Saturday, February 9, 2013



Synopsis:  Geraldine and William have made their home in Fiji.  He is the skipper of small trading vessels plying between the outer islands, in the past working for the Government, but now mostly for the German trading company Heidemanns at the helm of their vessels the Mona and the Coral Queen.  The couple, resident in Levuka, now have five children, four sons and a daughter Maggie, who in the goodness of time will become my grandmother.  We reach now the lull before the ultimate storm.

1876 painting of a Fiji village by Constance Frederika Gordon-Cumming, at the time the guest of Governor Arthur Gordon to whom she was not related.

1881 - Levuka awakes to a new year:  The town has survived the cyclone of December but has suffered a great deal of damage. Ships have been lost but William McGowan and his crew on board the Mona are safe.  Geraldine at home with her children breathes a sigh of relief; but this is after all the hurricane season and in the months ahead Levuka will experience more ferocious storms.

The Mechanics Institute has settled well into its role as Levuka’s centre for the fine arts.  A grand piano features prominently in concerts given by the Choral Society or by the children of the Public School.  

An observer derides the perceived opinion of outsiders that white settlers in Fiji are ‘a bunch of pirates, bushrangers and card swindlers’ declaring that the majority of dwellings in the country’s capital ‘resound to the piano’s tinkle or echo of the fiddle’s squeal, that church organs or loud voiced concertinas make night sublime, that the hillside of a calm evening vibrates with music and the human voice smooths the raven down of darkness till it smiles.’

This unidentified resident ends his diatribe with the final observation… ‘’…we cannot be such a bad lot as the uninformed imaginations of many afar off would make us’.

(With this snippet I am reminded of my grandmother Maggie’s piano playing:  Despite never having a formal lesson she provided the background mood music for Grandfather’s  silent movie theatre in Melbourne, and my uncles and aunts remembered their parents playing duets together on borrowed pianos.)  

By now Geraldine and William are looking ahead to the birth of a new addition to their family.   With little Maggie the only daughter in the family of five it goes without question they are hoping for another little girl.

Levuka is recovering not only from the big blow of December past, but of another destructive hurricane that hit Levuka early in February destroying several houses and damaging the school.  Two boats had sunk at their moorings and countless other smaller craft were left floating bottom upwards in the harbour.  The much larger supply ship Gunga had been forced to keep up steam throughout the night while the storm lasted, with both anchors down.   It was reported the vessel slipped one chain cable, and left one anchor behind when she started for Sydney the morning after the storm.

In other news yet another disaster of a different sort was reported when a quarter cask of whiskey in Mr. R. Bentley’s hotel caught fire and exploded scattering the blazing liquor in all directions.  The roof was all on fire and the burning fluid that had streamed under the flooring boards threatened the destruction of the whole building.   The floor was broken in with a mass of stone and by prompt and vigorous measures the fire was completely extinguished but not before considerable damage had been done.


News of a more gentle and uplifting nature arrives from Australia when the trustees of the Melbourne Public Library donate a large consignment of ‘valuable statistical and other works together with a splendid collection of photographs and works of art by the best masters.’ These have been sent to the Administrator of the Fiji Government, John Bates Thurston for delivery to the Levuka Mechanics Institute.

Ever the survivor, politically speaking,  Administrator Thurston and his wife, who have built their private residence to the south of Levuka in Nasova, avoid serious injury when the veranda of their home gives way and both fall seven feet to the ground.  Thurston was uninjured but his wife received a fracture to her arm and a sprained wrist.

There has been great discussion concerning the Vei Bose or Native Parliament’s  19th Clause requesting that one of the native chiefs shall be appointed an honoured member of the Legislative Council and the Governor’s  promise to grant the request. Common opinion hints that such an appointment could well create great jealousy between various chiefs.

 Obvious choices are considered and local gossip centres on the two main contenders; Cakobau himself, Fiji’s former reigning King, and the prominent and powerful Tongan prince Maafu.



Then tragedy strikes.  In February Maafu dies, as one newspaper reports under somewhat peculiar circumstances. Ten days before a horse trod on his foot completely crushing his great toe and severing it from the foot.  The wound was neglected and became infected.  The Government sent a doctor and nurse on board the Coral Queen to his aid but before they arrived the chief’s condition grew rapidly worse.  Maafu died 2hours after the boat dropped anchor.

