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Fiji and the Fijians 1835-1856

Chapter VIII — naval commanders 1835-40

page 119

Chapter VIII
naval commanders 1835-40

But the harm done by the majority of the white settlers at this time to the cause of religion was far more than counterbalanced by the powerful and deep impression for good made by the captains and officers of visiting men-of-war. Every one of them sympathized with the missionaries and their work, and lost no opportunity of recommending the most powerful chiefs to embrace their religion. Some of them helped the missions with a subscription, or bought a piece of land for them on which they might build a chapel and schools. By their mere presence in the islands with their big ships and powerful guns they inspired a respect in the minds of the natives for the white man's God far deeper than the missionaries had been able to do to 1840 by the use of their books and the inculcation of their beliefs, by their trade in British goods or even their use of British medicine. The Fijian made little use of his reasoning powers; but he was a keen observer, and here, before his eyes, was the plainest evidence that Jehovah was indeed a great God. There was convincing evidence, too, from the conduct of captains visiting Fiji between 1835 and the middle of 1840 that if injury were done to a reputable white man those ships would come and avenge the crime sooner or later. The missionaries were reputable men, and they were the priests of the great God Jehovah. Even the Fijian had reason enough to draw the obvious conclusion. The reports of the missionaries in these early days of difficulty and peril are not wanting in recognition of the services page 120of men-of-war; but the men-of-war and their officers did far more for the missionaries and their cause than they ever knew; and the time came, even before 1856 when the memories of timely services rendered in the bad old days were fading away. The missionaries were so sure that they lived directly under the protection of the Almighty that they easily overlooked the important fact that He has to make use of human agents to effect His purposes in this workaday world.

The first warship to visit the archipelago after the arrival of Cross and Cargill was H.B.M. brig Victor which reached Lakemba on 1 December 1836. Four seamen belonging to the wrecked schooner Active had been taken and eaten while making their way in an open boat from Lakemba to Mbau.1 Commander F. R. M. Crozier had come to punish the murderers. He was persuaded by the missionaries to adopt milder measures than he had intended;2 but the consternation in Lakemba was great, and William Cross expressed the opinion that no native who heard of Captain Crozier's visit would venture to lay violent hands on a British subject—to which one of his colleagues replied that there were many places in Fiji where nothing would ever be known of it.

But British and American warships were soon to visit other parts of the archipelago. In 1838 Captain Drink-page 121water Bethune in command of H.M.S. Conway called it Lakemba and proceeded to Rewa where, in August, he left with Mr Cross two native teachers whom he had brought from Vavau. Dr Lyth had sailed from Sydney to Vavau by way of Tahiti in the Conway, and had found Captain Bethune "the firm friend of Christian missionaries." "It has been his great purpose," Lyth goes on to say, "to remove every hindrance to the spread of the Gospel wherever he has come."

In the middle of 1840 the Peacock, one of the ships of the United States Exploring Expedition, visited Rewa and induced the chiefs there to sign a number of "Port Regulations" to facilitate commercial dealings between Fiji and other countries, and incidentally to enable visiting ships to get supplies of food by more regular methods. The missionaries who had agreed to print the regulations were treated with the greatest kindness by Commander Hudson. They were not so fortunate with Captain Edward Belcher of H.M.S. Sulphur who was there about the same time and found the regulations troublesome. He made himself unpopular both with the missionaries and the American commanders who had given him pintles for the Sulphur's rudder to replace those which had been damaged while entering Rewa harbour. Thomas Jaggar describes him as "tyrannical and overbearing," and Captain Wilkes makes a few uncomplimentary remarks about him in the third volume of his Narrative.3 But even Sir Edward Belcher page 122recommends the chiefs to follow the advice of the missionaries; and the officers under him, especially the surgeon, were exceedingly kind to Mrs Cargill and were present at her burial on 3 June at Rewa.

Up to the time of the arrival of these two warships in Rewa Roads the missionaries had been subjected to bitter and prolonged persecution. They had been driven away from their preaching place at Singatoka, a part of Rewa town, and their lives had been in danger from missiles, rifle shots and incendiaries. After the visits of the Peacock and the Sulphur Thomas Jaggar tells us that they were left in peace in their services, and he "hopes the days of persecution are passed."4

None of the visiting naval commanders in these early years showed the missionaries greater kindness than did Captain Charles Wilkes, commanding officer of the United States Exploring Expedition. In his Narrative he pays many a glowing tribute to their sincerity, heroism and high sense of duty. He also displayed an anxious solicitude for their well-being, and went out of his way to ensure their protection. Before he left for the Sandwich Islands he called at Somosomo to see John Hunt and Dr Lyth. His visit was most timely. War had broken out between Somosomo and Vuna, and the usual atrocities were being enacted immediately in front of the mission house. Tuikilakila happened to look in as he was passing and found that Mrs Hunt, unable any longer to repress her feelings, was weeping. Hunt, deeply wounded by the mental suffering his wife had undergone, ventured to reprove the king for allowing such horrors to be perpetrated. Tuikilakila flew into a rage and threatened to kill him for his reproofs; "but he knew the ships of war belonging to the United States page 123Squadron were still among the islands, and when he heard of the probability of one coming to Somosomo he became calm." A few days later Captain Wilkes arrived, and "he behaved to us," says Hunt,5 "in the most kind manner, and has by all his conduct to us since he has been among the Islands endeared himself to us exceedingly, and laid us under the greatest obligations to be thankful to God and to him. He did all that could be done to secure our protection during the war, and in every possible way delighted to help us." Dr Lyth is more explicit concerning the remarks made by Captain Wilkes. In his Journal under date 10 August 1840 he says: "The Commodore kindly sympathised with us in our present trying circumstances. He gave strict charge to the King to take care of us, and to protect our property, and said that not a hair of our heads was to be touched, adding that any injury done to us or our property should be required at his hands." Shortly afterwards Captain Wilkes sent Lieutenant-Commander Ringgold back to see how the missionaries were faring, and to take them away to a place of safety if it seemed best. He found when he arrived that Lyth and Hunt, though they were still in the same predicament, had decided to carry on.

