May 24 - September 15, 2006
Fiji is an island nation located approximately 1,800 miles east of Australia and 1,000 miles north of New Zealand. It is comprised of more than 300 islands with a total land mass of just over 7,000 square miles spread over more than 250,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. It is more than 97% water. Fiji spans from 15 south to 22 south and 177 west to 174 east. Although it spans the international dateline, it uses a single time zone west of the dateline. Its time zone is GMT + 12.
Approximately 100 of the 300 islands are populated, and the total national population is around 900,000. Just over half - 51% - of the population is indigenous Fijian, 44% is Indo-Fijian, and the remaining 5% is a diverse mixture.
Fiji has been populated for an estimated 3,600 years – maybe longer. The original immigrants were from Southeast Asia, and they migrated through Indonesia and what is now Papua New Guinea around 1600 BC. There was probably another smaller migration around 400-100 BC. Then there was a massive migration from Melanesia from 1000-1800 AD that introduced sophisticated agriculture and a highly developed culture.
Pre-European Fijian society was highly evolved, stratified, and had a complicated class system. The selection of chiefs was based on complicated rules of lineage, and chiefs ruled with tremendous power. It was a very violent society. However, like other Pacific island groups, Fiji was forever changed by European explorers and Christian missionaries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The first European to sight Fiji was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. He was traveling from Tonga to Papua New Guinea when he sighted Nukubasaga, a sand cay west of Vanua Levu, on February 6, 1643. The next European to visit Fiji was Captain Cook while he, too, was traveling from Tonga. He landed on Vatoa Island in the southern Lau group. The third European to sight Fiji was the infamous Captain Bligh and his 18 men in an open boat after the mutiny on the Bounty. Bligh knew of the ferocious reputation of Fijian men, and he did not want to stop at any Fijian islands, but he had little choice but to pass through them. And he was, indeed, pursued by two Fijian canoes off the Yasawa group; however, the canoes returned to land at sunset.
The next groups to arrive in Fiji were the sandalwood traders from 1804 to 1810 followed by the beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) traders from 1820. These traders brought muskets which, in the hands of the ferocious Fijians, further increased the violence common in their society.
Then the Christian missionaries started arriving. The London Missionary Society was the first group to arrive in 1830. They were followed shortly thereafter by the Wesleyans whom arrived in 1835. Both groups had limited success at converting powerful chiefs, but they eventually converted the powerful Chief Cakobau in 1854, and the rest of the country soon followed.
Chief Cakobau incurred a $43,000 debt to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. He was unable to pay his debt, and in 1858 he offered to cede Fiji to the British if they would pay his debt. Rumors of the cession brought many Australian and New Zealand settlers, but the cession did not occur. The growing non- Fijian population had problems establishing a self-ruling government under the overriding rule of Chief Cakobau, and Fiji was eventually ceded to Britain on October 10, 1874.
The first British governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, sought to stimulate the economy by expanding Fiji’s sugar production. However, he feared that the traditional Fijian way of life would be disrupted by large scale use of Fijian labor for sugar plantations, so he brought in Indian indentured laborers. In all, more than 60,000 Indian laborers were brought in from 1879 until 1920.
Fiji developed and prospered as a British colony during the first half of the twentieth century. They had implemented a membership system of government by 1964, a ministerial system of government was introduced in 1967, and they became an independent nation on October10, 1970.
However, the offspring of the indentured Indian laborers grew to nearly half of Fiji’s population, and they dominate Fiji’s economy. In 1987, many indigenous Fijians feared that the Indo-Fijian population was taking over political power as well as economic power, and a series of coups were staged between May, 1987, and May, 2000. These have had devastating economic consequences to the nation.
Today Fiji remains an ethnically divided nation. The Indo-Fijian population operates most of Fiji’s businesses, and the indigenous Fijians have a primarily agrarian economy with subsistence farming at the village level. However, despite the ongoing tension between these two groups of Fijians, tourism is again the country’s primary source of income. Sugar, being produced without indentured Indian labor, is their second greatest source of income.
The Fijian islands are arranged in a somewhat circular pattern. The largest island, Viti Levu, is the home of Fiji’s two largest cities – Suva and Nadi. If the circular pattern of the islands was viewed as a clock’s face, Viti Levu would be around 9:00. Moving counter-clockwise, one would next find Kadavu and its Great Astrolabe Reef. Continuing counter-clockwise is the Lau group of islands then the islands commonly referred to as the Northern group. Continuing on is Vanua Levu – Fiji’s second largest island – then closing the circle are the Yasawa and Mamanuca groups. In the center of the circle are the Lomai Viti islands. And far to the north is Rotuma – an isolated group of islands which is politically part of Fiji although it is not so geologically or ethnically.
But before visiting any of the islands, we had one important shopping stop to make - yanqona. The Fijian concept of land does not stop at the water's edge. To anchor near shore is to anchor in someone's 'yard'. The villages own the beaches, fish, reefs, etc. Permission needs to be obtained from the village chief to anchor off, enter the village, fish, dive, or anything else (and permission for all of these is not automatically granted). All visitors to Fijian villages are expected to make sevusevu with the village chief. Sevusevu is the ceremonial presentation of 1/2 to 1 kg of yanqona which is an act of respect that cannot be ignored. One can argue whether this is a good practice or not, but it is a reality of cruising in Fiji. So we loaded on a few kg of yanqona and headed off.
We arrived in Fiji at Suva on Viti Levu, and we planned a somewhat counter-clockwise path. However, we spent longer than planned on Kadavu and in the Lau group, and prevailing winds remained contrary to our plans. So we headed clockwise. We spent the rest of time in Fiji in Lautoka, the Yasawas, and the Mamanucas.
or Kadavu Island,
Or come along as we sail from Fiji to Vanuatu
Or jump ahead to Vanuatu