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Thursday, September 1, 2016
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Legend has it that the first Fijians, led by the Chief Lutunasobasoba, landed at Vuda Point, north of Nadi, after travelling for months across the Pacific on large canoes. Whether this is just myth or truth, no one knows. But historians do agree that Fiji was first settled about 3,500 years ago by voyagers sailing from Melanesia. European discovery of the islands was to come much later.
Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman was the first European to discover the Fiji Islands in 1643 when he passed through Vanua Levu and the North Taveuni group. Another famous explorer - Englishman Captain James Cook - sailed through the Lau Group of islands in 1774.
But it was Cook's fellow countryman - Captain William Bligh - who is credited with the first charting of the islands. He passed through Fiji in 1789 after being set adrift in a small boat following the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. He returned three years later in the HMS Providence to further explore the islands.
Fifteen years later, the discovery of sandalwood on the southwestern coast of Vanua Levu led to an increase of Western trading ships visiting Fiji. Up until then, European contact with the Fijians had been limited to the occasional trading ship or shipwrecked sailor.
Sandalwood was highly valued in China where it fetched a high price. Many beachcombers sailed from Australian ports in the hopes of making their fortune. A sandalwood rush began in the first few years but it dried up when supplies dropped between 1810-1814.
By 1820, the traders were back - this time for beche-de-mer or sea cucumber - considered a real delicacy in the East. The sandalwood and beche-de-mer trade attracted many people to Fiji during the early trading period including "manilamen". Manilamen was a general term applied to Chinese seamen from outside of the Chinese Empire.
The trading period led to the rise in power of some Fijian chiefs. The tiny island of Bau, off the coast of Viti Levu, and its chief Cakobau was one such example. Cakobau, later proclaimed himself the King of Fiji and was instrumental in Fiji's being ceded to Great Britain.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in Fiji in 1830. They were Tahitian. Five years later, the first European Methodist missionaries arrived. They were David Cargill and William Cross. By the 1850s, the missionaries had gained influence over native Fijians and it wasn't long before most of the chiefs and people of Fiji had been converted to Christianity.
The period between 1860 and 1870 saw an influx of European settlers into Fiji, with many making Levuka their home. Many were here to make their fortune in cotton following the world wide cotton boom. On October 10 1874 the Fiji Islands were ceded to England's Queen Victoria. The islands were colonized by Britain after this time.
The colonial government, under Fiji's first Governor Sir Arthur Gordon, brought in indentured labourers from India to work on sugar and cotton plantations from 1879. The indenture system ended in 1920. Today, almost half of the Indo-Fijian population are descendants of the early girmitya. Fiji's capital then was Levuka on the island of Ovalau. The Colonial administration eventually shifted the capital to Suva on Viti Levu in 1877.
Ninety-six years after the Deed of Cession was signed in Levuka, Fiji gained its independence on October 10, 1970. The current President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara became Fiji's first Prime Minister and his Alliance party held power until the 1987 elections when it was defeated by an NFP/FLP coalition.
Sitiveni Rabuka staged a bloodless military coup on May 14, 1987 overthrowing Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra's government. He staged a second coup in September after which Fiji was declared a republic and ties were severed with the British Monarchy.
A new constitution was promulgated by the then President Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau in 1990. It was seen as racially discriminatory. Rabuka later became Prime Minister in 1992 holding power till May this year.
On July 25, 1997, a new amended constitution was promulgated by the President. About two months later, Fiji re-entered the Commonwealth on September 30. The amended constitution came into effect on July 25 1998.
Elections in 1999, conducted under the new constitution and a new system of voting, saw Mahendra Chaudry become Fiji's first democratically elected Indian Prime Minister.
On 19 May 2000, the government was held hostage in Suva for 52 days by rebel leader George Speight who wanted to see Fiji governed by indigenous Fijians. He was later arrested for treason. In the meanwhile, a new interim government has been formed with Laisenia Qarase as Fiji's new Prime Minister.