Friday, March 16, 2012



Fiji has long enjoyed a proud communion with the sea. Like all the island nations of the Pacific the Fijians were skilled mariners and ship builders, in their earlier days creating the most amazing craft for voyages of trade and war.
In 1847 a missionary, the Reverend Walter Lawry observed ... ‘the fleet of Cakobau sailed out this morning with not less than 200 warriors on board each canoe.’
These canoes were known as drua, identical in design to the Samoan ‘alia’ and the Tongan ‘kalia’.  The drua were built from planks and powered by huge triangular sails of pandanus matting.  In a good wind they could reach speeds up to 15 knots.  Their steering paddles were enormous, the blades over four metres in length and needing several people to operate.
 But to the unwary the waters surrounding the islands of Fiji could be treacherous.  In the early days of European settlement many an unsuspecting skipper ran his craft aground on hidden reefs, some with tragic loss of life.  A few boats were salvaged, repaired and sold on for amounts at times far less than their original value.
This is precisely what happened to the Marie Louise, sold for the grand sum of £51 back in 1871 just a month or so after the plucky little vessel went aground on the Nukulau Reef near Levuka.  What I didn’t know then was the identity of the new owner.

Fiji, especially Levuka, even in the 1870’s had a reputation as a brawling, opportunistic port in a storm for the flotsam and jetsam of the Pacific.  The remote little town attracted con artists, ne’er do wells as well as adventurers, sharp entrepreneurs and a growing number of well meaning missionaries to stir an increasingly murky pot. At one stage Levuka boasted no less than 50 hotels along it's relatively small coastline.

Levuka from Browers Rock – State Library Victoria

Levuka’s hospital in those early days
Back in Australia businessmen quickly jumped on the Pacific bandwagon forming companies to deal in everything from Fiji’s sandalwood to it’s gold, and in some cases to grab prime farming land.  With cotton in great demand throughout the world, Australian entrepreneurs in Ballarat formed the Fijian Planting and Trading Company. The growing and refining of sugar saw Australia’s Colonial Sugar Refinery begin operations on Viti Levu.   Subsequently  Island chiefs were courted, land was sold.  Settlers and traders flocked to grab a piece of the action.
Dr Crowther, the original owner of the Marie Louise was yet another to milk the regions riches with his Anglo Australian Guano Company.
An ambitious warrior chief, Ratu Seru Cakobau, had been active for a number years making deals with foreign companies and along the way incurring large and questionable debts, one in particular to America. The Australian based Polynesia Company came to Cakobau’s monetary rescue in 1868 in return acquiring large tracts of land near Suva. 
While all this is going on there has been ongoing trouble with a high born Tongan prince, Ma’afu who has his eye set on usurping Cakobau. Finally in June of 1868, following protracted tussles, the Tongan Parliament instructs Ma’afu to cease involving the Tongan Government in Fijian affairs.  Later the King of Tonga will instruct Ma’afu to end his battle with Cakobau.
Ratu Seru Cakobau

Tongan prince Ma’afu on board Pelarus 1861.
Fast forward to 1871;  the Kingdom of Fiji has been established as a constitutional monarchy with Cakobau as King and former British Consul J.B. Thurston as his Chief Secretary. A government cabinet and legislature is formed, predominantly with Australian settlers in top positions.
The Tongan, Ma’afu arrives in Levuka a few months later, swears allegiance to Cakobau is installed with the title of Lieutenant Governor, Viceroy of Lau with ownership of Moala, Matuku and Totoya and a salary of £800.   A peace of sorts settles over the islands.
But it’s no wonder such legalities are in great confusion with overspending and not a few dodgy practices quickly placing the new Kingdom in even greater debt.
(Some three years later, in an effort to clear these enormous debts, in particular to America, the United Kingdom will be approached by  Chief Secretary James Bates Thurston on behalf of Cakobau and 12 other prominent Chiefs, to annex the islands as a British Colony. In 1874, after some deliberation, Fiji is officially ceded to Great Britain in an elaborate ceremony in Levuka.  The Cession ceremony will be attended by Chiefs from outlying islands brought to Levuka by every available boat,  the Marie Louise included, though her captain at the time will not be named.)
This then is the general atmosphere that confronted the Marie Louise in July of 1871 as she lay abandoned and forlorn on the Nukulau Reef.

