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.


WHILE the Ben Holm was still loading, I prepared to go, at the Bishop's request, beyond the bounds of my parish and on to the work among the Indian people in the sugar district of Vanua Levu.

I had arranged to go aboard an auxiliary ketch, the Tui Labasa, late at night, had finished dinner and was awaiting some of my gear from the laundry when my dhobi arrived, preceded by his assistant, who carried the washed clothes. It was unusual for both to come together, but the reason was soon apparent. "Padre Sahib, I cut my leg." Blood simply streamed from the dhobi's ankle where we found he had cut a vein, and deeply too. I took him next door into the hospital, where it was satisfactorily attended to, but he was warned that he must not walk about until the next day or he would be much worse off. Home he departed, but not half an hour later the jingle of his dog's neck ornaments told me that he was passing along the road in the dark. "I thought you were told to rest that leg, dhobi," I observed. "But, padre sahib, I must see a man on the Tui Labasa. He owes me some money." Very characteristically he would rather bleed to death than lose his few shillings.

We left betimes the next morning. The Tui Labasa [68/69] is a fairly fast little boat with the exhaust "pop, popping" from the mast's head. We had to reach Yanuwai, one of Fiji's gold mines, that day in time to send boats right up the river to the mine landing. We passed through the reef at Makogai Island and on across the Koro Sea, close by the ghost island of Namena. All this area is noted for a relative of the "Loch Ness Monster." For generations the natives have had a tradition that it is the dwelling place of a huge fish god, which had to be placated by the pouring overboard of some kava. That this monster appeared from time to time is proved by the evidence of most reliable and creditable witnesses, European as well as native, teetotal as well as ordinary folk. A very reliable old Wesleyan missionary of the old school encountered it; another showed the evidence of its attack on the boat he and his party were in; and a first-hand account has been given by the straightest old Scotsman in Fiji, who tells that he was on his cutter at about 3 p.m. on the day of sailing. As they sailed over a placid sea, they were all terrified to find this huge fish rise under the cutter as though to lift it from the water. The natives immediately began to throw yangona root overboard in accordance with tradition. Soon the great fish, estimated to be nearly 6o feet long, dark brown and spotted in colour, with the head of a shark and the tail of a whale, slowly sank beneath the boat and slid astern, the clear mark of the ship's keel being plainly visible on its back. There seems to be [69/70] no doubt whatever that there is some basis for the natives' ideas of the Dakuwaga.

The Tui Labasa lay in the sheltered waters all night, and we left early the next morning for Nabouwalu. This is a fairly big native settlement with a government residence crowning its hilltop. There is something of a thrill in the sight of the Union Jack fluttering in the breeze on a lonely outpost of Empire. It certainly looked great that morning from the captain's bridge.

The coastal scenery of the big island of Vanua Levu is very attractive, and our course followed the smoother water within the reefs. In some cases we anchored at the mouths of rivers, most of which were more easily navigated at their bars at high water, and the motor boat went up towing a whale boat. We reached the beautiful Mbua River the second evening, and after our evening meal left in the half light to go up that stream. A knowledge of the entrances of these rivers is certainly needed, for soon we were in the midst of numerous mangrove islands and of many channels, most of which would have taken us back to sea again. We were just about to enter when, above the "chug" of our boat in that very lonely spot, came women's voices calling for assistance. It seemed to be the most unlikely place to meet with such a call, but we made for one of the mangrove islands to find two women with their fishing bags up to their chests in the shark infested waters. They had been set down there earlier in the day to fish and had been left behind. They were taken aboard, and on we [70/71] went in the half light of a clouded moonlit night up an undoubtedly pretty tropical river. Engine trouble developed just as we passed the village of Mbua, whose houses were scattered in order along the high banks. At last we reached our destination, a Chinaman's store with its own landing not far from the Mbua town. Very soon some of the villagers came along to talk and sing in the moonlight. It is amazing where it is possible to find Chinese in these isolated parts. I have been in very small out-of-the-way villages where storekeeping would seem to be rather a hopeless proposition and found the ubiquitous Celestial imperturbably at his work.

The damage to the engine of the launch was too serious for further use or temporary repair on the trip, so, aided by the outflowing tide and sculled by Fijian labour, we made our way back to sea again. Captain Whippy of the Tui Labasa now decided that, in order to maintain his scheduled times, we would have to travel by night. We left again at 2 a.m. through reefy waters with the captain's uncanny instinct to guide him; there was no doubt as to his capabilities as a conscientious skipper. During the day we passed up two beautiful rivers clothed with luxuriant tropical vegetation, the Lekutu and Dreketi, spending most of the afternoon on the latter. Here we saw a splendid plantation which, owing to the depression in the copra market, is making little return. The land is very rich and the river, a tourists' paradise, navigable for some [71/72] distance. Experiments have been tried with other crops, all of which have responded to the work put into them, but still the financial troubles of the world are felt severely even in a quiet river on a far away Pacific isle. Strange how depression seems to put money into some people's pockets, while hard toilers, who have deposited their all of money and energy, are in most instances the undeserving losers.

Next day we arrived at the big sugar milling centre at Labasa (pronounced Lambasa), eight miles from the sea up the mangrove-bordered Labasa River. The cane fields take up a large area of flat land about the river banks, with picturesque hills in the near distance surrounding it. Two large knolls stand out near by; one is the Government hill, surmounted by the official residences and offices of the District Commissioner, Doctor, Constabulary, and Wireless Officer; the other is set apart as a sanctuary for the European staff (mostly Australian) of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, and duly graded so that the manager occupies the crown and the common herd the foot. The church and vicarage occupy a position half-way up--symbolic, no doubt, of their democratic character.

