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.


THERE is something exhilarating in facing out to sea in a ten-ton cutter into a stiffish south-east trade, with the country's flag flying at the topmast and a copper-coloured, mop-haired giant "thud, thud, thudding" on the big lali (war drum) on the fore part of the deck. Great to feel the salt spray dashing from the prows--that is, always provided you are a sailor.

This day our party on the Provincial cutter, Manama-na-Yanuyanu (Madam of the Isles), consisted of the District Medical Officer, who took his wife and family with him, and the Inspector of Native Schools.

The good little ship fought the waves, great green, curling, white-feathered waves, all day, our objective being the island of Ngau, but the green cliffs of Wakaya seemed to be constantly towering over us as we tacked back and forth. Just as the light of day was failing we crept through an almost imperceptible gap in the coral reef at the island of Mbatiki. In the dark we were rowed ashore, and, aided by hurricane lamps, we scrambled the two miles of beach and headland to the nearest main village called Yavo. Great excitement filled this out-of-the-way Fijian village at our unexpected arrival. Fires lit up and the chief prepared to give us his house and another for the night--such is [44/45] the hospitality of these Nature's gentlemen. By 8.30 an excellent dinner was served, partly Fijian, partly European. A Fiji house (bure) is rectangular in shape, very solidly built of thatch, with walls at least a foot thick. They are all built with foundations on raised mounds; the higher the foundation, the higher the rank of the owner was once the rule, I understand, with the temple highest of all. The floors are covered with clean, well-woven native mats, while the native beds that fill one end of the house are covered with several layers of mats with the overlapping edges fringed with coloured wool. The great beams inside the house are usually laced with native rope in regular patterns. In the houses of chiefs who are also mbulis (that is, with the oversight by Government authority of several villages) it is not unusual to find a small iron safe in which necessary papers and tax monies are deposited for safety; it is almost equally usual to find the safe key hanging on a nail above. Dinner was partaken of at one end of the large bure, with the single benzine light casting dark shadows to the far corners. Through the darkened doorway now and then mysterious figures would appear, creeping in on all fours in an eerie fashion, then clapping the cupped hands as a sign of respect before sitting down in absolute silence just within the doorway.

Next morning we were off again, paddled in long punts over the shallow, reefy waters and then, in our good ship, once again facing the now slightly less [45/46] boisterous high seas. I had no visits to pay at Mbatiki, as there were not then any white settlers living there. We set our course again for Ngau, where there were a few white settlers to call on. Two of these were with us; for some months before, when the hurricane had raced over their plantation, they had decided to get right away for a time from the scene of desolation, and they were now returning. We landed at their place, and after a dip on the shallow shore reef--it was low tide and the deep blue waters are full of sharks--we walked on to the big main village of Saweieke, where provision had been made for us.

Saweieke is a big village with a history. It follows the usual style of Fijian village, with grass bures set about an open square, usually called the rara. Dinner that night, in addition to such European dishes as we had with us, consisted of boiled fowl, fish, and excellent prawns cooked in coconut milk, with yams, taro and sweet potatoes cooked native fashion.

Before dinner came the welcoming ceremony, the ceremonial drinking of kava according to ancient tradition. After dinner came mekes (dances) given by the women dressed in tapa and oil and sitting on the floor, their bodies moving rhythmically to the beating of a wooden drum and the singing of age-old chants. The women at last retired and the old men left had a long talk, full of vigour and at times hearty laughs.

Early in the morning came the roll of native drums, then the voice of the chief calling out the allotted duties [46/47] of the day, for every village is a community and all join in its affairs according to their age and ability. A little later I arose to bathe. I stood for a few minutes taking in the scene from the steps of the chief's house, where I had spent the night. From the far corner of the square came an erect, stately old man, bearing on his shoulder a stick from which were suspended some bunches of taro, one before him and another behind.

His appearance reminded me that the same village square had been the scene of a barbaric spectacle some years before. Bloodthirsty Cakabau's father, Tanoa, had been temporarily displaced by rebellious subjects. The tables once more turned. Tanoa and his son paid a visit of state to his ally, the chief of Saweieke, who had for the occasion trussed up the dead bodies of his captives ready for cooking and propped them up in ordered lines about this village square. The party reviewed the grim "guard of honour" with many a grisly jest ere the bodies were hurried to the pot.

