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.


"AS I returned to my parish from Suva," wrote a brother priest, "I passed through part of your parish and took the liberty, etc." I turned the letter over. "I refer to Tailevu," the letter went on. Like John Wesley, who declared the world his parish, I began to see my parish assuming wide proportions; so, accepting the inevitable, to Tailevu I went.

After a pleasant early morning car ride--until Johnnie "Rumnuts," the Indian driver, decided he could go no further--and a hurried lumping of baggage to catch the launch that I had hired, which in turn had to get the tide ere it fell, we left Wai-na-loka on our island of Ovalau. The first part, within the shelter of Moturiki Island, was very pretty and comfortable, but when we began to cross the more open waters, it was another tale to tell; the good ship rolled and twisted, while all I could see from the after compartment of the craft was a black leg, whose toes played with the steering wheel, while the rest of the individual sat on the cabin roof top and hung on. The water came aboard from time to time, but a two hours' run brought us once more into the shelter of the land.

A long carry over the mud flats from the dinghy and a short uphill walk brought us to the Lodoni home of a [60/61] district J.P. and postmaster. From his place a climb over the hills with bearers brought me to Korovou, the centre of the returned soldiers' dairying industry--in many ways a tragic sort of business with big overhead costs and some of the men still suffering severely from the result of war injuries. With the help of my host and hostess, a fine couple, I visited every farm on the three rivers there.

On Sunday we had service in the disused school building, for the time being a temporary depot for the Public Works Department. The furnishings were scanty--an old piano that had suffered a hurricane and was out of tune, and parts of two forms. One of these had no legs at all, so it was placed on a few coils of barbed wire. Somehow or other the heaviest weights mustered on this improvisation, with the obvious result--just when it was most inopportune the form split and the barbs below were not so efficient as a resting-place.

Betimes on Monday morning I arose to return to Levuka by way of Suva. An Indian char-a-banc (really a converted small motor lorry) gaudily painted with red, yellow, blue and green in broad bands, which was plying for hire, took me on the next stage of my wanderings, thirty-eight miles to Suva. My fellow-passengers were Chinese, Fijian, Punjabi, and Madrassi. I was given pride of place with the Chinaman and the driver on the front seat. The road is wonderfully picturesque, winding through the hills along the sides of steep gorges and along narrow ridges with deep valleys [61/62] on either side. Narrow escapes occurred at many of the corners that had to be negotiated, and Jehu, my friend, drove furiously. At length we reached the stretch of flat road over narrow bridges and through sugar-cane fields skirting the Rewa River. This was Jehu's opportunity, and with one big black toe on the accelerator accompanying a speed gauge reading "-45-50, 45-50," we descended on the sugar mill centre at Nausori with all the vigour of modern Gilpins, with a trail of flying gravel, flying Indians, flying goats, and rope-encumbered cattle. Here I managed to bargain with a taxi driver, and was driven in greater safety of speed the last eight miles into Suva. Just two hours and ten minutes after leaving Tailevu, including a twenty-minute stay at Nausori and a short wait at the ferry, I had emerged from a hot bath at the Grand Pacific Hotel and was preparing to call on the Bishop.

The return to Levuka next morning was by another route on a small motor vessel. There are two routes from Suva to Levuka. One is by way of the rougher water outside the protective reefs, one stage of which can be particularly unpleasant. Smaller vessels of light draught, however, are able to enter the main portion of the estuary of the Rewa River, which has many delta mouths. The course the ship takes is a very devious one, twisting around awkward bends in picturesque river flats. At one stage two streams are joined by a canal made years ago by Fijian prisoners, in the cannibal days, to allow chiefs, allied by the marriage [62/63] of their respective son and daughter, to have easy access to each other. The scenery varies as we go along; at times there are cane fields, at others pretty villages, where brown children dive into the water to greet our ship. We burst from mangrove-covered banks to the open sea within a long reef with a first glimpse of Ovalau in the distance, well balanced in outline and misty blue. Here the flying fishes spring from the sparkling blue waters, and delightful palm-covered coral atolls with white sandy beaches are on the sea side of us, while on the distant shore on our left is the island of Mbau, the original home of Cakabau.

* * * * *

Tailevu was not an easy place to visit from our centre. It usually meant the chartering of a cutter or launch--not a very satisfactory arrangement, for you sometimes felt that people were wanting you to buy their boat at the price they asked. Very occasionally someone would be going over and, in such a case, there would always be an open invitation.