Apart from the European work the main field of the Church is among the Indian labour. For some years it has been the policy to employ mainly Indians of the coolie classes for labour in the cane fields and on plantation work. The first ship-loads from India were accompanied by serious unforeseen troubles, for one [72/73] ship suffered severely through an epidemic which caused many deaths, while a further party of over six hundred on the Syria was shipwrecked on the reef near Naselai with great loss of life. Many had brought their wives and families. Some returned to India, while others remained and have either continued as free labour, settled on small allotments, share-farmed for the C.S.R., or gone into business. It is not unusual to come unexpectedly on a "Bombay Tailor" with his sign up over a small humpy under the palms in some isolated part of the islands. Children who have been reared under these new conditions, away from the narrow streets and bazaars of big crowded Eastern cities, thrive beyond measure. The children are usually very attractive, though the girls seem to lose much of their charm very early in life.

Caste of course disappears as they leave India, but a new standard is arising as the young people are educated and grow up. There is no more attractive type than the old-fashioned Indian, content to work at his agricultural labours, dressed as his fathers dressed, using the unchanging methods of ploughing and sowing that his fathers used, apparently perfectly happy in his quiet old way. On the other hand a smattering of the "three R's" is calculated in some instances to prove too much for the growing youth, and the wooden ploughs of the fathers must be turned into the steel pens of the clerks. The difficulty lies in the fact that Fiji is essentially an agricultural colony and can hardly [73/74] absorb an overplus of clerks. A dissatisfied community straining at emancipation must find its outlet.

Again, the Indian immigrant has, of necessity, brought with him his own particular religious outlook, be it Hindu, Moslem or otherwise, which he has a perfect right to maintain until he can find a better basis for his life and conduct. He has also brought his ideas of child marriage, which have to be modified according to the humanitarian outlook of the Government authorities. Many of his superstitions, in many cases his gambling instincts, in some cases his diseases, might be added. India is a big country of many languages, and Indians from many scattered parts of their home country have also to face a language difficulty. A composite language seems to have evolved among them.

All these aspects have to be taken into consideration in building up the work of Christian missions among Indians in Fiji. The work there began many years ago with some definite organisation, after Archdeacon Floyd returned to Fiji with a grant from S.P.G. in 1903, and was followed later by two missionaries to take the work in hand. It seemed to me at first to be small in scope. This seems to have been the experience of both the Roman Catholics and the Methodists in their own particular spheres of influence among them. The future lies mainly with the young people who attend the mission schools. No matter what the conditions of an Indian parent's life and work, he is an ideal [74/75] parent, sparing nothing for his children's advancement and tremendously keen on education.

On arrival I found the Mission Sisters rather perturbed, in the absence of the priest-in-charge on furlough, by an incident that had occurred. An old Indian woman had been removed from hospital much against the doctor's wishes and taken to her home. She was a Christian, but very ill and extremely helpless, and her friends had decided to try Indian magic to effect a cure, and an Indian magician had been called over to her. As soon as possible that day we crossed the hills and discovered a series of poor looking reed houses below a ploughed field. Our appearance seemed to cause great activity, suggesting that something had to be removed or hidden. They voluntarily repudiated any suggestion of puja, and I decided to give the poor old soul the last Sacraments next morning. This I did, though one could hardly miss the atmosphere of mystery about much that occurred. The old lady died and was given Christian burial on the Sunday afternoon. The body was placed in a coffin and carried on a long bamboo pole some two hilly and muddy miles to the little chapel by a straggling, rather untidy crowd of all religious beliefs, and, after a short service, another mile to the cemetery.

The type of puja varies, but the popular method seemed to be to hold the two halves of a cut lemon near the neck of a rooster as the bird was decapitated. The supposed result was that the spirit of the bird [75/76] entered the lemon, which was then suspended on thongs about the neck of the patient to call out the evil spirit, the cause of the sickness. This sort of difficulty both doctors and missionaries have to face.

Besides the small European church on the hillslope--just a little out of plumb at the time as a hurricane had played with it but not wrecked it--there are on the flat just over the river, which forms one of its bounds, the main Mission school buildings. These consist of a fine concrete modern building, a combined residence and boys' boarding establishment (for Indian boys from outer parts), a carpenter's shop for technical instructions, a small chapel, which had been originally a two-roomed cottage, and a rather dilapidated building that served as a dispensary. The modern building replaced the old school that had collapsed under the combined forces of hurricane and flood. The Headmaster can tell of a night's anxious vigil with his boarders on tables, while the hurricane blew and the flood waters rose. The dispensary, where I saw some very good work being done by the Mission's trained nurse, had been destroyed with all its contents, and parts had been discovered far away and brought back. The damage to the buildings had been so great that it had been impossible to replace all with the money available, so the dispensary still awaited some paint on the flood-washed walls.

The schools were on vacation, but the boys' school maintains its numbers in school term time, while away [76/77] in another part of Labasa, past the Bombay tailors, bootmakers, barbers, and the Indian Talkie Palace, is the girls' school, St. Mary's, ever growing in size--an extra wing has been added--in numbers and efficiency. Early this year (1934) a further school has been opened with Government subsidy at Vunimoli about seven miles from Labasa. So the work extends.

I was able to spend about a fortnight here, visiting the European residents, both near Labasa and out on the train lines at the various overseers' places, as well as getting a good insight into the work of this Mission among the Indians and half-castes. It is hard work, necessary work, and, though it progresses very slowly, it is good work that is being accomplished.

It was apparently Labasa's wet season. Every morning broke clear and sunny, every lunch hour brought threatening mutterings and darkening skies, every early afternoon saw terrific electric storms and heavy tropical downpours; four o'clock always found it clear again, though exceedingly wet underfoot and with a steaminess due to the high humidity. It is said that the middle months of the year are ideal.

Project Canterbury