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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
& TRADITIONAL TEXTILES
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.
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.
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.