Thursday, January 24, 2013



A quick synopsis of Part 1- Geraldine Sweeny is one of 16 children from an 1860’s Sussex family who have fallen on tough times.  She and three of her sisters have migrated to Australia where three promptly produce illegitimate children, though all apparently go on to marry the baby’s father.  In Geraldine’s case she turns up suddenly in Fiji where she and ship’s captain William McGowan begin their life together.  This then is a continuation of their story.  

Kadavu Island, Fiji


Finally, a certificate of confirmation regarding my great-Grandparents marriage; but it is dated 1875 and according to the Fiji Census taken in the same year the McGowans are already the parents of two sons and residing at Angalore on Kadavu Island. So too is the Minister who performed the wedding, the Rev. J. Robson. Time wise this a curious affair, but then again this has been the norm for both William and Geraldine; each harbor's secrets from their past.

Secrets so deeply hidden I sometimes wish I had a crystal ball, the better to see more clearly the path their life has taken. 

Their union has finally been legitimised, though exactly when is not known…this year, last year, or for that matter some years earlier… no one seems quite sure and birth certificates for their children only add to the confusion. (It is possible the good Reverend may have been saving up his various birth, marriage and death certificates and presenting them to the official registrar in one lump package at some time long after the actual event.) 

As mentioned in earlier stories William purchased a block of land on Kadavu from a long time resident by the name of Whippy…a family long established in the Fiji’s. (Later all such transactions will involve close scrutiny and court procedure – it will at last be decided Fiji’s land was not for haphazard plunder.)

William and Geraldine and their two small sons appear in the island’s 1874-75 Census which shows a total of 54 European residents, 29 men, 11 women and 14 children living on the largish island of Kadavu. 

I found this land purchase a bit puzzling.  True, Kadavu had great beauty with convenient harbour entrance but it was remote and distant from the affairs of officialdom and work. Later I was to find a certain element of Cakobau’s cabinet had been lobbying for some time to shift the capital and entry port from Levuka to Kadavu:  Possibly to avail their own coffers as a letter to the editor of a New Zealand journal indicates... 

‘…the harbour at Levuka is a really good and commodious one with a safe and easy entrance at all times and in all weathers…whereas Kadavu was merely advocated to gratify the whim and cupidity of certain interested persons who had possessed themselves of land in Kadavu’.

See for yourself the generous break in the outside reef giving shipping into Levuka safe passage.  The large square is Levuka itself.

 The push for change was obviously unsuccessful and after a short residence the McGowan’s moved back to Levuka... though apparently the house and land on Kadavu remained theirs.  

Fijians have a proud history and connection to the sea.  Their prowess in boat building was second only to the Tongans. In early days they favoured four kinds of canoe or craft, the Thamakau, a seagoing canoe with raised sides, outrigger, mast and sails, the Tambilai – a dug-out, the Takia an undecked dug-out with an outrigger, and the Ndrua or twin canoe.

The arrival of European schooners and luggers gradually changed the Fijian concept of comfortable and superior sea travel.

An item in the Fiji Times of May 20 advisesHis ex-Majesty Cakobau has survived the termination of his powers as King of his realm and is reported to be cruising round the islands on board his smart little schooner Lurline. The boat is one worthy of its royal owner which since its arrival in these waters has been nicely decorated and improved so far as appearances go.


Life in Fiji’s capital has taken on an idyllic pattern, at least in the eyes of visitors.  A letter from a visiting journalist appears in the Melbourne Age reporting…

‘…lovers of billiards will find no lack of amusement there being 4 first class tables in Levuka where an American bowling alley is fairly patronised.  Gambling is almost unknown and picnics are often made to a neighbouring island.  Two fine creeks run through the town and have baths in each made by the Corporation where the entire population regales themselves morning, noon and night. 
When a vessel of war is in harbour carrying a band it is usually allowed to play on the jetty twice a week.  Fashions are closely studied and the milliners shops are well patronised.  At the public balls, concerts and the like catering is excellent,  the Criterion Hotel features tables groaning with joints, turkeys, fowls, jellies and blancmanges, first class wines and champagne imported direct by Heidemann and Company.  There are three ice making machines in the town supplying a plentiful supply of ice and bushels of fresh limes with which to mix the punch…’

But is Geraldine a part of this party loving crowd or is she perhaps mixing in a circle of hard working seamen, masters of their craft with no time to socialise?
Nearly a century and a half later a descendent of the Dufty family photographers will visit Levuka recreating some of the town’s original photos.

