1902 Encyclopedia > Fiji Islands

Fiji Islands

FIJI ISLANDS. The Fiji, or more correctly Viti, archipelago (Fiji being the pronunciation in the eastern part of the group frequented by the Tongans) is one of the most important in the South Pacific. Its nearest neighbours are the Samoan group 300 miles to the N.E., and the Tongan or friendly rather nearer to the S.E. Lying between 177° E. and 178° W. long., and between 15° 40’ and 20° S. lat., it is beyond the limits of the perpetual S.E. trades, while not within the range of the N.W. monsoons. From April to November the winds are steady between S.E. and E.N.E., after which the weather becomes uncertain and the winds often northerly. In February and March heavy gales are frequent, and hurricanes sometimes occur, causing scarcity by destroying the crops. The rainfall is much greater on the windward than on the lee sides of the islands (108 inches at Levuka), but the mean tem perature is much the same, viz., about 80°F. The greatest rise and fall of the tide is six feet. The islands cover an area of some 7400 square miles or about that of Wales. Excluding the two large islands, they are classed by the natives in three groups, viz., the "Lau" or Windward Islands, mostly small, but many of them very fertile, of which Lakemba is the most important; "Loma-I-Viti," or Inner Fiji, i.e., the islands inclosed between the Lau and the two great islands VitiLevu (Great Land); and the "Ra" or Leeward Islands, a chain of numerous small islands bounding the group to the westward.

Scenery. – There is not much level country, except in the small coralislets, and certain rich tracts along the coasts of the two large islands, especially near the mouths of rivers. Elsewhere hill and valley, peak and precipice, assume the most romantic forms, clothed almost always with a beautiful and luxuriant vegetation. The large with a beautiful and luxuriant vegetation. The large islands have a considerable extent of undulating country, dry and open on their lee sides; the peaks rise from 4000 to 5000 feet.

Climate and Diseases. – The climate, especially from November to April, is somewhat enervating to the Englishman, but not unhealthy. Fevers are hardly known. Dysentery, which is very common, and the most serious disease in the islands, is said to have been unknown before the advent of Europeans. Elephasntiasis is common, but is curable by removal into higher and better air. it is sometimes produced by immoderate use of kava. Influenza is at times prevalent and very fatal. Rheumatism is common. The natives have a bad skin disease, thoko, affecting also the bones, from which few escape; but it is said to be avoidable by a sounder hygiene.

Rivers. – Streams and rivers are abundant,-the latter very large in proportion to the size of the islands, affording a water-way to the rich districts along their banks. These and the extensive mud flats and deltas at their mouths are often flooded, by which their fertility is increased, though at a heavy cost to the cultivator.

Geological Formation. – The geological features of the group point to repeated volcanic action at considerable intervals. The tops of many of the mountains, from Kandavu in the S.W., though nairai and Koro, to the ringgold group in the N.E. have distinct craters, but their activity has long ceased. The various decomposing volcanic rocks-tufas, conglomerates, and basalts-mingled with decayed vegetable matter, and abundantly watered, form a very fertile soil. Most of the high peaks on the larger islands are basaltic, and the rocks generally are igneous, with occasional upheaved coral found sometimes over 1000 feet above the sea; but certain sedimentary rocks observed on VitiLevu seem to imply a nucleus of land of considerable age. Hot springs occur on Viti Levu, on Ngau, at Wainunu and Savu-savu on Vanua Levu; the last have a temperature of 200°-210°F., and cover an area of half a square mile. Earthquakes are occasionally felt. Volcanic activity in the neighborhood is further shown by the quantities of pumise-stone drifted on to the south coasts of Kandavu and Viti Levu; malachite, antimony, and graphite, gold in small quantities, and specular iron-sand occur.

Islands. – The islands number about 250, of which perhaps 80 are inhabited. Viti Levu, about 80 by 55 miles, is the largest and most important from its fertility and variety of surface, number of large rivers, and population,- which is about one-third of that of the whole group. Vanua Levu, somewhat smaller, about 100 by 25 miles, and less fertile and populous, has good anchorages along its entire south coats. All the others are much smaller. Taviuui, 25 by 5 miles, with a central ridge 2100 feet high and a lake at the top, is fertile, but exceptionally devoid of harbors. Kandavu, 25 miles long and very narrow, well-timbered, with a good harbor, contains a Wesleyan training institution and model village. Fulanga and kambara are well-timbered and frequented by canoe-builders. Toyota, Moala, Ngau, Mbengga, nairai, Koro, are all valuable islands (the last especially fertile), 15 to 30 miles in circumference. The Wilson or Exploring group consists of seven islands of considerable size, well situated for the resort of vessels, with anchorages safe and easily reached, and supplies abundant. The navigation between the islands is in many places intricate, but the dangers can be much lessened by good surveys, careful pilotage, and increased use of steam. There are good anchorages inside the barrier reefs; the best harbors are those of Suva in Viti Levu, Savu-Savu and Mbua or Sandalwood bays in Vanua levu, Galoa Bay in Kandavu, and Levuka.

