Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500 years ago. European traders and missionaries arrived in the first half of the 19th century, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. One ratu (chief), Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but the continuing unrest led a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the British in 1874.
The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained.
Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining a fine reputation in the tough Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.
In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970.
Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.
After a period of continued jockeying and negotiation, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the constitution and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests by the Government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth and official nonrecognition of the Rabuka regime from foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, Rabuka resigned as head of state and Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. Mara was reappointed Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.
The new government drafted a new constitution that went into force in July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government had released statistical information showing that for the first time since 1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the 2 years following the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became Prime Minister under the new constitution in 1993.
Ethnic tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of Indo-Fijian land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 7-year review of the 1990 constitution. The Constitutional Review Commission produced a draft constitution which expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, reserved the presidency for ethnic Fijians but opened the position of prime minister to all races. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The reformed constitution was approved in July 1997. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth in October.
The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by Indo-Fijian parties led by Mahendra Chaudhry, who became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of parliament were taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during which time Chaudhry was removed from office by the then-president due to his incapacitation--before the Fijian military seized power and brokered a negotiated end to the situation, then arrested Speight when he violated its terms. Former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim prime minister and head of the interim civilian government by the military and Great Council of Chiefs in July. A constitutional review commission is in the process of drafting a new constitution. The timetable for elections to replace the interim government is still under discussion.