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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 XIX. Florida (Solomons)

THREE clergy; one hundred and five teachers; thirty-five schools; three thousand three hundred baptized; four hundred hearers.

If Guadalcanar is at present our great failure, Florida has been our most signal triumph of late years, and those who wish to get a first-rate account of the natives and of God's work among them ought to lose no time in purchasing the Rev. A. Penny's delightful book entitled Ten Years in Melanesia. It is a fascinating account of his work in Florida, and abounds in details of native life and of personal adventure, which, of course, I cannot hope to furnish in like degree. I spent only three days in Florida, and am simply a gleaner in other men's fields. On an ordinary map, on which Mala is about half-an-inch in length, Florida disappears altogether. It is but a speck in comparison, at the western end of the straits between Mala and Guadalcanar. But what appears to be one little island is in reality a group of three, separated by narrow channels; and if small islets, in some cases not an acre in extent, are counted, there are more than fifty such islands. Florida is, I think, the loveliest spot in the Solomons. As the ship approaches, the eye is charmed by the sight of open spaces of meadow-like country among the fantastic hills. It is so uncommon an experience that it is hard to believe it. Accustomed everywhere to the depressing appearance of dense, tropical foliage, varied only by brown yam patches, it is refreshing indeed to look upon open pastures. I am told, however, that these so-called meadows are really clothed with a rough grass at least as high as the waist, and often much taller. A lovely reach or strait between two divisions of Florida is called "the Sandfly Channel." But it is another of these strange passages which is most indelibly impressed upon every visitor to Florida. There is a harbour at a spot named Mboli, interesting in itself, inasmuch as in the very middle of it a circular coral reef is springing up some quarter of a mile in diameter, and revealing the contour perfectly. In the deep-water passage round it the native fishing stations are erected in great numbers; queer-looking structures, composed of a most insecure perch for a man and several poles between which the net is spread, which is lowered to the bottom and suddenly raised to enclose the fish. Upon the shore close by are visible the native houses and the spacious and really splendid church, a specimen of like structures in many parts of Florida. They are noble pieces of bamboo work, capable of holding three or four hundred people, with a high-pitched roof not less than thirty feet in height. They are famous for their singing also in Florida. It is here that you can listen to all the parts taken by large bodies of men and women--though it is strange to hear the amen pronounced ameni--and to listen to the late Rev. Mr. Plant, called Pulaneti. (Natives here cannot conclude a word with a consonant, or pronounce two consonants together.) Let my reader imagine to himself such a building made of beautifully-interlaced bamboo strips and crowned with a massive palm-leaf thatch, with doors cut high, compelling a step of two or three feet--in order that the pigs may not come to church--with no windows, because it is better to get light through the chinks of the wall than heat through windows; imagine this striking edifice planted in the midst of a mass of crotons ablaze with their leaves of crimson and gold and rich shades of every tint, and you have one of the most beautiful effects of tropical scenery, commingled with the associations of happy Christian life in the South Seas. But the greatest object of interest in Mboli harbour is still to be mentioned. A stranger would imagine that the last thing the captain of the Southern Cross would do would be to steam suddenly towards the shore circling round the centre reef. But this is what he actually does, turning so sharply at one point, that one can almost shake hands with the people on a point of land; one more corner is turned, and now a narrow channel is visible, named Ututha, previously entirely concealed; the water is evidently deep, and the surface is unruffled. Is it a river, for the current may be setting strongly seaward? No; the water is quite salt. This is in reality one of the mouths of the most extraordinary natural features I have ever seen. It is a deep channel cutting Florida in half from sea to sea, and the tide flows with refreshing force right through it. Straight down the centre of this, and without abating her speed, the Southern Cross is steered; we might be in a river, for the channel is sometimes only one hundred yards broad, though it widens out in places and forms a broad reach at a spot halfway, which has been called Bongard Bight. On both sides the vivid green of the tropical vegetation clothes the banks. Here and there mangroves flourish with their brilliant colouring, and above us there tower hills hundreds of feet high, with their wealth of trees and creepers, and displaying naked cliffs and precipices, standing out proudly from the heights overhead. For sixteen miles at full speed we keep our course, and the fascination of the scene keeps the Mission party on deck. At length the river-like channel opens out into a broad reach, and we have an ocular demonstration that Florida has been cut in two. Gaeta is reached from Mboli. At one point I am told that a reef runs across this saltwater river with seventeen feet of water over-it; were this removed the largest vessels could pass through, and as a means of inland navigation it is impossible to overrate its importance. Further west "the Sandfly Channel" separates Mboli from Olevuga. All alike in Mission reports are called Florida. But it is time to turn to the moral and spiritual life of this lovely spot. In 1875 there was no really settled school in Florida. The captain of the ship told me also that in those days no natives were wilder, none more arrant thieves than in Florida; and every door and port-hole had to be closed ere these people were invited on board. And at the present time the Christians are numbered by thousands; in fact, the few heathen are simply waiting to be taught ere they give up their old beliefs.

