2020 marked the first time that Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuạm, Rotuman Language Week, officially joined the Ministry for Pacific Peoples’ Pacific Language Week celebrations. The theme for the week was Putua 'os fäega ma 'os ag fak Rotuma, or ‘nurture our Rotuman identity through language and culture’.

As part of that week, the Museum worked closely with Fesaitu Solomone, a member of the museum’s Pacific Advisory Group to hold two Zoom talanoa that focused on Rotuman language and cultural treasures. This blog expands on the discussion in the first talanoa on one of the treasures, Tales of a Lonely Island, held in the Museum Library.

The island of Rotuma is located approximately 465 kilometres north of Fiji. Although recognised as a Fijian dependency, Rotuma has its own rich and unique culture, heritage, and language. While the island has a resident population of approximately 1600 people, there are strong communities of Rotumans living in Fiji and around the world, including a growing community in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This year we hope to shine a spotlight on more Pacific documentary heritage taonga from the Auckland Museum Research Library Te Pātaka Mātāpuna. Although our collection of tēfakhanis ‘on tēmamfua (Rotuman documentary heritage) is small compared to our other Pacific island holdings, these treasures have more to them than meets the eye.

This is true of one book we hold called Tales of a Lonely Island (1939); an early twentieth century collection of Rotuman legends as dictated by Rotuman elders to a Rotuman minister by the name of Mesulama Titifanua. Titifanua steadfastly transcribed their accounts verbatim in the Rotuman language. Each legend is presented in the original Rotuman text (as per the conventions of written Rotuman at the time) with English translations immediately following. These translations were provided by Clerk Maxwell Churchward, a Methodist missionary who spent ten years residing in Rotuma and who was also active in Fiji and Tonga. Churchward was a prolific writer and amongst his output published the first Rotuman dictionary in 1940.

The legends cover themes such as creation stories, myths of place and people, historical events and provide guidance on cultural mores and traditions. An example is the retelling of the invasion of Rotuma from Tonga in the 18th century, which Churchward notes had an impact on the Rotuman language.

In terms of its print history, several of these legends began appearing in the periodical Oceania from late 1937 throughout 1938 and then finally all together as a collection under the title Tales of a Lonely Island - Oceanic monograph no.4 in 1939. The book eventually went out of print and therefore out of reach of the community for many years. Fortunately, it was reprinted by the Institute of Pacific Studies in 1995 so that it could be more widely available and purchased at reasonable cost. A portion of this 1995 reprint has been digitised in Google Books.

Though Mesulama Titifanua and the elders are mentioned in the introduction to the 1939 edition, only Churchward is recognised as ‘author’ on the cover. This was rectified in the 1995 version which gives Mesulama Titifanua due credit.

Having the legends written in Rotuman and English provides students of Rotuman with a sample of language that is powerful both as a cultural introduction, and as a tool to increase their knowledge of the language. We know all languages change over time, there is currently discussion on this in the Rotuman community in Auckland. These voices of the elders are a useful example as a resource for language revitalization.

The museum’s copy of Tales of a Lonely Island is a unique treasure due to its provenance and an unexpected discovery of a handwritten letter folded into the back of the book.

This book is part of a bigger collection we acquired from Johannes C. Andersen, the first Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Andersen was the Librarian there from 1919 until 1937, when he retired, later moving to Auckland. He kept a lively correspondence with many people in New Zealand and across the world and served as one of the editors for the Journal of the Polynesian Society.

On examining volumes in our collection belonging to Andersen, many have letters, cuttings or photos added, providing additional unexpected treasure to each book itself. Tales of a Lonely Island is the perfect example; it has Andersen’s name written at the top of the first page and includes a letter written to him, dated 7th January 1942, by Fred Gibson, from Rotuma.

On further research we learned that Fred Gibson, born on Rotuma in 1886 was the eldest son of the seven children born to Alexander Gibson (b. Whangaparaoa, New Zealand, 1862) and Agnes Fagmanuia (b. Rotuma). At the time of writing, Fred, then married to Sefrosa, seems to be a local administrator for the Government. The letter largely focuses on different bird species, their scarcity, Rotuman names and uses made of their feathers in traditional adornment. He also includes sketches of a head adornment and of several birds.

A specimen of one bird he discusses, the Jea (Rotuman name) or Lalage maculosa rotumae Latin name), is held in the Museum collection (LB 7901) which you can read more about here.

Gibson’s letter is real treasure, first as an ornithological record and second of people, most relevantly to the Gibson family. In 2018, during a Pacific Collections Access Project (PCAP) Rotuman Community Day, this volume and letter were shown as part of a group of documentary heritage items. That day an important connection was made with Sefrosa Smith, a granddaughter of Fred and Sefrosa, who was investigating her family history and had never seen her ancestors writing nor known that he wrote to Johannes Andersen.

With the renewed community-led efforts to celebrate cultural identities and revitalise Pacific languages spoken among Pacific communities in New Zealand, historic items such as Tales of a Lonely Island provide excellent points of discussion for learners of the language as they often highlight different word forms and can show how the ‘colonial ear’ misunderstands word structure or pronunciation. Moreover, Tales of a Lonely Island serves as a way for today’s Rotuman learners of the language to directly connect back to the words and the voices of their elders.

There are plenty more stories to tell of our Pacific Documentary Heritage collections as we delve into our records and holdings to rediscover treasures that may have been hiding in plain sight all along.


Blog One island, one book, many stories by Auckland Museum Associate Curator, Heritage Publications, Paula Legel and Associate Curator, Documentary Heritage (Pacific Collections), Leone Samu. 

Published 19 May, 2020.