Anthony Trollope on Fiji




Trollope, Anthony. The Tireless Traveler: Twenty Letters to the Liverpool Mercury. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  [1978,c1941] 1978.


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Letter XVII




In October, 1874—just one year ago when this letter will reach England—Great Britain was strengthened or burdened, as the case may be, by the possession of a new colony. On the 10th of that month, the British flag was hoisted, "with the usual formalities," by Sir Hercules Robinson, in Fiji. Sir Hercules was and is the governor of New South Wales, and had been commissioned by the Home Government to complete the arrangement, if such completion might be possible; and this he did successfully. [34]


There is, I think, at home, a general opinion that Great Britain possesses enough of the world—as much as she can well manage—and that new territorial possessions must be regarded rather as increased burdens than increased strength. No doubt the power of the country and the prestige which belongs to its name are based on its colonial and Indian empire. Every Englishman sufficiently awake to be proud of England feels this; but there is at the same time a general conviction that enough has been done—that we have got all that can do us good, and that we should abstain from taking more, if it be possible to abstain. This certainly was the opinion in regard to Fiji, and the


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proposed annexation was for a time refused. Then gradually there came upon our statesmen at home a conviction that the thing must be done—that, in spite of ourselves, we must, for certain reasons, make ourselves the masters of these islands, and that it was only left for us to consider in what way we might best assume control over the unenvied possession.


Nor is this the first time that we have been so coerced. When we began the task of government in New Zealand, in 1840—for, though the British flag had flown in New Zealand many years before that, it was only then that we really assumed possession of the islands—we did so because we could no longer avoid the task of ruling Englishmen who for the purposes of trade had settled themselves on these shores. It was necessary that the natives should be protected from the greed of our own countrymen. It was necessary that our countrymen should be protected from each other, and it was also especially necessary to prohibit Englishmen from forming some abnormal community on the other side of the world which in after years we might be unable either to ignore or to acknowledge. Therefore we took New Zealand in hand, and so great were its natural advantages that, in spite of Maori wars—in spite even of the fact that up to this moment we are not masters of the Maoris—the new colony has become to us a source of honour and strength rather than a burden. With such an example before us we ought, perhaps, not to be afraid of Fiji; but the circumstances of Fiji are, I fear, much less promising than were those of New Zealand.


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I have not visited Fiji, as I had hoped to do. In rambling about the world the months slip away so quickly that the traveller can rarely see all that he has intended to see; but I may be able to say something of the story of this new British possession which will let your readers know how it has come to pass that they have a part in the lordship over these distant islands. They were first discovered in 1643 by Tasman, the Dutchman, who, of all the adventurers in these seas, was certainly the greatest. From that time down to a period now just 40 years ago, they had no history which is interesting to us. They seem to have been originally peopled from the West by a race with crisp, black negro hair, such as were found in Australia, though probably more intelligent, and possessed of higher civilisation. To these had been added an influx from islands to the east of Fiji, from Tonga especially, of men with lank hair, the race which is general in the Polynesian islands, and hence there arose a people with divided habits, a double language, and causes for frequent war.


There are two large islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, surrounded by over 200 smaller islands and islets. They lie exactly on the other side of the globe. The 180th line of longitude runs through them, which line is the same east or west from Greenwich. They are in the tropics, lying between the 16th and 19th lines south of the equator. It has been computed that the area of the islands together is equal to that of Wales. The population, [35] when we took possession of Fiji last


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year, was about 150,000. The scenery, especially on the eastern shores, is said to be very lovely. The heat is too severe for Europeans to work, as it is in very many parts of the British empire, but the islands are not subject to the malignity of any special disease, as are some of our West Indian possessions.


In 1835 a few white traders, Englishmen and Americans, probably mixed, first came to Fiji in quest of fortune, and established themselves in a place called Levuka, in one of the smaller islands. From that time to this, Levuka has been the white man's capital in Fiji; and two years later, missionaries settled themselves among the islands. Such have been the commencements of almost all modern colonisation. There has been the joint desire to make money and to proselytise—with the English as with the Spaniards. Now and again the love of freedom, and the desire to find new homes in which a man might say his prayers as he pleased, have driven wanderers forth and have created new countries; but the merchants and the missionaries have been the great discoverers of the world. It was they who by their joint action forced us to colonise New Zealand, and it is they who have now together compelled the Colonial Office to send a great governor to Fiji.


