Scareships over Fiji?

Yesterday @TroveUFOBot found an obviously satirical and wholly invented account of a mystery airship seen at Dobroyd in Sydney in 1910. This is interesting enough in itself, but what got me searching was the inspiration for the article:

Everywhere just now the air is full of mystery -- of airship mystery. This is connected not so much with what is known to be accomplished in the way of aviation but rather what is suspected to have been accomplished, and to be kept secret for use in war time by some one or other of the great nations of the earth. A few days ago there came a rumour from the Pacific (which, by the way is a good wide place to start a rumour from) of traces of the visit of an airship having been discovered on what the late Mr Daniel O'Rourke would have called 'a dissolute' island. 1

I soon found this 'rumour from the Pacific', which turned out to be an account of (perhaps) two mystery airships seen in the Lau islands of Fiji, then a British colony on 17 March 1910.

The main -- indeed, almost the only -- source for this sighting is a letter written by (Miss) Eva Hennings to (Mr) G. Hennings of Remuera, New Zealand, presumably a relative. All or part of the same letter was reproduced in a number of New Zealand and Australian newspapers, but the earliest one available is that in the New Zealand Herald. Hennings describes her sighting as follows:

We are more up-to-date than Auckland now, because we have seen an airship before you. Between two and three o'clock in the afternoon, on March 17, Beatty (native) sighted a funny black sail on the water between Naitaba and the mainland. She said it was the schooner Dewdrop, and called me to see it. Looking at it, I said, 'No, it is not a schooner.' Taking the glass, I called to Uncle William to see it. He had a look, and, his eyesight not being very good, said, 'I don't know what it is -- it may be a wreck.' I then looked, and almost dropped the glass, and shouted, 'A flying machine!' I could see the wheels quite plainly, and it was going at an incredible speed. Beatty had a look, and not knowing what a flying machine was, only described it as I did. In about five minutes it travelled the distance of eight miles, and anchored at a small island called Kibobo, about six miles away from us. Uncle then sent the whaleboat with three men and a note, at about three o'clock, and they set out to pull and sail also. After that we saw another, flying very high, and in the opposite direction. 2

By 'wheels' she probably meant 'propellers'. Eight miles in five minutes equates to just under a hundred miles an hour, which is on the fast side for an airship, certainly in 1910, but then witness estimations of distances to unfamiliar objects should not be taken too seriously. Hennings then describes the experiences reported by the men in the boat:

The boat returned at noon on the 18th. Malakai said they only arrived at the middle island at seven in the evening, and slept there. Early that morning they pulled to the small island where we saw the airship anchor. Arriving on the beach he saw the print of hob-nailed boots. He followed the prints up into the grass, where the visitors seemed to have sat down and had a smoke, for bits of cigarette papers were lying about, and there was also a bit of a German paper, which the boy picked up, then lost again; but he knew German print, having seen Uncle's papers. Malakai could not make out how many persons had been on this uninhabited rock, because they seemed to walk on each other's tracks (Indian file); but their footprints were plainly seen. The night they slept there they saw a light far across the water, and believed it to be from the airship. 3

Finally, she then says something of the official reaction:

The Loma Loma magistrate rode out on tho 19th, and was informed about it. He at once wrote to tho Colonial Secretary. It had evidently not been seen from Suva or Levuka, or the steamer which came the same day would have brought the news so perhaps we are the first to have seen an airship in Fiji. 3

It's difficult to know what to make of this. Eva Hennings seems real enough; a girl of that name featured regularly featured as a prize winner at the Ladies' College at Remuera between 1905 and 1907), and she was presumably a niece of the William Hennings who had immigrated to Fiji with his brothers in 1860 and established a substantial business empire there. (More about the Hennings here.) Oddly enough, they were from Germany, which explains the reference to one of the Fijian men knowing 'German print' from 'having seen Uncle's papers'.

Still, it does feel like a bit of a leg-pull. The story of finding bits of 'German paper' is strongly reminiscent of the bits of newspaper -- albeit in English -- with references to airships and the German army found during the 1909 phantom airship panic in Britain by a Punch-and-Judy showman on a mountain in South Wales, an incredible and much-publicised story which seemed all the more ludicrous in hindsight. The gentle dig about Fiji getting a mystery airship visit before Auckland -- though I think it did get some visits during the 1909 New Zealand scare -- sets a playful tone at the outset, and an unverifiable letter to a cousin or brother two thousand kilometres away might be an excellent opportunity for a tall story. And I did wonder if there was any connection with the William Henning who was building an (unsuccessful) monoplane at Auckland in August 1910, and who did have a brother G(eorge) -- but that's definitely Henning without an 's', not Hennings, so it seems not. 4

In any case, there are other, apparently independent, accounts, though they are not first-hand. The Brisbane Courier quoted not one but two Fijian newspapers, which clearly describe the same incident but with some slightly different details. The first:

The Levuka paper recently reported that a correspondent writing from Lau to Captain Wilson informed him of the following incident:-- 'On the 17th March a flying machine was observed by my father and his people at Tota. It aproached from Taviuni way at varying heights, sometimes skimming along the water, and then rising, finally settling on Kibobo. The big screw forward and the two smaller ones aft could be distinguished quite plainly. After a short stay it disappeared to the westward again. Mr Hennings sent his whaleboat next day to the island, but beyond boot marks along the sand there is no other clue.' 5

The second:

The 'Fiji Times,' of April 13, says:-- 'The airship report from Windward has many supporters in the Lau Group. A correspondent writing to Suva is confident that on airship was seen by both Europeans and natives landing on the island of Toti. It is said that it came from a gray coloured cruiser which was observed in the distance. An investigation of the island was made and all that was discovered there were the footprints of booted feet, some cigarette stumps, and a German newspaper.' 3

Unfortunately no names are given (apart from 'Captain Wilson', perhaps the Loma Loma magistrate), but neither of these accounts is from Hennings herself, and they add some new details: the 'big screw forward and the two smaller ones aft', the way the airship skimmed above the water (which sounds much more like a seaplane), only one airship instead of two, and, most sensationally of all, the 'gray coloured cruiser' said (rather than seen) to be in the vicinity. That recalls the theory put forward during the New Zealand scare the previous year that a German vessel, the Seestern -- not a warship but a government steamer -- had been the source of the mystery airship. 6 Which it wasn't: not only did the German government not deploy airships on yachts for covert ops on the other side of the world, but the Seestern was missing the time -- hence the speculation -- and was never seen again. It wasn't Germans, if it was anyone.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph declared that the Fiji incident 'marks the beginning of the airship scare season, which is likely to be a long one'. 7 There were a few more mystery airships later that year, in Australia and the United States, but not many. Nor can I find anything else from Fiji. Perhaps, though, there are more to be found in the Fijian press, and then there's the intriguing possibility of a Fijian magistrate's report buried somewhere in the archives of the Colonial Office. Maybe worth a look, one day.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. St George Call (Kogorah, NSW), 30 April 1910, 6.[]
  2. New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 19 April 1910, 6.[]
  3. Ibid.[][][]
  4. Errol W. Martyn, A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation before the Great War, vol. 2: Aero Clubs, Aeroplanes, Aviators and Aeronauts 1910-1914 (Christchurch, NZ: Volplane Press, 2013), 79-80.[]
  5. Brisbane Courier, 20 April 1910, 4.[]
  6. Dominion (Wellington), 28 July 1909, 8.[]
  7. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 April 1910, 6.[]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *