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 VIII. Santa Maria, Merelava, Merig (Banks Islands)

THIRTY teachers; nineteen schools; six hundred and eighty baptized; eighty-one communicants; five hundred hearers.

Santa Maria is one of the largest of the Banks Group, sharing the distinction of size with Vanua Lava. Its name suggests, what is the fact, that the Spaniards named it at the same time that they discovered and named Spiritu Santo, one of the Hebrides, which adjoins it. It is some twelve miles in length, and at the northern end there are two volcanic peaks about six miles apart. Between these two summits there is now a large and deep lake, which is supposed to be the ancient crater, or, perhaps, it may be two craters burst into one vast chasm.

The larger islands in Melanesia have been, as a rule, the most difficult for the Mission. The four of the Banks Group, which are entirely Christian, are among the four smallest, but on Santa Maria there are still one thousand seven hundred heathens. Thirty years ago the Mission gained a hold on this island by obtaining a few boys for instruction; these have now become five hundred, and these figures may be more than doubled if all who attend the services, and are soon to be baptized, are taken into account, and let it be remembered that this work has been done principally by native Christians themselves; this is the glory of the Mission. Having reached one of the larger islands, it is fitting to call attention, at once, to the difficulties which beset mission work in such places. The superintending clergyman is acquainted with the whole island, and, therefore, it is possible to give accurate statistics. But his difficulty is connected with the language. It is hard for English people to realize that the natives live in such an isolated manner in their villages that a dialect spoken in one village is unintelligible in another two miles off. They are of course dialects, but so diverse that they are practically a bar to communication. Santa Maria has three distinct districts marked by differences of speech and manners. On the north-east Gaua, on the west Lakona, and Koro on the south. Lakona is the best known to traders and labour vessels, because there is a watering-place on this side; and it is common to hear them speak of the island of Lakona. To the Mission the east coast is the most inaccessible. It feels the full force of the trade wind, and hardly presents any anchorage or harbour, even for a whale-boat. It is a most serious drawback, and it is not surprising that this is the side where schools are most difficult to plant. Of course the elder Selwyn landed on Santa Maria. I do not find that he ever passed any of these islands without going ashore. It must have been about 1855, that he was at Lakona, where there is now a flourishing school. Just to the north of the landing-place there is a rock jutting out into the sea, called now "Cock Sparrow Point." The Spaniards tell Us that from this point they were fired at by the natives, and it is remarkable that they treated Selwyn in the same manner from the same spot. He had succeeded in landing safely lower down, but, on returning, the young sparks had rushed on ahead, burning to kill the intruders.

In the same year, Bishop Selwyn landed at Gaua (on the north-east) for the first time, and was met by an excited crowd of natives, all armed, who rushed down to meet the white man. Selwyn took a bow out of a man's hand and drew with it a line upon the sand, and explained by signs that he and they should severally keep upon opposite sides of it. Those who were present say that by the innate dignity of his presence, and his calm and courteous bearing, he entirely succeeded in his overcoming their suspicions. Patteson, who was present, gave a fish-hook to one of the natives. Years afterwards Marauvelav, a teacher, told the future bishop that it was he who had received the present.

There are no natives in the group so quarrelsome as the Santa Maria folk, especially at Gaua, the eastern section. Murders have been very common here. As I was standing on the beach at Gaua I was told how Baratu, one of our teachers, was an eye-witness, on that very spot, of a death under peculiarly distressing circumstances. A man a little way inland had killed another. The relatives of the murdered man, of course, vowed vengeance, but as they were unable to capture the actual offender they determined to attack some relative. Just after this a brother of the offender returned from Brisbane, where he had been labouring for some time, and was, of course, absolutely ignorant of what had happened at Gaua. He had just landed and was standing on the beach beside his box, Baratu being close to him, when the latter heard some one say," Stand firm." Instantly there was a report of a gun, and the poor returned labourer fell dead where he had been standing. Shocking as these cases are, much as they remind us of the death of Bishop Patteson, let us at least remember that for these poor savages there is no regular court of justice. The only reparation possible is that which is enforced by private individuals, and "an eye for an eye" is the rule. The people at Lakona, on the western side, seem to be as fond of a fight as the proverbial Irishman. On such occasions they go to work systematically, and mark out a definite fighting ground; sometimes they will break off by consent and arrange to begin again on a specified day. What is still more curious, is that whenjvsuch a battle is announced the young men of a neighbouring village, who have nothing to do with the quarrel, will take their bows and arrows and start off to take part in the conflict. Strangest of all, is the fact that such a party, who go from sheer love of fighting, usually divide into two parties and choose to oppose each other. The division is made by the two sides of the house according to the native marriage laws, both sides being always of necessity represented in every village; an explanation of this custom will be given in another place. If one of these light-hearted warriors kills one of his own people he never returns again to his village.

