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 II. Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island, August 19th, 1892.

IT is but six days since we landed on this most lovely island. But it seems as though I had known it for years. Every hour of each day, and of every evening, has been full to overflowing of new interest and most thrilling associations. Perhaps I had better give my readers a general account of each day's work in order. We landed on Saturday, August 13th, at 11 a.m., at the Cascades, after a passage from Auckland of five days. The only real discomfort upon our journey was the feeling that the ladies on board, who were coming back to the Mission, were suffering a good deal. There is, of course, no stewardess on the ship; nor upon a Mission vessel can you expect aught but the simplest food; and I felt thankful when their troubles were over and we reached the land. The beach was covered with the remains of whales, nor was it necessary to use the eyes to note the fact. The nose told us all that was needful. Most hearty were the greetings, both from the members of the Mission and from the Norfolk Islanders. The Revs. J. Palmer and A. Brittain, and Mr. Forrest were there, and many ladies. Soon we were driving up through scenery more grateful to the eye than it is easy to express, after our five days at sea. The greenest of green grass stretched away on each side up the slopes of hills; and pines were dotted about in clumps, making the scene very like that of a well-kept English park. But there were shrubs at our side which told of warmer latitudes--bananas, wild tobacco, arum lilies, were in abundance. And in time we came to groves of lemons, covered with fruit, and tree ferns forming avenues right and left. Lemons ripen here all through the year, and are at the disposal of everybody. Guavas were not in season, but the trees formed part of the landscape, and with the handsome "white oaks" completed a glorious scene. It was a lovely day; there was blue sky overhead, and a balmy air, warm and invigorating, was just making itself felt. After three miles of "such scenery we approached the Mission buildings, driving down the long pine avenue planted in convict days. Soon we were looking with eager eyes upon what we had heard so much of before--the houses of the clergy, the chapel, the barns, and workshops, dining-hall, etc., and everywhere the Melanesians were watching the bishop and taking note of his peculiarities, height, nose, etc. They seemed interested in many things. The chapel has three most striking features. Its painted glass is quite first-rate--at the east end four windows in the apse, the four evangelists, executed by Burne-Jones and Morris. At the west end a rose window, and underneath it Philip baptizing the eunuch. The floor is all marble throughout, and is a glorious piece of work, especially the richer part of it near the altar. The font is of Devonshire marble, and most striking in its warm, rich colours, beautifully blended. The reredos is of Mosaic, and quite lights up the church. That evening I attended the usual evening prayers in Mota, having first received the new member of the Mission--the Rev. C. W. Browning--by saying a few words to him from the altar steps, and then Mr. Palmer adapted the Ember collects, speaking in Mota. No one has ever failed to be thrilled by the first experience of service in St. Barnabas' Chapel. Behind me, playing the organ with vigour and much feeling, was John Pantutun, a Melanesian. All down the chapel, which is arranged as a college chapel, were some hundred and seventy Melanesians, reverent in demeanour, and singing and repeating responses as one body. English chants and tunes are used. A long solemn pause comes after prayers are finished, while every head is bowed in silent prayer. Then, as noiselessly as they come in, they file out--the girls first, then the Mission party, then the boys. If you are not paying attention you find the church full which you saw empty just before, and it empties just as silently. The bare feet on the marble floor make no sound whatever. Every morning at 7 a.m., and every evening at 7 p.m., the whole family--for it is just a family--meets for worship--Matins and Evensong. Most helpful it is, and it seems to impart that sober, devotional, soothing tone to the day which Churchmen love more and more, when it can be had. Meals are taken in the hall. The centre table is for the Mission party, including any Melanesian deacon or priest. The boys and girls sit at smaller tables all down each side. It may be as well to say here, once for all, that the terms boy and girl stand for Melanesians of any age. One of them here now is grey haired, and was with Patteson when he was killed. Many of the girls are married, and are mothers. The married couples live in little cottages composed of two rooms each. Each couple has one room only. All meals are taken in common in hall. The cooking is very well managed. At present the boys are divided into nine sets, and they take a week each in turn. There are some dozen boys in each gang. These sets sit together at separate tables, and preserve their unity for other purposes--as, for instance, at drill--as sections of a company. They are little cooking brotherhoods in reality, and their sets are made up by mutual agreement. Every day at the common meal one of the tables is seen to be empty, because the cooks who sit there are at work for the week.

When we enter at 7.30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m. for meals, we see the food for the Melanesians all ready in their plates, and the table is laid for us all. The Melanesians have great plates of rice with a pile of brown sugar in the middle, or else porridge; or at dinner, yams or sweet potatoes, or; occasionally meat. As they have but one course, it is an excellent plan, adopted by the Mission staff only, to have their meat in hall. Then they adjourn to one or other of the houses, three times a week, for a pudding, or cake, or tea--all simple and homely. The cooks have to get up sometimes as early as 4 a.m. to get their work done. But this is of no consequence to Melanesians. They sleep on mats, which in the daytime are rolled up and put on a shelf. Each set of cooks cuts its own firewood, and has it ready before its cooking week comes. At present it is once in every nine weeks. After breakfast there is school for an hour and a half, and then the boys are told off to their different kinds of farm work and cleaning up.

