Fiji History

There are many different Fijian legends which tell of the origin of the Fijians, but the most widely known traditional legend traces the descent of the Fijian people through some ten generations to one canoe and one voyage. The canoe was the Kaunitoni and it carried the great chiefs Lutunasobasoba and Degei who led their people across the seas to Fiji. The people were said to have come from Thebes and traveled up the Nile to Tanganyika, eventually migrating from Africa to Fiji. The legend says that the chiefs built their first village at Vuda, but abandoned it, moving inland. Degei, who was deified by the people, ended up building a village inland of the Ra Coast. Degei had numerous sons who founded families that grew into the present chiefly Yavusa and migrated to various parts of Fiji. The Yavusa is the largest social unit of the Fijians and its members are direct descendants of a single Kalou-vu or deified ancestor.

Despite the fact that Fijian schools teach that the Fijians originated in Africa, there is no evidence that indicates the Fijians came from anywhere else other than Southeast Asia. Most authorities agree that Melanesian and Polynesian people sailed into the Pacific from Southeast Asia via Indonesia and integrated to create a highly-developed society long before the arrival of the Europeans.

Since Fijians had no written language and relied on memory for their history, there is no written record of what happened. However, pottery, tools and artifacts unearthed in archaeological excavations tell us that people reached the Fijian archipelago as early as 3,500 years ago. The original inhabitants of Fiji are now called ‘Lapita’ people after a distinctive type of fine pottery they produced. Lapita pottery can be dated back as far as 1500 BC. Remnants of the pottery have been found in practically all the islands of the Pacific east of New Guinea.

Although we do not know who Fiji’s first settlers were, some authorities are prepared to speculate that Melanesian people were already settled on the islands of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia when the Lapita people migrated into the Pacific from the Southeast Asia area. These Proto-Polynesian settlers had fairer skin and straight or wavy black hair which was different from the Melanesian people already living in the islands who had dark skin and curly hair. The Lapita people were said to be good sailors, craftsmen and excellent potters. The trail of pottery and other tools and artifacts suggest the Lapita people were not powerful enough to occupy the larger islands in the west, but were forced to move east to Fiji and settle. Eventually they moved further on, colonizing Rotuma, Tonga and Samoa.

At some stage after the Lapita, who were Polynesian, settled in Fiji, the Melanesians followed. Since the Lapita people already inhabited the coastal areas, the Melanesian people were forced to settle inland where their population eventually built up and spilled over into coastal territories causing both peaceful and hostile interaction between the two groups. These two groups intermixed but still remained distinct. After a series of confrontations, the descendants of the Lapita people were finally forced out, first into the eastern part of Fiji and then to Tonga and beyond, leaving the dominant Melanesian people in control. Despite the dominant Melanesian culture, the people of Fiji began to organize on the Polynesian chiefly hierarchical structure. The Tongans, who are descendants of the Lapita people, later maintained an intricate social relationship with Fiji through trade because of their need for large material resources of Fiji, mainly sandalwood, timber and canoes. Shortly after the first European contact the Tongans attempted to take control of Fiji and win back what they had lost, which probably would have happened if it had not been for European intervention.

The first recorded European discovery of the Fiji group was made in 1643 by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. The famous English navigator James Cook first sailed through in 1774. However major credit for the discovery and recording of the islands went to Captain William Bligh who sailed through Fiji after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.

Captain James Cook tells in his writings how he first learned of the Fijians while in Tonga. He describes them as fierce warriors and savage cannibals, fine builders of vessels, but not great sailors. At the time, Fijians called their home Viti and the Tongans called it Fiji, but it was Cook who was the first to declare “Fiji” the name for these islands.

After many ships and many lives were lost, European settlers finally established a town at the site of Levuka in the 1820s. At that time, the chief of Bau (Ratu Seru Cakobau) controlled much of Fiji from his outpost in the Rewa River Delta. Cakobau was considered the most willful, intelligent and energetic chiefs of his time. When Cakobau accepted Christianity in 1854, the rest of the country soon followed and tribal warfare and cannibalism came to an end. It was Cakobau, more than any other, who would be responsible for the cession of Fiji to Britain in 1874.

After Fiji was ceded to Great Britain epidemics nearly wiped out the population. The colonial government took the Fijians’ side and land sales were forbidden, health campaigns implemented and the population picked up again, although it was now modified by a new religion and a new economy. Fiji’s sugar cane industry began to grow and the need for laborers brought in the first ship bearing Indian workers on May 14, 1879. Today, the Indians comprise almost half of Fiji’s population.

Fijian Chiefs continued to govern their own villages, and after WWI Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, one of the highest ranking chiefs, became the leader of Fiji’s independence. Although he died in 1958, he is still considered the father of modern Fiji. On October 14, 1970, Fiji achieved independence; and in 1987, Fiji declared itself a republic.

The 20th century has brought about important economic changes in Fiji as well as the maturation of its political system. Fiji developed a major sugar industry and established productive copra milling, tourism and secondary industries. Today, Fiji plays a major role in regional affairs and is recognized as the focal point of the South Pacific.

With all of this in mind, it is not surprising that Fijian culture is an intricate network. Unlike the islands of Polynesia, Fiji’s culture has gone through periods of rapid change in prehistoric times. The indigenous inhabitants of Fiji are traditionally classified as Melanesian but years of intermingling with Polynesians has produced a mixture of physical characteristics within the population.

Nevertheless, Fiji does exhibit certain traits that define a distinctive Fijian culture. Today, traditional Fijian society is based on communal principles derived from village life. People in villages share the obligations and rewards of community life and are still led by a hereditary chief. The great advantage of this system is an extended family unit that allows no-one to go hungry, uncared for or unloved. Ideally it is an all-encompassing security net that works very effectively not only as a caretaking system, but also by giving each person a sense of belonging and identity.