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 VI. The New Hebrides--Raga, Opa, Maewo

THE Melanesian Mission now has charge of but three islands of this group--Raga, Opa, and Maewo. The Bishops Selwyn, the elder and the younger, ever willing to meet the wishes of other missionary bodies, gave up all the islands to the south and west of these--whether in the Loyalty Group, where a good deal of work had been done in the very early days, or in the New Hebrides--to the Presbyterian Mission, in order that a clear line of demarcation might be made. All, therefore, to the south and west of Raga, including the island of Espiritu Santo, is now in the charge of the Scotch Church. The reader is referred to the works of Dr. Paton and others for the history of these islands. There is some grand scenery in this group. The volcano of Tanna is well known. Ambrym is always covered with cloud and steam; Lopevi is another, and Merelava (in the Banks Islands) a cone descending abruptly into the sea.

Our three islands, then, are Raga, Opa, and Maewo. The work of the Mission in these islands has been complicated and made more difficult by the entrance of the Roman Catholics into our districts.


Eighty-two teachers; sixty-one schools; one thousand four hundred and eighty-one baptized persons.

The English name originated in the name Islede Pentecote given to the island by its discoverer, Bougainville.

Raga has always been a difficult island for the missionary. Traders have known it for years; men-of-war have bombarded it; Frenchmen, as well as Englishmen, have helped to corrupt the natives. It is with a sigh that I think of a South Sea island which has been made almost impossible for Christian work by this kind of contact. Raga is our southernmost island, and I am not likely to forget my first Sunday in Melanesia, anchored at Steep Cliff Bay on the western shore, nor the strange foliage to become so familiar afterwards, nor the half-clothed natives and the coral beach. The mission history of this island is briefly as follows:--Before 1860 Bishop Selwyn picked up a lad who had drifted out to sea, and brought him back to his home in Raga. This boy, named Taroda, was attracted by Patteson in 1862, and came with him to New Zealand. Patteson mentions that he took away his poisoned arrows, to which he clung fondly, and kept them for him. The old men in different villages along the coast have recollections of Bishop Patteson. His height seems to have struck them. At one place a tree was carefully preserved until three or four years back, on which had been marked his height as he stood under it.

Year after year the Southern Cross touched here two or three times a year with varying success. In 1878, by the way, they saw the meeting between a returned labourer and his mother. The mother embraced her son's legs with rapture, the lord of creation magnanimously submitting. But not much work was done here till the advent of a Mota teacher, who has ever borne an excellent character--Thomas Ulgau; subsequently his friend Maslea came to help him, another tried and trusted Mota man from that home of missionaries. This was in the days when the Rev. C. Bice superintended these islands. The two Mota men made their example tell, and when the Rev, A. Brittain took charge of this district he found a large number of Christians in the schools, the work, be it remembered, of native Christians themselves. One of the first teachers of Raga is named Tariliu, and was baptized Louis, after the Bishop of Kaffraria; he still continues at his work, and has always borne a high character. In 1882 Brittain had in his books the names of a hundred villages;.'he complained somewhat piteously that it was not possible to visit more than one a day, for the natives gave him so hearty a welcome, and it was necessary always to stay for the feast and then to carry much food away.

It is said that labour vessels have been known to sell poison to the natives to be used against enemies; even the clergyman is accused at times of such practices, and nothing in the Melanesian mind is perhaps too bad as coming from a white man in some places. Certainly the problem of language and nationality is a complicated one in these regions. Pentecost is only some two miles from Aurora, and it is ninety from Mota; yet Aurorans speak more like Mota than Pentecost. Strange, too, are the customs. It is said that when a man is initiated into a higher rank in his village, one of the rules is that he should not wash for a hundred days--a veritable specimen of the old-world belief in the odour of sanctity.

