Introducing Fiji


If there is one thing every visitor remembers about Fiji, it's the enormous friendliness of the Fijian people. You will see why as soon as you get off the plane, clear Customs and Immigration, and are greeted by a procession of smiling faces, all of them exclaiming an enthusiastic "Bula!"that one word - "health" in Fijian - expresses the warmest and most heartfelt welcome you'll receive anywhere. The relatively large and diverse country's great variety will also be immediately evident, for the taxi drivers who whisk you to your hotel are not Fijians of Melanesian heritage, but Indians whose ancestors migrated to Fiji to escape the shackles of poverty in places like Calcutta and Madras. Now slightly less than half the population, these "Fiji Indians" have played major roles in making their country the most prosperous of the independent south Pacific island nations.

The great variety continues to impress as you go around the islands, for in addition to Fiji's cultural mix, you'll find gorgeous white-sand beaches bordered by curving coconut palms, azure lagoons and colourful reefs offering some of the world's best scuba diving and snorkeling, green mountains sweeping to the sea, and a warm climate in which to enjoy it all. for budget-conscious travelers, Fiji is an affordable paradise. Its wide variety of accommodations ranges from deluxe resorts nestled in tropical gardens beside the beach to down-to-basics hostels catering to the young and the young-at-heart. It has a number of charming and inexpensive small hostels and the largest and finest collection of remote, Robinson Crusoe-like offshore resorts in the entire South Pacific - if not the world. Regardless of where you stay, you are in for a memorable time. The Fijians will see to that. 


The Dutch navigator Abel Tasman sighted some of the Fiji Islands in 1642 and 1643, and Captain James cook visited one of the southernmost islands in 1774, but Captain William Bligh was the first European to sail through and plot the group. After the mutiny on the bounty in April 1789, Bligh and his loyal crew sailed their longboat through Fiji on their way to safety in Indonesia. They passed Ovalau and sailed between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Large Fijian druas (speedy war canoes) gave chase near the Yasawas, but with some furious paddling, the help of a fortuitous squall, and the good luck to pass through a break in the Great Sea Reef, Bligh and his ship escaped to the open ocean. The druas turned back. Bligh's rough handmade charts were amazingly accurate and shed the first European light on Fiji. For a while, Fiji was known as the Bligh Islands, and the passage between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu still is named Bligh Water.

The Tongans warned the Europeans who made their way west across the south Pacific about Fiji's ferocious cannibals, and the reports by Bligh and others of reef-strewn waters only added to the dangerous reputation of the islands. consequently, European penetration into Fiji was limited for many years to beach bums and convicts who escaped from the British penal colonies in Australia. There was a sandalwood rush between 1804 and 1813. Other traders arrived in the 1820s in search of beche-de-mer (sea cucumber). this trade continued until the 1850s and had a lasting impact on Fiji, since along with the traders came guns and whisky.

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The traders and settlers established the first European-style town in Fiji at Levuka on Ovalau in the early 1820s, but for many years the real power lay on Bau, a tiny island just off the east coast of Viti Levu (you'll fly over it between Suva and Levuka). With the help of Swedish mercenary Charlie Savage, who supplied guns, High Chief Tanoa of Bau defeated several much larger confederations and extended his control over most of western Fiji. Bau's influence grew even more under Tanoa's son and successor, Cakobau. Monopolizing the beche-de-mer trade and waging almost constant war against his rivals, this devious chief rose to the height of power during the 1840s. He never did control all the islands, however, for Enele Ma'afu, a member of Tonga's royal family, moved to the Lau Group in 1848 and quickly exerted Tongan control over eastern Fiji. Ma'afu brought along Wesleyan missionaries from Tonga and gave them a foothold in Fiji.

