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 III. The Norfolk Islanders--Their Customs and Language

A CHAPTER may profitably be devoted to that interesting community to whom Norfolk Island belongs--the ex-Pitcairn Islanders. They have their own laws and customs, and from them the Melanesian Mission bought its farm.

They came to Norfolk Island in 1856, headed by their clergyman, the Rev. G. H. Nobbs; and they are, as is well known, the offspring of the mutineers of the Bounty and of Tahitian women.

Those who know anything of half-caste races can easily draw up a fairly correct list of virtues and vices inherent in a race of such mixed blood as this, and it is not incumbent upon me to attempt the task here. It is sufficient to say that it would be difficult to find anywhere a more pleasant, laughter-loving, hospitable people than the Norfolk Islanders of this day. There can be no doubt, however, and I think the thoughtful among them realize it, that the effect of constant intermarriage within so small a community has had a serious effect already in deterioration of the race, physically and mentally. It is a matter which calls for immediate attention in a sympathetic and liberal-minded spirit. The community is ruled by a governor, that governor being also Governor of New South Wales, and it is the smallest Crown colony in the world. There is reason to suppose that ere long the New South Wales Government will station there a governor chosen from outside. The governor has a seal, appoints judges, and can sell or allocate waste lands. The laws are framed as far as possible on the model of those which were in force in Pitcairn Island. The actual government is in the hands of a chief magistrate and two councillors, elected annually. The chief magistrate must be a landed proprietor and over twenty-eight years of age. The councillors must be at least twenty-five. The annual election is on the 25th of December. The chaplain presides, and the proceedings open with prayer. All can vote who have resided six months on the island, are twenty years of age, and can read and write. The chaplain has a casting vote, but he cannot be either magistrate or councillor. The officers can summon to their aid, in case of necessity, any one on the island, on penalty of a fine for non-attendance. The chief magistrate is expressly ordered to attempt to settle all quarrels out of court. If this is impossible he may fine up to fifty shillings without appeal. The highest fine he can inflict is ten pounds. If the parties are unwilling to abide by his decision, a jury of seven is empanelled, and their decision is final. Offences of a more serious nature are sent for trial to Sydney. It is interesting to note that the jury is entitled to payment, and that one hour is computed at one-eighth of a day's work. As a rule fines are worked out in labour on the roads or elsewhere. A list of all males over twenty-five is kept, and these are called elders. When a jury is needed the names are put into a bag, and the first seven drawn out compose the jury for the occasion. The rules regarding education are strict. The children must attend school from the age of six to fourteen. If any child is absent for more than two days on account of sickness the chaplain must certify the fact. The fine for non-attendance at school is sixpence per day. Each child pays a school fee often shillings per annum. This and the fines for non-attendance go to the schoolmaster. (From which it would appear that, if only the master could induce all his charges to absent themselves, his post would be a distinctly lucrative one.) The school is under the care of the chaplain. No intoxicating liquors are permitted, not even (there is a touch of irony in this) to the chaplain. The rule in its breadth is, I believe, rigidly enforced. There is a fine for using profane language, ranging from five to forty shillings. No furious riding or driving is permitted on the roads. No person may sell land to any one who has not obtained the consent of the governor previously.

The population now consists of about six hundred and fifty on Norfolk Island, and there are a hundred and twenty-five more who are still at Pitcairn Island, they or their parents having returned of their own accord to their old home. At the present time there are some twenty (not more) who may be called pure half-castes. Of this number is, of course, the aged Mrs. Nobbs, who still lives, the wife of the well-known clergyman. A few remarks on the language of the Norfolk Islanders will create interest, and I am anxious to record the derivations of some extraordinary words which are now well known, but which the next generation will use without any idea how they were coined.

