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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 IX. Vanua Lava, Ureparapara (Banks Islands)

SEVENTEEN teachers; seven schools; four hundred and seventy baptized; seventy communicants. The centre of the main group of these islands is Vanua Lava, meaning "large land." It presents a beautiful spectacle from almost any point of view. There are fantastic-shaped mountains with precipitous sides, the relics of extinct volcanoes--and still at one point the vapours from sulphur springs are seen rising like white clouds from the slope of one of these hills.

On the eastern shore lies Port Patteson, named in early days by Selwyn and Patteson after Judge Patteson, the noble father of the bishop. It is a safe harbour at any time, a rare thing in this group. It may almost be said to be the only harbour in the Banks Islands. The Southern Cross usually anchors here for a few nights whilst the clergy are visiting Mota and Motlav. It is not a healthy place. Mangrove swamps taint the air and suggest fever. A river runs into the harbour, named Crocodile River. But, strange to say, no crocodile had ever been heard of here until the trip of 1892. A dark object was seen by a boat manned by Solomon Islanders and others who are familiar with the saurians; and they all exclaimed, "There is a crocodile!" without being aware that the river was so named.

It is a great place for crayfish. Seventy were brought to the ship one day, and before evening they had all been devoured, so large is the company on board, and so welcome is this dainty to Melanesians and English alike. The schools on this island are seven in number at present; but as for the people themselves they do not seem very capable. Indeed, it is a remarkable fact that nearly all the teachers in the Vanua Lava schools are at this time either Mota or Motlav men. One amongst these stands pre-eminent for the good work he did, Edwin Sakelrau, and his wife Emma--both are dead now; but it will be long ere their names are forgotten. They came from Motlav to Pek in 1878, on the northern shore, and found the people living inland in somewhat inaccessible places. They discovered a healthy site on a rising ground overlooking the sea, and well watered by rushing streams. Here they built their school, and gradually induced their people to come and settle round them, till quite a little community of Christians was formed here. On one Sunday evening I confirmed thirty-five of their number. Edwin Sakelrau was the brother of Henry Tagalana, the latter being the head native clergyman at Motlav. Edwin, his brother, was ordained a deacon in 1878 by Bishop Selwyn, at Ra, an island adjoining Motlav. The Southern Cross brought over for that occasion many Christians from Pek, where Edwin was working, a distance of some ten miles. Bishop Selwyn writes: "We brought out the little altar table and set it up under the overhanging eaves of the school-house, and made a rude rail. The ground sloped away, and in the background was a magnificent banian-tree. ... I am sure no bishop ever sent forth a more simple, earnest man to do his Master's work. And I am very happy about him." Five years afterwards, in 1883, Edwin died at Pek. His wife followed him, only too soon for the people of the place; for she was a great power for good at Pek. The reason the inhabitants had left the seashore was that they had been decimated by dysentery in the spot which they had chosen for their village. But Edwin induced them to return to a most healthy spot at Pek. From a kind of natural terrace, upon which the church and the houses stand, there is a lovely outlook through the trees across the sea with Ureparapara in the distance, with its remarkable crater open to the sea.

Many have left this island in labour vessels. This, indeed, is true of every spot in these parts, and though it is natural that Christian teachers should regret the departure often of their best scholars, yet it is a not unnatural result of the opening of the eyes of the people by Christian teaching. They hear for the first time of the great world beyond, and they are seized with a longing to go and see it for themselves. It is better to prepare them for the dangers they may encounter than to be silent on such a topic, and stand unwisely in their way.

Vanua Lava was touched by Bishop Selwyn in 1857. It was then that George Sarawia was taken up in Port Patteson. The story of his sensations at the time, and of his after career, is given in the account of the island of Mota. During his second landing in Vanua Lava the bishop proceeded to buy yams by weight. A steelyard was attached to a stout branch, and money was paid according to the scale. It is said that the natives were delighted at the justice of the proceeding. When at times yams were taken off the scale because they weighed too heavily for the sum offered, there was a hum of approval, and probably nothing was so great a help to the cause of the Mission than such an exhibition of even-handed justice.

There are of course incidents to be related which the people tell with amusement. A short while ago Benjamin Virsal, the teacher at Vureas, on the western side of this island, swallowed a fish bone, which, however, stuck in his throat. Nothing the people could do appeared of the slightest use; the bone was refractory and kept its place, and poor Benjamin was unable to eat, and became a shadow of his former self. His friends thought he would die, and they put him in a canoe to convey him to Mota that he might be buried among his own people. There is a very strong tide which runs round a well-known point on the way to Mota, and soon the canoe was dancing over the waves, and was giving the occupants of it a rare shaking. To the astonishment and delight of the rowers a great jolt at last dislodged the bone, and it fell out. Benjamin soon recovered, and is now well and at work in his old school.

