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 XX. Florida (continued)

ONE of the causes which led to the conversion of Florida was the murder of Lieutenant Bower, of H.M.S. Sandfly, in 1880. This little vessel, with a crew of thirty men, was cruising about in these waters when one day Bower took a boat and landed with a few men on a little island named Mandoliana. He and the men were bathing, and anticipated no danger; but on the mainland, about two miles off, a chief named Kalekona permitted a party to paddle across and try and surprise them. Kalekona was in a rage about some stolen money, and was demanding a life instead, hence his action. But there was no cause of complaint whatever against the Sandfly. One of the party was Vuria, Kalekona's son, who afterwards gave information, and for this his life was spared. Vuria gives the following account: "We landed on the other side of the point just as the sun was setting, and we crept through the bushes till we could see the sailors on the beach. Three were bathing on the beach, one was cooking, and the captain was standing over there, drawing in a book. We waited till we thought the right time had come, and then Holambosa gave the sign, and we all rushed out. . . . We fell on the men with our tomahawks. Their guns were in the boat and on the sand; but we were between them and the guns, and they had no time to take them up. One sailor and the captain ran along the beach; we cut down the three who stayed, though one sailor seized a boat-stretcher and fought hard. Presently Utumate and Tavu came back, saying that the captain had turned on Utumate with his fists, on which he ran back, and the sailor had escaped from Tavu by running into the thick bush, where we dared not follow. Then we cut off the heads of the three men we had killed." The sailor who escaped into the bush was the only survivor of this party. His name was Savage, and when it became dark he took to the water to swim three miles in the hope of finding some friend on shore. After a while some natives saw him, and came out in their canoes. As they approached the poor fellow naturally gave himself up for lost. But when they were close to him a cloud covered the face of the moon, and the pursuers, being either afraid or superstitious, turned back. When almost spent he touched on a sandbank, and at length reached the shore, where he fell in with Peter, a returned labourer, who took him to a chief named Tambukoro, who at this time was at war with Kalekona. By Peter's influence Savage's life was saved, and I met on my visit to this place Tambukoro and Peter (now our teacher there), and Vuria also. Poor Bower had an unfortunate fate. In place of taking to the water, he tried all night long to launch the boat; the marks of his feet were seen all round deeply indented in the sand. Then, when morning came, he climbed up into a big banian-tree, where he was discovered by the natives and shot with one of his own rifles. His skull was found at Kalekona's village afterwards, recognized by the gold stopping in the teeth, and was reverently buried. Of course steps were taken to catch the murderers, and this was effected at last, and they were taken to the banian-tree where Bower was killed, tied to it with ropes (which still hang there) and shot. Vuria was very young at the time, and was pardoned. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any of the men would ever have been taken if Kalekona's son had not been promised his life on condition the others were given up.

Bishop Selwyn, the younger, hurried to Florida when he heard of the trouble, and obtained such an influence over the people at this time that the work of the Mission took a deep hold. In 1884 six hundred were baptized in Florida, and in the last six years two thousand eight hundred have been added to the Church. What the Mission now needs is a larger staff here to bring these Christians to Confirmation, and to build up their spiritual life. There is one deacon in Florida, Reuben Bula, a good man, though he does not possess the strong personality of Charles Sapibuana. I shall not easily forget Reuben; after a Confirmation at Mehaga, not far from Mboli, he presented me with a splendid crocodile's head in memory of my visit. A dusky crowd watched us as Reuben and Comins and I stood in the garden about the church. All around there was a sense of colour so rich and so dominated by scarlet hues that one felt conscious of a truly tropical experience. It was a garden of crotons, each plant ablaze with leaves of scarlet and yellow and purple.

