Chapter 8 - Levuka
After several weeks of enjoying idyllic native village life, Captain Burt made up his mind to go to Levuka, about one hundred and ten miles away. In Levuka, he planned to introduce himself to the American Consul and make it known to interested parties that he had a vessel available for trade. He had another reason for his trip to Levuka and that was to honor his promise to Ned, Sakia, Black Bill and Sandy. He had given his word on the night he broke them out of a Pago Pago jail and set sail for Fiji to take them away to a safe harbor and freedom. He told them if any of them wanted to stay with him in the native village they could and they would share in his trade in exchange for crewing his vessel. All of the convicts declined his offer knowing that his plan was to return to Ungalore and his new wife and home.
Captain Burt had hoped the men would adjust to life in Ungalore as he had done but they were uncomfortable with the sparse living conditions in the village and the suspicious looks they received from some of the natives. They spent their days on shore keeping close together and away from everyone in the village. Fearful of being murdered in the night, the crew felt safer staying aboard the ship in the evenings with each one taking turns standing guard until daylight. They were all too frightened to stay, especially Sandy. He was certain Kentavu Levu was conniving with the other members of the tribe to murder him as they had never seen a black man of his kind before and they were entirely suspicious of him and unnerved by his presence in their village.
One morning while Captain Burt was getting his muskets ready to go to the southernmost point of the island to shoot some parrots for dinner, a very nervous looking Sandy approached him with his hands folded in front of him and his head hung down. It was clear the gentle mannered slave wanted to know something but seemed too ashamed to ask.
Finally Captain Burt prodded him, “What is it Sandy?”
“Cap’n when you goin’ take us way from dis place?” asked the softly spoken slave. Before he had a chance to answer, the slave added, “Sakia-him say dem savage gon’ cook us. And dat witch man com put hex on me. I ’fraid Cap’n. I mighty ’fraid.”
Captain Burt knew it was time to tell the men to prepare his ship for the voyage to Levuka. Knowing in advance that he would be without a crew for his return voyage to Ungalore, Captain Burt went to see Chief Chunga Levu in his royal burie to ask him for a crew. He was brought before Chunga Levu by the chief of his war guard and was commanded to sit across from him crossed legged. After going through the usual formalities such as a drink of yaqona and partaking in an array of bowls of food offered by his slaves, the chief leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees and clapped his hands and said, “Tuku tuku.”
“Great Father I have come to ask you for two men to crew my ship to Levuka. Please be good minded and honor my request,” Captain Burt replied.
The chief looked at him puzzled by the request then asked, “Do you not have enough to eat?”
“It would be impossible for me to live better that I do here in your village,” he replied. ”I have everything that all the land and the waters that surround the land can produce,” he added.
“Is your queen not satisfactory?” the chief asked still looking bewildered.
This was the first time Captain Burt had ever seen Chunga Levu reveal any type of expression on his face and he knew he had to be careful how he answered the chief’s question. “She is Chunga endea,” he replied which meant, “True wind” in their language and was considered the highest of compliments that could be given to any woman in his tribe. He could tell his answer pleased the chief as the big man nodded and leaned back to take another sip of yaqona.
“Why do you want to go to Levuka?” asked the chief as he waved his hand to command his slave to refill their drinking vessels.
“I want to get some goods and open a store in your village,” he answered hoping the chief would not object.
Chunga Levu laughed as if he had just heard an amusing story and asked in a humorous tone, “Aren’t you afraid I will rob you when you return with your goods?”
As if on cue, the other members of his war party also laughed along with their amused chief.
Captain Burt joined in the laughter and replied, “It is not possible for you to rob me.”
The gravity of the answer he gave to the chief’s question immediately silenced the laughter and provoked Chunga Levu to put his drink down and lean forward. With his eyes ablaze with anger like two fire pots in an expressionless face, he stared at Captain Burt and asked in a far more serious and threatening tone, “Why not?”
“You cannot rob me because all that I have belongs to you now,” Captain Burt answered alarmed at the chief’s sudden change of demeanor.
The chief was pleased with the answer and nodded his head in agreement and said, “This is true.”
Relieved the tension in the air had subsided, Captain Burt advised Chunga Levu that when he came to see him, he came as one of his people and that anything he had that the chief wanted he only had to take it.
