» View our trips to Fiji
The first known European to sight Fiji was Abel Tasman in 1643. His accounts of dangerous waters kept seamen away until, 131 years later, Captain James Cook stopped there in 1774. But probably the most famous visitor—albeit inadvertently—was Captain William Bligh, who had been ousted from his ship, HMS Bounty, and set adrift in a small boat. The passage between the islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu is still called “Bligh Water.”
Fiji’s history is a long and sometimes violent one. Inhabited for over 2,500 years, the original Melanesian settlers were invaded by Polynesians from Tonga and Samoa. Intertribal wars forced the people into fortified villages, and cannibalism became so common that Fiji became infamous as “The Cannibal Isles.” Further Tongan invasions in the 1800s added to the volatile atmosphere, while American, Australian, French, and British interests vied for supremacy.
The capital of Levuka became so lawless that it was eventually destroyed by fire in 1847. Shortly after Fiji was annexed by the British in 1874, a measles epidemic killed 40,000 people—fully one-third of the population. The British then began a policy of importing indentured labor from India to work on local sugar plantations. Great Britain's first governor of Fiji, Arthur Charles Hamilton-Gordon, disallowed the use of native labor, creating tension between native Fijians and Indians and leading to racial segregation. By the time this system was abolished in 1919, more than 60,000 Indians had settled in Fiji.
Because of its central location in the Pacific Theater, Fiji was selected as a training base for the Allies during World War II. An airstrip was built at Nadi that later became the island's international airport, and gun battlements were set up along the coast. Fijians gained a reputation for bravery in the Solomon Islands campaign. But Indo-Fijians refused enlist after their demand for pay equal to that of the European soldiers serving with them was refused. Their lack of an active role in the war effort was one of many factors aggravating tensions between Fijians and Indian immigrants in the post-war years.
These tensions came to a head as Fiji moved from colonial rule to independence. The Indo-Fijian population had come to outnumber native Fijians, and indigenous residents feared the loss of control over natively owned land and resources if an Indo-Fijian dominated government came to power. In 1970, Fiji gained its independence, with the political parties organized by race.
Interethnic violence destabilized the new government until 1987, when Colonel Stiveni Rabuka seized power in a bloodless coup. He was formally elected in 1991. In 1999, Fiji elected its first Prime Minister of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry, whose government was overturned by a coup in 2000. Following a falling-out between the new government and the military that installed it, Commodore Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, staged a military takeover in 2006 and now holds the title of Interim Prime Minister.