An island of hope

Geography - History - Climate - Culture and People - Land System in Fiji - Political Situation - Fiji at a Glance - Fact for Travellers - What to Do and What to See - Smart Phrases in Fijian - Smart Phrases in Hindi - Did You Know ...?


First settlements in the Fiji Islands date back about three and a half thousand years ago. The original people are now called `Lapita People´ after a distinctive type of pottery they produced, remnants of which have been found practically in all the islands of the Pacific though not in eastern Polynesia. Linguistic evidence suggests that they came from northern or central Vanuatu, or possibly the eastern Solomon.

Before they long had moved further on, colonizing Rotuma to the North and Tonga and Samoa to the East. From there, vast distance was crossed to complete the settlement of the Pacific to Hawaii in the North, Rapanui (Easter Island) in the East and Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the South.

Fijian roots

Contrasting the islands of Polynesia, which showed a permanent, and steadily evolving culture from initial occupation, Fiji appears to have undergone at least two periods of rapid culture change in prehistoric times.
This may have been due to arrival of fresh waves of immigrants, presumably from the West. Pre-historians have noted that a massive 12th century volcanic eruption in southern Vanuatu coincides with the disappearance there of a certain pottery style, and its sudden emergence in Fiji.

Many features of Viti´s rich culture were suppressed along with the old religion in the mid to late 19th century. Pre-Christian costume, hairdressing and body decoration were far removed from today's conservative dress style. However, despite the changing influences and pressures, many aspects of the communal way of life are still strong. Throughout the colonial era the chiefly system and village structure remained intact, partly due to the laws protecting Fijian land rights and prohibiting Fijian labour on the plantations.

Fire Walking in Beqa Island

Most indigenous Fijians live in villages in mataqali (extended family groups) and acknowledge a heredity chief who is usually male. Each mataqali owns land, and wider groups have a paramount chief. Each family is allocated land for farming by the chief.

Clans gather for births, deaths, marriages, meke, lovo feasts (where food is cooked in a pit oven) and to exchange gifts. Yaqona drinking is still an important social ceremony. Communal obligations also have to be met, including farming for the chief, preparing for special ceremonies and feasts, fishing, building and village maintenance. Village life is now only semi subsistent; cash is needed for school fees, community projects and imported goods.
Village life, based on interdependence, is supportive and provides a strong group identity. It is also conservative, independent thinking is not encouraged and being different or too ambitious is seen to threaten the stability of a village. Conflict arises between those who want change and those who resist it. Profits from any additional business are normally expected to be shared with the whole village. Concepts such as kerekere and sevusevu are still strong especially a friend or relative, asks for something: You cannot refuse as property is considered communal. This can put employees of businesses in difficult to say no if the person is of higher rank!


The Fijian culture is an intricate network and that generalizations are fought with danger. Although the legendary King of Bau, Naulivou, and his successors had control over a large area of eastern Fiji, at no time before colonization was Fiji a political unity. Nevertheless, Fiji does exhibit certain traits that set its apart from neighbours, and it is this that defines a distinctive Fijian culture.

Fijians have been cruising the seas since ancient times

Fijian first impressed themselves on European consciousness through the writings of the members of the expeditions of Cook who met them in Tonga. They were described as formidable warriors and ferocious cannibals, builders of the finest vessels in the Pacific, but not great sailors.

They inspired awe among the Tongans, and all their manufactures, especially bark cloth and clubs, were highly esteemed and much in demand. They called their home Viti, but the Tongans called it Fisi, and it is by this foreign pronunciation, Fiji, first promulgated by Cook, that these islands are now known.

After the explorers, other Europeans followed. For over half a century, Fijian culture enjoyed what has been called its "golden age" as tools and resourceful chiefs to their own advantage turned weapons brought by their traders.
Canoes and houses were built, confederation formed and wars fought on a grand scale without precedent. Gradually and inevitably, however, the Fijians way of life changing. As Christianity spread in the islands, wars ceased abruptly and western clothing was adopted.


Traditional wood carving skills are being kept alive by the tourist trade, which provides a ready market for war clubs, spears and chiefs and priests cannibal forks. Tanoa, or yaqona drinking bowls, are still part of everyday life. In areas of Tongan influence, wooden articles are inlaid with ivory , shell and bone. Traditional designs are still made by the Lemaki people of Kabara, southern Lau (descendants) of Tongan and Samoan woodcarvers and cane builders who settled in Viti in the 18th and 19th centuries. Religious objects, such as yaqona vessels, were traditionally made out of vesi, which was considered a sacred timber. Yaqona bowls shaped like turtles are thoughts to have derived from turtle-shaped ibuburau (vessels used in indigenous Vitian yaqona rites).

Authentic traditional wood carving in Fiji Museum

The Fiji museum is the best place to see authentic traditional woodcarvings. Beware that many artefacts for sale at the handicraft centres are not genuinely Fijian. Quality varies greatly and much is now mass-produced by machine.


Fijian villagers still practice traditional arts, crafts, dance and music. While some arts remain an integral part of the cultural groups also retain some of their traditional arts. Recent movements include fashion and though not common, painting and photography. The paintings of Debra Veli, which feature on postcards, are stylized, almost naïve scenes mainly of forest and mythology. There are local fashion designers, and Viti Levu has a clothing and textile industry. A theatre group in Suva show cases local playwrights, and drama is taught at the university.