Vegetation. – The vegetation is mostly of a tropical Indo-Malayan character,- thick jungle with great trees covered with creepers and epiphytes. The less sides of the larger islands, however, have grassy plains suitable for grazing, with scattered trees, chiefly Pandanus, and ferns. The flora has also some Asutralia and New Zealand affinities (resembling in this respect the New Caledonia and new Hebrides groups), shown specially in these western districts by the Pandanus, by certain acacias, epacrids, Casuarinoe, and Dammara, and by the peculiar habit of other species. At about 2000 feet the vegetation assumes a more mountain type.

Among the many valuable timber trees are the vesi (Afzelia bijuga); thedilo (Calophyllum Inophyllum), the oil from its seeds being much used in the islands, as in India, in the treatment of rheumatism; the dakua (Dammara Vitiensis) allied to the New Zealand kauri; the vaivai (Serianthes Vitiensis), the Casuarina, and others, chiefly conifers, Guttiferae, Myrtaceae, and Leguminosae. Most of the fruit trees are also valuable as timber. The native cloth (masi) is beaten out from the bark of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), cultivated for the purpose. Several useful fibres are supplied by plants of the Musaceae, Bromelideae, Thymeleae, and other orders. Of the palms the cocoa-nut is by far the most important. Dr Seemann discovered a sago-palm known to the natives by the name of sogu, though they were then ignorant of its use. The vasi or sandalwood is now rarely found, and only in a small district at the western extremity of Vanua Levu. There are various useful drugs, spices, and perfumes; and many plants are cultivated for their beauty, to which the natives are keenly alive. Among the plants used as pot-herbs are several ferns, and two or three Solanums, one of which, S. anthropophagorum, allied to our S. nigrum, was one of certain plants always cooked with human flesh, which is said to be otherwise difficult of digestion. The use of the kava root, here called yanggona (macropiper methysticum), from which the well-known national beverage is made, was introduced, it is said, from Tonga

Of fruit-trees, besides the cocoa-nut, we can only mention the many varieties of the bread-fruit, of bananas and plantains, of sugar-cane and of Citrus; the wi (Spondias dulcis), the kavika (Eugenia mallaccensis), the ivi or Tahitian chestnut (Inocarpus edulis), the pine-apple, and others recently introduced. Edible roots are especially abundant. The chief staple of life is the yam, the names of several months in the calendar having reference to its cultivation and ripening. The Dioscorea alata is the variety chiefly planted; its roots are sometimes 8 feet long and 100 lb in weight. The kawai (D. aculeate) is also a very fine esculent, and there are several wild species. The yaka, which also grows wild, is a papilionaceous creeper (pachyrhizus and angulatus), with roots 6 to 8 feet long and as thick as a man’s thigh; it is also much valued for its fibre. The taro or dalo (Colocasia esculenta) is grown in ditches, by streams, or on irrigated ground; and there are other aroideous plants growing wild, with huge edible corns. The natives use no grain or pulse, but make a kind of bread (mandrai) from the above roots, as well as from the banana (which is the best), the bread-fruit, the ivi, the kavika, the arrow-root (Tacca pinnatifida and T. sativa), and in times of scarcity the mangrove. This bread is made by burying the materials for months, till the mass is thoroughly fermented and homogeneous, when it is dug up and cooked by baking or steaming. This simple process, applicable to such a variety of substances, is a valuable security against famine.

The islands are well suited to sugar, maize, coffee, cotton (which here becomes a pperennial several feet high), tobacco, manila, India-rubber, &c. Animals. – Besides the dog and the pig, which (with the domestic fowl) must have been introduced into the Pacific islands in very early ages, the only land Mammalia are a rat and five species of bats. Insects are numerous, but the species few. Of 41 species of land birds, 17, Mr. Wallace says, are characteristic of the Australian region, 9 peculiarly Polynesian, and 15 belong to wide-spread genera. Birds of prey are few; the parrot and pigeon tribes are better represented; of 15 aquatic species only one is peculiar Fishes, of an Indo-Malay type, are numerous and varied; Mollusca, especially marine, and Crustaceae are also very numerous. These three form an important element in the food supply.