After dinner there is school till three, when play begins till six; and after evening chapel, at 7 p.m., there is an hour more school. It will be seen that not much intellectual strain is put upon the boys. They learn to read and write and sum. And they learn how to keep houses clean, and how to farm, and milk, and feed cattle, etc. In fact, they are taught to fill the place which a man reclaimed from heathenism and savagery ought to lead within the tropics. No one expects the vigour amongst them seen in white races in temperate regions. It would be absurd to expect it. The best and steadiest scholars become teachers with small salaries--about five pounds a year--and some are finally ordained. Everything is done to make them depend upon themselves, and not upon the white man. But the staff here, of course, supervise and help in everything. One is head cook; another farms, and looks after the roads.

The roads near the Mission are kept in order by the Mission, and they are a credit to our community. The girls live in their rooms, attached to the houses of the married clergy. Where I am staying--at Mr. and Mrs. Palmer's--there are, I think, eleven. They are like members of the family, and help in all household matters. And, of Course, they are taught sewing. I believe they are all betrothed, and in some cases their future husbands are here too. But etiquette is very strict, and they seldom meet. Probably it is difficult to break down these customs here, even to a reasonable extent, because the parents might object. These girls very often slip past my window, which opens on to a verandah. They never seem to quarrel. Indeed, the whole community is a pattern in this respect. The boys sit in the rooms of the unmarried clergy and can go into their bedrooms at any time to be quiet. And, of course the chapel doors stand open day and night. If a boy is ill you will find him generally stretched on the floor in one of the sitting-rooms. As I am discoursing upon such details of ordinary life, perhaps this will be the best place to insert an account of a cricket match. On Tuesday, August 16, we had a cricket match, for be it known to all that it is always holidays while the Southern Cross is here. Holidays begin at the moment when the first lucky boy espies the ship, and cries, "Sail oh!" The cry is echoed most musically from farm to farm, and hill to hill, and soon the whole island knows that tidings from the great world outside can once more be expected. Happy island! Here, Ireland is hardly known by name. The wars and rumours of strife in Parliament, or battle field, are of little consequence here. The boy who first sees the ship gets a shilling, and the community storms down to the shore, watching first to see on which side of the island the ship can anchor. But to return to the cricket match. The sides were to be those who were going back this voyage versus those who were staying here. My side had first innings, and I went in first, not expecting to see much science among the bowlers. I was, however, speedily undeceived. The first ball, pitched well, broke from leg, and nearly took my off stump. The next was equally well pitched, and hit my thumb; the next took the middle finger. There was no doubt about it that the Melanesians could bowl really well, and at a great pace. I was soon caught in the outfield, and went away to bowl to my own side, and to practise catching in a corner of the ground, very much impressed with the capacity of my boys. They are not, as a rule, good bats, because they have had no training, and only a few catch well yet. But one or two showed capital form with the ball. One in particular--Samuel Sagler--timed some shooters in a style which was worthy of any eleven, and hit out at pitched up balls like a man. John Pantutun also, the organist, is a really good cricketer. I feel sure that they, and one or two others, could be trained up to good English county eleven standard. It was the first time that I had seen barefooted cricketers. One envied them their hold of the ground, and also I envied them the hardness of their shins. They did not seem to feel blows I should have strongly objected to, for the bowling was above medium pace. We all picnicked together on the grass, and then photographs were taken.

Let me now describe my first Sunday--a day never to be forgotten,--filled to the full with deepest interest. In the morning, after Matins in Mota, there was a celebration of Holy Communion in English, and I celebrated. How full the church seemed of sacred memories--of the work of the Selwyns, Patteson, and of many, past and present, whose names are written in the book of life! After dinner I drove to the old township--the centre of the old convict settlement. We passed all along the pine avenue, which is on a kind of plateau, and a mile long; then, turning to the left, down a valley green with grass, we followed a road quite steep in places, till we came to the sea, passing the old watermill, which has unfortunately been permitted to tumble all to pieces. At length the prison buildings came into view. Of course, there is a general likeness between them and those at Port Arthur--the same massive walls and look of strength. But the resemblance is only general. The ground is more open here, and the buildings form a larger group. The commissariat storehouse, the barracks and officers' quarters are really fine buildings, and the governor's house overlooks the prison buildings, which are now in complete ruin, though the outer walls are standing. In the old commissariat store we held our confirmation.

