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Rotuma - Aspects of History

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Aspects of History

After a protracted visit to England (1834-38), John Williams of the London Missionary Society returned to the islands of Oceania and established his headquarters at Upolu, Samoa. His ambition directed into the West and in 1839 he embarked on his last voyage for Melanesia. He had developed a theory that if he could establish a successful mission in the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu) he could work from there south into New Caledonia and north to the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

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En route to the New Hebrides he called at Rotuma which at that time was a kind of cross-roads of the island world where one could expect to find not only the usual motley assortment of residential whites but also, perchance, natives of islands otherwise unknown or little known to outsiders. It was Williams's hope that he could find a few from the New Hebrides who might be helpful to him on his projected visit. On November 20, 1839, John Williams was killed at Erromanga and achieved the immortality of martyrdom. Melanesia had taken his life at the early age of 43.


In 1862, the blackbirding ships that had achieved considerable success in the Tuvalu Group moved on to a prearranged rendezvous at Rotuma, where it was hoped to obtain sufficient water and provisions to enable them to complete their compliment of recruits before returning to Callao. The attempts to buy provisions at Rotuma was a sensible one for any ships to take when recruiting as far from home in western Polynesia. Indeed, there was little where else they could go, since purchasing stores in the main urban centres of Apia and Levuka were out of the question owing to the presence of European Consul and missionary, and conceivably of visiting warships.

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From the George Westbrook collection.

The three barques commenced the long journey to Peru early in June with an approximate 428 recruits on board of which only three came from Rotuma. The ships landed a total of 353 islanders out of the 428 estimated who have left Rotuma: a loss of 75 which would not appear unreasonable since food, and probably water, was in short supply. It is fortunate that there was no epidemic on board as has occurred with the two Peruvian ships leaving Fakaofo.


Rotuma was one of the most charming, fruitful atolls I have ever known. Every variety of tropic fruit grew abundantly and lusciously, life flowed along easily on an unbreaking crest of golden days and star-silvered nights.

Except for the single stressful period of religious conflict, I found the people quiet, kindly, peaceable, and carefree. In their way they were good workers, the men went every day to attend to their plantations and the women either fished or worked on the large, soft Rotuman mats - the finest mats in all the South Seas.

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Rotuman dancers, 1999.

The year I spent on Rotuma taught me to love the place. Languor and ease were present there, and one did not count the hours....

But at twenty a boy is ever shifting on. I wanted to see fresh faces and other native places, it seemed to me that I had only begun to explore these numberless tiny kingdoms of the blue and that beyond the singing surf were other isles more strange and beautiful. ... So I made application for a transfer from Paradise.

Kava mixing, Rotuma, Fiji.
Courtesy: Pascal

My firm's yacht, the Sunbeam, came to Rotuma early in 1881. To Jerry Flowers, the supercargo, I made known my desire to travel on to a new station on an unfamiliar island. After pondering the request he landed a man as my relief and made a decision. I was to be sent to Funafuti in the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) to relieve George Henderson - the same chap who had come down with me in the Ryno.

The Sunbeam was a tiny schooner-yacht of seventeen tons. This craft was all hold, with only a few planks rigged up as a kind of bulkhead to form a cabin. She was pretty ripe with age and rotten to parts, in fact, she should never have been allowed to go to sea at all - especially on a long ocean voyage.

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From the George Westbrooke collection.

My firm had bought her in New Zealand for a song and patched her up a bit. Under command of Captain Henty she was ordered to be delivered for sale to our old friend, the King of Apamama (Abemama in Kiribati). Naturally, a handsome profit was to be made.

After the Sunbeam left Auckland the first landfall was made in the Fiji Islands. They struck very bad weather while making the group, on arrival two of the scratch crew of four deserted the unsafe vessel. After some few repairs another man was shipped and they proceeded on their way. Luckily they made Rotuma without further storms being encountered.

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Rotuman musicians, 1999.

Jerry Flowers gave me orders to board this cockleshell for transfer to Funafuti. Things looked a bit ominous in regard to the weather and all island signs pointed to a hurricane. But Henty and Flowers were in charge and had decided to sail; against my better judgment I began to gather up my gear to take ship.

My station at Nautau was really built on a very ancient graveyard. In putting down the foundations for my house and in digging post-holes for my fence, I came across human bones and skulls. I had read in a magazine an interesting account of a scientist who specialised in craniology; this man had acquired a fine collection of skulls from certain islands in the South Seas.

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From the George Westbrook collection.

Here was my chance to aid the cause of Science. I saved a half dozen of the best skulls in the hope of presenting them to the collector at some future dare. A typically boyish plan, but it seemed quite the thing to do at the time. Stringing the six specimens together by thick cord thrust through the eye-socket, I presented myself, accompanied by my other belongs, at the Sunbeam's sailing time. 

My reception was a bit of a surprise to me. Not only was everyone very cool but the Captain curtly ordered me to heave my half dozen heads over the side. No such bad luck omens were going to sail on a ship of his. This I flatly refused to do. Finally I got aboard with the disputed objects still in my possession still no one was cordial and I saw I was bound to be something of a pariah during the rest of the trip.

