If you fly directly east from northern Queensland for 2500 kilometres, you would be over Fiji. Looking down, you would see more than 800 islands — some large enough to hold thousands of people, others are very small. Perhaps 100 of these island are inhabited. If you flew down to 1323 metres while over the island of Viti Levu, you might hit the top of Tomanivi, Fiji’s highest peak. South-east of Tomanivi is Suva, the capital of Fiji. Main cities include Nadi, Sigatoka and Lautoka on Viti Levu and Labasa and Savusavu on Vanua Levu.
Fiji was populated for more than 3000 years before contact with Europeans. Most people living in Fiji had come from other islands in Melanesia, although some came from Polynesia and Micronesia. Villages developed their own customs and dialect. Although the Dutch visited Fiji in the 1600s, regular visits from Europeans did not begin until traders and missionaries made contact with the Fijians in the early eighteenth century. This delay was partly due to the reputation of Fijians as ruthless cannibals.
In 1874, Fiji was declared a British colony. The British brought to Fiji many thousands of Indian labourers to work on the sugar cane. Native Fijians resented so many non-Fijians settling in their land, and the British government introduced laws that banned non-Fijians from owning land. Fiji became an independent nation on 10 October 1970 with a system of government based on that of Britain.
About 800 000 people live in Fiji. The nearest Australian city in size is Adelaide, with a population of 1050 000 people. Three-quarters of the population live on the island of Viti Levu. Indigenous Fijians make up about 50 per cent of the population, with Indian Fijians accounting for 45 percent. The remaining five per cent are of European or Chinese or people from other Pacific Islands.
Most Fijians live in rural areas, but the number of people migrating to the cities has increased. Life for indigenous Fijians in rural areas revolves around their village. Each village has a chief, who is usually a man. The way of life in the villages is communal, with everybody helping everyone else. Indigenous Fijians speak Fijian and English.
Indian Fijians speak Fijian Hindi and English. Although most Indian Fijian families have lived in Fiji for many generations, their culture remains similar to families in India. Women wear saris, and most marriages are organised by parents when their children are young.
Fiji, like Australia, has a high literacy rate. About 90 per cent of Fijians can read and write (in Australia, it is 98 per cent). However, unlike Australia, education is not compulsory in Fiji, but it is encouraged. The government pays for children to attend, school until year nine, then fees must be paid by students’ families. Most schools are run by religious or community organisations. Fiji also has the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji School of Medicine.
Most Fijians work on farms, and the main crops are sugar and coconuts. Fishing is a large part of Fiji’s agricultural economy. Gold mines also provide work and much-needed income for the country. Fiji’s most important industry is tourism, and many of Fiji’s tourists are Australian. In 1987 and 2000, military coups discouraged foreigners from visiting Fiji, which resulted in an economic downturn.
Fiji’s major attractions are its natural attributes: the sea, the highlands and the islands. Most visitors to Fiji go to enjoy the beaches, with diving and snorkelling being popular pastimes. The Mamanuca group of islands, off the west coast of Viti Levu, have some of the country’s most beautiful beaches. The Abaca Cultural and Recreational Park, north-east of Nadi, contains waterfalls, rainforests and walking tracks that guide visitors through unimaginable beauty.
In 2000, George Spejght, an indigenous Fijian, led a coup against the Fijian Government. Speight and his followers kept Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and other Politicians captive for more than three weeks before releasing them and forming their own government. Chaudhry is of Indian Fijian descent. Speight claimed he was representing indigenous Fijians who did not want Indian Fijians to have political rights. Speight was arrested, and power was given to a newly elected president.