Abel Tasman first brought the existence of the Fiji archipelago of islands to European attention back in 1643. However, there was little to no interaction with these islands for another century and a half. Captain Cook discovered Turtle Island in 1773. In 1789 Captain Bligh sailed through the islands in his small launch after he had been cast adrift after the Mutiny on the Bounty. Given its reputation for cannibalism, he elected not to come ashore and continued his epic journey on to Timor.
In the Nineteenth Century, Westerners began to arrive and interact in an unofficial capacity. Sandalwood traders were interested in cutting down many of the trees in Fiji. Other beachcombers, waifs and strays washed ashore. Often they were on the run from various European jurisdictions and were willing to test the fearsome reputation of the Fijian people as the alternative might have meant penal servitude at best or the death penalty. These Westerners were only too happy to act as traders, suppliers of illicit goods such as guns or informal advisers to the multiplicity of Fijian tribes and their chiefs. In 1804 some escaped convicts from Australia and runaway sailors established themselves around the east part of the main island of Viti Levu. Nearby was the small island of Bau with a small tribe which had a ferocious reputation of quarrelling with their neighbours. By lending their services to the local Bau, these escaped convicts helped the Bau gain ascendency over their rivals. Chief Na Uliva established before his death in 1829 a sort of supremacy over the main island which was then extended further by his brother Tanoa.
The Bau already had a fearsome reputation as warriors and constantly clashed with rival Fijian tribes. Their leader took the title 'vunivalu' which meant warlord. Cannibalism was an intrinsic part of their culture. Eating one's enemies was an act of vindictive vengeance on peoples who placed so much store in ancestor worship.
The British were concerned of the impact of the various waifs and strays that were finding their way to the Pacific Islands. On paper, the governor of New South Wales was given a vague legal jurisdiction (but not sovereignty) over "all the islands adjacent to the Pacific Ocean" From New Guinea down to New Zealand and extending Eastwards which included Fiji amongst others. A British statute was passed allowing the courts of New South Wales to try British subjects who committed offences in this vast area. With this in mind, a Consul, William Pritchard, was despatched to Fiji in 1858.
The first British consul was often involved in curbing excessive drunkenness and debauchery as they did on violent crime. Occasionally Royal Navy ships stopped by to give a hand to the Consul and they also gave considerable comfort and material aid to missionaries who began to operate in the area with increasing confidence.
The Rise of Cakobau
The Bau looked like they were losing influence when their leader Tanoa was overthrown in 1832 by rebels who felt he was too unpredictable. Tanoa's own son appeared to collaborate with the rebels but actually bided his time until he could restore his father to the throne of the Bau in 1837. The father was technically in charge, but in reality it was his son Cakobau who was calling the shots.
Whilst these political intrigues unfolded on Viti Levu, Wesleyan Missionaries began to settle on the islands to the East c1835. They came from nearby Tonga where they had already made serious inroads from Christianising the population there. Indeed, Tongans travelled with these missionaries and helped them establish themselves. In 1840 a United States expedition surveyed the islands more comprehensively.
With increased Western interest in the archipelagao, Westerners began to be impressed with the bearing and rule of Cakobau. One such visitor, Mary Wallis, commented 'I think that he may truly be called the Napoleon of Feejee'. It was also more convenient to have a single source of political power to negotiate and discuss issues with. This was demonstrated in 1844 when the British consul in Hawaii wrote to Cakobau but addressing him with the honorific 'Tui Viti' (King of Fiji). This was despite the fact that his father Tanoa was still alive until 1852.
There was to be a challenge to the power of Cakobau from the Tongan influence growing in the East of the archipelago. Chief Ma'afu received direct support and aid from King George of Tonga in 1854 who lent his warriors in a show of strength from Tonga. Both Chief Ma'afu and King George Tupou I were Christians and had the support of missionaries. Back in England, the London Missionary Society was appalled at the stories of cannibalism coming out of Fiji no matter how noble and polite its leader appeared to be. There was also a substantial financial claim from the American government for compensation for alleged incidents where property belonging to the American Consul was damaged in a fire in 1849 (ironically started during July 4th celebrations) and a larger fire damaged Western buildings in Levuka in 1853. The American consul blamed both events on Cakobau and imposed a US blockade on the islands. Even more disconcerting to Cakobau though was the fact that the Bau had begun to lose out in a war on the main island of Viti Levu against a rival tribe known as the Rewa. It appeared to Cakobau that the traditional Fijian gods were abandoning the Bau. There then occurred an opportune letter from the Tongan King George Tupou I who appealed to Cakobau to convert himself to Christianity with the carrot of peace from his fellow Christian king who had hitherto been supporting his rivals to the East. Cakobau and his wife announced their conversion within days of receiving the invitation. His conversion started an avalanche of further conversions across Western Fijian chiefs. This would signify a cultural shift that swiftly undermined the constant tribal warfare that had occurred for so many generations.
