Levuka —

Histories of the Harbour Town

On 12 December 2020 I had the privilege of being a live guest for talanoa on Dr Tarisi Vunidilo’s facebook page (check out @talanoawithdrt). Our focus: histories of Levuka, plus a bit about kava on the beautiful island of Ovalau. Our attention went to Levuka as it was the first capital in British Fiji.

Between us, we have a few ties to the place. My ancestry is buried in the Methodist missions. My ancestors sprawled through the islands. One of them was Joseph Waterhouse, who wrote and published about his experiences on Ovalau in the mid-nineteenth century. Dr T has spent significant time in Levuka through her work with the Fiji Museum in the 1990s.

Levuka’s main street, 2010. Photo by Dr Kirstie Close

For the Tok Story we drew on our personal experiences, as well as published records and the digitised records available through the National Archives of Fiji, the National Library of Australia, and Te Papa in Aotearoa, we have access to many records about Fiji’s original colonial capital and its inhabitants in the nineteenth century.

Early European residents were blown to the islands through storms and shipwrecked. Their long term residence on the islands was not out of choice — rather, they were stuck. The Argo was one of several ships that suffered that fate, which left some of its crew in in the very early 1800s (there are varying dates given, depending on the source).

Gradually, word got out about the potential Levuka held as a port and hub for the Pacific. By the 1820s, people were consciously choosing to settle in this town, like David Whippy who moved there from Boston in the United States. In the 1840s, Whippy and others had devised housing that blended European and local bure style housing, reflecting the exchange of cultural practices in this frontier zone.

Missionaries came and went, involved in trade and politics as much as the work of delivering the word of God to willing ears. One of these missionaries was an ancestor of mine, Joseph Waterhouse. The Methodists were active in a range of activities in the early decades of Suva, having formally started work in the eastern islands in 1835.

Ratu Seru Cakobau was one of the most significant figures around Fiji through these decades. There are multiple firsthand accounts available about Cakobau, including pictorial records that we can use to piece together some of his life story. We tracked the early accounts of Levuka from exploration records, including John Elphinstone Erskine and the Charles Wilkes expedition. Cakobau had engaged with some of the Europeans, some of whom (including the First US Expedition) intervened in local conflicts and ended up challenging him to make reparations to his victims in Lautoka after a brutal attack on a European home and store. Other conversations were less intense, as seems to be the case with his encounters with Captain Fanshawe who sailed in on the HMS Daphne, whose sketches are below.

Sketch of Seru Epinisa Cakobau and Masomalua, by Edward Fanshawe, sailing on the HMS Daphne in 1849.
Another sketch of Cakobau from Fanshawe, 1849. See Royal Museum Greenwich https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/154576.html
Cakobau’s residence in Levuka. From the Cumming album, held at State Library of Victoria.

Many Europeans who stayed longer in the islands were planters who started cotton crops, before turning to sugar. Hungry for workers, people were ‘recruited’, often by force, from across neighbouring islands. There were significant numbers from Tanna, for example. Levuka became a meeting and distribution point for workers for plantations through the region. The bustling township connected multiple imperial powers, represented by companies and families that had established themselves on numerous islands. Hennings, and Godeffroy and Son were amongst these.

Despite all the new arrivals and rapidly changing landscape — social, environmental, economic — Cakobau remained a key figure. Cakobau’s government was officially installed in 1871 and it was not popular with all of the Levuka residents. Some felt that European power was threatened — many wanted greater protection. Much relief was felt amongst the Europeans when the British government agreed to move forward with the Deed of Cession, feeling that this would afford the whites enhanced rule. After the British rule was made official in 1874, Levuka further transformed, remaining the capital until the administrative centre transferred to Suva in 1882.

‘Thakambau’ (Cakobau) on board “Wairarapa”, Levuka, Fiji, 1884, New Zealand, by Burton Brothers studio, Alfred Burton. Purchased 1943. Te Papa (C.016478) NB: this date seems to be incorrect as Cakobau passed away in 1883. If you have thoughts on this please let us know!

In our presentation we included multiple photographs from the Burton Brothers collection, as well as some from J W Lindt. The photographs are of a high quality and reveal much about society of the time — a melting pot, meeting place, where multiple histories were forged into a shared present.

Levuka, Fiji. From the album: Views of New Zealand Scenery, circa 1880, Levuka, by Burton Brothers studio. Te Papa (O.008864)
J W Lindt, Levuka, held at the State Library of Victoria, circa 1890–92.

Dr Tarisi and I will return in 2021 to discuss more of Viti’s history … we look forward to seeing you all then!



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Kirstie Close

Kirstie Close


Dr Kirstie Close is a historian, who has taught and conducted research in Fiji, Australia andPapua New Guinea for over ten years.