The above study of Levuka was taken by one of the Dufty Brothers in 1874 from the lofty vantage point of Gun Rock.

In 1997 one of Alfred Dufty’s great-grandsons, Ian Fegent, returned to Fiji spending a week in Levuka attempting to recreate some of the brother’s original work. This fascinating comparison shows how very little Levuka has changed in the intervening years.

1876  sees the birth of the McGowan’s third son Gordon Goodenough. The McGowan’s now have three sons and I can only presume William is still plying the waters around Fiji aboard various inter island trading vessels though perhaps not now in government employ.
A visiting medical officer of scholarly bent, Litton Forbes has recently toured the colony and written a lengthy account detailing the manners and customs of the native population. He is struck by the appearance of Ratu Thakombau’s (another way to spell Cakobau) youngest son whom he saw ‘dressed in a tall hat and missionary broadcloth that transformed him into somewhat not unlike a civilised snob.’
On visiting Manton’s Bar, a local drinking establishment, Dr Forbes comments on ‘the amount of drinking that went on in Levuka as portentous and that every man seemed harassed by a perpetual thirst and drank freely and often’. I take it Dr Forbes had yet to touch on similar colonies in Australia.

 It is however in his criticism of missionary work that he seems most outspoken describing their overall benefit as being exaggerated. No doubt this doesn’t go down too well with the locals and especially Geraldine who has made staunch friends among the missionary wives, their names appearing over the years as witness to the births of her babies.

In a final paragraph the good doctor gives advice to the well dressed traveller to ‘beware being carried on the back of a Fijian which is often smeared liberally in coconut oil!’… an observation no doubt born from personal experience?


For me especially this is a vintage year, it is the year my Grandmother Maggie McGowan was born.  How thrilled my great-Grandparents must surely have been, after three sons at last a precious little girl.

But no baby photographs – have they been lost over the years, had the Dufty Brothers moved on from Levuka - was the vanity of a portrait image simply an unacceptably added expense that could not be afforded?  William after all was a frugal Scotsman.

A pregnant Geraldine in April of the same year no doubt enjoyed the rare sight of a ‘phenomenon not often coming under the observation of landsmen even in the islands of the Pacific when a waterspout of unusual dimensions was witnessed yesterday morning by residents of Levuka.’

Geraldine is 28 years of age at this point and the certificate for Maggie’s birth reveals the Scots born William at 39 is some eleven years older than his wife:  A year which matches perfectly the certificate I found for his birth in Ayrshire, Scotland to ships master William McGowan and English woman Susan Hunter. 

While one of the witnesses to baby Maggie’s birth is Mrs Cusack, wife of one of the country’s leading missionaries, it is William McGowan himself who signs the registration as informant…and in the section requesting details of the parents marriage appears the year 1871 and the place Levuka, Ovalau.

A neat trick William, because as far as I know in 1871 Geraldine was still resident in Australia.

William now is in the employ of Heidemann and Company, a German import business operating in the Fiji Islands since 1871 and before that in Samoa and New Guinea.  He appears in shipping records as the master of the brand new locally built 25 ton schooner Mona and I assume he is no longer involved in the labour trade. (Though then again maybe not –a newspaper account reveals Heidemanns in the past had been acquiring labourers and selling them on for obscenely high amounts.)

In fact the Otago Times from New Zealand reporting on the movement of labourers from island to island makes comment on the ‘good times’ being enjoyed by those involved in that line of business.  The article reads…
The return of Island labourers to their homes is going busily and employing many vessels that hope to come back as full of new labour.  Maafu, the Roko of Lau and whose name is a household word in Fiji is starring in his native country, Tonga, whither he left in his yacht Xarifa.  Another Fijian chief, Tui Rua has gone to the same place in his yacht the Orpheus… so that the Fijian chiefs are making the most of their time and good fortune.  (And apparently nary a native rigged Thamakau on the horizon.)

The vessels that are now actually engaged in the labour trade each of them with its Government agent on board are the Marion Renny, Dauntless, Black Hawk, Menschikoff, Charybdis, Samoa and Daphne.   Their number taken in connection with the shortness of their voyages will show the demand for labour that is setting in.’

It seems annexation hasn’t changed the face of human trade, nor for that matter the lucrative participation of various chiefs.

On December 1st Geraldine is at home with her new baby daughter when William returns from a cruise to the windward on the Mona and reports sighting the wreck of a vessel off the island of Simonoff.