Cakobau heard that both the Tongan and Hawaiian kings had ships with which to visit and keep the peace in their archipelagos. Not to be outdone, Cakobau decided to order two such ships suitable for a ruler. Indeed, Cakobau began to borrow and spend money to shore up his position and to expand his power back towards the East of the archipelago. The Tongans had once again stepped up their challenge and their own expansionist ideas. Cakobau decided that it might be time to solicit the support of a Western power to help bolster his claims and ambitions. In 1858 he approached the British to ask Queen Victoria if she might extend her protection over his kingdom. He also wanted British support against those American claims which appeared to be a casus belli of their own to intervene if necessary. London sent two commissioners to investigate his requests. They did not report their recommendations until 1862. Concerned at his financial debt and the potential for sustained instability they politely refused his request. However, their very dithering gave Cakobau something of what he desired. The length of time of the investigation and the prospect of British involvement in the archipelago encouraged British traders and settlers to look afresh at the islands and to examine the economic opportunities there. The American Civil War which began in 1860 also saw cotton prices soar and Westerners searched for new opportunities to grow this profitable cash crop. Sugar also seemed a promising new crop and indentured servants from other Pacific Islands were brought to the island for the first time in 1864 to try and take advantage of the high commodity prices. Furthermore, the British commission deterred Tongan interest in expanding their influence in the Eastern part of the archipelago.
By 1866 some 400 Europeans were thought to be living in Fiji. The vast majority were based around Levuka on Ovalau. These businessmen and traders also had deep pockets which Cakobau took advantage of to borrow money from. Over time, he built up substantial debts and deterred traders from requesting their money back with ominous sounding replies such as: "I did not send for you. However, white men make good eating: they are like ripe bananas."
There were increased calls for Cakobau to respect the property and rights of these investors. It was proposed initially that a Confederacy of independent Chiefs of Fiji with Cakobau as its president. This created more rivalry than peace and fell apart by 1867. In the aftermath Cakobau declared himself as king of the new kingdom of Bau. He had always sought to be regarded as the genuine Tui Viti over the islands. The British Consul at Levuka was far from impressed at this turn of events and instructed the growing British population not to have dealings with the new regime. There was also a sinister turn in July 1867 when a Wesleyan missionary, Thomas Baker, was killed and eaten on Viti Levu by villagers who wished to show their displeasure at the new kingdom of Bau and his new Christian religion. As the archipelago seemed to be descending into chaos, some of the European residents decided to double down and act with Cakobau and elevate him to King of all Fiji. He was proclaimed King on June 5th 1871.
There was also increased interest from the Australian colonies who sought to formally annex Fiji and bring the island chain under their formal control. In 1870 in Melbourne, a conference of all the Australian premiers resolved that a British Protectorate should be established over Fiji at the earliest opportunity. They went on to say that control by a foreign power of these islands might be 'prejudicial commercially' and 'might be dangerous in time of war'. Whitehall remained unmoved and worried about the costs of having to maintain a military force in an island group with such a reputation for warfare. In 1870 Gladstone stated that Britain should not 'be a party to any arrangement for adding Fiji and all that lies beyond it to the cares of this overdone and over-burdened Government and Empire.'
Cakobau, undeterred and realising that he needed to broaden the support of his nascent government, invited a British cotton trader by the name of John Bates Thurston to join his administration. Initially Thurston became his chief secretary but soon he became the de facto premier. There were repeated calls from the growing European population (who were numbering close to 2000 by 1871) to 'open up' land for Europeans to purchase and develop. However, the local population were equally adamant at maintaining their own culture and ways of life. Cakobau's tendency to spend money too freely also had to be reined in by Thurston. By 1873, the two leaders decided that annexation by Britain offered the only long term solution to the many problems facing Fiji and was preferable to being annexed as part of an Australian colony and certainly of a rival European or American one.
A second formal request was duly made and two more commissioners were despatched. By the time of their arrival, the Fijian government had fallen over its budget and Cakobau had had to dissolve the parliament of his new kingdom. There were demonstrations and tax revolts. The Europeans who had done so much to create this government turned on Cakobau and sought his replacement and for more land to be released to them. The unusually liberal Thurston stood by his Fijian monarch and lobbied the British commissioners for the Fijians to be protected by the more rapacious demands of the interlopers.
