Fiji, Britain, Indians and the Road to Independence

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The first known European contact with Fiji came when the Dutch navigator Abel Janszoon Tasman sighted the Fiji group in 1643. Tasman had been sent by the Dutch East Company to find if New Guinea was attached to Australia. He instead found New Zealand, Tasmania and the Fiji Island. The voyage was considered a failure because no ways of making money were discovered.

Tasman was was followed by British explorer James Cook in 1774. Captain Cook visited the southern Lau group of Fiji. Captain William Bligh, of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame, plotted the islands in 1789. Captain Bligh sailed to Fiji after the mutiny and was pursued by two Fijian canoes as he tried to make his way home in 1789.

Charles Wilkes headed a US expedition to Fiji for three months in 1840.

Arrival of European and Missionaries in Fiji

In the 1800s, merchants, traders, and whalers frequented the islands and the first missionaries arrived in 1835. Other European visitors included pirates, army deserters, shipwreck survivors, adventurers, sandalwood traders, beche'de mer seekers, mercenaries, beachcombers, planters and settlers. Many of the early British settlers were Methodist missionaries.

Horror stories about cannibalism kept Europeans away until large stands of sandalwood trees were found in the early 19th century and promptly exploited. Planters and traders attempted to set up a colony on the model of those of Australia and New Zealand.

The first missionaries in Fiji were Methodists. They arrived from Tonga in 1835. French Catholic priests showed up in 1844. After a few chiefs had been converted, more and more Fijians embraced Christianity, usually in the form of Wesleyan Methodism. In 1854. The Fijian King accepted Christianity. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, 2005]

The indigenous chiefs, backed by European settler interests, established several confederated forms of government, the last of which, the United Kingdom of Fiji, represented an attempt at forming a modern independent multi-ethnic state.

Local Response to the Arrival of European Settlers

The arrival of Europeans Europeans in the first half of the 19th century resulted in disruptions that led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. Rival kings and chiefs competed for power, at times aided by Europeans and their weapons During this period the chiefs of Bau rose to a dominant position.

One Ratu (chief), Seru Epenisa Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s. Cakobau was the most powerful chief in Fiji. In 1854, he renounced his traditional gods and accepted Christianity. During a civil war in the 1850s he combined forces with the king of Tonga to become paramount chief of western Fiji.

The growing presence of Europeans contributed to political and economic instability. In 1865, Cakobau united many groups into the Confederacy of Independent Kingdoms of Viti. The arrangement proved weak In 1871, some 3,000 Europeans supported Cakobau's claim to rule as king of all Fiji, but unrest continued. Fear of a hostile takeover by a foreign power was high as the kingdom’s economy began to falter,

British Take Control of Fiji

Continuing unrest after Cakobau formed the Kingdom of Fiji in 1871 in an attempt to centralize power led him and a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the British. After Cakobau's government appealed to Britain for assistance Fijian chiefs signed a Deed of Cession making Fiji a British Crown Colony on October 10, 1874..

After an initial refusal, Great Britain accepted an offer of cession from the self-styled "king of Viti" and other principal Fijian chiefs. Many of the administrative arrangements of the kingdom were subsequently accepted by the British colonial administration.

Britain initially wanted the islands of Fiji to serve as supply station for ships. The first British consul was appointed at Levuka in 1857. In 1862. King Cakobau invited the British to annex Fiji but Britain refused. In 1874, Britain, fearing Fiji would fall to another power, accepted Fiji as a colony.

Arthur Hamilton Gordon was installed as governor soon after Fiji was annexed. He studied the Fijian language so he could address the local chiefs in their native language. His wife was impressed by the “undoubted aristocracy” and elaborate manners of the Fijians

British Rule in Fiji

Fiji became a British Crown Colony in 1874. Britain believed that the islands could be economically self-sufficient through the establishment of sugarcane plantations but did not want to end the traditional way of life of the Fijians.

The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in many other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained.

During their 96 years in Fiji, the British used divide and rule tactics between the Indians and native Fijians to maintain control. The school system established by the British rule segregated native Fijians from Indians.

Indentured Servants from India Arrive in Fiji

Between 1879 and 1916, large of indentured laborers were imported from India. On May 14, 1879, the first ship with them arrived from Calcutta with 463 indentured servants brought from India to work in the sugarcane fields on plantations set up by British planters. By 1917, the number of Indians on Fiji had grown to 60,000.

The first British governor set up a plantation-style economy and brought the indentured laborers to supply cheap labor. Most of the laborers chose to stay in Fiji rather than return to India when their contracts expired .In the early 1900s, society was divided along ethnic lines, with iTaukei (indigenous Fijians), Europeans, and Indo-Fijians living in separate areas and maintaining their own languages and traditions.

The Indian indentured laborers were ruthlessly exploited and cut off from their cultural roots but depressed economic conditions in India caused most of those laborers to remain after their contracts expired. They found work in agriculture, livestock raising, and small business enterprises. By 1920 many of the former indentured laborers and their descendants had settled as free farmers.

Road to Independence, World War II and Fijian-Indian Divisions

Fiji got its first elected Legislative Council in 1904. A system of property leases was in instituted in 1906. Initially, only European settlers were granted elective representation in the Legislative Council. Indians were admitted in 1929. Ethnic Fijian representation was based on traditional hierarchies until 1963, when the council was reconstituted; the franchise was extended to women, and direct election of Fijian members was provided. In 1966, the council was enlarged and again reconstituted, and Fiji attained virtual internal self-government. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, 2005]

Fiji was largely spared from fighting in World War II in part because the Japanese never gained a foothold there like they did in the Solomon Islands and Micronesia. Many Fijians joined the Allies in campaigns against the Japanese in New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands in World War II. They fought alongside the Allies and demonstrated their toughness in the Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other Allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009" with information from an October 2007 U.S. State Department report]

ITaukei fears of an Indo-Fijian takeover of government delayed independence through the 1960s. "The British established atmosphere of separate development," Indian activist Jai Ram Reddy told National Geographic. "They were the intermediaries; the Indians and Fijians were never meant to integrate. When the British left, the two races had to deal with each other fore the first time."

Independence for Fiji

Fiji achieved independence on October 10, 1970 and became a sovereign state within the British Commonwealth. Most of the Europeans left but the Indians stayed. Of the handful of people who had overseas university degrees after independence, th majority were Indians. In 1973, the sugar industry nationalized .

A constitutional conference in London in April 1970 agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation. When Fiji became independent it was a British-style parliamentary democracy with agreements in place to allocate parliamentary seats by ethnic groups. Kamisese K. T. Mara, head of the Alliance Party, became prime minister. He and his majority party won elections in 1972, 1977, and 1982, but lost the April 1987 elections to a coalition of the Indian-based National Federation Party and the Labour Party. [Source: Alexander Schubert, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, 2001]

Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2023

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