With the ship stuck fast the Tasmanian crew took to their lifeboat and rowed to the nearest land, Levuka on Ovalau Island.  Nothing more is heard of the Marie Louise until a brief notice appears in a Hobart newspaper less than a month later advising the vessel has been sold in Fiji for £51. 
I could find nothing more about her fate until some months later coming across a newspaper item; the actual timing of this incident is hazy but appears to be around 1871 to 1872.
A renegade chief with a criminal reputation named Esekeli, who King Cakobau has inexplicably made Governor of Ra, has acquired contrary to law, arms and ammunition and is busy stirring up trouble around the township of Ba.  He is also in the market for a boat to help him transport his cargo of guns.
A few years before, a couple of gentlemen from Australia had sauntered across the Pacific and insinuated their way into the hearts and souls of a few tribal chiefs, one in particular this Esekeli.  The two Australians were named Cripps and Moeller, they specialised in locating, obtaining and supplying cheap labor to man the growing number of plantations in and around the islands.  You could say it was a form of black birding.
 The three came together, Cripps and Moeller agreeing to sell to the Fijian chief a boat in return for the promise of two hundred and fifty Fijian labourers Esekeli planned to forcefully obtain from their homes in the Yasawas.  A mutually satisfying arrangement for three men of dubious repute. 
For various reasons though, that particular scheme was abandoned.
However the boat Cripps offered to Esekeli was the very recently wrecked Marie Louise.
A change of pace for Tasmania’s little show pony.

Cripps and Moeller had been active in the islands for a number of years.  Cripps himself had owned another 80 ton schooner, the Lurline wrecked in a storm in Nadi and washed up on the beach.  By 1871 the two men had formally established a business in Fiji as labor agents, with Cripps in particular appearing to inveigle himself in the affairs of Fiji’s Constitutional Monarchy’s governing body.
During the September 1871 Levuka elections amongst other business transacted, a Mr A.J. Cripps and a Mr Alexander Barrack are mentioned proposing and seconding the nomination of a third gentleman, W.D.L. Murray.  A protest is immediately lodged on the grounds that Mr. Murray is not eligible for election.  After much discussion his name is allowed to stand and voting takes place.  However Murray receives not one vote, apparently not even from his proposers.
The reason for his ineligibility is not given.
None of that appeared to faze Mr Murray though. In the following year 1872, another newspaper article indicates he has been appointed to temporary high office in Cakobau’s government, though his performance in the new job seems to be attracting some anger.
 According to an item in the Auckland Star of September 6 1872 datelined Levuka, the Hawaiian Consul and Acting Attorney-General for Fiji, Mr. D. W. L Murray has committed an ‘unwarrantable outrage on the British flag’.
Murray, in his temporary capacity as Attorney General had ‘boarded the Volunteer, a British vessel held in port over a dispute, and without due cause lowered the British ensign, hoisting the Fijian flag in it’s place’.  It appeared Murray had filled the post following the accidental death by drowning of Fiji’s 24 year old Attorney General,  Alfred Edward Manning.’  
(If some of you have picked up on the almost mirror reversal of Mr. Murray’s initials you might blame it on the colonial newspapers of the day, in this case on both occasions New Zealand’s Auckland Star.)
There was at the time a great number of politically ambitious men floating around Levuka, all wishing to feather their own nests and it was obvious at that stage anyway that Cripps had aligned himself with a man who didn’t baulk at insulting people and symbols of other countries.
Cripps must have made other favourable connections in very high places, because in the same month, September of 1872 a news item in a New Zealand newspaper reports his partner, Mr. R. Moeller travelling to Sydney on the Prince of Wales to arrange for the introduction of Coolie labor to Fiji.  The report adds that Moeller carries the necessary documents from the (Fijian) Government authorising him to enter into the scheme.
The Marie Louise however appears to be in a state of limbo and will remain that way for the purpose of this story until January of 1873 when Captain William McGowan sails her to the Yasawas with return labour.  
It appears that Cripps eventually did find a buyer for the little schooner,  he sold the vessel to Cakobau’s government.


