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 VII. The Banks Islands--Mota

SIX clergy (two white); one hundred and twenty-one teachers; fifty-two schools; three thousand one hundred and forty-six baptized persons. The Rev. George Sarawia was in charge here till 1901. Directly north of the New Hebrides, and at no great distance, a cluster of volcanic islands appears on the horizon. There are nine of these, excluding some that are very small. Formerly they were inhabited by as savage natives as any in these seas; but the Mission has taken so great a hold here that it is only in Santa Maria and Vanua Lava that any heathens can be said to remain, and these are the two largest islands. Wondrous are the shapes of the masses piled up in this region. Volcanic originally, the old craters are now fringed, where it is possible, with coral rocks which afford in only too many places no safe anchorage even for a boat. Merelava is an extinct volcano three thousand feet high, without a foot of level ground, to all appearance. The steep incline plunges on all sides into the sea depths, and the Southern Cross has never found any spot where she can drop her anchor. Vanua Lava still smokes in places, the hot sulphurous steam telling of the fire that used to blaze, but is now extinguished. Rowa is a recent coral island almost level with the ocean surface; the shallow lagoons swarm with fish inside the barrier reef. Ureparapara presents a unique spectacle, for the old crater has broken out at one side, and the ship sails for a mile and a half into the heart of the mountain, finding no soundings until she has reached a little patch at the very end of this huge lake-like expanse. All around the precipitous sides, once a wall of scoria and lava, are now clothed from top to bottom with all the varied hues of tropical vegetation and gardens of cocoanuts and bananas. To the uninitiated eye, such slopes seem incapable of cultivation; but to the native they are his special delight for this purpose.

It is in such scenery as this that the Mission is doing its work. And it is the object of the following pages to take each island by itself, and to tell all that is known of its history and of the dawn of better days, when Christ's gospel has banished the constant wars and murders which obtained of old, substituting the life hid with Christ in God; but, at the same time, interfering as little as possible with the customs of the natives.


One clergyman; eighteen teachers; five hundred baptized; 168 communicants; no heathens.

This island, though by no means the largest in the group, merits the first place. No spot in the whole extent of the Mission has so settled a Christian life, and its language has virtually from the first been made the form of speech for mission teaching at Norfolk Island. I have inquired whether this action was taken after definite deliberation. But I am told that hardly so much as that can be alleged in its favour. Indeed, in the early days at St. John's College, Auckland, there was a short period during which a Solomon Island dialect was likely to be taken as the basis of communication. But in a short while Mota boys arrived in considerable numbers; their language commended itself by its richness in particles and prepositions, and gradually it established itself as worthy of the first place. Mota is really a volcano, long ago extinct, rising out of a plain of flat land round its base. Possibly a mile or two of level plain girdles the original hill, and I suspect that masses of coral reef, upraised in the course of centuries, are answerable for this level surface, carrying the old volcano with it in its upward trend. There is one great drawback to life here: there is no water except what may be found in holes in the coral, or saved after rain. It has been no uncommon thing for the clergyman in charge, whilst he has been staying here, to take the clothes that needed washing, and also every available cask and beaker, and transport himself in his boat to Vanua Lava, a distance of seven miles, in order to provide himself with clean garments and a sufficiency of pure liquid for his tea for the next few days to be spent at Mota. The natives, of course, subsist at such times on cocoanut milk; they can even drink brackish water; but neither of these have been found to brew good tea or coffee. To those who know the island as it is now it is hardly possible to credit the history of this spot thirty-five years ago.

In 1857 Bishop Selwyn took off from Port Patteson in Vanua Lava, seven miles off, two lads who ventured on board and were willing to stay. One of these was George Sarawia, a name known now to all who have heard of the Mission as the most faithful and consistent of all the native clergy. George, who was a Mota boy, relates how, when the sun went down that night, a great fear fell on him as he looked round the strange craft and unfamiliar faces. He thought his last hour was come. When evening prayers began he believed that after this religious ceremony he would be killed. He was down below and could not find his way up on deck: but the evening passed without mishap, and his doubts were dissipated. The next eight months he spent in New Zealand: then he returned to a school that had been started at Lifu. After this he remained under the care of Patteson, who helped to instil into him some of that sweetness of disposition which was his, and which is discernible in George--partly natural, and partly, I doubt not, the work of grace under the striking personality of his beloved master, the future bishop. It is strange to those who know George now, to hear that at this r'time for one season he went home, and was engaged in a fight and was wounded. He was the first baptized convert from the Banks Group, his baptism dating 1863. In 1865 he was confirmed and became a communicant. He was ordained deacon in 1868, and priest in 1873. He has always been the chief influence for good in Mota. His hair is now turning grey; no one who has met him can help calling him "dear George." His goodness and consistency appear in all he says and does.

