily fair to ďOne Man One Vote ConceptĒ, as to be one of the few countries in the world where indigenous peoples actually control the land.  In most places such as Tahiti or Hawaii the native lands were long ago taken over through, high taxes, purchased directly from the local chiefs or in some instances just outright theft.

 

The 1990 constitution limits the Indians to a maximum of 27 seats in the 71-seat Parliament regardless of their share of the population.  This, and the fact that while Indians cultivate the land it is Fijians who control it, have created anxiety and resentment among Fijiís Indian population.  One way the Indians have dealt with Fijiís dilemma is by an accelerated number of them emigrating.  For many years after the 1987, and 2000 coups Fijian Indians have exited the country.  Most of these Fijian Indians are the highly educated and affluent, the people who the country can least afford to lose.

 

The coups and subsequent changes have created an environment of uncertainty and strife, and this has been the basic problem for Fiji economy.  Fiji could be a real showcase among the South Pacificís economies because of its large land mass, natural resources, diverse work force and evolving infrastructure, and its capacity for growth.  Economic stagnation has persisted because of a steady slowdown in private investment stemming from uncertainty over the two major issues, a pending review of the 1990 constitution and the question of extending long-term sugar land leases to Fijiís Indians who produce most of the sugar.

 

On July 25, 1997, a new amended constitution instituted.  By the late 1990ís Indians once again dominated the election, they helped to elect an Indian Prime Minister.  This again shocked some of the native population and Fiji was rocked with a Coup in May of 2000.  Hostages were held in the parliament building in Suva for 52 days by rebel leader George Speight who desired to have Fiji governed only by indigenous Fijians.  Armed Fijianís held the some members of parliament and the Prime Minister hostage.  After long and drawn out negotiations all those held were released.  Nearly a year of instability has continued, in which Fijian fought Fijian during the Queen Elizabeth Barracks Mutiny.  Rebel leader George Speight was later arrested for treason.  In the meanwhile, a new interim government has been formed with Laisenia Qarase as Fiji's new Prime Minister.

 

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