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Early European explorers were astounded to find the far-flung South Pacific islands inhabited by peoples who apparently had been there for thousands of years. How had these people -- who lived a late Stone Age existence and had no written languages -- crossed the Pacific long before Christopher Columbus had the courage to sail out of sight of land? Where had they come from? The questions that baffled European explorers continue to intrigue scientists and scholars today.

The First Fijians

The late Thor Heyerdahl drifted in his raft Kon Tiki from South America to French Polynesia in 1947, to prove his theory that the Pacific Islanders came from the Americas. Bolstered by linguistic and DNA studies linking the Polynesians to Taiwan, however, experts now believe the Pacific Islanders have their roots in eastern Asia.

The accepted view is that during the Ice Age a race of humans known as Australoids migrated from Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia, when those two countries were joined by dry land. Another group, the Papuans, arrived from Southeast Asia between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Later, a lighter-skinned race known as Austronesians pushed the Papuans out into the more eastern South Pacific islands. They became the Polynesians, whom archaeologists now believe settled in Samoa more than 3,000 years ago and then slowly fanned out to colonize the vast Polynesian triangle stretching from Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand.

The most tangible remains of the early Austronesians are remnants of pottery, the first shards of which were found during the 1970s in Lapita, in New Caledonia. Probably originating in Papua New Guinea, Lapita pottery spread east as far as Tonga. Throughout the area it was decorated with geometric designs similar to those used today on tapa cloth, known in Fijian as masi. Apparently the Lapita culture died out in Polynesia some 2,500 years ago, for by the time European explorers arrived in the 1770s, only the Fijians still made pottery using Lapita methods. And they still do.

The islands settled by the Papuans and Austronesians are known collectively as Melanesia, which includes Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. More specifically, Fiji is the melting pot of the Melanesians to the west and the Polynesians to the east.

The name Melanesia is derived from the Greek words melas, "black," and nesos, "island." The Melanesians in general have features more akin to sub-Saharan Africans, but interbreeding among the successive waves of migrants resulted in many subgroups with varying physical characteristics. Among them, the mountain tribes tend to have darker skin than the coastal dwellers, who interbred with the lighter-skinned Austronesians. The Fijian culture, on the other hand, has many Polynesian elements, brought by interbreeding and conquest.

Fiji's Mixed Population

Adding to the mix are Fiji Indians, most of whom are descendants of laborers brought to work the country's sugar-cane fields. The official 2007 census found that of Fiji's total population of 827,900, indigenous Fijians made up 57%, Fiji Indians 38%, and other Pacific islanders, Chinese, Europeans, and persons of mixed race the other 5%. Thanks to a high Fijian birthrate, the overall population has been rising slightly despite the country's losing thousands of Fiji Indians since the first military coup in 1987.

It's difficult to imagine peoples of two more contrasting cultures living side by side than the indigenous Fijians and the Fiji Indians. "Fijians generally perceive Indians as mean and stingy, crafty and demanding to the extent of being considered greedy, inconsiderate, grasping, uncooperative, egotistic, and calculating," wrote Professor Asesela Ravuvu of the University of the South Pacific. On the other hand, he said, Indians see Fijians as "jungalis" -- poor, backward, naive, foolish, and living on land they will not sell.

Given that these attitudes are not likely to change anytime soon, it is remarkable that Fijians and Fiji Indians actually manage to coexist. Politically correct Americans may take offense at things they overhear in Fiji, where racial distinctions are a fact of life -- as you will notice on the country's immigration entry form.

From a visitor's standpoint, the famously friendly Fijians give the country its laid-back South Seas charm while providing relatively good service at the hotels. For their part, the Fiji Indians make this an easy country to visit by providing excellent maintenance of facilities and efficient and inexpensive services, such as transportation.

The 1998 constitution makes everyone, regardless of his or her race, a Fiji Islander.

The Indigenous Fijians

Today's indigenous Fijians are descended from a Melanesian people who came from the west and began settling here around 500 B.C. Legend says they arrived at Viseisei village, at Vuda Point on Viti Levu. 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, whereas Melanesians traditionally pick their chiefs by popular consensus, Fijian chiefs hold titles by heredity, in the Polynesian (or more precisely, Tongan) fashion.

