Project Canterbury

The Light of Melanesia
A Record of Fifty Years' Mission Work in the South Seas

By H. H. Montgomery, D.D.

New York: E.S. Gorham, 1904.

Chapter I. Early Days of the Melanesian Mission

IN the end of 1848 Bishop Selwyn (the elder) made his first journeys into Melanesia. In 1866 the settlement at Norfolk Island was formed under the supervision of the Rev. J. Palmer, who is still with the Mission. The area of the field of work extends from a portion of the New Hebrides to the Solomon Islands. Formerly it included the Loyalty Islands, but these were surrendered to the London Missionary Society with chivalrous generosity by Bishop Selwyn, when that society laid claim to prior occupation. The bishop knew that there was more than enough unoccupied ground further north. The same spirit of Christian courtesy made Bishop Selwyn (the younger) give up the Island of Mai, in the New Hebrides, to the Presbyterians about 1880, though we had occupied it for some years. The bishop followed in his father's steps, and wished to avoid all disputes. The Presbyterians had occupied Ambrym, which is to the north, of Mai, and it was amicably arranged that Ambrym should be the northern boundary of the Presbyterian Mission. The Melanesian Mission works on only three islands in the New Hebrides--Aurora, Pentecost, and Lepers' Island. From this southern boundary it stretches its arms at present as far as Ysabel, in the Solomons, but soon, please God, Choiseul and Bougainville are to "hear the joyful sound," and be claimed for Christ's kingdom.

A story is told of the way in which the first Bishop Selwyn came to visit Melanesia. In his letters patent his jurisdiction was stated as extending as far as thirty-four degrees north latitude. This, it is said, was an error for thirty-four degrees south latitude. But the bishop accepted the position and determined to explore, as soon as he could, islands utterly unknown to missionaries, and only visited by sandal-wood traders and others, who bore, too often, the worst of reputations. Deeds done by white men to the blacks in those days are a disgrace to our nation. An immense improvement has now been effected; let us throw a veil over the past, and attempt rather to make what reparation we can in the name of Him who made of one blond all nations, and commanded us to preach His Gospel to all without distinction.

In 1847 the bishop made his first attempts northward--six years after his arrival in New Zealand. Soon afterwards, after a cruise in dangerous and unchartered waters in a little yacht of twenty-three tons, the Undine, he brought back his first Melanesian scholars, arriving with them in the middle of the night at his little house at Auckland. Thus we come into contact with St. John's College, Auckland, a sort of school started by the bishop for every one who needed instruction. Here it was that the first Maori clergy were trained. Lady Martin, in her book on the Maoris, tells us of some of the earliest converts. Stephen, the! Maori, was dying. He was asked, "What part have you chosen?" He answered, "Christ have I chosen." "Is your heart dark?" "No, it is all light." "Are you suffering much?" "No, no pain, no sadness. This is my desire, that I may go to God, and that my dwelling in this evil world may cease."

On another occasion Rota, the first Maori deacon, came back to St. John's College, after having been eighteen months in charge of a school. On arriving at the college, he said, "I have come to fill my seed-bags again, having sown all I took down with me last year."

To this Christian home and school in one the first Melanesians came about the year 1849.

But it may be asked, why did the bishop bring these people away from their own countries? Why did he not scatter white clergymen in the groups of islands at once, following the plan invariably adopted by most missionary societies? The question is natural, and the answer is of the utmost importance. For the bishop's action gave a tone to the Mission which it has never lost. It holds a unique position among all the missions to the heathen throughout the world.

