Tuesday, July 12, 2016



Geraldine and William McGowan – Levuka


Solving ancestral puzzles might not be everyone’s cup of tea but for me it’s both a challenge and a labour of love, especially when it involves previously unknown branches of the family tree.  Just finding these photos above, tiny images locked away in dusty colonial annals was an achievement beyond belief.  There have been others, most notably…
 ·      Searching through Sydney Town’s earliest convicts to find one scallywag of a man who while answering to so many different names eventually was proven without a doubt to be my Irish great, great-paternal grandfather Bryan Spalding, Spollon or Spaldon, take your pick; though even now it’s not known which particular surname, if any of them, he was actually born with.
·      Or the uncovering of my Peru, Indiana grandfather’s true identity, changed most suddenly and noticeably on his Fiji wedding day in 1900, that in turn triggered a long journey back in time through 12 generations of early America’s pioneering Quakers.
·      And discovering just how an English lass met and married a Scots ship’s captain in the notoriously unruly Fiji port of Levuka way back in the 1870’s producing five McGowan children and revealing a love story that lasted only ten years yet helped create one particular ongoing family tree that defied the antiquated social bars of long ago and proudly flourishes to this very day.
 The stories I write are true tales about mine, or my Reluctant Traveler’s kin from long ago.  It’s an exercise I thoroughly enjoy, uncovering the twists and turns, the loves and tragedies of people who lived hundreds of years ago in countries far from my home in Australia.  My reward presents when someone on reading the finished story recognizes a shared moment in time, or perhaps a name from the past and thinks…hey, this woman is writing about my family

A connection is made and the family tree has gained yet another cousin … the list is long and covers the America’s, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Denmark, France and Germany, Australia and New Zealand, and the islands of the Pacific. 

So many stories: Surely, I thought, I’ve reached the end of the line with no more surprises, family secrets, new found cousins to meet.
But then some nine years ago an email arrived from a Fijian lady living at the time in Sydney.  Her name was Felicia Tungi, nee McGowan… and suddenly I was back in business; researching my favourite ancestral tree, created long ago when Sussex born Geraldine Sweeny married a Scots sea captain William McGowan on the Fiji island of Kadavu.

The winsome young girl in the photo above is my grandmother Maggie Brown Parker,  the McGowan daughter who married her American beau in Levuka in 1900 only to find some years later that the Charles Brown-Parker she promised to love, honour and obey  was really Bertie Brown: The Charles and the Parker both invented.

           Mind you Grandma Maggie’s own parents, Geraldine and William McGowan harboured a few secrets of their own as well, but if Maggie was privy to them back then she certainly didn’t pass them on to me. And why should she, I was after all just one granddaughter among many.
One new ‘cousin’ who made contact was Jenny Gallagher who as a child had lived in Brisbane, Australia with her grandfather Alfred McGowan just a few miles from where I lived with my grandmother Maggie Brown Parker… and yet this aging brother and sister resided and ultimately died in close proximity to each other without once making contact.

We, Jenny and me, were absolutely, to use a word my darling Gran used often, flabbergasted!
By then, 2007, I had received the surprising and bubbling with excitement letter from cousin Felicia, had my hopes of a reunion lifted to enormous heights only to have them dashed as older members of her family in Fiji told Felicia a great rift had been caused many, many years earlier and a vow made that a family split would never be healed.

I was enormously disappointed but respected Felicia’s situation: And so years passed without any further contact between us, these distant kin in Fiji and me.  In the meantime though, Jenny Gallagher brought me up to date on her grandfather Alfred James McGowan… who incidentally, as we soon realised, was also Felicia’s grandfather. 
Oh what a tangled web our ancestors wove!

Maggie Maud born in Levuka, Fiji in 1877 to Scottish sea captain, William McGowan and his Sussex born wife Geraldine Sweeny was sandwiched in between four brothers, Alfred James, William Ernest, Gordon Goodenough and Andrew Quinton.  Constance Annie tragically died at birth in the months following her father’s death.

Grandmother Maggie with her younger brother Andrew McGowan, visiting Fiji in 1946 after WW2.

For Aussie cousin Jenny Gallagher her story began in Australia with her grandfather, Alfred James McGowan, Maggie’s brother and the eldest of the four original McGowan sons…

Jenny’s grandparents Alfred James and 2nd wife Ellen Bemi.

For Felicia Tungi’s McGowan family in Fiji that Jenny and I so longed to meet  their story began as well with Maggie’s brother,  Alfred James McGowan and his first wife Mafile’o Fohe, and more importantly with their son Alfred Felix who went on to marry three successive wives establishing a close knit family of 12 children.

Alfred James McGowan’s eldest son Alfred Felix, shown here with one of his son’s, Josaiah.


Felicia’s letter to me back in 2007 was bitter sweet.  We were both so excited to discover each other.  Her joy was infectious, I was sad my Levuka born grandmother was no longer with me to share this unbelievable news.  As we exchanged letters I could hardly wait to make the next move, undoubtedly an introduction to all these new relations. But sadly 2007 was not to be a year of discovery and reunion.