I have alluded to the splendid churches in Florida; the canoe-houses are also works of art. At Mboli, in early days, one was standing which was one hundred and eighty feet long and forty-two feet high. In it was a canoe, fifty-six feet long, six feet beam, and four feet deep. There is much that is intensely interesting in the accounts of those early days. The first clergyman who stayed here was warned by Selwyn not to live in one place, "for," said he, "the chief of the place will become like the old Maori in New Zealand who "boasted of his tame Pakeha." In those days I learn that there was no such thing as a single woman in these islands. If a girl was not married she was the common property of all. Children were named before birth, there being no distinction of sex in the names given. About 1857 the first Selwyn landed here; indeed, that wonderful man seemed to have landed everywhere in that year, carrying his life in his hand daily as much as did our noble men and women that same year in India, where the great mutiny had broken out. He met eighty of these wild men on a reef, and one boy came away with him. In 1866 the first clergyman came to reside for awhile. In 1870 he ordered a house to be built for him on a certain spot, whilst he was away at Norfolk Island. The natives jeered at the man who proposed to build it. "You will never see the white man again or his money." Such a house is thus described, twenty feet by ten at the ridge-pole; built on piles seven feet high, furnishing a nice cool place to sit, under the flooring; all made of bamboo and palm, with a row of posts, each one higher than the other, forming the steps up which all who wish to enter must jump; and when it has been raining, and the visitor has canvas shoes on, it is a matter of difficulty to keep one's balance on these strange steps. There are no windows, but the light comes through the chinks in the wall; the door is three feet high and eighteen inches wide, and is closed in rain or great heat. I heard a great deal in Florida about the terrible kidnapping days.

Indeed, when one hears of the death of a white man now, one asks instinctively what crime the white man or some one before him has committed. In 1872 the crew of the Lavinia were murdered here. What else indeed could be expected of these insulted natives? Not long before one hundred Florida men had been deceived and kidnapped; there is even a story that the ship which perpetrated this atrocity was in league with head-hunters, and that eighteen of the kidnapped men were handed over to the cannibals. I met an old teacher in Florida who told me that in his youth he had been out in a canoe with some others, and a ship came alongside and threw iron into the canoe and sank it, and took all the men away as labourers, himself among them. It has seemed to me that such terrible deeds must have made Mission work almost impossible. Let it be remembered that the causes of failure in any of these islands, so long the centre of unprincipled labour traffic in days gone by, may be attributed to the memories of foul wrong done by our own race to these people.

The man whose name stands out most clearly as a noble Christian is Charles Sapibuana (page 92). Just as Mota has George Sarawia, and Vanua Lava has Edwin Wogale, and Motlav Henry Tagalana, and Merelav Clement Marau and William Vaget, and Cristoval Stephen Taroniara, so Florida has her Charles Sapibuana. In 1866 he was brought to New Zealand by Bishop Patteson, being then about twelve. There at Kohimarama, and at St. Barnabas, Norfolk Island, he received the teaching which was to bear such fruit. His course of training was only broken by the usual holiday spent among his own people every two years, and was continued till 1877, when he with his wife and child--for during the last two years at Norfolk Island he had married--settled at Gaeta, his native island, to begin work as a teacher. The ground there was entirely unbroken. If any attempts at a school had been made before this date, they were only such as he and other Gaeta scholars had been able to make during their holidays. He was soon at work, and at once his power began to be felt, for from the first he set himself against what was wrong with quiet and unflinching determination. Of course he met with bitter and dangerous opposition, but he passed unhurt through all, though the threats of vengeance and the plans to kill him might well have daunted a less determined man. The conversion of his brother, and his brother's wife, who were baptized in 1878, was the firstfruit of his labours; from it the rise and progress of Christianity in Florida may be said to date. In 1882 he was ordained deacon in the presence of his people, and from this time till he left Gaeta, at the end of 1885, for Norfolk Island, the increase of his work was even more marked, whilst his influence among all, whether Christian or heathen, proportionately developed. But of late years his health had greatly failed, and he required rest and care. The time also had come when a priest from among his own people was needed to minister to the spiritual wants of the native Church, and surely Charles Sapibuana was one who had used the office of a deacon well. "I advised him, therefore," says Mr. Penny, "to return with me to Norfolk Island, hoping that a visit there would restore him to his former strength, and would moreover enable him in the quiet time to prepare for the priesthood. But it was not to be. When we arrived nearly every one was ill--an epidemic of influenza of a very severe type had taken possession of the island.

Sooner or later we all caught it. In Charles's case it developed pleuro-pneumonia, and he passed away on the morning of the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity." Perhaps my readers would like to see an extract from Charles's note-book. Here is the record of a lesson he had received in 1872: "January 6, Epiphany. This is the great day of the wise men. Jesus was manifested to them, coming from the east to Jerusalem, and seeking the King of the Jews. And to these was Jesus first manifested; and after them to the Romans, and so on until now, when it has reached us. And why was Jesus manifested to the Gentiles? This is why. Only the people of Israel alone knew the way of life, which began with Abraham; and God told Abraham that His people should follow that way. But hitherto we did not know it, and for this cause Jesus came down that He might save us all; and therefore He was manifested to the Gentiles. As He was manifested to the Gentiles of old, so is He now to us, in holy washing and the holy food. God helped the Gentiles that they might believe. In like manner we can do nothing of ourselves; but God helps us by manifesting Himself to us." Every one who knew Sapibuana respected him. Had he lived he would have been a great power. "But," as John Wesley said, "God buries His workmen, but carries on His work."

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