Exhibition tells story of Torquay’s Fijian connection 

Torbay Weekly

On Saturday, October 2, Torquay Museum will open ‘Far Side of the World’ - an exhibition which tells the story of how Torquay and the museum share a connection with islands of Fiji.

How Penijamini Veli, Roko Tui Macueta or Native Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Macuata in northern Fiji came to be here almost 100 years ago - and whose photograph and words inspired the exhibition.

“Torquay is a beautiful place. The palms and the tropical trees, the broken formation of the coast and the undulating land remind me of home. Torquay is more like Fiji than anything else I have seen since I left for England,” wrote Ratu Penijamini Veli in Torquay on June 16, 1924.

Within Veli’s words lie a clue as to why Torquay Museum holds a small but internationally important collection of items from 19th century Fiji.

The collections of three men - Adolph Brewster, Arthur Ogilvie and the Hon Charles Swayne - reside in Torquay Museum.

These collectors retired to the palm-filled, rather ‘colonial’ surroundings of this seaside town, leaving their artefacts to the museum.

An ideal place to retire, after lives spent in the Pacific.

As a young man in the 1890s, Veli served with Brewster, who was deputy commandant of the Armed Native Constabulary, stationed with the highland people of Viti Levu, the largest island of the now Republic of Fiji.

Brewster was an amateur anthropologist and showed a keen interest in the local histories and genealogies of the people under his jurisdiction.

By 1895, he claimed to have recorded the genealogies of most of the leading hill clans of Viti Levu, clans of which Penijamini Veli was a high-status member.

In 1898, following 12 years of road building in the district, Veli took over this work, constructing more than 250 miles of bridle tracks in terrible mountainous conditions.

He became sub-inspector of Native Constabulary in 1906, and continued working with Brewster until Brewster retired and left Fiji for Torquay around 1917.

During his retirement in Torquay, Brewster published much of his research in a book entitled 'The Hill Tribes of Fiji' (1922).

He maintained an active interest in the affairs of Fiji and, in 1924, hosted the visit to Torquay of Ratu Veli, now a Native Lieutenant Governor who was touring England with two other chiefs to mark the 50th anniversary of Fiji’s cession to the United Kingdom.

This was Veli’s second visit to England, having accompanied Brewster in 1902 to attend the coronation of Edward VII.

This second trip, a voyage of over 40 days to England, reunited a circle of friends that included the curator of Torquay Museum, A.H. Ogilvie.

Ratu Veli would eventually reach a place in the government of Fiji, being chosen as one of five Fijian representatives nominated by members of the Council of Chiefs for the legislative council in 1937. Veli died in 1938 aged 64.

In the 1990s, Torquay Museum discovered a newspaper article about Veli’s visit to Torquay. At that time, we knew none of this history.

Veli’s words, those of a Fijian, gave us a unique view of Torquay and provided the key to understanding why the museum had such an outstanding collection of Fijian objects.

In 2013, working with the Fijian Art Research Project, the museum created an exhibition inspired by his words: 'Far Side of the World: Torquay’s Fijian Connection'.

There will be a second chance to see the exhibition from Saturday, October 2, until February 2022.