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 IV. Life on Board the 'Southern Cross' in 1892

A WITTY person in the early days of the Melanesian Mission made the remark that Bishop Selwyn was a man "fond of yachting."

The idea thus expressed is so ludicrous when applied to life on the Mission ship that it cannot but provoke a smile. But if it seems absurd to myself, cognizant only with the details of the latest, and by far the most comfortable, of the ships that have been in use, what must have been the truth in the early days? Verily a man must have possessed a head and a stomach of some stout metallic substance to have braved the experiences of the Undine in Bishop Selwyn's early days. She was, I believe, a little vessel of about twenty-three tons. In this craft he cruised in unknown waters, chartless, and full of dangers. The shores everywhere contained people who had either never seen a white man, or only knew him as represented by the type of the too often brutal and merciless trader of old. To those who know what the heat of these regions is, and how welcome is a little space to permit of pure air, it will be a wonderful thing to remember that the bishop sailed his own vessel, and came home with dozens of Melanesians packed into his little cabins. The Undine was succeeded by several vessels, until in 1891 a Southern Cross was built in England, costing ten thousand pounds, and arranged specially for the work which she has to do. She is about three hundred tons register, with an auxiliary engine which propels her at about six knots. She has also three masts, the foremast being rigged with square yards. The accommodation for the clergy is on deck; there is a saloon with a table about twelve feet long; along each side are three bunks; and just aft of the saloon are two little cabins. It will be seen, therefore, that eight people can be accommodated with berths. A mattress is provided in each of these, but nothing else. Each clergyman brings his own pillow and rug, and takes them with him when he lands, and of course he makes his own bed tidy every morning. We used to be highly amused with one of our number who had a good many possessions. He seemed to lie down first at night, and then he fitted round him in the remaining available space, baskets, billys, bags, etc. Naturally we used to admire his ingenuity, though we were unable to imitate it. As regards meals, a cup of coffee is served at six, breakfast at eight, lunch at twelve, and dinner at five. These meals were of the simplest. There was plenty of food in the shape of soup, tinned meat, rice, and yams, and tea and coffee to drink. Sometimes we had fowls--ancient bipeds many of them were, who, without doubt, had tramped countless miles through this weary world; they were bought for a stick of tobacco, a price that is something less than a halfpenny. Were they really cheap? I am not quite sure that they were, except for soup. But who can tell the joy that was experienced by the community when some one furtively produced a bottle of lemon syrup! A present most likely from some of the ladies at Norfolk Island. Warm were the offers of friendship made to the lucky possessor. There were also days, of course, when ship's plum-pudding--immense, globular, and spotted with raisins--made its triumphant entrance, and there were two sauces always at hand--hunger, and the laughter ready to greet jokes, which were ceaseless. But it would be invidious were I to indicate the special jesters. At ten o'clock every morning daily prayers in Mota are said, usually in the large "school-room," as it is termed--that is, the space below the deck where the Melanesians ate and slept. There were three of these rooms--two for the boys forward, one for the girls aft--with separate staircases. Of course, all the clergy attend prayers, and the Canticles and Glorias are sung, as well as a hymn. At 7 p.m. English prayers are said in the saloon, attended by the crew who are not on watch, and by the clergy. Directly afterwards there followed Evensong for the Melanesians. On Sundays a morning service for Europeans at ten o'clock was added. And whenever it was practicable there was a celebration of Holy Communion on Sundays at seven a.m. in the saloon. But naturally, if we were at anchor, all services were ashore, except for the crew.

Let us imagine that we are approaching some island. It is arranged that one of the clergy shall take the boat in. The steer oar is always taken by one of the clergy. The boat's crew of Melanesians is ordered out, usually the same boys, and then the boat is lowered and rows away, whilst the captain hangs off and on, waiting till the work is done. "The skipper," as he is familiarly termed, is a man of divine temper, otherwise this process of waiting and watching, often for hours after the time fixed, would have driven him distracted. Coral reefs appear on every hand, and constant care has to be exercised. It is very hard to fix a definite time for the return. Perhaps a boy has to be fetched; but first he has to say farewell to a whole village, or else he is at his garden a couple of miles off, and has to be sent for, or there would be a dozen other reasons for delay. It is to be noted also that the crews of boats going ashore are always Melanesians. On no single occasion did the white sailors go ashore during her trip. And the reason is obvious. First, they are wanted on board; secondly, they might do something or say something which might end in a serious quarrel. Upon the return of the boat there is a rush to the ropes, and twenty Melanesians soon bring her up to the davits. The actual landing often possesses interest. Sometimes it is a question of wading over fifty yards of sharp coral while the boat is held by men in a deep channel in the reef, as at Ureparapara. Sometimes it is necessary to wait for a big wave, and row right over the steep edge of a reef, and come fairly down on the flat portion, whilst the natives are there to pull the boat further up, and we all jump out--as, for example, at Te Motu, in Santa Cruz. More often there is a shallow shore. But woe betide those who have cuts or bruises on their legs--and it is hard to prevent them coming--for this constant wading in salt water pickles the wounds, and prevents them from closing.