Felicia Tungi.

Elsewhere though, a lot was to happen in the intervening nine years before another attempt at conciliation was made. Other titbits concerning Geraldine’s 12 surviving siblings surfaced resulting in new stories and new family members, but sadly not from Fiji.  (Originally 16 children had been born to Geraldine Sweeny's parents.)

Kim Fleming in London and his father Peter, offspring of youngest Sweeny sister Constance Olivia Sweeny Fleming contacted me with surprising news of the Sussex Sweeny’s and their journeys round the world… followed some years later by the family of Constance’s long lost orphaned daughter in Canada.    Madeline May’s descendents wrote from Cornwall.  News of Ethelbert Sweeny, one of Geraldine’s brothers, helped find his present day family in Melbourne where it turned out this sailor brother had long ago changed his surname to Kirkland.  

Kim Sweeny also in Melbourne produced old letters from his grandfather, Ernest Sweeny, a sailor like Ethelbert but one who had at times made a precarious living on the stage mimicking bird calls.  In Australia two more  Sweeny offspring, Vivian Stone and Sandra Gally recognized their grand- parents in the stories I told and also made contact.

 Not all family history is uncovered in official records and dusty files.  Most times an unknown force seems to appear from nowhere to literally knock together stubborn heads.  Somehow I think that’s what occurred when Sharon McGowan entered the picture.

The extended present day Sweeny-McGowan family was rapidly expanding as fellow descendents read the family history stories on my website and made contact. All this pushed me to delve deeper into the Levuka days of my grandmother’s childhood.   A request for information on William McGowan was made to the University of the South Pacific in Suva.  The query struck a nerve, the University Vice Chancellor’s P.A. was contacted.  Her name was Sharon McGowan, and she was married to Michael McGowan who in turn was the brother of Felicia Tungi.

By such small coincidence miracles are shaped.


Sharon McGowan with her daughter Dinzel

The time had come for Sharon to stir that ancestry pot and she did.  You can probably understand my emotions as our emails flashed back and forth. I was alternatively both anxious and thrilled.  This new development was too precious to conduct over the internet.  It would need a face to face meeting.  They in Fiji were many and I was but one; the journey overseas would naturally be mine.

          In no time at all I booked a flight on Fiji Airways, and the night before I was due to leave contacted Jenny Gallagher.  After all this was her family too. Jenny re-arranged her schedule to join me in Suva three days later. At last we would put faces to our names.

The gods of chance and coincidence must have been working overtime when I boarded that flight to Fiji.

As the plane taxied along Brisbane’s runway before take off a hostess welcomed passengers aboard and read out the names of the crew… the senior steward on that day was Bernard McGowan.  Surely not!  But yes, I asked him was his Grandfather Alfred James McGowan and he answered with a puzzled yes, and with a silly grin I could only reply, ‘We’re cousins.’

Much later after the plane had landed and we had time to chat, he told me the sad news that Felicia, his sister, had died some years before.  I had with me the letter Felicia had first sent and I gave it to Bernard to read:  A sobering moment of sadness and regret amid the euphoria of first meeting.

Unbelievably on day one of my quest for family I had already clocked up a new cousin!
Jenny arrived in Suva three days later and I recounted the advances so far taken.  I have to admit though that our itinerary had taken on the appearance of a snakes and ladder board game…advance and tumble.  And now here we were Jenny Gallagher and I, long lost cousins together in Fiji about to meet the many grandsons of Alfred James McGowan; we were in our seventh heaven.
Sharon was determined this reunion would go smoothly.  There were many family members to organise.  A first established meeting day failed to eventuate.  I felt a plunging pang of disappointment.  Was this visit as Felicia had sorrowfully told me, unwanted?  Had family yet again failed to agree? 

The following week passed quickly.  I was kept busy searching through archive records. Jenny paid another visit to the University to meet with Sharon. Our fingers were crossed.
We two had booked bus and boat connection from Suva to the World Heritage Town, Levuka, a journey of some hours.  We were to spend three days in Fiji’s old capital walking the streets our grandparents had so long ago called home, sailing the waters our great grandfather William had traversed: Happily immersing ourselves in the past, two advanced age grand-daughters soaking up the heady atmosphere of belonging.
And then Sharon made contact again.   This next Sunday, a family lunch in the McGowan compound on the outskirts of Suva.  Our excitement level rose yet again.  We would need to cut short our visit to the old capital, gut wrenching though this was, but the reunion was after all the main purpose of our visit.

Sunday wasn’t the best day to journey from Levuka to Suva.  On that one day of the week the bus departed the old town at 4am; we would be pulling into the Suva depot four hours later.  With us we carried our luggage.  I planned to stay on in Suva to tidy up some archive queries,  but Jenny would be taking another bus late that afternoon for Nadi where I would later join her for our last night together.
We freshened up as best we could courtesy of Suva’s Holiday Inn amenities and at a reasonable hour mid morning let Sharon and her husband Michael know where we were.   They arrived to collect us within minutes.

