Fiji - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of the Fiji Islands
Formation 1970 / 1970
Population 900,000 / 128 people per sq mile (49 people per sq km)
Total area 7054 sq. miles (18,270 sq. km)
Languages Fijian, English*, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu
Religions Hindu 38%, Methodist 37%, Roman Catholic 9%, Muslim 8%, Other 8%
Ethnic mix Melanesian 51%, Indian 44%, Other 5%
Government Transitional regime
Currency Fiji dollar = 100 cents
Literacy rate 94%
Calorie consumption 3033 kilocalories
Fiji was first settled about 3,500 years ago by Polynesian migrants from Southeast Asia. These original inhabitants of Fiji are now called the Lapita people after a distinctive type of fine pottery they produced, known as Lapita pottery. The Polynesians were followed by Melanesians, who arrived in Fiji about 2,500 years ago from the area around New Guinea. The Polynesians and Melanesians are believed to have been expert sailors and fishermen who lived mostly around the coastal areas. Later on the development of agriculture around 500 B.C.E increased the population and led to the formation of tribal communities.
The first European to set foot on the Fiji islands was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (?1603–?59) in 1643. The British explorer Captain James Cook (1728–79) visited Fiji in 1774. In the early 19th century the discovery of sandalwood and sea cucumber in the region attracted traders to the islands. A sea cucumber is a tubular, spineless sea animal prized as a delicacy and also for its medicinal properties. Both the sandalwood and sea cucumber were highly valued in Asia, and European traders got involved in their trade in the hope of making quick fortunes.
In 1874 Fiji came under British rule. The British introduced a system of administration that prevented indigenous Fijians from working on the European-owned sugarcane plantations. That is why over 60,000 Indians were brought to Fiji by the British. They were treated as indentured servants before the practice was abolished. As a result over 40 percent of today’s population is of Indian descent.
The 19th century also saw the arrival of Christian missionaries in Fiji. The majority of Fijians today are Christians.
In 1970 Fiji gained independence from the United Kingdom. Ethnic tensions flared up soon after that. A new constitution was drawn up that entrenched ethnic separation by providing separate electoral rolls for each ethnic group. Those tensions escalated in 1987 after elections seated a coalition government dominated by ethnic Indians. A coup led by Sitiveni Rabuka (b. 1948), a native Fijian military leader, overthrew the civilian government. A new constitution was written giving preferential treatment to ethnic Fijians. Pressure from the international community led to changes in the constitution in 1997, which eased tensions for a time.
The first election under that constitution was held in May 1999, and the Labor Party won. The party’s leader Mahendra Chaudhry (b. 1942) was appointed prime minister. He was the first IndoFijian to occupy the position.
In May 2000 Chaudhry and his cabinet were taken hostage for 56 days by a group of disgruntled indigenous Fijians led by failed local businessman George Speight (b. 1957), who called for a new constitution that would give indigenous Fijians political supremacy. In light of growing international and domestic pressure, Speight and his men were arrested. Speight pleaded guilty to treason and was sentenced to death, but later the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Because of the antidemocratic activities and coup of 2000, Fiji’s membership in the Commonwealth of Nations was suspended, and, under pressure from the international community, the interim administration committed itself to holding democratic elections in 2001. The new and predominantly indigenous Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua Party (SDL), the party of the interim prime minister Laisenia Qarase (b. 1941), obtained the largest number of seats in the elections and formed a government.
The Fijian Labor Party (FLP) won 28 seats but was excluded from power. The FLP challenged its exclusion, saying it was unconstitutional. The High Court and Court of Appeal upheld the FLP’s position but a power-sharing agreement could not be reached by the two parties. In November 2004, Chaudhry announced that his party would assume the role of official opposition.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Fiji is an archipelago that includes 332 islands. Of these only about 100 or so are inhabited while many others are used as fishing bases and planting grounds. The majority of the population lives on two islands: Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Taveuni, Kadavu, Gau, and Koro are the other important islands. The international dateline runs through Fiji although most of the islands are situated just west of the line.
This island nation has a mild, tropical, maritime climate. During the summer, which is Fiji’s rainy season (November to April), temperatures can reach 86°F. During the dry season (May to October), the temperature drops down to 64°F. Rainfall is usually in the form of warm, sudden afternoon showers, which go as quickly as they come. On the mountainous islands trade winds cause variations in climate and vegetation.
