Fiji: Levuka's first family to welcome foreigners as friendly as ever

By Jim Eagles

Ratu Jope Rokotuinaceva's ancestor  welcomed Europeans 200 years ago. Photo / Jim Eagles
Ratu Jope Rokotuinaceva's ancestor welcomed Europeans 200 years ago. Photo / Jim Eagles

Two hundred years ago, the paramount chief of the Fijian village of Levuka decided to welcome European traders and missionaries to the island of Ovalau and so opened the way to the creation of the modern state of Fiji.

Since then, the Tui Levuka, the paramount chief of that village, has also held the title of Tamana na vavalagi or Father of the Europeans.

Now the great-great-great-grandson of that chief, Ratu Jope Rokotuinaceva, is formally welcoming me to his land, the latest in a long line of European visitors to receive that honour.

I wanted to meet the Father of the Europeans to collect material for the story I was doing on the European town of Levuka, which grew up alongside the village as a result of that long-ago hospitality and eventually became the first capital of a united Fiji.

But it was also appropriate, under Fijian custom, for a visitor to seek the approval of the chief for entering his territory.

It turned out that the present Tui Levuka is a government administrator in Rakiraki, in the north of the big island of Viti Levu, but he asked his brother, Ratu Jope, to meet me on his behalf.

To prepare for the meeting, we first had to find some kava to present to the chief. Thomas Valentine, my guide in Fiji, scoured the row of shops in the town built by the early traders and, after rejecting some as insufficiently impressive, bought a big bundle for F$30.

Next I had to find a sulu to wrap round my waist. A maroon one carrying a map of Ovalau Island seemed just right.

Suitably prepared, we turned up at the traditional village, which still sits at the head of the trader town, only to be waved over the road to the home of the chief who acts as a herald, or gatekeeper, for the Tui.

The herald turned out to be a big, grizzled man of great dignity, who signalled us inside his home with a brief jerk of the head, then sat us on the matting floor while we stated our business.

A further nod indicated that we should follow him back over the road, past the oldest Methodist Church in the country from which hymns were lilting, up the banks of a stream where youngsters were playing on small plastic boats, past the official residence of the Tui to a slightly smaller house.

Ratu Jope, a well-fed man with red-rimmed eyes, was already seated on the floor of his meeting room and I was ushered inside, given whispered instructions to shake his hand and indicated a patch of matting on which to sit.

Then the herald explained the purpose of our meeting, my Fijian supporters chimed in, and the chief nodded and asked in English: "What do you want to know?"

What I wondered was if it was true that his ancestor had been the first chief to welcome the Europeans and, if so, why?

"The story is true," said Ratu Jope. "He welcomed them because kindness is in our blood. It was not only the Europeans he welcomed but everyone.

"The other Fijian chiefs did not want the missionaries because they wanted to practise witchcraft and to keep fighting each other.

"Only in Levalu were the missionaries welcomed and that is why that church" - he gestured outside to the old Methodist Church - "is here".

Not only were the traders welcomed, he added, but they were given land in nearby Vagadaci Village - to which I was later taken - "and even today their descendants, the Newtons and McGoons and Warbecks and Williams still live there".

Because of this spirit of kindness, Levuka was not involved in the tribal wars which wreaked havoc around Fiji in the early 19th century "and so Levuka was a place of peace where a great town grew up and became the birthplace of our nation".

The chief discussed all this very seriously but when we had finished he leaned back, smiled and asked the really big question: "How do you think the All Blacks will do in the World Cup?"

- NZ Herald

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