The name of Thakombau—here spelt as it is pronounced—will probably be familiar to most of your readers. He was born in 1804, and is still living, and in 1852 succeeded his father as chief of the largest of the Fijian tribes. But he was not then King of Fiji. A few years before the latter date there had appeared


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among the islands a stranger chief, a Tongan, named Maafu, who succeeded in establishing himself in the eastern or Windward Islands, as a rival to Thakombau. But it is with Thakombau that we English have chiefly dealt, and whose co-operation with Englishmen has caused Fiji to be this day an English colony. Two years after his father's death he became a Christian—as far as Christianity was possible to him—and renounced cannibalism. He and his wife were baptised, and he seems, at any rate, to have been convinced that there could be neither peace nor prosperity for his people unless they could be made secure, if not by British rule, at any rate by British protection. The other day, when the cession of the country was completed, he sent over, as a present to our Queen, his war-club, which had ever been to him the symbol of his authority. There is much in the character of the man which recommends itself to us, though he was a cannibal and a heathen, and though now, in his old age, his Christianity is not very intelligible to himself. He seems ever to have trusted the honesty and power of the British nation, and to have mingled with that trust a melancholy conviction that his own people could of themselves do nothing; and yet the Englishmen he had seen had not always been good specimens of their nationality. "Of one thing I am certain," he said to Sir Hercules Robinson, when they were negotiating the cession: "if we do not cede Fiji, the white stalkers on the beach, the cormorants, will open their mouths and swallow us." And again he said, "Fijians are of unstable character. A white


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man who wishes to get anything from a Fijian, if he does not succeed to-day, will try again to-morrow, till the Fijian is wearied out and gives in." He had learned that the weaker must give way to the stronger, and had perceived that it was better to abandon himself and his country at once to the justice of English rule than to be squeezed out of existence by the rapacity of individuals.


In the early days of chieftainship, various troubles came upon him. Maafu, his rival from Tonga, was strong against him, stirring up rebellion in the islands and separating the people. And then there were misfortunes with the Americans. In 1849 the house of the American consul was burned down, and compensation was claimed for that. In 1853, Levuka was burned, and, among other things, the houses and property of certain Americans were destroyed, for which further compensation was demanded. In 1855, an American officer came to assess this property, and demanded a payment of £9000 ($45,000). This seems to have been the beginning of Thakombau's pecuniary troubles. There was no means within his power of paying any such sum! If only England would take the islands and pay the money, things might at any rate be quiet! In 1858, the first offer of cession was made. Fiji should belong to England, if England would pay those hard American creditors. A deed of cession was sent to England in 1859, the British consul resident at Fiji taking it to London. The British residents in the islands were of course quite as anxious for the arrangement as Thakombau could be. But at that time the


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British adult residents were only 166 in number, and in 1862 the offer was refused by us. The injury that 166 persons at the other side of the globe could do was not sufficient to induce us to accept the new burden.


Then, for twelve years, various struggles were made to carry on a native government on European plans and with European officers. In 1865, Thakombau, who had hitherto been only the first of the native chieftains, was elected president, and a constitution was formed similar to that which had been adopted under American auspices in the Sandwich Islands. At this time, Thakombau's chief minister was an American. But reliance on the United States did not last long, and in 1868 Thakombau was crowned king. There was, however, still that debt of £9000, and a clearly expressed determination on the part of the United States that the money must be forthcoming. As we know, our brethren in America are very urgent in the collection of such debts. Then a company was formed in Melbourne called the Polynesian Company, to whom a charter was given conferring vast rights, on condition that the £9000 should be paid. The company was to have a monopoly of banking, freedom from taxation, and 200,000 acres of land. The Americans got their money, and the Polynesian Company entered in upon a small fraction of their land.


