Fiji's oral history goes back some 2,500 years, when the current indigenous residents' ancestors landed on Viti Levu, but the first European eyes in these parts belonged to Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, who sighted Vanua Levu Island and some others in 1643. British Capt. James Cook, the famous South Pacific explorer, visited one of the southernmost islands in 1774. Capt. William Bligh was the first European to sail through and plot the group, after the mutiny on HMS 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 (war canoes) gave chase near the Yasawas, but with some furious paddling and the help of a fortuitous squall, Bligh and his men escaped to the open ocean. 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 that Fiji was inhabited by ferocious cannibals, and the reports by Bligh and others of reef-strewn waters 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 bĂȘche-de-mer (sea cucumber). This trade continued until the 1850s and had a lasting impact on Fiji because along with the traders came guns and whiskey.

Cakabou Rises and Falls

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. With the help of a Swedish mercenary named Charlie Savage, who supplied the 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 his son and successor, Cakobau, who rose to the height of power in the 1840s. Cakobau never ruled over all the islands, however, for Enele Ma'afu, a member of Tonga's royal family, moved to the Lau Group in 1848 and exerted control over eastern Fiji. Ma'afu brought along Wesleyan missionaries from Tonga and gave the Methodist church a foothold in Fiji (it still is the predominate denomination here).

Although Cakobau governed much of western Fiji, local chiefs continued to be powerful enough 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. Some mountaineers made a meal of the Rev. Thomas Baker when he tried to convert them in 1867.

Cakobau's slide from power began in earnest July 4, 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 Williams's house. The Fijians promptly looted the burning building. Williams blamed Cakobau and demanded US$5,000 in damages. Within a few years the U.S. claims against the chief totaled more than US$40,000, an enormous sum in those days. In the late 1850s, with Ma'afu and his confederation of chiefs gaining power -- and disorder growing in western Fiji -- Cakobau offered to cede the islands to Great Britain if Queen Victoria would pay the Americans. The British pondered his offer for 4 years and turned 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 U.S. Civil War. Instead of offering his entire kingdom, Cakobau this time tendered only 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres) of it. The Polynesia Company accepted, paid off the U.S. claims, and in 1870 landed Australian settlers on 9,200 hectares (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 was too wet for sugar; so the speculators sold their property to the government, which moved the capital there from Levuka in 1882.

Fiji Becomes a Colony

The Polynesia Company's settlers were just a few of the several thousand European planters who came to Fiji in the 1860s and early 1870s. They bought land for plantations 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. 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 to serve 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 helped fuel the bitter animosity on the part of the land-deprived Indians.

Gordon prohibited the planters from using Fijians as laborers (not that many of them had the slightest inclination to work for someone else). When the planters switched from profitless cotton to sugar cane in the early 1870s, Sir Arthur convinced them to import indentured servants from India. The first 463 East Indians arrived on May 14, 1879.

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. There was a large gulf between the appointed civil servants sent from Britain and the locals.

Fiji Becomes Independent

One of the highest-ranking Fijian chiefs, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, rose to prominence after World War I. (Ratu means "chief" in Fijian.) Born of high chiefly lineage, 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, Sukuna was the father of modern, independent Fiji.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor began the Pacific War in 1941, the Allies turned Fiji into a vast training base. They built the airstrip at Nadi, and several coastal gun emplacements still stand along the coast. Thousands of Fijians fought 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."

Although many Indo-Fijians at first volunteered to join, they also demanded pay equal to that of the European members of the Fiji Military Forces. When the colonial administrators refused, they disbanded their platoon. Their military contribution was one officer and 70 enlisted men of a reserve transport section, and they were promised that they would not have to go overseas. Many Fijians to this day begrudge the Indo-Fijians 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 Indo-Fijians 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 Fiji 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 first prime minister.