It may be of interest also to describe a method of dunning unwilling debtors at Lakona: civilized nations might well take a hint and adopt the same process. If payment cannot be obtained from a man, the people who are interested make up a party and quietly encircle the debtor's house at aight, sleeping all round it. In the morning they commence living upon the man's substance, and they continue to billet themselves upon him till he pays thedebt. The food consumed during theseraids is not considered in the payment of the sum owed. I am told also that here when a man borrows a sum of money he pays the interest beforehand, and it is conceivable that he may be unable to borrow altogether if he has not sufficient to pay the interest before anything is entrusted to him.

When I landed at Lakona the boat was still in the water, and a man came forward and offered to carry me ashore. I discovered afterwards that this individual was an interesting character. The people of Lakona and Koro had a fight a few years ago: a native of Koro happened to kill a Lakona man. This Lakona man sent a message to Koro to say that there were only two courses open to the individual who had taken his friend's life. He would either be killed in revenge some day, however long they might have to wait; or else he might, if he chose, come over to them, give up Koro, and become a Lakona man, taking the place of the deceased, marrying his wife, adopting his children, and accepting his property. Accordingly, knowing that there was really no alternative, he came and took up all the privileges of his opponent, and I saw him happy and contented on the day of which I speak. The death of the fortunate might in our day become too common if the murderer were always rewarded with the goods of his victim.

There is one native custom which has to some degree held its own since the introduction of the "new teaching." Dr. Codrington says: "It was a matter of principle with Bishop Patteson not to interfere in an arbitrary manner with the institutions of the people, but to leave it to their own sense of right and wrong, and their own knowledge of the character of what they did, to condemn or to tolerate what their growing enlightenment would call in question. So there arose among his early pupils the doubt whether it would be right for them as Christians to continue members of the 'Tamate' societies, to seek admission into them, and frequent their lodges. The bishop put it to them that they should inquire and consult among themselves about the real character of the societies: Did they offer worship and prayer to ghosts and spirits? Were they required to take part in anything indecent or atrocious? Did membership involve any profession of belief or practice of superstition peculiar to the members? After consultation, they reported to him that they could not discover anything wrong in itself, except the pretence of association with ghosts which had already ceased to be serious, and the beating and robbing of the uninitiated, which it was quite possible for them to refuse to take part in and to oppose. The bishop, therefore, would not condemn the societies." This extract is given to show the principles of the Mission in such matters. The "Tamate" is the secret society which exists in some form in many groups of these islands. No women or children are ever permitted to be initiated, or to watch any of the details of its working. The members dress up in grotesque headpieces, and in a kind of petticoat of banana fibre. They have their house, which is approached by paths, guarded with signs denoting that none but members may approach. From time to time uncouth figures, clad in masks, issue forth and dance, and sometimes beat and rob those they meet. The house of the Tamate is called the Salagoro. Here persons are initiated, and sometimes they are compelled to remain within the house for periods varying from six to a hundred days. In the absence of people with authority in these islands, such a secret society has a salutary effect. For instance, one day a man had been wounded; next morning the cry went forth that the Tamate were out. The society had made it a rule that bows and fighting arrows were not to be used, following the teaching of Bishop Patteson. Thus a rude justice was maintained, which would seem impossible otherwise, for in the Banks Group there never have been chiefs who are invested with any real power. A boy is at an early age independent of all authority, and protects himself with his own bow and arrow. The Salagoro of the Tamate is used as a kind of club house for the members. Here they can live if they choose, and cook their food and pass their time. Of late it appears that these rites have injured the schools by the length of time over which they extend. A meeting of the Christians was held in order so to modify their customs as to make them innocent. I believe the course proposed by the teachers was adopted readily.