It is not unfitting that I should dwell at some length on one who was the firstfruits of the Banks Islands, and a native of Mota. Bishop Selwyn says that on the day George came on board in 1857 he thought it advisable not to land as the people were so wild; but many swam out to the ship, and so they exchanged presents.

Five years passed, and in 1862 Bishop Patteson relates what the natives supposed him to be when he first landed. They knew he was not a man like themselves; he was the ghost of a man named Porisris come back to life again. This was clear, because as soon as Patteson had landed he walked into the house of the deceased man quite naturally. This belief that the white man is a ghost accounts for some of the attacks made upon the clergy in old days; for the natives fired their arrows, alleging that no such missiles could really injure a spirit returned from the unseen world. Soon after these days a school wa.g formed at Mota on the same principle as one already mentioned at Lifu, and probably the choice of Mota was influenced by the fact that such a harbour as Port Patteson was so near. Scholars from other islands were brought here, and were cared for by Patteson, assisted by Dudley and Pritt, two of the early staff, in place of sailing all the way to New Zealand. Some of the boys had been trained partly in New Zealand; and Patteson relates how the heathen boys looked on in silent wonder whilst these maturer scholars cooked the food for all, washed up the utensils, and worked happily and methodically. Patteson says emphatically that these boys of his on this still savage island were acquiring insensibly the tone of a good English public school; they would of themselves put down lying, and stealing, and impurity. Thus the first island school took its rise. Yet the island was by no means full of Christians. No one stirred without bows and arrows. It was in these early days that a man used to say to Patteson, "May I walk with you to-day?" They accompanied him perhaps for two miles, and then confessed that they had never dared to travel so far before from their doors. On another occasion a boy lost his way entirely three-quarters of a mile from his home, for he had never left his village to go such a distance before. Patteson had noticed how, when a woman went a distance of a hundred and fifty yards to get water in a bamboo from a hole in the rock, her husband followed her with his bow and arrows, to cover her retreat in case she were attacked. Such details will not be thought unnecessary. They help us to bring vividly before our eyes the life of uncertainty and danger from which Christ's gospel has freed these people for ever.

Have my readers ever attempted to realize the difficulty met with by those who have to speak of ideas common enough to our apprehension, but lying far outside the ken of a native's life?

The figure of God as a loving Shepherd--how can it be brought home to one who has seen no four-footed animal except a pig? How can the phrase "the Lamb of God," with all its profound lessons, be explained? Patteson gives us a forcible illustration of these difficulties by telling us that one day he began to teach a very able lad named Edmund Baratu, a native of Mota, the parables of the kingdom of heaven. He began to read the first words in the Gospel narrative--"The kingdom of heaven is like unto"--then it flashed upon him how little knowledge such a lad could possess of what a kingdom meant--a lad who knew no area larger than his little village. The bishop relates how it took him one and a half hours a day for a fortnight to explain the new ideas which were implied in a term which opened up so infinitely larger a conception of the world and of the unseen future, and its duties and ideals. It was not wasted time, let us be sure. It had far-reaching results and established a basis for that higher teaching which revealed the world as potentially a great family--not at war, but living in peace and goodwill under the sheltering care of the Heavenly Father. Nine more years passed. It was now the beginning of 1871, a year never to be forgotten in the Mission. Work had been steadily proceeding; and now a great awakening was at hand. Many in Mota said--so writes the bishop--"I see it all, and don't doubt it at all. I see that Jesus, whom the Father sent to be our Saviour, appointed baptism for the remission of sins, for gathering us into the body of the faithful. But it is so great a'thing--it is so weighty that I fear lest I should break my promise, lest I should go back to my old ways." The bishop was there to give them comfort, and the early months of that year saw the baptism in Mota of two hundred and ninety-three persons--seventeen were boys from George Sarawia's school; forty-one were grown-up men and women; the rest were infants, whom the parents had promised to bring up as Christian children. We can see how God had sent this best of all encouragements to His servant, already worn with sickness, and prematurely old. The bishop knew not, however, how soon the call would come to summon him to lay down his task on earth. It was but a few weeks after he had seen the fruits of his labours at Mota, ere he met a martyr's death at the hands of men for whom, as the inscription upon his memorial cross says so well--"For whom he would have gladly given his life."

And what was the effect at Mota of the bishop's death? Consternation and doubt. They were among the first to hear the news. The vessel stood away from Nukapu for the Banks Islands, and not far from Mota, Joseph Atkin and Stephen Taroniara died of tetanus, and were committed to the deep.

