Ownership of Toberua Island

A panoramic view of the island. Picture: SOPHIE RALULU

WHEN the island of Toberua was finally approved by Her Majesty Queen Victoria to be given to Fiji’s former Governor Sir Arthur Gordon as a gift from the Great Council of Chiefs members, it marked an incredible journey of ownership for the tropical paradise.

After Sir Arthur Gordon’s (who became the First Lord Stanmore) death on January 30, 1912, the island title was transferred to his son the second Lord Stanmore George Arthur Maurice Hamilton, as described last week.

Even with ownership of the island, the Second Lord Stanmore didn’t visit Fiji; however, the island was leased out to a dairy farmer in Wainibokasi called E.J (Ted) Message who held a lease for the island.

According to Ken Garnett in his book Toberua, Ted Message was a keen fisherman who had a fine launch on which he used to sleep when he visited Toberua on his frequent fishing trips.

Mr Message didn’t erect any buildings on the island during his time but sub-leased it to a Japanese commercial fisherman who then built a reasonably substantial residence.

The Japanese gentleman called Taiso had his wife with him at the time and the couple later had three or more sons living on the island with them at the time.

Another Japanese gentleman by the name of Isari (who was single) lived in the house with the family and assisted with the fishing operations. Both the Japanese gentlemen acted as caretakers for Ted Message during his ownership term.

According to Ken Garnett in 1927, his father Jasper Adrian (Joe) Garnett took over the lease of Toberua after Ted Message relinquished it. Back then Joe and Ted were neighbouring farmers at Wainibokasi, but although Joe Garnett had several launches, those were only used to tow away barges in the banana exporting business he was engaged in at the time.

They were heavier work boats rather than a pleasure craft, and although suitable for day trips, there was no proper sleeping accommodation, Ken described.

As a result, Joe had elected to build a bach on Toberua for the use of his family and the many friends who made up the usually large parties of up to 30 people during their many visits to the island.

The bach was built near the present site of bure No.8.

He wrote that an old coastal steamer “Adi Rarogo” was scrapped at the end of her economic life and his father, Joe obtained the two intact main cabins for the steamer and used it as the central part of the bach.

Two verandahs were added with one becoming a kitchen and bathroom, while the other was used for extra sleep space.

Ken wrote a thatched bure with open sides was then built nearby, approximately where bure No.7 stands.

This was used as a dining room but also had a loft with a thick layer of coconut leaves to provide extra sleeping space for the many children who were usually in the party.

Freshwater was then provided by a 400-gallon steep ships tank connected to the roof of the bach, but this water had to be used sparingly and sea bathing was the order of the day on the island.

He said his father continued to sub-lease the island to the same Japanese fisherman and his family and they remained on the island until before World War II.

During the war years, the island became badly overgrown and the bach was vandalised and soon derelict.

Joe Garnett’s lease expired in 1947 and when he made inquiries regarding the renewal, he was informed that it would not be available as the owner in Britain was proposing to sell Toberua.

The island was subsequently put up for sale by Tender.

Joe put in a reasonable bid for old time sake, but this was very substantially exceeded by one former Australian Air Force Wing Commander Garnet Francis Malley and his wife Phyllis Kathleen Malley.

According to records, the Second Baron Stanmore transferred the island ownership to Malley and his wife on March 29, 1950.

The transfer was registered on June 14, 1950.

Garnet Malley subsequently died on May 20, 1961, and his death according to Ken Garnett was recorded on the Certifi cate of Title on December 18, 1961.

His death resulted in his widow Phyllis Kathleen Malley becoming the sole owner of Toberua.

Mrs Malley after her husband’s death sold the island on October 4, 1963, to a retired Australian named Herman Joseph McHugh.

The transfer records recorded the sale and registration of the Certificate of Title on October 12, 1963.

Joseph McHugh was the owner who conceived the idea of building the resort on Toberua, but it was several years later that he actually started the work on the island.

In 1966 Ken Garnett found that Joseph McHugh had cleared the island and commenced building several bure and structures, but due to certain reasons, McHugh sold Toberua and its partly completed resort buildings before it opened to paying guests.

The new buyer was Toberua Island Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the newly formed South Pacifi c Development Corporation.

The transfer of ownership was recorded on October 5, 1967, and registered on October 16, 1967.

Although the company, Toberua Island Ltd had several changes of ownership, the original name of the company has been retained, and the title remained valid in the transfer and registration documents.

When Joe McHugh decided to sell, a former American Consul in Suva Tom Hill became interested and returned to the U.S to raise capital, which was the beginning of South Pacifi c Development Corporation and Toberua Island Ltd.

The main investor in S.P.D.C was an American called Livingston and his wife was a member of the Nicholson family, renowned for the manufacture of Nicholson files.

Hill and another American, Wagner returned to Fiji where they completed the resort in 1968.

In doing so they enlarged the original bure Joe McHugh had built for him and his wife Pam.

Hill and Wagner shifted the original powerhouse from its earlier site near the present dining room and bar to where it is now located behind the staff quarters, which Joe McHugh had also built.

It enabled the present dining room and bar buildings to be built and there were rapid construction and completion of 14 bure.

Toberua was opened as a resort in 1968 with a succession of locally born resident managers employed by Hill and Wagner who remained in Suva.

Resident managers included Barry Gardiner, Ron Cox, Miller, Eastgate and Robert Hazelman.

Hill and Wagner managed the combined venture for four years, but only the best was good enough for them and they were extravagant spenders according to Ken Garnett.

In 1972 as described by Ken in his book, Hill and Wagner were obliged to return to the US to seek more capital from the S.P.D.C shareholders, but they were unsuccessful and were told to raise the requested capital elsewhere themselves, or terminate their association with the venture.

When they had again failed, they had to drop out which was later that same year.

Between 1972 and 1974 S.P.D.C was managed by a Fiji businessman Harry Hodson, who had other interests, including a stamp shop.

  • History being the subject it is, a group’s version of events may not be the same as that held by another group. When publishing one account, it is not our intention to cause division or to disrespect other oral traditions. Those with a different version can contact us so we can publish your account of history too – Editor.

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