Friday, January 18, 2013



This five part series follows Geraldine, my great grandmother, as she begins her life in Fiji. The year is approximately 1872.  Behind her in Australia she has left behind three of her sisters and two brothers, each and every one of them attempting at various times to hide their identity by resorting to different surnames.    All of her siblings lived controversial lives, but none were as adventurous or as tragic as Geraldine’s life with her two husbands.

What possessed great-Grandmother Geraldine to so determinedly pursue a life in the remote islands of Fiji?  I guess love did play a huge part in the overall plan; but still there was the mystery element of that first born child in the gold mining town of Ballarat, the ruckus in Levuka where she is described by government officials as ‘that woman’, and the questions surrounding first the timing of her marriage to William McGowan and secondly the missing birth details for one of her McGowan sons, Alfred.
All in all Geraldine Sweeny, soon to become Mrs William McGowan, was an unusual if not unconventional woman for those times...the early 1870’s. Keep in mind Fiji’s then reputation of cannibalism and blackbirding.

Widowed at an early age and with five young children to care for she will quickly remarry.  This story covers the bitter sweet ten years of her first marriage to William McGowan and the 20 years of an ultimately unhappy union with Robert Foreman.

Bear with me as I ease new readers into this latest chapter on Geraldine’s life… her life and times before Fiji has been covered in previous chapters, predominately in the 5 part series about her mother Anna Keates Sweeny.

  This new story recreates the story of her life with William McGowan on the islands of Ovalau and Kadavu.

The accompanying photo shows Geraldine well into her early seventies.  She appears somewhat stern in manner, a trifle overweight and much taller than her diminutive daughter Maggie seen in the photo with her youngest daughter Rewa, my mother, by her side.  When this photo was taken her marriage to her second husband was long past, Geraldine was by then resident in Australia and no one looking at this photo could guess her life had been so full of adventure and daring.

But transform this bespectacled  matron into an adventurous and feisty young 20 year old who together with her numerous brothers and sisters has already sailed the world not once but twice and was about to embark on a voyage to the notorious Fiji Islands.  She travels either alone... or with a newborn son who is registered in Ballarat as illegitimate,

Place a smile on this diffident photograph, brush away the years and my great-Grandmother suddenly becomes the attractive half of a ten year love affair. 


Today the islands of Fiji could rightly be described as Australia’s South Sea playground with Levuka on the island of Ovalau a sleepy little back road well off the beaten track. Casually garbed tourists from down under regularly make the international flight to Nadi on the big island of Viti Levu, there to disperse to any number of glamorous resorts.  Some will use Suva, the country’s capital as their jumping off point to tiny outer islands where for a few short weeks they will feel isolated from the world, alone on everyone’s dream destination of a deserted tropical isle.


For Geraldine in the 1870’s there was no magic flying carpet to cover the great distance between Levuka on Ovalau Island, Fiji’s capital at the time, and islands whose names you will spot on the attached map; Kadavu, Taviuni, the Yasawa’s, Totoya, Lakemba, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. 

 For the 30 years my great Gran spent in Fiji her only transport was by small sailing vessels, inter island traders skippered by her first husband, William McGowan. 

Fiji Times office Levuka – early days..

Family sleuthing points to Geraldine first meeting William in Australia some time prior to 1872; perhaps even bearing their first born love child in the gold rush town of Ballarat before leaving the comfort zone of her sisters in Australia and taking ship into the unknown: As I type I wonder if my dour great grandmama is turning in her grave! I imagine her bristling…some subjects Missy should not be laid out for public consumption.

Such unproven secrets aside her journey to this tiny spot on the world’s huge map must surely have been made with a single purpose in mind; a determined fait accompli,  the result of which has all the hallmarks of a romantic novel.

I’ve written in depth about Geraldine and her three sisters who made the journey from Sussex to Melbourne; covered her life, her 16 siblings and her daughter’s marriage in Levuka to the American of the dual identity.  Those stories though, failed to reveal the fate of Geraldine’s husbands, didn’t fully show the daily life my great-grandparents led amid the changing fortunes of a small island port that was once the bustling centre of an aspiring kingdom.

The earliest we can place William in Fiji is October 1871 but for Geraldine, her life in Fiji began perhaps in the latter months of 1872: A tumultuous and troubled time for the inhabitants of Levuka enduring a government whose authority is in doubt.  My great grand parents have certainly chosen an explosive time in history to take up residence.


Bare with me though because first the then politics of Levuka and indeed of all Fiji need to be explained. 