Visitors are often welcomed at resorts and hotels with a meke, a dance performance that enacts local stories and legends. While performances for tourists may seem staged, the meke is an ongoing tradition. The arrangement for the group and every subtle seating positions.
In the past Fijians were accompanied by chanting by a chorus or by 'spiritually possessed seers' and usually rhythmic clapping, the thumping and stamping of bamboo clacking sticks, the beating of the slit drums, and dancing. They were held purely for entertainment, for welcoming visitors, or on important religious and social occasions; births, deaths, marriages and property exchanges between villages. Chants included laments at funeral, war incitement dirges and animal impersonations. Meke were handed down through generations and new routines were exposed for special events.

Meke, Fiji traditional dance


While in Fiji, try to attend at least one meke and a church service to witness fantastic choir singing. Guitar is now the most commonly used instrument. Popular local musicians include Seru Serevi, the Black Rose, Danny Costello, Michelle Rounds, the freelance dancers, Karuna Gopalan, Laisa Vulakoro, Soumini Vuatalevu, and the mellower Serau Kei Mataniselala. Reggae has been influential and is very popular and there bands in Suva. Tapes of local bands can be found in music shops such as SPR and Morris Hedstrom.

Welcoming dusk with trumpets


Masi, also known as malo or tapa, is bark cloth with black and rust-coloured printed designs. Masi played an important role in Vitian culture and its motifs had symbolic meaning and to a certain extend still do. It is used for special occasions in 1996 the Tui Cakau, wore masi ceremonial attire at his installation as paramount chief of the Cakoudrove region. The beautiful tapa panels that now hang in parliament house are perhaps a symbolic link to the ancestors' spirits. However, Fijian masi is now mostly made for tourists and is used for postcards, wall hangings and other decorative items. Textile designers are now incorporating traditional masi motifs in their fabrics.


Fiji has a total population of 775,077, according to the 1996 census. About half of the population is under the same age of 20 and about two thirds under 15 and 24, who comprise 20% of the total population, are facing high unemployment.

The most populated island is Viti Levu, with 75% of the overall population, followed by Vanua Levu, with 18%. The remaining 7% is spread over 100 odd islands. About 39% of the population are urban dwellers. The highest densities occur in the major centres of Suva, Nadi, Lautoka and in the sugar cane growing areas of Rewa and Ba. As a country, Fiji is rural based with about 60 per cent of the population living in the rural areas.

Riding the rivers

Fiji's population is the most multiracial of all the South Pacific countries. Due to historical factors, such as indenture, some areas have a higher proportion of particular races. The Fijian administration categories people according to their racial origins and this promotes a lack of national identity. The term 'Fijian' is used for indigenous Fijians only, even if a person's family has lived in Fiji for generations. Fiji Indians are referred to as 'Indians' and the naming system for 'Chinese' and other Pacific Islanders is similar. People of Australian, New Zealand, American or European are all labelled as 'Europeans'. Those people with a mixed descent of European and indigenous Fijian are known as part 'European'. There is, however, relatively little marriage between racial groups. Fijians also use the term Kaiviti for indigenous Fijians, Kaihindi for Fiji Indians Kaivelagi for Europeans or people from 'far away'. The term 'pre-mix' is occasionally used informally to describe people of mixed race. The great diversity of languages, religions, customs and subcultures has merged to a certain extent over the years.




The Indians have also regarded Fiji as their home. Most of them are descendants of indentured labourers brought to the country from India to work in the sugar plantations about 100 years ago under the indentured labour system. Initially, most of the Indians who came from the states of Bengal (Bangladesh), Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in northeastern India. Although they were offered passage back to India after their term, most preferred to stay. Later a larger group of southern Indians arrived, through the years they have continued to work the land, becoming prominent in agriculture and also commerce. There has been some intermarriage, but although minimal has been increasing. However, Indians living in the rural areas have adapted well, some even speaking the local dialect and mixing well with the Fijians. Other Indians mostly Punjabis and Gujeratis, voluntarily came to Fiji soon after the end of indenture system. These groups are prominent in Fiji's business Elite.

The Indo-Fijian community adding it's own beauty to the landscape


There are 4500 so-called 'Europeans' who were born in Fiji, and over 10,000 'part Europeans' living in Fiji. Some of these families established themselves in Levuka during the 19th century as traders and shipbuilders or on the copra plantations of Vanua Levu, Lomaiviti and Lau. Europeans tend to work in agriculture, business, tourism and in the public sector.
The 8600 Fijians from Rotuma are Polynesian origin. Most of them live and work in Suva, far away from their remote island. Among the other 9000 Pacific Islanders in Fiji are Tongans and Samoans and 3000 Banabas-Micronesians whose own island did phosphate mining strip, and who were resettled on Rabi after WWII. There are also descendants of blackbirder labourers from the Solomon Islands, most living in communities near Suva and on Ovalau.
About 0.7% of the population (5000 people) is of Chinese origin. The majority of their ancestors arrived early in the 20th century to open general stores and other small businesses. More Chinese have migrated to Fiji in the past decade. Most are living in urban centres and work in restaurants and commerce. The first Chinese settlers married Fijian women, but today the Chinese tend to form their own groups within the community.

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