The news of mission life in Pentecost is cheering. In 1894 the first confirmations were held here. In 1895 there were more than a hundred adult baptisms. Some villages have become dissatisfied with school churches, that is, with buildings where the associations connected with worship are blunted by other associations connected with teaching and business and the thousand details of mission life. At Ulgau's station, which rejoices in the portentous name of Apalagalaga, a church pure and simple has been erected alongside of the school. So, also, we hear that Louis Tariliu, in a mission spirit, and of his own accord, and in the absence of the white clergyman, leaves his own school in competent hands and migrates to the district where he was born, and is so earnest in his efforts, supported by his wife, that in seven months a hundred people were attending his ministrations; and the numbers included men and women from the highest to the lowest, and children also. So even in Raga, spoilt by white men's sins, the light shines brightly under the guidance of the Mission. There has been in the last ten years indeed a most cheering advance in this island: schools have trebled, and the baptized much more than doubled. A few years ago a striking ceremony might have been seen in the case of an old chief named Viradoro. For years he had remained a heathen: at length he came forward and after making a speech he produced his war club, and directed that it might be chopped up and the pieces distributed amongst other chiefs as a sign of his goodwill to all.


Thirty-five teachers; twenty-nine schools; four hundred and seventy-three baptized persons.

If Raga is demoralized by traders' influences it is even worse with Opa. Of course Selwyn touched here year after year in the very early days, but I cannot record any definite incidents till 1865. In this year Patteson found the people very wild, and he nearly lost his life at the hands of an infuriated man, who attacked him because a relative had been carried off by a labour vessel. In 1871 Mr. Bice was put down here for a fortnight, and was probably the first white man who had ever dared to stay unarmed and alone. A naval officer whom I once met told me that he was present on his ship when Bice landed, and he can never forget his feeling of admiration for one who seemed to be going so cheerfully to certain death. A fortnight later they found him well, to their very great surprise. The people at that time were entirely unclothed, and were great cannibals. Once Bice walked up to a village and saw a few yards in front of him an oven prepared for food: a man rushed out and implored him to go back, for the oven had been prepared for his body. Most strange were some of the customs: one of the strangest is that which forbids the meeting of a brother with a sister after a certain age. Dr. Codrington says natives do not like mentioning names lightly, and a man when asked the name of another will turn to some bystander, who answers for him, though he may know it all the while. So, again, a man in this island may speak to his mother-in-law, and she to him, but they will not come near.

In Opa the first Mission station was at Walurigi, a place that has now been abandoned, owing to the excessive mortality among the natives and the deportation of so many to labour fields.

After Bice had been a fortnight in Opa, he was taken away by the ship, and some canoes paddled out to bid him farewell. Some were upset and a few people were drowned; this, of course, was put down by the relatives to Bice's account, and when he returned next year they were ready to kill him. But a boy ventured out to the Southern Cross and warned Bice not to land. This boy's name was Tatamaeto, afterwards baptized Frank. He was a clever lad, but his subsequent conduct was unsatisfactory, and his end a sad one.

In 1873 four were baptized, the first from Opa. Christians began fo multiply, and I read that at one time they considered that under the new faith they were not permitted to defend themselves against an enemy, but this fatal error was promptly corrected.

Tavolavola is now the principal station, situated near a regular forest of cocoanut palms, telling of a trader's station. Those who have been in these regions will recollect the trader Mousou, a Frenchman of doubtful antecedents, though always kind to the Mission. He had to escape for his life in 1892, and did not return.

Here, in 1885, the school-house was burnt down by an angry father, who did not wish his son to attend school. The incendiary was much frightened after the deed was done, and the people helped to rebuild the school. Then the boy was permitted to return; he was baptized, and is now one of the head teachers.

In the next year we hear of a boy named Huhu baptized Peter. On his deathbed Huhu's father commended his son and his daughter Lingi to Bice's care. The boy became his inseparable companion, and went of course to Norfolk Island. While there he felt the peace and freedom from native temptations it affords, and said as he left, "I feel as if I had been in a great harbour." He returned to Tavolavola and did wonders at the school after the death of a well-known Christian teacher, and an Opa man, Tariqatu. Finally, after years of Christian work, Peter went to rest at Norfolk Island; there he became consumptive, and after long suffering lay face to face with death, full of the brightest hope and strong faith. On the morning of his release he called his friends round him and urged them to cling to Christ, and then he placed himself in God's loving hands in the words of his dying Master, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit."