Perhaps one of these vessels is the Marie F.H. Dufty
By 1873 with Fiji on the brink of becoming a British colony, Cakobau and his government made up of European settlers and native chiefs, are facing a nervous and hostile time. 
There are huge divisions between the eastern coastal Fijians and the interior hill people. The Governor of Ra, Ratu Esekeli, is a known sympathiser with the warring mountain people and  appears to be walking a fine tightrope.  Apart from dabbling in the labour market, dealing in arms and gun powder and assaulting both natives and settlers, he has still to be seen maintaining an official persona as a regional Governor for Cakobau’s Monarchy.
The 1871 transaction involving the Marie Louise and Esekeli may or may not have been completed at that first encounter. If the Governor of Ba had at the time fulfilled his side of the bargain with the forced labour shipment from the Yasawas being the vessel’s purchase price,  it may well have been in an official capacity with the boat ultimately belonging to the Kingdom.  Whatever the outcome and despite his unlawful dealings it appears Esekeli remains a favoured delegate in Cakobau’s government.
The next occasion we find the three drawn together, Cripps, Esekeli and the Marie Louise occurred in the run up to the battle of Nakorowaiwai in 1873 in the mountain district of Ba.
A war of attrition had started over the murder of one man, Koroi i Latikau, a man from the powerful kingdom of Bau.  The murdered man together with ships Captain Harmon of the schooner Isle of Beauty, has been negotiating in the area for labourers to work on plantations.  The labourers were to be paid for with muskets and trade goods stowed on the boat.  The Isle of Beauty at the time was owned by Cripps. 
When news of the murder of Koroi i Latikau reached Ra, the Governor, Esekeli, under instruction from Cakobau took immediate action.  By coincidence the Government vessel Marie Louise, with a large number of Fijian troops on board under the command of a Major Fitzgerald arrived in Ba on the same day, February 25th.
(But maybe not under the command of William McGowan, he is reported taking the vessel to the Yasawas on January 10th, and later on 13th April to Ba, but on the 23rd February he is listed returning from Kadavu on the Flying Cloud.  The disputed letter regarding the ‘woman on board’ was dated 6th February.)
Ratu Isekeli, Cakobau’s Minister of Native Affairs Mr Swanston and Major Fitzgerald gather on board the Marie Louise in a council of war.  In a message to Cakobau, Minister Swanston advises that ‘without intervention by the troops the property of all the whites in the district would be placed in imminent danger’.
On February 26th Cakobau approves ‘the immediate assault and destruction of the town of Nakorowaiwai and the capture of the inhabitants...’
By now, mid 1873, the affairs of the Monarchy are beginning to get out of hand. The national government is by and large not favourably received by settlers and Fijians alike. Lawlessness is rife and rebellion is in the air. Fiji’s debts are mounting with additional and questionable financial claims lodged by the American Consul. Thurston on behalf of Cakobau and twelve other prominent chiefs begins negotiations with Queen Victoria’s government to annex Fiji to the United Kingdom.
Cripps may very well be walking a fine line himself in his dealings with Fiji’s Kingdom.  His method in obtaining labourers is being heavily criticised not only by interested parties in Fiji but also in far distant countries.  Then in July 1873, no doubt to his great surprise if not shock, he discovers his schooner, the Isle of Beauty has been seized in Savu Savu by Fiji’s government.