The bishop discovered that the islands untouched as yet by any missions were numbered by dozens rather than by units. To supply them adequately with English clergy was an impossibility. The climate he also considered to be unfit for Europeans as permanent residences, since the groups with which he was concerned lay nearer the equator than any where work had yet been attempted in the South Seas. Then he rose to the conception which has been the constant ideal of the Mission ever since. The natives themselves must be made to become missionaries to their own people. This idea was to be fostered in every possible manner. The number of the English clergy was to be more select than numerous. "They were to be the white floats to sustain the black net," which was to win the souls in the future in Christ's name. The first step, then, in this method was to obtain boys young enough to be instructed. And it required all the wonderful tact and patience and attractive qualities which the bishop possessed to obtain the consent of parents to carry off one of their children to an unknown land in the company of a white man whom possibly they had only seen for a few minutes once or, twice. It is indeed wonderful how the scholars were ever obtained in those early days. God was guiding the Mission, and manifestly helping with His Holy Spirit. Of course it was essential from every point that the boys should leave their homes. Only thus could they be guarded from many evil influences, only thus could their language be learnt. And so to St. John's College came the firstfruits of the Mission. And it is worth recording that the idea of a central school where Melanesians from many islands might live happily together was not obtained from books or from the example of any other mission. It arose from what seemed a casual visit to the Isle of Pines near New Caledonia. There Bishop Selwyn visited the farm of a sandal-wood trader, a Captain Paddon--an excellent man, much respected by the natives, and a kind master to his black labourers. The bishop was so much struck with the order and success of the establishment, that he determined to try the experiment in the name of God and for the enlargement of the kingdom of Christ. Ever afterwards he called Captain Paddon his "teacher." I know but little of the details of the early days at St. John's College. Ere many years passed it was felt that a separate establishment must be arranged for the Melanesians, with a clergyman specially attached to this work. It is now that the name of the Rev. John Coleridge Patteson appears. He was one of two men won by Bishop Selwyn in England. The other was Mackenzie, afterwards Bishop of Central Africa. It is remarkable that both men died as martyrs for the cause.

Close to St. John's College there is a quiet bay sheltered from cold winds, called Kohimarama. This was purchased chiefly by the profits arising from the sale of The Daisy Chain, a gift to the Mission by Miss Yonge, the authoress. Here Patteson installed himself, and no one with his heart in missions will ever visit Kohimarama without emotion. The very name was an omen of success, for it means, "the gathering in of light."

A few hundred yards below the house of Mr. Atkin, an old resident, and the father of the Rev. Joseph Atkin, martyred at Nukapu, a quiet bay with a curving shore lies at the feet of the visitor. Not a hundred yards from the water's edge a few plain wooden buildings are visible, prosaic enough to the uninstructed, but eloquent with memories to the Christian heart. One of these is the dormitory where Patteson wrestled in prayer for his beloved Melanesians, and in company with Palmer and Pritt, and other devoted workers, nursed the islanders through a fearful epidemic of dysentery. Six died, in spite of all possible care. God took them as the firstfruits of Melanesia. There, too, stand the little dwellings of the clergy, and the school-house. In the plain grass plot in front two Norfolk Island pines are flourishing. These were planted on the day of Bishop Patteson's consecration. May they live and expand their branches as apt emblems of the spread of Christ's Church in Melanesia! As I looked upon them on a still and beautiful afternoon, in company with a sympathetic friend, I bethought me of the island home of the Mission whence these trees came, and then of numberless coral-fringed shores, which once echoed back the noise of incessant battles, but now have grown familiar with the sounds of Christian hymns, and with the aspect of men, unchanged, indeed, so far as native customs are concerned, but transformed by the Holy Spirit into men of peace. And as we lingered, and looked back again and again upon Kohimarama, the seed plot of the harvest already being reaped, my comrade spoke with deep emotion of Patteson, and of his saintly character. "He was a lovely man!" he exclaimed. "He was like the Apostle John." No mission has ever been blessed with two men more remarkable than G. A. Selwyn and Patteson, and John Selwyn soon was to follow. Perhaps the very dissimilarity of character of the first two drew them together. Whole-hearted in their devotion to their Master, and gifted far above the mass of men, they can never be forgotten in the annals of Melanesia. They in time were to be succeeded by Selwyn, the younger, whose praise is in the churches.

Delightful stories are told by Lady Martin of the first arrivals from the islands. When the Melanesians saw two Australian blacks, they looked at them in doubt, and shook their heads, saying, "No good--too black." When the first Melanesian girls arrived at Kohimarama, they knew only two English words--"Ready about." It was not hard to detect the fact that they had been at sea. Soon they picked up a few more words, and were of course glad to make use of them. One day they came into the sitting-room before the lamp was lighted in the evening, and they said, "What, all in the dark, hurrah! "

A neighbour lived close by with a comfortable house, but he was unmarried. One day the girls came back from his house, saying, "Man, money, house, no wife!" They could not understand so strange a state of things.

I notice in the reports that during 1857-8 there were thirty-two Melanesians in New Zealand, speaking six languages. One day a boy pricked himself with an arrow, but said nothing to any one. After a week tetanus set in and he died.