Then, in a general election held in April 1987, a coalition of Indians and liberal Fijians voted Ratu Mara and his Alliance party out of power. Dr. Timoci Bavadra, a Fijian, took over as prime minister, but his cabinet was composed of more Indians than Fijians. Animosity immediately flared between some Fijians and Indians.

Rambo's Coups

Within little more than a month of the election, 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 "Ram-bu-ka"), whom local wags quickly nicknamed "Rambo." A career soldier trained at Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the then 38-year-old Rabuka was third in command of the army. A Fijian of non-chiefly lineage, he immediately became a hero to his "commoner" fellow Fijians. Rabuka at first installed a caretaker government, but in September 1987 he staged another bloodless coup. A few weeks later he abrogated the 1970 constitution, declared Fiji to be an independent republic, and set up a new interim government with himself as minister of home affairs and army commander.

In 1990 the interim government promulgated a new constitution guaranteeing Fijians a parliamentary majority -- and rankling the Indians. Rabuka's 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.

Rabuka also appointed a three-person Constitutional Review Commission, which proposed the constitution that 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.

The 2000 Insurrection and Coup

A year later, with support from many Fijians who were unsettled over 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 became Fiji's first Indian prime minister. Chaudhry had been minister of finance in the Bavadra government toppled by Rabuka's coup in 1987.

Chaudhry appointed several well-known Fijians to his cabinet, and the revered Ratu Mara encouraged his fellow Fijians to support the new administration. It didn't work, and in May 2000 a disgruntled Fijian businessman named George Speight led a gang of armed henchmen into parliament. Demanding the appointment of an all-Fijian government, they held Chaudhry and several members of parliament hostage for the next 56 days. While negotiating with Speight, the military under Commodore Frank Bainimarama disbanded the constitution and appointed an interim government headed by Laisenia Qarase, a Fijian banker. Speight released his hostages after being promised amnesty, but the army arrested him 2 weeks later and charged him with treason. His death sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Fiji's supreme court then ruled that the 1998 constitution was still in effect and ordered fresh parliamentary elections to be held in 2001. Under the watchful eye of international observers, the Fijians won an outright majority, and caretaker leader Qarase became the legal prime minister. Chaudhry also was returned to parliament.

A Fiji nationalist, Qarase proposed a "Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity" bill, which opponents -- including Bainimarama -- claimed would grant amnesty to Speight and other participants in the 2000 insurrection. The proposed legislation was the most contentious issue in the general elections of May 2006, which returned Qarase's party to power.

The 2006 Coup

Qarase further incensed the military by releasing some 200 coup participants from prison, and he continued to push his controversial reconciliation bill. He also proposed transferring ownership of Fiji's foreshore and lagoons from the government to indigenous seaside tribes, who would then be free to charge resorts, dive operators, fishers, and others to use their lagoons and coastal waters. This proposal created a firestorm of protest from the tourism industry as well as from Fijians who do not live by the sea -- and thus presumably would have to pay to go fishing.

Bainimarama warned Qarase for most of 2006 that the military would take power if he did not abandon the proposals. On December 5 -- a date Fijians refer to as "5/12" -- the military drove from Queen Elizabeth Barracks into downtown Suva and staged an entirely peaceful coup. Despite some protestors being taken to the barracks for a bit of persuasion, life outside tourism returned to normal relatively quickly. The initial military roadblocks and checkpoints markedly reduced Fiji's crime rate (it went back up when the soldiers were withdrawn, prompting some merchants to call for permanent checkpoints).

The interim regime has been surprisingly progressive. In addition to abandoning overtly racist government policies, Bainimarama has cracked down on corruption and uncontrolled government spending, which had become rampant under Qarase. Among actions with long-lasting consequences, he has opened Fiji's formerly monopolized communications industry to competition, which promises more over-the-air television channels (instead of one) and lower prices for phone and Internet services. He also has encouraged the thousands of Indian professionals who had fled the country to return home by letting them be permanent residents of Fiji as well as citizens of other countries (Fiji does not recognize dual citizenship).

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