Fijian History


Fiji (fē´jē) or Viti (vē´tē), officially Republic of Fiji, republic (2015 est. pop. 892,000), c.7,000 sq mi (18,130 sq km), South Pacific. Suva is the capital.


Fiji comprises c.320 islands, of which some 105 are inhabited. Viti Levu, the largest, constitutes half the land area and is the seat of Suva. The other important islands are Vanua Levu (the second largest), Taveuni, Kadavu, Koro, Gau, and Ovalau. In the group's center is the Koro Sea, east of which is the Lau group. The Yasawa and Mamanuca groups are west of Viti Levu. The larger islands are volcanic and mountainous; the highest peak, Mt. Victoria, or Tomaniivi (4,341 ft/1,323 m), is on Viti Levu, which has the longest river, the Rewa. Fiji's climate is warm and humid. There are dense tropical forests on the windward sides of the islands and grassy plains and clumps of casuarina and pandanus on the leeward sides; mangrove forests are abundant, and hot springs are common in the mountain regions. The chief towns are generally seaports: Suva and Lautoka on Viti Levu; and Levuka, on a small island E of Viti Levu.


Indigenous Fijians, or iTaukei, are mainly of Melanesian origin with Polynesian elements, which are much more pronounced in the eastern islands; they account for more than half the population. Indo-Fijians, who mainly came from the subcontinent from 1879 to 1916 as indentured workers for the British, make up not quite four tenths of the population and are engaged chiefly in the sugar industry and commerce. In the mid-1960s Indo-Fijians constituted slightly more than half of Fiji's inhabitants; many left after the 1987 coup (see under History) and as a result of political and economic crises since then. There are also small groups of Europeans, Chinese, and Micronesians. Indigenous Fijians are mainly Christian; about three quarters of the Indo-Fijians are Hindu and one quarter are Muslim. The official languages are English and Fijian; Hindi is also spoken.


Fiji's fertile soil yields sugarcane, coconuts, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes, bananas, pineapples, and lumber. Cattle, pigs, horses, and goats are raised. Sugar, whose processing accounts for a third of Fiji's industrial production, is the main export. The industry has suffered since the late 1990s because of low world prices, drought, and inefficiencies, and the government is seeking to diversify the island's commercial agriculture. Tourism and mining are important to the economy, as are remittances from Fijians working abroad. Sugar, clothing, gold, silver, timber, fish, molasses, copra, coconut oil, and farmed pearls are exported. Imports consist largely of manufactured goods, machinery and equipment, petroleum products, foodstuffs, and chemicals. Australia, Singapore, the United States, and New Zealand are the main trading partners.


Fiji is governed under the constitution of 2013. The president, who is a largely ceremonial head of state, is elected by the parliament to a three-year term; the president may serve for two terms. The government is headed by the prime minister. The unicameral parliament has 50 members who are elected proportionally to four-year terms. Administratively, Fiji is divided into 14 provinces and the dependency of Rotuma.


Polynesians presumably arrived in the islands more than 3,000 years ago; they were largely conquered and absorbed by Melanesian invaders c.1500 BC The first Europeans to visit Fiji were the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1643 and British Capt. James Cook in 1774. In the early 1800s the first European settlement was established at Levuka, which became an important whaling port in the mid-1800s. A Fijian national government, with a tribal chief as king, was established in Levuka in 1871, but in 1874, at the request of Fiji's tribal chiefs, Great Britain annexed the islands. The capital was moved to Suva in 1882. During World War II the islands were an important supply point.

In 1970, Fiji gained independence as a member of the Commonwealth with Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as prime minister. In 1987, Col. Sitiveni Rabuka led two coups that wrested control of the racially divided nation's government from the ethnic Indians. Fiji was declared a republic; it also was expelled (1987–97) from the Commonwealth. In 1990 a new constitution granted nonurban native Fijians a disproportionate say in the government. Two years later Rabuka became prime minister, and in 1994 Mara was appointed president.

The constitution was amended in 1997 to give nonethnic Fijians a larger voice, and in May, 1999, Labor party leader Mahendra Chaudhry was the first ethnic Indian to become prime minister of Fiji, replacing Rabuka. A May, 2000, coup attempt led by Fijian businessman George Speight took Chaudhry hostage and demanded an end to Indian participation in Fijian politics; the crisis led the army to seek Mara's resignation and briefly take power. The army appointed (July, 2000) an ethnic Fijian–dominated government headed by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase; Ratu Josefa Iloilo became president. Speight, after releasing his hostages, demanded a strong influence in the new government but was arrested by the army, and his insurgency was quashed. In 2002 he pled guilty to treason and was sentenced to life in prison.

Qarase's government was subsequently ruled illegal by the courts, and Ratu Tevita Momoedonu was appointed prime minister of a caretaker government in Mar., 2001. New parliamentary elections in August–September resulted in a victory for the Fiji United party (SDL), which formed a Fiji-nationalist coalition government with the Conservative Alliance; Qarase again became prime minister. The post-coup period saw many Indo-Fijians forced off leased farms when ethnic Fijian landowners, who control roughly 90% of the land, did not renew leases.

In July, 2003, Qarase's government was ruled unconstitutional because it did not include members of the opposition Labor party. In September the Labor party refused to join the government when Qarase excluded Chaudhry, and the situation remained unresolved until late in 2004 when Chaudhry decided to lead the opposition. Also in 2004, Ratu Jope Seniloli, the vice president, was convicted on charges stemming from his appointment as president by George Speight during the attempted coup in 2000; he subsequently resigned after serving a shortened sentence.

