Thursday, June 1, 2023

A Rabbit Hole with a Mystery: Guest Post by Nilima Rao

Ah productive procrastination, my old friend, the research rabbit hole. Any writer can tell you that suddenly needing to research some small detail can derail the actual act of writing, but it is especially prevalent when writing historical novels. From the easily answered “When was finger printing invented?” to the more obscure “Would they have had ice in Fiji in 1914”?

I’m currently working on the sequel to A Disappearance in Fiji, and I’ve fallen down a research rabbit hole with a mystery at the end of it. In my general reading about Fiji, I came across a book which covers the history of the Fijian police force, and in it there is a small section, a few paragraphs on an incident that occurred during World War One. 

Felix von Luckner was the captain of the German merchant raider, the Seeadler, the Sea Eagle, which raided and scuttled Allied ships for the German military during World War One. He is an incredibly romantic figure, a swashbuckling pirate of noble origins, with stories of derring-do sufficient that the Germans have since made a television series about him. 

One of these stories occurred in Fiji. The Seeadler had been wrecked on a reef in the Society Islands. Somehow, in his efforts to find another ship, Luckner and a few of his crew had ended up in Fiji, on Wakaya Island. The Fijian police force learned about his presence there, and using a bluff that wouldn’t seem believable in fiction, they captured him and his crew. Luckner ended up in a prisoner of war camp in New Zealand. 

When I read about this story, I was thrilled to my core. This had to feature in my next novel. I crafted a whole story that included the idea of Felix von Luckner and his adventures in Fiji, based on what I had read in the Fijian police force book and various sources on the internet. My story doesn’t at all reflect the incident as it occurred, but Luckner and his crew are in the story and their role is pivotal. 

After the first draft was written, I went to Fiji for a family event and spent some time reading the Fiji Times on the ancient microfilm machine at the National Archives in Suva. I requested the reel for September 1917, when this event was supposed to have happened. I looked at 21st September. No mention of Felix von Luckner. No, fair enough, of course it would be in the newspaper the next day. I scroll through a few more dates. Nothing. I make it through October. Nothing. Some mention of whether Germans living in the colony should be interned. But nothing about this German nobleman pirate having a standoff with the Fijian police force! How could this be? In a newspaper that gave details of exactly what a judge said and how he said it in a court case about a marital dispute, how could they miss this huge story?  

Which made me wonder - did it really happen? There are plenty of sources that say yes - Wikipedia, the book about the Fijian police force, a photo in the Fiji Museum, some information on websites about New Zealand history. But nothing in the Fiji Times of the time. Could this be a myth about a figure who is already larger than life? Or could it have been suppressed by the Fijian authorities of the time for some obscure reason of national security? Did I somehow miss it? In any case, even if it is myth, it is too good a story to pass up. Felix von Luckner and the crew of the Seeadler will be making an appearance in A Shipwreck in Fiji!


Nilima Rao is a Fijian Indian Australian who has always referred to herself as "culturally confused." She has since learned that we are all confused in some way and has been published on the topic by Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service as part of the SBS Emerging Writers Competition and now feels better about the whole thing. When she isn't writing, Nilima can be found wrangling data (the dreaded day job) or wandering around Melbourne laneways in search of the next new wine bar. A Disappearance in Fiji is her first novel, and she is currently working on the second in the series.

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