Saturday, January 23, 2016



If the headlines of today were to shout 40,000 dead from measles, would those modern young mothers who denied their children immunity from any one of the countless diseases rampant today gasp in shock and reconsider their stance?

Yes? No? Maybe?

Think again, because it happened some 150 years ago, and could easily happen here now, right here in your own backyard at any moment.


Back in 1874 the Fiji islands ruled by a charismatic King Cakobau and a governing body made up of European settlers and expatriates from the colony of Australia were doing it hard. Cakobau’s government was an amateur, unprofessional governing body consisting of a few dedicated men and a host of greedy hangers on.

Money was leeching from coffers, some of the local chiefs were being led astray, and the ones that were honourable were finding it very hard indeed to stay on the straight and narrow. Blackbirding was rife and unfair taxation high.

With money owed left right and centre, but mainly to the Government of the United States demanding an outstanding loan be paid forthwith, an urgent entreaty was made to the British Government and to Queen Victoria to take over their country, paying their debts of course, and to provide the country of Fiji with stable government.

After much deliberation all this was agreed to.  The annexation ceremony held in Levuka, Fiji’s capital, was a splendid affair, the newly appointed Governor of Fiji, Sir Hercules Robinson installed in office, the now ex-King Cakobau and his many Chiefs in their splendid European style yachts returned to their various island villages and all was well.

Then after a year or so Sir Hercules, due to hand over his responsibilities to another Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon departs home to Sydney in Australia.   But not before extending an invitation to the Fijian King and his retinue to visit him back in Australia.

Which Cakobau does, accompanied by his sons, retainers and numerous servants, he boards the HMS Dido under the command of Captain W.C. Chapman.  They royal party have a marvellous time.  See the sights, enjoy lavish hospitality, and along the way two of his young sons Joe and Timothy unhappily come down with a ‘mild’ case of measles.

Nothing to worry about, the young men soon recover, though on the trip home to Fiji it is soon noticed that two of the servants on board the vessel show signs of the same illness.

King Cakobau meanwhile at one stage feels rather poorly himself but rallies as their ship makes dock at Levuka.

But no one notices that the usual yellow flag denoting a contagious disease aboard is not flying from the yardarm.

Fiji is a delightful country, Fijians are a handsome race, full of fun and they are very loyal.  When news very swiftly reaches the farthest points of this Island Kingdom that their King is arriving back in Levuka, there is a concerted rush by all the numerous minor Chiefs and their retinues to greet him as he returns and steps back on Fijian soil.

Boats arrive in their dozens and more from all the outlying islands that make up the country of Fiji… there are after all hundreds of chiefs resident in this far flung maritime country.


The greetings are performed in stages, first those in Levuka itself, and as is the custom the chiefs approach and fervently sniff their King’s hand and his face, so close one to the other that a breath is exchanged and the seeds of disaster are instantly sowed.

As these initial vassals disperse they in turn pass on the deadly virus to others, and so it continues until the wailing and the illness and the deaths multiply over and again.

Of course the British officials are beside themselves with guilt.  The King’s illness was so minor but this is no excuse; too late they realise the flag should have been raised.  Soon though, missionaries and plantation owners, government officials and village elders, are swamped with a disaster of far reaching and uncountable horror, the growing numbers of dead and dying.

White men on their plantations rush to help until they too fall victim.  Missionaries set up emergency hospitals but they are swamped by the enormity of it all.

An eyewitness account reports the harrowing details that come from every island and plantation alike.  The dead are being buried in their own houses, all of them built with palm fronds and the like and these duly collapse, the raised foundation upon which every Fijian village house is built quickly becomes the grave for entire families. Starvation, fever and dysentery abound; everywhere there is the stench of rotting bodies.

Whole families die leaving behind perhaps an orphan, a lone survivor in a village of death.
Cakobau survives
My great grandmother Geraldine McGowan at that time was living on the island of Kadavu, some miles away, an island used by the large steamers to land mail and passengers enroute from San Francisco to New Zealand and Australia. On realising the scope of the epidemic Government officials immediately send a medical man, Doctor Mayo to swiftly vaccinate the island population and hopefully avoid the illness overtaking the island.

Happily the local villagers take kindly to the injections; they have a fancy for making scars on their skin, both as remedy and ornament, so enjoy the whole process.  They arrive voluntarily to his hut, the doctor they call mat-ni-mate or carpenter of death.

My great grandmother Geraldine, her husband William and their two sons Alfred and William receive their vaccination, and they survive.  The island of Kadavu is not decimated by the measles.

Not so the estimated 40,000 who perished elsewhere…. and could have lived on had they been vaccinated before being infected.
I’m a grandmother myself now.  I made sure my children were vaccinated for each and every affliction such treatment was available.   As parents we have a duty of care to ensure our children do not fall ill to the rampages of diseases like the measles which killed off at least one third of Fiji’s entire population.

Imagine the babies and children who died in the Measles plague of 1875 and then gaze upon your own babies.  You should really have no choice.

Vaccinate do not prevaricate.


Robyn Mortimer