The schools in Santa Maria now number twelve. They are pretty evenly distributed, except upon the eastern side. Here the coral reef presents no boat harbour, and the trade wind brings a heavy surf up. The people, however, have asked for a teacher, which means that they definitely desire to become Christians. On the north-east shore of this island there is a barrier reef, through which there is a channel with a safe anchorage inside it. It is always a treat to watch the captain of the Southern Cross bringing his vessel to anchorage here and taking her out. It requires considerable skill, but it is always effected with ease. I have already mentioned feats of swimming on the part of natives; here is another story. A story is told of a woman of Mota, who was displeased with the treatment she received from her husband; she took to the sea and probably intended reaching Vanua Lava, which is only seven miles off, and has often been reached by persecuted wives. But in this case the tide drifted the woman away, helped by a strong sea breeze, and she landed on Santa Maria near Lakona, having accomplished a distance of twenty miles. She took up her residence at Lakona, and her descendants record her exploit to this day. On the morning that I landed at Lakona, there was to be a solemn service of baptism. Some twenty-six adults were baptized by the Rev. T. C. Cullwick. The church was crowded, and afterwards the enclosure in front of the building was filled with picturesque groups of Christians, whilst from the little plateau where the church and school stand, lovely views are to be obtained over the bay and forest-clad cliffs, and the blue sea beyond. At Koro we visited the school, and there met Baratu, whose name has already been mentioned. The next day we entered the reef at Gaua and visited the north-eastern schools. Some weeks afterwards we were off these shores again and watered the ship at "Black Beach;" the scene is depicted in one of the best photographs we took during the tour. Several of the clergy have made expeditions to the lake on the plateau, near the old volcanic peaks, and when I come to discourse upon the doings of the mythical personage named Qat, the lake in question will take a prominent place in the story of that remarkable individual. The waters of the lake discharge themselves into the sea by a magnificent waterfall. I think it will be granted that such an island is a field in itself for a white clergyman. But it is only one of a large group under one white member of the Mission. It is a heavy responsibility, and indeed there is not one of these workers who does not need our earnest prayers for health and strength and zeal to break down all barriers and bring all under the yoke of Christ.


One clergyman; fourteen teachers; five schools; three hundred and twenty baptized; one hundred and fifteen communicants; one hundred and ten hearers. The Rev. William Vaget, a priest, is in charge.

For strangeness of form, Merelava and Urepara-para divide the honours in this Banks Group of islands. No one who has sailed close by these two places is ever likely to forget them. Merelava is the most southern of the group, and not more than twenty miles from Aurora, the most northern of the New Hebrides. On the occasion when I first approached it, I had been busy writing in the cabin, and had not observed that we were approaching this old volcano. On coming on deck I found myself within a couple of miles of one of the most striking objects I have ever witnessed. Before my eyes there towered a precipitous mass, sloping sharply up to a height of three thousand feet, straight from the sea-level. There appeared to be not a single yard of level ground. There was no break in the precipitous ascent up to the summit. The whole of this vast mass was coated with the greenest of vegetation up to the old crater. Just a patch of bare earth (scoria and lava) was visible up in the clouds. I had no time to ascend to the top, but I am informed that a deep crater with perpendicular walls on one side still exists; or rather, there is a crater within a crater, the inner one being complete in shape. It is the habit of boys to run races round this vast basin.

