Fijians lived in the "Cannibal Islands" for thousands of years prior to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman's brush with the islands in the 1640’s. Later, Capt. Bligh and those of his crew still loyal from the Bounty sailed between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu on their long voyage to safety in 1789, and lending his name to the passage. It is reported that he sighted sails of Fijian boats in the distance - possibly the single-hulled outrigger canoes that were the fastest known vessels of the era. Bligh had been warned of Fiji’s dangerous reefs and ferocious cannibals; many ships had been lost, and many men had gone into lovo earth ovens before European settlers finally established a town at the site of Levuka in the 1820’s. Fiji’s reputation for cannibalism is legendary, and there are numerous eyewitness accounts of the atrocities. Reportedly the last person to succumb was the Rev. Thomas Baker, a Methodist missionary with the London Missionary Society, who was killed on the command of the chief of a village in Namosi (in central Viti Levu). The chief was apparently insulted when Rev. Baker took a comb from the chief’s hair. It is still considered rude to touch another’s head without permission, and at the time was considered a challenge to war (or at least a fight). The Rev. Baker’s death in 1867 was the last recorded incident of cannibalism in Fiji.
The real power of Fiji at that time, however, was the chief of Bau (Cakobau), who controlled much of Fiji. Over time, Cakobau, concerned with the growing powers of the other chiefs, growing unrest, and after having been made responsible for over $40,000 in debt by the American Consul, offered Fiji to Queen Victoria in the 1850’s. It was not until over 20 years later, on October 10, 1874, that Fiji became a British colony. The first colonial governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon, prohibited Fijians from selling their lands (even today, less than 10% of Fiji’s land is free hold property).
As Fiji’s sugar cane industry increased in the 1870’s, the need for laborers intensified. On May 14, 1879, the first labor transport ship (Leonidas) arrived bearing Indian workers. The descendants of those workers now make up nearly 1/2 of Fiji’s population, and are the backbone of Fiji's business class.
The Fijian Chiefs continued to govern their own villages, and after WW1 Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, one of the highest ranking chiefs, became the leader of Fiji’s independence. Although he died in 1958 (over 12 years before independence was finally realized), his leadership catalyzed and inspired the struggle for independence. Less than one century after Chief Cakobau ceded Fiji to Britain, on October 10 1970, Fiji achieved independence.