Thursday, March 15, 2012



It’s no surprise that the two men most important in Grandmother Maggie’s life arrived in Levuka by ship.  After all the first, her father, arrived sometime in the early 1870’s, the other her husband to be from America  around 1897.  No air travel in those days.

Both arrived clouded in mystery, both married their wives in Fiji, and neither left behind an easy trail to trace.

Fiji – Levuka unmarked on the island of Ovalau
William and Geraldine, my great-Grandparents, were two most unlikely marriage partners. A Scots sailor washed up on the shores of rough and ready Levuka and a tall young woman from Sussex who, on the basis of photographs, admittedly taken in her older years, appeared dour and cheerless .
There are mysteries galore with both my American grandfather and his father in law, my Scots great-Grandfather, and they all have a great deal to do with the sea and the ships they sailed on.
If only those ships could talk, what stories they could tell..

Of all the vessels, big and small, that carried mine and my husband’s ancestors across the seas to the south Pacific, none captivated me as much as the little 23 ton topsail schooner, the Marie Louise.

No, not the ship in the middle, the one to the left. Art Gallery of Tasmania
Her history reads like a paperback novel.  In turn she was a rich man’s pleasure palace, then a work horse carrying cargoes of fragrant sandalwood  and reeking guano; one moment rigged with flying pennants, the next wrecked on a Pacific reef.
This little ship started life back in 1864 in a shipbuilding yard in Hobart, Tasmania’s capital.  The Marie Louise, together with a larger Scottish barque, Sapphire (pictured above) were owned by a wealthy and controversial Netherlands born businessman living in Tasmania, Dr W.L. Crowther.  Both vessels were used initially throughout the equatorial Pacific islands both as whalers and in the guano and timber trade.
The Marie Louise, described in a newspaper article as a pretty little ship, was named after Dr Crowther’s daughter, Victoire Marie Louise, who was born in 1845.
 (Coincidentally years later, about the same time the little schooner Marie Louise is being bartered in Fiji by a blackbirder to a larcenous island chief, Dr Crowther’s daughter Marie Louise back in sedate Tasmania is marrying the Mayor of suburban Congleton in a glitzy society wedding.)
But back to 1865;  Crowther sends his ships throughout the south Pacific searching for lucrative guano deposits, placing leases on Lady Elliott Island, Bird Island and Wreck Reef, all in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland.  The following year the vessel is reported under  Captain Pie, out of Hobart, visiting Christmas Island for the guano trade.
Before too long the guano gathering enterprise is found unproductive, newspapers report Crowther transferring his guano interests in the Anglo Australian Guano Company and in 1869 the business is sold. 
But the transaction is not as shipshape nor as above board as it seemed.  The allegedly ‘otherwise honourable’ Dr Crowther has apparently sold guano leases on islands in the Pacific that didn’t even exist, his crime is uncovered and urgent communiqués fly between Government officials.
At the same time the highly reputable Mr Henry Hopkins, also of Hobart is listed as Chairman of the Anglo-Australian Guano Company, but it seemed he too has been duped by the good Doctor. However Mr Hopkins appears to have clawed back some recompense from the Guano Company debacle.   A change in the ownership of the schooner Marie Louise for instance indicates  Dr Crowther has ‘sold’ the vessel to Hopkins.
Hopkins is a wealthy man and enjoys a busy social life.  He’s rather taken with the stylish ‘Marie Louise’, flaunting her at regattas and touring aboard her with his family through the many rivers and estuaries of New Zealand.  A far cry from the guano cargo she previously carried.
But the fickle Mr Hopkins intends replacing her with a newer model.

1870: The Flying Squadron, taken at the annual Hobart regatta; The Marie Louise is the schooner middle left flying a multitude of pennants.
The Tasmanian Mercury reported the following in the Shipping Intelligence section of June 27, 1871...
 ‘For several years past the Marie Louise has been owned by Mr Hopkins who employed her as a pleasure yacht, a purpose for which she is in all respects admirably adapted.  Mr Hopkins has recently entered into a contract with Mr James Mackay shipwright, Battery Point for a large schooner yacht which when completed will be used to circumnavigate the globe on a three year cruise.  Under these circumstances he will no longer require the smaller craft, and hence, we learn he intends to dispose of her in the Fiji’s where small craft are in good request.’
I wonder what the little ship thought of that.


As reported in the Mercury’s shipping intelligence columns, the vessel did leave Hobart for Levuka on the 27th June 1871, however it did not arrive at its destination.   Well not exactly in one piece.
When the Marie Louise departed Hobart it carried four crew under the command of Captain E.J. Ledwall, with one Edward Atkinson as super-numerary cargo plus a sack full of unspecified mail destined for the Fiji Islands.

