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.


BESIDES the usual complement of local cutters and trading vessels, at intervals Levuka had visits from cruising yachts and ocean tramps. It is an index to the present state of the Pacific that gradually certain British lines, which have been in the trade in the Pacific for years, were withdrawing their vessels. Again, it seemed to be most unfortunate that the contract arrangements to lift copra appeared to go rather to foreign shipping companies than to British.

The withdrawal of shipping in some cases was the cause of considerable inconvenience to some parts of the Pacific. On one outstanding occasion the steamer due to leave Sydney for Tonga was withdrawn at the last moment, with the result that Tonga would have been left without sufficient stores. Fortunately the Beulah, carrying oil, was unloading at Levuka, and stores, as far as could be arranged locally, were duly shipped by her to Nukualofa, the capital of that island kingdom.

The Beulah is a vessel about which a thrilling story could be told. Apparently she was originally a well-built sailing vessel of fair tonnage. She is now--if she is still afloat--a rather untidy looking oil tramp equipped with engines and flying, I think, the [25/26] Panamanian flag. The harbour master had a deep and lasting affection for her, so much so that he would row out miles to fetch her in and seemed to enjoy spending hours taking her out. On one occasion, a Saturday afternoon, she arrived off the Vicarage, after unloading well off the track, to make a graceful exit. Suddenly came a great rattling of winches and dropping of anchors and her bows once more pointed for the dash through the gap in the reef. More noise and clouds of steam and away she charged--a Quixote at the helm tilting at the Passage, and at last she was outside and away. Not long afterwards came the news that she was a total wreck at Washington Island, but months later she appeared again off the entrance awaiting a pilot. This time she had travelled over a big slice of the Pacific with but one of her twin engines in operation. The harbour master's boat rowed out, but the good ship had stopped her engine and was as quickly drifting away. She appeared to be about seven miles away when the pilot went aboard and began his classic struggle for port. This sort of thing caused a little diversion in a place where news was often scarce.

Many Swedish boats with limited passenger accommodation came in from time to time, and a good percentage of American. The crews have always plenty of entertainment ashore.

Among British tramp vessels--which, naturally, were most welcome--the Ben Holm caused not a little [26/27] excitement. She had hardly started her loading when a quite healthy fire broke out in her bunkers. It was fortunate that she lay at Levuka, which has a well-built concrete pier, for she had to manhandle about 600 tons of coal out onto the wharf; it would have had to be jettisoned for safety otherwise; and when the fire was located and quenched all had to be returned and the loading resumed. Some weeks after she left us we had news that as she was nearing home, and off the Spanish coast, a fresh fire broke out, and with the co-operation of the cruiser Leander she had to be beached at Barcelona. She was back again in Levuka later.

I visited most of these boats when in Levuka and many of the men used to drop along to church if the spirit moved them. We met socially as well.

* * * * *

Levuka had its picture palace, which had not reached the stage of talkies when we arrived. At one period, before censorship was imposed more strictly, it was quite possible to become, to say the least, embarrassed. We were interested, too, in the Indian pictures that were released from time to time there, with all Indians in the cast and the settings "all Indian." The first, called "Shiraz," was the well-told romance of the building of the Taj Mahal. On this occasion one of the local girls, whose repertory was limited to jazz, played the piano--with one eye and [27/28] all her mind on the picture. The scene showing the sad death of the Emperor's favourite wife with all its pathos was given "atmosphere" by the playing of "I'm dancing with tears in my eyes." It was a great day when the talkies arrived, and some folk paid their modest three shillings to hear a most excruciating caterwauling. Later another attempt was made with quite good equipment, save that it was necessary to wait for the change between the reels, while a very old-fashioned pensioned-off gramophone gushed forth amplified canned music, usually entirely inappropriate.

Indians abounded in Levuka, as in most parts of Fiji. They are rather picturesque in their way. We christened one couple "the Toilers," for they passed along the road to the town regularly every day at such a time as to suggest that they had accustomed themselves to a late breakfast. One had, as a rule, a rather unclean black dhoti (a waist cloth drawn up between the legs) and an equally untidy headgear. Later in the day you would find them under the trees on the waterfront lying on rolls of hessian that always accompanied them, their heads pillowed on a portion still to be unrolled. The approach of a prospective customer would cause them, without undue effort, to unroll their "pillow" and produce the long leaves of the native tobacco which was their stock-in-trade. Wearied after such a day's exertions, they would wend their way home again at five o'clock.