Although Cakobau ruled much of western Fiji as a virtual despot, the chiefs under him continued to be powerful enough at the local level to make his control tenuous. The lesser chiefs, especially those in the mountains, also saw the Wesleyan missionaries as a threat to their power, and most of them refused to convert or even to allow the missionaries to establish outposts in their villages. (The Reverend Thomas Baker was killed and eaten during an attempt to convert the Viti Levu highlanders in 1867.)


Cakobau's slide from power is usually dated from the Fourth of July 1849, when John Brown Williams, the American consul, celebrated the birth of his own nation. A cannon went off and started a fire that burned William's house. The Fijians retrieved his belongings from the burning building and kept them. Williams blamed Cakobau and demanded $5,000 in damages. Within 2 years an American warship showed up and demanded that Cakobau pay up. Other incidents followed, and American claims against the chief totaled more than 440,000 by 1855. Another American man-of-war arrived that year and claimed several islands in lieu of payments; the U.S. never followed up, but the ship forced Cakobau to sign a promissory note due in 2 years. In the late 1850s, with Ma'afu and his confederation of chiefs gaining power, and disorder growing in western Fiji, Cakobu offered to cede the islands to Great Britain if Queen Victoria would pay the Americans. the British pondered his offer for 4 years before turning him down.

Cakobau worked a better deal when the Polynesia Company, an Australian planting and commercial enterprise, came to Fiji looking for suitable land after the price of cotton skyrocketed during the American civil War. Instead of offering his entire kingdom, Cakobau this time tendered only 200,000 acres of it. The Polynesia company accepted, paid off the American claims, and in 1870 landed Australian settlers on 23,000 acres of its land on Viti Levu, near a Fijian village known as Suva. The land was unsuitable for cotton and the climate too wet for sugar, so the speculators sold their property to the government, which moved the capital there from Levuka in 1882.


The Polynesia Company's settlers were just a few of the several thousands of European planters who came to Fiji in the 1860s, and early 1870s. They bought land for plantation from the Fijians, sometimes fraudulently and often for whiskey and guns. claims and counterclaims to land ownership followed, and with no legal mechanism to settle the disputes, Fiji was swept to the brink of race war. some Europeans living in Levuka clamored for a national government; others advocated turning the islands over to a colonial power. things came to a head in 1870, when the bottom fell out of cotton prices, hurricanes destroyed the crops, and anarchy threatened. Within a year the Europeans established a national government at Levuka and named Cakobau king of Fiji. the situation continued to deteriorate, however, and 3 years later Cakobau was forced to cede the islands to great Britain. this time there was no price tag attached, and the British accepted. the deed of cession was signed on October 10, 1874, at Nasovi village near Levuka.

Britain sent Sir Arthur Gordon as the new colony's first governor. As the Americans were later to do in their part of Samoa, he allowed the Fijian chiefs to govern their villages and districts as they had done before (they were not, however, allowed to engage in tribal warfare) and to advise him through a Great council of Chiefs. He declared that native Fijian lands could not be sold, only leased. that decision has to this day helped to protect the Fijians, their land, and their customs, but it has led to bitter animosity on the part of the land-deprived Indians.

In order to protect the native Fijians from being exploited, Gordon prohibited their being used as laborers (not that many of them had the slightest inclination to work for someone else). When the planters decided in the early 1870s to switch from profiles cotton to sugarcane, he convinced them to import indentured servants from India. The first 463 East Indians arrived on May 14, 1879 (see "Fiji's Indians," below).


