The Fiji Museum - Virtual Museum

Sandalwood Trade 1800-1820

The handful of foreign vessels which had strayed into Fiji waters during the 1700s escaped shipwreck, but with the new century, the inevitable happened.

In January 1800, the American schooner Argo, bound from China for Port Jackson (Sydney, Australia), was wrecked on the Bukatatanoa Reefs and her surviving crew members spread about Fiji. The Argo bore disease as well as cargo and a devastating epidemic, the “lilabalavu”, swept the islands killing thousands of people. This was just the first of a series of epidemics which greatly reduced the Fijian population during the 1800s. Disease, coupled with demoralisation in the face of unprecedented change, saw the population fall from perhaps 250,000 people in 1800 to a low of 85,000 by 1921.

Disease was not the only consequences of the Argo wreck. In 1804, one of her crew, Oliver Slater, brought word to Port Jackson that sandalwood (Santalum yasi) grew abundantly about Bua Bay on Vanua Levu. This scented timber, known as ‘Yasi’ in Fiji, fetched fantastic prices in the Orient. As a result, colonial vessels from Port Jackson, along with East Indian traders from Calcutta and Yankee merchant seamen from New England, began converging on Fiji, which for the first time offered a commercial attraction.

By 1814, all of the sandalwood had been cut out of the islands and ships again shunned Fiji until the onset of the beche-de-mer trade in the 1820s.