Tuesday, January 11, 2011



Claiming kin in the Fiji Islands might seem a bit unusual to some, but I spent my early years in Sydney with my Fijian born Grandmother Maggie; small me enthralled by her tales of island life. Our days were peppered with words like ni samoce, vinaka,  vaka lailai marama, bula and the one I remembered best, karkenavoicer. Perhaps not strictly a Fijian word but one constantly used when adults mentioned a subject not suitable for small ears.  Usually mine. 

So Fiji was part of my life from an early age.




In 1870 my great- Grandmother Geraldine Sweeny is unmarried and living in Ballarat, with a son born in June of that year, named Samuel Benjamin.  Yet a few short years later we find her on Kadavu, a small island in the Fiji group, with a husband and a growing family, but no sign of her first born, young Samuel. 

 Levuka,  capital of Fiji in the 1870’s, is situated on the even smaller island of Ovalau close to the main island of Viti Levu.   The small town has been settled on a narrow coastal strip pushing against a thick mountain range.  In the early days it had a reputation for lawlessness and the harbour was more often than not full of whaling and blackbirding vessels. 

Only 13 kilometres long and 11 kilometres wide, the island of Ovalau is high, rugged and covered with dense vegetation. These days its popular tourist attraction is Levuka, once Fiji’s colonial capital, a community of 1500 or so inhabitants. Nestled at the base of steep bluffs, Levuka has the ambience of a 19th century whaling town, which is exactly what it once was. With worn weatherboard buildings, narrow streets, and friendly residents, Levuka's peaceful harbour belies a history of drunken sailors, numerous bars and blackbirding vessels.

To Geraldine, Levuka in the 1870’s must have seemed a lifetime away from Worthing in Sussex, or for that matter from Ballarat in Australia.  To contemplate even visiting there, much less making your home on the island would defy the imagination of any 19th century Englishman or woman.

In those days of course the only way to reach Fiji was by ship and the only way Geraldine could have arrived would have been on a small sailing vessel.  Her first impressions of the land she will call home for the next thirty odd years will never be known.  Did she and her son arrive alone; did the baby even travel with her; was she in company with missionaries as my grandmother claimed?  Could she have actually made the voyage with her future husband William? So many questions with so few answers.

On the map of the Fiji Islands you can see where Geraldine and William lived on both Ovalau, to the east of the largest island, Viti Levu, and Kadavu Island, to the south: To the north is the bigger island of Vanua Levu and the Yasawa group where William made several recorded voyages. 

Over the years my ideas and assumptions about Geraldine have changed.  Maggie said she went to Fiji with missionaries ‘for her health’.  I went along with that for a while.  But the few photos I have of this formidable lady leave me with the impression there wasn’t much wrong with her health.  Admittedly the only images I have are of a mature woman and not of a giddy young girl but still I doubt she would have left the comfort zone of her sisters in Australia for such a remote destination unless she had a very good reason.

Family history involves a heck of a lot of searching. Much to my Reluctant Traveller’s exasperation I have spent hours on my computer sometimes with very little success, but then a little gem emerges, a tiny piece of a jigsaw and straight away I’m presented with a whole new picture.

A younger me and a middle aged Geraldine.
In the previous chapter I mentioned Geraldine's sisters, their first babies and the men they eventually married and with whom they went on to establish families.  In the back of my mind I always wondered if she too may have first met her William in Australia.  The idea took hold of me, but it didn’t really germinate until I found a passenger list for an 1868 voyage of the Boomerang from northern ports in Queensland to the southern port of Sydney.

On board are two seamen travelling in steerage and their names are given as William McGowan and George Nickless.  The spelling of McGowan's fellow passenger is unusual, it is also the name of the Ballarat family that Geraldine's sister Bertha married into.  The time frame makes it possible for the two men to travel to Ballarat and for William to meet Geraldine.   I need only to place him in Ballarat no later than September or October of 1869 to pursue the idea that William could be the father of Geraldine’s first born son.

And that would certainly explain her later passage to Fiji.

But how to place great Grandfather William McGowan in this tiny south Pacific country? 


He was born on the 7th of July, 1838 in the town of Ayr, in south west Scotland.  In the absence of a marriage certificate we know this from consistent entries on his children’s birth certificates.  I use that word advisedly because while the dates of their parents marriage on those same certificates differ wildly that of father William's birthplace and year remain constant.

I found only the one William McGowan born in that year, in that place, and he is the son of Captain William McGowan, ships master, and an English woman, Susan Hunter.

William’s parents, Susan and William were married in Ayr in 1834, their first born, a daughter Ann, arrived in 1837, followed a year later by a son, William. 

William is presumed lost at sea and by 1846 Susan has married John Dickie a shipwright in Newton, a parish of Ayr.    Susan and John Dickie have two small children, and living with the family according to the 1851 census is 14 year old Ann McGowan Dickie.  There is no mention of her brother William McGowan.

Young William by 1851 was 12 years of age and perhaps already apprenticed to the sea as a ships boy. Nothing more has been found regarding his early whereabouts except this brief record in the Otago, New Zealand Police Gazette reporting ships deserters.

Merchant ship Winged Arrow, sought for desertion at Port Chalmers, 11.12.1861, second Mate Peter Murdoch and four others:- John Brown, 27, William McGowan 27, Andrew Powell 25 and John Welch 21.

The age doesn’t precisely match but records were hand written and rarely, if ever, checked against official registers. The Winged Arrow had earlier arrived in NZ with a cargo of Leicester sheep from Glasgow in Scotland.  

