Captain Erskine’s cruise through the Fiji Islands | Part 3

A page inside Erskine’s rare first edition publication of the journal. Picture: Schilb Antiquarian

When Captain John Elphinstone Erskine of Her Majesty’s ship Havannah (during his cruise through Fiji in the 1800s) received a letter from Charles Pickering, he was informed that he was a man the natives greatly disliked.

In this continuation of Erskine’s account of his time in Fiji, published in 1853 titled ‘Journal of a Cruise Among the Islands of the Western Pacific, in Her Majesty’s Ship Havana,” we can infer Pickering was a ‘perpetrator of many enormities.’

Erskine was also given a hint by Cakobau that removing him from Fiji would be a great service for the islands as Pickering was a dangerous character.

He constantly created tension between the white residents and the natives.

Erskine said he would do Cakobau a favour if he ever came across any case of wrongdoing by Pickering.

“The chief’s representation was, however, a reasonable one; and I had intimated to him that, if he could substantiate any improper act on the part of Pickering, I should certainly comply with his request,” Erksine wrote.

“There was no doubt of the man’s bad reputation, as the white community of Levuka evidently shunned his society; and he was now, as if in bravado, living in an unseemly manner close to the mission premises, with about half a dozen native women as concubines.

“I believe he had been informed by some of the white men, that one of the objects of my coming here was to convey him to Sydney and had asked for an interview for the sake of having the first word, being confident of the power of his plausibility.”

Pickering was accompanied by an American friend and was surprised that Erskine declined to enter further questions when it was considered settled.

“Although I advised him to be prepared, if he desired to remain in the Feejees, to answer any charges which Thakombau might bring against him as a disturber of the peace. While visiting Calvert’s house on Viwa Island, Erskine awaited the arrival of Cakobau and Navindi (Gavidi) from Bau when the chief of the island Namosimalua arrived and narrated his journey to Ba and Rakiraki on missionary business. When the chiefs had arrived from Bau, to Erskine’s surprise, he found Cakobau to be friendly with Pickering. Pickering had taken the opportunity of the chief’s good mood to talk to him and persuade him to take no further steps for Erskine to remove him from Fiji.

“What arguments were made use of I do not know, but Thakombau begged Mr. Calvert to let me know that Pickering having promised better behaviour in future, he wished me to consider the complaint made yesterday as withdrawn.

“We retired from Viwa laden with presents of arms and articles of native manufacture, which the gentlemen of the mission and their wives insisted on our accepting.”

During their trip up to Levuka, they were accompanied by Calvert,who acted as an interpreter of the chiefs and was also at the time engaged in the translation of the scriptures.

“There being very little wind, our row up to the ship at Levuka, upwards of twenty miles, was a tedious one, owing in great measure to the boat being encumbered with spears, clubs, pottery, and different curiosities,” Erskine noted.

“Thakombau looked very dignified, seated in the stern-sheets, his head decorated with a new turban of smoke-coloured gauze, beneath which projected a long pin of tortoiseshell, resembling a netting-needle, a necessary instrument for scratching the head, which no fingernails could be long enough to reach.”

The chiefs, after they dined, saw pistols in the boat and suggested they fire at a mark to pass time and they did this the next day.

“Captain Jenner, who slept in one of the side cabins, was awoke this morning by the awful-looking visage of Thakombau, who had begun early to gratify his curiosity by exploring all the corners of the ship, gazing intently upon him as he lay in his cot.

“In the forenoon we went to quarters, having previously laid out a target (a hammock, with the figure of a man painted on it) against the face of a conspicuous rock on the beach, at a distance from the ship of 800 yards.”

Erskine shared how Cakobau was in great anxiety when the firing began and approached Calvert speaking in fear.

Cakobau said: “This indeed makes me tremble; I feel no longer secure. Should I offend these people, they have but to bring their ship to Bau, where, having found me out with their long spyglasses, my head would fall at the first shot!”

Erskine took Cakobau ashore to the rock where the target had been placed upon his request and he examined the effects of the shot where large fragments were spread all over the beach.

“He inspected these with a chuck of astonishment, which was increased by an old man bringing, a few hours later, a 68-pound shot, which, having glanced along the top of the rock, had fallen into the ditch of the koro, or native village, about a mile distant by the beach, where he had been employed in digging his taro.

“Thakombau seemed somewhat disappointed that I had no arms or ammunition to supply him with; but ample amends were made by Captain Jenner’s gift of a laced scarlet coat and epaulettes, the full uniform of an officer of the guards.

“Navindi (Gavidi) was gratified at the same time with a scarlet hunting-coat; and Tui Levuka, who had made great friends with all the officers, especially with the midshipmen, and had received from them many articles of clothing, had also a present of a few trifles allotted to him.”

During the evening, Erskine had great difficulty after dinner in persuading Cakobau to join the dance on deck among the people of Levuka.

Cakobau stated that their dancing gave a different idea of Fijian dance and according to him the perfection of dancing could only be seen on the island of Bau.

Erskine wrote that Cakobau felt that it would be much easier for him to put a ‘man to death’ for their amusement instead of dancing.

“By way of making amends for his ill humour, Thakombau, with the assistance of Tui Levuka, who summoned his people from various parts of the ship, organized at last a dance on the quarter-deck.

“They stood up in two rows, to the number of about twenty, Thakombau himself beating time with a short stick on a kind of drum or instrument hastily constructed of bamboo, and began a low chant, moving their bodies to and fro in unison, with quiet gestures of the hands and arms.

“Even Mr. Calvert and the interpreter did not know the words of the chant, which became occasionally louder and more animated as it proceeded and terminated suddenly in a loud shout and general clap of the hands.”

On August 17, 1849, on a beautiful sunny morning the group arrived in Ovalau and more fascinating encounters began to unfold.


Editor’s note:

History being the subject it is, a group’s version of events may not be the same as that held by another group. When publishing one account, it is not our intention to cause division or to disrespect other oral traditions. Those with a different version can contact us so we can publish your account of history too.

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