Archaeological evidence suggests that Fiji has been inhabited, initially by Melanesian peoples, for more than 3,500 years. The first known contact with Europeans occurred in 1643, when the islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni were explored by Abel Tasman. British explorers including Captains James Cook and William Bligh passed through in the late 18th century. By this time, the population was mixed, with Melanesians occupying the eastern areas and Polynesians the islands’ interiors, organised into a complex hierarchical society.
The first American ships arrived in the 19th century, bringing adventurers attracted by the resources of sandalwood (which were exhausted within ten years) and subsequently traders and Christian missionaries. Later, Europeans began establishing cotton plantations but came into conflict with the Fijians over land, political power and the use of imported labour. The increasing availability of guns caused inter-tribal conflicts to escalate but by the mid-19th century, a single clan dominated, led first by Nauvilou and subsequently by his son Cakobau, and based on the small island of Bau to the south-east of Viti Levu. The Bauan dialect of Fijian consequently became the predominant Fijian language, and an important factor in unifying the clans. Cakobau converted to Methodist Christianity in 1854; in 1874, following British concerns over the interests of the settlers, Cakobau agreed that Fiji should become a Crown colony. In 1881, Rotuma Island in northern Fiji, inhabited by Polynesian people, was added to the territory.
The first governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, collaborated with the local chiefs to protect the traditional ways of life. He forbade the sale of land to non-Fijians, levied taxes in kind and retained the existing political structures. He also encouraged the growth of the sugar industry, and its use of Indian labour. From the 1920s, Indians began to call for more commercial and political influence and, by 1943, despite the restrictions on land ownership, they were in the majority.
The country progressed towards independence through the 1960s, largely in response to international and British pressure, while internally there were divisions over the appropriate forms of government able to provide democracy while protecting the rights of the ethnic Fijians. The resulting constitution offered universal suffrage, with guarantees for Fijian land rights, and the Fijian chiefs, through their dominance of the Senate, had in effect a veto on constitutional change. Fiji became independent on 10 October 1970.
Until 1987, the government was formed by the Alliance Party led by Ratu (Chief) Sir Kamisese Mara which followed policies of moderate multiracialism. The largest Indo-Fijian party, the National Federation Party (NFP), formed the main opposition for most of the period and calls from Indo-Fijians for greater political and property rights increased.
Elections in April 1987 resulted in victory for a coalition consisting of the NFP and the Fiji Labour Party (FLP), led by Dr Timoci Bavadra and supported by both ethnic Fijian and Indo-Fijian trades unions. Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian, became Prime Minister, but there were Indo-Fijian majorities in both the House of Representatives and the cabinet. In May 1987 the government was overthrown in a coup led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, who called for the ethnic Fijian dominance of all future governments.
The May 1987 coup was followed by a period of racial unrest, during which the Great Council of Chiefs attempted to introduce constitutional reforms. Mediated by the Governor-General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, negotiations between Mara and Bavadra resulted in the formation of an interim government of unity.
However, Rabuka led a second coup in September 1987 and in October he declared Fiji a republic. Having become a republic, it was then required to reapply for membership of the Commonwealth and, at their summit in Vancouver in October 1987, Commonwealth Heads of Government decided to allow its membership to lapse, primarily on the grounds that Fiji had adopted a form of government at variance with the democratically expressed wish of the people and so with Commonwealth principles. In December 1987 Rabuka appointed a new civilian government with Mara as Prime Minister and Ganilau as President.
Between 1988 and 1990, a new constitution was drawn up and approved by the Great Council of Chiefs, but the National Federation Party–Fiji Labour Party coalition announced it would boycott any elections held under its provisions. The constitution was also the subject of international criticism, especially from the Commonwealth led by India, Australia and New Zealand.
Fiji resumed its membership of the Commonwealth in October 1997. Its new 1997 constitution came into force in July 1998. At elections in May 1999 the incumbent Fijian Political Party (SVT, with only eight of the 71 seats in the lower house) and the NFP (no seats) were ousted by a coalition led by the FLP (37 seats) that included the Fijian Association Party (ten), the Party of National Unity (four) and the recently formed Christian Democratic Alliance (three). The turnout was high at these elections where voting was compulsory.
Following his victory, FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry became the first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister and, despite his party’s overall majority in the House of Representatives, he formed a cabinet representing all four of the coalition partners. His priorities were to defuse ethnic tensions and restore economic growth after the sharp contractions of 1997–99. Soon after the elections, Rabuka resigned from the leadership of the SVT.
In May 2000, armed ethnic Fijians, led by George Speight, overthrew the government, occupying the parliament building and taking about 40 hostages – including the Prime Minister. There then ensued continuous negotiations between the army and the rebels until the deadlock was finally broken in July, when the hostages were released, a new civilian President and ‘emergency’ government were appointed and backed by the military. In June the country was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth pending the restoration of democracy. In July Speight and some of his supporters were arrested and charged with treason.