Project Canterbury

Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia

By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937.

Chapter I. LEVUKA

"God gave all men all earth to love,
  But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
  Beloved over all. . . .

"So one shall Baltic pines content,
  As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove's droned lament
  Before Levuka's trade."

KIPLING: Sussex, in "The Five Nations."

AND someone remarks, "Where's Levuka?"

Levuka is one of the tragedies of the South Seas--a romantic old-world town falling into decay, getting cast aside like some soiled garment.

To see her beauties you should approach her in the early morning when the sun rises behind your vessel. Slowly you will glide through the entrance in the multicoloured coral barrier reef, the natural breakwater. You will hardly notice the rich blue waters within the reef, for you will be enchanted by the verdant green hills which rise almost abruptly from the shore, with red-roofed houses peeping through the foliage on their steep slopes. Landing, you will not be able to resist the fresh-water pools amid sylvan surroundings of tangled tropical jungle. As you turn back you will see [9/10] beyond the reef the islands of the Lomaiviti Group, for Levuka is the centre of them, and "Lomaiviti" means "the heart of Fiji." Wakaya is opposite you; to your left, eighteen miles away, is Makogai, the famous leper island, and away out on your right, like delicate blue jewels, are Ngau, Mbatiki and Nairai--the last the treasure island.

Where is Levuka? The answer may be given by recalling one Armistice night. Levuka, now bathed in tropical moonlight, had had its commemoration many hours earlier, and we foregathered on a hillside veranda awaiting a message from the Empire's heart. Clearly, ever so clearly, came over the wireless the march of troops and the music of Guards' bands, and then, to command the Silence, Big Ben's "One, two, three . . . eleven," in the bright sunshine of an English morning. As if in answer to a far-flung challenge, the old French clock, that strikes the hours twice over always in the quaint Marist church below, gave tongue, "One, two, three . . . eleven"; a pause, and another lusty eleven in Levuka's tropical night. "Just halfway round the world," it seemed to say, for this is the Empire's most easterly township.

Originally the "old capital" of Fiji, she saw stirring times. No less than twenty-six hotels and licensed houses once gave zest to a by no means dull existence. As capital she welcomed the late King George and his brother on the Bacchante, and has always borne that old-world atmosphere of imperialistic pride. The [10/11] removal of the capital to Suva, the war and the depression, together with hurricanes, just when they could be most devastating to people's fortunes, have all helped to spoil the historic old spot. When we arrived in Levuka the white sails of many cutters were daily to be espied bringing in copra to be shipped abroad; ere we left day after day would pass without the sight of one.

All the necessary aids to man's physical and social enjoyment are there--a fine bowling green, an ideal Town Hall approached by a rustic concrete bridge over a rippling brook flanked by pretty rustling palms--the spirit of the South Seas; a men's club--the Ovalau Club--with a limited membership, is next door, and a picturesque playing oval adjoins, where one of the most interesting of native football tournaments is annually contested. There are churches a-plenty for the polyglot population of Europeans, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans, Chinese, Japanese, Solomon Islanders, Indians, New Hebrideans, and others. The Methodists hold the hilltop and are guardians of the two valuable leading lights that are necessary in these more temperate days. (It is said that in the old days all that was necessary to locate the passage through the reef was to pick up the long trail of square Holland gin bottles as they floated out to sea--no further pilot was needed!) The Marist Fathers have their wooden church with the concrete tower, that houses the town clock, and the Sisters do good work with their convent and school near by. The Church of the Holy Redeemer is the pride of the Anglicans. Even [11/12] the Freemasons are proud of the temple which is theirs, and especially of the unique place they hold in Scottish Freemasonry in the Pacific.

Rupert Brooke used to say that "Fiji moonlight was like nothing on earth--a foretaste of Heaven." On the pleasantly warm tropic nights we would "brush the cobwebs away" with a motor-car run along the one beach road, with the clear moonlight making the twisted palm tree trunks with their feathery plumes a vision of fairyland. The smell of the jungle, the lap of the sea on the shore reef and the songs of the natives all add their quota. Five miles one way the road ends at the Marist Mission at Cawaci. Eleven miles, the last five not so comfortable, is the limit the other way. The town portion is lined with shops, Chinese, Indian or Japanese, as well as the two main island firms.

In accordance with the spirit of the islands, we kept open house at the Vicarage, which forms one side of a quadrangle. The west side has cliffs and wild green bush hidden to some extent by the big mango trees and the sweet-scented frangipani. On the third stands the church, at any angle and at any time a thing of beauty; while the eastern side has a long low black rock wall, the beach road and the sea. The quadrangle's centre is green lawns, flower beds and a playing fountain.

* * * * *

One page of my diary mentions "Maika started work." Maika was a Solomon, fifty if a day, always [12/13] on work-days as dirty as could be, while on Sundays he was most certainly the Beau Brummell of his people, a real gay lad with the dusky belles, whom he greeted with a twinkle in his eye worthy of a much younger cavalier. He was lame in one hip, used a stick and had been badly spoiled by fourteen years' service under too easy conditions. The statement "started work" is not quite the correct phrase. He was usually about to do so. Slow? Well, in a level stretch the, odds would probably be a margin in the tortoise's favour. "Oh," gasped a lady visitor having tea on the Vicarage veranda, "that umbrella moved." The umbrella certainly gave the impression that it was out on the lawn to dry, but soon it heaved up again and two sets of black toes were to be seen under it. Maika was busy pulling up seed grass in the hot sun. He had graduated "backwards" from cookboy to the garden. His English was wonderful at times. My attempt to describe a particular cat that was to be summarily expelled should it be seen stalking the chickens produced "I know, I know. The little green one." He searched for scissors to cut the magpie's "handle," and presented his bulletin on the safety of the duck and ducklings: "He all right; his father sit on him." I sacked the old reprobate at least twice, but couldn't resist him.