Exports. – Numbers of cocoa-nuts have been planted, and the export of copra (the dried kernel of the nut) is rapidly increasing. The chief exports in 1876 were- copra 41,900 pounds, sugar 9036 pounds, maize 8465 pounds, - which are all on the increase; cotton 11,922 pounds, and beche-de-mer 2491 pounds, which have decreased; cor 2727 pounds, pearl-shell, and arrow-root. The value of exports from Levuka was 80,890 pounds, of imports 112,806 pounds. the customs returns were estimated at 15,000 pounds, the native land revenue was assessed at 22,000 pounds. The revenue of 1878 is estimated at 60,000 pounds.

People. – The Fijian character was till lately proverbial for every savage abomination. Cannibalism, if fenced round at one time by religious sanctions, had degenerated to a morbid craving recklessly indulged whenever possible. Shipwrecked or helpless strangers were nearly always killed and eaten. Widows were strangled at the death of their husbands, slaves killed at the death of their masters; victims were slain in numbers at the building of a house or of a canoe, or at the visit of embassies from other tribes. The lives of individuals were always subject to the caprices of the chiefs. In the atmosphere of suspicion and treachery thus engendered few virtues could be developed. Yet the people were always hospitable, open-handed, and remarkably polite. They themselves attribute to affection the practice of killing their sick or aged relations. They are sensitive, proud, vindictive, boastful, cleanly in their houses, cookery, &c., with good conversational and reasoning powers, much sense of humor, tact, and perception of character. Their code of social etiquette is minute and elaborate, and the gradations of rank well-marked. These are – 1, chiefs, greater and lesser; 2 priests; 3, Mata ni Vanua (lit., eyes of the land), employes, messengers, or counselors; 4, distinguished warriors of low birth; 5, common people; 6, slaves.

Political Institutions. – The family is the unit of political society. The families are grouped in township or otherwise (gali) under the lesser chiefs, who again owe allegiance to the supreme chief of the matanitu or tribe. The chiefs are a read aristocracy, excelling the people in physique, skill, intellect, and acquirements of all sorts; and the reverence felt for them, now gradually diminishing, was very great, and had something of a religious character. All that a man had belonged to his chief. On the other hand, the chief’s property practically belonged to his people, and they were as ready to give as to take. In a time of famine, a chief would declare the contents of the plantations to be common property. A system of feudal service-tenures (lala) is the institution on which their social and political fabric mainly depended. It allowed the chief to call for the labor of any district, and to employ it in planting, house or canoe building, supplying food on the occasion of another chief’s visit, &c., This power was often used with much discernment; thus an inpopular chief would redeem his character by calling for some customary service and rewarding it liberally, or a district would be called on to supply labor or produce as a punishment. The privilege might of course be abused by needy or unscrupulous chiefs, though they generally deferred somewhat to public opinion; it has now, with similar customary exactions of cloth, mats, salt, pottery, &c., been reduced within definite limits. An allied custom, solevu, enabled a district in want of any particular article to call on its neighbors to supply it, giving labor or something else in exchange. Although, then, the chief is lord of the soil, the inferior chiefs and individuals families have equally distinct rights in it, subject to payment of certain dues; and the idea of permanent alienation of land by purchase was never perhaps clearly realized. Another curious custom was that of vasu (lit., nephew). The son of a chief by a woman of rank had almost unlimited rights over the property of his mother’s family, or of her people.

War. – In time of war the chief claimed absolute control over life and property. Warfare was carried on with many courteous formalities, and considerable skill was shown in the fortifications. There were well-defined degrees of dependence among the different tribes or districts: the first of these, bati, is an alliance between two nearly equal tribes, but implying a sort of inferiority on one side, acknowledged by military service; the second, qali, implies greater subjection, and payment of tribute. Thus A, being bati to B, might hold C in qali, in which case C was also reckoned subject to B, or might be protected by B for political purposes.