In 1871, Thakombau, who had already been declared king, was proclaimed a constitutional sovereign, and a parliament, consisting of twenty-five members, was elected—a parliament consisting of white men. The first thing, of course—I believe I may say the only


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thing—the parliament did was to get into debt. Establishments and expenditure were sanctioned amounting to double the revenue which could be collected. The bickerings of the Europeans were incessant. Civil wars broke out among the natives, which had to be put down by a British man-of-war. Fresh offers of cession were made; and, in the meantime, King Thakombau was at his wit's ends, and the British fortune-hunters were in terrible lack of security for their ventures. Money was borrowed at almost whatever rate of interest might be demanded. The one thing wanted was government. Cotton could be grown, and sugar, and fortunes might be made, if only some real government were possible—some security that property would be protected by law. A Fijian parliament with poor King Thakombau at its head and self-appointed English ministers could do nothing but get into debt. Some strong staff on which the little place might lean with safety was necessary to its existence. If England would not take it, Fiji must become a mere nest of robbers, and a curse to that side of the world—especially a curse to our Australasian colonies, which are comparatively near to it.


The nest of robbers and the curse might have been endured by England, were it not that it would have been a British nest. The men who were practically declaring that they were willing enough to carry on their operations honestly, under the laws, if laws were provided for them, but that, lacking laws, they must live lawlessly, were Englishmen. No minister at home would send out a man-of-war and take every Briton


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out of Fiji. Thus the acceptance of the islands became a duty, and almost a necessity. After repeated offers we appointed two commissioners to inquire as to the terms of cession. The terms first offered were, of course, such as could not be accepted. Pensions were demanded. Money was demanded. Stipulations as to land were demanded. It was natural enough that King Thakombau should be instigated by his white ministers to ask for much, and that Englishmen living so far away from home should think that much might be got. A great power, taking on itself the burden of ruling these islands at the other side of the world, could submit to no bargaining. In July, 1874, our governor at New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson, was desired to go over to the islands and take possession of them, if the chiefs and men in authority there would unite in giving them up trustfully to British dominion. He arrived at Levuka on the 23rd of September, and on the 10th October, 1874, a deed of cession was executed at Levuka by all the chiefs, and by Sir Hercules, under which, without any terms, the islands were ceded to British rule.


How far our generosity may go in accepting the old Fijian pecuniary liabilities is perhaps not as yet decided—at any rate, is not absolutely known; but it is understood that we must begin our rule by lending Fiji about £150,000, of which £9000 will go to repay the company who settled those bitter American claims; and that we are setting on foot a government which will cost £30,000 a year, with the expectation of a revenue amounting to £20,000. The prospect is not a


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comfortable one to the British taxpayer, who will probably have no direct interest in Fiji; but the thing has been done before, and England has borne it, and, in spite of all our resolutions to the contrary, will probably be repeated.


An additional melancholy has been thrown over our entry upon this new possession by the breaking out of a frightful epidemic at the very moment. Some wretched vessel carried the measles into the islands; and out of a population of 250,000 souls, more than 50,000 have perished. Throughout the whole of Fiji, one in five has gone! Of course it is felt by these poor savages that death has come upon them as a penalty for their want of patriotism, and of course there are not wanting among them leaders who inculcate the idea. Such a mortality will appear to many as though the whole population were destroyed. Now, as I write, the destruction has passed away, and gradually the terrible feeling of which I have spoken will die out.


As soon as the transfer was completed, Thakombau, with some of his relatives and followers, paid a visit to Sir Hercules Robinson at Sydney, and was entertained in semi-regal state. The old man expressed himself pleased with everything, and was evidently gratified at the treatment he received. But he did not like the life. He has now gone back to his own land, and lives as a pensioner on the English Crown, with certain magisterial authority still in his hands. It is a singular termination to the career of one who has eaten his enemies, and who lived for sixty years as a heathen and a cannibal.