Beautiful Savu Savu of today...
The Fiji Times of July 23 1873 reports the steamer Isle of Beauty has arrived in Levuka harbour from Savu Savu in the charge and arrest of three armed Fijians acting on instructions from the Government.  Upon arriving the three men went ashore leaving a guard with the vessel.  The owner of the schooner, Mr Cripps took immediate action, boarded the vessel and took re-possession of her, refusing to allow the Fijian guard back on board.  He then manoeuvred the little schooner under the shelter of H.M.S. Dido, requesting the captain’s protection.
The schooner was seized on the orders of two Government Ministers, Barrack and Thurston, on the grounds that labourers on board the vessel had been illegally procured.
This is something of a turnaround for Cripps.  In the past he and Minister Barrack had been friends to the extent of jointly proposing and seconding various candidates for high office. Now Barracks in his role as Minister for Trade and Commerce alleges the Isle of Beauty is travelling without official papers.
Cripps counter claims the ship has on board the whole of her British papers together with her Fijian licence.  However, officials reply, the vessel in departing Levuka had cleared the British consulate instead of the Fijian office and Fiji does not recognize the authority of Mr Mitchell in the British Consulate..
Sydney Morning Herald 11.9.1873
Mr A.J. Cripps appears to be running out of friends.  Perhaps he and Moeller have crossed a fine line of no return, their days of government manipulation and favouritism ended.  What happened next to Cripps and boat, I have no idea.  No doubt he managed to extricate himself with the timeless method of bribery. 
But  there, for me the saga of Cripps and Moeller ends.


Artists image of the Cession Ceremony
Early in October of 1874 Cakobau R. Tui Viti and Vunivalu and the twelve paramount Chiefs of Fiji began assembling in Levuka in preparation for the annexing of their islands to the British crown, Ratu Epeli, Tui Cakau, Tui Bua, Savenaca, Esekeli, Tui Dreketi, Ritova, Katonivere, Ratu Kini, Matanitobua, Nacagilevu and last but certainly not least, Ma’afu,  all signatories to the Cession..
A flotilla of boats brought the chiefs and their entourage from their homes on the many surrounding islands. The Marie Louise was delegated to bring the prominent chief, Tui Cakou from Wairiki.
Finally, amid great ceremony, on the 10th October 1874 the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson as personal representative of Queen Victoria, received Fiji as a Protectorate and Colony of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
With the McGowans living on Kadavu and their two sons at that time mere babies, I doubt Geraldine attended the festivities, though I imagine every ships captain would have been kept busy. William McGowan included, whether or not he was in or out of favour with the government.
It would be wonderful if I could offer a ‘happy ever after’ ending to the tale of the Marie Louise.  I would love to think Geraldine and the children to come all considered the little boat their second home.
But all I can be sure of is that the jaunty little Tasmanian ketch continued her work plying the waters of the South Pacific until  at least October of 1874 when she brought the resident chief from Wairiki to the Cession ceremony in Levuka.  After that I could find no further mention of her anywhere at all.  Which doesn’t mean there aren’t other records lurking around out there in cyberspace to tell me otherwise.
In any case by 1874 my great Grandfather McGowan may have already  ceased his working relationship with the Fiji Government and instead become contracted to one of the major trading companies of the time.
Sadly, though he couldn’t have known it at the time, William McGowan will have only a bare six years left to enjoy the slow island life on Kadavu, the move back to Levuka and Worthing Cottage where my grandmother Maggie will be born in 1877, nor the comfort and joy of her four brothers, William, Alfred, Gordon and Andrew, and of course,  his beloved wife, Geraldine.
In 1881 William will be listed as deceased on Constance’s birth certificate, this last child is stillborn.  His death will leave Geraldine virtually destitute, with ahead of her many years fighting Fiji courts for legal possession of William’s estate... namely the house and property on Kadavu.  The widowed Geraldine will in the meantime marry Robert Foreman, bringing another four daughters and two sons to the marriage.
In order to present her claim to the courts for her first husband’s estate, she had first to seek permission from her second husband, a legality I’m sure left her furious. 
William McGowan made his last trip to the outer islands, made the return voyage to Levuka, supervised the unloading of cargo and presented the ships papers to the agent and then made his way home to Geraldine and the children.
He arrived home, embraced his wife, but complained of feeling poorly and took to his bed.  He died soon after.

 Probate on his property will not be granted to Geraldine until 1888, eight years later... and by that time she will have remarried.


Robyn Mortimer ©2012

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