Discovering Fiji: Bure to Beach street bars and British bungalows

Museum and community centre, Levuka. Picture: pacifi cislands.com

Twice exiled: The Mass expulsion of Europeans from Levuka

This week we continue with Part 6 of the series on Levuka: From Bure to Beach Street Bars and British Bungalows, which traces the development of the first capital from the days of beachcombers and runaway convicts to the early 20th century under British rule.

THE interaction between European settlers and Ratu Seru Cakobau was not a straightforward affair during the early occupation of Levuka in the 1800s.

Historical records contend that Cakobau, in his quest to assume authority in Fiji, made enemies and encountered problems with neighbouring Rewa for about a decade between 1843 and 1854.

Things got worse for Cakobau when fellow Bauan, Ratu Mara Kapaiwai, a chief and grandson of the Tui Nayau, plotted against him.

Kapaiwai fled to Rewa where he bolstered Rewan forces there under the leadership of Qaraniqio and got help from a European named Charlie Pickering who was shipwrecked on the island of Cicia.

Europeans got involved in the power struggle when they warned Pickering about Cakobau’s plans to capture him on Cicia.

This angered Cakobau and as a result, in 1844 Europeans were expelled from Levuka, a subject of Bau, and moved to Vanua Levu, where they settled in Solevu and Wainunu in Bua.

Attempts by Methodist missionary, the Rev John Hunt, to quell the conflict failed. Settlers lost the businesses they had started and some of the property and stock they had accumulated.

“Only in 1849 did Cakobau and Tui Levuka, missing the benefits of the European support – especially their tobacco and whiskey – urge the Europeans to return,” notes the book, Levuka: Living Heritage. After returning from exile, Europeans slowly rebuilt their settlement at Levuka.

And as more people arrived by ships, more skilled and tradesmen, more businesses and more facilities and buildings sprung up.

The port economy skyrocketed as the American Civil War erupted, affecting the price and supply of cotton in the world and luring people who were eager to make new, quick bucks in Fiji.

“Levuka underwent a startling change, from a cowboy settlement… to a European style town. Levuka became a bustling business centre…,” adds the book Levuka: Living Heritage.

One industry that emerged strongly during this boom time was the copra trade where Levuka soon became its hub. Producers from the outer islands, especially those in the eastern and northern estates shipped their copra to Ovalau.

Copra sheds were erected beside the port offices and the old Morris Hedstrom building, which is now occupied by the Museum and Cultural centre.

From Levuka, the commodity was shipped overseas for processing into luxury merchandise such as soaps and candles. This continued until copra moved directly from the outer islands to Suva and Lautoka.

The website levuka.wordpress.com notes during Levuka’s prime as the nerve centre of Fiji’s copra trade in the 19 century, it was dominated by German businessmen.

“The trade-in this article (which is the dried flesh of the cocoanut) is, however, almost entirely monopolised by the German firms of Hennings, Hoerder, and, Nedemann, although a portion of the cash paid for it finds its way into general circulation. The copra being purchased by these firms… most of it finds its way to the German markets,” the site says.

According to an article in The Fiji Times of December 10, 2019, much of business in Levuka was dominated by German businessmen.

“German traders’ stores and shops lined the beach from Nasova to Vagadaci.

Besides trading in merchandise, many of these firms were buyers and exporters of large cargoes of copra which was shipped to Germany in cross-rigged sailing ships which came from Germany and Scandinavia.”

J.Hennings was among the first to establish German businessman on Ovalau.

He arrived from Samoa.

Fiji’s first British consul, William Prichard, came from Tahiti.

Others followed until the “nucleus of a town was formed”.

The Henning’s family consisted of five brothers -Friederich Wilhelm (‘William’), Frederick, Gustav, Charles and Christian.

Their family firm, F&W Hennings, were ardent entrepreneurs in early Levuka.

They were also among the first cotton planters, however, after the collapse of the cotton trade, they lost money, got dissolved and turned to copra in the 1870s.

According to The Fiji Times of October 29, 2017, the big boys of the copra enjoyed making money and found joy in Levuka, where some of  their descendants continue to live today.

Things changed when World War I broke out on a global scale in the 20th century.

A brand of war was waged against Germans who lived in the allied countries and colonies, Fiji included.

It was one that threatened the norm for many families of German descent who had made Fiji their home.

Despite their good relationships with other white colonists, Germans were deported from Fiji and consigned to concentration camps in Australia.

Germans with native mothers were able to escape this treatment because they were given the “vasu treatment”.

In the book Memories of Fiji, The Fiji Times’ publisher, Arthur Griffiths, who took over the newspaper business when his dad (founder George Littleton Griffiths) died in 1908 said the Germans, who contributed to building the colony’s economy from the early days of the former capital, were treated unjustly.

Griffiths said their removal from Fiji was “drastic” and “unnecessary”.

“I felt at the time that such drastic policy was unnecessary, for these people were law-abiding old resident who were doing no harm.”

He was also disturbed at the conclusion of the war, when German residents who decided to return to Fiji where “they had spent the best part of their lives” were met with indifference after 1918.

“…They were met by hoodlums who dumped their personal belongings into the sea.”

Academic and Fiji historian Dr Brij Lal in his book Broken Waves: A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century said German nationals and naturalised British subjects of German descent faced a cold reception from Fijians and Europeans alike.

“Local European planters from the Nadi area were indignant that Germans there were going about their business, planting with Fijian labour and enjoying British protection while England was fighting Germany,” wrote Lal.

When the naturalised Germans returned to Fiji after the war, they were greeted with abuse.

Hate slogans such as “No Huns Wanted,” “No Squareheads in Fiji,” were hurled at them.

“Many local Europeans supported forced repatriation of all Germans who had been deported and others thought the German returnees should be denied the right of naturalisation and be prohibited from acquiring property and the right to vote,” Dr Brij Lal added.

“Most of the Germans, therefore, went elsewhere to Argentina, Java or Switzerland, a few remained quietly.”

  •  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 — Editor.

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