LESLEY BRYANT is a retired microbiologist and librarian. Through the National Archives of Fiji, she was able to find important information that would change her life forever.
When Lesley Bryant visited Fiji in 2006 to celebrate her 60th birthday she didn’t know that the trip with her mother, daughter and granddaughter would change her life. Her journey to self-discovery brought her to Fiji, took her to Samoa where she connected with her Samoan lineage. All this was made possible when she visited the National Archives of Fiji and discovered a handwritten certificate authenticating her South Pacific heritage.
“When I was planning to celebrate my 60th birthday, I told my family I wanted to visit Fiji and Samoa to get a sense of place for my 8th great-grandparent. I had previously visited Britain and Germany where my other great-grandparents came from and had found that really important in understanding my origins although I did not reconnect with any family there.
To my surprise my mother and daughter said they wanted to come too. My mother had hidden her Samoan heritage, even from us, because growing up in North Queensland in the 1920s she feared being labelled ‘Kanaka’ (a derogatory term applied to indentured Pacific Islander labourers working on cotton and sugar plantations in Queensland).
Ms Bryant had access to microfilmed Birth, Deaths and Marriage records. Assisted by staff she was able to identify a certificate after carefully search through each catalogued entry. The discovery of the certificate shed light to her family history and she commended the Archives for helping her make the connection.
All I knew were names and dates and that my mother’s father had been born in Fiji and his mother was Samoan. I told my story to the first Samoan I met in Australia and, as she suggested, I Googled ‘Fiji Archives’ and requested my grandfather’s birth certificate by email. I was amazed to receive a prompt reply listing birth records for him and 4 of his younger siblings and offering to post copies! Copies of the handwritten originals arrived soon after. These corrected his birthdate (ours was about 1 year out) and confirmed that he was born at Nausori in a ‘wooden cottage’ where his Cornish-born father worked as a ‘sugar boiler’ for CSR and gave us his Samoan mother’s correct name Caroline Aull. (We were never certain how to spell her surname because of different handwriting.)
Soon after I was at a conference in Brisbane where there were many delegates from Australia’s near neighbours. One asked ‘Where are you from?’ and when I said ‘Gold Coast’ he said ‘No, WHERE are you from?’ and I was able to tell him about my Samoan great-grandmother and he said ‘That’s it, I can see it in you!’ Others from Fiji asked my great-grandmother’s name and said ‘Oh, we know your family well!’ I was stunned!! The birth certificate led her to share stories with her Aull family here Suva, Fiji. She along with her mother, daughter and granddaughter relived history with her Fiji family and realised that John, Bill and Claire Aull’s father and her great grandmother were first cousins through their Samoan line. This information then led her to Samoa. With the help of the National Archives and her new found friends, her family reconnected with her Samoan family (Aull) in Fiji and her family in Samoa (Ainu’u).
“When we told what little we knew of our Caroline Aull to our new-found families – that she was a ‘Samoan princess sent to marry some high-chief in Fiji but instead married a Cornishman and both were disowned by their families for doing so’ – the Ainu’u family remarked that would explain why they have the Fijian names Katapau and Kapuana in their family. So that helped solve a mystery for them too! They explained Katapau is how they say Cakobau and we all wonder if Caroline was sent to marry into the Cakobau family and marvel that she was able to marry my Cornish great-grandfather instead. Fortunately the family has lived happily in Queensland since the late 1890s.Since her last visit to the Archives, Ms Bryant has been able to find a microfilm copy of her great grandparents’ marriage certificate with the assistance of the Archives staff. She then went on to obtain a registered copy from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages here in Suva. “Last November, I again visited NAF and the Director and staff kindly helped me see a microfilm of the hand-written marriage certificate of my great-grandparents which allowed me to correct typographic errors made when the Registry Office ‘transcribed’ it some years ago. With help of friends in Levuka, I have been also able to decipher the minister’s name and visit the Methodist Church where the marriage took place. Now my mother (94 this year!) is proud of her Samoan heritage where once she hid it for fear of being shamed! We all have a better sense of our Pacific roots too. The family reconnections meant so much to me and my family that I decided to connect with descendants of ‘Kanakas’ in the hope that they too could be proud of their roots and reconnect with their families in the Pacific. As a result, I was deeply involved in the 150th commemorations of the first arrival of these labourers to Beaudesert, Queensland ‘ASSI 150’ in 2013 and to Levuka, Fiji ‘FM 150’ in 2014 and soon James Muller will be releasing a documentary film he has made of the latter. Sincere thanks from my family to NAF and the wonderful staff there without whom none of this would have been possible. I would urge anyone interested in family history in Fiji to visit NAF where I was met by efficient and warm personal service.