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 XIV. Nelua, Santa Cruz--Te Motu

TWO clergy; ten teachers; two schools; one hundred and one baptized; twenty-one communicants. In Reef Islands, eight teachers; four schools; twenty-three baptized; six communicants. To step ashore at Santa Cruz! To sleep among people so famed for outrages committed in moments of excitement! The very thought was inspiring. So it happened that on Sunday morning, October 2, 1892, I went ashore with Mr. Forrest and the clergy. We had already had our excitements. From Te Motu a canoe had paddled out, longing to sell something. When near the ship, which would not stop, the two natives stood up to vociferate. At the same instant the outrigger gave way, and the men disappeared among the waves, appearing again with such a rueful look on their faces that they were greeted with a roar of laughter from our deck. Then, on anchoring, Forrest came off in a canoe, looking considerably battered. It was not wonderful, indeed, for a few days before he had nearly lost his life. The canoe he was in upset some miles out at sea, and for hours they were trying in vain to right it. To make matters worse, a big fish with a sword-like proboscis came under them, and would not depart. The two natives, by way of comfort, told the missionary that a wound from this fish produced tetanus infallibly. At length they were sighted from the shore and rescued.

Our first act ashore was a service, then a Confirmation and a celebration of Holy Communion. To see a church full of Cruzians was in itself a wonderful fact. The school and the church stand close together. On one side is the dancing-ground, on the other Forrest's own house. Hard by flows a river of fresh water, affording capital bathing, and this privilege the natives utilize to the full. I suppose that every one bathes daily, the sexes each having a special spot. One of the comical adventures the next day was the mode of taking the bath as it obtains in this spot. We undressed in the house, putting on what we may call "native costume," then we proceeded to march through the village to the water, followed by an eager crowd of men, women, and children, who wished to see the bishop and the clergy take headers. They were gratified to their hearts' content, and then we ran back and exchanged native for English attire.

The most prominent character at Nelua is Natei, the chief. I met three chiefs during my voyage, who impressed me with their strong personality: Soga, in Ysabel, who is now a devout Christian; Takki, in Cristoval, still a heathen, but well affected; and Natei, at Santa Cruz, a heathen, and scarcely to be called a well-affected person. The latter is a very powerful man, every inch a chief in appearance, with a fine physique. He carries himself in a dignified manner, and when he is standing, armed with bow and arrows in picturesque native dress, no one could fail to be struck with his appearance. He is a dead shot, and has done many a cruel and ruthless deed, and is a bad husband. A short while ago one of his seven wives hanged herself, to end a life of misery. Of late his power has been waning. A village named Taape, a few miles off, has accepted a school in place of being at Natei's beck and call to oppose the Christians. Three times has Natei renounced his ghosts, but again the old Adam asserts itself, and he begins to repair his ghost-house. On the Monday morning (October 3)--a day never to be forgotten, for I can never hope to spend a birthday in so romantic a manner again--we went to pay the chief a visit of state. From the courtyard of his house the Southern Cross could be seen anchored in the distance, and surrounded by canoes, who had been there since four a.m., waiting patiently for customers. On Sundays they know that buying is not permitted. Our visit began by our squeezing ourselves through a very narrow and low door into a fine house some forty feet square, and lofty also. Here Natei's men live, and here guests are entertained. I was given a place of honour on a clean mat. Welchman, with a touch of fever on him, laid himself down on his back and tried to be oblivious of the world generally. I had previously been initiated into Cruzian etiquette, therefore I was not surprised when, after an attempt to talk which failed dismally, Natei left the room, but returned almost immediately with some good mats under his arm. These he threw down before me in silence, according to the best form of polite society among his people, and resumed his seat. Now, it would be transgressing every rule of manners to say "Thank you," or to appear pleased. The right course is to look at the things gravely, and to appraise their value coolly without undue signs of pleasure. This I accomplished after the manner of a courtier well versed in la haute politesse. It was now my turn. From my trade-bag I extracted twenty sticks of tobacco, two fathoms of calico, twelve pipes (not meerschaums), two knives, etc., and threw them elegantly before the chief. With extraordinary good manners, he also paid no attention to the gift, but clearly was content. All this time dusky warriors, clustered round, were watching the actions of the great unknown bishop and the mighty chief of Nelua. In a few minutes we requested leave to see the dilapidated ghost-house. It was a curious place, spacious, and painted all over; that is to say, all the wooden beams had devices in red and figures not unlike Egyptian paintings,--only much ruder. In the centre of the house there stood a row of poles cut at the top until they might have passed for bedposts, and some six feet high. Two of these, in place of standing upright, were in a horizontal position. These posts are supposed to be figurative of ancestors. I think I heard that they had names, but no one seemed to understand why two occupied a position differing from the rest. Natives are not fond of talking of their old faith when they give it up, and the unconverted are equally reticent. Behind the posts, which were about eight in number, I think, there were pens made of bamboo, some five feet long and two or three wide, not unlike little pigsties, with sides two or three feet high. There was nothing in them, but I was given to understand that they were receptacles for food. These gifts were presented possibly not to ancestors so much as to spirits which were never in man, but are possessed of power. The subject, however, of the Cruzian's old religion seems at present wrapped in mystery. Mr. Forrest is the best authority, but he does not claim to know much yet of which he can speak with certainty. To turn from old Natei, with his cruel face and his ill-treated wives, to Natei's sweet-looking daughter is a wonderful step. She is a Christian, her baptismal name being Monica. Let those who wish to see the power of the Divine Spirit experience what I saw here. It is difficult, nay, impossible, to describe the change from heathenism in a bad form to a sweet Christian gentleness. Monica is married to "James Goodenough." It is startling to hear the name, and to be introduced to a stalwart Cruzian, one of the teachers at Nelua. I confirmed these two; nor can there be any doubt that, in a few years, a great change will come over Nelua and its neighbourhood. With Natei gone, and Monica's influence predominant, and James as teacher, the old ghost-house will disappear, and the people will be tamed. The customs of Santa Cruz do not permit a son-in-law to speak direct to his father-in-law; if he meets him he does not see him. A short time before I was there Natei was in his daughter's house, and James, standing near, wished to communicate with him. What could he do? A boy was brought in. James spoke to the boy, and the boy repeated it to Natei. Natei answered the boy, and the lad repeated the words to James, though all three were standing within a yard of each other.