A government proposal in mid-2005 to offer amnesty to persons involved in the coup sparked protests from the opposition and from the army, whose commander threatened to intervene if such a law was passed. The Great Council of Chiefs, however, supported the proposal. Tensions between the government and army continued into 2006. The military chief, Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, was accused in the spring by Qarase's party of illegally campaigning against it, and later in the year Bainimarama called for Qarase's government to drop ethnically divisive legislation or resign. Meanwhile, President Iloilo was reelected in Mar., 2006. Qarase's coalition won the May parliamentary elections, and the Labor party subsequently agreed to participate in the multiparty cabinet, although Chaudhry did not accept a post.

In November Qarase agreed to drop the coup amnesty proposal, but relations between the government and military remained tense; the preceding month Qarase had attempted to replace Bainimarama as military chief, but the proposed replacement refused the post. The military ultimately overthrew the government in December, and Bainimarama initially assumed the post of interim president. The Commonwealth partially suspended Fiji in response (and fully suspended Fiji three years later). Opposition from the Council of Chiefs led Bainimarama to restore Iloilo to the presidency in Jan., 2007, but at the same time the president announced that he supported the commodore and Bainimarama became interim prime minister. In April the Bainimarama's government suspended the members of the Great Council of Chiefs because of the lack of cooperation with the government. The move followed the council's refusal to approve the government's choice for vice president.

A "people's charter," intended by Bainimarama to complement the constitution and to unify Fiji and end its racially divisive politics, was completed in Aug., 2008, and approved by the president in December. In Apr., 2009, after the courts declared Bainimarama's government illegal, he resigned as prime minister. President Iloilo subsequently abrograted the constitution, dismissed the judiciary, appointed himself head of state "under a new legal order," and then appointed Bainimarama interim prime minister; judges aligned with the government were appointed in May.

In July, 2009, Bainimarama announced that work on a new constitution would begin in 2012 and democratic elections would be held two years later. A draft constitution was completed by a constitutional commission by the end of 2012, but copies of the draft that were disseminated were confiscated by the government, and the government announced that it would revise the draft.

Meanwhile, Iloilo resigned as president for health reasons in July, 2009. Vice President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau became acting president and then, in Nov., 2009, president. By early 2010, Bainimarama's government was taking increasingly repressive moves against its critics, including tight restrictions on the media. In Mar., 2010, a cyclone caused significant damage in N Fiji.

Bainimarama abolished the Great Council of Chiefs in Mar., 2012. The council, which had been established under British rule in 1875, had elected the president and consulted in the appointment of senators. Former prime minister Qarase was convicted of corruption in July, 2012; the charges related a company directorship he held in the 1990s. In Sept., 2013, a new constitution was finally adopted. Bainimarama resigned as Fiji's military chief in Mar., 2014, but he remained the country's interim prime minister. Former prime minister Chaudhry was convicted in Apr., 2014, of violating Fiji's Exchange Control Act. Bainimarama's Fiji First party handily won the Sept., 2014, parliamentary elections, and he became prime minister. Following the election, Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth was lifted. In 2015 Jioje Konrote was elected Fiji's president. Many parts of the country suffered extensive destruction from a severe tropical cyclone (hurricane) in Feb., 2016.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Fijian History: Selected full-text books and articles

Fiji: Race and Politics in an Island State By Michael C. Howard University of British Columbia Press, 1991
Men from under the Sky: The Arrival of Westerners in Fiji By Stanley Brown; Raymond Burr C. E. Tuttle Co., 1973
The Failure of Democratic Politics in Fiji By Stephanie Lawson Oxford University, 1991
Body, Self, and Society: The View from Fiji By Anne E. Becker University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995
Peasants in the Pacific: A Study of Fiji Indian Rural Society By Adrian C. Mayer University of California Press, 1961
Kingship By A. M. Hocart Oxford University Press, 1927
The Dependent Empire and Ireland, 1840-1900: Advance and Retreat in Representative Self-Government By David Fieldhouse; Frederick Madden Greenwood Press, vol.5, 1991
Librarian's tip: "Fiji" begins on p. 557
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Land Rights, Ethno-Nationality, and Sovereignty in History By Stanley L. Engerman; Jacob Metzer Routledge, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "Explaining Divergence in Property Rights: Fiji and Hawai'i in the Nineteenth Century" and Chap. 9 "Equals in Markets? Land Property Rights and Ethnicity in Fiji and Sri Lanka"
International Handbook on Race and Race Relations By Jay A. Sigler Greenwood Press, 1987
Librarian's tip: "Fiji" by Ralph Premdas begins on p. 67
The Development Process in Small Island States By Douglas G. Lockhart; David Drakakis-Smith; John Schembri Routledge, 1993
Librarian's tip: Chap. 10 "Land Settlement Schemes in Jamaica and Fiji: Progress through Transformation" and Chap. 11 "Breaking out of Import-Substitution Industrialization: The Case of Fiji"
Culture, Citizenship, and Community: A Contextual Exploration of Justice as Evenhandedness By Joseph H. Carens Oxford University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Democracy and Respect for Difference: The Case of Fiji"
Melanesia and the Western Polynesian Fringe By Glynn Barratt University of British Columbia Press, 1990
Librarian's tip: Part Two "The Russians and Fiji"
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