Cakobau made the following plea to the commissioners: If matters remain as they are, Fiji will become like a piece of driftwood on the sea, and be picked up by the first passer-by... By annexation the two races, white and black, will be bound together... and the stronger nation will lend strength to the weak.""
This was a more fortuitous time to request British protection. The Royal Navy were interested in finding suitable coaling stations between Australia and Panama. There was also an increased awareness of mistreatment of various polynesian peoples who were 'blackbirded' or effectively kidnapped and made to work on European plantations in the Asia-Pacific region. Missionaries and anti-slavers back in Britain had turned it into a moral campaign. it was felt that a Royal Navy squadron could use more bases in the region to patrol and stamp out this illegal activity. It also helped that in 1874 Gladstone's government fell and was replaced by a newly elected Tory government under Disraeli. This government was avowedly pro-Imperial and sought to expand British influence in the coming years.
Fiji as a British Colony
In 1874 the governor of New South Wales arrived in Levuka as the Queen's representative to make the final arrangements for accession into the British Empire. On October 10th, King Cakobau, 11 tribal chiefs and a Tongan Prince all added their name to the Deed of Cession in the Council Room at Ovalau. The proclamation read: "Unto her Majesty the Queen of Britain - We, King of Fiji, together with the other high chiefs of Fiji, hereby give our country, Fiji, unreservedly to Her Britannic Majesty Queen of Great Britain and Ireland; and we trust and repose fully in her, that she will rule Fiji justly and affectionately... signed Cakobau R. Tui Viti and Vunivalu"
British annexation coincided with a depression in many of the products that had been grown in Fiji. This was largely due to the aftermath of the American Civil War and the fact that the American economy began once more to produce cotton which depressed world wide commodity prices. Attempts at growing sugar were floundering against increased sugar beet cultivation in Europe. Coffee was suffering from a local leaf disease and tea could not compete with the cheaper labour available on the mainland of Asia. One way around this latter problem was the importation of 'coolie' labour from 1878 from India. These arrived with onerous contracts that undercut local labour and which often were little more than indentured servitude in their own right. European settlers tended to blame the British government for not opening up more Fijian land to create economies of scale and larger plantations that might mitigate the economic difficulties. The British administration stood firm and as general commodity prices rose and more investment was made in machinery and infrastructure so did the prosperity and prospects for Fiji.
Sir Arthur Gordon was Fiji's first Governor. He established a successful form of indirect rule where the chiefs continued to rule in almost all internal matters and where the government was almost entirely staffed by Fijians. His light touch was very much appreciated by the Fijian chiefs who when he left his post in 1880 petitioned Queen Victoria to ask permission to gift the governor with two small islands as a token of their thanks and so that "it may be known that it was he who established the working of good and suitable government in our land, which has brought us prosperity, rest and peace."
Thurston also served under the first governor and would later become governor in his own right. He also helped ensure that Fijian land, culture and their rights to make their own laws were protected. Cakobau's greatest gift to his nation was probably to trust and empower Thurston who repaid that trust many times over. The importance of Fiji in the Pacific was confirmed in 1877 when the governor of Fiji was also made High Commissioner for the Western Pacific as a whole by Disraeli. This gave extra judicial rights and responsibilities throughout a far wider area than just Fiji itself. This double role lasted until 1952.
Indentured servitude continued to see the population of Fiji swell and a growing racial mix in the colony. The British governors had thought that importing labour might well save the local population from being exploited and effectively turned in to wage slaves for by now largely Australian corporations. Unfortunately it created a new class of exploited at least in the short term as Melanesians, Micronesians and Indians had frighteningly high mortality rates when they first arrived due to a combination of new environmental factors, disease and the harsh working conditions. These did improve over time and the lure of paid work continued to attract new migrants. Government inspectors also demanded improved care and accommodation for these migrant workers. In the long run though, improved investment in capital intensive technology in sugar production made mass labour increasingly anachronistic. However, the legacy was to be new ethnic complexities that survived in to independence and beyond.
The government of New Zealand made repeated overtures to formally absorb Fiji and rule it on Britain's behalf. New Zealand claimed that Maoris and Pacific Islanders had affinities that made rule from New Zealand appropriate. The Aborigines' Protection Society protested to the Colonial Office as did the Governor of Fiji and many of the chiefs on Fiji. The British government refused to sanction these repeated requests.
Education initially fell under the ambit of missionaries and it could be something of a hit or miss affair as a consequence. Many of the teachers were unqualified European missionaries or local natives who might be at best semi-literate themselves. Increasingly, the government began to open its own schools. These were initially linked to the New Zealand system in terms of academic standards and resources.