Religion. – The people are now almost all Christians. Their former creed, which had much in common with the Polynesian, included a belief in a future existence, and in two classes of gods,- the first immortal, of whom Ndengei is the greatest, said to exist eternally in the form of a serpent, but troubling himself little with human or other affairs, and the others had usually only a local recognition. The second rank (who, though far above mortals, are subject to their passions, and even to death) comprised the spirits of chiefs, heroes, and other ancestors. The gods entered and spoke through their priests, who thus pronounced on the issue of every enterprise, but they were not represented by idols; certain groves and trees were held sacred, and stone which suggest phallic associations. The priesthood usually was hereditary, and their influence great, and they had generally a good understanding with the chief. The institution of Tabu existed in full force. The mbure or temple was also the council chamber and place of assemblage for various purposes.

Customs. – They have various games and amusements, dancing, story-telling, and songs being especially popular. Their poetry has well-defined metres, and a sort of rhyme. Their music is rude, and is said to be always in the major key. The excellence of their pottery favors a good and varied cuisine, and they have great and elaborate feasts; the preparations are sometimes made months in advance, and enormous waste results from them. mourning is expressed by fasting, by shaving the head and face, or by cutting off the little finger. This last is sometimes done at the death of a rich man in the hope that his family will reward the compliment; sometimes it is done vicariously, as when the chief cuts off the little finger of his dependants in regret or in atonement for the death of another. Only the women are tattooed.

Houses. – The houses, of which the framework is timber and the rest lattice and thatch, are ingeniously constructed, with great taste in ornamentation, and are well furnished with mats, mosquito-curtains, baskets, fans, nets, and cooking and other utensils.

Population. – The population forty years ago was about 200,000, it has since rapidly diminished, owing at first to the evil above described (aggravated probably by contact with the vicious European element), and afterwards to that fatal languor which so often accompanies the introduction of civilization, the deaths now outnumbering the births. Before the annexation to Britain (1874) there were about 140,000, but 40,000 fell victims to measles soon after. This diminution might perhaps be combated by the encouragement of their old athletic sports under an enlightened Christianity. The exact ethnological position of the people is a problem. They occupy the extreme east limits of Papuan territory, but far surpass the pure examples of that race, combining their dark color, harsh hirsute skin, crisp hair, and muscular limbs with the handsome features of the brown Polynesian race. they are tall and well-proportioned, the average physical development being much higher than our own. The features are strongly marked, but not unpleasant, the eyes deep set, the beard thick and bushy. The chiefs are fairer, much better looking, and of a less Negroid cast of face than the people. This Negroid type is especially marked on the west coasts, and still more in the interior of Viti Levu. Many other characteristics of both races are found, e.g., the quick intellect of the fairer, and the savagery and suspicion of the dark; they wear a minimum of covering, but, unlike the Melanesians, are strictly decent, while they are more moral than the Polynesians. A partial circumcision is practiced, which is exceptional with the Melanesians, nor have these usually an elaborate political and social system like that of Fiji. The status of the women is also somewhat better,-those of the upper class having considerable freedom and influence. Till taught by the Tongans they were, like other Melanesians, timid sailors. The prevalence of one language (though in several dialects) contrasts with the endless variety among the Melanesians. It is copious, flexible, vigorous,-fundamentally Melanesian, but largely modified in vocabulary and even in structure by the Polynesian. It has been argued from, among other consideration, the number of places with Tongan names, and from certain old Tongan traditions, that the ancestors of that people, in their migration from the west, were, after remaining a long time in Fiji, finally expelled thence by the aboriginal and darker race. Fijian traditions, however, point to no such movement, only asserting the greater unity of the race in former times, and placing even the creation of man, the scene of the deluge, and of the building of a tower of Babel, on Fijian soil. At all events the Fijian is a well-established race, and the fusion of the elements which produced it certainly dates from a remote past.

If less readily amenable to civilizing influences than their neighbors to the eastward, they show greater force of character and ingenuity. Possessing the arts of both races they practice them with greater skill than either. They understand the principle of division of labor and production, and thus of commerce. They are skilful cultivators, and good boat-builders, the carpenters being an hereditary caste; there are also tribes of fishermen and sailors; their mats, baskets, nets, cordage, and other fabrics are substantial and tasteful; their pottery, made-like much of the above-by women, is far superior to any other in the South Seas, but, with many other native manufactures, is being supplanted by European articles.

History. – A few islands in the N.E. of thegroup were first seen by tasamn in 1643. the southernmost of the group, Turtle island, was discovered by Cook in 1773. bligh visited them in 1789, and Captain Wilson of the "Duff" in 1797. in 1827 D’Urville in the "Astrolabe" surveyed them much more accurately, but the first thorough survey was that of the United States exploring expedition in 1840.