Their womenfolk look most graceful in their usual [28/29] attire, and wear bright colours in combinations that would look exceedingly gaudy on Europeans, but do not clash on their wearers. They have, too, a knack of carrying big and sometimes awkward loads on their heads as they walk along, finding no inconvenience in maintaining a vigorous conversation the while.

The Chinese residents were always quiet and respectful. Most of them belong to the Kuo Min Tang, and, as their business houses were spread along the beach front, a Chinese national holiday with the Chinese flags flying seemed to be Levuka's day out as well.

* * * * *

I had always been interested in the Boy Scout movement, and, as a spare Commissioner, had the privilege of a welcome on my arrival in Suva by a rally of scouts and cubs, European, Fijian, Indian, and Chinese, in the Government House grounds. In Levuka it was a very difficult proposition, with little money about and no means, such as exist in larger centres, for the lads to earn spare time cash for the purpose. I decided, however, to take some of the lads for a camping holiday--a course repeated a year later--and secured two disused native houses at Wai-na-loka, where the pineapples grow. Four happy days were spent here. The foreshores near by were, in the main, muddy and covered with mangrove--donga or tiri they call it--where the boys enjoyed a search at low tide for shellfish. The resultant curried kai was quite palatable. [29/30] The camp fire songs were really good. Some of the lads had Fijian or Samoan forebears, and had inherited their natural musical abilities. Many of the songs were sung in Fijian, some in English, and some in Maori. A spot in the jungle in the warm tropic night around a fire with ukelele and harmony is very enchanting.

The usual camp accidents of a minor nature occurred, but I was greatly interested in the application of bush treatment to remove ringworm. One lad had a few sore spots, which his brother decided to treat. The operation consisted of rubbing the sores with pieces of sliced young green papaw (mummy apple). The milky juice is very caustic and must have hurt terribly.

One of the days we spent in hiking into the interior to the interesting and pretty villages of Mbureta and Mbureta Tai on the river of the same name. Mbureta Tai welcomed us with oranges, lemons, mandarins, bananas, and drinking coconuts. Here are most interesting relics of barbaric days. Two huge posts, one still standing, the other fallen, are the remains of an old chief's house. These posts had been set ceremonially and sacrificially. Huge holes had been dug and the posts, which had been placed in order in them, were supported by two men to each, who stood in the holes and were buried with the earth that was heaped in and rammed down on them. Their skeletons still hold the buried portions of the now decaying posts.

After a swim in the Mbureta River we returned to camp. Fiji is very much a paradise: no crocodiles, no [30/31] malaria, no excessive heat and no extreme cold, save on the mountain tops.

* * * * *

There are some who like to say that Fiji has its two seasons--a wet one and a rainy one--which is hardly true. Fiji has really remarkably good weather for quite long stretches.

The most anxious period of the year is the hurricane season, from November to April inclusive. At one stage it was averred that February was a safe month, and a Government record concerning a serious February "blow" of late years reads almost as though the hurricane had crept in unawares and the particular local authority had not even been consulted. The crash of thunder and the flash of lightning at this period are usually welcomed, the local idea being that they spell the breaking up of dangerous air currents. Everyone, of course, can produce certain signs as to whether a hurricane will come that season or not--for years will sometimes pass without a "blow." Extra fruit on the breadfruit trees, some prophets will say, means a certain hurricane. Others will find that the reed grass has put forth its fuzzy flower, so no hurricane will follow, and so on.

Tropical rainfall at its best is certainly not a delusion. One can remember a "shower" that began at 5 p.m., and when it had finished its course at 8.30 p.m. it had added nearly six inches of water to clean the streets and creeks. This is rather exceptional at Levuka, but [31/32] appeared on that occasion to be fairly general. It had its aftermath. Some days later I was awakened at a very early hour of the morning by excited voices on the waterfront. Hundreds of busy people of all nationalities (for the news had spread in the curious native fashion) were at work on the great piles of d├ębris that had littered the beaches in the night--huge trees, cut timbers for banana cases, house doors and window frames, with tons of splintered bamboo. All these had apparently been swept out to sea in the opposite direction on the farthest side of Viti Levu, and then, with a change of weather and wind, had been washed back on us.