To which the chief replied, “Ifi is Vasu Levu to all of my territories and you are Vasu to me. This gives you the power to take anything from me but three things; my queens, my burie and my lands. You can bring whatever you like back to the village and I will take nothing from you without your consent.”
Captain Burt began to understand the magnitude of the power he now held within Chunga Levu’s territory as husband of the chief’s niece and a member of the royal family. Ifi was vasu to the chief and all his land so she had the legal right to anything he had or anything anyone had within his territories. She could even take his massive double canoe and his crew which was of such immense value that there was nothing of equal importance in their culture to compare it to.
The chief asked if he was going to take Ifi with him to Levuka to which Captain Burt replied in the affirmative and once again beseeched Chunga Levu to help him.
“Great Father once again I ask you to provide me with a crew.”
The chief leaned back and laughed and asked him if he knew what Vasu meant.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Then let Ifi choose a crew and you will have a good one,” the chief answered in a matter of fact manner.
Chunga Levu then asked if he needed his massive royal canoe and some of his warriors as well for protection. Captain Burt was taken aback by the chief’s generosity and politely declined his offer. He did not know how long he would be away from the village and did not want to impose on the chief’s good nature. He knew the big canoe was wanted at all times in case the chief decided to raid an enemy town or to take his people a great distance away from the village to cut logs for constructing canoes or buildings. The chief had a special crew of twenty-five to thirty native carpenters whose primary duties were to cut logs and build war canoes. Sometimes they had to cut logs in another chief’s territory. Chunga Levu had an understanding or a treaty with the chief that owned the land that he could cut and fell all the timber he wanted. Still, it was dangerous work for the treaty was liable to be broken at any time without warning, and more especially now as he was at war with a chief whose territory ran right up against his own. Captain Burt was also privy to knowledge that Chief Chunga Levu had previously decided he wanted a new council building so it would take his carpenters approximately ten days to cut enough wood for the structure. During this time they would have to take their own food and sleep in the bush as well as be on the watch for enemy warriors. Ifi had told him that many natives in the village had been talking about it and even making arrangements to carry out this work which would be an extensive operation. So it was agreed he would take his own vessel with Sandy, Ned, Black Bill and Sakia along with Ifi and two experienced native seamen of her choosing to sail to Levuka the very next day.
The next morning, Ifi met him at the shoreline with two young warriors in their mid-twenties named Sanda Levu and Karpan Levu flanking each side of her. Sanda Levu was tall and lanky, and at first glance one wouldn’t expect him to be a skilled seaman. He wore his thick head of hair straight up like a cane field ready for harvest. His facial hair was minimal save for a mustache and sideburns which he trimmed daily with the use of a bamboo knife. He wore a twine necklace around his neck in a choker fashion on which hung an intricately carved circular whalebone pendant. Karpan Levu was shorter and more muscular than Sanda. He wore his hair in the exact same fashion except for two feathers that were woven into his hair so they stood up behind his head. He had the same necklace and the same carved circular boar tusk pendant. They looked so similar that they could not be mistaken for anything else than fraternal twin brothers. Ifi had chosen two of Chief Chunga Levu’s top seamen; the pendants they wore so proudly signified this position. Both of them had years of experience in the open sea and had acquired their sea legs by sailing Chunga Levu’s royal war canoe to all parts of his territory and beyond in almost every kind of weather and sea condition.
That morning they departed Ungalore on Captain Burt’s first trading mission to Levuka, Ovalau’s main port town. Chief Chunga Levu had also supplied them with enough provisions for their return voyage. Captain Burt soon found these warriors were skilled seamen who followed his instructions with earnest. Sanda and Karpan had an innate feel for the sea and their seamanship was comparable, perhaps even better than the finest of crewmen he had worked with in the past. They never sat idle and it wasn’t long before they instinctively knew what to do even before he would shout out the command.
