Sunday, February 3, 2013



Synopsis covering previous chapters…Great grandparents Geraldine and William have settled in Levuka…she is the fifth child of 16 children from a once respected Sussex family who have been touched by great misfortune.  William is a ship’s captain from Scotland and the pair may have first met in Ballarat where Geraldine delivered an illegitimate child who may or may not be the couple’s eldest son.  Their life together begins in Fiji, though exactly where and precisely when remains a huge mystery. Their story continues now in the year 1880 in Levuka where the McGowans reside, Geraldine, William and their children Alfred, William, Gordon, Maggie and baby Andrew.

1880: The population of Levuka is a mixed one, a delightful mish mash of native Fijians, Tongans, Samoans, Rotumans and Polynesians together with Europeans adrift from Australia and America, England and Europe.  Intersperse these with Chinese farmers and carpenters and the chit chat you hear in the shops and around the waterfront is conducted in a medley of accents and dialects.

There is the usual social etiquette of those days in the division of class and work but this seems to be tempered by the easy going lifestyle of this idyllic south Pacific island.  Sadly Geraldine leaves few written memories of her years in Fiji, but others do and their lives are not much different to hers.

Her husband William though is a man of the sea and he travels widely through the Fijian islands; many of his voyages are recorded in the newspaper archives of New Zealand’s Papers Past and Australia’s Trove. Together with the historic records of Fiji’s state library these paint the story of my great-grandparents short life together in the South Pacific.


January of a new year and the Fiji Times features a story concerning Captain McGowan, Master of the island schooner Mona.  Great-grandfather William while journeying through the outer islands has come across a native canoe of amazing construction, its native passengers off course and in some difficulty.

His description of the vessel is full of praise for the vessel’s ingenuity and seacraft.  The boat, he says, is built without a single nail but sewed together with magi magi; it is all of hardwood and smooth on the outside and fastened inside like a canoe.  The planks are all diagonal pieces and fitted so well that they do not admit a drop of water.  She is all one piece of timber from the bowsprit end to the end of the stern post which has two forks on which they apparently hang their kava upon as there was some on when I saw it.

On the forward half deck there is Kali fixed, intended no doubt for the man on the look out to lay his head upon… there is neither paint, pitch nor tar on this piece of naval architecture.

The mystery craft perhaps similar in design to this Fijian N’Drua.

The seven crew members speak no Fijian and only a few words of English and their tale of woe is related by a Mr Peate at Udu Point at the northernmost point of Vanua Levu…  The strange ship and its crew sailed from their island home for Ifooa or Ifoon, a volcano some great distance away to get a load of smooth black stones to put on some grave; a custom which they are in the habit of doing.  They drifted off course and had only a few coconuts in the boat and were at sea six days when they got to Cikobia having nearly missed the Fiji group altogether.

While the tale of remote Pacific islanders seeking the smooth black stones from a certain volcanic island has featured in present day television documentaries, this knowledge would have been unknown in great-Grandfather’s time. 

His report in the Fiji Times ends…I advised (the crew) to come to Levuka and report themselves which they said they would at the first fair wind they got.  The boat is 30 feet over all, 6 feet beam and 30 inches depth of hold and rigged in European cutter style, the sails being cut of Tongan mats….she will probably turn out to be some runaway boat from Tonga, perhaps prisoners.

Sorry William, the black volcanic stones are the clue.  I’ve viewed a TV documentary and I doubt these islanders you met were escapees, the sailors of this remarkable craft were most assuredly what they said they were – islanders on a special mission of mythical purpose blown off course and hoping for favourable winds to speed them home.

A sighting like this of such a rare vessel would have been discussed and argued with many old sea dogs, both European and Fiji native.  One in particular that great-grandfather would certainly have known well over the years and who like him shared a love of the sea and of boats was the late Ratu Golea Tui Cakau, the Roko Tui of Cakaudrove who died in Taviuni the previous year in highly suspicious circumstances. 
The Chief had actually travelled to the great Cession Ceremony of 1874 in regal style aboard the Marie Louise. In the weeks and months leading up to his sudden death the Tui Cakau had been superintending the building of a large sea going canoe, perhaps not as ambitious as the mystery craft sighted by William, but given the chance who knows what aspects of the craft they might have discussed and adopted. 

Fashions and customs of the Fijian native continue to intrigue Australian readers.  A traveler compares the sulu worn by men and women in Fiji, a piece of cloth wrapped around the loins about the length of a Highland kilt, and finds their appearance wanting in comparison to the graceful and decent long robes worn in Hawaii, Tahiti and Samoa. 

Obviously he hadn’t sighted these charming maidens.