Levuka - Cakobau and other prominent Fijians -photography Dufty Brothers circa 1875 - 1879
 An un-elected almost quasi government of white men is ruling the native country on behalf of a self appointed King of Fiji, Cakobau.  This native chief is a man of intelligence and imposing stature...and with aspirations of greatness.

 He has successfully placed himself in the position of paramount chief overwhelming a similarly ambitious and charismatic prince of Tonga, Maafu, who now accepts a secondary position as Governor of certain islands in the Fiji group.  He along with other native Governors are paid handsome retainers and in certain cases become owners of sleek ocean going yachts.

In fact the very vessel that features so prominently in my great Grandparents life, the Marie Louise, as a wrecked and rebuilt schooner  originally sold to a ruthless regional governor, Esekeli by a pair of dubious Australian businessmen for the reported exchange of arms and native labourers.  The vessel now reappears as the property of Cakobau’s fledgling Government.

By 1872 New Zealand headlines are highlighting Fiji’s inept government…newspaper banners describe the evolving situation… 
        New unelected Fiji government corrupt: 
                                    F.J. Hennings, Cakobau’s treasurer prints money at will: 
   Chief clerk John Campbell McCallum charged with embezzlement: 
                                  Ministers and public servants reported drunk: 
  Two Solomon Islanders jailed in Levuka die of starvation while in custody. 
                 Government Coroner declares ‘death by natural causes.
   Harbour pilot, now Admiral of the fleet..
                    New Admiral Hedstrom accused as acting like a pirate at the helm of  the Vivid with its four guns:
                 New Attorney-General Hamilton replaces Alfred Manning who drowned in 1872, and has banned all public meetings at pain of heavy penalties:

Kanakas – Melanesian and Polynesian men forced to work on sugar plantations in Australia and Fiji.
Taxation has become a bone of contention among the white settlers with many becoming highly critical of the running of the country.  When the infamous blackbirding vessel Daphne and her master and crew are seized with a cargo of kidnapped Polynesian labourers destined to labour in sugar cane plantations, participants are sent for trial in Sydney where the case is overturned, the captain and crew set free. 

However back in Levuka, John Bates Thurston who now occupies the position of Chief Secretary of Cakobau’s Kingdom, and of Foreign Relations and who, in the first instance for whatever reason instigated the charges against the Daphne,  has unexplicably retained the hapless cargo of Polynesian natives.  Instead of returning them to their own islands he disperses them among his cronies to work on their privately owned plantations. 

The affairs of greedy men obviously predominate, always the quest for fortune, money, power:  The South Seas have attracted planters seeking cheap land, the plantations, cotton and then sugar, in turn need cheap labour, cheap labour has forged a new trade in human slavery, black birding.

And to complicate matters further the black birding trade conveniently cloaked in the garb of legitimate labour has found new partners, island chiefs who aid and abet these so called businessmen as they ply their nefarious and profitable trade from island to island. 

Among the despicable there are the honourable; missionaries and their families spreading their gospel, representatives of foreign countries, teachers and medical men and women, traders selling the white man’s goods, and mixed in with all these participants are those of the native population who seek only to co-exist.  In 1872 it is estimated there are no more than 2000 white settlers throughout the island country with less than 500 in Levuka itself: The native population estimate quivers madly between the differing totals of 75,000 and 150,000.

In this calendar year of 1872 I find evidence of no less than 8 voyages to outlying islands on the Government owned vessel Flying Cloud under the command of great-grandfather William McGowan.  On each occasion his cargo comprises labourers destined to work in the outlying Yasawas.

There is money to be made with this island trade of not only male labourers but women and children as well, with prime quality males sold for £15 each. (Though later I read a figure of £30) Such is this widespread trade in slave labour it is only a matter of time before a certain element of rebellion becomes evident.  Atrocities and acts of cannibalism against settlers and villagers alike are reported in various areas and small armies of native soldiers are recruited and trained in the use of firearms. 

 Fiji and its haphazard laws must have seemed like easy pickings to the many who suddenly found themselves in high government office with titles to match, secretaries of state, attorney generals and the like. Money is leaching from the public coffers at an alarming rate and the Kingdom soon sinks into irreversible debt. Frantic efforts to borrow are made to both Australia and the United States but much has already been handed over and the Americans in particular are demanding settlement.


It is at the height of these troubles that I discover the first hint my great Grandmother Geraldine has arrived and made her presence felt in Levuka.   

It appears that on February 1873, on board the Marie Louise,  great Grandfather William McGowan, now master of the Government schooner Marie Louise has been delayed returning from the Yasawas, a group of outer islands to the north of Viti Levu, where he has deposited his cargo, labourers, and advises his superiors of this in a hand written letter.

