Pottery pieces found in Fiji suggest the islands were settled in the west from Melanesia at least 3,500 years ago. These settlers farmed and fished and brought pigs and poultry to the islands. There was extensive contact with Polynesia, particularly Tonga, and culturally, Fijians became more Polynesian than Melanesian. Fijian society was highly stratified. Allegiances to clans and chiefs were complicated, and warfare, including cannibalism, was common as leaders competed for control of the islands.
In 1643 Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to sight the islands. Regular European contact did not begin until the early 19th century, however. Groves of the valuable sandalwood tree were found by a shipwrecked American on Vanua Levu. His finding led to a vigorous trade that nearly stripped the island of its sandalwood trees. A European settlement developed at Levuka on the island of Ovalau in the 1820s and the London Missionary Society began converting the islanders in the Lau Group to Christianity in the 1830s. In the 1840s the first reliable maps of Fiji were made by the American explorer Charles Wilkes.
Meanwhile, warfare continued on the islands and was aided, in part, by European guns. Cakobau, a Fijian chief from the small island of Bau off Viti Levu, gained control of most of western Fiji. In 1849 the home of John Brown Williams, the American consul at Levuka, was burned and looted during a celebration. Williams held Cakobau responsible and ordered payment for damages. Other incidents followed and to pay the debts, Cakobau sold Suva to an Australian company in 1868. More Europeans arrived and many purchased land from the Fijians to begin plantations. Local disorder prompted the Europeans at Levuka to organize a national government in 1871. They named Cakobau king of Fiji. The disorder continued, however, and in 1874 Cakobau and other chiefs requested British annexation. The colonyís first capital was Levuka. It was moved to Suva in the 1870s. Suva became a main port of call between the west coast of the United States and Australia and New Zealand. It also became the headquarters of the British empire in the Pacific Islands.
Sir Arthur Gordon, the first governor of Fiji, declared that native Fijian lands could only be leased and prohibited Fijians from being used as laborers. Instead, he encouraged plantation owners to import laborers. Between 1879 and 1916 more than 60,000 indentured laborers were brought from India. After working on the sugar plantations for five years, the Indians were to remain in Fiji another five years and then had the option of returning home. Many stayed, leased land from the Fijians, and became small-scale farmers or raised cattle. Others became entrepreneurs, setting up shops in Fijiís urban areas. Many Fijians and Europeans, however, continued to view the Indians as second-class citizens, creating an animosity between the ethnic groups that exists today.
The British colonial government in India halted the recruitment of indentured laborers in 1916 and all indenture arrangements in Fiji ended in 1920. Fiji became an independent state and a member of the United Nations (UN) in 1970. The first prime minister was Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, hereditary chief of Lau, and founder of the Alliance Party. Mara and the Alliance Party held power until the elections of April 1987 when they were defeated by a coalition of urban and trade unionist Fijians and Indians. The new government was widely perceived as being dominated by Indians, and there were outbreaks of racial violence. Claiming that political power must be returned to Fijians, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka of the Fiji Military Forces led a bloodless military coup on May 14, 1987. Dissatisfied with the immediate results, Rabuka staged a second coup in September. He declared Fiji a republic, appointed the governor-general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, as president of a new government, and Ganilau appointed Mara as Fijiís prime minister for a second time.
The UN denounced the Rabuka coup and demanded that the former government be returned to power; the Commonwealth of Nations ejected Fiji from membership; and Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States suspended aid. Tourism came to a halt, and Indian farmers refused to harvest their sugarcane crops. Thousands of skilled and educated Indians fled the country. The loss of international support and skilled labor devastated the Fijian economy, which did not improve until the early 1990s.
In 1992 Rabuka became prime minister; he was reelected in 1994. Ganilau died in December 1993, and in January 1994 Mara was chosen by the Great Council of Chiefs as the new president. In the elections of May 1999 the Indian-led Fiji Labour Party defeated Rabukaís Fijian Political Party, and Mahendra Chaudhry became Fijiís first ethnic Indian prime minister. On May 19, 2000, ethnic Fijian nationalist gunmen stormed parliament, taking Chaudhry, his cabinet ministers, and many legislators hostage. The gunmen demanded the resignation of Chaudhry and the suspension of Fijiís 1997 constitution, which had increased the political rights of ethnic Indians.
The military took control of the country, imposed martial law, and installed Laisenia Qarase, an ethnic Fijian merchant banker, as interim prime minister. The gunmen, led by hardline nationalist George Speight, released the last of their hostages, including Chaudhry, in July. That same month, Fijian hereditary chief Ratu Josefa Iloilo was named the countryís new president. New legislative elections in late August 2001 brought Qaraseís Fijian United Party to power, and Qarase was officially sworn in as prime minister.