One hundred and sixty five years following the first publication of the first ever iTaukei bible, it now has been rediscovered, dusted and re-printed into circulation.
The effort was undertaken by two very distinguished Fijian Methodism scholars of late, the Doctor Andrew Thornley and Tauga Vulaono. Between the two, they have published four books since 2000, on the lives of early English missionaries as well as a book on the modern history of the iTaukei in the pre and post Christian era.
The first iTaukei bible was translated directly from Greek, the original language of the Bible, to the Bauan dialect by the Reverend John Hunt or Jone Oniti, as he was known to the Fijians back then. Hunt was credited with the translation because he did much of the work but the work to translate the Bible into the iTaukei form was previously taken up by several other missionaries including Thomas Jagger, William Cross, David Cargill, James Calvert, Richard Lacey, Thomas Williams and many more.
Hunt first arrived into Fiji in 1839 and was first posted to Rewa and later to Taveuni in Somosomo. He was described by many as a true god fearing man who put his beliefs first and foremost above all else.
As described by author John Garrett in his book, "To Live Among the Stars", "Hunt was as open as any of the
missionaries to what he had to learn from the old culture of Fiji; he never 'went native, 'remaining himself, English and a Methodist; but he talked of Christ rather than of European furnishings... His readiness to follow the local custom of kerekere in giving away his own and his wife's possessions to Fijians exasperated some of his colleagues."
Hunt first started his work on translating the bible into the Bauan dialect in 1844 but historical records puts it that he had first started working on translating the Gospel at Rewa some time earlier. Hunt was only formally charged with this task after Reverend Cargill who is a linguist, and had translated part of the bible into the Lauan dialect and had left Fiji for another posting overseas in 1841. So Hunt was transferred from his posting at Somosomo in Taveuni along with his wife Hannah to Viwa, which was the headquarters of the Methodist Mission in Fiji then because it was the only place in Fiji, apart from the Lauan group where Christians werer welcomed.
Dr. Thornley says Hunt, even though not a linguist, set out to complete the translation of the Bible from its original form in Greek to the Bauan dialect with such a zeal that some of the Bauan dialect he used has now been lost.
"One of the first things he did was send for Noa Koroinavugona whom he had sent to Nakorotubu to be a Christian teacher there. He wanted this man to help him with the translation and he was one that Hunt regarded to have possessed excellent knowledge of the (Bauan) language."
Koroinavuguna was known to Hunt as a devout Christian and to his fellow iTaukei, was known as the 'masima ni vosa' or 'ka dau dina ni vakayagataki ni vosa' roughly translating as an expert in using his native tongue to teach the doctrines in the Bible.
"He was also helped by maybe even Ratu Varani the Tui Viwa himself who had already converted and Adi Litia Vatea. They too were important informants of the language," Dr. Thornley says.
So Hunt set about his work and completed his translation of all the 27 books of the New Testament and in 1847 the first edition of the iTaukei bible was printed with 1000 copies only.
When completed, Hunt's first edition of the iTaukei bible was readily accepted by the itaukei and many others, and hailed by many as a true work that reflected the real temperament of the local dialect.
"Allan Tippet, also a missionary said of Hunt's translation that, 'breathes
with a Fijian heart'." "To me, it's like Shakespeare in English, even though we never understood much of what was being said, it was treasured. So too was it like the King James Version of the Bible. Hunt's translation was the root of which others have taken their form from," Dr Thornley added.
He added that there are some documentary evidence that Hunt may have translated the iTaukei Bible with the particular view of the Fijian chants in mind. This practise is still being used today in the Methodist Church where old women recite biblical verses, especially the Psalm of King David before or after the church service.
"But this edition was only limited and in fact, nearly all the Fijians living today were never brought up with Reverend John Hunt's bible. The bible currently used was the revised editions which took away the essence of the language used by Hunt himself in his first translation," Dr. Thornley says.
History has it that when the Rev. Calvert left Fiji for England in November 1855, he had taken Hunt's New Testament along with the Old Testament translation by David Hazlewood.
The British and Foreign Bible Society granted -£900 (pounds) toward its publication and Calvert helped to produce 5000 copies of the first complete edition of the Fijian Bible and 10,000 copies of the New Testament.
"In 1858, the new editions were printed and a Calvert had done some revisions to Hunt's manuscript and this altered much of the original language used by Hunt. And according to historical records, many missionaries in Fiji did not like it," Dr. Thornley says.
In fact the local iTaukei bible as we know it was the work of Frederick Langhan who further revised the Calvert editions in 1902 and which survived up until recently, when a Sir James Ah Koy sponsored revision, made further changes to the iTaukei Bible.
"When Calvert returned to Fiji there were meetings of which there are historical records where the missionaries stated their dislike for the new revised editions of the iTaukei bible but since only 1000 copies were made of the very first edition, it gradually went out of circulation," Dr Thornley added.
After publishing John Hunt's story in 2000 in the book called 'The Inheritance of Hope', Dr Thornley began his work on getting Hunt's first edition of the iTaukei Bible in 2005.
"I had some pieces of his manuscripts and when I showed it to some of the talatala around here, they said that that was the first time ever they are viewing some of this translation. So that was when I thought that I would try and bring this first edition back to Fiji," Dr Thornley says.
Together with Ms Vulaono and other Methodist Church reverends, they worked on re-typing the original scripts that Dr. Thornley found in the Mitchell's Library in Sydney, Australia.
"It really took a lot of hard work and lots of late night reading, and typing and emailing and correcting earlier mistakes and editing before we finally put the iTaukei Bible together again," Ms Vulaono says.
Just shortly after the printing of the first ever edition, Hunt, ravaged by disease, died in Viwa in 1848, at the age of 36 years.