The neighbourhood of Vureas seems to be favourable to strange experiences, for on another occasion a woman here was placing her hand in a hole to draw something out. In order to do this she had to lie down and put her arm into the place as far as it could be made to go. At this critical moment her fingers were seized by a large crab who would not relax his hold. The woman no doubt struggled and shouted, but no one heard her cries. There she lay for part of a day and all the next night, until she was found by some children who hurried home with the news. Her husband soon appeared and dragged her arm out and also the crab, very quickly.

There are seven schools at the present time in Vanua Lava; I visited three of them, and held two confirmations. The baptized number three hundred and fifty-seven; the young scholars are one hundred and thirty-four; the total number, including all who are listeners, is five hundred and sixty-eight; and there are five hundred and twenty who are still heathens in a full sense. Here, as in Santa Maria (these being the largest islands), it has been difficult to win the people as quickly as in smaller islands.

For the sake of those who are interested in the most characteristic customs of the Melanesians, and wish to understand their manner of life, I will give here the substance of a chapter in Dr. Codrington's book on Melanesian folk-lore. The custom to which I allude is called the Suqe; it has not receded before Christianity. There is no particular reason indeed why it should on this island, for there is nothing bad about it; and I had many opportunities of watching its action.

"In every village, and group of houses in the Torres Islands, the Banks Islands, and the northern New Hebrides, is conspicuous a building which does not appear to be a dwelling-house. In a populous village of the Banks Islands it is very long and low, with entrances at intervals along the sides below the wall-plate, with stone seats or a stone platform at the main entrances at either end, and low stone walls planted with dracsnas and crotons, with the jawbones of pigs and backbones of fish hanging under the eaves; and very often the clatter of sticks pounding in wooden vessels, and the presence of white clouds of steam make known the preparation of a meal. This place is a 'Gamal.' It is virtually a club-house for men. Women are not admitted into it nor young children. Virtually all the male population have in their day been initiated and have paid their fees to win the right of a place in it. If there is any one who has no place in the gamal, he is nicknamed after a kind of flying fox, which is in the habit of living a solitary life. I have been often struck by the immense length of these long houses, extending sometimes for forty yards and more. There is nothing secret about them, for they are often the most conspicuous object in the village. Were you to enter one of them, you would notice at once certain log boundaries which separate a number of ovens from each other. And round the ovens are mats and cooking utensils. The general name for such a club in the Banks Islands--at Vanua Lava, as much as elsewhere--is 'Suqe.'"

These ovens represent different gradations in rank. Each step for permission to use another oven in a higher place has to be paid for by heavy fees; and no one can have any great authority in his village who has not risen high in the Suqe. I gather that the highest rank of all is rarely reached. When a man has attained this exalted position he is a very great personage; and his permission would have to be obtained before any one could be advanced at all to any grade. The number of ovens in a complete Suqe is eighteen; it will easily be imagined how heavy must be the tax upon a man's resources if he wishes to reach the topmost step. I used to notice that sometimes one end of the gamal looked new, as if it had been recently added to. The reason, probably, was that some one had risen to a higher grade, and had built himself a new oven above the others. Sometimes, also, one end of the gamal was in ruins. This probably meant that there was no one to use the ovens at that end, and it was no one's business to keep the structure in that spot in repair. As a rule, the most of the men never rise above middle rank, but most of them are initiated when they are boys. If a gamal only possesses five or six ovens it means that there is no one in the village who has attained a higher rank. It is needless to add that no one would dare to use an oven of a rank above his own. He would meet with instant and severe punishment. If a stranger comes to a village he is entertained in the gamal and sleeps there. He is made, in fact, an honorary member of the local club. I gather that in Mota the lowest grade can be reached by the payment of half a fathom of native shell money; but as the grades rise money sometimes fails, and pigs, which are expensive creatures, are brought into requisition. Perhaps there is no better way of showing the position that the Suqe holds in the imagination of the people than to record that in native stories where the fortunes of an orphan boy are related, who wins his way to fame, it is by the gradations of the Suqe that he makes his progress in life. It is manifest that such a social institution as this which I have described is of use in preserving and maintaining order in a native community.