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Letter XVIII




What are we to do with the South Sea Islands? It might seem that this is a needless question, and that we Englishmen as Englishmen are not required to do anything with the South Sea Islands. At home, perhaps, as a people, we do not trouble ourselves much about them. We are aware that there are many hundred little specks of land lying about the Pacific Ocean, chiefly within the tropics, inhabited by savage races, many of them inhabited by cannibals, among whom missionaries have gone from ourselves and other civilised people; but the islands do not belong to us. Why, then, should it be a care to us to ask what is to be done with them? And yet the question is constantly getting itself asked, and is forcing an answer. Englishmen go and settle among them, and have to be looked after. It cannot be permitted that English subjects, gone half-wild with the license begotten by long absence, but still with enough of civilisation left for ascendency over the absolute savage, should be allowed to live as they please in these remote spots. And then there is that great question of labour, with the attendant question of slavery. Kidnapping cannot be allowed. At any rate, let there be no British kidnapping. These poor cannibals have thews and sinews, and if taken to other lands can be made to work and become profitable. Let them go and work like other labourers if they


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please; but they shall not be taken against their will. At any rate they shall not be taken by English ships or by English speculators. In this way there has grown up a most complicated question. The islands which we call Fiji have forced themselves upon us, and have become a British colony, from these causes. We are now being invited to undertake the difficult and very disagreeable task of annexing the enormous island called Papua, or New Guinea. And we maintain ships of war running about among the islands generally, trying to maintain justice, struggling to do some little good among these poor people; making an effort—alas, too often futile—to carry Christianity with them, at considerable expense, and sometimes with results to ourselves which are most disastrous. The missionary work, too, superadds itself so naturally to that which we must suppose to be more distinctly authorised by the Government at home. How is it possible for a humane and pious man moving about among these poor creatures not to attempt to endow them with the glorious gifts which he himself feels that he possesses? Thus attempts are made, and intercourse is established. Benevolent men, who would so fain be beneficent, go among them believing that kindness and justice will be understood and will prevail. But all who go are not kind, or even just. The rough, red-handed skipper, who has lived among these people till he has taught himself to regard them as no better than brute animals, is solely intent on making money out of them. In looking into the treatment which the South Sea Islanders have received from the white races, one finds the noblest


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conduct mixed with the most ignoble—self-devotion and pure philanthropy on one side, with greed and utter disregard for human suffering on the other. The poor savage, who certainly does not desire our good services, and who looks upon us at first as an intruder, whether we come for good or evil, cannot distinguish the God-like visitor from him who is simply fiendish; hence come mistakes, recriminations, punishments, and revenge, which have too often led to disasters so serious as to make us almost wish that no British ship might ever again be sent by Government to these islands. The late murder of Commodore Goodenough [36] at Santa Cruz was such a disaster.


But we know that we cannot cease our endeavours or get rid of duties in regard to stray British subjects because even such a man as Commodore Goodenough has been slain in the performance of his self-appointed task. And therefore it is that, as these troubles come upon us again and again, we have to ask ourselves what we mean to do with the South Sea Islands. There is too commonly a feeling in favour of annexation on the part of those who are concerned on the spot—either of entire annexation, with a thoroughly British government, or of partial annexation, with some ascendant British resident, who shall be practically supreme. It will always seem to a man that his own work is the really important thing that the world requires to have done. And when it becomes a man's work to defend these poor South Sea Islanders, he


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soon teaches himself to feel that an English governor, with an English staff and an English man-of-war, would do it all, and turn almost hell into heaven. Let England call an island her own, let her fly her own flag there, and say that Victoria is Queen, and kidnapping may be stopped—not only kidnapping by Englishmen, but by Frenchmen also, and by Dutch. New Zealand was colonised for such reasons. But then New Zealand is not in the tropics.


