Fiji Guide

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Pre History

The original homeland of the Pacific island peoples was South-East Asia. Early people, Homo erectus, reached South-East Asia about two million years ago and modern man, Homo sapien, arrived approximately 60,000 years ago. Although evidence of human settlement in New Guinea dates back at least 25,000 years, the Austronesian migration from South-East Asia to New Guinea 6000 years ago marked a new stage in cultural evolution. Unlike their neolithic forebears, who were hunters and gatherers, the newcomers (who eventually were to populate Fiji) had adopted sail and outrigger canoes, methods of cultivating root crops, and pig farming.

According to archaeological evidence (mostly pottery), Fiji was settled in three different waves. The earliest wave dates from between 1260 and 900 BC. A second group of migrants appear to have arrived between 990 and 720 BC, and a third group after 830 BC.. This is evidenced by a number of birds becoming extinct and changes in the distribution of bird life, indicating a massive environmental impact caused by a large, sophisticated population.

There is, however, new evidence suggesting that Fiji and the South Pacific may have been settled 8000 to 10,000 years ago. In an article published in the Journal of Pacific History (April 1986), Fergus Clunie and the late John Gibbons postulated that the oceans have risen dramatically in the last 4000 to 18,000 years due to the melting of the polar ice caps. If this is true, massive land areas that were once above thesea's surface now may be 130 to 150 meters beneath the sea. Thus, many of the sites that were settled by the first migrants to the South Pacific are inaccessible to archaeologists. Clunie and Gibbons buttress their argument with biological, archaeological and linguistic evidence.

Though scientists may disagree about exactly when the forebears of Fijians first came to roost, they submit that these people came from the New Britain area (now belonging to Papua New Guinea) and were most likely ancestors of present-day Polynesians. They practiced agriculture, raised pigs and poultry, and fished.

Changes in pottery style indicate a probable second wave of migrants to the area between 400 and 100 BC. Scientists use the word 'probable' because they are not sure if the new pottery style was caused by an influx of new people or if it was simply a local development. If migrants caused the changes, the newcomers probably mixed with the indigenous people and perhaps dominated them.

The final settlement of Fiji (1000 to 1800 AD) was a massive movement from Melanesia. This wave of people practiced a sophisticated form of terraced agriculture, which helped support a large population that may have risen to 200,000. People grew yams and taro, raised poultry, fished and evolved a highly developed culture.

For further reading on the early migrations to Fiji there's a great article entitled The Story of Lapital Migraton in Fiji, written by Patrick Nunn, a Professor of Geography at the University of the South Pacific.It examines theories on where the first people in Fiji came from, when they came and where they settled.

Pre-European Contact Society

As evidenced by their advanced form of agriculture, the pre-contact Fiji islands were a highly evolved, stratified society, interlocked and interdependent through trade. Different clans were responsible for various crafts or activities such as pottery-making, mat-weaving, canoe-building and salt production. These items were traded throughout the Fiji group of islands and even as far away as Tonga.

Women worked hard and aged early. Men did intermittent hard jobs such as breaking in land for crops. They also performed occasional social duties like warfare, house building and ceremonial lovo cooking in large underground ovens. In other words, the more spectacular activities were usually in the man's domain, whereas the drudgery of weeding, washing and collecting firewood was (and still is) done by women.

Fijian society was dominated by a complicated class system. Chiefs often had tremendous personal power, which was expressed in demands for tribute from conquered tribes and in many bloody human sacrifices. To outsiders, the chiefs seemed to have arbitrary and ruthless power based on 'club law'. Said one early observer:

"No eastern tyrants can rule with more absolute terror than the chiefs do here; and few people are more thoroughly enslaved and trampled than are these islanders."

Each 'tribe' was broken up into several clans, each with its own function in society. There were chiefly clans, priestly clans, artisans, fishingclans and diplomatic clans whose purpose was to act asspokespeople for the chief.