Perhaps nothing will show the difficulty of mission work in an island such as Vanua Lava so much as the fact that in this small space, not more than twelve miles by ten, there are six dialects, many of them very different from each other. Such difficulties help us to understand why a large island holds out longer against the work of the Mission than one of a smaller area, where there is not this confusion of tongues. I twice visited Vanua Lava. It is generally easy to land, because Pek, the most important station, is on the lee side, and Port Patteson, a safe harbour, is at the other extremity. Between these on the west side is Vureas. It is a beautiful spot, with hills towering above the ship, but it is one of the gustiest anchorages I ever experienced. The captain of a sailing vessel has to keep a very sharp look-out, for the squalls rush down first on one quarter, then on the other, without any warning, and it is easy to lose control of the ship. The fact is, Vureas is in an eddy of the sea breeze, and the surface of the little bay is continually being whitened by these sudden gusts. It was here that I met my friend who had swallowed the fish bone, and had been so mercifully assisted by the tide rip. Here also, on Vanua Lava, is the mountain of Qat, whose story will be told under the head of the Island of Motlav.

It was at Pek that I had, perhaps, the most delightful bathe in the whole tour. We undressed, I remember, in a hut about half-a-mile from the stream, as it was raining. Then we ran, with shouts, a merry party, black and white, through the wood, till we stood over a deep stream bursting into a hole after a plunge of a good many feet. Into this hole we also plunged, black and white together. I remember the merry scamper back to the hut, and the delight at the coffee which was ready for us there. I have reasons, both grave and gay, for remembering Pek, in Vanua Lava.


Three teachers; two schools; one hundred and three baptized; twenty communicants.

Just as Merelava, a cone three thousand feet in height and plunging straight into the sea, is the sentinel of the Banks Islands to the visitor from the south, so Ureparapara, with its still more striking configuration, is the most northern outpost. Close past this spot, Captain Bligh passed during the most wonderful boat voyage that has ever been successfully made, after the mutiny of the Bounty in Tahiti. After the brave navigator, it has been called Bligh Island. But the Mission always uses the native name, which is to my ears more appropriate to its romantic interest--Ureparapara. It is a vast volcano, not so lofty as Merelava, but extending a great distance horizontally. When it was in a state of eruption in past ages, it must have presented an appalling aspect, for the crater is fully two miles irv length, by some mile or so in breadth from edge to edge. The eastern end of this enormous crater has been completely blown away. There is apparently no ridge or bar except at some unknown depth; but the sea rolls in with unruffled surface, and the Southern Cross has found no soundings in this deep gulf till the very innermost edge is reached at the western end of the crater.

It is a sight not to be forgotten when the ship takes a sharp turn, and steams straight into the heart of the mountain. The deep water at the entrance is fully half-a-mile in width. Before the spectator there lies a calm, lake-like expanse, still and sheltered, except for the violent gusts which from time to time rush over the surface, at one time taking the vessel aback, and on the next occasion striking her on one quarter or the other unexpectedly. It is not a spot where the master of a sailing vessel could afford to go to sleep. At the western edge of this bay an anchorage has been obtained on a patch close to the shore. The walls of the crater are now clothed with vegetation up to the very summit. For the two thousand feet or so that they extend upwards the gardens of the natives peep out, recognized by their patches of yams in the presence of cocoanuts, palms, and bananas. There was a time within the memory of the Mission when the inhabitants were as wild and as quarrelsome as any in the entire district, and the Ureparapara bow, with its peculiar bend, has always been renowned. There are some heathens still, because it is so difficult to reach villages scattered everywhere both inside and outside this great horse-shoe, and apparently hanging on to the slopes by their eyelids. The lofty barrier of the crater walls is always a hindrance to rapid locomotion. In 1878, three scholars who had been to Norfolk Island returned; and a Mota man (named Viletuwale) started the first school. We have at the present time two schools, both excellently managed--one inside the crater, the other on the northern and outside face of the mountain.