1500 B.C.   Polynesians arrive from the west.
500 B.C.   Melanesians settle in Fiji, push Polynesians eastward.
A.D. 1300-1600   Polynesians, especially Tongans, invade from the east.
1643   Abel Tasman sights some islands in Fiji.
1774   Captain James Cook visits Vatoa.
1789   After mutiny on the bounty Captain William Bligh navigates his long-boat through Fiji, is nearly captured by a war canoe.
1804   Sandalwood rush begins on Vanua Levu.
1808   Swedish mercenary Charlie Savage arrives at Bau, supplies guns to Chief Tanoa in successful wars to conquer western Fiji.
1813   Charlie Savage is killed; sandalwood era ends.
1822   European settlement begins at Levuka.
1835   Methodist missionaries settle on Lekeba in Lau Group.
1840   United States Exploring Expedition under Captain John Wilkes explores Fiji and charts waters.
1848   Prince Enele Ma'afu exerts Tongan control over eastern Fiji from outpost in Lau Group.
1849   U.S. Consul John Brown Williams' home burned and looted during July 4th celebrations; he blames Cakobau.
1851   American warship arrives, demands Cakobau pay $5,000 for Williams' losses.
1853   Cakobau installed as high chief of Bau, highest post in fiji.
1854   Cakobau converts to Christianity.
1855   American claims against Cakobau grow to $40,000; U.S. warship arrives, claims some islands as mortgage.
1858   Cakobau offers to cede Fiji to Brtain for $40,000.
1860   John Brown Williams dies, his claims still unsettled.
1862   Britain rejects Cakobau's offer.
1867   Unrest grows; Europeans crowns Cakobau as King of Bau; Reverend Thomas Baker eaten.
1868   Polynesia Company buys Suva in exchange for paying Cakobau's debts.
1871   Europeans form central government at Levuka, make Cakobau king of Fiji.
1874   Cakobau's government collapses; he and other chiefs cede Fiji to Britain without price tag.
1875   Measles kills one-fourth of all Fijians; Sir Arthur Gordon becomes first governor.
1879   First Indians arrive as indentured laborers.
1882   Capital moved from Levuka to Suva.
1916   Recruitment of indentured Indians ends.
1917   German Raider Count Felix von Lockner captured at Wakaya.
1917-18   Fijian soldiers support Allies in world War I.
1942-1945   Fijians serve as scouts with Allied units in World War II; failure of Indians to volunteer angers Fijians.
1956   First Legislative Council established with Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna as speaker.
1966   Fijian-dominated Alliance Party wins first elections.
1969   Key compromises pave way for constitution and independence. Provision guarantees Fijian land ownership.
1970   Fiji becomes independent; Alliance party leader Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara chosen first prime minister.
1987   Fijian-Indian coalition wins majority, names Dr. Timoci Bavadra as prime minister with Indian-majority cabinet; Col Sitiveni Rabuka leads two bloodless military coups, installs interim government. Most Sunday activities banned outside hotels.
1991   New constitution guaranteeing Fijian majority is promulgated. Sunday ban eased.
1992   Rabuka's party wins election, he becomes prime minister.
1994   Second election cuts Rabuka's majority; he retains power in coalition with mixed race general electors.
1995   Rabuka appoints constitutional review commission.
1996   Sunday ban repealed.
1998   Parliament adopts new constitution with 25 "open" seats holding balance of power.
1999   labor union leader Mahendra Chaudhry is elected as Fiji's first Indian prime minister.


Following Gordon's example the British governed "Fiji for the Fijians" - and the European planters, of course - leaving the Indians to struggle for their civil rights. The government exercised jurisdiction over all Europeans  in the colony and assigned district officers (the "D.O.s" of British colonial lore) to administer various geographic areas. As usual there was a large gulf between the appointed civil servants sent from Britain and the locals. An example occurred in 1917 when Count Felix von Luckner arrived at Wakaya Island of eastern Viti Levu in search of a replacement for his infamous world War I German raider, the Seeadler, which had gone aground in the cook Islands. A local constable became suspicious of the armed foreigners and notified the district police inspector. Only Europeans - not Fijians or Indians - could use firearms, so the inspector took a band of unarmed Fijians to Wakaya in a small cattle trading boat. Thinking he was up against a much larger armed force, von Luckner unwillingly surrendered.