The same informant makes the comment that religion, rum and civilisation has dulled and made lazy the Fijian workers and that all work on the island of Ovalau is carried out now by imported Polynesian labour, comparing the cost of employment in Ireland for instance at one shilling a day with that in Levuka costing two shillings.
I can only imagine William is fairly compensated for his sea going cargo, often listed as labourers.

1880’s Fiji is constantly a source of interest to Australian readers. In a special edition of The Queenslander a correspondent calling himself Vagabond declares …
At this Spring season of the year the weather here in Levuka is delightful.  The inhabitants do not work too much; there is a pleasant lazy style of existence quite in accordance with the climate and surroundings…

People enjoy themselves here.  There is a cricket ground much practised on and a rifle range up on the hills where matches occur every week.  The town is full of billiard saloons and there is a bowling alley largely patronised, especially by the German residents who assemble and drink lager there to an extent which would meet with the approval of Hans Breitmann.(William’s employer at this time is the German trading company Heidemanns.)

There is an excellent choral society which gives occasional concerts and all the week there are dinner parties and dances.  The venues draped with flags and with ladies and gentlemen in full dress the tout ensemble at these is most pleasing and surprising when one considers that twenty years back cannibalism prevailed here.

In an effort to titillate his reader’s emotions Vagabond continues in a blood thirsty vein…

Ten years ago when Thakambau was high chief here there was a great war with the Livoni tribe.  Fijians are splendid generals; they never sacrifice their men.  Their strategy consists in surrounding and starving out the enemy.   In this last affair only one Livoni man was killed.  He was caught crossing a yam patch and clubbed to death;  his arm cut off was brought in triumph into Levuka by the band of yelling savages and exhibited in the bar of Sturt’s hotel, where now I am so well fed and housed.

The growing importance of Fiji appears to dominate Australian newspapers.  In the Royal Gazette a paragraph appears proclaiming the upset prices for Crown lands in Fiji – First class, £2 per acre; second class, £1 per acre; third class, 15shillings; fourth class 10shillings. These lands are all cheap at the price. The author claims fourth class land here is superior to Queensland’s second class pastoral; whilst Fiji first class is simply unequalled in any part of the yet known world.

Yet by the end of the year the long discussed sale of land at Suva which had been reported in the Fiji Times as a ‘saponaceous fraud’ had seen spirited bidding with one old Levuka resident buying at the rate of £800 per acre, while rumour had it that the Bank of New Zealand had bought privately at over £1000.  The predictions of those who have been opposed to the change from Levuka to Suva and who in glee invited people to go there on (the day of the sale) and witness “another Governmental farce” have completely failed and the long vexed question of Levuka v. Suva is settled. 

The McGowan’s however seem quite happy to remain in Levuka.

Levuka, tiny as it is keeps well abreast of European standards.  Back in England and in the colonies the iconic Mechanics Institute has long been an important and popular source of education and information. In 1859 Alfred Sweeny, Geraldine’s unfortunately ill-fated father had availed himself of its reading room in Auckland when the family made its disastrously short exodus to New Zealand.  In the late 1860’s his daughter’s Bertha, Adeline and Geraldine, alone in Australia and no doubt lonely made similar use of the large and commodious Mechanics Institute in Ballarat. 

Ballarat's Mechanics Institute

And now in 1880 the opening of the new Mechanics Institute in Levuka while not as grand as some is nevertheless an exciting new venue for the island. 

According to description… the building is spacious with a deep front veranda, the hall is spacious and lofty, the rooms lined and painted throughout.  A novel and most necessary form of ventilation has been adopted with open grids in sections of the skirting boards and along the top of the walls to allow a free current of air.  Tropical heat must be kept at bay...

I imagine Geraldine attended the opening; she may even have taken a hand in the Institute’s early planning.

At a function held in the new hall a special presentation described as a ‘slight’ memento in recognition of his services, is made to the departing long time editor of the Fiji Times, Mr. P.S. Solomon; a specially crafted and elaborate silver salver together with a purse of sovereigns.

(When William brought his case regarding payment for work on the Marie Louise against the then Fiji Government and John Bates Thurston his advocate was a Mr. Solomon, either the above gentleman or of the same family.)



In other news it seems dysentery and smallpox has ravaged parts of other islands.  News from Kadavu reports a form of feverish dysentery has moved through the island like a plague.  In Levuka the supply ship Gunga arrives in port with a case of measles aboard and is immediately quarantined. 

The quarantine becomes protracted, leaving Levuka on the verge of famine.  Local butcher Mr Page is relying on the sheep aboard the stricken ship, he warns locals will be forced to eat preserved meats unless the quarantine is lifted.  Bakers report the towns shops are down to their last 2 days supply of rationed flour.

(I have to wonder how earlier pioneers survived eating only the abundant supply of locally grown fruit and fish from the sea.)

