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.


LONG hot tropical days, in a turtle boat, aided by a miserable breeze, sliding lazily over the waves, quietly dipping and rolling along; nights when one lay on the hatching and watched, between slight snatches of sleep, the stars above, with the welcome Southern Cross, which saved one the trouble of craning round to see if the helmsman had fallen asleep. No awning to protect one from the strong sun's rays, no convenience of any sort--thus I returned from my visit to the isles to the windward, where my parish stretched almost half-way to Tonga. That trip was a great experience.

Ships that pass in the night. There is a touch of romance in lying back on the deck of a small boat away out in the Pacific to hear a distant "chug, chug, chug," and then to see in the half light of the early morning a huge white figure appear from the gloom, pass over your bows with but little illumination beyond the navigation lights, as swiftly to disappear, its "chug, chug," apparently divorced from the silent wraith--a Matson liner passing in the night. . . .

But all this was on the way back to Levuka. The Exploring Isles or the Lau Archipelago is not an easy place to get to, but the getting back is a greater gamble. My plans were simple: merely to go by the steamer, [78/79] which was making its last trip under the scheduled arrangements and was not to be replaced, calling at such places as the boat would touch at, then to go further afield in a private yacht and by that means return to Levuka: but l'homme propose et Dieu dispose.

A jovial company kept us all on deck after we left Levuka that evening, though the path we traversed was a particularly "rocky" one. Next morning, around ten o'clock, found us in the pretty lagoon at the island of Mango. The sun shone brilliantly and there was not a ripple on the sheltered waters. I was among the first to be put ashore, in the process of which the ship's boat passed over beautiful patches of live coral trees with all their myriad richly coloured fish darting about below us. Later we visited the planter and his wife and son at their home away inland on the edge of a pretty crater. We spent the whole day at Mango and in the early morning were once more on our way out of the lagoon into the still heaving waters until, at about 8.30 a.m., we entered the Tongan Passage in the long reef and bore down on Loma Loma, the main centre, on the big, long island of Vanua Mbalava.

Dear old sleepy Pacific island Loma Loma had awakened from its accustomed lethargy to greet us. It was a scene of great activity: the two small stores (one included the post office) were opened, men, women and children shouted, and the village dogs, fowls and pigs [79/80] added their quota of joy at this new diversion. Three-quarters of an hour later the smoke of the vessel was barely to be seen on the horizon, the ship's carpenter returned to the caulking of the Tui Matefele on the beach, the stores were closed, the livestock once more asleep, the human participants in the welcome had effaced themselves and I was sitting in a house in Maafu's old compound enjoying the hospitality of the District Commissioner and Roko. Maafu was a really remarkable figure of Fijian history. A Tongan prince of goodly lineage, he had settled on Lau in the early days as the base for his military operations against Cakabau. But for the intervention of the British Consul in those wild days, it is not improbable that he would have been in a premier position in the overlordship of Fiji. He was one of the signatories of the Deed of Cession in 1874. The Lauan people are very charming folk, inclining probably more towards Tonga in their fairness of skin and their culture.

Later in the day I was borne over the waters of the huge lagoon within the reef to the island of Munia, where dwells an old Harrovian with his wife and daughters. Here I found that the Koroibo--named after the "gods of the winds"--which was to have taken me further, was up on the beach waiting for timbers, and I became marooned, a modern Robinson Crusoe, under the most ideal circumstances. The usual Robinsonian requisites were to hand--a beautiful heavily wooded island surrounded with coral reefs full [80/81] of marine life and colour, the big hulk of a yacht (the fastest in these seas) up on the beach, a daily walk around the coast to a far hilltop to look for a sail. The Tui Matefele left a few days later, but I still hoped that
I might get along further. At length the same boat returned, but in a leaking condition, needing to be beached again. Later, after I had returned to Levuka, she heeled over in a sudden strong breeze, her deck cargo aft went overboard and she simply nose-dived into the deep blue ocean from whence there is no return.

During my stay some natives from the neighbouring island of Susui came along with a request to catch turtles on the shore reef. In a short time they had captured seven, which were tethered back downwards in the shade on the beach. We had turtle soup and turtle steaks, which are very palatable. Fish was plentiful and fish soup was served in small coconut shells, while a novelty was land crab boiled until the flesh could be broken easily, then baked, with herbs, in their own back shells--very rich. On a nearby island are the huge coconut crabs with tremendously strong nippers that husk the coconuts.

At one stage we were joined by some native women who were preparing the pandanus leaves for mat making. The leaves cut green have their prickly edges and spine removed and are placed in bunches in boiling water for a time, then withdrawn and hung to drain. Later they are spread out in the hot sun to dry [81/82] and are then ready to be split into strips as required, using shells as knives. For black strips to be interwoven into a mat, some of the pandanus is taken and buried in the mangrove mud for a time to secure a fast dye.

