To the east of the Spice Islands and New Guinea exists a series of islands that were also settled by the Melanesians in prehistoric times: the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji.
About 30,000 years ago, Melanesians from New Guinea settled on the Solomon Islands. Thousands of years later, they also migrated to Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji, joining the Austronesians that had already settled in these areas.
While it is difficult to find much information about the history of much of the region prior to European contact, there is quite a rich record of early Fiji.
Fiji was settled by Austronesians in around 3500 BC, followed by the Melanesians about a thousand years later. While most early Fijians lived in small villages, large settlements with sophisticated irrigation systems and agricultural plantations existed in the fertile delta regions of the island.
The civilization was organized into chiefdoms supported by spiritual leaders and warriors; it boasted a pictorial writing system as well as a currency based on polished whale teeth known as tambua. This dynamic society would serve Fijians well upon substantial European incursions in the nineteenth century.
The Beginnings of European Contact with Melanesia
Although Europeans first arrived in Melanesia in the 1500s, it took them a while to truly permeate the Oceanic subregion due to native resistance.
The first Europeans to maintain substantial contact with the Fijians were sandalwood merchants, whalers and sea cucumber traders in the nineteenth century. Given that China had a lucrative sea cucumber market, British and American merchants hired Fijians to collect and package the product in exchange for firearms and ammunition.
During the 1840s, various Fijian clans were in conflict and ultimately warrior chief Seru Epenisa Cakobau became a leader in the region. Cakobau declared war on the foreigners and their Christian allies, and was soon met with a military blockade from Britain and the United States. In 1854, he yielded to the forces and converted to Christianity.
This subdual of Fijian leadership came just one year after France took formal possession of New Caledonia. It became a penal colony in 1864, and tens of thousands of criminals and political prisoners would be imprisoned there over the next three decades. Nickel was discovered on the island that same year, and the French imported laborers from Asia and Polynesia to work the mines.
The indigenous New Caledonians, known as the Kanak people, were excluded from mining work, dispossessed from their lands, and confined to reservations. The French then sold the stolen lands to colonists, who used them for agriculture and cattle ranches. This injustice would ultimately lead to the Great Revolt of 1878, in which the Kanak valiantly but unsuccessfully fought to reclaim their ancestral lands.
Blackbirding: Melanesian Slavery in the South Pacific
In addition to nickel mining in New Caledonia, the 1860s saw the rise of cotton plantations in Fiji. This was influenced by the American Civil War, as the fighting drastically decreased the supply of cotton and drove up prices.
Settlers flocked to Fiji from Europe and the United States to obtain land and start cotton plantations. Based on a need for an organized government to deal with land disputes, a confederacy of the seven main native Fijian kingdoms headed by Cakobau was formed in 1865.
Met with native resistance, the planters sought cheap labor from nearby islands, including New Hebrides (currently known as Vanuatu), the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia. This led to a phenomenon known as blackbirding, in which Melanesians were coerced or kidnapped from their homelands and taken as laborers for three year terms.
Due to continuing issues within the Cakobau government, Great Britain annexed Fiji in 1874. The first Governor of Fiji, Hercules Robinson, took Cakobau and his sons on a trip to Sydney, Australia to celebrate the annexation.
The Fijians caught the measles and the British decided not to quarantine them despite an understanding of the devastating effect the disease would have on the indigenous population. This led to a measles epidemic on the island that led to the deaths of over 40,000 Fijians, about one third of the population.
In 1875, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon succeeded Robinson as the Governor of Fiji. He was a staunch supporter of Melanesian blackbirding, and this practice became further legitimized with the establishment of the British Western Pacific High Commission in 1877.
Based in Fiji and headed by Sir Gordon, the Commission would eventually have authority over several Pacific Islands, including Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and New Hebrides, by the turn of the twentieth century.
With almost all aspects of indigenous Fijian life being controlled by the colonizers, liberation movements known as Tuka began to spring up among the Fijians; translated as “those who stand up”, the Tuka mantra to reject colonial culture and embrace native traditions was harshly suppressed by the British.
Sugar Plantations and Indian Laborers in Fiji
By the late 1870s, sugarcane fields had largely replaced cotton plantations in Fiji. Given that sugarcane grew wild on the island, it was the perfect climate for the crop to flourish.
Due to fierce competition for Pacific Islander labor on Queensland, Australia sugar plantations, Sir Gordon decided to bring indentured workers from India to cultivate the Fijian sugarcane. From 1879 to 1916, over 61,000 Indian laborers were taken to Fiji.
An Australian company, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company began operations in Fiji in 1880 and became the first commercially viable sugar mill on the island. The sugar refining business operated sugarcane plantations in order to have direct access to raw sugar for its refineries.
While Fijian and other Melanesian laborers were initially employed on the plantations, local regulations made this difficult and the Colonial Sugar Refining Company soon relied mostly on Indian workers.
However, the Indian labor was more expensive and thus there remained a market for blackbirded workers. From 1865 until blackbirding’s legal prohibition in 1911, around 45,000 people were taken to Fiji to serve under harsh conditions, and nearly a quarter perished during their tenures.
Throughout the British Western Pacific Territories, Europeans operated plantations to supply companies with raw materials. Unlike Fiji where sugar was king, the cash crop in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands was copra.
British entrepreneur William Lever started a soap manufacturing company in England in 1885 known as Lever Brothers, which would later become the multinational conglomerate Unilever. Lever Brothers operated copra and palm oil plantations on the Solomon Islands and the Congo in the early 1900s to source raw materials for its soap factories.
Lever asserted that his plantations were working to civilize the indigenous peoples by making them productive members of global industry; ironically, local laborers were often coerced into exploitative contracts and subject to abuse by plantation managers.