Like the flick of a paint brush, sixty tiny dots in a canvas of deep blue make up the LAU GROUP, a widely dispersed collection of islands forming the distant eastern border of Fiji. Only half the islands are inhabited and the people who live here are almost completely reliant on the reef-strewn sea that surrounds them. Cargo boats from Suva bring in essential supplies and connect the islands with the outside world. Otherwise, they remain untouched, undeveloped and seldom visited by outsiders. For those that do venture here, a warm welcome awaits as well as the chance to sample a unique culture – a mixture of Polynesian Tonga and Melanesian Fiji.
The Lau Group can be split into three regions: Moala, Northern Lau and Southern Lau. The three high volcanic islands of the Moala Group lie to the south of Lomaiviti and are the closest to Viti Levu and the least influenced by Tongan culture. Northern Lau is the region most appealing to tourists, thanks to the historic island of Vanua Balavu which has access to the spectacular Bay of Islands. Southern Lau is the most isolated part of the group, in places closer to Tonga than Suva. These islands hold the region’s seat of power at the traditional village of Tubou on Lakeba.
If you’re coming to the Lau Group, bring plenty of cash – there are no banks, only a handful of small village stores and food and fuel costs are inflated due to their isolation.
Before Captain James Cook chartered the island of Vatoa in Southern Lau in 1774, the Lau Group was a little-known group of remote islands where Tongans and Fijians traded, occasionally fought and often intermarried. The Tongans came for the giant vesi trees that flourished around the islands of Fulaga and Lakeba. These were hollowed out to make large double-hulled canoes used for exploration, trade and war around the Tongan empire. In 1800, the Argo, one of the first Western merchant ships to enter Fijian waters, was shipwrecked on the Bukatatanoa Reef east of Lakeba. Its survivors were rescued in canoes by people from Lakeba and became the first white people to live amongst Fijians. Items from the ship including ceramic plate and buttons moved briskly around the islands, providing much curiosity. Sadly the ship also brought with it a strain of cholera which caused many deaths throughout the group.
In 1835, two Wesleyan Methodist missionaries, the Rev William Cross from England and Rev David Cargill from Scotland, landed at Tubou on Lakeba, becoming the first missionaries to arrive in Fiji. The pair had already worked in Tonga for several years and were accompanied by several envoys of the Taufa’ahau, the Christian King of Tonga. During the great wars of the 1840s between Bau and Rewa, fierce Tongan warriors fought for both sides in different parts of the islands. By 1848, their reputation had begun to embarrass Taufa’ahau, so he sent the headstrong Prince Ma’afu to Lakeba to control his people. Ma’afu excelled at his task and soon began to dominate the Lau Group. He moved his seat of power to Lakeba and by 1869 had declared himself Tui Lau or “King of Lau”. With the islands pacified and a Christian ruler in place, European planters moved in, purchasing the fertile islands of Northern Lau to grow cotton, and later for coconut oil production. When the entire Fijian archipelago was ceded to Britain in 1874, Ma’afu was granted control of the Lau Group and remained here until his death in 1881.
Today, Lauans walk tall amongst Fijians, retaining much power in political life. Two of Fiji’s most revered figureheads hailed from Tubou on Lakeba: Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna (1888–1958), who paved the way for the nation’s independence; and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (1920–2004), Fiji’s first Prime Minister. The latter held the title of President from 1993 to 2000 before being unceremoniously deposed by the Speight coup.