The first European to visit the area was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1643. The English navigator James Cook also sailed through the area in 1774. The individual most commonly credited with the "discovery" of Fiji was Captain William Bligh, who sailed through Fiji in 1789 and 1792 following the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.
The 19th Century was a period of great upheaval in the islands of Fiji. The first Europeans to land in Fiji were shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from the British penal colonies in Australia. By the middle of the century missionaries arrived in the islands and embarked upon the conversion of the Fijian people to Christianity.
These years were marked by bloody political struggles for power by rival Fijian leaders. Most prominent among these leaders was Ratu Seru Cakobau, the paramount chief of eastern Viti Levu. In 1854 Cakobau became the first Fijian leader to accept Christianity.
Years of tribal warfare ended temporarily in 1865, when a confederacy of native kingdoms was established and Fiji's first constitution was drawn up and signed by seven independent chiefs of Fiji. Cakobau was elected president for two years in a row, but the confederacy collapsed when his chief rival, a Tongan chief named Ma'afu, sought the presidency in 1867.
Political unrest and instability ensued, as western influence continued to grow stronger. In 1871, with support of the approximately 2000 Europeans in Fiji, Cakobau was proclaimed king and a national government was formed in Levuka. His government, however, faced many problems and was not well received. On October 10, 1874, after a meeting of the most powerful chiefs, Fiji was unilaterally ceded to the United Kingdom.
Fiji's first Governor under British rule was Sir Arthur Gordon. Sir Arthur's policies were to set the stage for much of the Fiji that exists today. In an effort to preserve the people and culture of Fiji, Sir Arthur forbade the sale of Fijian land to non-Fijians. He also instituted a system of limited native administration that allowed the native Fijians much say in their own affairs. A council of chiefs was formed to advise the government on matters pertaining to the native people.
In an effort to promote economic development, Sir Arthur instituted a plantation system to the islands of Fiji. He had previous experience with a plantation system as governor of Trinidad and Mauritius. The government invited the Australian Colonial Sugar Refining Company to open operations in Fiji, which it did in 1882. The company operated in Fiji until 1973.
In order to provide cheap non-native labor for the plantations, the government looked to the crown colony of India. From 1789 to 1916 over 60,000 Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured labor. Today, the descendants of these laborers make up approximately 44% of the population of Fiji. Native Fijians account for about 51% of the population. The rest are Chinese, Europeans, and other Pacific Islanders.
From the late 1800s until the 1960s, Fiji remained a racially divided society, especially in terms of political representation. Fijians, Indians and Europeans all elected or nominated their own representatives to the legislative council.
NEXT PAGE - Independence and Turmoil