I have mentioned Charles Tariqatu. He was an excellent teacher, and great was the blow to the Mission when Charles one day was accidentally shot. Of course the unfortunate perpetrator of the deed trembled for his own life as soon as Charles should die. But Tariqatu sent for the boy, and placing his hands on his head he absolved him publicly from all blame, forgave him, and saved the boy's life. Such simple stories show how even in an island corrupted by evil European influences the grace of God has turned hearts and changed lives. So true are St. John's words, "The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness overcame it not."

I conclude with one trait of native character. It has been already pointed out how delicate the natives of these latitudes are. Like peaches ripened in a hot sun, the slightest shock seems to upset their balance and causes death. Mr. Bice tells me that on one occasion he was in his bamboo house in Opa, when a man walked in and sat down. Now, Bice knew that this man had recently murdered one of the Mission people; whereupon Bice stood up and fixed his eyes sternly upon the new-comer. The man got up and retired from the house, walking backwards for some fifteen yards, and then turned round and vanished. He went home and said to his people, "The man looked at me." And in three days he was dead.


Eight schools; twenty-one teachers; three hundred and four baptized persons.

One feature of the island of Maewo is known to every trader and labour vessel. A stream of clear fresh water empties itself into the sea on the western side, fed by a waterfall on the hill above, or rather a series of waterfalls. Boats can be taken into this stream, and tanks and casks can thus be filled in a brief space of time. The Southern Cross waters here regularly twice on her voyage; and pleasant indeed it is to know that clothes can be washed, and bathing can be indulged in whilst the boats' crews, composed of our native Christians, are filling the canvas tanks in the ship's boats. It is the custom to make up two such crews from among the Melanesians on board, and to reward them royally afterwards with tobacco and articles which they love. The waterfall itself is well worth a visit. The path winds up amongst dense tropical foliage, passing a banian tree covering about ninety yards square of land. At length the thunder of the water arrests your attention, and you stand under rocks over which a river dashes down, forming magnificent cascades of varied character in three or four different places. One of these I must describe. We stood at the edge of a great slide of water, reminding me of that wonderful spot described in Lorna Doone as leading into the Doone Valley. The stream was racing down about six inches deep, and it seemed that at the angle at which the slide was set no human foot could keep its position on it. What was my astonishment to see one of our guides quietly step on to the slide, and commence ascending it with the greatest ease! Behind him there yawned a gulf, for the smooth, slanting rock ended in a precipice, over which the stream thundered into a great pool thirty feet below. I was assured that I could without danger walk here also. Accordingly I attempted it, and discovered to my amazement that the rock was quite rough, owing to some deposit brought down in the water; and it was impossible to slip, whilst the stream struck one's foot and leaped up to the waist. The return journey was accomplished among gardens of what the natives call quater. It is a species of arum lily, and grows best in water, the natives being ingenious in the way in which they carry the water from garden to garden.

This island was as wild and cannibal as Opa. One of Mr. Bice's first experiences is worth recording. He obtained permission to collect the children into a school, but of course they were entirely unclothed, in common with the rest of the population. After a while Bice induced them to accept some strips of calico in the way of clothing, and, nothing loath, the children put them on and went home after school. In a few minutes Bice heard an uproar, and presently the whole village appeared armed and in furious excitement, prepared to kill him on the spot. Fortunately he knew enough of the language to understand that they were saying," He has 'tapued' all our children!" He discovered that on the calico which he had given the children there was a mark like a cross, and two cross gashes is the "tapu mark" in Maewo. Of course he at once took away the calico and made many apologies. In 1873 the first baptisms took place; and then Bice was able to teach a lesson which could not fail to have had a permanent effect. After baptizing each person, he marked them on the forehead with the mark of the cross, and turning to the people he told them that these persons were "tapued" from sin! I am told that work here for years was very unsatisfactory. Little progress was made till in 1878 Bishop Selwyn made a protracted stay here. The result was that in the northern part of the island there were large and flourishing schools. But the population of Maewo has decreased very much owing to the labour traffic, and the schools are not as large now.