Naval commanders were the sincere admirers and, under God, the most powerful protectors and helpers of the missionaries not only in these first five years, but right on up to the time of the establishment of British sovereignty in Fiji. It is pleasant, therefore, to read such grateful acknowledgments from the pens of two of the most distinguished of all the early missionaries of the services rendered by a highly-placed naval officer in the hour of their extreme peril. At a later time, when the worst of the dangers had passed, the colleagues and the successors of John Hunt and even Richard Burdsall Lyth himself were inclined to forget that page 124naval commanders with their big guns and fighting marines were emissaries of peace quite as truly as the missionaries with their Gospel and trained native agents; and that in the conditions which prevailed in Fiji in the middle of last century they rendered most valuable service not only in preserving peace, but also in extricating the missionaries themselves time after time from situations in which the sword of death hung over their heads suspended by a mere thread.

In a letter written to his mother thirteen years after Captain Wilkes's kindly offices in Somosomo Lyth says:6

The Herald British ship-of-war so long expected has not yet arrived; at least we have not yet heard of her arrival. But there is reason to believe that she is near. This will be a relief: her presence now is very desirable. Otherwise, in general, ships of war have not materially served our cause. An arm of the flesh is not to be trusted to for the great work of subjugating human minds to the obedience of the faith. The Gospel is the grand instrument.

Dr Lyth was, I believe, the most solid and serviceable of the early missionaries in Fiji, and great is my respect for many admirable qualities in his nature; but the latter part of this quotation does no credit either to his insight or his sense of fair play. It is true that what men get by reason is far better than that which they get by force, and will be more truly theirs and posterity's; but the great-hearted Puritan who made this remark was himself a man of war, and knew from long and rugged experience that people who trust in God must also keep their powder dry unless, like the missionaries in Fiji, they were fortunate enough to have protectors who kept it dry for them. In the progress of this world's affairs the means employed and the instruments used in the struggle for right and truth will depend very largely on time and circumstance. I have insisted on this in defence of the missionaries themselves; I insist on it here page 125in justice to the men of war. Dr Lyth says that in general ships of war had not materially served their cause; and that the grand instrument was the Gospel. The answer given in the evidence to that statement is that the Gospel of Christ would never have had a chance of proving its power in Fiji over the hearts and minds of men had it not been for the use, in the first instance, of extraneous aids by the missionaries themselves, the pressure of civilized opinion through various channels, the kindly offices of men of war and, in the supreme test between Heathenism and Christianity in 1855, the victory of King George of Tonga and his two thousand, warriors at the decisive battle of Kamba. As for the service rendered by ships of war it is in my opinion an open question whether the missionaries did more for the triumph of Christianity in Fiji up to the year 1856 than naval commanders and officers British, American and French. I am further of the opinion that had it not been for the protection of men-of-war in this period Dr Lyth and most or his colleagues would have been killed and eaten for their insolent and undiscriminating attacks on the religion of the natives of Fiji. The missionaries laid the foundations of their building largely on credit, and one of their gilt-edged securities was the prestige of the British navy.

1 This is the only instance I have found in my study of this period of the alleged invariable treatment of shipwrecked sailors by the Fijians In all other wrecks of ships manned by white people which I have read about the natives have stripped the unfortunate individuals of all their property including their clothes sometimes but have inflicted no bodily harm-unless, of course, they committed crimes that called for revenge. They seemed to regard the property of shipwrecked people as perquisites; nor was it easy, even after their conversion to Christianity, to persuade them that this was wrong. Apart from this my investigations help to prove that the almost invariable practice of the Fijians was to treat shipwrecked white men with kindness and hospitality.

2 This is the statement made in the report of the missionaries; but there is reason to believe from other information given that the captain found that he could not capture the murderers without fighting and putting a number of innocent people to death, and so contented himself with a demonstration of the power of his guns and a warning.

3 For Captain Sir Edward Belcher's account of his visit to Rewa Roads see vol. ii, chap. 2, of his Narrative of a Voyage round the World performed in H.M.S. Sulphur 1836-42 (London, 1843) Captain Belcher does not fall to express his gratitude to Commander Wilkes; but it is evident that he was in a complaining mood. He considers the charts of the archipelago were almost useless, and suggests that exploring parties who make an expedition up the Rewa River are wasting their time. No doubt the charts of Fiji were very imperfect; but Captain Belcher does not appear to have made them much better. I have been carefully through the charts of Fiji at Cornwall House (Admiralty annexe), and all that I could find as a result of his visit was a partial survey of Mbau Roads which he, erroneously I think, considered the most important harbour in Fiji at the time.

4 These statements will be found in a bundle of papers containing extracts from the Journal of Thomas Jaggar from 23 December 1838 to 14 June 1840 (M.M.S.M.).

5 See his letter dated at Somosomo 17 August 1840 (M.M.S.M.).

6 See his letter dated 23 November 1853 (M.M.).