The first capital of Fiji was born into anarchy and the sort of wild life only created by stir-crazy sailors and hustlers. Travel Writer Roderick Eime walked the pathways of this historic Fiji town, soaking up the history.
The quiet lanes of sleepy Levuka hide a turbulent past. The flame trees lining the canal and the 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 Fiji’s chiefs ceded the islands to Great Britain on 10 October 1874. A monument to this occasion can be found at Nasova village, 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 civilisation, but clearly their task was a Herculean one. It was once 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 outpost.
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 also 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, cradled by jungle-shrouded cliffs. 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 organise 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.
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. (See photo. Wikipedia) 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.
- Levuka finally attained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2013 citing: “a rare example of a late colonial port town, which illustrates the cultural hybridity of non-settler communities in the Pacific”
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.
- 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
Captain Cook Cruises Fiji visit Levuka on their 7 night Colonial Fiji Discovery cruise departing 5th June, 7th August, and 2nd October 2018 and 5th February 2019.