Some said, now that the bishop was dead the Mission would come to an end. The boys that were at Norfolk Island would never return. At the peril of his life, George Sarawia went from island to island in the group, and explained that the work was God's work and that it would continue. When they threatened him with death, he said, "If you have any other reason for killing me, do so; but your boys are safe at Mota and at Norfolk Island."

The martyr death of the bishop had, indeed, the usual results. It strengthened, and did not in the end weaken the Church. That very year fifty-three more adults were baptized at Mota, and at a general muster of the schools in the island there were found to be three hundred and thirty-three scholars, with twenty-one teachers.

The history, however, of Christian life is never without its recurring trials for the faith of God's children. Hardly two years elapsed when, in 1873, disease swept through the island. In three months seventy baptized Christians died, and those who know natives best will realize how easily they suspect in these visitations the working of charms and spells. The deaths of those who were still heathens would quickly be laid at the doors of the Christians, and vengeance vowed against "the new teaching." Added to this, during the same year, or within a few months, a hurricane devastated the island and destroyed the crops and blew down the houses. It was a hard trial for the native deacon, George Sarawia. But he bore it well; and in the same year he was called to the priesthood, "having used the office of a deacon well, being found blameless."

Throughout these years, and indeed ever since, the Rev. J. Palmer was in charge of the schools in the Banks Group. He has many stories about his Mota people. At times he used to hold school in the open air. This had its advantages, but also its drawbacks. On one occasion he began his lesson thus, "I cannot begin, for I see some one smoking!" On another occasion he asked a child why he washed himself, expecting a very obvious answer; but the child replied, "To come to school." So Palmer ventured on another question. "I suppose you do not wash on Saturdays, then" (when there is no school)? "No," said the child, readily, and the answer was received with a burst of laughter from his companions.

The whole island is now Christian. George Sarawia does not lord it over his people, and therefore it comes to pass that he is sent for to compose quarrels, and is the valued adviser of all. In 1891 the Rev. T. C. Cullwick inaugurated a fresh advance in common, corporate life. On the festival of St. Philip and St. James there was a great meeting at the central place. The day began with a celebration of the Holy Communion, then followed the election of a sort of parliament of head men in each centre, and to this body were delegated powers for the benefit of the community. It is difficult to realize a greater change than such a scene presents from that state of things of which I have already spoken in 1857. In some thirty years the power of the Holy Spirit has transformed this island, so that were the old inhabitants to rise from their graves they would not recognize their old homes. It is not because the people have been Anglicized, or made the slaves of the white man, or dress very differently, for they are unchanged in this, but because those who were once heathens are now Christians.

One of the teachers whom I met had a strange adventure with a shark at Mota. He was fishing in his canoe with his foot in the water. Suddenly a shark appeared, and pressed his nose against his foot. The boy sat still and with the point of his paddle gently pressed down the shark's head; but in a moment he re-appeared, and again began rubbing against the canoe apparently in a sportive vein. But the boy did not enjoy the fun; and by degrees he edged away, and finally slipped into the water at the approach of another canoe, and escaped in that, whilst the shark proceeded to tumble his old canoe over and over in play until it was broken to pieces.

I spent a very happy Sunday at Mota, holding a large confirmation in the open air. The altar was erected under a palm-tree, and some four or five hundred people were present. I slept in the house built by the Rev. J. Palmer; and though the rats scampered about at night they did not nibble at my feet, though Mr. Palmer was not so fortunate. I shall not easily forget the merry dances of the children on the Saturday evening in the moonlight, singing songs the while; and I wish the tunes could have been taken down, for they were full of beauty, whilst they differed in character from English music. On all sides there was friendliness. On one occasion, as I was standing conversing with some of the people (through an interpreter), I received a message to ask if I would walk over to a group of men who had come from the other end of the island, for, so the message ran, "they wish to look at you." I gladly obeyed, and I trust I was able to contribute to their amusement and edification. A few weeks afterwards, on the return of the Southern Cross from the north, I spent another night here; and on this occasion I was fortunate enough to see a sight of which I had heard much, but never hoped to behold. At nine o'clock in the evening, George Sarawia came to say," They expect the Un to come in to-morrow morning at about three o'clock, when the moon is above the trees." Let me explain for the benefit of my readers that I was about to witness one of the most curious phenomena in nature, at least so it seems to be in my opinion. In the South Seas, along the coral reefs, there appears on certain special occasions a sort of sea-worm which is born in the interstices of the coral. It is a long threadlike thing, sometimes a foot in length, white in colour, and so thin that it often breaks in the hands when lifted up. These creatures make their appearance on only two or three occasions in the year. These visits can be calculated with great exactness; they come at a certain phase of the moon, and at night; a month elapses, and again they appear at the same time, to the very day and hour. This happens on only three nights in the year, and in the Banks Group it is during October or November.