This would be Ifi’s first voyage so far from home and into white man’s territory. Even Sanda and Karpan who had travelled throughout most of the eastern Fiji islands had never encountered a white man before they met Captain Burt. This would be a great day for them as they were about to embark on an exciting adventure. Ifi was curious and had many questions about where his ship came from and where the white man’s trade came into Fiji and if all white men were like him. On the first day Captain Burt set a course north northeast and approximately nine hours later they got to a small island named Ono where the chief had a long standing alliance with Chunga Levu. They anchored the vessel there and went ashore where they were given something to eat and a place to spend the night within the safety of the village. Early the next morning they departed Ono on the same heading. They sailed through the night and made it to the island of Gau at sunrise the next morning. Gau was surrounded by dangerous reefs that had destroyed many ships and the remnants of their hulls were still visible above the sea. Taking no chances, Captain Burt waited until the openings in the reefs were visible before attempting to make land where he could rest his crew. He was in another foreign territory where he hoped the alliance with the local chief and Chunga Levu still held firm. The next day they made Rewa and the third day they were but a spit away from Levuka on the island of Ovalau. Captain Burt decided to anchor just above the port and out of sight from the town. He would put the four convicts ashore where they could make their own way into Levuka or thereabouts by their own means. This was deemed to be the safest plan as he was not sure what kind of reception they would get if they made port in Levuka directly. He divided what was left of the crew’s meager rations between the four of them, leaving enough for himself and Ifi, and Sanda and Karpan for the return voyage. Each man was given two day’s supply of food consisting of what remained of the biscuits and Indian meal and some dried fish and yams that was given to them by Chief Chunga Levu. He also gave each man a musket, powder, flint, pellets and a long knife. This was an unexpected gesture of kindness and the men’s gratitude was expressed by all of them if not in words but on their faces.
“Thank you Cap’n,” said big Sandy in his soft spoken voice as Captain Burt handed him his provisions, weapons and the letter of freedom he’d promised to write for him back in Samoa.
Never one to be afraid of expressing his emotions, Ned chimed in almost at the same time. “God bless yuh Cap’n,” he said with his eyes filling with tears, then added, “To be shor we’d all be goner’s wit out cha.”
Sakia and Black Bill just nodded their heads as their way of saying thank you. The convicts were men no one had wanted or cared for. But Captain Burt knew they were good men who had proven their worth and kept their promise to him. Even big Sandy had gained his trust in a way as he never before saw fit to trust a black man. Together, they had survived a daring escape, a storm right out of hell and an encounter with one of the most powerful cannibal tribes in the Fiji Islands. They lowered the dinghy into the calm azure blue water and Captain Burt and the four convicts got into the boat and rowed it to shore. As they did they laughed, reminisced and said their final farewells. The convicts climbed out of the dinghy in knee deep water and all four of them gave the little vessel and its lone occupant a good push back out into the sea.
“Good luck men. We’ll see each other again in heaven or hell!” Captain Burt yelled after them.
Ned was the only one to reply, “I’ll forever be beholdin’ to yuh Cap’n.”
Captain Burt could not help but feel sadness and a sense of loss in his heart seeing his rag tag convict crew follow each other across the soft sandy beach and into the tree line. Sandy turned and waved goodbye and then disappeared into the swaying coconut trees, and that was it. Captain Burt rowed the dinghy back out to the ship and made her fast to the stern, and then he instructed his new native quartermaster to weigh anchor. Due to being positioned downwind, he commanded the main sail and jib to be set for the short run down to Levuka. When they reached Levuka, he navigated the little schooner through the port’s narrow reef passage, furled the sails and anchored her off shore. He thought it was in everyone’s best interest to anchor the ship in the shallow harbor and row the little dinghy ashore by himself. He left Ifi with his crew aboard to guard the vessel and to make sure she, G.R. Burt, didn’t drag anchor and drift back onto the reef. An off shore breeze made the strenuous row to shore difficult as well as finding a suitable mooring for the little dinghy. Finally he eyed a small coral formation and dove under to wedge the dinghy’s anchor against it. The sea was up to his chest in depth so he had to carry his letter of introduction with his musket and ammunition above his head as he waded the final distance to shore. He couldn’t help but notice the empty gin bottles that rolled into the shoreline and retreated back into the sea again with each converging wave, as he struggled to keep his balance walking on the sandy sea bottom. When he reached the shore, he found a fallen coconut tree on the beach. He disrobed and laid out his shirt and pants to dry in the sun. He sat on the trunk of the tree until his clothes were mostly dry and prepared himself for the possibility of a dangerous encounter with the townspeople. Levuka was a known as a treacherous place so he was taking no chances. He loaded his musket and tucked it in the front of his trousers with the handle in full display. Now he was ready. He put on his clothes and his boots and began to walk up the beach towards the town.
