Fiji’s rich oral history dates back 2,500 years ago, when the ancestors of the current indigenous residents arrived on Viti Levu. The first European to lay eyes on the islands was Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1643, followed by British explorer Capt. James Cook in 1774. However, it was Capt. William Bligh who sailed through Fiji after the mutiny on HMS Bounty in 1789 and became the first European to plot the group. Bligh and his crew passed through Fiji’s Bligh Water, a passage between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and managed to escape the Fijian druas that chased them with the help of a fortuitous squall.
Despite reports from Bligh and others about the dangerous reputation of the islands due to reef-strewn waters and ferocious cannibals, European penetration into Fiji was limited for many years. Only beach bums and convicts who escaped from the British penal colonies in Australia were drawn to the islands, until a sandalwood rush between 1804 and 1813 and traders in search of bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) arrived in the 1820s. This trade lasted until the 1850s and had a lasting impact on Fiji as guns and whiskey were introduced to the islands.
Cakabou Rises and Falls
The story of Cakobau’s rise and fall in Fiji is one of power struggles and shifting alliances. The first European-style town in Fiji was established in the early 1820s by traders and settlers at Levuka on Ovalau. However, the real power lay on Bau, a tiny island off the east coast of Viti Levu. With the help of a Swedish mercenary named Charlie Savage who supplied the guns, High Chief Tanoa of Bau defeated several much larger confederations and extended his control over most of western Fiji.
Tanoa’s son and successor, Cakobau, rose to the height of power in the 1840s and governed much of western Fiji. However, his control was tenuous as local chiefs continued to hold power in their respective regions. Enele Ma’afu, a member of Tonga’s royal family, moved to the Lau Group in 1848 and exerted control over eastern Fiji, bringing along Wesleyan missionaries from Tonga and giving the Methodist church a foothold in Fiji.
Cakobau’s power began to decline after an incident in 1849, when John Brown Williams, the American consul, blamed him for a fire caused by a cannon that burned Williams’s house. Williams demanded US$5,000 in damages, and by the late 1850s, the U.S. claims against Cakobau totaled more than US$40,000. Cakobau offered to cede the islands to Great Britain if Queen Victoria would pay the Americans, but the British turned him down.
Cakobau later made a better deal with the Polynesia Company, an Australian planting and commercial enterprise, when they came to Fiji looking for suitable land after the U.S. Civil War. He tendered only 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres) of his kingdom, and the Polynesia Company accepted, paying off the U.S. claims. Australian settlers were landed on 9,200 hectares (23,000 acres) of land near a Fijian village known as Suva, but the land was unsuitable for cotton, and the climate was too wet for sugar. The government bought the land from the speculators and moved the capital there from Levuka in 1882.
Fiji Becomes a Colony
Fiji became a colony in 1874, after several thousand European planters arrived in the 1860s and early 1870s, buying land for plantations from the Fijians, sometimes fraudulently and often for whiskey and guns. Disputes over land ownership erupted, and Fiji was brought to the brink of race war. The Europeans established a national government at Levuka in 1870 and named Cakobau king of Fiji. However, the situation continued to deteriorate, and Cakobau was forced to cede the islands to Great Britain in 1874.
Sir Arthur Gordon was appointed as the first governor of the new colony. He allowed the Fijian chiefs to continue to govern their villages and districts, and to advise him through a Great Council of Chiefs. He also declared that native Fijian lands could not be sold, only leased, to protect their land and customs. However, this decision has fueled bitter animosity on the part of the land-deprived Indians.
Gordon prohibited the planters from using Fijians as laborers, and convinced them to import indentured servants from India when they switched from cotton to sugar cane in the early 1870s. The first 463 East Indians arrived in Fiji on May 14, 1879.
Following Gordon’s example, the British governed “Fiji for the Fijians,” leaving the Indians to struggle for their civil rights. The government had jurisdiction over all Europeans in the colony and assigned district officers to administer various geographic areas.
Fiji Becomes Independent
Fiji became an independent member of the British Commonwealth of Nations on October 10, 1970, exactly 96 years after Cakobau signed the Deed of Cession. Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, one of the highest-ranking Fijian chiefs, was the father of modern, independent Fiji, having risen to prominence after World War I. During World War II, thousands of Fijians fought with great distinction as scouts and infantrymen in the Solomon Islands campaigns, while many Indo-Fijians demanded equal pay to that of the European members of the Fiji Military Forces and disbanded their platoon when refused.