But there is one department of work on board the vessel which is most trying, and of which I had heard nothing till I saw it with my own eyes. It must be understood that the native teachers in the islands have to be paid their salaries once a year. Usually, for example, the Solomons are taken during one voyage and the Banks in the next. Let me describe, then, what this process means. Months before the time of delivery the teachers have notified their wants, and the goods have been bought in Auckland and stored on the vessel. There the clergy work in the hold--hot with tropical sun and close compact with Melanesian bodies. At one of our stages I remember that we had to pay thirty-five teachers, a simple business if it meant a sum of money; but it becomes a serious business when it means payment in a multifarious collection of household necessities. The list of possible wants was portentously long. It included, I remember, shirts, axes, biscuits, soap, candles, tobacco, matches, calico, trousers, tinned meat, tea, pipes, saucepans, kettles, et hoc genus omne. (I always watched the bars of yellow soap going into the boat with the secret hope that one might go overboard and be swallowed by a shark as a soothing pill.) How often I have felt genuine sympathy for the clergy, as on a hot and sweltering day they have emerged from the hold, having in the last few hours acted the part of a grocer, ironmonger, draper, and tobacconist. Two articles are notably absent from the list. I believe the clergy would go into fits if they were asked for either boots or stockings. It is supposed that these do not exist anywhere in these latitudes. How often I have seen (also with sympathy) these same clergy throw themselves down in the saloon to get a quarter of an hour's nap after the process above mentioned. This is the yachting of which the clergy of the Melanesian Mission are so passionately fond! There were times, of course, when the day's work was done, and the sun had gone to rest, and the ship was at anchor in some quiet bay; then a sense of peace stole over our minds, and converse could be free, and range over many subjects. At such times it was permissible even to sit on deck in those suits, light and not elegant, which men find useful as "garments of the night" in the tropics. I recall those happy evenings with genuine pleasure, spent in congenial society, and the discussion of many subjects, both grave and gay.

At certain places the Melanesians who are on board all go ashore, notably at the waterfall on Aurora. The women and girls then usually have a great washing-day and all bathe in the numerous streams that branch out in various places. On board it is hardly possible to do anything in the way of instruction. The interruptions are so frequent and the space so limited that it has been found impracticable, even if there were leisure. The extraordinary good temper of these people is a remarkable fact. Collected from all sorts of islands, compelled to live in a small space, and to eat under difficulties sometimes, I believe there is no case on record of a quarrel amongst them. They are fearless climbers, and will go anywhere on the rigging. Sometimes a party is seen seated on the bowsprit, and a few more on the dolphin striker. Occasionally one or two are stretched asleep on the rail, looking as if they must tumble into the sea. There are instances, indeed, where this has occurred, but without loss of life. The Melanesians have their own cooking galleys, and appoint some of their number as cooks. Yams are plentifully supplied, and rice, and at times other delicacies. The boys come on board decorated with all sorts of earrings and nose rings, but by degrees these disappear. Before they reach Norfolk Island they have to put on shirts and trousers, and appropriate garments of English pattern are served out to the girls. I believe the scene in the boys' school-room is mirth-compelling when the clergy are seen distinguishing the front from the back of a garment, and explaining the use of buttons.

Every Melanesian is, of course, a perfect swimmer. Indeed, they say that the women are even better than the men. It used to be a recognized custom in old days for discontented wives in Mota to swim across to Vanua Lava, a distance of seven miles.

When the ship anchors the Melanesians are quickly over the side, jumping from the bulwarks on the rigging, with a glorious disregard of marine monsters. How we used to envy the manner in which they dried themselves! They simply became dry, their clothes being of the scantiest. The clergy, having a dread of sharks, do not often bathe in the sea. But in the tropical showers that descend so suddenly at intervals, one who ventured to brave the elements on the deck of the Mission vessel might easily meet a reverend gentleman, nay, even a right reverend gentleman, clad in bathing costume walking about in the rain in order to get the much-valued fresh-water bath. I have kept to the lighter details, but of course there is much time for study in the ship on the days when no land is in sight, and such opportunities are utilized to the full. Life in the Mission has many trials, but the ship restores tone to the clergy by bringing congenial spirits together, and by breaking through the monotony of work on shore.