The ship gradually approached the mountain, and then I discovered that there was no anchorage whatever. The steep slope of the hill is apparently continued under the surface of the sea. At any rate, there are no practicable soundings anywhere, and the ship hangs on and off till the boat returns. An old lava stream, stiffened into a mass of sharp edges and contorted seams, serves as a landing-stage. And on this dark ledge, reminding me of the general shape of the Giants' Causeway in Ireland (though one is mere lava, and the other crystallized basalt), the greater part of the population usually assembles, clad in bright colours, so far as they are clad at all. It forms a beautiful picture in the tropical sunlight, framed in blue sea on one side, and green forest on the other. It is all the more pleasant to visit Merelava, because the people are so warm-hearted and affectionate. They have ever borne this character, and the work of the Mission is bright with hope for the future. I have not mentioned before that on every island in these parts there are returned labourers. I learnt that from this mere speck in the ocean, for instance, there were at the time of my landing, fifty-five labourers absent, chiefly working in Fiji. I met many who could talk English, and a friend who could talk Fijian found no difficulty in discoursing with a great many of the people. One idea may safely be banished for ever, namely, that these islanders do not understand what the labour traffic means. I have no hesitation in saying that every one understands all that it means. But the subject of the labour traffic demands an article to itself, and I return to the history of Merelava. The first boys were taken to Kohimarama about the year 1864. In 1866, when the settlement at Norfolk Island was commenced, a pair of twins were among those who were permitted to leave Merelava, and were among the first who settled in the new Mission school. But in 1867, just a year after the happy opening of the new venture in that lovely paradise of the southern ocean, typhoid fever broke out in the Mission. I believe the disease was traced without any doubt to the Norfolk Islanders. During the course of the fever these twins from Merelava both died. They had endeared themselves to all who knew them, and great was the sorrow when it pleased God to take them to Himself. The news' had to be carried to their island home. When it had been told, a younger brother in the same family, Marau by name, jumped into the boat, seated himself by the bishop, took his hand and could not be induced to leave him. The uncle of the boy, grieved at the death of the two others, and believing that the bishop had made the first move in desiring to take away another member of the same family, became very angry, and would have attacked the boat, possibly with very serious consequences, had not the rest of the people, seeing how matters were, and perceiving that it was the boy's own expressed wish, held back the infuriated relative. Marau was brought to Norfolk Island. In due time he was baptized as Clement, and at this time he is known as the Rev. Clement Marau, the ablest of all the native clergy, a beautiful musician, playing both upon the organ and the violin. Clement also has shown the true missionary spirit. He has gone to Ulaua in the Solomon Islands,--there we shall hear of him again.

But the first school on Merelava was begun by those willing teachers, the natives of Mota and Motlav. They continued the work until a boy named William Vaget returned from Norfolk Island. It was myj privilege to ordain William Vaget a deacon at Norfolk Island in the Mission chapel, and to bring him to Merelava and introduce him to his own people as their first ordained clergyman; and afterwards I returned, after an absence of a few weeks, and confirmed ten of his people. There are now five schools on the island; two hundred and five people are baptized; the schools contain eighty-four young scholars, though the total of those who are under some amount of instruction is four hundred and ninety-four. There are, however, still about two hundred heathens. But I believe these will soon be won to acknowledge the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as their God and Lord. There has always existed a kindly spirit among these people. We are told that some forty years ago a whale-boat, with a crew of five men, landed here, and on this still heathen island they were kindly received, and were eventually taken off by another ship.

The school village where William Vaget lives is reached by a lovely path which ascends through glades of forest trees and palms until the visitor is landed on a small flat spot dug out of the mountain. The prospect is magnificent, overlooking the sea with the islands of this group and of the Hebrides dotted over its surface. The gardens of the natives, steep enough in most islands, seem here to be almost perpendicular against the sides of this magnificent old volcano. I have written this, feeling that there is a romance about this spot which appeals strongly to my feelings; and I should be glad if my words have helped the friends of the Mission to realize this particular centre of our work. Merelava is indeed a worthy warder standing guard over the Banks Island as the mission ship sails north after leaving the New Hebrides. It is remarkable that the northernmost point of the same group should be another solitary volcano even more remarkable, namely, Urepara-para. Some weeks afterwards, when I was passing a few hours on a labour vessel in Vila Harbour, in the New Hebrides, I met several Merelava men and one or two women also. They were perfectly happy, having engaged themselves with a complete knowledge of the work that was expected of them. The ship was taking them to Queensland, though, as a rule, the Merelava people have chosen Fiji as their usual wage-esfrning centre. The ship had come into port in search of a doctor, for the Government agent had been stabbed by one of the labourers. Of course the first thought was that it was a case of revenge upon one who had been kidnapping an unsuspecting man. But it was nothing of the kind. The man was mad; and after handing the agent two pounds to keep for him, he drew his knife and struck him. The rest of the labourers were so indignant that it was with difficulty they were prevented from throwing him at once into the sea. Nothing could have been happier than the relations between the captain and the agent and all who were on board.


