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LEVUKA in the heydays

Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, July 21, 2013

Levuka has recently been included on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. The significance of this list means that Levuka is one of the few places on earth that is not only protected by the people of Fiji, but by the world. The World Heritage list not only protects areas of special cultural or physical significance in member countries for the future generations of that country but protects it too for the people of the world as well.

The Ministry of National Heritage, Culture and Arts will soon commence the much needed work to ensure that Levuka Town, along with its unique and historic buildings, national sites and landscape, is preserved.

All in all, it is the culmination of nearly 20 years of effort from the government, stakeholders and various lobby groups to finally get Levuka listed as a World Heritage site.

Through an epic audio media project which was titled Fiji Oral History Project Part 1: Part-Europeans and Europeans, we managed to glean some memories of Levuka residents who lived through much of the heydays of the first town and capital of Fiji.

The audio project comprises 28 taped interviews with 26 senior members of these communities living in Fiji and Australia, and it traces the history of a number of part-European and European families in Fiji through the 19th and 20th centuries, especially those who once lived in Levuka.

Many of the stories about Levuka shared in this project have not been recorded or written as they were personal stories and accounts of the lives of those who were interviewed — some stories passed down through generations while others lived through the different eras and changes the old capital underwent.

The interviews were conducted by Marsali MacKinnon — a former journalist and academic from Australia — between 1998 and 1999, before it was embargoed until 2005, but by then, many of those interviewed had passed away. Once again, our nation's colourful history, especially that of the early days of our modern history, are left to gather dust.

There are many dates to say when Levuka was first settled by American and European settlers, and traders, to establish it as a modern town, but many agree that by the 1820s, Levuka was truly settled.

This was done so with the blessing of the Tui Levuka, and so the "whites" quickly organised themselves into a coherent settlement, led by American David Whippy.

By this time, traders in beach-de-mer, sandalwood, planters, missionaries and merchants were already plying the Fiji waters looking to trade with the iTaukeis.

Levuka became the focal point of every European activity in Fiji, and soon developed into a fully fledged township being the only well supplied port of call east of Australia and New Zealand.

Levuka, however, did also attract the ruffians and the dregs of the western world, especially the marooned seamen, deserting beachcombers and even an escaped convict or two.

This roughness was epitomised by none other than Captain William Henry Hayes or Bully Hayes as he is widely known, a Pacific pirate of sorts known for his notoriety in kidnapping Pacific islanders and selling them off as labourers in Australian plantations — a practice called Blackbirding.

Hubert Jumbo Sabben, a former Levuka resident, and was residing at the Gold Coast in Australia when he was interviewed in 1998, said he was related to Bully Hayes through marriage.

"Oh dear, that's another one, yes. Well Bully Hayes is as noted in the Pacific as Henry Morgan was in the Caribbean. He was blaggard, and had nothing good about him.

"He was absolutely a rascal. Well, he was operating a boat in the Pacific islands, round Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Solomons, and we call them black birding.

"He'd go to these islands and have dinner aboard — under the hatches — and then feed them intoxicating liquor, and when they were sort of nice and high, he'd put the hatch combings on and sail for another island, and he got a crowd of black birders, and bought them into Queensland, and dropped them out for the sugar plantations.

"He didn't mind what he collected— you know, it wasn't only the men but all the women as well. Well, he was roaming around about in the 1860s," Sabben said.

Bully Hayes met his end the same way he led his life and according to Sabben and historical records, he was killed and buried at sea.

Levuka was expanding and that meant lodgings and feeding the thousands of seamen, planters, merchants and what nots that passed through the town — industry and commercialism thrived in the town.

Henry Sahai, another long time Levuka resident, who was interviewed by MacKinnon, gave her stories handed down from generation to generation and some of which had had baking powder added to it, turning it to legendary proportions.

Sahai was a well-known tourist guide in Levuka, a job he held with particular reverence as he was one of the few left, who lived through the town's golden era.

"Levuka in the old days was a wild town. The evidence is in the town archives. They reckoned there weren't 10 brawls a day it was news. The harbour was full of American clipper ships — and all sorts of other sailing boats. In the barber shop in town, there were pictures of old US clipper ships taken in 1904.

"In the last century there were no harbour lights, the ships hove to outside the reef. They will wait for daylight which will reveal to them the way the current is running because there would be a line of empty gin and whisky bottles floating out of the harbour and shows to the captains the passage through the reef. It was a wild town," Sahai said.

Levuka was the jewel of the South Seas, an exotic location to make or break fortunes. For some, it was a haven away from the prying eyes of the law in Australia and New Zealand, while for others, it was just a transit point.

"There were Jews, Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Fijians of course. As you climb up the steps through the centre of the Draiba cemetery, you see plenty of German graves, Jews, all sorts of people. They all died here, they're buried here, but there aren't many stories about them now. People here have forgotten these families, they didn't live on here," Sahai said.

Many of the buildings still standing in Levuka now, were built either in the late 1800s or in the early 1900s, and a good many of them still retain their original architecture.

These were built when Levuka was thriving, being the popular stopover for travellers and ships between the American continent and Asia, and later when it tried to outshine the young capital of Suva with its port and position in the centre of Fiji Group as a main inter-island trade route.

Another Levuka resident, William Moses, said all the buildings in Levuka were built using Canadian Oregon timber

"All good timber, you never see any bends, very straight timber — 26 feet long, very nice, easy to nail, cut and plane. Fiji timber — often it isn't well matured or weathered, so it goes crooked when you nail it. The old buildings in Levuka (including the Ovalau Club) are made from Oregon, with yaka floor (a Fijian timber). Yaka is a nice Fiji wood, it polishes well," Moses said.

"Only the iron roof needs replacing sometimes. They built things very solidly in those days. Mostly Europeans and part-europeans were boat builders, carpenters, house builders. Their fathers came from overseas and worked hard. Levuka was built by them — they were good carpenters and engineers. They had their own fitting (and turning) shop here, called Fiji Construction — boys left school and joined, became big engineers. It all started from Levuka," Moses said.

One such building that has withstood the ravages of time is the Royal Hotel, which was built in the 1860s.

Current owners, the Ashley family, still run the Royal through Nicolette (nee Ashley) Yoshida's youngest son Mark.

When MacKinnon interviewed Nicky in 1999, it was learnt that the Royal was one of the many hotels and boarding houses that were in Levuka back then.

"Yes it w

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