No sooner had we cleared harbour than, true to my hunch, it began to blow heavily and pick up a choppy sea. First, the wind came from the southwest, then due west. The waves were tremendous and there were but one thing to do; we hove-to with a sea-anchor.


Rotuman young dancer, 1999.

For all her rotten condition, the Sunbeam acted like a splendid sea boat and she rode it out like a duck. The waves crested up and then rushed down on us until I was certain that they would swamp us; but always the small craft rose again and soared over them. She was so tiny our deck was not more than two feet above the sea, yet not a drop came aboard. I could see something was on the Captain's mind - a very important something. Every few seconds he would eye me darkly, shake his head and mutter to himself. Eventually, after we hove-to in the dirty weather, he delivered a command. "Westbrook, your damned skulls have to go overboard!" I got stubborn about it and tried to show him that worst luck would attend us if we dropped them into the sea; these skulls have come out of the ground, I argued, and would be restless in an unfamiliar element.

It did no good. The skipper's superstitious mind was made up. My specimens must go. His ham of a hand grabbed the stringed skulls and cast the grotesque necklace up in an high arc. It was a weird sight to see though six skulls diving down into the lashing waves. In a second, they were lost in the sullen depths. The skipper shook his head and seemed to feel better. But I was inconsolable for some time. The hardest thing I had to do was to keep my mouth shut.

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During my stay at Rotuma, there were still several of the old beach-combing class left alive. One was a Mulatto named West India Jack. He was nearly 90 but still strong and hearty. For more than half a century he had lived on the island and he told me many a hair raising yarn of the old days when the Isle had been a port of call for whalers and freebooters.

When I knew West India Jack, he was a harmless, respectable ancient; but in his younger days he must have been a hard lot and mixed up with queer and colourful people. Most of his tales were verified by the older islanders with whom I was friendly. One story of his interested me particularly and I pass it onto you.

There was a time in the vanished years when snakes, instead of being a rarity, had infested Rotuma. The islanders used to worship the serpents and allowed them to live in their house; snakes used to live under the mats, coil up in the clothing, and hanged from the rafters. The natives used to feed them and anoint them with oil. But on no account would they kill one.

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Rotuman dancers, 1999.

The King of the snakes lived in the village of Malahaha and legend credits him with being a monster. One day, Bill Ring, an old hand on the island came across this royal serpent on the main atoll track. The King of snakes came straight at Bill - it may have been only a friendly overture, since the snakes were intimate with humans. But Bill did not ponder on the snakes intentions; a snake was a snake to Bill. He thought it was bent on attack and he killed it with a big stick.

The Rotumans were furious when they heard of this sinful action. Bill would have been killed at once had not a high chief intervened; he said the white man would pay a speedy penalty to the angry snake-gods without any native interference. Strange to relate, Bill did not die. Long day waited and still the despicable snake killer remained in good health. In time this phenomenon caused the islanders to lose faith in the efficacy of serpent worship. By degrees, the bolder natives began to kill off the snakes - they had become a nuisance anyway. With the advent of the missionaries, the clean up became more thorough. It was so efficient that on my arrival a snake was a curiosity on Rotuma.

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An old fellow named Nikalau worked for me on Rotuma. He had been to sea for many years on whalers and could speak very good English. I had soon picked up the Rotuman language which, by the way, resembled no other in the South Seas. Nikalau was nearly 80 but he had two young daughters - one twenty, the other sixteen. He had gone to sea as a small lad - my reckoning placed his voyaging from about 1810 to 1850 - and it was from him that I learned most of the tales of Rotuman mythology.

According to Nikalau, the Isles of Rotuma were formed by a beautiful goddess from the Tongan islands. This goddess flew over the ocean attended by two "white-heads" (virgins with lime on their heads). Each attendant carried baskets of stones and sand. At the proper moment, the goddess ordered them to cast the contents of the baskets into the sea; from this rite sprang up the islands of Rotuma. The lovely Tongan goddess also populated the islands.

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From the George Westbook collection.

Many a tale Nikalau spun me of the old days when mysterious shipping touched at these atolls. Whose these men were he did not know; undoubtedly these islands were a remote rendezvous for pirates and rovers in the lost years.

Often at night, on the beach at Rotuma, I have dreamed of these white rovers who first came to these tropic shores those adventurous freebooters who must forever remain nameless. Lawless sea wanderers, murderous, pirates, predatory scum seeking riches and the fleshpot. They sheltered at this remote haven after successful voyages; here they refitted and held high carnival until the shortage in supply sent them forth to death or further lucky brigandage. Long gone, these fierce followers of feckless fancies...but the aura of their adventuring still seems to linger. I could almost hear their voices above the surf breaking on the coral.

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In 1888, the British substituted sovereignty over their portion of New Guinea for the protectorate status, in 1889 they assumed protectorate over the Phoenix and Tokelau islands, in 1892 over the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) and the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu), and in 1900 they took charge of Ocean Island (Banaba). Back in 1881 however, they had attached Rotuma to the Fiji Government.  

Take a look at the following comprehensive and best Rotuma Website on the Internet!
Webmaster is Alan Howard.
Rotuma Website: Noa‘ia ‘e Mauri
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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 31st March 2003)