Situated in the central Pacific Ocean, Fiji’s topography has made it both a destination and a driveway for voyages for many centuries. According to oral tradition, the original Fijians of today are descendants of the chief Lutunasobasoba and those who arrived with him on the Kaunitoni canoe. Landing at what is now Vuda, the immigrants moved inland to the Nakauvadra mountains. Though this oral folklore has not been individually verified, the Fijian government officially promotes it, and many tribes today claim to be descended from the children of Lutunasobasoba.
Pottery art from Fijian towns shows that Fiji was established by Austronesian peoples before or around 3500 to 1000 BC, with Melanesians following around a thousand years later, although the question of Pacific migration endures. It is believed that the Lapita people or the ancestors of the Polynesians established the islands first but not much is known of what became of them after the Melanesians arrived; they may have had some impact on the fresh culture, and archaeological testimony shows that they would have then moved on to Samoa, Tonga, and even Hawai’i.
Archeological data shows signs of settlement on Moturiki Island from 600 BC and perhaps as far back as 900 BC. Features of Fijian culture are similar to the Melanesian culture of the western Pacific but have a more influential connection to the older Polynesian cultures. Trade between Fiji and neighboring archipelagos long before European contact is indicated by the canoes made from native Fijian trees found in Tonga and Tongan words being part of the language of the Lau group of islands. Pots made in Fiji have been seen in Samoa and even the Marquesas Islands.
In the 10th century, the Tu’i Tonga Empire was built in Tonga, and Fiji came within its sphere of influence. The Tongan influence brought Polynesian customs and language into Fiji. The empire began to dip in the 13th century.
Across 1,000 kilometers (620 mi) from east to west, Fiji has been a nation of many languages. Fiji’s history was one of the settlements but also of mobility and over the centuries, an unusual Fijian culture emerged. Unique village architecture emerged consisting of communal and individual bure and vale housing with an advanced system of walls and moats usually being constructed around the more important settlements. Pigs were domesticated for food and a class of agricultural plantations such as bananas existed from an initial stage.
Villages would also be provided with water brought in by constructed wooden aqueducts. Fijians lived in societies that were led by chiefs, elders, and celebrated warriors. Spiritual leaders, often called bete, were also important cultural figures and the production and loss of yaqona was part of their conventional and community rites. Fijians developed a monetary system where the gleaming teeth of the sperm whale, called tambura, became an active currency.
A type of writing also survived which can be seen today in various petroglyphs around the islands. They also created a clean masi cloth textile industry with the material being used to make sails and clothes. Men would often wear a white cloth waist garment called a malo with a turban-like headdress. Women were known to wear a neat fringed short skirt called a liku. Fijians would also have their hair into distinctive large, rounded or semi-rounded shapes. As with most other human civilizations, warfare was an essential part of everyday life in pre-colonial Fiji and the Fijians were noted for their use of weapons such as beautiful war-clubs and tainted arrows.
With the appearance of Europeans and colonialism in the late 1700s, many elements of Fijian culture were either suppressed or altered to guarantee Europeans, namely British, control. This was especially the case concerning traditional Fijian spiritual beliefs. Early settlers and missionaries utilized and conflated the idea of cannibalism in Fiji to give a moral imperative for the colonial intrusion.
By labeling native Fijian customs as “debased and primitive”, they were able to develop a narrative that Fiji was a “paradise wasted on savage cannibals”. Additionally, it gave legitimacy to the violence and punitive actions carried by the colonists which brought the executed transfer of power to the Europeans. Exaggerated accounts made during the 19th century, such as that regarding Ratu Udre Udre who is said to have consumed 872 people and to have made a pile of stones to record his achievement, allowed an enduring racial typecast of the “uncivilized” Fijian. Cannibalism, as an impression, was an effective racial tool deployed by the colonists that have endured through the 1900s and into the modern-day.
Although Fiji was known as the Cannibal Isles, other more recent research questions even the existence of cannibalism in Fiji. This view is not without criticism, and perhaps the most accurate account of cannibalism in 19th century Fiji may come from William MacGregor, the long term chief medical officer in British colonial Fiji. During the Little War of 1876, he stated that the rare opportunity of tasting of the flesh of the enemy was done “to indicate the highest hatred and not out of joy for a gastronomic treat”