Ratu Sukuna continued to push for independence until his death in 1958, and Fiji made halting steps toward independence during the 1960s. However, the Indo-Fijians, highly organized in both political parties and trade unions, objected to a constitution that would institutionalize Fijian control of the government and Fijian ownership of most of the new nation’s land. Key compromises were made in 1969, and Fiji became independent in 1970.
Under the 1970 constitution, Fiji had a Westminster-style Parliament consisting of an elected House of Representatives and a Senate composed of Fijian chiefs. For the first 17 years of independence, the Fijians maintained a tenuous majority and control of the government under the leadership of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the country’s first prime minister.
However, a general election held in April 1987 resulted in a coalition of Indians and liberal Fijians voting Ratu Mara and his Alliance party out of power. Animosity immediately flared between some Fijians and Indians, as Dr. Timoci Bavadra, a Fijian, took over as prime minister, but his cabinet was composed of more Indians than Fijians.
In 1987, the predominantly Fijian army stormed into Parliament and arrested Dr. Bavadra and his cabinet, resulting in the South Pacific’s first military coup. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka, nicknamed “Rambo,” a career soldier trained at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, led the coup. Rabuka staged another bloodless coup in September 1987, abrogated the 1970 constitution, declared Fiji to be an independent republic, and set up a new interim government with himself as minister of home affairs and army commander.
The interim government promulgated a new constitution in 1990 that guaranteed Fijians a parliamentary majority, rankling the Indians. Rabuka’s pro-Fijian party won the initial election, but he barely hung onto power in fresh elections in 1994 by forming a coalition with the European, Chinese, and mixed-race general-elector parliamentarians. Rabuka also appointed a three-person Constitutional Review Commission, which proposed the constitution that parliament adopted in 1998. It created a parliamentary house of 65 seats, with 19 held by Fijians, 17 by Indians, 3 by general-electors, 1 by a Rotuman, and 25 open to all races.
The 2000 Insurrection and Coup
The 2000 Insurrection and Coup in Fiji saw the rise of disgruntled Fijian businessman George Speight, who, with armed henchmen, held Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and other members of parliament hostage for 56 days, demanding an all-Fijian government. The military under Commodore Frank Bainimarama disbanded the constitution and appointed an interim government headed by Fijian banker Laisenia Qarase. After being promised amnesty, Speight released his hostages, but the army arrested him 2 weeks later and charged him with treason. The Fiji supreme court ordered fresh parliamentary elections to be held in 2001, and the Fijians won an outright majority, with Qarase becoming the legal prime minister. However, Qarase’s proposed “Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity” bill proved contentious and was opposed by Bainimarama, leading to the 2006 general elections which returned Qarase’s party to power.
The 2006 Coup
The military coup of 2006 was the fourth military takeover in Fiji’s modern history. Commodore Frank Bainimarama led the coup, taking control from Laisenia Qarase’s government, which had been in power since 2001. The coup was triggered by a number of controversial policies proposed by Qarase that angered the military and various sectors of Fiji’s population.
Qarase’s proposal to transfer ownership of Fiji’s foreshore and lagoons from the government to indigenous seaside tribes faced opposition from the tourism industry and non-coastal Fijians who feared they would have to pay to use the country’s coastal waters. Furthermore, his “Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity” bill, which would have granted amnesty to the 2000 coup plotters, also faced criticism from various groups.
Bainimarama repeatedly warned Qarase to abandon his proposals, but when he didn’t, the military took action on December 5, 2006, staging a peaceful coup. The interim regime that followed was praised for its progressive actions, including the crackdown on corruption and government spending. Bainimarama also opened Fiji’s monopolized communications industry to competition, leading to more TV channels and lower prices for phone and Internet services. Additionally, he encouraged Indian professionals to return to Fiji by allowing them to be permanent residents of the country and citizens of other nations.
Although some protests occurred and a few individuals were taken into custody, daily life for most Fijians outside of the tourism industry returned to normal relatively quickly. The interim regime has remained in power since the coup, and Fiji held its first democratic elections in eight years in 2014, with Bainimarama’s party winning the majority of seats in parliament.