Eighteen months previously, Levuka had been sacked and burned by Chief Cakobau and his warriors so the approximately sixty-five whites that inhabited the town had made an alliance with Chief Tui Levuka for protection from further attacks. Chief Tui Levuka was a local chief who supported neither Chief Ma’afu or Chief Cakobau so the town was under constant threat of attack from either chief or from the Lovoni mountain tribes. As an added precaution, Levuka was fortified on three sides by a stone wall about eight feet high and about five feet thick at the bottom and about three feet thick at the top. A series of sturdy wood posts, each set about four feet apart, ran down through the middle of the stone wall and projected upwards adding an additional six feet in height. Fastened to these posts ran a thick, tightly woven wicker fence thus making the town virtually impenetrable on three sides. On the fourth or west side of the town was a flat top rock about 250 feet in height with nearly perpendicular sides making it impossible for even the most determined warrior to ascend from the outside of the town. Four cast iron cannons, each capable of heaving a ten pound ball to practically anywhere in the harbor, were positioned on top of the gigantic rock formation’s flat top adding to the town’s fortification. The cannons could only be accessed from inside the town, through a gate leading to a narrow passage and up a series of steps carved out of the rock and ladders leading to the top of the vantage point. The main passage into Levuka was a gate about eight feet square built into the stone wall over which was a platform large enough to hold two men. It was made of strong timber and shielded by another tightly woven screen of wickerwork. The gate was heavily barred from the inside with thick logs making it nearly impossible to force open from the outside.
“I have a letter for the American Consul!” Captain Burt shouted to the men on the platform as he stood in front of the main entrance to the town.
After a few moments, the formidable wooden gate was swung open and he walked through it and into the enclosed town. The gate was hastily closed and barred behind him. Levuka was considered the capital of Fiji. It was a lawless pre-colonial town whose inhabitants mostly consisted of fugitives, whalers, scoundrels, native prostitutes and traders. A road which was basically two dirt ruts, made muddy from a recent tropical downburst of rain, ran down the center of the town. On either side of the road ruts was a haggard shantytown of hastily erected, dilapidated wooden buildings with thatched roofs housing numerous wretched saloons and whorehouses. Foraging pigs and mangy dogs roamed freely in the street, barked, grunted and squealed as they loudly competed for whatever food they could find. Nearly every available tree had been cut down for building material or firewood, so the town was without shade, making the tropical heat of the day even more oppressive. The thick, humid salt air of the port town was made rank with an acrid mixture of urine and the vile stench of feces and rotting fruit.
The tall man with his shock of red hair and beard attracted the curious looks of the villagers and the enticements of the prostitutes and local derelicts as he walked down the main road. He strode with confidence towards the American flag flapping in the wind on the veranda of a superbly constructed and freshly painted, white wooden house at the end of the road. The house was shaded by a grove of coconut trees and surrounded with a rusted wrought iron fence. He felt a sense of relief seeing the Stars and Stripes as he opened the fence gate, then walked up the stairs and across the creaking veranda and knocked on the door.
The front door of the house was propped open with a large sun bleached, piece of rock coral. A native mosquito net loosely covered the entrance.
“State your business!” commanded a voice from inside the house.
“American Captain G.R. Burt. I have a letter of introduction from Judge Jenkins, American consul in Samoa,” he replied.
“You had better stand down with that musket,” the voice demanded.
He slowly removed his musket from his trousers. He squatted down and partially opened the bottom of the mosquito net and set it inside of the entrance, on the floor, with the handle facing out. He could see through the mesh of the mosquito net a native boy, who carefully grabbed the loaded musket and backed away from the door entrance.
“Enter!” commanded the voice a moment later.
Captain Burt pushed the mosquito net to one side and stepped inside the house, where he immediately saw two muskets trained on him. One of the weapons pointed at him was his own musket, held by a shirtless and barefoot native boy standing to his left who he determined to be about twelve years of age. The other was pointed at him by a balding white man of middle age standing directly in front of him.
“Is that a New England accent I’m hearing?” calmly inquired the white man.
