The pottery of Fijian cities shows that Fiji was settled before or around 3500 to 1000 BC, although the question of migration to the Pacific is still relevant. It is thought that the Lapita people or the ancestors of the Polynesians first settled the islands, but little is known about what became of them after the arrival of the Melanesians; it is possible that they had some influence on the new culture, and archaeological evidence shows that they then moved on to Samoa, Tonga and even Hawaii.
The first settlements in Fiji were established by traders and settlers from the West about 5000 years ago. Shards of lapitapottery have been found in numerous excavations throughout the country. Aspects of Fijian culture are similar to the Melanesian culture of the western Pacific, but more closely related to ancient Polynesian cultures. Trade between Fiji and neighbouring island groups long before contact with Europe is attested to by canoes made from native Fijian trees found in Tonga and Tongan words that are part of the language of the Lau Island group. Pots from Fiji have been found in Samoa and even in the Marquesas Islands.
Stretching 1,000 kilometres from east to west, Fiji is a nation of many languages. The history of Fiji is one of colonisation, but also one of mobility. Over the centuries, a unique Fijian culture has developed. Constant warfare and cannibalism between warring tribes were common and part of everyday life. In the 19th century, Ratu Udre Udre is said to have consumed 872 people and built a cairn to record his achievement. According to Deryck Scarr, “during ceremonies, freshly killed bodies were piled up to be eaten. Eat me!” was an appropriate ritual greeting from a commoner to a chief. Scarr also reported that the poles supporting the chief’s house or the priest’s temple were sacrificed to the bodies buried underneath, on the assumption that the spirit of the ritually sacrificed person would call upon the gods to support the structure, and “men were sacrificed whenever the poles needed renewing. Moreover, when a new boat, or drua, was launched, if it was not dragged over the men like a roller and crushed them to death, “it was not supposed to float for long”. Today, Fijians regard these times as “na gauna ni tevoro” (the devil’s time). The cruelty of the cannibal lifestyle discouraged European sailors from approaching Fijian waters, earning Fiji the name Cannibal Islands; as a result, Fiji has remained unknown to the rest of the world.
The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman visited Fiji in 1643 in search of the Great Southern Continent. Europeans settled permanently on the islands from the 19th century onwards. The first European settlers in Fiji were beach painters, missionaries, whalers and people involved in the booming sandalwood and sea spar trade.
Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau was a Fijian chief and warlord from Bau Island off the east coast of Viti Levu, who united some of Fiji’s warring tribes under his leadership. He later became known as Tui Viti, or King of Fiji, and then as Vunivalu, or Protector, after the surrender of Fiji to the United Kingdom. The British subjugated the islands as a colony in 1874. When the first governor of Fiji, Arthur Charles Hamilton-Gordon, used Indian indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations, he forbade the use of indigenous labour and any interference with their culture and way of life. In 1875-76, a measles epidemic killed over 40,000 Fijians, about a third of the Fijian population. In 1942, the population was about 210,000, including 94,000 Indians, 102,000 ethnic Fijians, 2,000 Chinese and 5,000 Europeans.
The British granted Fiji independence in 1970. Democratic rule was interrupted by two military coups in 1987, triggered by a growing perception that the government was dominated by the Indo-Fijian (Indian) community. In the second coup in 1987, the Fijian monarchy and governor-general were replaced by a non-executive president and the country’s name was changed from the Dominion of Fiji to the Republic of Fiji and then to the Republic of the Fiji Islands in 1997. The two coups and the accompanying civil unrest contributed to a high level of Indo-Fijian emigration; the resulting population loss led to economic hardship and had Melanesians forming the majority.
In 1990, the new constitution institutionalised Fiji’s ethnic dominance in the political system. The Group Against Racial Discrimination (GARD) was formed to resist the unilaterally imposed constitution and to reinstate the 1970 constitution. In 1992, Sitiveni Rabuka, the lieutenant colonel who had led the 1987 coup, became prime minister after elections held under the new constitution. Three years later, Rabuka set up the Constitutional Review Commission, which drafted a new constitution in 1997 that was supported by most leaders of the indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian communities. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth of Nations.
The year 2000 was marked by a new coup d’état, initiated by George Speight, which effectively overthrew the government of Mahendra Chaudhry, who had become the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister in 1997 after the adoption of the new constitution. Commodore Frank Bainimarama took over executive power after the, possibly forced, resignation of President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Later in 2000, Fiji was rocked by two mutinies when insurgent soldiers broke out at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva. The Supreme Court ordered the restoration of the constitution and general elections were held in September 2001 to restore democracy, won by Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party.
In 2005, amidst much controversy, the Qarase government proposed a Reconciliation and Unity Commission to recommend compensation for the victims of the 2000 coup and an amnesty for the perpetrators. However, the military, especially the nation’s highest military commander, Frank Bainimarama, strongly opposed the bill. Bainimarama agreed with his critics who said that the amnesty for supporters of the current government who had played a role in the violent coup was a sham. His attack on the legislature, which continued unabated throughout May and into June and July, further strained his already tense relations with the government.
In late November and early December 2006, Bainimarama played an important role in the 2006 coup in Fiji. Bainimarama presented Qarase with a list of demands after a bill was introduced in parliament that provided partial pardons for participants in the 2000 coup attempt. He gave Qarase an ultimatum on 4 December to either agree to these demands or resign from office. Qarase categorically refused to accede or resign, and on 5 December, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo reportedly signed a legal order dissolving parliament after meeting with Bainimarama.
In April 2009, the Fiji Court of Appeal ruled that the 2006 coup was illegal. This was the beginning of Fiji’s constitutional crisis in 2009. President Iloilo suspended the constitution and removed all holders of constitutional posts, including all judges and the governor of the Central Bank. He then reappointed Mr Bainimarama as Prime Minister under his “New Order” and imposed an “Emergency Public Order” restricting travel within the country and allowing press censorship.
For a country of its size, Fiji has substantial armed forces and has contributed significantly to UN peacekeeping missions in various parts of the world. In addition, a significant number of former military personnel served in the lucrative security sector after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.