The following story will illustrate some of the difficulties which come in the way of a native Christian. There is a teacher at Nelua named Robert. His brother died a few years ago, leaving a wife. They were both heathens. Now, by native law it was Robert's duty to marry his brother's widow, but Robert was already married, and when called upon to fulfil his duty he refused; he could not act otherwise. One day Robert was passing along the track, and the widow, supposing that he, as a Christian, would not adhere to strict native custom, called out his name. But for any woman to call out any man's name is a heinous offence. As it happened, a man overheard her, and immediately he raised his bow and shot her in the leg, and the poor woman died of tetanus ten days afterwards. The people now came to Robert and accused him of being the cause of the woman's death, and declared he must pay the fine. Acting under Forrest's advice, he paid it, but he had to sell everything he had in the world to raise the money.

I should mention that the origin of the ghost-houses on this northern shore of Santa Cruz is somewhat mysterious. They are not used by the bush people, nor by those who live on the southern shore. It is believed that the system has been introduced from the Reef Islands, which are inhabited by a different race in part, some being Polynesians. As one stands on the shore at Nelua, with the large canoes drawn up, capable of going distances of a hundred miles, with a deck-house to live in, a grand cone-shaped mountain stands up out of the sea some ten miles distant. This is Tinakula, a volcano still active. I saw thin columns of smoke ascending from the peak. Twenty years ago it was very active, and it is likely that some day it may burst out again. The Cruzians do not live on its slopes, but they have gardens there, and often sail across to work in them. I feel inclined to linger yet awhile over Nelua. I cannot forget the pile of mats, dancing-clubs, arrows, etc., with which I was presented as a birthday present. I cannot forget the solemn consecration of the churchyard, when, as we traced its borders in procession, singing hymns the while, we were watched with grave curiosity by Natei and a band of warriors, who had first been giving a dance in honour of myself. I cannot forget, last but not least, how now at length a spot of light, real and bright, burns on these shores, on which Patteson longed to plant the Cross, but was always baffled. In 1871 he says that for nine years running he had tried to land here, but had failed. In 1862, however, he had been ashore in seven places in one day, and had met one thousand two hundred natives, according to his calculation. After this their suspicions were roused by the heartless cruelty of labour vessels, and his work was checked. The first Bishop Selwyn had rowed several times into Graciosa Bay, but had never landed. Now the school is firmly planted, and I was able to sleep ashore in perfect safety. I remember how on that night I lay awake with sleeping Cruzians on the floor around me as I mused on the ways of God, and how in His own good time He makes His name known. The conquest of Santa Cruz has begun; but "how shall they hear except they be sent?" Who shall send but we who bear Christ's name, and are pledged to His service?

