commissioned for Air Pacific Islands Magazine
Guns, God and Gin:
Ingredients for the first capital of Fiji
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.
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 on10 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.
“WANTED, at the Star Chamber, Levuka - informers, spys and scandalmongers. Apply early, as the situations are likely to be eagerly filled up.” – 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 organize 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,” says Allan Roxburgh, 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, nearing 70, has 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 while 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.
Did you know?
- Fiji’s first Indian immigrants arrived at Levuka aboard the Leonidas in 1879.
- Fiji is seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for Levuka to help preserve the remaining historic buildings
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.
- Go Scuba diving with Ovalau Watersports
- 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
Pacific Sun, Air Pacific’s Fiji regional airline, flies daily from both Nadi and Suva to Bureta (Ovalau).
Stop Press: As of June 2010 Blue Lagoon Cruises have dropped Levuka from their itineraries.
Moon handbooks: Fiji, by David Stanley
Activities, accommodation and information:
www.fijime.com >> Discover the Islands >> Lomaiviti Group
The author travelled to Levuka as a guest aboard Blue Lagoon Cruises’ MV Fiji Princess.
© Roderick Eime 2010. All rights reserved