Our cook was a Madrassi--called "George" for short--whose Indian curries have so far been unsurpassed. He was a Hindu, and I attribute his long [13/14] stay with us not to our personal charms, but rather to our unique pet--an Australian magpie--which did such uncanny things that no doubts existed in George's mind that some understanding spirit had migrated to "Mac." The bird was his pride and joy. I just couldn't give him the usual chit when we parted--"As a cook he takes a lot of beating." I only discharged him twice. The first time I was ever so glad--he had become so suddenly efficient, willing and well-nigh obsequious--when I found at the end of the month that he had left his umbrella hanging behind the kitchen door. His voice with my early morning tea was very welcome.

My parish was the island, about twenty-four miles round, on which Levuka stands, a portion of Viti Levu behind it, the Lomaiviti Group, portions of Vanua Levu and, beyond the 180th meridian East longitude, the Exploring Isles (Lau Archipelago). My sphere: first of all to the isolated or scattered Europeans, officials, planters and traders; then to the Solomon Islanders, a remnant from the old recruited labour days.

Some of our people were of mixed blood. The problem of these good folk is a big one. Levuka is kinder to them than any place I know and some of them are among its best citizens. It is reasonable that they should be given opportunities to rise above their handicap. They are the country's responsibility, but governments do not seem to legislate for them. A question that, no doubt, arose in the more troublous [14/15] days of old Fiji was whether it were not better for a man to be joined in wedlock with a clean, happy Fijian woman of good morals--for the Fijian standards were very high--than to make an alliance with some of the damsels of uncertain character to whom the free and easy life gave opportunity, when it was unwise for ordinary white women to be brought over.

"You'll have a terribly hard job here," I was told. "There are so many people of mixed blood and they are so unstable." I was constrained to retort that some of the Europeans were not particularly stable in their attention to things of the spirit. It didn't appear so hard after all. A sense of humour, a desire to understand, an appreciation of the beautiful and a love of the romantic are essential in Fiji; they must be cultivated.

People are led to believe by the novelists of to-day that the Pacific islands are inhabited by beachcombers, dissolute sons of noble families who are remittance men, or silent men who have been disappointed in love and seek consolation in solitude and trade gin. Some free-lance journalists appear quite ready to malign the South Seas in their endeavour to tell a tale to make a living.

Fiji is a British Crown Colony, and its white inhabitants conform for the most part to decently high standards. The truth that England is becoming more temperate by disposition rather than by legislation of a drastic nature is exemplified here. Although I have [15/16] been a member of most men's organisations in Fiji, I have seldom seen any cases of excessive drinking.

The Civil Service consists on the whole of a group of really genuine good fellows. It is no easy matter for a young man to arrive in a country so far from his home, into an atmosphere so different from what he has been accustomed to, and settle down to new conditions.

Planters and traders in isolated islands are models of hospitality and cheeriness. I cannot remember in my many travels among them any unpleasant interlude. To-day they constitute a brave lot, fighting with their backs to the wall against a cruel fate that allows huge European combines to make excessive profits while they, the primary producers, are getting further and further involved--the result of this age of economic incongruities. Down, down, down the copra market has fallen, and with it many beautiful tropic homes are going into dilapidation, and their one-time owners are becoming worried spectres of their old cheery selves.

* * * * *

Strange it is that wherever one goes there is always the desire to conform to the familiar customs of the English Christmas. To aim at these among people who are essentially out-of-door people in a tropical climate gave a real problem. We solved it in our own fashion with a reasonable measure of success. After the first evensong of Christmas, on Christmas Eve, there was practically open house to the young folk, who played games with great vim on the moonlit lawns [16/17] and let off crackers. Someone would come along to say, "Could we bring our band to your place?" and soon the sounds of stringed instruments--ukelele, banjo or steel guitar--in real "Hawaiian nights" style would rise and the youngsters would sing the local songs or dance. Later they would be piled into cars for a "breath of fresh air" along the beach road. At 11.30 the Solomon Islanders would have arrived, and the folk would be there in church singing sweet carols in the way island people, white or brown, can sing them. At the stroke of midnight the Eucharist began, sung simply and congregationally. This was a unique service, for we, with others who are on zone time with us, were privileged of all the peoples of the world to start in this great Service of Thanksgiving a girdle of worship of the Christ Child that would be flung around the world in the next twenty-four hours; actually this Midnight Eucharist was the first in the Anglican Communion for the whole world.

After the service, in the "wee sma' 'oors," the adult Europeans would pay their visits to the Vicarage and have their few minutes' social enjoyment. In early morning the sick are communicated and the Solomons gather for their own service in Fijian and sing their own hymns of the Nativity. Dear, dusky old Solomon Islanders--called such by Mendana when his sixteenth-century expedition discovered their islands, because he thought that he had hit upon the source of King Solomon's wealth--singing now the songs of Zion.

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