Similarly health was also provided initially at no cost by the missionary movement. This could provide only basic health care at best and any serious ailments entailed having to travel to Australia or New Zealand for treatment. A significant upgrade in medical facilities came after the First World War when the Rockefeller Foundation provided substantial funds to improve public health activity throughout the islands. In 1928 a medical school was constructed in Suva which attracted many students from other Pacific Islands also. Suva also specialised in providing care for leprosy.
Fiji became independent in 1970.
|Western Pacific High Commission Flag
Turtle Island Map by Cook, 1777
Map of Fiji, 1827
Map of Eastern Fiji Islands, 1840
Map of Western Fiji Islands, 1840
Map of Fiji, 1869
Map of Polynesia, 1883
Map of Fiji, 1895
Fiji Map, 1897
Map of Fiji, 1901
Map of Fiji, 1906
Oceania Map, 1912
Fiji Map, 1925
Map of Fiji, 1948
Map of Fiji, 1967
National Archive Fiji Images
|1875 - 1970
|Fiji Armed Constabulary
Third Time Lucky
Sir Robert Sanders explains how the process of visiting the remote and disparate islands of the Northern District of Fiji could be a real challenge. For one particular island, his attempts to visit the outer parts of his district seemed doomed to repeated failure.
The Day We Lost the Prince of Wales!
Peter G Hough was responsible for chaperoning Prince Charles after the ceremony granting Fiji its independence in 1970. However, the island's sea-faring culture and weather patterns conspired in making the Prince incommunicado for a while at least.
A Replica Pagan Temple in Fiji
Gwyn Watkins explains what it was like to supervise the construction of the old-style Fijian temples which had been the location for executions!
|1643 || Abel Tasman Discovers |
|1773 || Cook Discovers Turtle Island |
|1789 || Blight Sails Through Archipelago |
|1804 || Australian Convict Runaways Arrive |
|c1815 || Cakobau Born |
|1829 || Rise of Bau |
|1832 || Tanoa Overthrown |
|c1835 || Wesleyan Missionaries Arrive |
|1837 || Tanoa Reinstalled with help from Cakobau |
|1840 || US Survey Islands |
|1854 || Tongan Involvement In Fiji Affairs, Cakobau Announces Conversion to Christianity |
|1858 || Cakobau Requests British Protection |
|1860 - 1865 || American Civil War Influences Commodity Prices |
|1862 || British Commissioners Decline Formal Control |
|1864 || Melanesian Indentured Labourers Begin to Arrive in Fiji |
|c1865 || Confederacy of Fiji Chiefs |
|1867 || Cakobau Becomes King of Bau, Missionary Killed and Eaten |
|1870 || Australian Premiers Lobby for Fiji to be Annexed |
|1871 || Cakobau Becomes King of Fiji |
|1873 || Cakobau and Thurston Request British Annexation |
|1874 || Disraeli PM, Agrees to Fiji Entering British Empire |
|1877 - 1952 || Fiji Governor Becomes High Commissioner for Western Pacific as a whole |
|1878 || Indentured Labour Arrives From India |
|1900 || New Zealand Requests Control of Fiji. Denied |
|1917 || Indentured Labour Outlawed |
|1928 || Suva Medical School |
|1970 || Fiji Gains Independece |
From the Middle Temple to the South Seas
by Gilchrist Alexander
The Things We Do for England - If Only England Knew
by Eric Raymond Bevington
My Colonial Service
by Sir George William Des Voeux
Journey: A Spiritual Odyssey
by Peter France
Enigmatic Proconsul: Sir Philip Mitchell and the Twilight of the Empire
by Richard Frost
Tales of the Fiji Islands: By the Wife of a District Commissioner
by Ann Gittins
Via Ports: from Hong Kong to Hong Kong
by Sir Alexander Grantham
Family of Ginger Griffins
by Pamela Lattimer
Cities and Men: An Autobiography
by Sir Harry Luke
Of No Fixed Abode: Account of Colonial Service in Nigeria and Fiji and of Subsequent Work in London and East Africa
by Kenneth Maddock
Old Sinister: A Memoir of Sir Arthur Richards
by Richard Peel
The Years of Hope: Cambridge, Colonial Administrator in the South Seas and Cricket
by Philip Snow
A Time of Renewal: Clusters of Characters, C P Snow and Coups
by Philip Snow
Nowhere Near Greenland
by Barry Weightman
View from the Peak: An Autobiography
by Phoebe Whitworth