Up to this time, owing to the evil reputation of the islanders, European intercourse was very limited. About the year 1804 some escaped convicts from Australia and runaway sailors established themselves around the east part of Vityi Levu, and by lending their services to the neighbors chiefs probably led to their preponderance over the rest of the group. Na Ulivau, chief of the small island of Mbau, established before his death in 1829 a sort of supremacy, which was extended by his brother Tanoa, and by Tanoa’s son, the well-known Thakomban, a ruler of considerable capacity. In his time, however, difficulties thickened. The Tongans, a Polynesian people 250 miles to the S.E. (SEE FRIENDY ISLANDS), who had long frequented Fiji (especially for canoe-building, their own islands being deficient in timber), now came in larger numbers, led by an able and ambitious chief, Maafu, who, by adroitly taking part in Fijian quarrels, made himself chief in the Windward group, threatening Thakombau’s supremacy. He was harassed, too, by an arbitrary demand for 9000 pounds from the American Government, for alleged injuries to their consul. Several chiefs who disputed his authority were crushed by the aid of King George of Tonga, who (1855) had opportunity arrived on a visit; but he afterwards, taking some offence, demanded 12,000 pounds for his services. At last Thakombau, disappointed in the hope that his acceptance (1854) of Christianity would improve his position, offered (1858) the sovereignty to England, with the fee simple of 100,000 acres, on condition of her paying the American claims. Colonel Smythe, R.A., was sent out to repot on the question, and decided against annexation, but advised that the British consul should be invested with full magisterial powers over his countrymen, a step which would have averted much subsequent difficulty.

Meanwhile Dr Seemann’s favorable report on the capabilities of the islands, followed by a time of depression in Australia and New Zealand, led to a rapid increase of settlers – from 200 in 1860 to 1800 in 1869. This produced fresh complications, and an increasing desire among the respectable settlers for a competent civil and criminal jurisdiction. Attempts were made at self-government, and the sovereignty was again offered, conditionally, to England, and to the united States. Finally, in 1871, a "constitutional government" was formed by certain Englishmen under King Thakombau; but this, after incurring heavy debt, and promoting the welfare of neither whites nor natives, came after three years to a dead lock, and the British Government felt obliged, in the interest of all parties, to accept the unconditional cession now offered. It had besides long been thought desirable to possess a station on the route between Australia and Panama; it was also felt that the Polynesian labor traffic, the abuses in which had caused much indignation, could only be effectually regulated from a point so contiguous to the recruiting field, and where that labor was extensively employed. To this end the governor of Fiji is also "High Commissioner for the Western Pacific." Native laws, customs, and polity have been tenderly handled, and utilized, as far as possible, under the new rule. The chiefs are held responsible for good order, and for payment of the revenue. Certain higher chiefs, called "Roko Tuis," receive salaries, with executive and magisterial powers, assisted in the latter function by a large number of native subordinates, "Bulis," all under the eye of a very few European stipendiary magistrates. The employment of native labor is under strict regulations. The revenue is raised in conformity with native ideas, each district being assessed yearly to furnish certain supplies in kind, which are disposed of by tender. The white settlers at the end of 1876 numbered 1569.

The labors of the Wesleyan missionaries must always have a prominent place in any history of Fiji. They came from Tonga in 1835, and naturally settled first in the Windard Islands, where the Tongan element, already familiar to them, preponderated. They perhaps identified themselves too closely with their Tongan friends, whose dissolute, lawless, tyrannical conduct led to much mischief; but it should not be forgotten that their position was a difficult one; their services to humanity were certainly great, and it was mainly through their efforts that the heathen abominations so recently in full vigour have become a thing of the past.

Bibliography.- The United States Exploring Expedition, by Wilkes and Hale, 1838-42, Viti: an account of a Government Mission in the Vilian or Fijian Islands, 1860-1, by Seeman; Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, and Calvert, Missionary Labors among the Cannibals; Meinicke, Die Inseln des Stillen Oceans; Von der Gabelentz, die Melanesischen Sprachen; Erskine, Journal of a Cruise in the Pacific Oceans; Pritchard, Polynesian Reminiscences; Parliamentary papers. (C. T.)

The above article was written by Coutts Trotter, F.R.S.E.; Edinburgh.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries