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.


THE Church's story in Levuka begins with the tale of an Irishman from County Wexford. There is no reason, as it is of a good Irishman, that we should not start at the end and pay a pilgrim's visit to his grave, a grave full of romance, the last resting place of William E. Floyd, "the Apostle of the Anglican Communion to the Western Pacific" and pioneer priest to the scattered English people of Polynesia. Miss Constance Gordon-Cumming describes the place in another connection: "At rest . . . under the shadow of a great boulder of red rock, on a headland overlooking the sea, with palms and wild citron trees and tall reedy grass all round--a most lovely spot, especially at sunrise, when the sun comes up out of the sea, or in the moonlight." A great place to lie, on a Pacific hillslope above the sea.

In the town of Levuka, on the shores of a pretty little bay, stands his great memorial, the Church of the Holy Redeemer, one of the most beautiful consecrated buildings in the South Seas in its setting of green lawns, hibiscus, frangipani and waving palms, with the everlasting green of the steep volcanic hills as a background and a low rock wall in front, reminiscent of the stone fences of old Ireland, his birthplace.

[19] William Floyd was born in County Wexford, was educated at Beaufield Collegiate School, Enniscorthy, and went to Australia, where his people settled at Emerald Hill. He was ordained by Bishop Perry, of Melbourne, and, after a successful ministry in the goldfields, left for the romantic kingdom of Cakabau, overlord of Fiji, in 1868. He first settled as a cotton-grower at Dreketi River until on November 15, 1870, he landed in the old capital, Levuka, and began his great life's work. Here were gathered together a strange body of white men, barristers and solicitors, doctors and merchants, sailors and adventurers, with, of course, the ubiquitous publican; most of them turbulent spirits banded together for mutual protection in the land whose royal head was the once bloodthirsty cannibal, now trying an extraordinary experiment in government under the guidance of a retired naval officer. This was the opportunity for the Church of England to help her own. It is a commentary on his work that, whenever the old hands discuss these days in relation to things moral or social, two names seem always to be linked together in admiration for their work among the Europeans--Père Breheret of the Marists and William Floyd.

Difficulties of a twofold character immediately arose. The Wesleyan missionaries had been at work among the Fijians with conspicuous success since 1835. With amazing courage and determination they had stormed the portals of cannibal chiefs and demanded an [19/20] entrance for Christ the King. They had had their martyrs: so, too, had the Marists given Père Pierre Chanel in blessed martyrdom. They had translated portions of the Bible and part of the Book of Common Prayer as well, and felt that they had richly earned the privilege of alone preaching the evangelical truths for which they stood. They had previously refused the request made for the holding of some form of European service "on the ground that their services were for the Fijians; that the whites came to Fiji on their own responsibility, and must therefore abide the consequence." Floyd's reports to the S.P.G. speak of this "determined opposition" to his work and plans, but he carried his point and later relations were of "a thoroughly friendly character." Later an understanding was arrived at and an agreement signed by which the Church undertook not to enter into the field among the Fijians. Naturally some Fijians in later years might think differently, but any leakage to the Anglican Church would not be encouraged unduly. This has proved a fairly useful arrangement and has been honourably kept by our communion, so that our ranks have been augmented only by a few chiefs of high standing, whose contact with the outer world has given them a new outlook.

His second difficulty arose with regard to his relationship to the de facto Government of the day. His refusal to be present officially on the dais with King Cakabau at his proclamation brought him into conflict [20/21] with the peculiarly unsatisfactory authority. On the other hand, the establishment of a "Ku Klux Klan" by the white settlers, intended to protect their rights (but really to oppose any form of government that curtailed their unbridled licence)--an organisation of which some thrilling tales are told--failed to secure his support. He was threatened with the charge of high treason by the then Prime Minister because he refused to omit the name of Queen Victoria and place that of King Cakabau in the State Prayers. "Few know what I had to suffer in these days," he says.