Leadership in the tribal units was strictly hereditary and succession often a subject of debate. Rank was inherited through both parents, and in a polygamous society this could be very confusing. A chief might have five different sons from five different wives, each with a different political status. To complicate matters even more, rank could be inherited from one's mother's brothers, and succession was usually through brothers before it passed on to sons. There might be a number of individuals qualified as chiefly candidates, but those who became chiefs had to stand out from the group.

Because of intermarriage, incredibly complex relationships between tribes throughout Fiji were created. Tribal leaders hoping to gain political power could thus draw support from different clans throughout the islands through their blood ties, and in the process just as easily make enemies. No one chief was dominant in Fiji. The political scene was in a constant flux of changing allegiances brought about by disputes over land, property or women, by quarrels, or by the rulers' petty jealousies.

European Settlement

The early explorers knew Fiji to be dangerous, an unknown area inhabited by unpredictable cannibals and strewn with treacherous reefs--in short, a place one avoided. This changed after the discovery of sandalwood and the growth of the bˆche-de-mer (sea cucumber) trade.

European settlement in Fiji resulted in the almost immediate involvement of foreign powers. French, British and US war ships called regularly, often on behalf of aggrieved nationals. As the European population grew, settlers who lived under the protection and at the whim of local chiefs lobbied their respective governments in an effort to annex Fiji and establish a business-as-usual climate. Both the British and American consuls living there were deeply immersed in Fijian affairs.

As self-proclaimed King of Fiji, Cakobau offered to cede Fiji to Britain in return for the payment of his long-overdue US$43,000 debt to the United States. Four years later the offer was refused.

After the 1860s the European settlement evolved from a handful of scraggly beachcombers and vagabonds to a more orthodox settler society arriving mostly from Australia and New Zealand. Fiji became attractive because of the belief that the British were going to annex it, and economically as a cotton-growing center for European markets which were deprived of this commodity during the American Civil War. By 1870 the European population numbered more than 2000.

Settlers purchased land, sometimes fraudulently, by selling firearms which were used in tribal conflicts. Claims and counter-claims often followed with no form of arbitration. There were also problems with labor. Men were needed to work the plantations, and the Fijians were reluctant to do so. Virtual slave laborers from the Solomons or New Hebrides were imported or "blackbirded" to Fiji.

National Government

The first attempt at a national government was a council of chiefs which met in 1865, but collapsed two years later because no one could agreeon anything. This was followed by the creation of regional governments in Bau, naturally headed by Cakobau; in Lau, run by Ma'afu (with close links to Tonga) and, in Bua. Although the latter two were moderately successful in establishing some kind of order, events were moving too rapidly for the chiefs' attempts at political reform, particularly with the influx of European settlers.

In 1871 the Cakobau government was established at the old whaling port of Levuka. Hopes were high on all sides that it would work. However, as a historian noted, `the ministers could not satisfy the irreconcilable demands of merchants, planters and Fijians'. The government became universally unpopular' and the situation deteriorated. Talk of race war was heard, and in order to prevent anarchy and bloodshed Cakobau was forced to cede Fiji to Britain. The British, realizing the responsibility they had towards the settlers and the Fijians, and not wishing the country to fall into America's hands, accepted. On 10 October 1874 the deed of cession was signed in Nasova, near Levuka. Fiji had become a crown colony.

Arrival of the Indians

Fiji was now a colony, but a colony deemed in need of economic growth. Large-scale plantations seemed the obvious answer to the new rulers, but labor was scarce. Sir Arthur Gordon, the colony's first governor, and fortunately for Fiji a decent man, was dead set against using natives to work the fields. Not only did he take steps immediately to protect Fijians from being exploited as a labor force, he also made it illegal to sell native land. In addition, he set up a taxation system requiring Fijians to work their own land rather than that of a planter.

Thus Gordon set in motion laws that would forever benefit the Fijian people by making sure they would never be alienated from their land nor exploited as workers. Gordon, a true 19th- century romantic, took the role of protector seriously and developed an administration very paternalistic towards the Fijians.