It is highly possible this is the same William McGowan who, by the early 1870’s is in the employment of the Fiji Government  of the time as a Ships master.  Levuka then was a lawless community, a natural bolt hole for absconders, deserters and the rest of the human flotsam moving around the Pacific: A perfect place for William McGowan to evade New Zealand’s maritime authorities.

An early photo of Levuka, it wouldn’t have changed all that much from Williams time.

Marie Louise - centre of picture at Hobart Regatta later wrecked on reef and sold in Levuka
 Photo Crowther Collection, Hobart, Tasmania

The earliest mention of William McGowan in Fiji appears in the Shipping Intelligence of the Fiji Times for October 3rd 1871 when the vessel Mabel, a fast cutter of 20 tons is listed arriving in Levuka Harbour from the outer islands of the Yasawas under its Master, William McGowan.  The same ship leaves next day on the return voyage to the Yasawas but with a different captain. William commands a variety of vessels in ensuing years all within the Fiji area.


The first suggestion that Geraldine and William are together is hinted at when a voyage returning from the Yasawas is delayed supposedly by bad weather.

In Feb 1873, according to a letter written by William to the then Minister for Native Affairs, we find he is the master of a 30 ton island trading ketch, the Marie Louise previously based in  Tasmania.   Explaining his late return to port William writes in his letter ... ‘we were detained five days longer through stress of weather’.

The letter is received by the acting Attorney General, Captain Harding who scrawls on the back of the  page..

‘What’s to be done, the vessels not in harbour and the woman is aboard.’

Written in darker ink across this note is the reply... 

‘Chief Secretary says wait till he’s seen the Atty General.’

Who is the woman referred to, is it Geraldine? She may even have written the letter in question herself, the hand writing has a distinct feminine flow, and the author is obviously educated. 

Alfred Sweeny, Geraldine’s father had been a Solicitors clerk in an era long before typewriters, he had a fine writing hand and no doubt his children too would have been well tutored.  Besides as a later document shows where he has signed his signature with an X, William may not have been comfortable handling a pen. 

The Attorney General’s reference to ‘the woman’ is in itself disturbing.  She has not been given a title, Mrs or Miss, which makes me wonder if at that stage William and Geraldine are living together possibly on the boat but not legally as man and wife. 

A year later, in 1874 William purchases a 2 acre block of land on the island of Kadavu from Peter Whippy.  He pays forty pounds for the block which fronts the ocean at Angalore.  Within a year, as shown in the 1875 census of Fiji, Mr and Mrs McGowan and their two children are listed as residents of Kadavu. (Pronounced Kandavu)

I can’t help but feel the delay of the Marie Louise was not so much due to bad weather but could have been a jaunt to Kadavu, a pleasure trip to explore and enjoy the outer islands, a prelude to making their home on the land they would later purchase.

 Photocopy of this letter, shown, was supplied by the Fiji Government Archives and taken from the original which has been safely tucked away in their vaults for over a hundred years.  My thanks to the government officer who spotted the intriguing notation  inscribed on the back.

Over the years the McGowan’s have four sons and two daughters.  But going by the dates on her children’s birth certificates  even Geraldine seems unsure of just when she and William married. We do know a ceremony was performed sometime prior to 1875 by the Rev John Robson on the island of Kadavu just four days sail from Levuka; but the marriage was not  registered in Levuka until 1875 by the Wesleyan minister Rev Webb.

John Robson was resident on Kadavu, as were the McGowan’s with their two children at the time of Fiji’s 1875 census. Birth and marriage details were often months and even years old before being officially lodged in Levuka and dates given on official reports could be misleading. The only first hand clues we have are the birth and much later marriage certificates of three McGowan children, each one showing conflicting dates.

Maggie for instance was born in 1877 and her birth certificate lists her parents marriage in Levuka as 1871.  Two years later her younger brother Andrew has a certificate that states they were married on Kadavu in 1874.  Then in 1881 Constance is born, a still birth, and this time the certificate states they were married in 1872 in Kadavu. Years later Gordon and Williams wedding certificates are even more confusing regarding their own birth dates but the most puzzling aspect of all is that there appears to be no official birth records at all for Alfred James McGowan.

Yes, you are paying attention, Geraldine named one of her McGowan sons Alfred James, the same names given to her sister Adeline’s deceased infant.*  The same name that would have appeared on that extra, spare birth certificate obtained in Australia by Adeline in 1870.

We know for sure that William and Alfred are the two oldest boys; they are listed as foundation pupils of Levuka’s first public school established in 1879. Unfortunately we don’t know which one is the elder.

The Sweeny children showed a great tendency to trip lightly around legal matters, perhaps inherited about the time their father Alfred ran amuck of the law himself back in Sussex.  So perhaps Geraldine in those early days was trying to structure a background that didn’t reveal too many cracks.  A background that showed an early marriage and children born within that legalised partnership.  Trouble is William probably wasn’t on hand when the infants births were registered and with Geraldine getting over the births well meaning friends filled in the gaps.

And I doubt they were privy to all of William and Geraldine’s little secrets.

By the year of my grandmother Maggie’s birth in 1877 the McGowans have moved from Kadavu back to Levuka living in a house Geraldine has named Worthing Cottage. William is presumably still trading back and forth through the islands of Fiji.  Two years later Andrew, their last son will be born.

By  that time though, the sands of time are tumbling unchecked, William and Geraldine have only a little time left to be together; only a few short years to enjoy their family, to sail the sparkling seas around Fiji, to gather precious memories.


Unlocking Maggie's Past 

Robyn Mortimer ©2011

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Four Sisters from Sussex