Each day the bell for the labour to rise rang out at 4 a.m., and men were on their way to work at five o'clock. Each man had his task in copra cutting for the day. This was not a particularly heavy one, for most men were able to do considerably more than their task if they thought fit, and received the extra reward. The bell rang to cease at 9.30, when breakfast of substantial proportions was the order of the day at the plantation homestead; lunch was at one o'clock and dinner at 6.30, just before which the fading daylight gave better reception for the wireless.

Wireless is a great boon to the people of the Pacific, especially in isolated islands such as this. As the darker hours give the best reception and Fiji is in the centre of the Pacific with such a huge expanse of sea from America to Australia, it is possible to hear most of the world's wireless stations in their particular working hours. Near to six o'clock we would get Los Angeles, where the "Richfield Oil Reporter" used to serve up an extraordinarily good epitome of world's news. Curiously enough he was speaking, according to his time, late the previous evening. We would then pass on to New Zealand, though Salt Lake City, Chicago, New York, Mexico City and Japan were screaming to [82/83] talk to us. Then Australia came, two hours behind us, and so on.

The island gave plenty of variety. One day we climbed to the summit of its central hill, through the tracks in the dense tropical bush, climbing over the wide, deep trenches that marked the scene of bloodthirsty warfare not many years before. Tropical fruits grew wild along the tracks, as they do in many parts of the islands, and at one stage a quick, bright flash of brilliant red revealed a bush fowl in flight scared by our movements. At the top of the hill are the remnants of the old-time village, hidden there from its enemies at a vantage point from which the movements of rival canoes could be espied. On the peak were the last remains of the Devil temple of Koroibo, "god of the winds"; unfortunately old age and scientists had despoiled it. From the heights we were able to get an excellent view of others of the nearer islands of the group.

As we stood on the beach one day, a particularly clear day when the sea was pale blue and the islands in the distance gave the impression that they were just suspended in the air, I was reminded by my host of the expression used by one of my boys when speaking of the Lau Group: "Away out there it is said by the natives that on the clearest of clear days it is just possible to see the 'mystic isle of Mborutu' to which the spirits of the Fijians and Tongans are said to go." The only island I could see at that time, with my very [83/84] material gaze, was Katafaga, interesting as being the last island visited by von Luckner before reaching the island of his fate, Wakaya.

I was getting anxious, as the weeks seemed to go by and no boat was available to get back to my centre. After a daily searching of the sea we were, at last, rewarded by the sight of a sail which passed by outside the Tongan reef, some miles from us, and turned in to go to Vanua Mbalavu. We despatched a message by boat and found that it was a very small cutter named the Ana which had been away turtle fishing. She had originally been much smaller, but had been cut in half and lengthened, with a hold built forward and a heavy oil engine placed in the cabin portion. The engine having proved useless had been discarded.

Thus away we came over the often ruffled Koro Sea, this time kinder to us; slowly, ever so slowly, with the tropical heat striking up on us from the water. We crept into Levuka just after midnight.

* * * * *

My period at Levuka was drawing to an end. A problem was pressing itself on the Bishop. What should be the fate of Levuka with its falling population? The necessity to retrench in view of straitened finances was counterbalanced by Levuka's possession of its beautiful church, the only permanent church of our communion in Fiji, its remaining churchpeople, its central position in relation to the outer islands and its tradition as the foundation parish of the Diocese.

[85] While Levuka was slowly sinking (though the return of copra to a reasonable cost of handling will help to rehabilitate the old place), on the other side of Viti Levu another settlement in the sugar-cane area, Lautoka, was becoming the second place in size in the colony.

Lautoka is about 180 miles by water from Levuka, but is on the same island as Suva, and progress demanded the building of a road to link it up with the capital--no small undertaking in a land of heavy tropical downpours. About Lautoka is a series of outer settlements for sugar-cane farming under European overseers. It has the unfortunate handicap of having no permanent Anglican building for worship, the Methodist chapel, to the building of which many Anglicans subscribed some year ago, being used, by the courtesy of the local minister, by the Vicar. It is a big field with a great scope.

The problem was solved in the only way possible for the time being by the temporary fusion of the two big areas into one parish. Naturally no single vicar can do justice to such a proposition and see that every member of the Church of our fathers is individually shepherded, so we have definitely lost ground.

The time came for us to leave Levuka. The parting was exceedingly difficult under such conditions. Three years of uphill fighting against unusual circumstances with many victories for which to thank the good Lord--and, naturally, a few mistakes to thank the Lord [85/86] for, too, for we are all of us fools some time or other for the sake of experience. It was hardly to be expected that the gardens would remain the same little corner of an earthly paradise; the Kuo Min Tang had a providential national day, and the ducks that had waddled about the grounds were slaughtered to the spirit of a Chinese holiday; the dear old magpie flew in through the open louvre to breakfast with us for the last time; and the old and young Solomon Islanders made their lament and sang their songs of farewell to the strum of their stringed instruments. The remaining Europeans said their farewells in their own particular way. We moved on, for our last few weeks, to the charge of Suva.

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