The baptized number one hundred and twenty-three; the young scholars are sixty-seven; the total, including all listeners, is one hundred and seventy-eight, but one hundred and ninety heathen still remain scattered in inaccessible nooks. What also makes the work difficult is the fact that the villages here are so small. They form a chain of small communities on the slopes, sadly interfering with teaching; for there is no definite centre of population. A village consists in Ureparapara of a single house and one gamal. The house will be divided inside by low partitions, and in one of these a whole family sleeps. The young men are, of course, in the gamal. The Mission is trying to improve this state of things, and to induce the natives (and with success) to give themselves more air and light. So much of the work of the Mission is done by native teachers, who are not naturally communicative, that it is not easy to give those indications of personal spiritual progress which are more easily obtained in places where the white man is always present. This is the answer to a criticism, which is naturally made, that the Melanesian Mission does not sufficiently give definite instances of the growth of spiritual life. But it will certainly interest my readers to peruse two letters which I give here. Let it be understood that none of the clergy knew anything of the matter till it was all over, but the letters fell into their hands afterwards. The two young men who wrote the letters were at the time scholars at Norfolk Island. One is now the teacher at the crater school in Ureparapara, the other has a like post in Florida in the Solomon Group. The letters will explain themselves. It was a quarrel, happily composed by the persons themselves without intervention. It arose through a misunderstanding. Of course the letters were written in "Mota."

"Norfolk Island, June 7, 1889.


"My brother, is this word which I have heard true or not? They said that you said that you all would fight with me on fishing day (Saturday). But is it consistent with the law of fellowship to fight or not? We all here have had fellowship together in Christ's religion. We have all received one baptism, and some of us have joined together in receiving the Holy Communion of the Body of Christ. And how shall we again have divisions amongst us who have been dwelling together in true brotherhood, according to the law of God? Now, to-day, did it appear to you that I was angry? No, I was not angry. But I was surprised to see you throwing at that little boy as if he were a grown person; and the boys belonging to us (Solomon Islanders) entreated me to let them go and help him; but I would not let them go, and they were angry with me for it; and then I saw you look as though you were angry, and I was going forward to speak to you, but it was all over. Now you and I are to partake of the Holy Communion on Sunday, if able; and, if there be righting on Saturday, will that be good or not? The sun is nigh upon setting. Don't prolong this affair, my brother, because we are both brethren, and it is not right for us to act in such a manner. "I, Herbert Kulai, have written in love."

Answer from Simon Qalges to the above:--

"HERBERT KULAI to you all.

"The peace of our God be with us. This is my answer to your letter about what I did to-day to Kasi, because they said he was clever in dodging; so I pelted him to see if it were so. I thought it was all being done in play. Then I saw you coming towards me with a hoe in your hand, not as though peaceably, and it appeared to me that your minds were disturbed; but my mind was not at all disturbed. I thought it was only play; but you thought it was something different. But in what way have I caused dissension? And this I ask you: Who told you that word came out of my mouth? When we came back to-day did you think it was so? I did not. About that word that we should fight it out on Saturday they told me that it was talked over there; but I knew nothing at all about it. This I heard--that Tarivaga and Garo told us that you people took a spear and called my name over it. But just all of you put that spear back in its place and then take up the Cross of Christ and hold it fast; and then let us fight manfully at the side of Christ all our days till death. My brother, tell them that if their minds are upset, it is for us two to pray that God will forgive. Tell this to those over there, and I will tell the boys over here. That is all.

"I, Simon Qalges, have written with very great love."

Such letters take us into the innermost spirit of the Mission work, for here the Christian teaching, which has been received by the scholars by the influence of the Holy Ghost, is evolved in the most natural of ways, by letters written in privacy. I do not think, now that years have passed, that I have violated the rules of delicacy in reproducing these documents as evidences that God's grace blesses the Mission, and permits them to see the fruit of their labours. It is affecting to note how the sons of those who knew no better return but that of vengeance for an insult once received, are now unwilling to let the sun go down upon their wrath. That meeting at the Holy Communion, after the quarrel had been made up, must have been the seal of a deeper and fuller corporate Christian life.

One subject I have not yet touched upon--that of cannibalism. It is believed that throughout the Banks Group this horrible practice has been unknown for a very long time, even if it ever existed. No one living seems to have been acquainted with it. This is all the more strange, because in the New Hebrides close by, there is no doubt that it exists still in some islands, and was the universal custom not many years ago. It has been unknown in the Santa Cruz group; probably it was never practised there; whereas in the Solomons there are at this moment tens of thousands of cannibals.

A few years ago I was told by a captain of one of our men-of-war that he wished to bury a seaman on some quiet island where his body would be undisturbed. He sailed about this group, but was always met by canoes filled with people who wore no European clothing. He was sure they were heathen cannibals! At Mota especially he felt this to be the case. At last he buried the man at sea. It has been made plain, of course, that there has been no heathen person in Mota for many years. Alas! it is only too true that for many persons there is a twelfth commandment--"Thou shalt not wear thy native dress."

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