In 1895, during the last voyage, the clergy had a unique experience, which might easily have had fatal results for the ship. Suddenly and without any clear reason, the whole ship's crew, including the captain and mate, were struck down with island fever of a very pronounced type. Fortunately the engineer escaped. The crew resigned themselves to die, their weakness was so great; the captain could just drag himself on deck to take bearings. For weeks the ship was in the hands of the clergy. The Rev. T. C. Cullwick cooked for the entire party; Mr. Comins was specially in charge of the wheel, and the Melanesians were not very numerous. The ship was at length anchored off Norfolk Island, and a crew of Norfolk Islanders took her to Auckland. The young bishop was on board, and was the life and soul of the party.

Now that my readers have gained some idea of the Mission ship, I propose to embark on the story of the long cruise which the writer of these lines entered upon with such deep interest. Some nine hundred miles of water, however, intervene between Norfolk Island and the Northern Hebrides. It will not, therefore, be out of place to insert here a statement of the principles of the Mission in their island work.

In the early days it was the invariable custom for the bishop to land first upon an unknown island, and, as a rule, unaccompanied. Usually the boat was stopped some few yards from the shore, and the chief pastor took a header into the sea and swam ashore, carrying with him a few presents in order to make friends with his flock. Above all, he was anxious to note the names of a few of the people, and to catch a few words of the language. Such discoveries were invaluable upon the occasion of a second visit; and obviously little more than a simple interchange of civilities could be effected at first. In this manner seventy-eight islands were visited in 1857.

I have asked myself what a stranger would expect to see if he were to land now at one of our stations in Melanesia. Those who have never read the records of our mission would certainly expect to be met by a white clergyman, and to be conducted to a well-built house, with broad verandah, and a nicely-kept garden, and all the signs of an Arcadian existence--possibly he would expect to see a white lady smiling a welcome, with children at her knee. Nothing of the kind would meet his eye. Only one white lady has ever attempted the tour in the Mission ship, namely, Mrs. Selwyn. Her appearance excited the greatest wonder, and the inquisitiveness of the natives must have been embarrassing. But perhaps the greatest excitement of all was caused by the appearance of a white boy of eight years. Mr. Palmer took one of his children with him on one occasion. The Melanesians could not make enough of this new and delightful specimen of humanity. A visitor to these islands would very likely meet no white clergyman, because there are so few of them, and they are constantly moving about in their whale-boats. The ten islands of the Banks Group and the forty-five schools are superintended by one white man. He carries all his worldly possessions, including his tinned meat and tea and biscuit, in his whale-boat. In some groups the clergyman's boat, with its native crew, stretches away forty miles in the open sea to gain the next island. A moonlight night is chosen, if possible, because it is cool, and though it seems pleasant to rush along before a steady sea breeze in this manner, it is by no means so delightful to be compelled to beat back against such a persistent wind in an open boat, and one that must be light enough to be easily pulled up upon a reef.

It will be obvious also that the large and comfortable house is also a myth. The clergy have no definite home in these islands. Each centre has a light bamboo erection, resembling a native house, which is kept for the clergyman. The sides are very open, in order to admit as much air as possible. There is a partition in the middle, which enables us to call one part the parlour, and the other the bedroom. There is a raised bamboo platform in one spot; this is the bed, and indicates the bedroom. There is nothing in the other partition; this tells you it is the parlour.

When the clergyman arrives, his people carry up his goods, and he camps out in his bamboo house, arranges his pots and pans, and cooks his food with the assistance of his boys, and also of a collection of all "sorts and conditions of people. I used to note that these helpers were naturally wonderfully good assistants when the fragments of the feasts were to be disposed of. Indeed, no Boaz was ever so prodigal in leaving sufficient for the gleaners as the clergy are in thinking of their retainers. It is, of course, a sort of family compact. A crew of boys will accompany the clergyman for a month in his tour; he will feed them; and at the end of the cruise they receive a little tobacco and some calico, and are content. On no other system could men of such limited incomes afford to live at all. The native food is, for the most part, supplied gratis by the people of the village.