I will tell very shortly the story of Commodore Goodenough. Commodore Goodenough was in command of the squadron employed in the Pacific, of which the headquarters are at Sydney. He had taken Sir Arthur Gordon, the new governor, to Fiji, and had afterwards gone on a cruise among the islands in her Majesty's ship Pearl. Lying in a curve running east and south-east from New Guinea are first the Solomon Islands, then the Santa Cruz group, and nearly south of them the New Hebrides. The inhabitants of all these are as yet but little known, are very savage, and are supposed to be cannibals. [On] one of these—at Vate, or Sandwich, among the New Hebrides—there is a settlement of white people, chiefly English or speakers of English, who grow a little cotton, and are probably concerned in the exportation of labour to New Caledonia. In the course of last year (1874) a small vessel from our squadron visited this place, with the direct object, no doubt, of repressing illegal traffic. Afterwards another vessel, the Sandfly, went up north among the Santa Cruz Islands, with the intention of getting general information about these islanders, and


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of doing any good that might be done to them. Where our men-of-war have gone, or any of the small craft which accompanies them, the object has never been, of late years, either lust of conquest or lust of gain. So much, I think, may be said with certainty. The idea has been to do some good if any good was possible. But this expedition of the Sandfly was not fortunate. Either the islanders did not understand us, or we did not understand them. They endeavoured to force their way on board. An arrow was fired, and they were repulsed. None of our men were hurt, and the Sandfly went away. On the 12th of August last, the month in which I am now writing, the commodore landed on the spot off which this misfortune had taken place. It was at Carlisle Bay, on the northern shore of the island Santa Cruz, in the Santa Cruz group. He says, in a letter written to his wife on that day, "I am going on shore to the spot where the Sandfly was attacked, to see if I cannot make friends with the unfortunates. They seem most friendly, and anxious to be civil, coming out to us in canoes, and looking as if they wished for peace." On the Tuesday following, going on with the same letter, he says, "But I was mistaken." It seems that he could not endure the idea that there should be among these islands any people who should have reason to think that he or any of those under him were their enemies. The philanthropy of the man was of so warm a nature that he could not bring himself to believe evil even of them. In discussing their condition with myself, when I have, I confess, expressed doubt as to their aptitude for lessons of a high


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order, he has rebuked my hardness with a tenderness which was peculiar to him—with a courtesy which I think never could have forsaken him—and he has told me that his experience taught him to think that they were fit recipients for any good tidings which might be brought to them. Well, on the 12th of August, in latitude about 10 south, longitude 166 east, he landed on the beach near a little village containing eight or nine huts, taking the solitary precaution of being himself the first to jump out of the boat. He had with him his secretary and five men, and was followed by a large boat with eight or ten officers and a dozen men. He had determined to go unarmed, but had allowed two men in the second boat to carry pistols with them. As he approached the shore he signalled to the ship that a third boat should be sent with arms, and this was done. He had probably observed that the natives whom he saw clustering on the beach were not accompanied by their women and children, and, from his knowledge of the habits of the people, had taken this as betokening a want of amity. When he landed he made presents to the savages, and the usual bartering began—the exchange of cloth and hatchets for beads and teeth, and what are generallly called "curios." Then came a sharp shower of rain, and they were invited to take shelter under a shed and beneath the trees, which came close down to the shore, almost overhanging the water. Then he was invited to walk on to a larger village, about a mile distant, and started, accompanied by his secretary; but when he had gone a short distance he seemed to fear the


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separation between himself and his party, and returned. It is impossible to avoid feeling that he had determined to trust the islanders, with a conviction—though not quite a thorough conviction—that by doing so he might make them trustworthy, and that he had then remembered how great was his responsibility on behalf of others. He came back to the men whom he had left, and whom he had ordered not to leave the beach, and gave directions that they should go down to the boats. One or two were still bartering with natives, and in collecting them there was some little delay. When the commodore had turned for the last time—or, rather, as he was turning—he saw a savage raise his bow to his hip, and in that position let fly an arrow. This struck him on his side, and as he pulled it out he renewed his orders for the men to hurry down. Then there was a flight of arrows, most of them coming from natives hidden high in the branches among the trees. Five sailors were wounded besides the commodore, and by the return fire from our men two natives were shot, and probably killed. It seems that there were about 40 or 50 of these islanders collected, and that they were all armed with bows and arrows, with the exception of one man.