However, the colony was still in a dilemma. The infant sugar industry did have potential, but no-one to work the fields. The planters were screaming for labor. Gordon had a plan. Having previously worked in Mauritius and Trinidad, he had seen indentured Indian labor. He convinced the planters to bring over Indians as the answer to their needs.

On 14 May 1879 the era of the Indian in Fiji began. On this day the Leonidas arrived from Calcutta with 463 immigrants aboard. Between May 1879 and November 1916, when the final labor transport ship arrived, 60,000 people had come to serve as "coolies". According to Fiji-Indian scholar and leader Ahmed Ali, in these conditions, "privacy was nonexistent, marriages fragile, morality a luxury, over tasking widespread, violence, including murder and suicide, not infrequent..."

Of the new arrivals, some 85% were Hindus, 14% Muslims, and the rest were mainly Christians and Sikhs. Most of the migrants were men 20 to 40 years of age from the poor, uneducated, agricultural castes. Life in India was never easy, and economic conditions had pushed them to accept the inducement offered by the British Empire. The Indian exodus was to forever change the face of Fijian history.


Colonial rule in Fiji was generally benign. The chiefly class was left intact and Fijians were pretty much able to run their own affairs. Fijian soldiers fought with distinction in World War I, The Second World War and in Malaya.

In the late '50s labor unrest at home began to grow. Labor unions, flexing their new-found muscle for the first time, called a general strike in December 1959, which eventually led to rioting by Fijians and Indians against European property. The strike was short-lived, but was followed by a huge sugar workers' strike the following year. A massive march on the capital by sugar workers was turned back at the Rewa Bridge by Fijian military forces reinforced by the New Zealand army.

The colonial government, realizing that postponing independence any longer would be to no-one's benefit, set the spring of 1963 for the first popular election of the legislative council. For the first time, common Fijians and Indians would vote, and women of all races would be enfranchised. The legislative council had existed in various forms since cession to Britain in 1874, but its members were chosen by different methods according to race. Thus the European members were selected by an election amongst European men, the Fijians were appointed by the great council of chiefs, and Indian members were chosen by wealthy Indians.

A ministerial system of government was introduced in 1967, with Ratu Mara appointed chief minister, and members of the executive council in the legislative council becoming the council of ministers. Negotiations began again in 1969 between the Alliance Party led by Chief Minister Ratu Mara and the National Federation Party led by A D Patel, the party's founder. The main stumbling blocks were the issues of full self-government and communal roll elections. The Patel-led Indians wanted a republic with no ties to the British Commonwealth or Crown and a one-person/one-vote electoral system. The Alliance Fijians and other races, including a minority of anti-NFP Indians, insisted on maintaining close links to the Crown and rejected any idea of a republic. The Alliance Party was also insisting on a communal election system.

In October 1969, Patel died and was succeeded by Siddiq Koya, who had a good working relationship with Ratu Mara and was ready to compromise. In January 1970 a tentative date of 10 October 1970 was set for independence. However, there was still no constitutional agreement. A solution would not be reached until 30 April -- just five months before the planned date. Incredibly, the target date was met, and 96 years to the day after Fiji's sovereignty was handed to Britain, it became an independent state in the presence of His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, representing Queen Elizabeth.

April 1972 saw Fiji's first post-independence election in which Ratu Mara's Alliance Party gained a 14-seat majority in the house of representatives. The following January, the paramount chief of the Fijians, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, was sworn in as governor general, succeeding Sir Robert Foster, the last governor under colonial rule.

Fiji's international stature, almost single-handedly shaped by Ratu Mara, grew after independence. Perhaps the most visible manifestations of the nation overseas are the Royal Fiji Military Forces. In April 1978 Fiji offered to send a battalion to Lebanon as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The first soldiers left two months later, and hundreds of Fijian troops served in that war-torn country until the operation finally came to an end in 2002. Several dozen Fijian soldiers lost their lives in Lebanon. The Coups Since independence, Fijihad been the shining example of democracy, multicultural harmony and development in the Pacific, and indeed a standard for the entire third world. That was shattered on the morning of 14 May 1987, when Lt. Col Sitiveni Rabuka marched into parliament with a handful ofsoldiers and overthrew the government in a bloodless coup.