The letter addressed to Fiji’s Deputy Attorney General, is supposedly written by William, but the writing has a distinct feminine flow.  I immediately wonder if it is great Grandmother Geraldine aboard and if the following addendum scrawled on the page indicates she is an unmarried woman.

On the back of the letter the recipient, acting Attorney General Captain Harding has scrawled a memo to his superior...

‘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.’

I have no idea the outcome of this missive and its scrawled comments but an arrangement of sorts must have been reached because William continues to captain the Marie Louise for some months until a court case no doubt determines his immediate future as a government employee.

In the meantime sounds of dissension are reverberating around this small town capital.  A fall in cotton prices meant many of the plantation owners were facing bankruptcy. Cakobau and Maafu each rival the other for supremacy, planters from Lau who are mostly German with associated business interests in Tonga plump for Maafu,  while those in Western Fiji prefer Cakobau.

In the midst of all this argument and plotting a coup d’├ętat is launched by a group led by a newly arrived marine surveyor the ex Lieutenant George Austin Woods.  As far back as 1870 there have been calls urging the United Kingdom to step in and take over the colony but so far the Crown had shown no interest in the matter...maybe now they will. 

(I should add here that later, much later in my customary sleuthing of archive records I come across an official document signed by Geraldine and soon realise there is no doubt her signature matches the writing of the 1873 letter supposedly written by William.)

Of great-Grandmother Geraldine there is only silence until 1874, when a new baby is named.  Gordon Goodenough McGowan, their third son and named after prominent English naval commanders.  While Geraldine has been busy in the nursery she and William are certainly observers and minor players in this Levuka scramble for power.

However 1874 also produces a legal footnote to the disputed voyage of Marie Louise.

 Found in the Fiji Times, a later footnote to the disputed voyage of the Marie Louise.

 On Tuesday 14 April 1874 at the Central Provincial Court a civil case, William McGowan v J B Thurston, was heard before the Warden, Mr N Chalmers, and Ratu Meli, J's P. 

McGowan was represented by Mr Solomon, and the defendant by Mr Murray.  McGowan claimed wages due to him whilst captain of the Marie Louise in the sum of £22 10s.  McGowan produced for the court his letter of appointment as commander of that vessel. 

JBT argued that he (Thurston) was only acting pro tem whilst the permanent officer, Mr Woods, was away in the colonies, and that the latter had conducted all the business with McGowan.  It was shown that McGowan had received wages from the Government Treasury from February to the end of June (presumably of 1873), and so he lost the case.

 It’s not surprising my great Grandfather lost his case, by this time Fiji was virtually bankrupt and the government officer Woods was indeed away in Australia trying desperately to prop up Fiji’s coffers.  

 But as events will prove Woods is flogging a dead horse because Mr J.B. Thurston at the very same time was endeavoring to persuade the British Government and Queen Victoria to save the day and the country by first settling the small country's huge debt and then taking over total responsibility for Fiji.

The request to England is a desperate one,  King Cakobau's government is on the brink of disaster. In the highlands of Bau the business of blackbirding has resulted in murder and mayhem.  A crewman from a labour recruiting boat has been brutally murdered.   

Tribes are in open revolt, settlers are in danger and a council of war has been gathered on board the Marie Louise which, supposedly by chance, just happens to be in the town of Ba at the same time, and carrying a large number of armed Fijian troops under the command of Major Fitzgerald.

It’s interesting to note the three officials taking part in this council of war on board the Marie Louise are the governor of Bau who is the decidedly shifty Ratu Esekeli, (who once owned the Marie Louise) the Minister for Native affairs, Mr Thurston and of course the man who trained the government army of natives, Major Fitzgerald. No mention of the vessel’s captain on this day; it could well be William McGowan. He is reported in shipping reports returning from the Yasawas.

The coincidences surrounding this occasion are curious: Esekeli and the Hobart schooner Marie Louise are well acquainted; the murdered man was in the employ of the skipper of the blackbirding schooner  Isle of Beauty which in turn is owned by a Mr A.J. Cripps; and Mr Cripps together with a Mr Moeller were the gentleman who back in 1871 bartered the repaired wreck of the Marie Louise to Esekeli for the price of kidnapped labourers and a cache of guns.  All very murky.

There is a further sequel to this tale regarding the business dealings of Mr. A.J.Cripps…A brief included in the shipping news of the Sydney Morning Herald of September 11th 1873 reads…

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 repossession of her, refusing to allow the Fijian guard back on board.  He then manoeuvred the little schooner under the shelter of HMD Dido requesting the Captain’s protection.

The schooner was seized on the orders of two Government Ministers Barrack and Thurston on the grounds that the labourers on board had been illegally procured.  

