An island of hope

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From Cannibalism to Capitalism


Fiji, the name given to the island group after the arrival of the Christian missionaries and European colonization, comes from the Tongan name for the islands. Before the arrival of Europeans, the inhabitants called their home Viti.

Viti Levu Island or "Big Fiji"

According to Fijian legend, the great chief Lutunasobasoba led his people across the seas to the new land of Fiji. Most authorities agree that people came into the Pacific from South East Asia via Indonesia . Here the Melanesian and the Polynesians mixed to create a highly developed society long before the arrival of the Europeans.

The Lapita people first settled the Fiji Islands about 1500 BC. Linguistic suggest that they came from Vanuatu or the eastern Solomons. These people coastal dwellers relied on fishing, are thought to have lived in relative peace. However from about 2500 years ago, a shift towards agriculture occurred, along with expansion of population. This led to an increase in inter rival feuding. Cannibalism become common and in times of war villages moved to fortified sites.

About 1000 years ago Tongans and Samoans invaded from the east, prompting larger scale, more organized wars. More Tongans invaded in the 18th century and villagers again sort refuge in forted sites. While there were also extended periods of peace, Viti was undergoing intense social upheaval at the time of first European settlement.


Vitian society centred on 'mataqali' (extended family groups), headed by a turaga- ni- koro (hereditary village chief), who was usually male. The Chiefs everyday role was to chat and solve problems while the men in the village worked in the fields and the women fished, cooked and made crafts. Ownership was collective but the Chiefs controlled the allocation of land and labour. A Chief's immerse power over the community was reinforced by the belief that he or she was tabu (sacred) and their mana (spiritual power) was derived from a special relationship with an ancestral god.

Indigenous Fijians in a tribe ceremony
Chiefs were polygamous and intermarriages led to complex interrelationships between mataqali. Villages were also grouped under a paramount chief. Normally, the position of chief passed through a generation of half-brothers before passing to their sons, but the village elders often hotly debated the appointment. Rivalry and power struggles were common, resulting in fighting and occasionally all-out war between close neighbours, who were invariably related.

To further complicate the matters, a chiefly woman's son could claim ownership over property of her brothers from other villages. This was known as the vasu system.


No Vitian community was completely self-sufficient. Some villagers produced specialised products that were traded through networks operating throughout the islands. Trade even extended to Tonga and Samoa. Viti was, however never, politically unified and there were local variation in culture.

Traders and Beachcombers

Tongans had long been trading with the Lau group and other more distant Fiji Islands. Colourful Kula bird feathers, which were highly valued for their use in ceremonial dress, masi (printed bark cloth) and weapons were traded. From the early 19th century the European traders also began to visit Fiji waters. Whalers and sandalwood and beach-de-mer (sea cucumber) traders had a significant and disruptive impact on the local population, introducing arms and foreign capitalist values. Some Chiefs even sold land for guns to use in warfare.

Sandalwood Trade
The fragrant sandalwood timber was highly valued in Asia. Initially Tongans obtained sandalwood from the Fijian chiefs of Bua Bay on Vanua Levu, and sold it on to the Europeans. However, when Oliver Slater, a survivor of the shipwrecked Argo, discovered the location of the supply, he spread the news of its whereabouts. Europeans began to trade directly with the Fijians in 1805.

Fijian women collecting fruit

Beche-de-mer Trade
Asia was also a lucrative market for beche-de-mer, where people consider it for a delicacy. As with sandalwood, this trade was short-lived due to overexploitation, only lasting to 1830 to 1835 and 1844 to 1850.


During the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans crossed the southwest Pacific searching for terra Australias incognita, or the 'unknown southern land'. The European discoveries of the Fiji group were accidental. The first of these discoveries was made in 1643 by the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman and English navigators, including Captain James Cook who sailed through in 1774, and made further explorations in the 18th century.

Major credits 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. 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 came by the 19th century.

Cannibalism practised in Fiji at the time quickly disappeared as the missionaries gained influence. When Ratu Seru Cakobau accepted Christianity in 1854, the rest of the country soon followed and tribal warfare came to an end. After Fiji was ceded to Great Britain in 1874, epidemics nearly wiped out the population and it seemed as if the natives were doomed. But the colonial government took the Fiji's side.

By the 19th century, local skirmishes were verging on civil wars. This led the Europeans to believe that the islands were in constant state of war. Land sales were forbidden, health campaigns implemented and the population picked up again. Theirs was not, of course, the culture of the heal, then "golden age" but one modified by the new religion and increasingly the new economic order.


From 1879 to 1916 Indians came to work on the sugar plantations. After the indentured system was abolished, many stayed on as independent farmers or businessmen. Today they comprise about 43.6 per cent of the population.



In 1987 Rabuka apologised to the Queen Elizabeth for the military coups, which ended her position as head of State. He presented her with a tabua as a gesture of atonement. The following month Fiji was readmitted to the commonwealth.

In 1998 the Fiji dollar was devalued. Fiji had been badly affected by the Asian economic crisis, with tourist numbers from South Korea and Japan plunging. The prolonged drought the worst in Fiji's recorded history, had had a devastating effect on the sugar-cane industry. Uncertainty continued as the Fiji-Indian farmers land leases began to expire. The outflow of professional and skilled workers continued, the vast majority being Fiji Indians. In an apparent about face, Rabuka recommended that all of Fiji's citizens, regardless of race, religion or country of origin, be called 'Fijian', to promote unity and oneness into the new millennium.
Under the new constitution voting became compulsory and a record number of political parties joined the competition for seats, dividing voters traditional preferences. Female candidates held a joint campaign rally in Suva and called for women voters to vote for female candidates, rather than along the party lines.

In May 1999 elections, Fijian voters rejected Rabuka and the SVT. The FLP run by Mahendra Chaudhry, won the majority seats and formed a coalition with the FAP. The NFP, led by former opposition leader Jai Ram Reddy, had expected to join the SVT in a coalition government, but fared poorly in the election.

Chaudhry a Fiji Indian, became Fiji's prime minister. Many feared that another coup would be staged. There was an organised demonstration in weeks that followed, and in August a series of explosions in Suva.
Rabuka has since become chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs. It is widely believed he will make a come back for the new elections, using his new position to reunite the Fijian political movement.

Prior to the elections Rabuka had invited India to restore diplomatic relations with Fiji. An Indian high commissioner arrived in Fiji after the elections, following a nine-year diplomatic standoff between the countries.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Fiji will be published in Far Eastern Economic Review in June To order the issue or any reprint, click here.
World INvestment NEws, 2001. Developed by Agencia E.
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