History and Culture of Fiji

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levuka-fiji-colourful-vibrant-street-old-colonial-capital History and Culture of Fiji

The Fiji Islands are an interesting blend of various cultures, namely Melanesian, Polynesian, Indian, European, and Chinese. This mix is reflected in the food, the language, and the striking architecture of new and old.  Colonial Levuka, the old European trader settlement and Fiji’s former capital, has been officially designated a historic town (UNESCO World Heritage Site). A number of buildings date from its boom period in the late 19th century, and the main streetscape is surprisingly intact, giving the impression of a town that has paused in time. Likewise, Suva’s (the capital of Fiji) British influence is reflected in its…

Many features of Fiji’s richly diversified history were suppressed with the old religion in the mid to late 19th century. Pre-Christian costumes, hairstyles, and body decoration are far removed from today’s conservative dress style.

On the contrary, the chiefly system and village structure have remained mostly intact, partly due to past laws protecting Fijian land rights and prohibiting Fijian labour on the cotton and sugar plantations.

Seven timeless reasons to Savor Fiji’s Past


Indigenous Fijian man reading his bible, sitting on his floor at home in Fiji
Indigenous Fijian man reading his bible, sitting on his floor at home in Fiji | Image: Supplied

Today as a visitor, observe time-honored traditions explore ancient relics, experience well-preserved cultures, and share in past legends as they are retold around the Kava bowl.

  1. Fiji’s rich cultural heritage
  2. Unique and accessible sites
  3. Ancient rituals, myths, and legends
  4. Cosmopolitan cities and towns
  5. Historic stroll through the timeworn cities of Levuku and Suva
  6. Diversity of people
  7. The Charm of Fiji Time

Levuka, The Old Capital


Levuka, the romantic old capital on the island of Ovalau, displaying the colourful history of Fijis Past
Levuka, the romantic old capital on the island of Ovalau | Image: Supplied

Just a short trip takes you back a long way in time. Levuka, the romantic old capital on the island of Ovalau, has maintained its old-world charm and remained virtually unchanged since the turn of the century. Levuka is now the last bastion of the old Pacific where time has stood still and the ghosts of yesteryears sing their songs.

There was a time in the 1840s when certain towns in the South Pacific were known for the wildlife of their inhabitants – Papeete in Tahiti, Nuku’alofa in Tonga, and Lahaina in Hawaii. Rusell in the bay of Islands, New Zealand, and Levuka in Fiji. These were the favorite haunts of beachcombers, whalers, blackbirders, adventurers, runaway convicts, and speculators of all kinds. They were places for the quick and the dead. All of them have since been overcome by civilization and progress which has seen the quaintness of the original buildings and the resonance of the past give away to new developments… all except Levuka.

Levuka owes its unique status to an accident in history. Its original settlement by European beachcombers at the turn of the century in 1800 depended on its central location between the major islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. It was also in close proximity to the dominant political power of the island of Bau, where the principal chief, Ratu Seru Cakobau, encouraged European settlement.

Black and White side profile Portrait in an oval frame of first governor, Sir Arthur Gordon
First governor, Sir Arthur Gordon | Image: Supplied

But its main advantage lay in the ability of sailings ships to enter and leave port easily, on account of Levuka’s position relative to the prevailing trade winds. By the 1840s Levuka was the de facto capital of Fiji. It was the center of trade and political intrigue with a growing European population. Beache de mer ships would enter and leave Fiji through its port, trade ships on turtle and pearl shells, coconut oil, corn, tea and coffee, trochus shell, pearl buttons, and cotton which boomed during the American civil war of the 1860s and copra which were being cultivated by settlers.

The possibility of British annexation in the 1850s attracted more settlers bringing with them a degree of respectability to Levuka to offset its wild debaucheries. Many were to leave, Britain declined to accept cession and Levuka continued its wild brawling ways.  It was not until 1874 when Fiji became a British Colony that Levuka became respectable and peace prevailed. The Deed of cession was signed by leading Fijian Chiefs at Nasova. Levuka became the official capital of the new colony.

Levuka thrived but this was also it’s undoing. Confined to a narrow coastal strip offering no room for expansion, it proved unsuitable to remain as the capital and the administration moved to Suva on the main island of Viti Levu.  Thus the shops, schools, churches, and residences left behind when the Government moved, have remained largely unchanged and Beach Street is as quaint today as it was a century ago.