“…the vessel of about 80 or 100 tons was lying afloat bottom up 100 yards from the reef on north east side and held in position there by her cables which are hanging from the deck and have got entangled among the coral, the two anchors being still fast in the bows.  She has a clipper bow and round stern evidently of schooner rig but both masts are gone three feet from the deck…the steering wheel remains as also the rudder, cabin and forecastle fastened down but main hatch open….her keel is 78 feet long, 20 to 22 feet beam, 8 to 10 feet hold… scrubbing the stern found ‘Auckland’ in white letters in a ribbon scroll but no other name could be found.” 

Captain McGowan ends his report with the opinion this may well be the May Queen lost at sea earlier in the year.

After reading great- Grandfather’s report I suddenly realise an earlier assumption that William wasn’t any great shakes with pen and paper was clearly incorrect… his description and report concise and thorough.


The two older McGowan boys, Alfred and William have reached school age and while a missionary learning facility has long been available in Levuka it has been decided to create an official Board of Education and advertise in Australia for suitable teaching staff. 

Thomas Bonynge and his wife from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales are selected and the school opens on September 2nd with a roll call of 58 students, equal numbers of boys and girls.

Young Alfred and William McGowan’s surname joins the list of  other Levuka children from that first intake of pupils, Bayly, Bentley, Brown, Ewins, Fenton, Gallagher, Hulek, Kennedy, Kerrigan, King, McDonald, McFadyen, McKay, Moore, Morris, Newton, Palmer, Poulton, Raddock, Reading, Riley, Robertson, Scott, Smith, Spowart, Stevens, Stolz, Swann, Underwood, White, Whiteside, Williams, Wilson and Woolcot…thirty five families - which gives you a fair idea of the number of youngsters living at that time in Fiji’s small capital.

When the school’s centenary is celebrated 100 years later former students gather to reminisce and speak of the lasting friendships they made, of the magic that Levuka exuded…‘compounded of the sea and ships, of hills that turn streets into long flights of steps, of the hospitality and friendliness that characterised the town, its people and its history.’

The author of the Centenary booklet, Mr Len Usher describes how the former students laugh as they automatically lapse back into the Levuka dialect that developed from a literal translation of Fijian into English and I’m instantly reminded of my Grandmother, Maggie McGowan who brought me up on a mish mash of delightful words always delivered in a lilting tongue with a generous dose of laughter. 

I wonder, did her frequent use of the admonishing word ‘karkenavoicer’ derive from those times.

1879 also sees the birth of Geraldine and William’s fourth son, Andrew Quinton McGowan.  Subsequent spelling of the second name varies to a large extent between Quentin, Quinter and Quinton.  

But considering that at the same time an American author of sensational books has been wandering through the islands and my great Grandparents have already pinned the names of prominent men to their third born son, Gordon Goodenough McGowan, then  I have to plump for ‘ Quinton’.

Front page of his largely biographical book reads…


The story reads…In Sydney I met a captain whom I had known in Tonga. He asked me to ship with him as mate of his schooner trading between Auckland and the South Sea Islands…The captain had cleared the same day and meant to put out to sea at daylight, but we hove up our anchor the minute we got on board and quietly set sail; but the wind was light, so that we could make little headway, and off Rangitoto it died  out completely. We hailed a tug which towed us past Tiri tiri Island, where we caught a steady breeze and were well off shore by daylight. 
We ran north to the Fiji Islands, disposing of our cargo at various points throughout the group. The captain obtained a charter from a merchant in Levuka on the Island of Ovalau to collect a cargo of best Fijian timber to send to England. The charterer made a contract with Tui (King) Thakau, chief of the powerful Thakau Ndrovi tribe, to send a large number of his men to cut the timber and raft it to the vessel. Most of this tribe reside upon the island of Vanua Levu (Vanua, land; Levu, big, or great), and accordingly we anchored in Nathava Bay, on the east end of this island…

Quinton traveled the islands of the South Pacific and spent some time in Fiji.  Much of his writing had a theological bent and at one stage he mentions departing the island of Kadavu.  Obviously to Geraldine he left the impression of being at least a charismatic and imposing author.
On the subject of baby Andrew’s second name I rest my case.

On such a happy domestic note I will close this second part of Geraldine’s story. Part three will introduce even more colourful characters who marched alongside my great-grandparents during their sojourn in the Fiji’s; while for William his continuing voyages will touch on even more surprises. 

But unknown to the McGowans, the relentless sands of time are trickling ever faster…

                   THE CLOCK WINDS DOWN

            Robyn Mortimer ©2013


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