Both Selwyn and Patteson saw that the boys required delicate handling. There was in them all the strength of passionate uncontrolled natures. Yet they had delicate constitutions. The problem to solve was whether they were able to receive by education the energy and perseverance of inhabitants of more temperate climes. I believe the conclusion they came to was that though they could be raised a great deal, yet it was impossible to make a black man into a white man. It was a revelation, however, to all how much could be done by prayerful, godly men, wholly devoted to the work. All idea of the New Zealand school as being like an English school must be set aside. There were no long hours of study. Probably two and a half hours was the utmost ever attempted in a day--and this was divided into two parts.

Indeed, there were more important lessons to be learnt at first than reading and writing. Perhaps the best method to make the problem really interesting is for my readers to suppose that they have had given into their charge a few untutored Melanesians straight from their heathen homes. Knowing only their heathen customs, what plan should be adopted? The wise founders of this Mission saw that the education of their charges lay more directly in their passage from idleness and dirt to cleanliness and diligence and method than by learning to read and write. The point aimed at was the general effect to be obtained affecting their habits and modes of life. It was a new delight to watch how by degrees a sense of something wanting in themselves was created. It was a great step when they first saw that there was something better, than idling, and untidiness, and thoughtlessness. Every day the training, both in social and in religious advancement, continued. The great point to bear in mind was never to disassociate the' two sides of education. Improvement in diligence and orderliness went hand in hand with knowledge of the Heavenly Father. Thus, when a lad first arrived at Kohimarama, he found a system with which all were content. Some were cooks; some were gardeners; all did something for the common good. Usually all employments were taken in turn by all, so that each lad knew habits which would be useful to him afterwards. Most of all, he discovered that the bishop and the clergy were not his taskmasters but his fellow-workers. No work was asked of a Melanesian that was not willingly done by one of the clergy--and if the bishop did not spend the days in scrubbing or cooking, they had the sense to know that it was because he could do many things they could not attempt, and devoted himself accordingly to these. The spirit of the establishment made the whites and blacks not only fellow-workers, but brothers. They were bound together by ties of affection. The private room of the clergyman was ever open to any Melanesian lad if he wished to be quiet or to say his prayers. But above all, they were taught that they were to be the teachers of their people. This was kept continually before them. They were receiving blessings which they, more than any, must take back to their villages. The following is a specimen of Patteson's teaching: "'When God willed to teach Israel, what way did He take?--He sent prophets to them one after the other. And when Saul, the persecutor, was struck blind at Damascus, how did God teach him?--By sending Ananias to him. And when Cornelius wished for teaching, who was sent to him?--Peter. Now, you are here receiving teaching about the Saviour of the world, who, do you suppose, must teach your people in the islands?' Then they looked at each other, and said softly, 'I suppose we must teach them.'" I have dwelt at length upon this point because it is the foundation principle upon which the work of the Mission is built. Only by realizing it fully will those who are interested in this Mission be able to enter into the problems which I wish to state to them regarding the development of the Mission in the future. The creation of native teachers and of native clergy has been the effort from the first--not a matter to be looked forward to some day, but to be the instrument from the very beginning. For this reason the English clergy have not at present remained in the islands throughout the year; but as much responsibility as possible is thrown upon the natives, whilst the clergy return to the central school to take part in the instruction of fresh bands of future teachers whom the Mission ship has landed. [These early and noble ideals have, however, had to be modified, as will be explained later on, in order to meet new difficulties. As the area of the Mission becomes more affected by white men it is dangerous to withdraw the white pastor.] It is evident that too much care cannot be given to the training of those who are soon to stand by themselves. Possibly a boy on his return from Norfolk Island may be the only Christian in the village until he can influence others. The deepest spirituality, the most steady zeal, combined with affection and wisdom, are needed. And when a boy has advanced sufficiently in his studies, the question then arises whether he has the gift for teaching others. The only method for discovering this is to set him over portions of the central school, and to watch and to direct him. It is not enough to have zeal and earnestness; a teacher must have capacity as well. How happy and peaceful those days at Kohi-marama must have been to those scholars can be gathered from the stories told by the clergy of their charges as they took long walks into the country, or went into Auckland. They would sometimes say, "How pleasant this is!" "How quiet it is!" They were contrasting their present life of freedom from dangers with the old homes, where no one dared move from his house without his arms, and even with them he would not trust himself more than a few hundred yards in the bush for fear of some concealed enemy.

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