Naivevu, home of the Steiners and its many memories

Violet Reade holds a picture of her grandparents, William and Sussanah Johnson, and Alice's mum, Emma, in front of her parents. Picture: SERAFINA SILAITOGA

Violet Reade holds a picture of her grandparents, William and Sussanah Johnson, and Alice's mum, Emma, in front of her parents. Picture: SERAFINA SILAITOGA

THE thriving copra industry of the early 1900s and its success was like a treasured gem for the workers and farmers along the coast of Macuata.

Seeing this as a treasure, these coastal residents, ensuring that it wasn’t affected by anything, would halt the church service for a few minutes so they could store away dried copra when it rained on a Sunday.

As recalled by Emma Devo (Hewson) the great granddaughter of Jacob Steiner at Vunirara Estate, a story revealed by descendants of Jacob Steiner who arrived in Fiji in the 1800s stated that William Hewson, the husband of Emma Hewson nee Steiner (eldest of Steiner from Korotubu wife) was a lay preacher.

“If during one of his sermons the rain fell at Naivevu, he would lead the flock outside to keep the dried copra away and return to the church to continue his preaching and church service.” she said.

Another descendant of Steiner, Max Dyer, a great great grandson who has conducted researche and interviewed his late uncles, grandparents, aunts and parents, said these stories were passed down through the generations.

“For the livelihood of Jacob Steiner’s descendants, copra was important around the 1940s.

“Initially a bure was built for the copra storage with the base made of thatched bamboo and diadia thatched roof and it was later replaced with a timber-framed one,” he said.

“The family built a punt that was powered by six oars and could cater for 30 cotton bags of copra. Copra was taken to Naqumu and sold to the Kwong Tiy Company. At the time the Kwong Tiy Company had trading shops along the coast with their main shop operating out of Naduri.

“Around the 1950s, the Naivevu Estate under William Hewson, purchased a launch boat (inboard engine) from Bull Brothers in Dreketi and it had a 5hp simplex engine . The name of the launch boat was Bekabeka’

“It was used to tow a copra laden punt to Kwong Tiy in Suva where the fuel for the launch was also purchased. The launch was also used for fishing and diving on neighbouring reefs of Yawea and Tulei.”

Mr Dyer said another 28-foot launch with mast and sail that was built by Jurvis Eyre an engineer working for CSR, Labasa mill was initially purchased by Andrew Hewson in Vunirara and called it Ol Tilda.

“This was named after his daughter Matilda then sold to Abel Hewson and renamed Elizabeth after his only daughter and utilised in Naivevu,” he said.

Mr Dyer said that during the 1950s, ships like the Tuikauvaro, Adi Rewa, Tui Labasa, Viani Princess, Helena owned by Morris Hedstrom and other ships Moala, Taveuni owned by Burns Philp would anchor ooff Naivevu to load copra. Copra was loaded on small punts then taken to the ships.

These ships, he said, would also drop off supplies from Suva such as flour, sugar, salt, kerosene, benzene, 40 pound biscuit tins and tea.

“The copra was weighed and the change was sent on the next shipment. Naivevu’s shipment averaged around five tonnes of copra and cost around 50 pounds per tonne,” Mr Dyer said.

“All copra bags at the time were marked ‘WHN’ which stood for William Hewson of Naivevu and the shipping round trip to Suva and back to Naivevu normally took two weeks.

Ratu Ritova and Jacob Steiner

In the 1800s, the late and former Tui Macuata Ratu Ritova was at war with Tongan prince Ma’afu whose fame of conquering local tribal wars was known in Fiji.

So after befriending Steiner apart from giving him Nukubati and Mavuva Islands, Ratu Ritova also obtained guns from him.

“Mr Steiner is originally from Bern, Switzerland (arrived in Fiji around 1862) was a gunsmith who repaired and helped acquire guns for then Tui Macuata, Ratu Ritova,” Mr Dyer said.

“According to research I have collected, it was also during this period that Ratu Ritova used to also visit Mr Steiner at Vunirara.

“And according to old stories passed down through generations, the elderly women and children were scared and hid in their homes when he arrived and a tell-tale strong body odour that lingered in the air confirmed his presence.

“Jacob Steiner became more involved as a planter later on utilising the land provided to him by Ratu Ritova.

“Jacob died in 1903 from acute bronchitis at 76 years of age and was buried at Vunirara.”

His daughters from the second wife Lusiana Voliuto from Korotubu Village lived with him at Vunirara before moving on to start their own families. His daughters were Emma, Susannah, Sarah, Anna, Grace, Josephine and Jacobina of which Susannah died at the age of 16, Annie at 22 and Sarah remained a spinster.