...the sea mountainous high.
We can thank Mr Atkinson for his description of what happened next.
‘The voyage was marked by strong winds increasing to gales and squalls as we neared  journeys end, Levuka on the west coast of Ovalau.    The ship sustained damage and it was necessary to heave to and set about repairing  before proceeding further.  The wind raged and the sea ran mountainous high but the Marie Louise though only 23 tons behaved wonderfully well, she proved a splendid sea boat.
Next day we continued on our course but when only about 50 miles from Levuka the ship ran on to the Nukulau reef.’
The crew took to the lifeboat and made their way to the island of Ovalau where Mr Atkinson then went on to describe their frosty reception by the British Consul and their further adventures with Fijian tribes and the sighting of their ‘cannibal ovens’.    Mr Atkinson was not impressed with the Fiji’s, ending his report to the Mercury with the advice... ‘of all the places I have hitherto had the fortune to visit, the Fiji Islands would be recommended last as places of immigration or settlement’.
A small item two months later in the Mercury  advises that the wrecked Marie Louise late of Hobart Town has been sold in the Fiji’s for the grand sum of £51.
A bargain sale,  but who bought the wreck?
Over the years I questioned Gran and my cousins, close and distant about their Fiji heritage.  Two I met in Suva in the late 60’s were Andrew McGowan’s daughters Lorna McGowan and Doris Leys.

Laura McGowan and her sister Doris Leys with their aunt Maggie, my grandmother.

Their parents Andrew and Ella McGowan in garden of his Suva home
Their memories and those of other Foreman cousins I spoke to about the Marie Louise and about William McGowan,  were wildly out of kilter. 
They firmly believed the Marie Louise for instance was owned and sailed by our Scots great Grandfather purely for the sandalwood trade.   None were all too sure about his old country heritage and nearly all had vastly different ideas about his standing in society and even his actual name;  James and Thomas were favourites.  Their Captain McGowan, they confidently claimed was master in command of a much larger vessel, came from gentry stock in Scotland where he married Geraldine and then took a leisurely honeymoon voyage to Fiji in the Marie Louise.  All pure fiction!
Mind you, Andrew McGowan, father of two of those cousins, was only two years old when his father died, so no doubt they at least can be forgiven... and the Foreman cousins of course, offspring of Robert Foreman,  Geraldine’s second husband, were connected only to Geraldine.
Nevertheless all the cousins were in for a surprise.
It’s all very well knowing a country of origin and departure, it would be a whole lot easier to have the port, ship and date of arrival as well. Would save a heck of a lot of hard slog.  Grandpa ChasBert of the dubious past continually haunts me with his particular arrival in Levuka, but that is another adventure I will relate later.
In William McGowan’s case I really can’t go past the merchant ship Winged Arrow in 1861 out of Glasgow destination New Zealand, carrying a cargo of prime Leicester sheep.  The ship made its journey by way of Australia, a country that would have a great deal of influence on his later life.
William was 23 years old back then when he and four shipmates deserted the ship in Port Chalmers and was never heard of again.  Not in NZ anyway. After all being a deserter he obviously wouldn’t want to be found, would he? I might add hundreds if not thousands of seamen were deserting ship at that time, all racing off to the gold fields leaving stranded vessels behind.
But without a friendly chatty little ship to tell me how William got from A to B,  I relied on newspaper archives and state library records to provide sparse and vague clues.   Predictably they didn’t turn up in chronological order.
For instance new genealogy ‘cousin’ Kim Fleming in London uncovered William’s earliest Fiji job commanding the ketch Mabel from Levuka to the Yasawas in October of 1871. That’s ten years of wandering to uncover.
Later I found that  William had been apprenticed to the sea as a 12 year old and by the age of 18 had acquired his masters papers.
 Then in a later newspaper archives trawl on the internet I found mention of William McGowan in 1868 returning on a coastal steamer from North Queensland to southern ports of Australia in company with a fellow sailor whose family my Great Grandmother’s sister later married into.  I couldn’t discount this obscure clue, the surname, Nickless was after all most unusual.
All tiny but fruitful parts of a giant jigsaw.
Up to this point I was wondering if McGowan could perhaps have made the voyage from Hobart to Fiji on the Marie Louise as one of the unnamed four man crew. He may even have been a seaman on the vessel during it’s early guano cargo days with Captain Pie.
The date provided for the Mabel fits in nicely with the date McGowan was in Australia, allowing William and Geraldine to get together at just the right time to conceive their first child. 
If that is how it all started.
You see my mind had already been whirling with thoughts of just how and why  the young Sussex born Geraldine Sweeny gave birth to an illegitimate son in the Australian mining town of Ballarat in 1872, and soon after makes her way to remote Fiji of all places. She and He and fate were obviously brought together in the same place at exactly the right moment... or had their meeting in Levuka been prearranged?
Meanwhile, continually dancing in and around all these unanswered questions about family was the obvious ‘life after death’ question of the wrecked Tasmanian schooner, the  Marie Louise.
Were it not for the precise record keeping of the Fiji Government of 1873,  and more importantly the diligent staff of Fiji’s present Government Archives I would have continued on with my family research none the wiser about the rumpus my Great Grandmother caused on the 6th February 1873...
It appears certain correspondence has been received by a Government department, but who actually wrote the letter?

Next : Fiji 1870’s Pt 2 –Discord aboard the Marie Louise
Robyn Mortimer ©2012

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