One of the highest-ranking Fijian chiefs, Ratu Sir Lala Kukuna, rose to prominence after World War I. (Like tui in Polynesian, ratu means "chief" in Fijian.) Born of the chiefly lineage of both Bau and the Lau islands in eastern Fiji, Ratu Sukuna was educated at Oxford, served in world War I, and worked his way up through the colonial bureaucracy to the post of chairman of the Native Land Trust Board. Although dealing in that position primarily with disputes over land and chiefly titles, he used it as a platform to educate his people and to lay the foundation for the independent state of Fiji. As much as anyone, he was the father of modern, independent Fiji.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor began the Pacific war in 1941, the Allies first rushed to Fiji's defense in the face of the Japanese advance across the Pacific, then turned the islands into a vast training base. The airstrip at Nadi was built during this period, and several coastal gun emplacements can still be seen. Heeding Ratu Sukuna's call to arms (and more than a little prodding from their village chiefs), thousands of Fijians volunteered to fight and did so with great distinction as scouts and infantrymen in the Solomon Islands campaigns. Their knowledge of tropical jungles and their skill at the ambush made them much feared by the Japanese. The Fijians were, said one war correspondent, "death with velvet gloves."

The war also had an unfortunate side: Although many Indians at first volunteered to join, they also demanded pay equal to the European members of the Fiji Military Forces. When the colonial administrators refused, the Indians disbanded their platoon. their military contribution was one officer and 70 enlisted men of a reserve transport section, and they were promised they would not have to go overseas. Many Fijians to this day begrudge the Indians for not doing more to aid the war effort.


Ratu Sukuna continued to push the colony toward independence until his death in 1958, and although Fiji made halting steps in that direction during the 1960s, the road was rocky. The Indians by then were highly organized, in both political parties and trade unions, and they objected to a constitution that would institutionalize Fijian control of the government and Fijian ownership of most of the new nation's land. Key compromises were made in 1969, however, and on October 10, 1970 - exactly 96 years after Cakobau signed the Deed of Cession - the Dominion of Fijhi became an independent member of the British commonwealth of Nations. Under the 1970 constitution, Fiji had a Westminster-style Parliament consisting of an elected House of Representatives and a Senate composed of Fijian chiefs. For the first 17 years of independence, the Fijians maintained a majority - albeit a tenuous one - in the House of Representatives and control of the government under the leadership of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the country's prime minister.


Within little more than a month of the decision, members of the predominantly Fijian army stormed into Parliament and arrested Dr. Bavadra and his cabinet. It was the South Pacific's first military coup, and although peaceful, it took nearly everyone by complete surprise. The coup leader was Col. Sitiveni Rabuka (pronounced "Rambuka"), whom local wags quickly nicknamed Rambo. A Sandhurst-trained career soldier, the 38-year-old Rabuka was third in command of the army. A Fijian of non-chiefly lineage and a lay preacher in the Methodist church, he immediately became a hero to his "commoner" fellow Fijians, who saw him as saving them from the Indians and preserving their land rights from a government dominated by Indians, who at the time slightly outnumbered the Fijians.

Rabuka at first installed a caretaker government, retaining Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau as governor-general and Ratu Mara as prime minister. In Septebmer 1987, after the  British Commonwealth suspended Fiji's membership, he staged another bloodless coup. A few weeks later he abrogated the 1970 constitution, declared Fiji an independent republic, and set up a new interim government with Ratu Ganilau as president, Ratu Mara as prime minister, and himself as minister of home affairs and army commander. At the urging of Methodist ministers, who are a powerful political force here, he also instituted a tough ban on all Sunday business except at the country's hotels (it was quickly relaxed so taxis and buses could take Fijians to church). The government instituted pay cuts and price hikes in 1987 after the Fijian dollar fell shar0ly on world currency markets. Coupled with the coups, the economic problems led to thousands of Indians - especially professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and schoolteachers - fleeing the country.