Emma married William Hewson from Vagadaci, Levuka and Josephine married William’s brother Charles Hewson, Jacobina married Larry Foster from Yasawa and they had two sons Joseph Loli Foster and Lui Foster.

Grace married Arthur Mills from Wainunu, Bua and their children were Deborah, Lucy, Selina, Thomas and Harold Mills.


Around this period (1940s) there were two Fijian houses (bure) at Vunirara, one known as Macuata where Jacobina and Larry Foster lived and the other bure Caumatalevu where Josephine and Charles Hewson lived and they had a son Andrew Hewson who married Annie Simmons.

“William and Emma Hewson had three daughters; Susannah who married William Johnson (Viliame Matarai), Jane (Jacobina) who married William Dyer from Kadavu and Anna who married James Lestro (James Lastario of the Phillipines),” he said.

According to Grace Wilkes, the only surviving daughter of William Johnson and Susannah, her dad returned to Naivevu from war service in the Solomons.

He and Susannah had four siblings, Alice (Reade) Louisa (Peters) Charles (Laginikoro Johnson) and Gracie (Wilkes). Later they moved to Labasa and her dad worked at the sugar mill before joining Grand Eastern Hotel as a licensee for many years.

“Jacobina and Larry Foster eventually moved out of Vunirara and established the neighbouring Vunicibicibi Estate.

“Jane Jacobina (William and Ema Hewson’s daughter) and William Dyer moved from Naivevu to establish the neighbouring Manuduitagi Settlement with their seven sons Oliver, Henry, Sam, Jim, William, Larry, George and only daughter Emily.


The name Naivevu, Mr Dyer, said derived from a tree that was dominant in the area called nai-evuevu'(Hernandia nymphaeifolia) and it was Ratu Ritova’s former place to where the bokola or slaves were kept.

According to Anna Lestro’s daughter, Fanny Evans nee Lestro, Naivevu was a loved place.

“We loved that place when my grandparents lived there because every school holiday, we would travel there to spend time with my cousins, aunts and uncles,” she said.

“Naivevu still holds a lot of treasured memories for most of us who spent time there as children.

“My grandparents adopted a son when he was only three weeks old and he is my uncle Abel Hewson because they needed a boy to help out on the farm.

“They had three daughters with them at the estate so they adopted my uncle Abel and another girl used to stay with them and she is Nancy Watkins.

“She looked after my grandparents until they both died. My grandmother Emma became blind so aunty Nancy looked after her until she died.”

During those school holidays, Mrs Evans said they had to walk from Naduri Village to get to Naivevu.

“The road only reached Naduri and if there was a boat waiting, then we’d be blessed to go on a boat ride which could last 30 minutes to reach Naivevu,” she said.

“But if there was no boat, then we had to walk to Naivevu from Naduri and that used to take many hours to walk through the forest.

“We used to walk with our cousins because everyone had to be in Naivevu for the holidays and we used to have so much fun.

“We were all living in Labasa and at Nukutatava so everyone spent their holidays at Naivevu. We didn’t mind the long walk through the forest from Naduri as we used to pick ripe guavas and other fruits we saw along the way.”

Emma and William Hewson

Around 1937 as the families expanded so William and Emma Hewson moved their family out of Vunirara and established the Naivevu Estate , two kilometres south of Vunirara further up North along the coastline beach.

According to information supplied to this newspaper, at Naivevu was a bure for William and Emma Hewson, a large family home built of timber in the centre of the compound flanked by Jane and William Dyer’s home, a labourers’ bure, copra shed, Susannah and William Johnson’s home called Savaii.

“Several labourers from Bua, Nabukadogo, Nasea and Naqumu also resided at Naivevu and employed to help manage the large copra plantation,” Mr Dyer said.

“At the time the coconuts were sunned and dried on a vata (raised makeshift) table made from bamboo.

“It was built on stilts about six feet high to prevent horses from eating the dried coconut flesh.

“If there was a small drizzle the men and women would rush out to cover the vata with pieces of corrugated iron.

“The family had also planted yams in the mountain ranges close to Naivevu and these consisted of short and long yams.

“The short yams such as the Taniela damu, rerega, beka, vakalolokula, niumadu and long yams such as saukalabuci, sadro, qavui, siasia, Moala damu.

“Some of the yam sidlings were passed on from nearby villages and most were recycled over the years. Yams were planted around July to September and took around eight months until it was ready to harvest. A sevu, which consisted of the best yams of the harvest, were given to the preacher that came on that certain Sundays. Other root crops included cassava and kumala.”

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