"So literally without scrip or purse, without the support of any leader's advice, he had to establish the Church in a country whose native population was already Christianised and whose white settlers were struggling to maintain the footing they had with great difficulty won. . . . In later days he loved to tell how Sunday by Sunday he prayed for Victoria in the land of Cakabau. Every pressure that could be put on him was in vain, and when once the English flag flew in Fiji the Church of England parson of Levuka alone had to make no change in his customs."* [* From the panegyric at the Memorial Service.]

To these early days there are many references in contemporary works. Miss Gordon-Cumming, who was with the first Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon (afterwards Lord Stanmore), says in her letters: "At present our parson, Mr. Floyd, is in New Zealand (1876), so all the Governor's staff take it in turns to [21/22] officiate, two in the morning and two in the evening. They appear in surplices and take their part well. Last Sunday morning Mr. Le Hunte read prayers and Captain Havelock* [* Afterwards Sir George Le Hunte and Sir Henry Havelock.] one of Robertson's sermons. Yesterday morning Captain Havelock read prayers and Mr. Maudslay preached a Kingsley. In the evening Mr. Eyre read and Mr. Le Hunte preached; but I forget his subject, for such a thunderstorm of rain came down on the zinc roof that even his voice was drowned. Mr. Floyd has one of Bishop Patteson's native clergy to assist him in a mission to the foreign labour. But the foreign labour does seem to be a hopeless field. They are brought here from a multitude of isles, all talking different languages, and only remain three years in the group, so that the very small numbers that can be reached, even of those who find situations in Levuka, can scarcely be expected to learn much before they have to be sent back to their own isles as 'time expired labour.' Still the little church does fill in the afternoons with a strange motley congregation, and doubtless some seeds are carried back to the distant isles, which may bear fruit in due season."

The "foreign labour" referred to was from the Solomon Islands. When the system was altered many of them remained rather than be clubbed on their home beaches when they returned. The work that Mr. Floyd so courageously tackled received an impetus [22/23] when Bishop John Selwyn paid a visit in 1880 and inspired the Chief justice, who, with a party of young men, conducted classes for the Solomons.

W. E. Floyd was a church builder as well. The first church was a small wooden one and was destroyed by a severe hurricane in 1866. His next attempt was the Church of the Epiphany, built below his seaside home at Onivero. His imperialistic sentiment was thrilled when the first service of thanksgiving in the whole world for the jubilee of Queen Victoria was held at Levuka, and he was inspired to begin his last and lasting effort, the Church of the Holy Redeemer, as a memorial of the jubilee. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Willis, of Honolulu, on Sunday, August 13, 1899, and with great hopes Floyd journeyed to England, New Zealand and Australia for the purpose of raising funds for this object, and also to see what the Church was prepared to do for the new field, among the Indian settlers, which was coming into being.

One can visualise the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of this man, for it would seem he viewed it not merely as the parish church of the old capital, but as the mother church of the diocese that had not as yet been created. It is reasonable to suppose that the old pioneer, after the visit of Bishop Willis, felt that the reward of his arduous labours in the heat and burden of the day would be his promotion to episcopal dignity.

[24] His great day was on Sunday, June 19, 1904, when with quiet and dignified ceremonial his church was consecrated to the Holy Redeemer by Bishop Willis, now of Tonga, who said, inter alia, "The consecration of this first stone church for the use of the Anglican communion, not only in the Colony of Fiji, but in the Western Pacific, is an event that should be regarded with interest and sympathy by the whole Anglican communion. . . . You have not erected a structure that the first hurricane might sweep away, but one that bears witness that the Anglican Church has at length a firm foundation in the Western Pacific."

This emblem of the "firm foundation" has a beauty all its own. It is a calamity that, owing to lack of funds, another huge parish has had to be added to it; the whole under the supervision of one priest. It would be hateful to see it become a ruined mass of tumbled masonry in a tropical wilderness: what an unworthy end to a great pioneer's dream!

The Diocese was formed, but the clock could not be put back. The newly arrived bishop created the archdeaconry of Fiji, and Floyd became the first archdeacon. He passed to his rest on October 9, 1909, and his body was carried to the headland over the sea, with its palms and wild citron, facing the rising sun and with the moon in its turn making a long silvery trail from the horizon to his feet--"a most lovely spot."

Project Canterbury