The Ill-fated L’ Amiable Josephine

The massacre of beachcomber Charlie Savage and others at Wailea in Bua over 200 years ago marked the end of the sandalwood era in Fiji.

In just a few decades, though, another lucrative trade would again lure foreign vessels to Fiji waters.

Ships from all corners of the globe were in fact returning in search of prized sea-slugs known locally as dri or as beche-de mer in the bustling markets they were headed for in Asia.

Along with beche-de mer traders, others led by bold and adventurous captains, eager to seek out their riches in the South Seas decided to chance their arm in the Fiji group.

The French trader, L Amiable Josephine, was one such vessel.

But Fiji was a dangerous place to seek one’s fortunes.

In 1834, the nephew of Namosimalua, a great chief of Viwa near Rewa urged on by Bauan chiefs, had captured the L’ Amiable Josephine, and killed the captain and most of the crew.

The events leading up to the L’Aimable Josephine massacre sheds some light on early dealings between white traders and the iTaukei, with muskets and beche-de-mer being the commodities eagerly by each party

“A little known aspect of this incident is that Captain Du Bureaux of L Amiable Josephine and his men had been involving themselves in Fijian wars,” wrote Stanley Brown in his Men from Under the Sky — Arrival of Westerners in Fiji.

Obviously there had been some level of collaboration between white man travelling on ships and iTaukei who were now clearly impressed with the power that came to those with guns.

Ronald A Derrick in his A History of Fiji notes that as a result of the introduction of firearms to Fiji, the character of warfare changed, with small wars discouraged and battle taken on more seriously.

Back in 1834 Bau and its ally Viwa had decided to attack Somosomo and the captain of the L Amiable Josephine had agreed to transport the raiding party to and from Taveuni in exchange for a cargo of beche-de-mer.

The French brig sailed to Taveuni but the Somosomo men beat off the attack with the help of Tongan Lajiki.

The L’Aimable Josephine with its disgruntled occupants sailed back to Viti Levu with an evil plan already brewing on board.

“It was an unhappy day — unless there was another way of saving pride. Such as having their own ship and cannon,” wrote Kim Gravelle, of the incident in his very descriptive, Fiji’s Heritage — A History of Fiji.

“The Vunivalu of Bau, Ratu Navuaka, urged two chiefs of Viwa Namosimalua and Varani — to seize the ship.”

According to Gravelle’s account, Varani would later claim that he was almost strangled by the Bauans until he had agreed to this plan which they eventually carried out.

The L Amiable Josephine, its captain des Bureax and most of the crew aboard the ship were slaughtered.

There were a few French sailors who were spared in order to sail the ship to a place they could sell it.

Derrick wrote that although the voyage had been unsuccessful, the Bau rebels had enjoyed sailing in the large ship immensely, and they now conceived of the idea of having a sip of their own.

“Strong pressure was brought to bear on Namosimalua and his nephew Varani, chiefs of Viwa who were on friendly terms with the captain.”

On the night of July 19, the ship was taken with Bureaux and his men killed and eaten.

The Fijians a study of the Decay of Customs by Basil Thompson notes that “native crew did not dare to sail her within sight of other vessel.”

According to Thompson the captured vessel did not prove to be of much value.

Derrick wrote “The Bauans were however, disappointed with the meagre spoils, for there was little merchandise, and the few muskets that were left were broken.

“But they were in proud possession of the ship and its guns and they planned an attack on Naselai, a town on the Rewa river, which previously had resisted all efforts to take it.

“Almost immediately, the ship was turned toward Naselai in the Rewa River, a town which had resisted previous attacks, and the ship’s cannon were put to good use. Naselai fell,” wrote Gravelle.

Retribution would come years later when in October 1838, the French corvettes Astrolabe and Zelee, under the command of Dumont D’ Urville, arrived to take the rebels to task.

“D’ Urville had called at Lakeba to get a pilot and had secured the services of one of the chiefs, which piloted the ships safely through the reefs between Ovalau and Bau,” Derrick continued.

“When the expedition of D Urville arrived with two warships in 1838 to deal with the offenders.

“When the chiefs of Bau were questioned placed the blame for the massacre on the chiefs of Viwa.

“The French destroyed all the houses on the island but the people of Viwa had all escaped the main island, having been warned by the Bauans of the intention of the French.”

Bau, Derrick continued, later let it known that they had allowed the warships to destroy Viwa.

“When Namosimalua returned and saw the destruction he expressed a wish to embrace Christianity or lotu as the Fijians expressed it, using a word that had been taken from the Tongans.

In Fiji and the Fijians by Thomas Williams and James Calvert Namosimalua is described as having an “evil reputation for treachery and butchery”.

“In November of that year some natives came from Vewa to inform Mr Cross that their chief wished to lotu, having come to the conclusion that the gods of the Fijians were no good since they had allowed their temple to be burnt down by the French,” the authors wrote.

The Central Queensland Herald of October 27, 1833 reported on the matter noting that: “The French exacted a fearful toll, and in 1833 the chief sent for Mr Cross (Methodist Missionary William Cross) that he might embrace Christianity.”

The newspaper report continued: “This appears to have been one of the repentances that are quickened by the imminence and inevitability of something worse befalling the convert.”

Interestingly D Urville would later mention in a report on the incident that two escaped convicts named “Sina and Geny” had been used to seize the L Amiable Josephine.

This adds up given various accounts that escaped convicts and runaway sailors had taken their chances on the coastlines of Fiji and become much engaged in violence.

And another point of interest is that two prominent kailoma or part-European families in Fiji are linked in some way to the ill-fated vessel.

Frank Rodan and Luis Rogers, both survivors of the L’ Amiable Josephine would live on and raise families in Fiji.

Their descendants now live at Nukuwatu settlement on the Lami foreshore.

In a separate twist, an individual by the name of Charlie Pickering, who lived at Rewa at the time, manned a brass cannon salvaged from the L’ Amaibe Josphine.

Pickering, who must have been the ancestor to the Pickering family from Rewa, would use the cannon to pound the fortified town of Suva as he assisted Rewan warriors destroy the old village in 1843 at the present site of Thurston Gardens.

But the ship itself had gone from sight shortly after its raid on Naselai back in 1834.

As Gravelle continued: “The jubilant party’s joy was short-lived. On the way back to Bau, the ship ran aground near Kaba, and L’ Amiable Josephine settled slowly into the sand forever.”

“The ship’s captain, Bureaux, had to some extent provoked his fate by taking part in native wars.”

Bureaux had in fact sealed the fate of himself and his men when he threw in his lot with Varani and the Viwa rebels.

The remains of the L’ Amiable Josephine now rests in waters off the coast of Tailevu.

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