Six ‘Must See’ Points of Interest

Guided tours around Levuka will allow you to meet local people in their homes for tea and talenoa sessions (old and new stories of the town)

  1. Nasova, the residence of Fiji’s first governor, Sir Arthur Gordon
  2. The Wharves and tuna cannery, the lifeblood of Levuka’s economy
  3. Beach Street begins at the cannery, sweeping in an arc of the turn-of-the-century shopfronts with residences perched on the terraces above them. A stroll down Beach Street also takes you into narrow side streets which lead to historic sites – the Ovalau Club, the Municipal Chambers, Levuka public school, and the Royal Hotel.
  4. The Morris Hedstrom Building (now a museum)
  5. The War Memorial – the site of Fiji’s procession parliament
  6. Levuka Village which is part of the town.
Video:  Protector of Paradise Fiji LEVUKA

Suva The New Capital


Albert Park Pavillion with the Government Building in the background.,
Albert Park Pavilion | Image: Supplied

Suva was declared the Captial City in 1882. Fiji’s capital and the largest city of the South Pacific Nations, Suva sprawls over ten square miles, on a rugged peninsula in the southern corner of Viti Levu. The downtown area features modern shops, markets, restaurants, and numerous night spots that spring to life a few hours after the sun has set. The bustling, winding, narrow streets which climb the mountainside behind the downtown area are lined with small shops crammed with merchandise.

In Suva, you will also find some of the finest examples of Pacific Colonial architecture in existence. Suva has Fiji’s largest market, what would be called a Farmer’s market in many countries, where villagers bring their produce for sale. Nearby is the Bus Depot, where a few cents you can board a bus and tour any area of the city, including the residential areas and suburbs.

Nine Points of Interest at the Capital

  1. Roman Carbolic Sacred Heart Cathedral (built in 1902)
  2. Pratt Street is where the first land sales by auction of Suva took place under an Ivi Tree. The records of these sales are in a stone monument in the triangle (Corner of Thomson Street and Renwick Road)
  3. Suva Handicraft Markets & Flea Marketa
  4. Aviator Charles Kingsford Smith landed in Albert Park on June 6th, 1928 on his trans-Pacific flight from the US to Australia.
  5. Former Parlament Complext and Goverment Buidlings (1939 and 1967).
  6. Grand Pacific Hotel (built-in 1914)
  7. Thurston Gardens (1913). The Botanical gardens are named after the famous botanist Sir John Bates Thurston
  8. The Fiji Museum exhibits a rich display of Fiji’s historical artifacts from around the Pacific. Next to the entrance stands the Botanic Garden Clock Tower built in 1928.
  9. The University of the South Pacific – was the former site of the RNZAF base and seaplane base at Suva Point. The Laucala campus was established in 1967 looking after the 12 regional countries (including Fiji)

Sigatoka Sand Dunes


Sigatoka Sand Dunes, Fiji National Park, Coral Coast, Fiji
Sigatoka Sand Dunes, Fiji National Park, Coral Coast, Fiji | Image: Supplied | Image: Supplied

The Historical Lapita People played an important role in Fiji’s early history. Proof of their existence has been found in the form of pottery fragments and human skeletons, buried in the Sigatoka Sand Dunes. Good trekking opportunities, great views, and nearby offshore surf breaks. This is the sight of Fiji’s first national heritage park. Covering 650 hectares it is an important archaeological and ecological area,

Viseisei Village in Vuda is known as the birthplace of Fijians. Legends have it that the Fijian chiefly voyager named Degei is said to have ruled over the creedal village. In those traditions, a great canoe named the Kaunitoni, carrying the god chiefs, Latunasobasoba and Degei sailed from the ancient homeland and landed on the northwest coast of Viti Levu. The chiefs built their first village at Viseisei but abandoned it moving inland along a mountainous ridge that stretches from Vuda to Nakauvadra.

Tavuni Hill Fort


The view of the Sigatoka River from Tavuni Hill Fort, with the river cascading down the center, and the mountainous landscape of the interior in the background.
The view of the Sigatoka River from Tavuni Hill Fort | Image: Supplied

Built-in 1788 by a clan of Tongans (led by Chief Maile Laternai) as a defensive fortification the site has been restored and is well maintained. It boasts original grave sites, terraced barricades, ceremonial groups, and even a head-chopping stone from days long ago. The site is equally renowned for its enormous beautiful trees and spectacular views.

Momo Gun Site


Side view of the Main Attraction at the Momo Gun Site in Fiji.
Momo Gun Site | Image: Fiji Sun

Nestled among the sugar cane fields of Momi lies a remnant of World War 2 to ward off possible Japanese attack, the site remains relatively intact and accessible as a monument that is well worth the visit.

Bau Island


Video Description – Never before seen from above, a traditional ceremony from the chiefly island of Bau to lift a fishing and swimming tabu following the chief’s passing.

Bau a small island of 22 acres is located a stone’s throw away on the east coast of the main island of Viti Levu. Bau rose to prominence in the mid-1800s and became Fiji’s dominant power; until its cession to Britain. In Fiji’s old days of internal conflicts between the different chiefs and villages, Bau’s great army and her warriors carried much power! To this day her village still has its own Killing Stone, belonging to the ‘Cakobau the high chief of Fiji’ (King of Fiji), and resides in the local church on the island. Bau has maintained its influence in politics and leadership right through to the modern day. You must have permission from someone who lives on Bau Island or from the Ministry of Fijian Affairs to venture anywhere near Bau! (Private Tours are being operated, please contact Diana)

References

  • [Protector of Paradise]. (2019, August 5). Protector of Paradise Fiji – LEVUKA – Captain Cook Cruises [Video]. Youtube. Link
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