There is disagreement among historians and archaeologists as to exactly when humans came to Fiji, though the general consensus is that people had arrived in the islands by about 1,500 B.C. There is agreement that two distinct groups settled Fiji; Melanesians,
dark-skinned settlers who arrived in Fiji by way of Vanuatu, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands, and lighter-skinned Lapita people, skilled navigators and fishers from New Caledonia who had originated in Southeast Asia’s Malay Peninsula. Later, the Lapita people left Fiji for islands further east, seeding the Polynesian islands like Tonga and Samoa. This left Fiji primarily to the Melanesians.
Whoever settled the place and when, Fiji is an archipelago that consists of more than 330 islands, of which only about a third are inhabited. Most people live on the two main islands, Vanua Levu and Viti Levu; because Viti Levu’s interior is rugged most Fijians who call the island home live in the surprisingly urban Suva.
While the first European to visit Fiji was a Dutch explorer who came in the mid-1600s, and the noted English sailor James Cook came by in 1774, the most popular navigator to “discover” Fiji was Captain William Bligh, who sailed there between 1789 and 1792 after the infamous mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. The British began to colonize in the 19th
century, first with a smattering of shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from Australia, then with missionaries intent on converting Fijians to Christianity.
Before the British colonized, Fiji was an island of many languages, many diverse tribes and many cannibals. (If you’re a grown-up and curious about such gruesome things, you may be interested in looking up Ratu Udre Udre, Fiji’s “most prolific cannibal.”) There was also a lot of fighting between Melanesian tribes, as well as a period of increased Melanesian European tension in the 1860s and early 1870s because of “blackbirding,” the practice of tricking or kidnapping people to become laborers, which some European cotton plantation owners did to Melanesians from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and the Solomon Islands. The British officially declared Fiji a colony in 1874, ultimately resulting in a relaxation of inter-tribal tensions and a decrease in the amount of blackbirding. The British actually instituted laws that assured Fijians could have title to their own lands would not become low wage laborers, but they still needed inexpensive labor for their sugar and cotton plantations. The British therefore brought about 60,000 Indians to do the work. These Indians became the ancestors of the today’s substantial population of Indo-Fijians.
When the British granted Fiji its independence in 1970 they not only left it as a parliamentary democracy but they also left political tensions between the roughly equal number of Indo-Fijian and Melanesian-Fijians. There is also a small group known as Part-Europeans who are descendants of Australians, Americans or European plantation-owners who had children with Fijian women. Another distinct group, Rotumans, are of Polynesian ethnicity and come from the island of Rotuma, which became part of Fiji in 1881.
Facing such deeply entrenched ethnic divisions, Fiji has had a difficult time forming and maintaining a stable government–recent Fijian history has been an ongoing series of coups. In general Melanesian-Fijians have believed Indo-Fijians to possess more political and economic power, though that’s not necessarily the case. Whichever group has power, civil and political uncertainty have inspired much Indo-Fijian emigration, shifting the balance of the islands’ majority rule to the Melanesians. Today about 55% of Fijians are Melanesian and a diminishing percentage, about 40%, are Indo-Fijians.
Despite its internal instability Fiji is still one of the main powers in the region. Fiji is a founding member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an intergovernmental organization
that consists of Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and has the largest and most powerful army in the region. (Okay, so there are only about 3,500 soldiers in the Fijian Army. But since almost every country in the region has no army, 3,500 Fijians with guns is a whole lot.)
Will Fiji be able to overcome its ethnically divided past to pull its politics together? As of this writing (February 2013), Fiji is under the rule of Commodore “Frank” Voreqe Bainimarama. (Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald calls Bainimarama, a Melanesian-Fijian, “a cross between Saddam Hussein and Forrest Gump.”) Elections are tentatively scheduled for 2014. Will Bainimarama allow the elections to go forward? Will there be another ethnically-charged coup? Will Melanesian-Fijians, Indo-Fijians, Polynesian-Fijians and Part-European Fijians find some way to get along?
About.com’s overview of Fiji | Fijiguide.com’s Fiji FAQ: “Q: Are the people friendly? A: Very friendly.” | Fijians love to drink kaya (yaqona): “[T]he act of sharing a bowl creates an invisible bond between the participants. The visitor feels a warmth and acceptance among complete strangers that is normally associated with family or close friends. (The formal kaya-sharing ceremony is called a sevusevu) | Jane’s guide to Indo-Fijian History and Culture (Postcard images of Indo-Fijians provide a history in and of themselves) | The Guardian’s take on the 2006 coup