Dr. Bavadra was released shortly after the coups. he died of natural causes in 1989. Ratu Ganilau died in 1994 and was succeeded as president by Ratu Mara. Rabuka's interim government ruled until 1990, when it promulgated a new constitution guaranteeing Fijians a parliamentary majority - and rankling the Indians. His pro-Fijian party won the initial election, but he barely hung onto power in fresh elections in 1994 by forming a coalition with the European, Chinese, and mixed-race general-elector parliamentarians. Although some of his more conservative backers advocated sending all Fiji Indians back to India, Rabuka took a more moderate stance. Despite opposition by the preachers, for example, he got parliament to lift the Sunday ban in 1996. 


Rabuka also appointed a three-person Constitutional Review commission, which proposed a new constitution, which parliament adopted in 1998. It created a parliamentary house of 65 seats, with 19 held by Fijians, 17 by Indians, 3 by general-electors, 1 by a Rotuman, and 25 open to all races. A year later, with support from many Fijians who were disgruntled with their own leaders because of the country's poor economy, rising crime, and deteriorating roads, labor union leader Mahendra Chaudhry's party won an outright majority of parliament, and he become Fiji's first Indian prime minister. Chaudhry had been minister of finance in the Bavadra government toppled by Rabuka's coup in 1987.

Chaudhry quickly appointed several well-known Fijians to his cabinet, including president Mara's daughter as minister of tourism. For his part, the revered Ratu Mara encouraged his fellow Fijians to support the new administration.


Fiji's population officially was 775,077 in 1996, the last time a census was taken. Indigenous Fijians made up 51&, Indians 43%, and other races - mostly Chinese, Polynesians, and Europeans - the other 6%. Although the overall population has been rising slightly, thanks to a high Fijian birth rate, the country has lost about 5,000 Indians annually since the 1987 military coups. It is difficult to imagine peoples of two more contrasting cultures living side by side. "Fijians generally perceive Indians as mean and stingy, crafty and demanding to the extent of being considered greedy, inconsiderate and grasping, uncooperative, egotistic, and calculating," writes Professor Asesela Ravuvu of the University of the South Pacific. On the other hand, he says Indians see Fijians as "jungalis," still living on the land, which they will not sell, poor, backward, naive, and foolish.

Given that these attitudes are not likely to change, any time soon, it is remarkable that Fijians and Indians actually manage to coexist. Politically correct Americans ma take offense at some things they could hear said in Fiji, since racial distinction are a fact of life here. From a visitor's standpoint, the famously friendly Fijians give the country its laidback south Seas charm while at the same time providing relatively good service at the hotels. although a few of the industrious Indians can be aggravating at times, they make Fiji an easy country to visit by providing excellent maintenance of facilities and efficient and inexpensive services, such as transportation. Regardless of his or her race, the 1998 constitution officially makes everyone here a "Fiji Islander."


When meeting and talking to the smiling Fijians, it's difficult to imagine that less than a century ago their ancestors were among the world's most ferocious cannibals. Today the only vestiges of this past are the four-pronged wooden cannibal forks sold in any handcraft shop (they make interesting conversation pieces when used at home to serve hors d'oeuvres). yet in the early 1800s, the Fijians were of fierce that Europeans were slow to settle in the islands for fear of literally being turned into a meal - perhaps even being eaten alive. More than 100 white-skinned individuals ended up with their skulls smashed and their bodies baked in an earth oven. "One man actually stood by my side and ate the very eyes out of a roasted skull he had, saying, 'Venaca, venaca,' that is, very good," wrote William Speiden, the purser on the U.S. exploring expedition that charted Fiji in 1840.

Cannibalism was an important ritualistic institution among the early Fijians, the indigenous Melanesian people who came from the west and began settling in Fiji around 500 B.C. Over time they replaced the Polynesians, whose ancestors had arrived some 1,000 years beforehand, but not before adopting much of Polynesian culture and intermarrying enough to give many Fijians lighter skin than that of most other Melanesians, especially in the islands of eastern Fiji near the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga. (this is less the case in the west and among the hill dwellers, whose ancestors had less contact with Polynesians in ancient times.) Similar differences occur in terms of culture. for example, while Melanesians traditionally pick their chiefs by popular consensus, Fijian chiefs hold titles by heredity, in the Polynesian fashion.