The long room was packed with Norfolk Islanders, and I must have been dull indeed not to have felt strongly the interest of the scene, and not to have recalled a strange history as I read out the names of Nobbs and Quintal, and Christian and Buffet and Young. Thirty-seven were confirmed. Before I began my address I could not help referring to the connection which subsisted in old days between Tasmania and Norfolk Island, and that my own feelings were deeply stirred now that for the first time since the Norfolkers had arrived a Bishop of Tasmania stood among them. The welcome and the kindness which I have received from this community has been unbounded. The same evening (Sunday evening) I confirmed fifteen Melanesians in their own church. I have not been so anxious for years about any service as I was on this occasion. I had to preach through an interpreter, and those who have not tried it hardly know how difficult it is. The interpreter also needs our sympathy! Mr. Palmer gallantly stood by me and supported me. But the most agitating part was still to come. I had to read the service in Mota. Even if I had learnt the language it would have been anxious work to speak before the Mission staff and all the boys and girls. But, considering I had not learnt the language, and that I wished to acquit myself well, it was for me a memorable occasion. On Tuesday morning, at 8 a.m., the church was again filled to overflowing, on the occasion of the ordination of William Moreton Vaget as a deacon. As the morning dawned we saw that it would be another lovely day, and soon parties on horseback were arriving from various parts, specially invited to take part in the service. Mr. Palmer preached the sermon, and found it all he could do to tell us in simple language, first in English, then in Mota, of his early days in Merelava, where William Vaget was brought up, and of his joy at seeing him stand there to become an ordained clergyman to his own people. Vaget has earned a good report as a thoroughly consistent and faithful Christian, and goes back with us to build up the Church in his own island. The offertory was given to him for his church. A sum of nearly five pounds was collected, and he is going to spend it in lamps for the church. He answered the questions firmly, and then I laid my hands upon him. He read the Gospel and helped in the administration of Holy Communion. My second service in Mota did not agitate me so much, and yet it was a great strain. The whole congregation breakfasted together afterwards, and on this day it was that we had our cricket match, William playing on my side. That evening William read the evening prayer in church, another boy reading the lessons. How can I make my readers realize the happy home life here among the Mission staff--the many talks, the unity of purpose which makes all hearts one, the sense of reality of all one sees of simple Christian life, the thought that the scholars here are the raw material by which the multitude of the isles shall know Christ and become His disciples? This, and much more. The precincts of the buildings are so like a piece of beautiful England--shady trees, green grass, the church bell, the church clock, the sound of organ and many voices, make one think of a place much to be desired for one's soul's good. Yet this is but the centre of work for hundreds of islands. Here the clergy come to rest and still to work--worn, and often sick, after months of loneliness. Here, also, the wives wait for months without tidings from their husbands, drawn all the more closely together by their common anxieties, drawn closer to God, too, by the need for His all-loving care. They all did me the honour to ask me to address them specially in the church one evening; but how gladly would I have sat and learnt from them! On another evening they collected all the heads of families in the island to give me a welcome. And then I was asked to speak at a great meeting on the old township, and gladly did so, telling them of Tasmania, feast, not least, I inspected the schools and examined all the children, and then passed on to visit the aged Mrs. Nobbs, who still lives, much respected by all.

The Southern Cross starts in an hour, and I cannot leave this place without recording my thankfulness to God for having brought me here to help, in however little a degree, a work so blessed by God. I feel that if only our people knew what I now know, their hearts would open to help these workers in a degree which at present they have not realized. With all my heart I hope to try and make others form some conception of one of the very noblest missions of the Church of England. Not even does New Zealand realize this work, though the Bishop of Melanesia is in the New Zealand province. I believe I shall have to tell my readers when I see them again that the money yearly given must increase by thousands if the area of the work is to be adequately covered. May God prosper the Southern Cross on her voyage, and bring back the workers to their homes here again in peace. Above all, may God put it into the hearts of those who are to choose the new bishop to send the man best fitted to undertake one of the most inspiring posts in the world. Norfolk Island is, externally, a little paradise. But to me there is a greater and more perfect loveliness enshrined in the work and aims and quiet Christian life of the friends among whom I have been living.

Thus had I written on the eve of my departure. It is with heartfelt sorrow that I had to record the death, a month or two after we sailed, of Mrs. Palmer, my kind hostess and friend. No one who knew her could fail to reverence her bright and noble nature. She was a blessing to her husband, to her children, and to the community; a peacemaker, an inspirer of others to continue in welldoing. It was she who, at the last moment, implored her husband to accompany me. It was her hand that I shook last on embarking as she wished us God speed. Her husband returned full of happy anticipations as Norfolk Island rose upon the horizon; but only to find that his wife had been in her grave many weeks. It was a sad homecoming.

I should not know the Mission Station now. More houses have been built, but the beautiful chapel still remains as the centre of the life. Palmer, since made Archdeacon, has passed away. Simultaneously with his death comes the news that his son, also named John, has joined the Mission. I remember him as a lad. Again, so far as news is concerned, Norfolk Island is no longer a remote place. You may telegraph to it at any hour you please, for it is one of the stations of the Eastern Telegraph Company between Sydney and Vancouver. Situated far away from some of its work, the island is now made much nearer by the fact of the new steamers. Any one who has visited this, once the smallest of the Crown colonies of the Empire, keeps a specially warm place for it in his heart.

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