Often as I looked round these simple little bamboo houses, I realized what a lonely feeling might come over a man when he was laid low with a touch of fever--no white faces, no comforts, no soft bed, no one who understood cooking; nothing but his own brave heart and his trust in the Saviour, Whose work he was doing so gallantly, to sustain him in the hour of sickness or despondency. And yet it is hardly fair to say no more than this. There would generally be faithful Melanesians whose hearts have been won to Christ, and who love their clergy and would do anything for them.

What our visitor would first see would be a strip of coral strand, overhung with trees of densest green foliage, interspersed with cocoanut palms and bananas, and a few natives standing about in island costume. Possibly a man clad in shirt and trousers would appear soon, and prove to be the native teacher, who would invite him to his house. A hundred yards of track would bring him to a cluster of native houses, with the school or church recognizable by its cross. And here he would obtain a visible proof of what I now proceed to relate--the principle of the Mission in their endeavour to avoid Anglicizing the natives or bringing so much authority to bear upon them as to crush their sense of responsibility.

For instance, what are the relations between one of the clergy and a native chief? Does he destroy his power, or effect the prestige of the head man of the village? There could not be a more important principle to settle; fortunately Bishop Patteson laid down the lines of action in so truly liberal and wise a manner that they have never needed alteration.

There are some misconceptions on the part of a native which are hard to dissipate. For instance, he will persist in believing that a white man can cure every ailment and disease. Of course, experience soon decides this point, and proves the white man right in his assertions. At the same time, the clergy do work marvels where they have time to superintend a sick case, for they have on their side that implicit trust in the doctor on the part of the patient which is so well recognized a cause of success.

Again, converts are apt to wish to transfer their allegiance from their chief to their clergyman, but the attempt is stoutly resisted. At the same time, it is right to point out clearly that some laws are God's laws, not man's; and if a chief asks a Christian to break one of God's laws he must be resisted; in no other way can a standard of purity, for instance, be sustained.

Sometimes it is a terrible temptation to a clergyman to dictate to his people on many subjects where amendment is most needful, and to force better customs upon them by threats of withdrawal of spiritual privileges if his suggestions are not heeded. It requires great self-restraint to work more slowly, and in the end more surely; for if the teacher attempts to lord it over the people the day will certainly come when he is disliked. The best plan to adopt is to work, in all matters not absolutely essential, through the chief. It is a slower method, but more certain. Who, for instance, is to regulate the price of labour for work done for the white man? May it not be arranged by the clergyman? Ought he not to expect free labour in the building of his house since he has come to do these people good? No; the chief must be urged to make the regulations where there is a chief, and if the native Christians will not give free labour, then they should be cheerfully paid for it. I know that one clergyman, for instance, gives a box of tobacco weighing forty pounds for each of his little houses in his various centres. At the same time, whilst the chief is urged to take his right place, and whilst it is conclusively proved to him that his authority is not to be destroyed upon the advent of "the new teaching," yet, at the same time, he should be advised to consult with those who can give him the best advice.

Where such a line of conduct is not adopted, it is obvious that the chiefs of a neighbouring district would be most unwilling to accept a Christian teacher; indeed, the undermining of a chiefs power often leads to the destruction of all authority. People end by obeying no one when they begin by disobeying their chief, and then see that the teacher is not competent to decide many of the questions which in time press for an answer.

There is also another principle which has far-reaching results. Well-meaning Englishmen who have been brought up in a somewhat narrow circle of thought and opinion, are apt to make non-essentials into essentials to the grievous hurt of the great cause. The aim of all missions should be to show that Christ's religion is adapted to the circumstances and customs of all nations and every clime, and no established habits should be interfered with, unless they are directly contrary to the declared will of God. But because this has not been borne in mind, the progress of the Gospel has been very much hindered. The impression has gained ground that natives must change many habits, which, as a matter of fact, are indifferent, neither right nor wrong, or wrong only to excess. Some white teachers in some mission fields, I am told, have a horror of smoking, and make abstinence from this habit virtually a condition of baptism. Others see harm in native dances, or in betel chewing, or in kava drinking. The Melanesian Mission has always taken a clear line in these questions. None of these things are wrong in themselves. Sometimes in the old days native Christians came to Bishop Patteson for an opinion upon such points (one of them referred to dances in secret societies), but he refused to give his opinion. He feared to lay a burden upon them which they were not called upon to bear, through ignorance of the precise facts, and he told them to be guided by their consciences. Our Mission, again, has no rules as to clothing, except that those who come to school must be decent from the native point of view. As to smoking, I have seen a little girl of eight with a black pipe stuck in her waist-band. Betel chewing, and, so far as I know, kava drinking proceed as before. One great cause of rejoicing is that these islanders never seem to have made intoxicants from the palm; and it is needless to say, that we have never attempted to instruct them in these arts.