“That it is,” replied Captain Burt.
“What part?” the white man asked again, keeping the musket pointed at him.
“Baltimore,” he answered, “My family is from Baltimore,” he added.
“Navy or merchant?” the white man further inquired.
“Merchant,” Captain Burt answered then added, “I have a small schooner anchored offshore.”
The white man lowered his weapon and chuckled, then said almost cheerfully, “Well let’s have a look at that letter then. My name’s John William Brown and I am the American consul of this shit hole.” He continued, “I’m sorry for the precautions but one can’t be too careful in these parts.”
“I understand,” replied Captain Burt. He was relieved the tension was now over as the consul motioned to the boy to lower his weapon.
“Give it back to him,” the consul ordered the boy with an impatient tone.
The boy walked over to Captain Burt and handed him back his musket, handle first. The consul waved his hand in a sweeping motion and the obedient native boy ran off into one of the adjoining rooms of the house. The consul then unrolled the letter on a table and began to scrutinize its authenticity with the use of a magnifying glass.
“I don’t know this Judge Jenkins,” said the consul still examining the letter. “But the seal appears to be real. So how can I be of assistance Captain G.R. Burt?”
Captain Burt explained to the American Consul that he wanted to start a trading business with his vessel and asked him for introductions to any businessmen in the area interested in selling their products or obtaining goods from foreign ports as far away as New Zealand. The consul advised he would do what he could but it was not likely that there would be much business in Levuka as there was no real product to trade other than liquor and muskets and there was plenty enough of that already. Captain Burt explained to the consul that he also had plans to open a store for the cannibals back in Ungalore. The consul looked at the brazen young man standing in front of him in disbelief and shook his head.
“Well that will be the last of you then. You do realize that when you return to Ungalore, the chief will kill you and take your store and everything in it? Then he will cook and eat you. I have lived in this part of the world for too long and the best advice I can give you is keep away from that cannibal village and never go back!”
Captain Burt answered back quickly, “I trust him. He wouldn’t do that. We have formed a bond.” Still worried about the social ramifications, he dared not mention to another white man he was married to the chief’s niece – a colored girl.
“You trust him?” the consul sputtered his question back incredulously. “Have you gone mad? These savages are incapable of trust. I know of this chief. He is Chunga Levu and he is a blood thirsty devil and to be certain, he has a plan for you!”
Captain Burt laughed and said, “I’ll be taking my chances then.” He thanked the dumbfounded consul for his advice and shook his hand and bid him goodbye. Then he headed back out into the town to find the general store.
There was a small general store in Levuka that could supply the goods he required, but he thought about what he had to trade in return. There were a lot of beautiful handmade rugs in the house of Chief Chunga Levu and also in his own and he made it his plan to find a market for those rugs. He also thought about the forests of sandalwood in Fiji that were so much in demand everywhere in the world. Another plan was to grow some breadfruit and sell the much sought after produce in New Zealand. But for now he needed supplies for his little store back in Ungalore and that meant he would have to use the last of his American dollars. He found the general store a short distance away, close to what remained of a burned out stable. Like most of the other buildings in the village, the general store was a wood structure with a thatched roof. Iron bars covered the small opening in front of the structure that acted as a window - the glass had long since shattered from numerous attempts of robbery. The door of the shop was wide open in an attempt to give a small measure of relief from the suffocating heat inside the building. Not taking any chances of surprising any unsuspecting inhabitants of the building, he knocked on the open door and asked permission to enter. The proprietor, a nervous looking American named Standish, clutched a musket in both hands underneath the counter and cautiously looked the young man over as he entered the establishment. Once the shopkeeper determined that Captain Burt was no threat, he came around the counter and anxiously approached him in anticipation of selling some goods. Captain Burt carefully selected his items and negotiated a price with the shopkeeper. He removed his shirt, tore open the stitching and produced eighty American dollars that was sewn into the lining. The inflated prices of the Levuka shopkeeper left him nearly broke, but what he purchased would give him a good start to starting his own business.