Ancient Fijian society was organized by tribes, each with its won language, and subdivided into clans of specialists, such as canoe builders, fishermen, and farmers. Powerful chiefs ruled each tribe and constantly warred with their neighbors, usually with brutal vengeance. Captured enemy children were hung by the feet from the rigging of the winners' canoes, and new buildings sometimes were consecrated by burying live adult prisoners in holes dug for the support posts. The ultimate insult, however, was to eat the enemy's flesh. Victorious chiefs were even said to cook and nibble on the fingers or tongues of the vanquished, relishing each bite while the victims watched in agony.

Fijians wouldn't dream of doing anything like that today, of course, but they have managed to retain much of their old lifestyle and customs, including their hereditary system of chiefs and social status. Most Fijians still live in small villages along the coast and riverbanks or in the hills, and you will see many traditional thatch bures, or houses, scattered in the countryside away from the main roads. Members of each tribe cultivate and grow food crops in small "bush gardens" on plots of communally owned native land assigned to their families. more than 89% of the land in Fiji is owned by Fijians.

A majority of Fijians are Methodists today, their forebears having been converted by puritanical Wesleyan missionaries who came to the islands in the 19th century. A backer of Prime Minister Rabuka and a strong advocate of Fiji's Sunday Ban, the Methodist Church is a powerful political force in the country.

A Bowl of Grog

Known as kava elsewhere in the South Pacific, the slightly narcotic drink Fijians call yaqona ("yang-gona") rivals the potent Fiji Bitter beer as the national drink. You likely will have half a coconut shell full of "grog" offered - if not shoved in yo9ur face - beginning at your hotel's reception desk. Fiji has more "grog shops" than bars. And thanks to the promotion of kavalactone, the active ingredient, as a healthfood answer to stress and insomnia in the U.S. and elsewhere, growing the root has become an important part of the economy here and elsewhere in the South Pacific. Its price nearly doubled between 1996 and 1999. (But note that some kava tablets sold in American health food stores don't have enough kavalactone to give you the same drowsy effect you'll get from a bowl of grog over here.)

Yaqona plays an important ceremonial role in Fijian life. No significant occasion takes place without yaqona, and a seuuseuu (welcoming) ceremony usually is held for tour groups visiting Fiian villages. Mats are placed on the floor, the participants gather around in a circle, and the yaqona roots are mixed with water and strained through coconut husks into a large carved wooden bowl, called a tanoa. The ranking chief sits next to the tanoa during the welcoming ceremony. He extends in the direction of the guest of honor a cowrie shell attached to one leg of the bowl by a cord of woven coconut fiber. It's extremely impolite to cross the plane of the cord once it has been extended.

The guest of honor (in this case your tour guide) then offers a gift to the village (a kilogram or two of dried grog roots will do these days) and makes a speech explaining the purpose of his visit. The chief then passes the first cup of yaqona to the guest of honor, who claps once, takes the cup in both hands, and gulps down the entire cup of sawdust-tasting liquid in one swallow. Everyone else then claps three times. Next, each chief drinks a cup, clapping once before bolting it down. Again, everyone else claps three times after each cup is drained. Except for the clapping and formal speeches, everyone remains silent throughout the ceremony, a tradition easily understood considering kava's numbing effect on the lips and tongue.


The Tabua The highest symbol of respect among Fijians is the tooth of the sperm whale, known as a tabua (pronounced "tambua"). Like large mother-of-pearl shells used in other parts of Melanesia, tabuas in ancient times played a role similar to money in modern society and still have various ceremonial uses. They are presented to chiefs as a sign of respect, given as gifts to arrange marriages, offered to friends to show sympathy after the death of a family member, and used as a means to seal a contract or other agreement. The value of each tabua is judged by its thickness and length, and some of the older ones are smooth with wear. It is illegal to export a tabua out of Fiji, and even if you did, the international conventions on endangered species make it illegal to bring them into the U.S. and most other Western countries.