Enele Ma’afu …by F.H. Dufty

His death creates great mourning.  One headline in an Australian paper reads:

A REMARKABLE MAN – By the death of the native chief Maafu, the colony of Fiji has lost a most remarkable man.  Possessed of a gigantic body, unfaltering courage and unusual skill in diplomacy, he was fitted to be king of men, and a king of men he was from early manhood until he died….Maafu was probably the only native in Fiji whom Cakobau, a man full of courage and a master of diplomacy himself, really feared; and it is not at all unlikely, if annexation had not taken place, that long before this that stout-hearted old chief would have experienced a crushing defeat at the hands of his more skilful and more daring rival.

Maafu, who was a relative of King George of Tonga and a chief of high rank in that country, had been prominent in Fiji politics and administration for a considerable time. The same Australian newspaper report continues –

Maafu’s death has removed a great weight of care from the Tongan Government.  It was well known that on the death of the king of the Tongan Isles, which must soon take place, Maafu intended to enforce his claim to the succession.
At one stage he and the venerable and wily Cakobau had been wary opponents. Under the old Fijian Government with Cakobau as King, Maafu had been appointed Viceroy of the Eastern Province in a position, one newspaper wrote, where he was perhaps, more dreaded than trusted.  Since the date of cession he had held the office of Roko Tui Lau exercising more actual power and authority than any chief in Fiji.

The skipper of the Government boat sent to his aid, the Coral Queen, was not named, but in all probability it was William McGowan.


It is all too easy to attach your own nature and foibles to an ancestor, in this case perhaps mine to Geraldine.  Then I look again at the few photos we have of her and I reconsider. 

In this photo she appears so intimidating, almost fierce.  It’s hard to think of her rushing off to Fiji, to a love affair with a sailor, perhaps with her first born son in tow, a mere babe in arms.

I know her thoughts often turned to her childhood in the Sussex town of Worthing for the simple reason that she named her home in Levuka Worthing Cottage.  It is mentioned on the 1888 birth certificate for Minnie Madeline Foreman; a daughter from her second marriage.

But I still had no visual image of her actual day to day life.  Was she a stickler for home comforts or was she a woman capable of making do in tight circumstances…Did her years in Fiji include interludes off the beaten track?  I was about to sight a brief glimpse of her early days with William – or at least where they once lived.


21st century time travel into the past is at best erratic and at its worst utterly compulsive.  The urge to know what sort of people your forebears were compels you to constantly search through piles of old data.  And none ever pop up in historic order.  The source for this brief departure from 1881 surfaced only recently…it paints the attitudes and behaviour of the 1870’s rather well and points directly to the lifestyle and mindset of Geraldine and William back in 1874…

An Australian reporter has made a tour of the Fiji Islands and duly and almost snobbishly puts his visit to the island of Kadavu into print in the December 21st 1874 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald.
“On the following day…his article reads… I continued my explorations, rambling along the shores of Galoa Bay, the woodland scenery of which is of a dense and tropical character reaching down to the water…we found ourselves opposite to the mouths of two large caverns…a wild and romantic locality where the deep water overshadowed with trees came close to the base of a rough grey cliff…

…then renewing my visits to the neighbouring village of Wailevu in which I found much to interest me, the huts, the gardens and the inhabitants …in the “koro”, besides certain Europeans of a doubtful class hovering between questionable civilization and unpretentious semi-barbarism were, I was pleased to find, white residents of education and respectability who all seemed quite glad to welcome us.  Amongst these were Mr Payne, the resident Commissioner of the Fijian Government;  Mr P. Power the Postmaster of Kandavu; Mr Copeland the storekeeper;  and last not least, Mr and Mrs  Brodziak at whose comfortable residence our party met with a most cordially hospitable reception...enjoying an awfully jolly party in which conversation and games occupied nearly all the evening.” (Mr Brodziak was also a Justice of the Peace entrusted to complete the island’s forthcoming 1875 Census.)

While I found this part of the journalists essay an amusing insight into the precocious class conscious attitude of the day it was the mention of the name of one of Fiji’s best known families that caught my attention. 

The journalist and his party have taken a stroll around the island, admiring its “woodland scenery, masses of waving coconuts and the many odoriferous flowers”… and… have made our wayto Mr Whippy’s place on Galoa Bay.”

This very mention of Whippy in connection with Kadavu caused me to hold my breath; here at last I could touch base with not only an actual spot where my great Grandparents had once lived, but better still, in the same time frame. 

The dates co-ordinate…the year of the article’s publication is December 21st 1874; the deed of sale of certain lands on the Island of Galoa, Kadavu by Peter Whippy to William McGowan, is dated 12th September 1874; and the year of census-taking for Kadavu is June 11th 1875, ten months later, when Peter Whippy is not shown as resident, but Mr and Mrs William McGowan and their two sons are.