Most Fijians still live in small villages along the coast and riverbanks or in the hills, and you will see some traditional thatch bures, or houses, scattered in the countryside away from the main roads. As in the old days, every Fijian belongs to a clan, or matangali, that was originally based on skills such as canoe making and farming. Clan elders meet in each village to chose a ratu, or chief. Charged with caring for their land, villagers still grow food crops in small "bush gardens" on plots assigned to their families. More than 80% of the land in Fiji is communally owned by Fijians and managed for them by the Native Lands Trust Board.

A majority of Fijians are Methodists, their forebears having been converted by Wesleyan missionaries who came to the islands from Tonga in the 19th century. The Methodist Church is a powerful, pro-Fijian political force.

The Tabua -- The highest symbol of respect among Fijians is the tooth of the sperm whale, known as a tabua (pronounced "tam-bu-a"). Like large mother-of-pearl shells used in other parts of Melanesia, tabuas in ancient times played a role similar to that of 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 another agreement. It is illegal to export a tabua out of Fiji, and even if you did, the international conventions on endangered species prohibit your bringing it into the United States and most other Western countries.

Fire Walking -- Legend says 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. Naturally 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 Fiji Indians engage in fire walking for religious purposes during an annual Hindu soul-cleansing festival.

Fijian Village Etiquette -- Fijian villages are easy to visit, but keep in mind that to the people who live in them, the entire village -- not just an individual's house -- is home. 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 accommodating people, and it's unlikely they will say no; in fact, they may ask you to stay for a meal or stage a small yaqona ceremony in your honor.

If you are invited to stay or eat in the village, a small gift to the chief is appropriate; F$10 (US$6.50/£3.30) per person or a handful of dried kava root from the local market will do. The gift should be 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's money you're giving.

Only chiefs are allowed to wear hats and sunglasses in Fijian villages, so it's good manners for visitors to take theirs off. Shoulders must be covered at all times. Fijians 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."

Meeting the Friendly Fijians -- The indigenous Fijians are justly renowned for their friendliness to strangers, and many Fiji Indians are as well educated and informed as anyone in the South Pacific. Together, these two peoples are fun to meet, whether it be over a hotel desk or while riding with them in one of their fume-belching buses.

The Fiji Indians

The Leonidas, a labor transport ship, arrived at Levuka from Calcutta on May 14, 1879, and landed 463 indentured servants destined to work Fiji's sugar-cane 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 plots of land from the Fijians and began planting sugar cane or raising cattle. To this day most of Fiji's sugar crop, the country's most important agricultural export, is produced on small leased plots. Other Fiji Indians went into business in the growing cities and towns; joined in the early 1900s by an influx of business-oriented Indians, they 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 caste-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.

Only a small minority of the Fiji Indians 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 drier 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 resemble small towns on the Indian subcontinent. On the southern coasts and in the mountains, the population is overwhelmingly Fijian. Fiji Indians constituted more than half of Fiji's population prior to the 1987 coup, but emigration (not to India but to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S.) reduced their share to 38% by 2007.

A Holy Meal

When meeting and talking to the smiling Fijians, it's difficult to imagine that hardly more 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 handicraft shops (they make interesting conversation pieces when used at home to serve hors d'oeuvres).

Yet in the early 1800s, the Fijians were so fierce that Europeans were slow to settle in the islands for fear of literally being turned into a meal. Back then, Fijian society was organized by tribes, which constantly warred with each other, usually with brutal vengeance. The winners hung captured enemy children by their feet from the rigging of their canoes, and they sometimes consecrated new buildings 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. "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.

More than 100 white-skinned individuals ended up with their skulls smashed and their bodies baked in an earth oven, including the Rev. Thomas Baker, who attempted to convert the Viti Levu highlanders in 1867. Instead of converting, they killed the reverend, tossed his body into an oven, and made a meal of him.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.