Fire Walking  Legend sys that a Fijian god once repaid a favor to a warrior on Beqa Island by giving him the ability to walk unharmed on fire. His descendants, all members of the Sawau tribe on Beqa, still walk across stones heated to white-hot by a bonfire - but usually for the entertainment of tourists at the hotels rather than for a particular religious purpose. Traditionally, the participants - all male - had to abstain from women and coconuts for 2 weeks before the ceremony. If they partook of either, they would suffer burns to their feet. Naturall a priest (some would call him a "witch doctor") would recite certain incantations to make sure the coals were hot and the gods were at bay and not angry enough to scorch the soles.

Today's fire walking is a bit touristy but still worth seeing. If you don't believe the stones are hot, go ahead and touch one of them - but do it gingerly. some Indians in Fiji engage in fire walking, but it's strictly for religious purposes.

Etiquette  Fijian villages are easy to visit, but remember that to the people who live in them, the entire village is home, not just the individual houses. In your native land, you wouldn't walk into a stranger's living room without being invited, so find someone and ask permission before traipsing into a Fijian village. The Fijians are highly accommodating people, and it's unlikely they will say no; in fact, they may ask you to stay for a meal or perhaps stage a small yaqona ceremony in your honor. they are very tied to tradition, however, so do your part and ask first. If you are invited to stay or eat in the village, a small gift to the chief's appropriate. The gift shouldbe given to the chief or highest-ranking person present to accept it. sometimes it helps to explain that it is a gift to the village and not payment for services rendered, especially if it is money you are giving.

Only chiefs are allowed to wear hats and sunglasses in Fijian villages, so it is good manners for visitors to take theirs off. Shoulders are covered at all time. Fijian go barefoot and walk slightly stooped in their bures. Men sit cross-legged on the floor; women sit with their legs to the side. They don't point at one another with hands, fingers, or feet, nor do they touch each other's heads or hair. They greet each other and strangers with a big smile and a sincere "Bula."


The Fiji Indians' version of America's Mayflower was the Leonidas, a labor transport ship that arrived at Levuka from Calcutta on May 14, 1879, and landed 463 indentured servants destined to work the sugarcane fields. As more than 60,000 Indians would do over the next 37 years, these first immigrants signed agreements (girmits, they called them) requiring that they work in Fiji for 5 years; they would be free to return to India after 5 more years. Most of them labored in the cane fields for the initial term of their girmits, living in "coolie lines" of squalid shacks hardly better than the poverty-stricken conditions most left behind in India. After the initial 5 years, however, they were free to seek work on their own. Many leased small plots of land from the Fijians and began planting sugarcane or raising cattle on their own. to this day most of Fiji's sugar crop, the country's most important agricultural export, is produced on small leased plots rather than on large plantations. Other Indians went into business in the growing cities and towns and, joined in the early 1900s by an influx of business-oriented Indians, thereby founded Fiji's modern merchant and professional classes.

Of the immigrants who came from India between 1879 and 1916, when the indenturing system ended, some 85% were Hindus, 14% were Muslims, and the remaining 1% were Sikhs and Christians. Fiji offered these adventurers far more opportunities than they would have had in cast-controlled India. In fact, the caste system was scrapped very quickly by the Hindus in Fiji, and, for the most part, the violent relations between Hindus and Muslims that racked India were put aside on the islands. Life for the Indians was so much better in Fiji than it would have been in India that only a small minority of them went home after their girmits expired. They tended then - as now - to live in the towns and villages and in the "Sugar Belt" along the north and west coasts of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Hindu and Sikh temples and Muslim mosques abound in these areas, and places such as Ba and Tavua look like small towns on the Indian subcontinent  On the southern coasts and in the mountains, however, the population is overwhelmingly Fijian.