An item in a shipping report mentions Captain McGowan on board the Mona has set sail to the windward isles but unfavourable winds have forced him into the port of Taviuni. On board are several Fijian constables still showing the pock marks from a recent bout of chicken-pox.  A cursory inspection of cargo and passengers by harbour officials causes immediate panic. 

The New Zealand Herald reports the consternation that ensued was remarkable…hasty diagnosis is made, smallpox! A passenger who had already disembarked was hastily bundled back on board while the courteous official who but a short time before had so cordially shaken his hand now viewed him with abhorrence and disgust.  The said official by the way had visited the schooner but by some oversight omitted to quarantine himself.   The Mona flying the yellow flag denoting quarantine was ordered back to Levuka, some sailing days away, where, after an inspection by the government doctor the vessel was cleared to proceed…

Clearly a false alarm.

Amongst the doom and gloom of plague and quarantine in that same edition of the New Zealand Herald a columnist provides these snippets from Fiji…..
 Levuka proper now has two local watchmakers and two public clocks.  These–the clocks not the watchmakers-find resting places in the Supreme Court and the Police Office respectively…

Further along I find there is a very great demand for yagona (Fiji grog) in Levuka and also all over Fiji and the supply seems to be far short of the demand.

And to end the Fiji report the journalist adds…A passenger off the Auckland schooner Ovalau which recently arrived at Levuka, named Mr J.M. Murray hotel keeper, was mulcted (fined) in the sum of £21 for attempting to smuggle on shore certain jewellery.

All in all a titillating read for the good folk of Levuka.


For Geraldine, life revolves around her sea going husband and her five children.  Toddlers Maggie and Andrew under the age of 3 years keep her busy at home while the three older boys attend school and keep a close eye on the harbour, waiting for their father to return from the sea.

 As is the custom in Fiji their mother, Geraldine has no shortage of household help and the children are thriving in the bilingual community, their childish patter crossing seamlessly from English to Fijian.

Letters from home arrive sporadically, keeping Geraldine abreast of her parents and 11 surviving sibling’s movements and activities.  Her many nieces and nephews in both England and Australia perhaps envy their adventurous Aunt’s life in far away Fiji. 

(One such lad, orphaned Francis Ivor Fleming* will eventually make his way to Suva from England, but in this current timeline he has yet to be born.  His life story is chronicled in Ancestors 17 – From Orphan To WW1 Pilot*)

From England comes news of Geraldine’s sisters, Madeline and Constance, small children when last she saw them in Wales, grown now and contemplating their own marriage; while from Australia she receives disquieting news about younger sister Camilla Benjafield who has borne and lost two young sons, one to a drowning accident in rural New South Wales.

At this stage the McGowan’s, neither husband nor wife, could possibly know what sadness lies ahead for their own family…


Thurston in his position as Colonial Secretary of Fiji has, together with Sir Arthur Gordon, long advocated the move of government to Suva.  A work force is presently at work on the larger island of Viti Levu reclaiming the foreshore and establishing a water supply for the new capital.  

An Australian political reporter writing for The Queenslander while visiting Levuka has much to say about the positioning of Fiji’s capital, perhaps even echoing the opinions of some residents. But the shift is long overdue, Viti Levu as the largest island in the Fiji group also hosts the majority of sugar and coffee plantations, while Suva’s harbour offers shelter to even the largest man-of-war during the hurricane season.

Perched as it is between steep ridges and the sea Levuka simply has no room to grow.

Governor Gordon has also suggested making changes to both the country’s parliament and to the Legislative Council following resolutions to appoint a native chief to the Council.

Writing a critique in The Queenslander its reporter very daringly adds an exclamation point, followed by his derisive comment that this appointment, were it to happen would be… 

the one hundred and first wonder of the world…a native chief sitting in the Council! 

 He goes on to point out that neither Cakobau nor Maafu can speak English sufficiently well to sit in council and while either of these two is alive no other could be a representative chief of such high stature.

This disparaging opinion by an unnamed journalist is challenged and proved wanting by the agenda and proceedings of the November 16th 1880 Native Parliament held on Loma Loma one of the Windward Isles. On this particular day of the lengthy meeting attended by the numerous chiefs and their entourage from all districts and islands of Fiji the principal item of business is the farewell to His Excellency Sir Arthur Gordon on the eve of his departure to assume the Governorship of New Zealand.

The reporting of the event in the Melbourne Argus reads…
upon the previous day Sir Arthur Gordon had taken farewell of the assembled chiefs, over whom as well as their people, he has for five years and more exercised a moral influence perhaps unparalleled in that portion of the history of colonisation which records the contact of the white and black races.  While His Excellency was speaking many of the chiefs wept like children; others of less emotional character and made of sterner stuff, sat silent gazing upon the ground, their attitude and expression indicating even with them, the internal struggle going on to preserve their manhood.