One Sunday night, and incidentally New Year's night, the District Commissioner, who was also a very active Churchman, came to church with the suggestion that I should shorten the service and warn the congregation of the news he had received of an approaching "blow." Under circumstances like this, when such a danger to life and property is imminent, it is remarkable how the language of the prayer of evensong, "Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee," has a new emphasis. The work of preparation consisting of locking all veranda shutters, fixing strong boards over windows, fetching everything movable into safety, if necessary tethering your house to the ground, locking everybody in the house with strong barricades and then simply waiting for the terrific "blow." Fortunately on this occasion we received merely the "backwash" [32/33] of the hurricane. In our three years we had no "blow" whatever, so that I cannot give a first-hand account of one. I have seen, though, the trail of devastation which they leave behind.

A bright morning--folk said it was just 5.58 a.m., although it must be difficult to think of clocks while the world about is topsy-turvy--I was just due to rise to prepare for early service, when, without warning, Nature's alarm clock proceeded to hoist the bed about and the Vicarage began to emulate a ship at sea, straining all its timbers from corner to corner diagonally. Earthquakes were not uncommon, but I sprang out to the front door to see if a tidal wave might be the pleasant accompaniment, for we were almost at sea level. After the service--a very fervent Eucharist--a general survey of the church showed that both of the transepts had dropped away from the nave, leaving a long opening from floor to roof, varying in width but sufficient to see the open world outside. Unfortunately the financial position did not allow of its repair. Compared with others our damage was trifling, for the Marist Fathers' fine old church at the Cawaci Mission sustained more serious damage, with a narrow escape of the Sisters, and the island of Koro lost one of its lighthouses and had a native village destroyed.

These are but passing dangers. The Pacific islands for the most part enjoy a climate unsurpassed. Beautiful sunny, happy days and bright moonlit nights go by in their order: the storms are but necessary [33/34] interludes that keep the hillsides and the fields picturesquely green, clean up the native tracks and village squares, and give folk another passing topic to discuss.

* * * * *

Fiji has, in common with few places in the world, an annual recurrence of the giving off from the coral reef of a curious mass of worm life called scientifically the palolo (eunice) viridis, and locally the mbalolo. The particular incidence of the two risings each year--the first, called the mbalolo lailai (small) and the second, the mbalolo levu (big)--can be calculated with reference to the relative positions of the rising sun and the setting moon. The two risings occur a calendar month from each other, at the end of October or beginning of November and, correspondingly, the end of November or beginning of December. In common with others we decided to see the big rising one year.

We left Levuka at midnight for the village of Tokou, about four miles from Levuka along the coast, and spent the night in the native village. It is customary for the villagers to hold high festival all night with native dances and feasting. Just before daybreak we climbed aboard a whale boat, equipped with a small engine and owned by some of the natives, and set out for the reef opposite, where other boats seemed to be gathering in the fading moonlight. As the dawn broke great excitement prevailed. Up from the reef comes this great wriggling mass of worms, millions of them, coloured black, olive green, dark blue and amber. Like [34/35] a huge twisting corkscrew they rise quickly to the surface, then spread out like a mammoth mushroom and break apart. It is difficult to describe the scene that ensued, in which canoes, punts, dug-outs, dinghies, outboard motors, motor boats, and every available affair that could be propelled afloat joined in a frantic and exciting race to gather as much as possible of the rather unpleasant-smelling mass into their boats. This was to be done ere the sun shone too brightly or the worms would melt away.

Nearing six o'clock we left the battle still raging to watch a similar crowd, mostly women and children, busy on the shore reef. When cooked, this great delicacy becomes light curry green in colour and tastes rather like mushroom ketchup. It was usual to avoid eating fish for a while after this event as the larger fish would have gorged to an extent that would make them sickly to eat.

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