From their strategic position in the southwestern Pacific some 3,200 miles southwest of Honolulu and 1,960 miles northeast of Sydney, Fiji is the transportation and economic hub of the South Pacific islands. Nadi International Airport is the main connection point for flights going to the other island countries, and Fiji's capital city, Suva, is one of the region's prime shipping ports. The archipelago forms a horseshoe around the reef-strewn Koro Sea, a body of water shallow enough for much of it to have been dry land during the last Ice Age some 18,000 years ago. thee are more than 300 bits of land ranging in size from Viti Levu ("Big Fiji"), which is 10 times the size of Tahiti, to tiny atolls that barely break the surface of the sea. with a total land area of 7,022 square miles, Fiji is slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. viti Levu has 4,171 of those square miles, giving it more dry land than all the islands of French Polynesia put together.

Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, the second largest island, lie on the western edge of Fiji. The Great Sea Reef arches offshore, between them and encloses a huge lagoon dotted with beautiful islands. Many scuba divers think of the coral reefs in this lagoon, the Astrolabe Reef south of Viti Levu, and the Rainbow Reef between Vanua Levu, and Taveuni as the closest places on earth - or below it - as paradise.

GOVERNMENT  When the British granted independence to its former colony in 1970, they left Fiji with a constitution which set up a parliamentary democracy and left control of most land with the majority Fijians, while giving the Indians a chance to gain political power. Indians outnumbered the indigenous Fijians by the mid-1980s, however, and in coalition with some of the more liberal Fijians, they gained the upper political hand in parliamentary elections of 1987. Their new government lasted just 1 month until the Fijian-dominated army stormed into parliament and staged the region's first military coup. When the commonwealth suspended Fiji's membership, the Fijian-led interim government declared the country to be the officially independent Republic of the Fiji Islands. In 1990 it promulgated a constitution giving the country a Fijian president and a parliament. This arrangement lasted until 1998, when the country adopted a new fairer constitution which created a 65-mmber parliament made up of 19 Fijian, 17 Indian, 3 general electors (anyone who's not a Fijian or Indian), 1 Rotuman, and 25 open seats. This led the way to the country's first Indian prime minister being elected in 1999 (see "History" above).

THE ECONOMY Fiji is the most self-sufficient of the south Pacific island countries. Tourism is its largest and most profitable industry; in fact, Fiji is the tourism Goliath among South Pacific island nations, getting twice as many visitors each year as French Polynesia, its nearest rival.

Sugar is still a close second to tourism. Grown primarily by Indian farmers, the cane is milled by the Fiji Sugar Company, a government-owned corporation. The cane is harvested between June and November and processed at five sugar mills, one each in Lautoka, Ba, Tavua, Rakiraki, and Labana. The one at Lautoka is the largest crushing mill in the Southern Hemisphere. The Rakiraki mill produces for domestic consumption; the rest is exported. Thee is no refining mill here, as most of the sugar served in Fiji is brown, not white. The Emperor Gold Mine on northern Viti Levu makes an important contribution as do copra, timber, garments, furniture, coffee (You'll get a rich, strong brew throughout the country), and other consumer goods produced by small manufacturers (the Colgate toothpaste you buy in Fiji is made here). Fiji also is a major transhipment point for goods destined for to her South Pacific island countries.  

Despite its relative prosperity, however, Fiji has a persistent problem with unemployment. More than half the population is under the age of 25, and thee just aren't enough jobs being created for the youngsters coming into the work force. A marked increase in burglaries and other property crimes has been linked to this lack of jobs. Fiji also saw corruption grow during the post-coup years, with the National Bank of Fiji almost failing because of bad loans made to political cronies, among others. The country's foreign reserves dropped precipitously, forcing a devaluation of the Fiji dollar to about US50cents (it had been on a virtual par with the U.S. dollar prior to the 1987 coups).

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