The doctor and the school inspector decided to walk the five miles to Qarani, another village, where the residence of the native medical practitioner had been accidentally burnt down. The remainder of our party decided to go to sea again and pick them up at Qarani. Our arrival there revealed the fact that the hospitable natives had decided to entertain us and we must be delayed. Everything had been prepared and the welcoming ceremony was in progress in a big bure near the sea. While the ceremony was going on, a flash of [47/48] red, green and blue revealed a type of parrot peculiar to the island. It landed in the woolly hair of one of the native men. It was a village pet.

The usual native dances, particularly well performed, filled most of the day, though I was able to visit another very isolated planter across the native log bridge a short walk away.

According to ancient custom among the Fijians the sexes were divided for dancing. On this occasion the women gave their dances sitting on the bure floor. The men and boys require a good deal of room for theirs, and they were held in the open air. We found the male dancers all oiled and shining, with bark strips hanging like a thick kilt, and carrying spears. They were led by a mountain of flesh and muscle. Rat, tat, tat, went the drums in the open, accompanied ere long by voices singing age-old, wild barbaric chants in the pentatonic scale. Thud, thud, thud, went the unisoned crash of the dancers' feet, as in mimicry, with clenched teeth and ferocious demeanour, they stalked, fought, conquered and trampled under foot their imaginary foes. One can imagine the scene before a battle, when these mekes put heart and vigour into their bloodthirsty intentions. They are seen at their best in their natural background in these islands off the beaten track.

The taralala is an innovation. I was told that it originated in a simple little kindergarten dance in a mission school and spread, ere long, with great rapidity throughout the Group. There is now an endeavour to [48/49] suppress it. In itself it is perfectly harmless, but the aftermath is not always without harm. In a large bure we were given an opportunity of seeing it. The young ladies from a neighbouring village, Naivukulani, gave first of all an excellent meke; the song accompanying it and the action told the story of Kingsford Smith's plane crossing near their island on his famous trans-Pacific flight. This finished, two young men commenced a Samoan siva (dance) with much sinuous movement and whistling through the teeth. This fell very flat when it was seen that we did not feel it was worth while--after all it was not Fijian--and was followed by a change in tune; rattle, rattle, rattle, went the concert drums, hollowed pieces of hard wood shaped like a canoe, held on the crossed knees of one person and beaten with much skill by another; and the tune, which was almost to be identified with "Pollywolly Doodle" with barbaric effects, became louder and swifter as sung by a choir of men, women and children, while a kindergarten dance began, with partners side by side, one arm behind each other's back. Dance after dance with changing partners followed; the same tune, now becoming monotonous, continued, with slight breaks for rest from time to time. Faster and faster went the drums and the song and the dancing feet, hotter and hotter the room became with the mingled odours of perspiring oily bodies, the strong scent of the wild vines used in the necklets, and the smell of kerosene from the lamps, until at last we had to ask [49/50] them to desist, and we retired for the night. My next memory was to wake in the morning light to find a mother, whose husband apparently owned the bure we were occupying, dressing her little girl by my bedside.

We left next day for Nairai Island, where I had one European planter--the only one on the island--to visit. Nairai had a little thrill for us as it is reputed to have a small Spanish treasure hidden there, though there exists still some doubt about its disposal. The sea was still decidedly lumpy, and we had it now on our beam. We slid up the sides of great waves and wallowed in the troughs. Our sails filled out, and there's a steadying effect in well-handled sails. At one stage our helmsman nodded just for a moment--they sometimes have a habit of falling asleep just at the wrong time--and a huge wave raked the ship from stem to stern. We were unable to get close to the spot where the brig Elisa with 50,000 Spanish dollars, out from Callao, ran on the reef many years ago. Some of her remains are still to be seen on calm days away below in Davy Jones' locker.

We landed at the home of the only white residents and climbed to their house, with a wonderful view on the hilltop. Later we visited the village near by, Lawaki, where the survivors of the old wreck landed many years ago. In those old days of constant anxiety against raids, the village was built further back from the sea and had deep moats and trenches about it. We crossed the old fortifications, now covered with tangled [50/51] vines, and came to the place where odd pieces of eight had been picked up after "freshes" had appeared in the creek after excessive rains. There is a sort of atmosphere about such places that makes one feel that every stone ought to have its particular Spanish dollar under it.

A favourable wind took us home again to Levuka that night in particularly good time. The sea was much calmer, but still we swayed from time to time. The rattle on the drum in the fore peak was a good warning to the "saints who (would) sleep in their beds," that no excuse could be given for the next morning's absence from church, for it was a Saturday night.

Project Canterbury