In 1895 they had a terrible experience at Nclua. Early in the year the natives affirmed that the ship had brought influenza. There were many deaths, and the natives were furious, and turned upon the Christians as the cause of the malady. During Holy Week the school premises were besieged. One morning the missionary found a poisoned arrow in his curtain; it had penetrated the side of the house. During service for weeks a guard had to be kept, and throughout the night as well. Hearing one day that a force was advancing against him, the missionary stole into the bush with a party of armed natives, and suddenly appeared in the path behind the attacking force, thus placing them between two fires. The enemy thereupon retired; and the admiral of the Australian station (Cyprian Bridge), who visited Santa Cruz, warmly congratulated Forrest on achieving a victory without bloodshed. The position amongst these excitable people has been made more complicated by the visits of French labour vessels. The returned labourers from Noumea seem to have learnt nothing but evil among Europeans. One of these labourers fired at the missionary with a rifle. Mr. Forrest has now left the Mission.


A few miles to the west of Nelua there is a bay with a good anchorage. It bears a historic name, for this is Graciosa Bay, where the Spaniards, in 1597, under Mendana, attempted to settle their colony, but without success. They mention that the natives live in round huts like beehives. And it is an example of the conservatism of natives that here, at Te Motu, the island at the mouth of Graciosa Bay, the huts are round still. Nowhere else does this habit attain but here; here the custom has held its ground for three hundred years and more. Strange to say, however, a round hut was almost the first I saw in the South Seas. My first ianding-place was at MarĀ£, in the Loyalty Group. We called at Nengone to pay a pension to the Rev. M. Wadrokal. This deacon of ours had been stationed at Santa Cruz years ago, and had built himself a Te Motu hut in this spot. I was amazed at the clustering villages in Te Motu. The people seemed to swarm, and the huts were built so close together that one quite lost one's bearings in the winding paths. These people are most excitable. Many a thrilling moment has the missionary had in this island. Perhaps he was never in greater danger than when he landed unwittingly on a spot which had been "tapued." As he walked up the familiar path he was met by a raging mob of men, with arrows drawn to the head, and much too angry to explain their desires distinctly. Nothing but cool pluck saved him, and by the evening he had calmed down their passions. I believe that, with a delightful audacity, he abused them roundly for their stupidity. This step, coupled with perfect fearlessness, saved his life. My own landing was intensely interesting. There is no shelving shore here, nothing but a jagged edge of coral rock, with a flat surface shoreward, and a precipitous descent at the edge of the reef. The surf was alternately boiling over the reef, rushing up over the surface, and retreating so as to leave uncovered the line of coral. We had to wait on our oars until the signal was given, and then with a spurt we rode on the top of a wave right over the edge till we were landed on the reef, where the boat was seized by twenty willing friends, and dragged further up before the wave retired. Our return was still more exciting, for we all had to get into the boat and pull for dear life, so as to escape being left on the cruel edge of the reef if we were a few seconds too late in our effort. All, however, was safely accomplished, and camera and plates, bishop and clergy, were brought back to the ship, after having been broiled under a sun so hot that I still remember the sensation. The school at Te Motu is not so firmly established as that at Nelua, but the foothold has been secured, and one of the finest churches in Melanesia now stands among the round huts. It was near this place that Edwin Nobbs and Fisher Young were killed. Patteson had been ashore, but upon his return the suspicions of the natives were roused, and they began firing into the boat. The Bishop was in the stern. Holding the rudder in his hand, he tried to ward off the arrows, but on looking round he discovered that these poor fellows had been wounded, though Atkin had escaped. The deaths of these two devoted men gave the Bishop a great shock, and there are some who think that he was never the same man afterwards. Nobbs and Young were the only Norfolk Islanders (ex-Pitcairners) who ever joined the Mission. Nobbs was, of course, the son of the well-known clergyman and chaplain. Two years afterwards some canoes paddled out to the Southern Cross as Captain Tilly was taking observations near Te Motu, and the men in them inquired whether any of those upon whom they had fired had died from their wounds.

The whole of this group continues to be a sore trial to the Mission. There have been special sorrows connected with it, to which we need not refer; but they have been the hardest of all to bear. The work at Nelua is closed virtually. Old Natei is dead. Te Motu is now the strongest post. There is also a ray of hope on the south side of the island. Little has been effected also at present in the Reef Islands. They really need the attention of another white missionary,. An attempt is also being made to get two Maoris from Te Aute, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, to become missionaries to these Reef natives, since they talk a language akin to the Maori and are Polynesians.

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