The legalities of the sale, in essence an application to His Excellency, the Governor of Fiji, shows the 2 acres in question commence…at the South West boundary point of the land owned by the said Peter Whippy thence running inland in a North Easterly direction from a peg at high water mark one hundred and forty yards to a peg marked thence in a North Westerly direction a distance of 70 yards thence in a South West direction 140 yards to a peg at high water mark from thence following the shore to the place of commencement.

Here at last I could appreciate and visualise Geraldine and William’s home on the very island many at the time hoped would replace Levuka as Fiji’s capital. 

Kadavu – looking towards the Great Astrolabe Reef.

As the article’s author continued…”by now we were thirsty and at Whippy’s place the boys, as servant men are always called in Fiji, came back with plenty of the pure and refreshing liquid brought from the rock spring in jug, bottle and taro leaf.  Whippy’s house, a pretty spot not far from the beach, is one wherein the tastes of the Fijian and the “Papalangi” are quaintly blended.  The homestead is surrounded with groves of the coconut trees and of bananas with numerous red leaved ornamental plants, introduced from the Hebrides, growing luxuriously near the house built in Fijian fashion. 
…we waited for our water supply at a rude stone pier at the bottom of the garden in which kumidas, kavais and yams had been planted by the respectable half caste family to whom the property belongs.  Galoa is chiefly inhabited by these half-castes a race half European, half Fijian speaking English almost as fluently as Fijian and in many ways assimilating to either line of ancestry.  We did not see any of the family except a fine boy who carried back the jug and with it our very cordial thanks”.

The Patriarch, David Whippy was an American sailor from a prominent Nantucket family, who finding himself adrift in the South Pacific made Fiji his home.  He founded a remarkable Fijian family dynasty; inter-marrying with various Fijian ladies and becoming a confidante and advisor to prominent Chiefs. In many ways David Whippy helped mould the Fiji of the future. 

A respected friend and advisor to many Chiefs including Cakobau, David Whippy founded a ship building company in Levuka and in 1846 was appointed honorary vice-consul on the instructions of the President of the United States through the secretary of state, Charles Wilkes.  The family name lives on in today’s Fiji.

Peter Whippy of the land transaction was one of his many sons.

But back to the socially conscious Australian journalist who by now is taking his leave of Kadavu… “on the following day we started on board the Mary Eliza en route for Levuka commanded by Captain Green, a civil and intelligent man of African descent, born as I understood in the West Indies, and his Mate – said to be part owner- a taciturn Scotchman, one other European and a crew of dark hued Fijians…”.

The ships Mate was not named, but being a native of Scotland, and both sailing the same waters,  I’ve no doubt he knew well that other Scots born sea dog, my great-grandfather William McGowan.

For me, it was exciting to see in print the very place my Geraldine and William had once lived, to sense their appreciation of isolation and natural beauty so combined…I wonder did Geraldine regret leaving this remote paradise for the much busier Levuka.

Did she and William think and hope their Pacific idyll would last forever?


There was a safety in numbers for European women living in the busy settlement of Levuka. February 1881 and an article in the Fiji Times complains that it is now nearly four months since the perpetration of the outrage on the Rewa River when Mrs Williams and her family were subjected to the most brutal treatment by a band of native ruffians; but as yet no one has been brought to justice for this dastardly act….it is suggested that some leading chief should be seized and held as a hostage for the delivery of murderers as Cakobau was seized by the French many years ago.

The article receives publicity in the Auckland, New Zealand press and goes further with yet another story….

The conduct of the native police in Fiji is greatly complained of.  One member f the force has been convicted of a murderous assault on Mr. T. Pickering and the ‘Times’ says:- these men are habitually overbearing and insolent and seem to think that by virtue of their position they are entitled to regard the entire European population as a body to be preyed upon and insulted at their will and pleasure.   They are permitted to enter the town in an undress that shocks every sense of delicacy and it is well known that they are the most audacious thieves in the community…

Early law abiding members of the Fijian Constabulary.

March 1881.   The Coral Queen makes port in Levuka from a voyage to the Rotuma Islands some 465 kilometres to the north of the northernmost island in the Fiji group, where it is reported, the natives are fast being initiated into the arts and mysteries of government. The Rotuman chiefs had only recently ceded their homeland to Britain and their island affairs were now administered from the Colonial Office in Fiji. 
In reporting the arrival in Levuka of the Coral Queen the Fiji Times states the cargo on the boat is Rotuma’s first tax contribution consisting 23 tons of copra consigned to A. Busch and Co.

The Coral Queen is under the command of Captain William McGowan.

