The Reluctant Travel Writer - Finding David Whippy - A Fiji Islands Journey

Leonard Lea Frazer

The David Whippy monument in Levuka, Fiji.
The David Whippy monument in Levuka, Fiji.
Story and photos by Leonard Lea Frazer

Introduction: The original “David Whippy” arrived in the Fiji Islands in 1828 onboard an American sailing vessel and was left behind to make arrangements for a cargo of sandalwood. When his ship did not return (for 13 years) young David adapted to the native ways of life, learned to speak Fijian, married several Fijian girls and worked his way up the hierarchy of Chiefs and led a somewhat adventurous and dangerous existence.  During his life in Fiji he helped to establish the first European settlement of Levuka on the island of Ovalau (later to become the first capital of Fiji), opened the first shipbuilding firm with two partners (Simpsons and Keswick) and became the honorary American Vice Consul from 1846 - 1856 in Fiji. He passed away in 1871 at the age of seventy and was buried in the “Old People’s Cemetery” at Wainunu, Vanua Levu, Bua, Fiji leaving an extended family that would eventually grow into one of the largest part-European families in Fiji. 

 Fast-forward to the year 1980: My wife and I and the 80 year-old Matilda Whippy started out on a week-long journey to find and visit her relatives on another island. This is a rare occurrence in Fiji. It’s not the habit of Fijians to go out of their way to visit their relatives. We boarded a ferry that took us from Levuka, Ovalau (where the original David Whippy had married the Tui (chief) Levuka’s daughter). At Natovi, on the main island of Viti Levu, we waited for the connecting ferry to the other large island in the Fiji group. After a smooth voyage of several hours we reached Vanua Levu. From the Nubuwalu ferry dock (close to where the original David Whippy was buried) we continued by bus to the center of the island where we enquired into lodging for the night at Labasa.

The old colonial “Grand Eastern Hotel” (sister hotel to the Grand Pacific in Suva - Fiji’s new capital) was full, so we booked a suite at the Takia Hotel. My wife and I had the main room which had two large beds and Matilda slept in the adjoining room which had three beds. This was her first time staying at a hotel and, wanting to do the right thing, she slept on the floor.

The next morning we boarded a bus to the eastern end of the island. At Savu Savu we stayed the night at Matilda’s nephew’s place. Our host, Bola Newton, entertained us with a lovely supper of fish and, later, a tour of the town.

I believe that arrangements had been made (perhaps by telephone or a messenger), for in the morning Uncle “Dave” Whippy (one of many name-sakes of the original David Whippy) met us at the bus station and transported us to Kasavu in a carrier (truck). We arrived at what could be called “Whippy-land,” as there is a large group of Whippys living there. We saw the church that Dave built and went on a tour of the Kasavu School. We visited relatives, Sam and Jessie and Matilda’s cousin, Arthur Whippy and his wife, Ester and when we arrived back at Buca Bay, at Dave’s place, where was the official presentation of yaqona, a whale’s tooth and a few bars of soap. This is a Fijian welcoming ceremony in which mutual respect is shown to the host and to the visiting party. Gifts were exchanged. Matilda Whippy was welcomed back to her old stomping grounds. She had left Kasavu when she was a young girl of 13, some 67 years before. Now she was enjoying all the attention from her distant family. Uncle Dave and Sam organized all the “Boys” in a massive grave-cleaning work bee. At the Whippy family plot there were 28 graves. The old family house, originally beside the cemetery, had been dismantled and a new one built using the same boards. After the grass and shrubs were cleared away (using only cane knives) from around the cemetery Matilda arrived with two Fijian ladies. Uncle Dave then led Matilda on a tour of the graves.

A great feast (lovo) was prepared for us with food that consisted of one pig cooked in an earth oven with breadfruit and taro root. Sam’s wife brought cakes including plenty of “Roli-poli,” Matilda’s favourite. Later there was live music, dancing, and lots of yaqona (kava) drinking.

The next morning we left Kasavu by bus and again stayed overnight at Bola Newton’s home at Savu Savu. We had a car-tour of the immediate area, including a visit to the local hot springs and a stop at the “Planter’s Club” for a “Fiji Bitter” beer.

The following morning we took the bus back to Labasa and, this time, managed to get a room at the aging Grand Eastern Hotel. It was $9.00 Fijian for the three of us. The Grand Eastern is a smaller version of her sister hotel in Suva and we observed that she was a little run down (the swimming pool was completely dry).

Next day we took the bus back to Nubuwalu, two ferries back to the island of Ovalau, and from Levuka, we took a taxi partway around the island to Korosigasiga (sunny-sunny village). We were met by friends of Matilda’s and Matilda’s dog, Spooky. This place was the home of my parents, Leagh and Norah Frazer, where we had been visiting for nearly four months. My parents had retired in Fiji in 1972 and during the early stages of their settling in, Matilda Whippy had decided to retire with them. They had no objections. Matilda had her own house near my parents and shared the chores and the relaxing life-style that the Frazers had come to enjoy.

Before departing from our long stay in Fiji we helped arrange another family visit. This time we travelled to the village of Yarovundi at the other end of Ovalau, where Matilda could reunite with her birth father. She had not seen him in nine years, although they lived on the same island. We were again welcomed in the traditional Fijian way with the exchanging of gifts, followed by feasting, dancing and yaqona drinking. Matilda met her nieces and nephews from the village and again enjoyed the attention and socializing.

When Matilda Whippy passed away a few years later she was buried at her father’s village cemetery. In 2003, I again visited the village of Yarovundi, and met up with Matilda’s brother (then chief). He showed me where she had been laid to rest.

In recent times, 2012, the descendants of the original David Whippy erected a monument in his honour at the original Levuka European cemetery. The plaque reads:

 DAVID WHIPPY (THE FIRST)

Born: February 15, 1801 Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, USA. Died: November 27, 1871, buried at Nakabuta, Wainunu, Bua. 1822: Disembarked in Fiji from whaling ship “The Calder” settling in Levuka, Ovalau, to trade in sandalwood and beche-de-mer. 1840: Appointed “Mata ki Bau” by the Vunivalu of Bau, Ratu Seru Cakabau in appreciation of his fair dealing and assistance to the Fijian people. 1846: Appointed USA vice-Consul by Mr. J. B. Williams, US Consul. Erected by Whippy descendants in memory of him and other European settlers who, under the protection of Tui Levuka and Ratu Seru Cakabau, pioneered the development of Levuka and many industries in 19th century Fiji. Vinaka vakalevu na lalai rawarawa kei na veiqaravi ena yalo dina.

 The David Whippy Monument was unveiled by the President of Fiji H. E. Ratu Epeli Nailatikau (a descendant of Ratu Seru Cakabau) on July 3rd, 2012.

The Whippy family plot at Kasavu, Fiji.
The Whippy family plot at Kasavu, Fiji.
Uncle Dave’s church at Kasavu.
Uncle Dave’s church at Kasavu.

 .

The house where we stayed at Kasavu.
The house where we stayed at Kasavu.
Uncle Dave mixing the grog (Kava).
Uncle Dave mixing the grog (Kava).

 .

Matilda Whippy with her father at the village of 
     Yaovundi, Ovalau.
Matilda Whippy with her father at the village of Yaovundi, Ovalau.
Leonard and Deb Frazer in a Fijian village in 1980.
Leonard and Deb Frazer in a Fijian village in 1980.

 .

Local kids pose for a photo by the Kasavu church bell.
Local kids pose for a photo by the Kasavu church bell.