The Lau Islands aka little Tonga (also called the Lau Group, the Eastern Group, the Eastern Archipelago) of Fiji are situated in the southern Pacific Ocean, just east of the Koro Sea. Of this chain of about sixty islands and islets, about thirty are inhabited. The Lau Group covers a land area of 188 square miles (487 square km), and had a population of 10,683 at the most recent census in 2007. While most of the northern Lau Group are high islands of volcanic origin, those of the south are mostly carbonate low islands.
Administratively the islands belong to Lau Province.
The British explorer James Cook reached Vatoa in 1774. By the time of the discovery of the Ono Group in 1820, the Lau archipelago was the most mapped area of Fiji.
Political unity came late to the Lau Islands. Historically, they comprised three territories: the Northern Lau Islands, the Southern Lau Islands, and the Moala Islands. Around 1855, the renegade Tongan prince Enele Ma'afu conquered the region and established a unified administration. Calling himself the Tui Lau, or King of Lau, he promulgated a constitution and encouraged the establishment of Christian missions. The first missionaries had arrived at Lakeba in 1830, but had been expelled. The Tui Nayau, who had been the nominal overlord of the Lau Islands, became subject to Ma'afu.
The Tui Nayau and Tui Lau titles came into personal union in 1969, when Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who had already been installed as Tui Lau in 1963 by the Yavusa Tonga, was also installed as Tui Nayau following the death of his father Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba III in 1966. The title Tui Lau was left vacant from his uncle, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, in 1958 as referenced in Mara, The Pacific Way Paper.
The Northern Lau Islands, which extended as far south as Tuvuca, were under the overlordship of Taveuni and paid tribute to the Tui Cakau (Paramount Chief of Cakaudrove). In 1855, however, Ma'afu gained sovereignty over Northern Lau, establishing Lomaloma, on Vanua Balavu, as his capital.
The Southern Lau Islands extended from Ono-i-Lau, in the far south, to as far north as Cicia. They were the traditional chiefdom of the Tui Nayau, but with Ma'afu's conquest in the 1850s, he became subject to Tongan supremacy.
The Moala Islands had closer affiliation with Bau Island and Lomaiviti than with Lau, but Ma'afu's conquest united them with the Lau Islands. They have remained administratively a part of the Lau Province ever since.
See also: Fiji–Tonga relations § Minerva Reefs and Mara conflicts
Since they lie between Melanesian Fiji and Polynesian Tonga, the Lau Islands are a meeting point of the two cultural spheres. Lauan villages remain very traditional, and the islands' inhabitants are renowned for their wood carving and masi paintings. Lakeba especially was a traditional meeting place between Tongans and Fijians. The south-east trade winds allowed sailors to travel from Tonga to Fiji, but much harder to return. The Lau Island culture became more Fijian rather than Polynesian beginning around 500 BC. However, Tongan influence can still be found in names, language, food, and architecture. Unlike the square-shaped ends characterizing most houses elsewhere in Fiji, Lauan houses tend to be rounded, following the Tongan practice.
In early July 2014, Tonga's Lands Minister, Lord Maʻafu Tukuiʻaulahi, revealed a proposal for Tonga to give the disputed Minerva Reefs to Fiji in exchange for the Lau Group. At the time that news of the proposal first broke, it had not yet been discussed with the Lau Provincial Council. Many Lauans have Tongan ancestors and some Tongans have Lauan ancestors; Tonga's Lands Minister is named after Enele Ma'afu, the Tongan Prince who originally claimed parts of Lau for Tonga. Historically, the Minerva Reefs have been part of the fishing grounds belonging to the people of Ono-i-Lau, an island in the Lau Group.
Just off the island of Vanua Balavu at Lomaloma was the Yanuyanu Island Resort, built to encourage tourism in what has been a less accessible area of Fiji, but the small resort failed almost immediately and has been abandoned since the year 2000. An airstrip is located off Malaka village and a port is also located on Vanua Balavu, at Lomaloma. There are guest houses on Vanua Balavu and on Lakeba, the other principal island.
The Lau Islands are the centre of the game of Cricket in Fiji. Cricket is the most popular team sport in Lau, unlike the rest of the country where Rugby and Association Football are preferred. The national team is invariably dominated by Lauan players.
The Lau Islands' most famous son is the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (1920-2004), the Tui Lau, Tui Nayau, Sau ni Vanua (hereditary Paramount Chief of the Lau Islands) and the founding father of modern Fiji who was Prime Minister for most of the period between 1967 and 1992, and President from 1993 to 2000. Other noted Lauans include Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna (1898-1958), who forged embryonic constitutional institutions for Fiji in the years that preceded independence. Other notable Lauans include:
Given its small population, the Lau Islands' contribution to the leadership of Fiji has been disproportionately large.