Before the seat of Government was transferred to Suva in 1881, Levuka was under the de facto reign of Ratu Seru Cakobau, self proclaimed King of Fiji. From early days of settlement to the first colonial administration, Levuka possessed evidence of early civilisation and modernisation.
Located on the island of Ovalau, Levuka is renowned as the historical site where Fiji was ceded to Britain on October 10, 1874. An initial proposal to cede Fiji was denied some 20 years before that. From the date of cession onwards, the year 1874 has been held in high regard.
However, 134 years later Levuka is once again rewriting the history books on Fiji's official Deed of Cession documents. On June 6, 2008, original Fijian translations of the Deed of Cession were discovered and given to the National Archives for safekeeping and sustainability.
The re-enactment of another Deed of Cession handover at Nasova was a significant event for Fiji despite the occasion seemingly kept low profile. The official document was handed over to Government archivist Setareki Tale by the Tui Levuka. The auspicious ceremony was attended by Government officials from the Ministry of Information, Department of Culture and Heritage as well as members of the Lomaiviti Provincial Administration.
While many would be familiar with the existence of the English Deed of Cession document at the National Archives, the recent discovery of the Fijian translation has opened up airways to more historical findings in the town.
For the late Tui Levuka Ratu Kolinio Rokotuinaceva, the handover ceremony was an important event. He said although this was a document Levuka was proud to maintain, it would be in safe hands in terms of its preservation. The handover was probably the last public appearance by the Tui Levuka before his untimely death on Monday.
After the framed documents were given to government chief archivist Setareki Tale, provincial administrator Jese Veibuli spoke on the need to sustain important documents that entail the history of our country.
However, details of how the document went unnoticed for more than a century is anyone's guess.
Mr Veibuli has been in office for the past four months. He said the document had been hanging in the PA's office and no one realised it was the original.
"Nobody knows how it ended up there and how it went unnoticed for 134 years. It has been hanging in the district office for a very long time. When I was an internal auditor, I had seen and read parts of the document. Some of the translations were a bit vague and I was trying to find out what the interpreter, David Wilkinson was trying to say.
"We asked a typist to type out as best she can what was written. However, when one reads the document then one can fully understand what it was about. This is a very important document. In fact, back then it was not easy to get the consent of all the chiefs in Fiji to sign the Deed of Cession."
Mr Veibuli said there were a lot of disagreements between the chiefs but as a result of the Fijian translation of the Deed of Cession, they reached an agreement. He said the consensus was also reached as a result of the continuous prayers of the talatala and reverends. Mr Veibuli said this was a fact that was unknown.
"The Deed of Cession was made possible through the intervention and prayers of the people of God. At the time there was a lot of friction and differences amongst the people and these talatala were interceding for a peaceful nation through their prayers.
"Apart from that, the Fijian translations were not fluent or grammatically correct but Mr Wilkinson was able to get the message across. His translations were almost word for word but the chiefs understood the meaning of the translation. This is a very significant document that must be safeguarded for the next generation."
Although he was proud to be part of the event, Mr Veibuli said the documents were in good hands. He said the documents were a part of Levuka and to see it leave the island was a sad moment. Nevertheless, Mr Veibuli said, this was not the last historical find on the island as the possibility of another imperative find in Levuka was endless.
"The handover ceremony is a historical occasion for Levuka. One century and 34 years ago on this site, the 13 chiefs of Fiji agreed to cede the country to Britain because of this translation that was read to them. It is a part of Levuka. There was a petition sent to the office where people disagreed with the transfer of the document.
"Unfortunately, it is a requirement by law that such documents of national benefit and importance be kept at the national archives or the museum. Although we would like it to stay in Levuka, we know we are leaving it in good hands," he said.
The exact date when the document was placed in the provincial administrator's office is still an unknown fact. The people who would have had answers to the many questions about the Fijian translation of the Deed of Cession have carried that vital information to their graves. These notable people are former district officers and commissioners.
However, without dwelling too much on the past, the important aspect now is to note the events that led to the discovery of the transcripts.
Government chief archivist Setareki Tale said the first mention of the document came from an Australian volunteer Derek Cleyland who noticed the document hanging on the wall in the provincial administrator's office while in Levuka.
Mr Tale was on the next available boat to Levuka to find out whether or not this was the original Fijian translation of the Deed of Cession. He was able to cross check his findings with a copy of the same translation kept at the National Archives in the United Kingdom.
"There was this atmosphere of excitement at this perceived lost historical document. On the English document of the Deed of Cession, there is an attestation or a note by Wilkinson stating an attachment to the document. So at the moment, the English version is only half of the Deed of Cession. This may as well be the other half or the other attachment as indicated by the attestation to the English version.
"There were two English documents for the signing of cession so there is a possibility there are two attachments or two Fijian translations. One English document went back to Britain, the other was kept in Fiji. However, the English version in Fiji was sent to London in 1937 for restoration. It is still kept there. In 1946, a correspondence was received from Britain stating a copy of the Fijian translation. I am not sure if this copy is legalised or promulgated, a regulation to determine when it was sealed."
Mr Tale said the next step would be to determine the accuracy in translation between the English and Fijian version. He said the original transcripts were very old and had to be restored and repaired for sustainability. Mr Tale said under the Public Records legislations, it was a legal requirement that historical documents or findings be kept at the national archives or museum. In the meantime, Mr Tale said investigations into another possible historical document would take place.
"These documents are of national importance and information on it should be made available for the public. We might investigate whether or not another document which is the supposedly first written proposal for cession is original. As far as we know, the first proposal or request to cede Fiji was turned down and this was in 1854.
"This new development is significant especially highlighting a time when Fiji was going through rough times especially with the collapse of the cotton industry and resistance to tax payments," he said.
Mr Tale added preliminary discussions have been held with the UNESCO to formulate a committee that promotes culture and heritage as well as facilitate accessibility to information of important documents.
Culture and heritage
With Levuka Town still functioning with its commercial centres, the call for more public awareness on maintaining one's culture and heritage is pivotal. Department of culture and heritage director Peni Cavuilagi said the town will always be an important chapter of the country's history.
He said while the Fijian translation of the Deed of Cession is something Levuka is proud of, the message behind its unnoticed existence for 134 years is for more preservation of historical artifacts, culture and heritage.
"It was through Derek Cleyland and a local staff from our department that the document was highlighted. It has been there for many years and even then people did not realise its value and importance. This is very important for Levuka. However, there is a need to change local perception on the issue of culture and heritage.
"We need to convince people to preserve and conserve this part of their lives. This is what defines their identity. We have also been trying to convince members at the provincial council meeting to establish a sub committee on culture and heritage. There are far more significant documents and sights that are not yet seen."
He said the department has a program called Heritage on Young Hands and while the idea of stressing the need for cultural and heritage preservation, Government endorsement is needed.
"Most people have expressed concern about the loss of culture and heritage. We are planning to list Levuka as a World Heritage site. We are grateful to Government for the funding we have received so far which is an allocated budget of $300, 000 for this year," he said.
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