Guns, God and Gin

Walking down the main street of Levuka wasn’t always such a blissfully quiet and peaceful affair. The first capital of Fiji was born into anarchy and the sort of wild life only created by stir-crazy seamen and hustlers. Roderick Eime walked the verandas and lush pathways of the little town, soaking up the history.

December 19, 2018
Rebecca Murphy

Rebecca Murphy

December 19, 2018

The tranquil and verdant lanes of Levuka hide a turbulent past. The flame trees lining the canal and the immaculate cream woodwork of the heritage buildings suggest, but do not fully reveal, the turbulent birth of Fiji as a nation.

Almost 200 years ago, Levuka became the first permanent European settlement, a status that made it the de facto choice as capital when Tui Cakobau and the chiefs ceded the islands to Queen Victoria on 10 October 1874. The monument to this occasion is located at Nasova village, the site of the signing, about a kilometre south of the wharf.

For most of the 19th Century, the streets of Levuka were awash with all the human flotsam of the Pacific; deserters, shipwrecked whalers, escaped convicts, prostitutes and plain rogues. Missionaries, planters, merchants and fishermen tried to instil a sense of civilization, but clearly their task was a Herculean one. Some scallywag remarked that an approaching ship could find passage through the reef by following the floating gin bottles. However, despite the lawlessness, Fiji’s first bank, post office, school, private members club, hospital, town hall, and municipal government sprang from this unlikely outpost.

Fiji Times, Oct 8, 1870

Fiji’s pre-eminent newspaper, the Fiji Times, was first printed in Levuka in 1869. Unsurprisingly, the first hotel was also built there and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Royal Hotel still serves a chilled Fiji Bitter today amid quaint decor and wicker chairs. The oldest Masonic lodge in the South Pacific still stands in Levuka, but only just. It was gutted by fire in 2000 by nearby Lovoni villagers determined to exorcise its supposed evil spirits.

Levuka occupies almost all of the rare, flat section of land in the shadow of towering, jungle-shrouded cliffs, cradling the settlement and its ornate buildings in a protective nook. This geographic shelter cut short Levuka’s life as a capital, but preserved its architectural integrity. By 1882, Governor Sir Arthur Gordon and the workings of government were fully transplanted to Suva.

A walking tour, either self-guided or escorted, is the first thing you should organise when you arrive in Levuka, but a local interpretation will give you an insight into the life of real Fijians, both indigenous and ‘imported’. Be sure to say ‘bula’ wherever you go, it’s the polite thing to do.

“Mum used to stand out there on the balcony and call us in for dinner,” Allan Roxburgh told me, recalling happy times as a child growing up in the little town, “we’d play all day on the field here if she let us.”

Roxburgh, now sadly departed, spent his entire life in Fiji. Born to European parents, his Scottish father was a copra trader, and young Allan would jig school to go with him on trading journeys throughout the islands in the ‘40s and ‘50s when Levuka remained the copra capital of Fiji.

“Levuka’s only a little town, but there was always something going on.”

Testament to the town’s colourful past is laid out on the walls of the Ovalau Club, the South Pacific’s oldest private members’ club and still serving today. Flags, photographs, autographs and caricatures from bygone days adorn the bar. Visiting warships, aircraft and dignitaries have all left their kindest regards in some personalised form.

One of the most noteworthy characters to have paid his respects was Felix Graf von Luckner. This famous German sea captain from the Great War was remarkable for several reasons. Not only did he conduct a fearsome commerce raiding campaign throughout the South Pacific and Atlantic, he did so with just one accidental casualty. He arrived in Levuka after his legendary open boat sailing from Tahiti where his ship, the three-masted windjammer ‘Seeadler’ (Sea Eagle), was wrecked on a reef. He was captured on nearby Wakaya Island, about 10kms east of Levuka, after the local police bluffed him with a coconut trunk rigged to look like a deck gun.

Captain Cook Cruises, Reef Endeavour

Did you know?
• Fiji’s first Indian immigrants arrived at Levuka aboard the Leonidas in 1879.
• Levuka finally attained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2013 citing: “a rare example of a late colonial port town, which illustrates the cultural hybridity of non-settler communities in the Pacific” []
Levuka may have reverted to a sleepy backwater, but any visitor can still find plenty to do.
• Walking Tour – allow two hours
• Visit the museum in the original Morris Hedstroem building.
• Take an inexpensive taxi tour around the island
• Hike to the top of Nadelaiovalaui for a breathtaking view (626m)
• Stay at one of the quaint lodges, guesthouses or homestays
The author has travelled to Levuka on several occasions, most recently as a guest aboard Captain Cook Cruises vessel, Reef Endeavour.•

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