Fiji’s fertile soil yields sugarcane, tropical fruits, taro (a fleshy, starchy, underground stem, called the potato of the tropics), cotton, pineapples, bananas, wood, and coconuts. Limestone quarrying is also important. Sugar, the processing of which accounts for a third of Fiji’s industrial production, is the main export. Gold, silver, clothing, copra, and processed fish are also exported. The European Union nations and Australia receive most of its exports. Imports, principally from Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, consist largely of foodstuffs, manufactures, and machinery.
Fiji has a flourishing tourism industry, a major source of foreign exchange. Roughly 250,000 tourists visit Fiji each year.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Fijians continue to practice many of their traditional arts and crafts, some of which have endured the destructive impact of Western influences and the relentless criticism of Christian missionaries, and some of which have been modified and embellished to satisfy the demands of tourism. Fiji has been famous for pottery since the Lapita people began trading their wares in the South Pacific thousands of years ago. Wood carving is also still important.
Fijian carvers make war clubs, spears, and drinking bowls, or tanoa, which are in daily use in many Fijian households. Bark cloth, known in Fiji as masi, is used for making ceremonial robes, waistbands, and turbans.
The cloth is made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree; its production is very laborious. Traditionally large and highly decorated masi cloths were used as ceremonial gifts, and there was much prestige associated with their ownership. The weaving of pandanus (a tree with long leaves in the shape of blades) leaves into mats and baskets has a long tradition too. Most village girls still learn the craft, and there are all sorts of variations in style and color (achieved by scraping the leaves, burying them in mud, and boiling them with other plants).
Fiji has a strong dance tradition, and Fijian dances are passed down from generation to generation.
Traditional dance, known as meke, accompanies special events like births, deaths, and marriages. At times of war men performed cibi with spears and clubs, while women performed dele or wate dances, which sexually humiliated captured enemies.
Fijian cuisine is a mixture of Melanesian, Polynesian, Indian, Chinese, and Western cuisine. Staple food items include breadfruit, yam, cassava, taro root (dalo) and leaves (rourou), besides beef, pork, and poultry, and, of course, seafood. Exotic fruit such as limes, guavas, mangos, bananas, and pineapples are also popular in both sweet and savory dishes, and coconut milk (lolo) is used in many dishes. Herbs and spices, such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, soy sauce, and chilies, are used to flavor dishes.
A typical Fijian main course consists of a dish of meat, poultry, or fish, boiled taro leaves, and cassava or taro as accompaniments. Local dishes include kakoda (a marinated local fish steamed in coconut cream and lime), rourou (a taro leaf dish), kassaua (tapioca, often boiled, baked, or grated and cooked in coconut cream with sugar and mashed bananas), and duruka (an unusual asparagus-like vegetable in season during April and May).
After the birth of a child on Fiji it is customary for every relative to put some money in the baby’s hand when seeing him or her for the first time.
At one month of age a baby is supposed to make his or her first appearance in church. The child is brought to the church by his or her aunt on the father’s side. The minister blesses the baby with a prayer. When the service is over, the oldest sister of the child’s mother takes the baby back home.
Two or three months later women from the village visit and bring gifts such as clothes, mats, rugs, and soaps for the baby. The women form a circle around the baby. Then one of them steps into the middle, claps to get everyone’s attention, and discusses the gifts. The women pass the baby around, and they all kiss it.
On Fiji it is customary for a young man to ask the girl’s father for her hand in marriage. The groom is also expected to present a valuable gift to the bride’s father. Traditionally, this present should be a whale’s tooth, symbolizing status and wealth. Assuming a young Fiji man receives permission to marry from the bride’s father, the prospective groom is expected to prepare a lavish feast and to send it to the bride’s family.
Just before the wedding it is traditional for the Fiji bride to be tattooed, a sign of beauty on the islands.
When a person dies, the death is announced by loud weeping and wailing by women who assemble outside the house where the deceased has died. In between the actual death and the funeral, friends and family come to the house of the dead to pay their respects. Relatives from the deceased’s maternal family are responsible for placing the body in the casket and accompanying it the church for the service, as well as for the burial.
After the burial, a feast is held. Cattle are killed specially for this meal. The men are served first and then the women. There are more feasts organized on the fourth, 10th, 50th, and 100th days after a death (provided the family can afford them). Close friends and family all participate because it is customary for feasting to be a part of the mourning process.