Unforgettable Island encounters – A Governor’s Introduction to the Fiji Islands

Fish caught during a traditional fi sh drive called yavirau, on Beqa Island. Picture: FROM A SOUTH SEAS DIARY

Part 3

On June 28, 1938, Sir Harry Charles Luke was appointed the Governor of Fiji and High Commissioner for the Western Pacific.

He replaced Sir Arthur Richards who had been appointed the Governor of Jamaica.

This week, Part 3 of Discovering Fiji looks at Sir Harry’s trips to Beqa, Vatulele and Kadavu, according to diary entries in his book From A South Seas Diary.

On February 1939, Sir Harry sailed on the ship, Yanawai, with Lady Jocelyn, Dr McGusty, the Head of the Medical Department and Secretary for Indian Affairs, Colonel Workman, the Commissioner of Police and other officials.

Their first stop was Beqa Island, where they arrived in time to witness a traditional fish drive called yavirau.

For the drive, about seventy men and women were gathered in a large circle about one and a half to two miles in circumference, holding a ‘ring of connected strips of liana or vine’.

The shadow cast by the creeper made fish remain within the ring.

“One or two fish, including a young shark, managed to dart out of the ‘net’ at the last moment, but we counted eight hundred fish and one turtle when the net was lifted into one of the canoes,” Sir Harry noted.

“I never dreamed that fish of such brilliance and variety of colour could exist, and there were species unlike anything I have seen in any aquarium.”

In the afternoon the team witnessed a traditional firewalking ceremony performed by the villagers of Dakuibeqa, the chiefly village of the Sawau people, who inherited the gift of walking on hot stones.

The visitors were amazed by the fact that the firewalkers were not burnt although a handkerchief that was thrown into the pit of hot stones easily burst into flames.

They physically inspected the soles of one of the walkers but failed to find any burn or injury. This fascinated the Governor.

“I fancy the immunity from pain is caused by a form of exaltation similar to that which prevents dervishes from bleeding when they put skewers and bodkins through their flesh after reaching the state of religious and hypnotic ecstasy ..,” he wrote.

The Governor noted that he had witnessed similar painless and bloodless transfixion of cheeks, neck and skin of the breast by skewers in Asia Minor and Cyprus, where devotees were under a trance.

“The fact that the fire-walkers of Mbengga (Beqa) prepare themselves for their ordeal by a religious ceremony lends substance to my belief that this ceremony induces in them a state of ecstasy…”

“The business ended with a faintly comic anti-climax, when the villagers, evidently not wanting to waste good heat, put a little pig on the stones to roast before they covered them with earth.”

Governor Harry and team left Beqa the morning after the firewalking session and travelled to the island of Yanuca where they visited a cave that contained the skulls and bones of the ancestors of Ratu Aseri, a chief of Serua.

The bones and skulls lay in a dug-out trough at the end of the cave and were not coiled by a snake according to stories they had heard prior to the visit.

The absence of the snake disappointed them. From Yanuca, the group sailed further south to Vatulele which Sir Harry said had “interesting features”.

Sir Harry and Lady Jocelyn were treated like royalties on the low-lying coral island.

“Jocelyn and I were carried ashore in an impressive palanquin to a village inhabited by good looking people with more than a dash of Tongan blood,” Sir Harry noted.

“The cup-bearer at the yanggona (yaqona) ceremony was a magnificent barbaric figure with five tail-feathers of some seabird stuck in his red hair.”

In the afternoon the team went to the western end of the island to see the mysterious rock paintings and the pond of Vatulele’s famed red prawns.

Sir Harry said he was not pleased with the paintings because they were not ‘as old as they are sometimes made out to be’. However, he found the unique red prawns ‘truly remarkable’.

The team was led to the deeper of two pools and watched while a priest summoned the prawns with ‘sonorous incantations’.

He began with repeated cries of ‘ura’, ‘ura’ until suddenly there was ‘a stirring of the waters’.

“But the other low-lying pool was full of these strange creatures, which are tabu.”

“If anyone is imprudent enough to break the tabu and remove any of the prawns, ill befalls him, generally in the form of shipwreck.”

Sir Harry said Basil Thomson, a former stipendiary magistrate and acting head of the native department, was shipwrecked on a reef in the Yasawa Group because he tried to remove three red prawns in a bottle.

On March 2, 1939, the team reached Kadavu and visited the Government station at Vunisea.

Sir Harry was carried ashore by twelve school boys who recited an old traditional war chant.

After visiting the hospital and school at Vunisea, the officials left for Daku Bay to visit the place where sacred turtles lived.

They climbed about 200 feet to a cliff above the sea where a yaqona ceremony was held before everyone crawled to two overhanging rocks.

Garlanded young girls sang songs to summon the turtles from the deep. The reptiles rose to the surface after 20 minutes of singing.

The only event that could make them disappear was if villagers from Namuamua intruded.

“How the spell works I do not profess to understand but work it does,” Sir Harry wrote.

When loosely translated the song was: ‘Damsels of Nabukelevu; Wearing your full black skirts; And carrying sacred clubs; Arise Rau Dalice.’

‘Damsels of Nabukelevu; Wearing your full back skirts; And carrying sacred clubs; With faces spotted black; Arise Tinai Thambonga; That we may see you.’

In the afternoon, Sir Harry and his team sailed to Tavuki, the location of the Kadavu Provincial Council. The Roko’s name was Apakuki.

A huge palanquin in the form of a traditional canoe carried on the shoulders of about fifty men took the Governor and Lady Jocelyn ashore.

“Thus we were carried not only ashore but right up to the vakatunuloa, while our bearers sang a loud ad guttural chant. Then came the ceremonies and meke, particularly well done, and we returned to the launch in the same way,” wrote Sir Harry.

“As this Pacifi c juggernaut finally returned to the shore its bearers, with their greenish-yellow skirts and brown legs, looked like some gigantic centipede or caterpillar.

On March 25, 1939, Sir Harry paid his first official visit to the chiefl y island of Bau. He arrived on the island in the yacht Adi Beti, after sailing down the Wainibokasi River. On Bau, he was shown a stone on which slaves were once clubbed to death, which had been turned into a baptismal font.

Two weeks later, on May 12, the Governor opened the new Government Buildings, two years after their foundation stone was laid. The offices were designed by Hedges, the architects.

“We made it a full-dress occasion — uniform and guard of honour. I was presented with an ornamental key made of gold mined in Fiji, with which I unlocked the gate,” Sir Harry wrote.

“In the vestibule outside the Legislative Council Chamber as in the Chamber itself I have introduced certain lapidary and decorative features on the lines of the Malta Palaces – marble slabs with the list of Governors, the Arms of the Colony in enamelled bronze over the door and inlaid in coloured woods on the floor of the chamber.”

Sir Harry noted that he would have loved to have a few lines written along the top of Government Buildings.

“For, in all the British Empire, Fiji and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands are the first to see the sunrise. It would be pleasant to have these lines placed along the top of the building in large letters if funds permitted.”

The lines were: ‘Nosque ubi primus equis Oriens adfl avit anhelis illic sera rubens accendit lumina Vesper.’

They meant ‘Glowing vesper is kindling his evening rays; As the rising sun first breathes on us with panting steeds’. Those lines were written by Arthur Dawe, of the Colonial Office, when he congratulated Sir Harry on his appointed as Governor of Fiji in 1938.

More Stories