This rough map of the South Pacific was included in the book by C.W. Whonsbon Aston entitled Polynesia Patchwork.  While the notated islands are somewhat geographically out of kilter they show the vast distances covered by the various small craft commanded by William McGowan and other like him, and their relative size and position in comparison to South America and Australia. Rotuma has not been marked, but it is situated somewhat near the Society Islands.


Despite the unrest with some of the Island’s police force, life in Levuka continues as it always has.  The port is busy with inter-island vessels constantly on the move.  Geraldine, some four months pregnant, is caught up with the domestic chores of caring for five young children. 

 Baby Andrew is approaching his second year, Maggie at four delights in a playmate she can lead into mischief. The three older boys ranging in age from six to ten years attend the local school.  For children especially, Levuka is a paradise with river and ocean to swim in, everything they need in walking distance and a ready supply of neighbourhood children to play with.

For Geraldine there is the supervision of her house staff, the hands on purchase of food items, the daily visits to the bake house, the butcher and the various stores.  I would be surprised if these visits were made without an accompanying member of the household to carry back the purchased goods.   Life in Fiji for a European woman was not necessarily onerous; it all depended on the prosperity of their men folks business affairs.  I doubt very much that William was earning big money, but then again I don’t think they were in dire straits. Moderately comfortable would be a better description. 

Co-incidently, from Suva on the main island of Viti Levu, comes news that matters are progressing ‘tolerably comfortable’ with the establishment there of the new capital, where buildings befitting a Colonial centre of power are being erected. 

In other news comes the advice of the current fare for travel from Levuka to Auckland… in saloon class £12 single, return £18: And in steerage, £8.  To extend the voyage on to Suva would cost an additional 30 shillings: Not at all cheap by any stretch of the imagination.


In the McGowan home there was always the joy of their father’s return from the sea.  His sons eagerly scanning the horizon searching for the familiar sails, three small boys arguing between themselves the boats expected time of arrival; a small sister and an even smaller brother trying to understand the keen sense of anticipation enveloping the household…

And Geraldine, accustomed by now to the constant separation, perhaps planning the evening meal to include his favourite choice of fare.  Children or native helpers would have alerted her to the Coral Queen's arrival…duly acknowledged with a smile and a soft sigh of relief. She knew the routine well.  His arrival in port, the ship tying up at the wharf, the unloading of cargo, the dispersal of crew, Williams short walk to the agent’s office to deposit the records of lading.

She knew to the minute how long this would take, and she could estimate almost to the second when he would walk through the door, sweep her and the children into his arms, the sailor home from the sea.  The family together again.

The McGowan saga should have continued like this for years to come. Geraldine and William should have ended their days with greying hair, surrounded by grand-children. 

But they didn’t.  Their life together, Geraldine and William, ended on that day, 6th April 1881.

Newspaper articles sourced from New Zealand’s Papers Past archive reports Captain McGowan’s death.  In a modest way you could say these short paragraphs were my great-grandfather’s epitaph. An acknowledgment of his service to country and family; for his extended family in the 21st Century these brief paragraphs solved a 140 year mystery.
William’s death as reported (some weeks after the event) first in the New Zealand Herald, and the following day in the Auckland Star…


Those two brief news items speak a volume:   A sick but determined man, a heart problem that could strike at any moment.  He might well have succumbed to the disease at sea, or while supervising the discharge of his cargo, even while taking his leave of the company agent: But on that particular day William McGowan had only one thought in mind, to reach his home, his wife and his children.

He died where he belonged, in the bosom of family.

At last we knew what really happened, William didn’t die at sea, he didn’t sail off into the far horizon and fail to return; he died at home, in his bed.  Admittedly, his death was sudden, thankfully there was no long lingering illness, but that was no consolation to his wife and children.

For the youngsters, William, always known as Wink, Alfred, Gordon, Maggie and Andrew there would be no more play time with their father; no more scanning the horizon for his safe return.

For Geraldine the end result may have been long dreaded, together the two mulling over the doctor’s earlier prognosis; like so many of us they may have pushed the thought of  imminent death to the back of their minds.

But assuming all this, and knowing now that a doctor had issued such a warning, I wonder why husband and wife failed to put their affairs in order.  I present this aspect with a researcher’s gift of hindsight:  It will however have a great bearing on the next and final chapter of Geraldine’s life in Fiji.

Deep in mourning, with her young family to care for and console Geraldine now faces a difficult and insecure future.  Four months pregnant with their sixth child, Geraldine suddenly finds she has no legal rights to her deceased husband’s estate.

As she battles Fiji’s legal system, tries to comfort her small children and at the same time prepare for the birth of her sixth child she soon finds her life has become a nightmare of gigantic proportions.


Next AND Final –1881 Pt 5 –HUSBAND NUMBER TWO.

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