Three muskets 30
20 pounds gun powder 12 1/2
One pig of lead 5
One bag of flints 2 1/2
Two dozen 4 inch knives 5
One dozen chisels 3
One dozen gouges 3
One dozen tomey hocks 6
Two pounds red and white beads 2
One pound Chinese vermilion 5
Under normal circumstances in America, the goods would have cost him about twenty dollars, but thanks to the inflated prices of Fiji everything was nearly four times that amount. The total had cost him almost six months of whaling wages and was the last of his money. After tallying his remaining funds, he found he had just six dollars left. No matter, he thought, where he was going money was of little value anyway. The goods would be used for barter and to strengthen his bond with Chief Chunga Levu and the tribe. He needed to obtain land and workers to clear the land and grow produce. His plantation would be the greatest in Fiji. With the aid of the shopkeeper, he carefully slung his bundles of goods over each shoulder to distribute the weight as evenly as possible.
Worried about being robbed before he could make it back to his ship, he asked the shopkeeper to accompany him back to the shoreline to guard his back with a loaded musket. The shopkeeper, grateful for the huge sale, readily agreed and the two men walked outside. Standish locked the window shutters and the heavy wood door of his store and even offered to carry some of the goods as he could see the burden may be too heavy for one man. Captain Burt refused to let him carry any of the goods, preferring instead to make sure the shopkeeper was not encumbered in any way in case he had to use his musket. Together, the two men slowly began the long trek back to the shoreline, stopping several times so Captain Burt could rest and redistribute the load. Once they made it to the shore line, he waded out to his dinghy and pulled it ashore while Standish waited on the beach standing guard over the precious cargo. They loaded the goods into the dinghy and bid each other goodbye.
Captain Burt pulled the dinghy filled with cargo back out into the sea until the water was up to his chest before he heaved himself aboard to begin to row the little vessel back out to his ship. As he rowed the little dinghy back to the ship, his thoughts were filled with optimism of what lay ahead. His mission was a success and he was feeling better than he had felt for months. With the hold of his vessel filled with axes, knives, chisels, Chinese vermillion, muskets, powder and pellets, he had the most sought after goods by any Fijian Chief. All of this represented property and wealth as it was what made a tribe great and powerful, and was a temptation no chief could resist. He knew Chief Chunga Levu would want a part of this trade in advance and he would have to give it to him. If the chief distributed this property properly among the heads of the families, it would further encourage them to enforce his power among the people. This would help make the chief more powerful and it would be one of the reasons he would gain more respect by his own people. Captain Burt thought this would also be beneficial for his own needs as the axes were necessary to dispatch the forests of sandalwood. With their stone axes it would take nearly a week to cut down one tree. As for the tommy hocks and chisels, they would be useful to help the natives make and repair their canoes so they could go to the reef to hunt and fish. But how he could he ever trust them and how would he ever get payment for his goods? What if the chief decided not to pay him? What options would he have? He took a moment to think about it but he could not come up with an answer. He thought about what the American Consul in Levuka had said and his feelings of optimism began to turn to despair over what could become an unsolvable problem.
Ifi could sense her husband’s mood had changed and she took a position alongside him at the tiller hoping he would say something to her. She knew she could not breech tribal protocol and ask him outright what was vexing him. After several minutes, he said her name as he usually did before asking her a question, “Ifi...”
It was all he had a chance to say before she used the opportunity to chime in. “Husband, what is troubling you?” she asked.
He smiled at her impulsiveness and told her what was on his mind. After several attempts at trying to explain his problem to her, she finally grasped what he was asking her. She repeated what he was asking her back to him to make sure she’d heard him correctly. Captain Burt affirmed she’d understood by nodding his head and Ifi laughed out loud. She said he would be paid without any trouble as the chief and his people dared not even think, let alone refuse, to pay him. Chief Chunga Levu would not take the chance of him leaving to trade with another chief and make them strong and powerful as it would only be a question of time, and a very short time, before the other chief would declare war against Chief Chunga Levu. Ifi’s face and voice took on a more serious tone and she cautioned him to make sure he kept the chief within his bounds and only let him have what he could pay for. Ifi’s advice was clear evidence that she was wise beyond her years. Satisfied with her answer and feeling positive again about his business decision, he commanded Karpan to take over the helm while he went below deck to check his charts. He decided to set a course for south southwest and sail straight for Ungalore rather than taking a chance of anchoring at any of the ports they had used on the way to Levuka and risk being robbed.
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