The event triggering the coup had occurred a month earlier when Ratu Mara's Fijian dominated Alliance Party, which had ruled since independence, was defeated in the country's fifth post- independence election. A coalition composed of the mostly Indian NFP and the newly formed Labor Party won a stunning upset victory.

The Labor Party had been formed three years earlier by trade union leaders, Fijians disenchanted with the increasingly conservative policies of the Alliance Party and Indians weary of the constant bickering and infighting of the NFP. Although the Labor Party and NFP did form a coalition heading into the election, it was the Labor Party's Timoci Bavadra who was chosen to head the new government after the election. Although Bavadra was Fijian and the majority of his cabinet was made up of non- Indians, the coalition was labeled "Indian dominated".

It was into this strained atmosphere that the new government convened its first business session of parliament. In its first hour, it was toppled. At gunpoint, Bavadra and his entire cabinet were kidnapped from the floor of the parliament before the disbelieving members of the house. The next day, Ratu Mara, one of the fathers of democratic Fiji, announced he would serve on the new government's council of ministers. This legitimized the coup in the minds of many Fijians.

Rabuka's Reasons

Rabuka said the purpose of the coup was to return political power to Fijian hands and demanded that changes be made to the constitution guaranteeing Fijian control of the government. The great council of chiefs met and gave their support to the Rabuka regime with a mandate to amend the constitution. Bowing to international pressure, Rabuka eventually handed control over the government to the governor general. But Rabuka remained in command of the army and police.

On 25 September 1987, Rabuka staged his second coup, claiming his actions were to quell the violence against the Indian population. At the same time he scrapped the constitution and ordered the writing of a new document guaranteeing Fijian supremacy. Twelve days later Rabuka declared Fiji a republic, naming Ratu Penaia president, and ending the 113-year tie to the British Crown. At the end of 1987 Rabuka appointed Ratu Mara prime minister of an interim government and named himself minister for home affairs in charge of the army and police.

Dr Timoci Bavadra died of natural causes on 3 November 1989. After prolonged international censure, Rabuka and representative of the Info-Fijian community signed a revised constitution allowing common roll voting in 1997. Two years later, the Fiji Labour Party led by Mahendra Chaudhry won an upset victory over Rabuka's party and the country got its first Indo-Fijian prime minister. On May 19, 2000, a failed businessman named George Speight led a civil coup in Fiji's parliament, leading to the proclamation of a state of emergency. With Chaudhry and other parliamentarians held hostage by Speight's terrorists, President Mara was forced to resign and a caretaker government under Laisenia Qarase was appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs. Speight was eventually arrested and convicted of treason. He is currently serving a life sentence on a small island near Suva. Fresh elections were held under the 1997 constitution in 2001, and Qarase retained his position as prime minister. With the rule of law reestablished, most countries dropped the sanctions imposed after the 2000 coup, and life in Fiji returned to normal. Although ethnic and economic tensions continue to simmer in Fiji, the country is entirely safe for visitors.

Fiji Today

Fiji's economy was on then mend over the past few years but the fallout from the current political situation, the decline of sugar as a prime source of revenue and nearly two decades long brain drain and flight of capital due to the past political unrest has devastated the economy. The brain drain has meant doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, bank officers, mechanics and other skilled professionals have left the country. In key areas such as health care, the government has hired foreign nationals to take up the slack.

To catch up on the current state of affairs, check out Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, which is probably the best of the political blogs.

Stuck in a cycle of political vengeance, which which appeared in the Fiji Times, does a good job of explaining the current political situation from an insiders point of view. Likewise, One Year Into Fiji's Fourth Coup by East West Center scholar Gerard Finin offers a great overview of the political situation from an outside perspective. This piece by John Fischer in is also instructive re the current regime.

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