Three teachers; one school; thirty-six baptized; no heathens.

Merig is a miniature Mota. Indeed, if report says true, a former captain of the Southern Cross once insisted that Merig was not itself but Mota, and was much confounded when he discovered his error. It is needless to say that the present captain of the Mission ship is incapable of such a mistake. But it is a fact that Merig is a miniature Mota. It has the same sort of extinct volcano as a centre; then, in place of exhibiting precipitous slopes descending into the sea, such as at Merelava, it has a fair margin of level land on all sides, probably a coral reef raised gradually in the course of centuries. I suppose the entire length of the island cannot be more than a mile and a half. When the ship is some ten miles distant, Merelava and Merig present a strange contrast (they are only separated by about twelve miles of water). Mere-lava towers into the sky like a huge monster, visible for sixty miles on each side. Merig at even ten miles' distance shows none of its flat land, and looks like a solitary point of rock set up by itself in the ocean. There is no more inaccessible spot than this little island. There is nothing approaching even to a boat harbour. All around, the coral ridges descend steep into the sea and the surf thunders perpetually on them as the trade wind and current drive past this islet on to the shores of Santa Maria westward. There is hardly a spot where the clergyman's whale-boat can be drawn up for the night. It is but rarely, therefore, that he can pay a visit here of more than a few hours' duration. To anchor a boat in deep water off such reefs as these, causes so much anxiety to the owner when he ought to be asleep, that it is hardly a practicable suggestion. Often no attempt can be made to effect a landing, even on the lee side. In such cases the people do not hesitate to jump off their rocks and to swim out to the boat; and it is a merry and amusing scene to converse with people perfectly at home in the water who bring yams for sale, and ask for gifts in return. The first teaching ever given here, was through the instrumentality of a returned labourer. It was about the year 1886, that he swam off to the boat, and asked if he could have a book with which to teach the people to read. Cards, with letters of the alphabet, and a few books, were given him, and holding them over his head he swam back in triumph and commenced his school. I am glad to be able to record here the willingness of a returned labourer to help his people in the best of ways. It is no uncommon thing; a good many of them are teachers under the Mission; and the majority of them, in many islands, take their places among their fellows again and attend school with the rest, and are indistinguishable from the others, except that they know a few words of English. They bear a good character and appear not to have been injured by their residence in Queensland or Fiji. It is remarkable indeed that in such an inaccessible spot as Merig the labour traffic should be thoroughly understood. I met several on shore at this place, when I had the good fortune to effect a landing. The boat was brought up to the reef, which presented its usual precipitous descent into the surf. The swell rose and fell, at one moment raising the boat high above the edge, whilst the waves broke in foam over the coast; but the next moment the boat had fallen several feet below the ridge. Watching our opportunity, we had to jump from the boat whilst a native kept the bow from grounding on the reef; and no worse fate attended us than wet trousers up to the knees, and a most slippery walk over the submerged coral. Just at the usual landing-stage there is a curious crevice in the cora.1 rock, which sobs and sighs as the wind from a cavern below rushes up through it. The natives pour mud into it in order to see it blown away, when a wave below forces the air upward. In days gone by the Mission folk discovered that there were only eighteen persons living on the Merig, and these eighteen were at enmity and not on speaking terms! This state of things has passed away. The whole island is now under Christian influences. A teacher and his wife, both from Merelava, are doing a good work. Sixteen persons are as yet baptized; there are twenty-two young scholars in the school, and the whole of the thirty-six people who live on Merig are at present under instruction.

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