It was thought that the wounds received would hardly be serious unless the arrows were poisoned. While the men were in the boats the punctures were sucked, and when they had been on board for a day or two in the hands of the surgeons there was not at first much to fear. The question of course arose whether punishment should be exacted, and, if so, what punishment.


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The commodore was inclined to leave them without any display of his power, remembering that the poor wretches were savages upon whom intrusion had been made, who could not know but that they had to deal with enemies who had come there to take away their young men and to steal their produce. Among those with him there was, of course, a first feeling to exact a bloody revenge for the treachery of the attack. Then he took a middle course, and ordered that the huts of the small village should be burned, giving special orders that neither a life should be taken nor a man hurt. A volley of blank cartridges was fired to frighten away the natives, and then a boat went ashore, and the huts were burned.


All this happened on a Thursday, and it was not till the next Tuesday that danger was feared. Then symptoms set in from which the doctors began to perceive that the arrows had probably been poisoned. Whether they were poisoned or not is still a question; but, as three of the six men wounded died of tetanus about the eighth or ninth day, it is probable that such was the case. Among the officers the commodore was wounded, and he was struck twice. Five sailors were struck, of whom two died, the other three regaining their health.


The conduct of the gallant leader of these men, when he was told that he was to die, was perhaps more interesting to those who were with him and to those who loved him than it can be made to your readers; but perhaps I may be permitted to say that it was of a piece with the life he had lived. He had himself carried


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on deck, and then spoke to his men such language as I do not dare to repeat here—words that were as beautiful as they were full of hope and contentment. And he sent messages of love to his wife and children, and gave directions how the sad tidings should be broken to her before her heart should have been elated by hearing that his ship was coming into harbour. On Friday, August 20, he died; and they brought him on shore, and we buried him with his two shipmates upon the hill, on the north shore, over Sydney harbour, in one of the loveliest spots ever formed by nature. She was there, the broken-hearted widow with her two children, the knowledge of whose loss was yet hardly more than twenty-four hours old—a sight never to be forgotten. And we all of us had to remember that in this futile attempt to make friends with the few natives of a little island, England had lost one of her best seamen—a man tender as he was brave, a man of science, full of the highest aspirations, fit for any great work—such a one as no nation can afford to lose lightly.


And now the question recurs with which I began this letter—what are we to do with the South Sea Islands? There will probably be a strong feeling at home that, because one of our great officers has been murdered in the execution of his duty, some vengeance should be taken; and yet can we fairly say that these islanders were to blame, acting as they did according to their lights? The island is theirs, and when we first went among them we exacted heavy retribution because they did not submit themselves to the


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overtures of peace which we were making to them. Probably there had been former visits under other flags—perhaps under our own—which had left behind them nothing but a sense of injury. It is certain that we do not mean to take possession of those lands for our own purposes—as we have done in Australia and New Zealand, in which, though our coming has exterminated, or will soon exterminate, the natives, even so sad a result as that is justified to our consciences by the opening of new homes to men of higher races. If we had all the islands lying within the tropics we could not find in them a fitting domicile for a single working European. If we look round the world within the tropics we must come to that conclusion as to the centre belt. And certainly we do not want an extended dominion over black subjects. The missionary tells us we may make Christians of them. I will not contradict the missionary, whose work is entitled to our loving respect. But I cannot but see that hitherto his success has hardly been sufficient to justify the assistance of our ships of war. At present it seems that we do not quite know what to do, and that we drift into the possession of undesirable so-called colonies. Perhaps the unfortunate loss which I have just recorded may lead to some fixed and definite policy in the matter.




[34] Sir Hercules Robinson (1824–1897) was one of England's greatest nineteenth-century colonial governors. He served successively and successfully as governor of Ceylon, New South Wales, and Cape Colony, South Africa, besides negotiating for the Fiji Islands in 1874. He was made Lord Rosmead in 1896.

[35] There has been virtually no growth in the population of the islands.

[36] James Graham Goodenough (1830–1875), an extremely able and accomplished officer. He was wounded August 12 and died August 20, 1875.



LINK: Trollope: The tireless traveller: Twenty letters to the Liverpool Mercury