Some incidents during Selwyn's visit will be of interest. One day he was in a village, unconscious that a short distance away a horrible tragedy was being enacted. A mother desired that she might be buried with the corpse of her dead daughter, and the natives placed the living and the dead in a sack and trampled the mother to death. Selwyn was sitting at the time within three hundred yards, and knew nothing of it. At his earnest entreaty they promised never to repeat this horrible practice.

In Maewo they use mats dried in smoke as money. Fires are always kept burning under the mats, tended by men, and the more smoky the mat the more valuable is the money. So far as I know this custom is unique.

It was at Maewo that Bishop John Selwyn heard of his father's death. He went on board a trader's ship named the Chance, and the captain said to him, "Who is that Bishop Selwyn who died in England the other day?" Most difficult was it, the bishop said, to tell the Gospel story. They knew nothing of a king like Herod, nor of cows or shepherds or sheep. What could be made of a stable? Was it to be a worse structure than their own frail bamboo huts?

In 1879 we are told that the Southern Cross landed a boy on the rocks at his own village. The boy sat on where he was, looking miserable, and neither speaking nor being spoken to. Mr. Comins tried to get some of the natives to take an interest in him, whereupon one of them said, "There sits his brother, and that is his father." It was simply not etiquette to speak.

Towards the north end of Aurora there are two places on different sides of the island. Tasmate means "lee side," and Tasmori "windward side." It is astonishing to hear that these two names occur in Madagascar, and are placed in like positions. This and other indications of the like sort, point to problems relating to the diffusion of races which are not yet fully solved. Perhaps the best known school in Maewo is Tanrig, situated near the waterfall.

I conclude this with an account of two events, one at Tasmate, the other at Tasmori. In 1893, at Tasmori, Mr. Brittain was preparing four men for baptism--the last of the heathen population, who, up to this, had remained unconverted. He asked one man whether our Lord was seen on earth now-a-days. "Yes," he said. And then he explained that two women had gone into the church after dark for prayer. There was no lamp there, but over the Lord's Table they saw a bright shining light, which remained there while they prayed and knelt. The same appearance was mentioned as having occurred at another school. There can be no doubt, at all events, of the simple and real faith of these people.

The other event happened at Tasmate, and was of a very different character. In October 1892, in returning from the usual voyage, we anchored at the waterfall. The teachers told Mr. Palmer that a cutter had been attacked, the white men killed, and the goods taken out, the ship itself being at that moment aground near Tasmate. Mr. Palmer and the captain and a crew started at once to inspect. They found the cutter on the rocks; everything on board was in wild confusion, blood was on the mainmast, and it was clear there had been an outrage. We reported the matter at Vila, and subsequently we learnt that a Frenchman named Pasnin had been killed by the boys on board, who were working as the ship's crew, assisted by some labourers who were being taken home, the shore people having nothing whatever to do with it. Of course, in due time, men-of-war appeared at the village, and, the true facts of the case being unknown, recourse was had to the bombardment of a village. It is needless to say how distasteful such work is, to Englishmen at least. They feel that these poor natives have, as a rule, been brutally treated in the first place. They have no courts of justice, but abide by the primeval custom of killing some one as an act of vengeance. My own experience leads me to take the side of the native in the first instance, and to put the blame on the white man. I was told that the man murdered on this occasion had been an oppressor of the natives for years. Deep and loud are the cries which rise up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth from the inhabitants of countless islands of the Pacific. Thank God the day of reparation has dawned at last. The evil deeds of the past are being avenged in the way Christians avenge--by giving them light and truth and the gospel tidings at the cost of the lives of some of our noblest and best. We do not grudge our best sons to these islands, nor to any other Christian cause.

During the last ten years there has been greater progress in this group than in any other under the Mission. The increase in schools and converts has been wonderful. Nor has the invasion of the Roman Catholics effected much as against ourselves. Perverts from our Mission are very rare. The request of the Presbyterian Mission to take over any part of our field has been resisted; and there are two English clergy at work there now. Maewo is still the most backward island.

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