One's time aboard was not always wasted, for there was always an opportunity for some good deep-sea fishing on the way. Neither time nor tackle (nor experience on my part) allowed one to go after bonita or swordfish, though these are to be found and have been caught thereabouts, but quite good sport is to be had with rod and reel after saqa, walu, and the like, quite big fish with plenty of action. It is some satisfaction to land a fine big edible fish after a good battle, [63/64] and nothing tastes better than fresh-caught fish, cooked almost right away and eaten when you are "sea hungry."

One warmish grey day, the trusty vessel chartered this time being the Trade Wind, a five-ton cutter owned by mine host of the Polynesian Hotel, we set off for Lodoni (named after England's capital), a three-hour run by sail and auxiliary. Abbreviated shorts, khaki shirt, no hose, and canvas shoes and helmet, I thought to be quite appropriate for shipboard. My reward was a pair of delightfully pink legs and, before morning, terribly swollen muscles at knees and ankles. With great difficulty I walked a mile to baptise four children on a hot plantation veranda, and back again; then, with bearers to carry my gear, started my walk over the hills to Korovou as before. I was to be picked up by car where the road began. So quickly does the undergrowth spring up in these places that I found it difficult to recognise where the former road had started on my previous trip, and I had nearly a mile to walk ere we reached a passable road. Since then a great deal of work has been done, and these treks in this place are no longer necessary. After a few days visiting under difficulties up and down the rivers, and the Sunday morning service, I was compelled to get an Indian taxi right through to Suva where my host--a doctor--was able to ease matters for me.

In Suva there was always hospitality unlimited, and I can never remember a dull walk. This time a [64/65] conference had been arranged with His Excellency the Governor, Sir Murchison Fletcher, with reference to a suggestion that I had put forward with regard to a Hostel for the children of planters and others attending the Levuka Public School from the outer islands. The Government Economy Commission had decided to close the existing one owing to the copra troubles. We thought it reasonable to propose that we should take it over from the Government and run it, with the proviso that the Government should meet any deficit up to £100. This was to give the planters yet another chance, which seemed to be the right thing to do at such a time. The matter was settled, and we found that we were able to run on a much lower budget than that of the previous arrangement. It became a sort of hobby that filled in some of the time between trips abroad.

* * * * *

Within the limits of my parish--in sight of the Vicarage and about eighteen miles to the anchorage--lies the pretty little island of Makogai, well known in the Pacific as an asylum for lepers. It is a Government institution of this Crown Colony, and sufferers from the dread disease are brought from different parts of the South Pacific for isolation and treatment. The general supervision of the island is in the hands of the Resident Medical Officer, and the oversight of accounts, public works, roads, stores, and supplies is under the Works Superintendent, both of whom are Government officials. [65/66] All the nursing, which is of a very high order, is in the hands of the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Third Order of Mary, mostly French. They do good work in a variety of ways, catering not only for the ordinary clinical requirements, but also for the material comfort of the patients. The number of patients approaches five hundred as a rule, the greater part of whom would probably be Wesleyan. Two fine chapels, one for the Roman Catholic patients and one for those of the Methodist connection, stand side by side in well-kept gardens. The Anglican members are confined for the most part to the Solomon Islanders and a few Cook Islanders.

On a portion of the island, on a pretty little bay, is the main hospital block for patients who require special treatment or who have reached advanced stages of the trouble. Those who are able to fend for themselves live in villages along the shore in reasonably close proximity, and many work their own garden plantations. The Sisters live near the hospital. A good road leads to the houses of the Medical Superintendent and the Works Superintendent, about three miles away, through the fence that marks off the clean from the quarantined area.

Some of the cases are very advanced, but an atmosphere of complete peace and happiness reigns. It is really an object lesson for many sufferers. Leprosy is not the hopeless thing that it seemed to be, for modern research has proved so helpful that there are always a [66/67] few returning to their homes cured, though for a time under observation, and there are always some looking forward to their return to their own people.

I paid visits from time to time to give the Holy Communion to our people. No service could be more impressive than that quiet Eucharist by the Pacific seaside, when once more lepers came to meet their Lord and to ask His succour and mercy. Early morning in the open air, with a table set under a tree, the wash of the sea on the strip of coral beach near by, the morning mists rising among the tropical undergrowth on the hillside, the palms and the scent of the native flowers, with the clear voices of the patients sitting or kneeling on native mats--a moving scene.

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