Clearly this is something of a shock 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 and Thurston in his lofty position as deal maker for Cakobau’s government have turned on their former friend.  Possibly the activities of Cripps and his blackbirding boat has become something of an embarrassment with Cripps and his partner Moeller crossing a fine line of no return.


As you can see the affairs of Cakobau’s government over the years has comprised many layers of deceit and double dealing.  Thurston himself is treading that fine line and if he is to survive the inevitable demise of this early government yet retain his authority then he must begin to pull a number of influential strings.

(Thurston does survive attaining even higher positions in Cakobau’s government and later in the newly appointed Cession government.  He will remain both in Cakobau’s high esteem and  also in the eyes of Britain and will die in Suva in 1897 as the duly decorated and respected Sir John Bates Thurston K.C.M.G.)

Thurston and friend

Annexation is just around the corner. It is not the most ideal solution, especially in the eyes of the British crown, but desperate action is needed. 

Soon, in a splendid ceremony Fiji will become Great Britain’s newest colony.  Queen Victoria will become the colonies ruler.  Both Cakobau and Maafu will remain in high office and life will continue as before though perhaps on a more peaceful and lawful note…after all mother England has had a great deal of experience governing foreign countries... hasn't she?


These then are the times and events that Geraldine has been thrust into, albeit in an onlookers role.  In a town as small as Levuka it would be difficult not to take sides… pro King Cakobau or pro Queen Victoria!

How must the arguments, discussion and gossip have reverberated in the stores and drinking establishments lining the waterfront, not to mention the sitting rooms and kitchens of Levuka’s housewives. I wonder... Did Geraldine voice her opinion?

It is timely now to discuss the day to day affairs of Levuka Town. It is only by way of its port and navigation access that this remote part of the Fiji island group perched as it is on the craggy westward side of the island of Ovalau even basks in the giddy description of capital: A situation that will be challenged on several occasions.

Over the years Cakobau’s resident Government had attracted a number of merchants to accommodate the demands of a busy port.  Chandlers and drinking holes have long been in evidence but now fine homes are popping up on the steep slopes rising from the waterfront. A newspaper editor has begun publishing the Fiji Times and two enterprising men, the Dufty brothers, photographers, have taken up residence.

Very soon the new British colony will have a splendid new Governor to match, Sir Arthur Gordon.  But before all this takes place a British seadog with the highest of qualifications will be appointed to spearhead investigations into the possibility of Britain annexing the Fiji Isles.

Commodore James Graham Goodenough of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy together with the British Consul Mr Layard will make exhaustive investigation into the affairs of the existing government.  There will be a good five months of criticism and argument before the final decision is made and the handing over takes place.   Commander Goodenough on H.M. Pearl will provide some levity in the lead up to the annexation ceremony.

At Gun Rock a vantage point above the village of Levuka previously used some decades before as a target for the guns of HMS Havannah when its crew endeavoured to show islanders the power of the visiting warship, Goodenough now again batters the same rock with his ships naval guns: Though on this occasion the bombardment is intended as entertainment for the many Fijian chiefs attending the formalities.

Boom, boom, boom!!!

 To the intense delight of children and observers the sounds of cannon fire echo around the steep slopes of Levuka town.  Are toddlers William and Alfred among the excited youngsters holding hands over ears and capering in delight?   You will of course have noted the origin of the latest McGowan baby's name,  Gordon Goodenough.

Gun Rock today – cannon scars still visible

The following year Goodenough as Commander over the Pacific Region continued on to the Hebrides where he was attacked and killed by a native arrow, He was only 45 years of age and had been apprenticed to the navy since the age of 14.. and to make matters even sadder his wife and young children after a long separation had not long before joined him in Sydney.)
Geraldine and William in celebrating Levuka’s handover to England and later mourning the good man’s death were sufficiently impressed by the visiting dignitaries, both the Commander and the new Governor  Sir Arthur Gordon to name their next born son Gordon Goodenough McGowan. What a splendid name to foist upon a newborn.

I feel sympathy for his brothers Alfred and William, their names so mundane, mere hand-me-downs from Dad and grandfather.
And so ends the first part of the life and times of Geraldine McGowan’s 30 years in Fiji.  So far we’ve only covered the years to 1874. Cession has seen the governing of Fiji switch from Cakobau’s haphazard cabinet to that of the British Crown though many of the earlier officials retain their office. 

In Part 2 William and Geraldine add to their family with another son and two daughters.. one my darling grandmother Maggie,  and ahead too more of Williams voyages with surprising detail...and we meet even more fascinating characters whose lives have become entwined with Fiji...and who lived their at the same time as Geraldine and William.

Robyn Mortimer ©2013



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