Fiji’s lively capital city, Suva, sits on a 5km-long peninsula in the southeast corner of Viti Levu, backed by steep mountains and fronted by a deep-water harbour. Visually it’s one of the most attractive of all the South Seas ports, with pretty colonial buildings in the centre and moody weather rolling in off the ocean, covering the surrounding rugged peaks in thundery clouds. Despite the often humid and rainy climate, Suva has a lot going for it. Shopping is good and the nightlife is excellent, with cool bars, lively restaurants and busy nightclubs. With a population of 86,000 there are also all the facilities you could hope for, from banks to cinemas, along with all government departments. But a stream of country dwellers coming to the capital has put pressure on the municipal infrastructure, petty crime is an issue and tin shelters on the outskirts house increasing numbers of needy people.
Apart from the quaint museum and stately buildings there are few standout attractions in central Suva. However, spend some time here and you’ll discover a vibrant cosmopolitan city with strong community bases from all corners of the Fijian archipelago and across the entire South Pacific. Organizations from throughout the region have their headquarters here and the University of the South Pacific attracts students from all over the world.
Inland, the lush tropical rainforest of Naitasiri quickly takes hold – the peaceful Colo-i-Suva Forest Park is only twenty minutes’ drive from downtown. Suva’s poorer neighbourhoods sprawl north along the Kings Road in an almost constant parade of busy satellite towns to Nausori, an industrial and farming centre home to Suva’s domestic airport along the banks of the imposing Rewa River. The river and its surrounding mangrove estuaries have long been Fiji’s tribal power-base, with both the Burebasaga Confederacy of Rewa and the Kubuna Confederacy of Bau based in the region.
The name Suva means “little hill” and refers to a mound in the Botanical Gardens where the temple of Ro Vonu stood in Suva village. In the 1840s the village became embroiled in a dispute that was to have far-reaching consequences for the whole of Fiji.
The 1841 massacre
In 1841, Qaraniqio, a fearsome chief from Rewa, visited Suva and stole a pig. Qaraniqio and his warriors were caught in the act and one of his men was killed. In retaliation the Rewans attacked the village, killing over three hundred men, women and children; the bodies were carried by canoe to Rewa for a celebratory feast. On hearing of the massacre, Cakobau, chief of Bau, demanded retribution – Suva came under his protection as the chief of Suva Village had married a woman from Bau twenty years earlier. His revenge attack on Rewa eventually sparked the eleven-year war that decided the fate of the islands.
Australia moves in
Having achieved victory and crowned himself King of Fiji, Cakobau faced even greater problems. On July 4, 1849 at Nukulau island off Suva, the house of US commercial agent John Williams accidentally caught fire during Independence Day celebrations. Following Fijian custom, the locals looted everything inside. The US Government held Cakobau accountable and demanded US$42,000 in compensation. In 1868, when the first instalment was due, the Australian-owned Polynesian Company offered to pay off the debt in exchange for 200,000 acres of land around Suva Point. Under threat of US naval attack, Cakobau had little choice but to accept and by 1870, 170 Australians had arrived to farm cotton in the area. However, they soon discovered the soil was too thin and the climate too humid and sugar was planted instead. Fiji’s first sugar mill was built to process the crop, although this too failed to profit.
Suva becomes the capital
After Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874, officials began to survey the islands to build a new capital. The Polynesian Company promised ample freehold land should they choose Suva and this, together with Suva’s deep-water harbour, led the British to favour Suva over its nearest rival Nadi. By 1882 the move from the old capital of Levuka was completed. The dense jungle tumbling from the hills was cleared, the swamps were filled in and Victoria Parade, named after the monarch of the time, became the heart of the new town.
Twentieth-century and present-day Suva
In its early days as capital, Suva was little more than a backwater trading port but gradually it grew, securing wealth and new impressive colonial-style buildings. In 1914, gracious living finally arrived with the completion of the Grand Pacific Hotel, which boasted vintage champagne, haute cuisine and a manager from London’s Savoy. Not quite as swish were the merchant quarters around Cumming Street, fronted by kava saloons and brothels. Many devout citizens called for the street to be cleansed of its evil, and just that happened in February 1923 when a rampant fire spread through the area.
By 1952 Suva covered an area of fifteen square kilometres and was proclaimed Fiji’s first official city. A year later, a tsunami caused by an offshore earthquake smashed into the shoreline, killing eight people and causing damage to the city centre. In 1987 and again in 2000, Suva hit the world headlines after political coups threw the city into chaos with widespread looting. The 2006 coup was less fiery, with the army quickly assuming control of the streets. For more background on Fiji’s political history see The four coups.