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Fiji - History

Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500 years ago. According to Fijian legend, the great chief Lutunasobasoba led his people across the seas to the new land of Fiji. Respected authorities have discredited the long-held academic theory that indigenous Fijians are descended from South American peoples. Rather, it is now accepted that Fijians are the descendants of different groups of early voyagers.

Initially, the area was peopled by groups from South East Asia, travelling to Papua and the Solomon Islands, via Indonesia. This group mingled with later arrivals from the Australasian continent, creating the Melanesian peoples. A later group, the Lapita, succeeded in travelling east of the Solomon Islands and established the Polynesian culture. In time, the Melanesians also travelled east and came to dominate much of the western South Pacific, including the Fiji islands. Today's indigenous Fijians are the descendants of these early travellers, with their strong Melanesian traits influenced also by their Polynesian ancestry.

According to official Fiji government publication (Fiji Today, 1998), the Fijians are descendants of the great chief Lutunasobasoba, who led his people across the seas to the new land of Fiji. They landed in a great canoe, the Kaunitoni, on the west coast of Viti Levu, at a place which is now called Vuda, and they travelled inland in search of lands to settle until they reached the mountains of Nakauvadra. There they built a house for the old chief, who died shortly afterwards entreating his children from his dying couch to go forth and populate the land. This they did and many of the tribes of Fiji today trace their descent from the children of Lutunasobasoba.

The Lauans, who are descendants of Tongans, settled in Fiji in the 19th century with their chief Ma'afu, a relative of the King of Tonga. Ma'afu, who settled in Fiji in 1848, thirty-one years before the arrival of the first batch of Indo-Fijians to Fiji, established himself at Lakeba as the leader of the Tongan community in Fiji. According to the historian Peter France, the Tui Nayau, who controlled the Lau islands from Cicia in the north to Ono in the south, was at this time an old man, corpulent, and severely afflicted by elephantiasis. With his company of Tongan fighting men, Ma'afu became military representative of Tui Nayau and extended his authority by conquering, in the name of Christianity, the islands of the Moala group; these were thenceforth accepted as being part of Lau.

Indigenous Fijian sociopolitical and economic organisation in the pre-European era was organised along relationships that emanated from sociopolitical structures such as the ‘itokatoka’ (extended family), ‘mataqali’ (sub-clans), ‘yavusa’ (clans), ‘vanua’ and ‘matanitu’ which were both political constructs.

The highly developed societies that evolved in Fiji were discovered accidentally by later European voyagers, the first of which was the Dutch Explorer, Abel Tasman in 1643. Several English navigators also visited the group, including Captain James Cook who sailed through in 1774, and explored further in the 19th century. Major credit for the detailed charting of many of the islands went to Captain William Bligh during his epic 6,000km journey to Timor after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.

The first Europeans to land and live among the Fijians were shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from the Australian penal settlements. Sandalwood traders and missionaries began arriving in the early 19th century. Cannibalism, practised in Fiji at that time, gradually disappeared as missionaries gained influence. European traders and missionaries arrived in the first half of the 19th century, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies.

One Ratu (chief), Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but the continuing unrest led him and a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the British. In 1874 the Fijian Chief, Ratu Seru Cakobau, the self-styled 'King of Fiji, together with other senior chiefs, ceded Fiji voluntarily to Queen Victoria, and Fiji became a British colony.

The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in many other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. From 1879 to 1916 Indians were brought to Fiji by the colonial authorities as indentured labourers ('Geirmits') to work on the sugar plantations. This marked the start of an era of important economic and social change in Fiji. After the indenture system was abolished in 1920, many Indians stayed on as independent farmers and businessmen. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained.

Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining a fine reputation in the tough Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other Allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.

In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970. Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.

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