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Atlas Fiji

Country (long form)
Republic of the Fiji Islands
Total Area
7,054.09 sq mi
18,270.00 sq km
832,494 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
English (official), Fijian, Hindustani
91.6% total, 93.8% male, 89.3% female (1995 est.)
Christian 52% (Methodist 37%, Roman Catholic 9%), Hindu 38%, Muslim 8%, other 2%
Life Expectancy
65.54 male, 70.45 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
1 Fijian dollar (F$) = 100 cents
GDP (per capita)
$7,300 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
subsistence agriculture 67%, wage earners 18%, salary earners 15% (1987)
tourism, sugar, clothing, copra, gold, silver, lumber, small cottage industries
sugarcane, coconuts, cassava (tapioca), rice, sweet potatoes, bananas; cattle, pigs, horses, goats; fish
Arable Land
sugar 32%, clothing, gold, processed fish, lumber
machinery and transport equipment, petroleum products, food, chemicals
Natural Resources
timber, fish, gold, copper, offshore oil potential, hydropower
Current Environmental Issues
deforestation; soil erosion
Telephones (main lines in use)
65,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
4,300 (1998)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
2 (1999)

The first Lapita settlers settled in Fiji around 1500 BC, mostly from other parts of Melanesia. Initially they were coastal fishing people, but a shift in emphasis towards agriculture around 500 BC spurred a dramatic increase in population and tribal feudalism.

Around 1000 AD Polynesians invaded from Tonga and Samoa, engaging the Melanesians in large scale wars. Cannibalism was common and people lived in mataqali (extended family groups) in fortified villages presided over by polygamous hereditary chiefs (turaga-ni-koro). Intertribal marriages were an important way of binding communities together, but rivalries and disputes were common and interclan warfare often pitted family members against one another.

The first known European to sight the Fijian islands was Abel Tasman, who passed by on his way to Indonesia in 1643. He negotiated the treacherous reefs northwest of Vanua Levu and Taveuni, but his accounts of the dangers kept other sailors away from Fijian waters for another 130 years. James Cook was next to visit when he stopped at Vatoa in the Lau Group in 1774. Fifteen years later William Bligh dropped in under some duress after the mutineers of the HMS Bounty set him and 18 crew adrift in a tiny open boat. They passed through the Lau Group and between the big islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu (this body of water is still called Bligh Water).

In the early part of the next century, traders came seeking sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (succulent sea cucumbers prized in Asia), and suddenly Fijians had access to metal tools, tobacco, cloth and guns. The impact of this was enormous: violent clan warfare broke out and Fijian society began to change rapidly. Shipwreck survivors, deserting sailors and escaped convicts from the British penal settlements in Australia also began to play an important part in Fijian societies. Many found out why the islands were nicknamed the 'Cannibal Isles', but a few, most notably Swede Charles Savage, came to be well integrated into the upper echelons of the feuding Fijian clans, serving chiefs as interpreters, go-betweens, carpenters and armsmen.

The Tongan military and English missionaries were other prominent invaders of the mid-1800s. The missionaries sought to convert the tribal chiefs, but they had notable failures - the Reverend Thomas Baker was eaten in 1867 and his shoe is exhibited in the Fiji Museum. Levuka, on Ovalau island, became an important South Pacific trading post where American, French and British interests nervously squabbled and suspected one another of imperialist intentions. Levuka became a lawless place and relations with the local people reached a nadir in 1847 when the settlement was razed by fires.

Cakobau, the self-proclaimed King of Fiji, attempted to form a Western-style government in 1871, but it collapsed after just two years. In 1873 the acting British consul JB Thurston sought British annexation of Fiji, and on 10 October 1874 it was pronounced a British colony and a capital was established at Suva. Governor Sir Arthur Gordon sought economic self-sufficiency for the colony through plantation crops such as cotton, copra and sugar cane, and productivity was boosted when Gordon began importing indentured labour from India. Hopeful Indians saw Fiji as an escape from poverty but plantation life was a predictable melange of human rights abuses, crime, suicide, rape and disease.

By the time indentured labour was abolished in 1919 there were more than 60,000 Indians in Fiji. The Indian community, which had been prevented from owning land, moved into small business holdings, trade and bureaucracy, or took out long-term leases on farms. Australians came to dominate the local economy through sugar production and gold mining, while Europeans manipulated the racial tensions between the Fijians and the Indians in an effort to maintain a stranglehold on economic and political power.

After WWII (to which Fiji committed 8000 troops to fight the Japanese in the Solomons), a greater political awareness permeated the Fijian and Indian people, but racial segregation continued. Fiji became independent on 10 October 1970 and introduced a Westminster political system. The political parties were organised along racial lines. The 1987 elections were won by a shaky coalition, and while there was a Fijian prime minister and a cabinet with a Fijian majority, the new government was seen as Indian dominated. Demonstrations followed and the extremist Taukei movement set about destabilising the new government. Indian-owned businesses were petrol-bombed and there were violent attacks on Indian communities. One month later, on 14 May 1987, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka invaded the parliament and seized power in a bloodless coup. In October, Fiji was dismissed from the Commonwealth. Rabuka was re-elected in 1991, and gave up his military career to pursue politics full time. He tried to soften his hardline image by making concessions to labour groups and trade unions.

In 1999, Fiji elected its first prime minister of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry. Chaudhry instituted land reforms, which indigenous Fijians saw as a threat to their landholdings, and introduced a social justice bill which reduced government programs for indigenous people. Fijian resentment coalesced around the Taukei movement, and after some months of anti-government protests, Chaudhry's government was overturned by a coup led by George Speight in May 2000. Backed by a 100-man private army, Speight stormed parliament and took more than 30 MPs hostage, calling for a new constitution to guarantee political supremacy for the indigenous population. With the weight of international and internal pressure against them, Speight and his followers were eventually arrested, and Speight was sentenced to life imprisonment. The continuing political instability has led to economic decline and many Indo-Fijian professionals leaving the country.

With Indo-Fijians effectively cast out of the political (and to a large extent, economic picture, the indigenous Fijian leaders have effectively lost their scapegoat; it will be interesting to see what the future holds. As the economy slowly struggles to its feet and tourists return to Fiji, racial issues continue to simmer behind the scenes with no resolution in sight.