Levuka in the 1930s: Empire’s most easterly township; decline of copra: a ‘tragedy of the South Seas’

The 1930s brought the decline of copra exports from Levuka, and the shift of population to government at the new capital of Suva and to Lautoka, to the sugar mills. “When we arrived in Levuka the white sails of many cutters were daily to be espied bringing in copra to be shipped abroad; ere we left day after day would pass without the sight of one” recorded Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston, published London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937.

Anglican Parson ordered to depart: It records a moving description of Levuka, as an Anglican Parson was ordered to move by his Bishop, due to falling population, and a decline of Anglican parishioners;. Whonsbon-Aston wrote “Levuka is one of the tragedies of the South Seas–a romantic old-world town falling into decay, getting cast aside like some soiled garmen”t.

Best approach, by sea at dawn: “To see her beauties you should approach her in the early morning when the sun rises behind your vessel. Slowly you will glide through the entrance in the multicoloured coral barrier reef, the natural breakwater. You will hardly notice the rich blue waters within the reef, for you will be enchanted by the verdant green hills which rise almost abruptly from the shore, with red-roofed houses peeping through the foliage on their steep slopes. Landing, you will not be able to resist the fresh-water pools amid sylvan surroundings of tangled tropical jungle. As you turn back you will see beyond the reef the islands of the Lomaiviti Group, for Levuka is the centre of them, and “Lomaiviti” means “the heart of Fiji.” Wakaya is opposite you; to your left, eighteen miles away, is Makogai, the famous leper island, and away out on your right, like delicate blue jewels, are Ngau, Mbatiki and Nairai–the last the treasure island.

The Empire’s most easterly township:.Where is Levuka? The answer may be given by recalling one Armistice night. Levuka, now bathed in tropical moonlight, had had its commemoration many hours earlier, and we foregathered on a hillside veranda awaiting a message from the Empire’s heart. Clearly, ever so clearly, came over the wireless the march of troops and the music of Guards’ bands, and then, to command the Silence, Big Ben’s “One, two, three . . . eleven,” in the bright sunshine of an English morning. As if in answer to a far-flung challenge, the old French clock, that strikes the hours twice over always in the quaint Marist church below, gave tongue, “One, two, three . . . eleven”; a pause, and another lusty eleven in Levuka’s tropical night. “Just halfway round the world,” it seemed to say, for this is the Empire’s most easterly township.

Originally the “old capital” of Fiji, she saw stirring times. No less than twenty-six hotels and licensed houses once gave zest to a by no means dull existence. As capital she welcomed the late King George and his brother on the Bacchante, and has always borne that old-world atmosphere of imperialistic pride. The removal of the capital to Suva, the war and the depression, together with hurricanes, just when they could be most devastating to people’s fortunes, have all helped to spoil the historic old spot.

All the necessary aids to man’s physical and social enjoyment are there–a fine bowling green, an ideal Town Hall approached by a rustic concrete bridge over a rippling brook flanked by pretty rustling palms–the spirit of the South Seas; a men’s club–the Ovalau Club–with a limited membership, is next door, and a picturesque playing oval adjoins, where one of the most interesting of native football tournaments is annually contested. There are churches a-plenty for the polyglot population of Europeans, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans, Chinese, Japanese, Solomon Islanders, Indians, New Hebrideans, and others. The Methodists hold the hilltop and are guardians of the two valuable leading lights that are necessary in these more temperate days. (It is said that in the old days all that was necessary to locate the passage through the reef was to pick up the long trail of square Holland gin bottles as they floated out to sea–no further pilot was needed!) The Marist Fathers have their wooden church with the concrete tower, that houses the town clock, and the Sisters do good work with their convent and school near by. The Church of the Holy Redeemer is the pride of the Anglicans. Even [11/12] the Freemasons are proud of the temple which is theirs, and especially of the unique place they hold in Scottish Freemasonry in the Pacific.

Rupert Brooke used to say that “Fiji moonlight was like nothing on earth–a foretaste of Heaven.” On the pleasantly warm tropic nights we would “brush the cobwebs away” with a motor-car run along the one beach road, with the clear moonlight making the twisted palm tree trunks with their feathery plumes a vision of fairyland. The smell of the jungle, the lap of the sea on the shore reef and the songs of the natives all add their quota. Five miles one way the road ends at the Marist Mission at Cawaci. Eleven miles, the last five not so comfortable, is the limit the other way. The town portion is lined with shops, Chinese, Indian or Japanese, as well as the two main island firms.

In accordance with the spirit of the islands, we kept open house at the Vicarage, which forms one side of a quadrangle. The west side has cliffs and wild green bush hidden to some extent by the big mango trees and the sweet-scented frangipani. On the third stands the church, at any angle and at any time a thing of beauty; while the eastern side has a long low black rock wall, the beach road and the sea. The quadrangle’s centre is green lawns, flower beds and a playing fountain.

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