The first land reached by the Southern Cross in its northern journey from Norfolk Island is the group near New Caledonia, called the Loyalty Islands. In Bishop Patteson's days there was a central school established in Lifu, and boys were brought here in place of being transported to Kohimarama. But the Melanesians were not attracted by Lifu. The reason for this suggests that, though Norfolk Island is a very long way from some of our stations, yet it has attractions which are wanting in nearer latitudes.

The boys complained that at Lifu there was "nothing new to see." Who can tell how much the Mission has been aided by the natural instinct of man to see a world of new sights? There was another objection also to this school. "The Lifu people are very kind, but no water, no bread-fruit, no bananas, no fish; very good, go to New Zealand."

Rather than clash with the workers of the London Missionary Society, Bishop Patteson resigned Lifu to this mission. The same is true of another island in the map called Mare. When I landed at Nengone on this island one of the first objects that I noticed was the grave of Mr. Nihill, one of our earliest clergy. The London Missionary Society hold this island now, and the Roman Catholics have a station here as well. We landed solely for the purpose of paying a pension to one of our native clergy, the Rev. M. Wadrokal.

After another long stretch of sea the New Hebrides are reached. Here the Presbyterians are at work. Island after island is passed by the ship until we approach our own stations. One of these southern islands, Mai, was occupied by us up to ten years ago, and it was surrendered at that time to the Presbyterians in order to make our own boundary a perfectly clear one, a little to the north of Mai.

In 1880, the Rev. R. Comins was at Mai. The people were as wild as possible, and there was no small amount of risk in living among them. On one occasion, when the Southern Cross was anchored here, the chief was accused of stealing something, and he became very angry. He was then invited on board in order to pacify him; but he was suspicious, and would not consent unless a hostage was left on shore. Comins offered himself, but he-confessed that he had an anxious time of it. The men sat round him with their loaded rifles, angry and suspicious, and watching the ship. Had any disturbance been noticed on board he would have been certainly shot. After a while he drew out his sketch book and began drawing. One by one his guards looked over his shoulder, then they began to smile and then to laugh; then they made friends; and when the boat returned all traces of suspicion had vanished. On another occasion when Mr. Comins had been landed and had obtained the help of his people to carry his boxes to the village, the last of these porters found his load a heavy one, and requested Comins to carry his rifle for him. Accordingly the last in the procession was the white man armed with a rifle; and he laughingly said that had he been seen in this position by the correspondent of some newspaper there would have appeared a slashing article setting forth the slave-driving propensitiesof the Melanesian clergy, who went about armed to the teeth, whilst the natives worked in fear of their lives.

But the most amusing occurrence at Mai has still to be related. One day Mr. Comins was walking along the shore with one of his people. At about a mile off he saw another native, and pointed him out to his companions. "He is one of my enemies," he said.

"Look at him through my glass," replied Comins. The native took up the glass and gazed. Then, in a moment, as he saw the magnified image so much closer than before, he dropped the binocular and grasped his arrows. To his astonishment his enemy had receded once more. Again he looked, more puzzled than ever, and again grasped his weapons. At length a happy thought struck him. "You hold the glasses," he cried eagerly, "and then I can shoot him."

Mr. Comins left Mai with deep regret, for he had learnt the language and had come to know the people.

This chapter reads like ancient history now. Only nine years have passed, and the energy of Bishop Cecil Wilson, backed up by the friends of the Mission, has given to the work a splendid steamer to replace the ship of which I have been discoursing. For the significance of this movement I refer my readers to the first of the appendices to this volume. It will be sufficient here to say that in place of the ship seen in the photograph taken at Santa Cruz, we now have a 500 ton steamer built by Armstrongs. Her nominal horsepower is 160, in place of the old 25; her speed 10 knots instead of 4; and she will carry 400 tons of coal in place of 54. There is sleeping accommodation for 60 boys, 30 girls, 12 male missionaries and 6 female; the captain and his crew wear uniform, and there is a lovely chapel on board. Compare this ship with the little 23 tonner of Bishop George Selwyn, and you will realize the change that has come over Mission work in 60 years. Probably there will still be the three voyages in the year; but two or three times as much will be done on each occasion. There is a feeling that she may be very expensive if we think only of the past. The yearly expense may run up to £7000. Those who advocate forward movements must count the cost and rise to the occasion.

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