Fiji’s History of Colonialism, Immigration, and Nationalism

This is the third in a series of articles exploring island societies to examine how issues affecting small isolated communities can help us understand the world as a whole.

Emily Hahn

Fiji is far away: really far.  A grueling 6-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles is just an appetizer, finished off with the main flight to Fiji that lasts almost 12 hours.  During this seemingly perpetual journey, the exhausted traveler seeking tropical paradise must wonder why he didn’t opt for the Caribbean or Hawaii instead.  What awaits the tired vacationer is a beautiful cluster of islands in the South Pacific, with stunning white sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs, and dense jungles.  However, if the goal was to escape the crazy U.S. political climate for a sweet, peaceful slice of utopia, the traveler may regret making the arduous journey.


Most Americans are probably familiar with Fiji as it refers to the iconic rectangular-shaped water bottle. What they may not know is that Fiji Water is actually from Fiji, pumped out of an underground well and put on a ship crossing the Pacific Ocean.  There are active debates on the environmental impact of bottled water, and its relative purity or safety compared to traditional tap water.  But there is no debate on how expensive Fiji Water is, which is typically more than twice as much as gasoline in the U.S.  This isn’t surprising when considering that the liquid had to be housed in small plastic containers and transported nearly halfway around the globe.  What most Americans may not know is that Fiji Water is an American-owned company continuing a centuries-old practice of foreigners profiting from Fiji’s natural resources.


European colonialists arrived in Fiji in the 1700’s, and the British officially annexed the archipelago in 1874 to exploit its fertile land.  Indentured laborers from India were brought to Fiji during the turn of the century to work in sugarcane fields.  In 1970, Fiji gained independence from Britain in a peaceful transition, but the remnants of British colonial rule remain.  Although people of British decent make up a very small percentage of the population, English is still an official language, and rugby is the national sport.


The majority of Fiji islanders are indigenous Fijians, or iTaukei.  These native people are considered distinct from the Polynesians from islands such as Hawaii, New Zealand, and Tahiti.  Fiji is considered to be part of Melanesia, along with other western Pacific Islands such as Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.  Although the distinction between Melanesia and Polynesia is not universally agreed, it is generally accepted that the two regions have different cultures and genetic makeup.  Aside from iTaukei, the remaining Fiji Islanders are mostly Indians from the Asian continent, the descendant of indentured servants and immigrants, who make up approximately 40% of the population.  The distinct ethnic identities of the two dominant groups have played a pivotal role in Fijian politics.


Fijian self-rule has been interrupted by coups in 1987, 2000, and 2006, all sparked by the iTaukei faction’s displeasure for the growing political and economic power of the Indo-Fijians. Most observers believe that the fervent nationalist sentiment shared by the indigenous Fijians have marginalized the Indo-Fijians, and have resulted in a massive emigration of the immigrant population to Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.  This has resulted in a “brain drain” as the more educated and skilled Indo-Fijian citizens, capable of obtaining employment in other countries, are more likely to leave Fiji. Subsequently, Fiji currently suffers from a shortage of teachers, health care professionals, and engineers, seriously threatening the island nation’s standard of living.


A history marked with colonialism, immigration, and nationalism is certainly not unique to Fiji. The United States shares a similar narrative, but with perhaps a distinct difference: the indigenous people are responsible for the current nationalism movement in Fiji, while descendants of immigrants are touting nationalism in the U.S.  Native Americans may be displeased with how the colonialists stole their land, and how immigrants continue to exploit America’s resources; however, the indigenous Americans have little power to effect change.


“Nationalism” is an ambiguous term that carries many different connotations.  At it’s worst, the most malignant form of “ethnic” nationalism can lead to the Holocaust or Armenian genocide.  At it’s best, “civic” nationalism can unite a group of people who share the principles of a nation’s constitution, and seek to promote equality and freedom.  The current American nationalism takes many forms, but individuals who seek to restrict immigration to the U.S. share similar sentiments as the native Fijians.  This is even more evident when observing “white” nationalists who use ethnic litmus tests to determine who the true Americans are. Their fervent cry of “blood and soil” was heard during their march in Charlottesville.  This disturbing term was popularized by the Nazi’s in the 1930’s, and refers to the Germans’ supposed bond through their racial heritage, and rooted in the ownership of their ancestral farmland.  The irony is that Native Americans’ ancestors owned the American soil for more than 10,000 years; the Europeans only stole it several hundred years ago.


The current American nationalist sentiments are not dominated by neo-Nazis, but are less extreme, targeting mostly illegal aliens and Muslims.  However, the xenophobic attitudes espoused by the American nationalists threaten to alienate the world community and contribute to a brain drain in the United States.  A study by Vivek Wadhwa from Harvard Law School in 2012 estimated that immigrants found nearly half of all companies in Silicon Valley, including Google.  Wadhwa also found that immigrants filed 60 percent of all patents in the U.S.  With the currently perceived hostility towards foreigners, talented individuals, including American-educated international students, may opt to return to their homeland.  In addition, American companies may become reluctant to hire foreigners, due to the increased difficulty in obtaining a work visa under the current administration. Having companies hire less qualified Americans over more talented foreigners may validate and energize the “America First” movement.  However, one has to wonder whether this is a prudent policy for the future of this nation, a nation built on the backs of hard-working immigrants.


The small island nation in the South Pacific seems to be as far away, both geographically and culturally, from the United States as possible.  But both Fiji and the U.S. share a universal natural instinct that has been infecting the psyche of the human race since the beginning of time. Nationalism has bound societies together as cohesive cultural systems, promoting the improvement in the welfare of its citizens.  However, it has also licensed xenophobia and galvanized individuals who are eager to find scapegoats for their problems.   As more and more nations are catering to nationalists within their borders, one has to wonder how it will affect the global economy, and whether peace amongst nations can be preserved.

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