Bure to Beach Street bars and British bungalows – Part 4

The ruins of the Masonic Lodge in Levuka today. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

Bars and salons were popular structures to find in Levuka in the 1860s and 1870s.

The Royal Hotel’s collection of literature confirms that not only did the town develop and expand, it also attracted “derelicts and debtors, runaway sailors and rogues” and was a place where “every second shed housed a grog shop”.

Writers on early Levuka say ship captains found their way into port by following a line of floating gin bottles.

According to The Fiji Times, one Saturday morning in March 1872, Ratu Cakobau, during his reign as Tui Viti, called together settlers of Levuka to the town square. Only about a tenth of the 600 white settlers living in the town showed up.

Settlers who cared to attend were given a “brow-beating”.

“We Fijians understand revenge and the law of the club,” a serious Ratu Cakobau said.

“You white people said such things were cruel and savage. You brought us civilisation and you brought us law. I thought law and order was a good thing. When a native does wrong, there is no rest until he is punished, yet three natives have been killed lately and nothing has been done….”

“Perhaps you think the laws are to protect one race only, but if the law punishes a native when he does wrong to you and does not punish a white man when he does wrong to us, it is all one sides. Your side.”

“Now, I understand there are divisions among you. If you resist the laws and force us to settle matters in our old ways, there will be a war of races. I appeal to you to support law and order.”

One could infer, during the time of Cakobau’s strong remarks above, Levuka was basically lawless.

This was partly because of the widespread alcohol consumption and the high number of drunkards in town.

Also, some believed threats to early law-abiding residents were not the highland tribesmen from Lovoni but from the burgeoning population of settlers who were “unruly and bent on provoking unrest”.

On October 2, 1869, The Fiji Times noted the town was mulling over how to punish two drunkards who were engaged in a street fight.

“A meeting was called on Monday morning at four o’clock to consider the advisability of arresting and putting under restraint a Captain Morgan and Mr Minton who threatened a breach of the peace in the shape of a duel with revolvers,” the paper said.

As a result of their scuffle, a respectable settler, Mr F.W. Hoyle, was shot in the leg while he tried to break the fight.

Mr Minton fired a threatening shot towards the open door just as Mr Hoyle had entered.

Captain Morgan was placed under guard on board the ship, The Young Australian.

On January 11, 1870, a murderous assault was made by Stephen, also known as Coko Smith, who struck a man named Reed with the butt end of a gun until his weapon broke.

“Oh, for a lock!… How long are we to suffer him keeping the north end of the beach in a chronic state of drunken rowdyism,” The Fiji Times said.

On November 22, 1871, the paper stated one of the main nuisances of Levuka was the constant report of firearms “which lasts almost without intermission day and night… only the other day we were somewhat startled to hear a charge of shot rattled on the roof…” An indication of Levuka’s notorious record of drunken fights and lawlessness was an advertisement in The Fiji Times of October 8, 1870, which aimed at recruiting “Levuka-informers, spies and scandalmongers”.

“Apply early, as the situations are likely to be eagerly filled up,” the paper said.

While the paper was the strongest critic in town, it was not the only one.

Robert Philip, who arrived on Ovalau in 1872, joined the whistleblowing. He was a barrister by profession.

Mr Philip pointed out settlers spent most part of the day and night, “tippling in the public house bar”.

“Of the row of houses that make Levuka, fully half are hotels or public houses. Swilling gin and brawling are principal amusements,” he said.

Condemning the life and lifestyle in Levuka, he said its homes were “shanties built as they would be built on some Australian goldfield and furnished as if they were in England”.

Food was “nothing but the dirtiest, greasiest work” and the town was a “breeding place for dysentery”.

Mr Philip said there was “roguery and scheming at every hand “and government “was undertaken by a set of adventurers from Sydney and Melbourne who would be sent to the treadmill in their home cities.

Ratu Cakobau signed the Levuka Charter of 1870, which supposedly gave Europeans the impetus to set up some sort of regulation to address the need for law and order, the police and municipal laws.

The charter enjoyed little support from the settlers who viewed it as a tool that would deprive them of the freedom they needed.

To complicate matters, the Governor of New South Wales said Fiji’s laws were “powerless”.

During the reign of Ratu Cakobau’s Kingdom of Fiji from 1871 to 1974, he did not get the unity he needed.

One group of settlers circulated a document targeted at establishing a republic while another group favoured the annexation of Fiji to one of the world’s superpowers at the time.

One day a group of 70 men tore down the gaolin order to rescue a while man charged with murder.

A sailor named Rees was persuaded to ignore a summons on the grounds there was no government and so it was invalid.

He was gaoled and a group of anti-government protestors argued they would rescue him from bondage.

There were other bizarre incidences in the little town but none was quite outrageous as the one related by Reverend Nettleton on Levuka’s first death by hanging.

A man was found guilty for murdering another resident of Levuka.

According to The Fiji Times, the killing of the alleged murderer was delayed because the noose could not slip.

Apparently the rope was left out in the rain and became too drenched to do its work.

On the day of the rescheduled hanging, the rope again failed to complete the execution so the man escaped death and was later declared legally dead by the court.

He later left Fiji for America on a ship.

Levuka had genuine traders and law-abiding settlers for decades since the 1920s.

But by the middle of the 19th century, as ships frequented Fiji with white people eager to make quick bucks and exploit local natural resources, waves of newbies hit or shores.

By 1870, their arrival was like a flood.

This paper, which opened in 1869 at the northern end of old Levuka, close to Niukabe Hill (todaythe site of the war memorial) played a huge role in the development of the colony and its growing business portfolio.

Through its daily news, people became informed about the economic possibilities that existed in Fiji.

People came from all parts of the globe to try out a new beginning here.

In a few years, Levuka was overcrowded and the restrictive mountains made expansion a challenge.

The early capital outlived its usefulness as the cradle of economic boom.

Not too far away, on the island of Viti Levu, a small settlement of whites was slowly growing around the Suva harbour – a new capital townwas already in the making.

  •  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 versioncan contact us so we can publish your account of history too — Editor.

More Stories