The first settlers arrived in Fiji approximately 3,500 years ago from the islands of Melanesia. The people brought with them plants, pigs, and Lapita ware (a type of pottery with a distinct repetitive geometric pattern). Later on, archeologists found two other pottery styles, but it is unclear if they were the result of major migrations, or simply the fruit of innovation by the locals.
Some settlers lived in small communities near ridge forts. They depended on slash-and-burn agriculture. Meanwhile, large groups of people concentrated in the delta regions of southwest Viti Levu, the largest of the Fiji islands, where the land was fertile. They focused on intensive taro cultivation using complex irrigation systems, which is necessary for healthy taro growth. The massive ring-ditch fortifications used to facilitate the taros have become synonymous with the area.
The rush to Bua Bay happened at the start of the 19th century, when the islands started to attract commercial interest following the discovery of sandalwood. People from all over rushed to the islands to stake a claim on their share of the wood. Less than 10 years later, the supply was depleted, but visitors to the islands started coming for another reason: the sea cucumbers.
All these opportunities led to a new era of wealth and power. Drama intensified, and political rivalry quickened the rise of the Kingdom of Bau, from a tiny island off the coast of Viti Levu. By the 1850s, Bau dominated western Fiji.
By the 1860s, European settlers were entering the country in droves. Cotton prices were soaring, thanks to the American Civil War. That’s when things started to turn sour. The Europeans and local Fijians ran into disputes over land and political power, with violent confrontations that led to the destabilisation of the Fijian society. The Fijian chiefs (metaphorically) had their legs cut out from under them. The situation became more complicated as labourers from the Pacific islands entered the picture.
The Europeans’ greed and the factionalism of their members almost sealed their fate at government — they failed. Eventually, the imperial government had to step in.
Fiji under British colonisation
On October 10, 1874, Fiji became a British colony. The first governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, was instrumental in the shaping of Fijian history. He limited their share in commercial and political developments. He banned the sales of land in Fiji. He taxed the locals in agricultural produce and not cash. On top of that, he governed indirectly through the traditional political structure.
After World War 2, Fijian’s administration was restructured, and the traditional chiefly leadership was reinforced.
Steps towards independence started in the 1960s, more a knee-jerk reaction to international pressures than local Fijian demand. The 1966 constitution was born with a compromise between parliamentary democracy and the ethnic divisions of the country. Until then, the Europeans and some Indians held the privilege of administrative power. Following the introduction of the 1966 constitution, adults of all ehtnic backgrounds, including the Fijians who until then were represented by their chiefs, were afforded an opportunity to contribute. The Fijians received land rights, and Fijian chiefs enjoyed a say in the constitution and important matters affecting the status of Fijians.
The votes were classified according to ethnicity: Fijian, Indian, or General (which is anybody who is not Fijian or Indian).
In October 1970, Fiji officially achieved independence from the British, establishing a parliamentary democracy.
The political situation in Fiji has had its ups and downs over the years, most notably in 1987 when there was a clash between parties of different etchnic groups. That was the start of what is now known as the “coup cycle”, a plague of coups.