Jenny had a clutch of family photos, some of them featuring the grandfather these new cousins had never known.  At this stage we imagined we would be meeting only Michael and Bernard, we had no idea a veritable Rugby League seven a side team was waiting to meet and greet.
As we soon discovered we were about to meet the first six of twelve new cousins together with their families, all of them together with Jenny the grandchildren of Alfred James McGowan.   Imagine the huge grins as the realisation set in that my Maggie’s brother and Jenny Gallagher’s own grandfather,  Alfred James McGowan, had two sets of grandchildren; his many grand kids from Alfred Felix,  the Australian ones the offspring of the four boys below, the progeny of his second marriage to Ellen Bemi. 

That’s Jenny’s Dad, Allan far right.

Alfred James’ Australian family.



I for one had been preparing myself for an awkward meeting.  My heart may have been beating with excitement but deep down I was dreading disappointment – on both sides.

That didn’t happen. As Jenny and I stepped out of Michael’s car and onto the grass verge of the family property, we were both enveloped in hugs and warm greetings.  Then I recognized the grinning face of Bernard, the brother I had already met thousands of metres up in the sky and before long we were all at ease, exchanging banter and laughs.

Jenny brought out her family snaps and we got down to the business of family likeness.  The afternoon passed all too quickly, but our mission had been accomplished.  The McGowan family circle was at last complete.

Six McGowan brothers, Stanley, Michael, Bernard, Patrick, James and Anthony.

Jenny with Michael, his wife Sharon, and brother, Stanley.

As family history was discussed and shared Jenny and I learned more about Alfred James McGowan.  His first marriage to the beautiful high born Tongan lady, Mafile’o Fohe resulting in the birth of a son Alfred Felix McGowan, the father of the six men we were with now, and two more brothers we would meet in Nadi before boarding our flight home.  Another sister Lily and yet another brother Alfred Gordon lived in Sydney.

As the afternoon passed with stories exchanged and a great deal of laughter my eyes were constantly drawn to the portrait of Mafile’o Fohe hanging in pride of place on the wall.  The matriarch of this large branch of the McGowan family, a beautiful woman, her features reflected in the great grand-daughters sitting in front of me on the woven mat carpets. How I wished my daughter Jennifer Bluefields was here with me, sitting with these strikingly beautiful young women, hanging onto every word these new Australian members of the family were exchanging with their fathers.

I told the story of Geraldine and the dilemma she faced when her husband, the ship’s captain William McGowan died a bare ten years into their marriage.  Their eyes wide as I continued with her decision to send her 5 year old daughter, my grandmother Maggie away, alone,  to her Sweeny sisters in Australia… and her joy on returning home to Levuka six years later. 


The new generation - Talei, Amber, Joan, Tanya and Anthony.

In the rustic setting of Veisari, Benjamin McGowan with the farm’s new arrival.

McGowan wives with Jenny and me.



In Nadi the night before we boarded our flights home to Australia this warm welcome to family was repeated when we met two more McGowan brothers,  Josiah and Alfred Benjamin with their wives Michelle and Rita:  Again the overwhelming welcome and the exchange of stories and family history.   

Though it had been hard to find similar family features between my diminutive Brown Parker uncles and the towering stature of these tall handsome Fijian men, in Alfred Benjamin, slightly shorter in height, I found a remarkable resemblance to my Maggie’s youngest son, Bert Brown Parker; but perhaps I was seeing again my Uncle’s signature welcome, the eager smile with eyes a twinkle.

 Alfred Benjamin and Josiah with me and Jenny in between.

Josiah’s wife Michelle, and their three daughters; Sian, Isabella and Amy.

The reunion with the McGowans at Veisari and later in Nadi far surpassed both my and Jenny’s expectations.  Our new cousins took us both into the hearts of their family and gave us not only their kinship but as well the more important gift of friendship.  

Amid the laughter, the friendly good hearted jokes and interplay I quietly reflected on our shared past:  How far we had come as a family.  Perhaps if our great grandfather William had lived to as great an age as his sons and grandsons the long ago family schism may never have occurred.

The few photographs on record show McGowan father and son shared many facial features, indeed remove the difference in age and they could almost have been twins… and in the case of both, as they approached their old age and the end of their long lives, the son, Alfred Felix in Fiji the father Alfred James in Queensland… each were spoken of and remembered with reverence and love.

Amid laughter and disbelief that it had taken so long for us all to mingle and pay homage to our shared heritage, to the ancestors who came before us, I took a moment to breathe a silent thank you to Felicia.

Felicia, the sister so spoiled by her brothers and missed by them all, how pleased she would have been to share these amazing moments.

Bula Vinaka – Until we meet again… Loloma.

Robyn Mortimer 2016-07-12