At two a.m. we were stumbling over rough coral in the bush; the coral were strewn with leaves and rendered invisible thereby, a most painful sort of roadway. By the help of a lantern we made our way to the shore, from which already shouts were heard in all directions.

Far along to right and left lights were twinkling along the reefs; these were torches made of dry brushwood, which burnt with great brilliancy, and lighted up the waves as they broke upon the shore. We hurried up to a group of men and women, who were standing up to their knees in water lining the sides of the deep channels in the coral reef. These channels are in themselves full of interest; often not more than five or six feet wide, they are as much as ten and twelve feet deep, and transparently clear, so that one feels as if it were a precipice more than a channel of water. As the fishers waved their torches and held them up over their heads we could see that the water was full of myriads of long thread-like creatures, twisting and turning in all directions and carried backwards and forwards in the wash of the waves. Some men had large flat nets made of a sort of rough muslin, with which they skimmed off hundreds of the worms, and transferred them to pots; others simply dipped their hands among these creatures and took them out. Now and again they would burst into a native song, which would be taken up by the others, and the sound would float away until it mingled with the voices of others who were plying their strange task further along these shores. I was given to understand that the same scene was being enacted on all the shores of the Banks Islands on that night. When daylight comes these coral worms vanish, nor do they appear again for a month, returning with such regularity when the moon is right for them that it seems as if I were telling a fairy tale, rather than recounting an actual adventure. Under the name of "Balolo" the "un" is known well in Fiji, and, I suppose, in all the coral islands of these seas. I ought to have mentioned that in walking quickly along the sandy beach we had passed what looked like a number of mats thrown carelessly about. In reality these were the coverings drawn over men and women and children, who were asleep in the holes which they had made in the sand. The whole population seemed to have streamed down to the shore to aid in this strange annual harvest of worms, and though the mats were lying level with the ground, the appearance of a toe here and there peeping out at one corner revealed the fact of sleeping occupants, and fortunately prevented us from treading upon our friends, who were sleeping the sleep of the just. We returned in due time to our beds, and in the morning at breakfast time I gave one of the most signal proofs of courage that I can remember. I asked if I might taste the "un" caught that morning. I asked thoughtlessly, and in a short time a little green bundle of leaves was brought in. I opened it, and saw inside what looked like a little heap of green lobworms. It was too late to retract; my honour was at stake. Therefore, closing my eyes, I boldly took a mouthful and swallowed it. The taste was not unpleasant, resembling shell-fish in the shape of vermicelli.

I may mention here that one of the regular signs of Christian life, and one of the most delightful to contemplate, is the daily gathering of the whole community for their morning and evening prayer in their church. At about seven a.m. the church is filled: each man and woman kneels on entering; nor during the service is such a thing so much as heard of that any one should sit during prayer. A hymn is sung, together with one of the canticles; one of the daily lessons is read, and a shortened form of daily prayer is said by the clergyman or teacher in charge. The same obtains at about seven o'clock every evening. Such a custom is universal among all the hundreds of schools in Melanesia, carrying out the Church's rule .of daily prayer in a manner which would astonish many of our own church people who have never known such a rule for themselves. Every custom has, of course, its dangers. I imagine that such regular united worship twice a day may easily check in some cases the spontaneous outpouring of the soul in individual private devotion. But this tendency is well known, and can be counteracted. No one can fail to be touched and to be deeply thankful to hear, as one sails along the shores of one of these islands, say, at sunset, the call to prayer in some village hidden among the cocoanuts; it may be the tinkling of a small bell, or the boom of a native conch shell, or the beat of a drum made out of a hollowed-out tree. It proclaims that family prayer is about to begin, and that the Heavenly Father is not so forgotten ere the people retire to slumber. The number of the baptized at Mota at this time is seven hundred and seventy. The actual scholars in school are one hundred and seventy-eight. There are but thirty left who are as yet unbaptized in Mota. It should be stated also that holy baptism is preceded by a most careful examination; at the service itself each adult candidate answers each of the four questions singly by himself, no matter how great the numbers are. With regard to Mota, be it recorded to its honour, the people have always been ready to go out in the true missionary spirit as teachers to other islands. At the present time there are thirteen Mota teachers engaged in other islands, some of them as far away as the Solomons.

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