Ratu Abee, Thakobau’s son, speaking for his father (who was absent through illness) and for his people, replied.  Maafu, the chief of Lau, also spoke.  Both men, born orators, spoke tersely, yet eloquently.  Ratu Marika, a chief of high rank, then read an address which had been drawn up the day before.

Ratu Marika’s speech continues…Among the things dwelt upon by the assembly was the perfect confidence they now felt in the Queen’s government.  At the time of annexation (he said) their minds were troubled. Their future was dark, and manifold were the stories told them as to the alienation of their land and their reduction if not to slavery, to nothingness.

But five years had passed.  Their lands had not been confiscated or appropriated.  They still owned what they owned before…..their chiefs had not been degraded and made ashamed among their people….the news that the Governor was going to New Zealand had come upon them with surprise, and who was the speaker among them that could tell the measure of their grief. …..they thanked the Queen for sending another (Mr des Voeux) to replace him…they saw he was a kind man and yalo malua (reflecting, not hasty).

Sir Arthur Gordon’s tenure in Fiji thus ended.  He sailed off to a 17 gun salute from H.M.S Danea. 

Of his time in Fiji, the same journalist commented… that time, the great exponent of fact and fiction will deduce itself as to the sound policy and herculean labours of Governor Sir Arthur Gordon.  That he has offended the majority of settlers by his policy is beyond question.  That they have attacked him with a bitterness at once wild and ridiculous is equally beyond doubt.   It remains to be seen what alteration there will be to chronicle twelve months hence.

The imminent move of government to Suva does become official, though for the moment at least Levuka continues to retain a semblance of authority.

William continues to skipper the various vessels belonging to his employers, Heidemann and Company.  Both the Mona and the Coral Queen ply not only the waters around the Fiji Islands but also feature in shipping lists bound for New Zealand, and occasionally either or both are reported making voyages on Government business.

In August of 1880 the Fiji Times reports Captain McGowan of the schooner Mona bringing news of another ‘melancholy canoe disaster to windward’.  It appears he has come across the wreck of a large native canoe proceeding from Moala to Totoya with twelve people on board when it became swamped on a reef.  Ten escaped with their lives but the two who are missing were thought to have been devoured by sharks.


Christmas 1880 is fast approaching and Levuka prepares for a forthcoming Bachelors Ball to be held in the grand public hall of the Mechanics Institute. 

Then early in December a fierce cyclone ravages the islands.
Residents huddle in their homes as the wind sends sheets of iron and roof shingles flying, Mr Stevens’s icehouse is entirely demolished.  In Suva the damage is much worse, rows of houses and buildings are destroyed, ships blown ashore.


In Nadi a tidal wave sweeps 2 miles inland destroying everything in its path. William is at sea, on a voyage to Totoya some 100 miles to the south of Levuka.

There is news that two boats are missing on a voyage to Mualevu, the Lurline and the Tui, with an anxious Cakobau directing the Coral Queen to the search.

I could find no more information, no names, no lists of ships lost. I can only imagine the havoc that the people of Fiji lived through; put myself in Geraldine’s shoes as she waits for news of her husband aboard the Mona.

My grandmother Maggie barely remembered her father and had no idea what happened to him.  Foreman relations couldn’t help me either.  Some thought he had been lost at sea, others said he died of dysentery. 

In the McGowan history William had suddenly disappeared from Geraldine’s life and we could find no record of what had happened. I always imagined he had been lost at sea.  Now I teetered on the uneasy edge of discovery.

A cyclone of gigantic proportions, ships lost, towns and villages wrecked.  We know he set sail on the Mona for the windward isles, but has he survived, is he alive?

In real time the wait for news is a matter of days, for me and my grandmother’s modern day lifetime of searching the wait is much longer…140 years. 

Then finally, searching through Australia’s Trove newspaper archive I sight a New Zealand report dated some weeks later, and there is the confirmation…with the cyclone bearing down on the island of Totoya the schooner Mona had a very narrow escape ….

William survives the year 1880; but unknown to both the McGowan clock slowly but relentlessly continues its vigil, ticking away the seconds…through the celebration of a new year, the promise of the next. 

A new baby has been created, too early yet to notice.  More months will pass, days, seconds…tick…tick…tick… until, finally, on a day that fate will define, the clock will finally stop.

 The approaching year, 1881 will bring overwhelming sadness and grief to the McGowan family.

Robyn Mortimer ©2013


Links to previous stories...


No comments:

Post a Comment

I love hearing from you, your comments good, bad or indifferent are always welcome..your anonymity will be respected. But remember if you want me to reply you will need to supply a contact email address otherwise I will never know who you are.