First, there are in common use some definitely Tahitian words which present no difficulty, but sound strangely. "Wa-a-wa-ha" is one of these, meaning disgusting. The derivation of "sullun" and "utlun" is more obscure, meaning "the people" and "all the people;" though in Melanesia I have met the word "sul," the people. You do not in this favoured isle say "very odd" but "sem-is-ways." If a person is saying farewell you would not say "I am very sorry," but "I mussa buss for sorrow for you." A crying person is a "myosullun," and if something were dropping to pieces you would say it was "wa-oo-loo."

But the words which I specially wish to fix as curiosities are of another sort. There is one serious danger in paying a visit to these people, especially if there is anything peculiar in your habits or appearance. It is more than likely that your surname may be permanently incorporated into the language as an adjective denoting that peculiarity. This is at least alarming. The course alluded to has been adopted sufficiently often to warrant incurring a serious risk in the case of any future visitor. For instance, it is now a common phrase among this community to say, "I shall big Jack," meaning "I shall cry." This phrase is derived from an actual person, Mr. John Evans, who is a stout man and addicted to tears. His softness of disposition has added a word to the language. Another phrase is a "Corey sullun," meaning "a busybody." A Mr. Corey, a visitor here, was reputed to be a busybody, and he has in consequence enriched this curious language with a new adjective. Still more strange is it when such epithets are added to the names of four-footed animals. "That is a Breman cow," you may hear a man say. Now, poor Mr. Breman was also a casual visitor, and was remarkably thin. The fact that he was a stranger called attention to his personal appearance, and "Breman" now stands for "thin," and probably will continue to do so for ever, or till some thinner person attracts their notice. From the action of the same law, "a Snell sullun" is a niggardly man. I have said enough to call attention to a most curious evolution of language arising from the extreme rarity of communication between the outer world and their harbourless island. A new face excites general astonishment, and close observation leads to the enrichment of the language at the expense of the individual.

The children are particularly good-looking and very shy. On one occasion, as I was walking down the pine avenue, I saw several children hiding behind a tree, and keeping the trunk of it between myself and them, and as soon as I had passed they fled like deer in the opposite direction. In speaking, all these people have a peculiar drawling intonation, not at all unpleasant, however, in the mouths of persons with such soft and musical voices. A friend tells me that one night he was returning home in the dark, and overheard the following conversation between two parties of Norfolkers. A shout from the first party, "Who's you!" Answer, "I's me!" Even little facts like these help to bring before our readers this interesting community.

The great need for them is a magistrate from outside. At present, as they are all related, the magistrate is uncle or cousin to every soul amongst them, and it must be hard indeed for the embodiment of the law to resist the pleadings of his relations. It is a pleasant thing to know that the late Sir Robert Duff took the warmest interest in this community. Had he lived he would have made a determined effort to improve their condition. Considerable developments have taken place in Norfolk Island in the last ten years. First, the Government have taken action in regard to the public regulations of these islanders. The magistrate is now a stranger, and not one of themselves, appointed from Sydney. The Pacific Cable from Sydney to Vancouver has a station now on Norfolk Island: and at once one of the most isolated spots in the world, and the smallest Crown colony in the British Empire, is brought into hourly connection with London if it is so desired. Mrs. Nobbs too has passed away. It may be well to put down a few facts about her. Her husband, George Hunn Nobbs, was born in Ireland in 1799. He was in the British Navy as a midshipman, then as lieutenant in the Chilian Navy, and succeeded Adams as teacher at Norfolk Island in 1829, when the inhabitants numbered sixty-eight. In 1847, the Pitcairners expressed a desire that their teacher should be ordained in the Church of England. Mr. Nobbs was ordained deacon and priest in 1853 by the Bishop of London, and three years later he took his people from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island, where they have resided ever since, arriving on June 8th that year.

Mrs. Nobbs was herself the granddaughter of the ringleader of the mutiny on the Bounty, in April 27, 1789--Fletcher Christian--and daughter of a little native child whom the mutineers took with them from Otaheite to Pitcairn. These mutineers had vanished from the world, and were discovered on Pitcairn Island in 1808.

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