The next morning the ship steamed through the Scudamore Channel and anchored off Mr. Neilson's store, and on the 2ist of September we were at Honggo to assist at a function unique in my experience. We were close also to the home of Kalekona, and within a mile or two of Mandoliana. Early next morning we were at the beautiful church which now stands close to the spot from which Bower's murderers started; the photograph of this edifice is one of the best we took. Meanwhile canoes had been arriving laden with natives from all parts of Florida, no longer bent on bloodshed, but coming as delegates to the annual parliament, which this year was to be held at Honggo, whilst for weeks before the women had been preparing the great feast for these members of parliament. The teachers, of course, were there in force, besides many a chief known in days gone by as great warriors but now at peace with each other. At seven a.m. there was a celebration of the Holy Communion, and xwe administered to some forty of the delegates. At ten a.m. morning prayer was said in a crowded church, and then the great function commenced. Let us imagine the scene. Under the shade of cocoanut palms and bananas, the sunlight throwing chequered shadows over the hard-beaten earth, there clustered rows of natives; the chiefs, with Tambukoro at their head, sat upon a form, looking most inelegant in European clothing. Their lowlier companions, clad chiefly in brown skin--and much more attractive in consequence--sat on the ground. In front of a bamboo house a kitchen table was placed, and I believe there was even a table-cloth. Behind it in the place of honour, as speaker and chairman, sat Palmer, looking wise and venerable with his white beard. Next to him I was placed, and the other clergy sat close by. Then up rose Palmer and opened the session. I had to follow: and as I uttered what, in my opinion, was a remarkably wise and judicious and eloquent oration, I noticed that Welchman was photographing us from a distance. I shall be eternally grateful to him for this act, because he happened to get into the foreground of his picture the beautiful back of a member of parliament, devoid of garments and most symmetrical in shape. I fear my splendid speech had little effect on the parliament of Florida, for as each flowing sentence emerged from my lips it was passed through the language of Mota by Palmer, who handed it on to a nervous teacher to be set into the Florida tongue for the ears of the assembled company; and I had the mortification of listening to my rounded periods reduced to two or three words in the third language through which it passed. Surely no premier ever fared so hardly.

One question that was then discussed reveals the difficulty caused by the transition from heathen to Christian customs.

A baptized Christian had married some near relative of his, and one who was upon the same side of the house as himself. (My readers will remember that in these islands the prohibited degrees are created by the existence of two sides of the house. A man may only marry some one on the other side of the house.) Now, the natives would formerly have killed this man at once. What were they to do under present circumstances? Was it right to execute him now that they were Christians? Both the offenders had of themselves retired from Christian privileges, but it was still a grave offence in the eyes of the community. The parliament was clearly puzzled; so indeed was I. Towards the end of the day I heard that a teacher had made a capital suggestion. "Let us send the man to Queensland in a labour vessel." And then it occurred to me how convenient such a place of banishment could become. The laws of Florida under the new regime are only three in number at present. The two first have to do with breaches of the seventh commandment; the third and last concerns the trespassing of pigs. And this is the law: If a pig is discovered on another man's land, the outraged landowner can shoot the intruder, but he may not touch the body. That can be carried away by the owner. The pig is of course a distinct feature of these islands--he is the chief treasure, and intrudes everywhere, and the doors of the churches are made high above the ground in order to prevent these quadrupeds from attending public worship. But to return to our parliament. I think the session for the year lasted but three hours. Happy Florida! Then came the distribution of food for the evening feast. Piles of flesh and yams and of other delicacies were heaped up in so many divisions; then each village bore away its portion in triumph. As soon as the parliament was prorogued, we entered the church once more, and I confirmed some thirty-five persons, many of whom were delegates from their villages, who, as evening came on, all departed in their canoes. There had been no ill-will, no signs of hostility, and no one could fail to be struck with the change that had passed over this people in some fifteen years.

It would be impossible to tell the history of Florida without relating the result of the efforts of one of the earliest of the clergy in these parts in the matter of translation. He had not mastered the language, but yet he burned to be the first to give his people their Prayer-book in their own tongue. Now the hundred and fourth Psalm is one which is very early chosen for translation, and all went well till they came to the sentence: "Where the wild asses quench their thirst."

Now-a-days the names of animals unknown to the natives are kept just as they are in English. And the stranger is surprised to see "sheep," "lamb," in the native Prayer-book. But the gentleman of whom I speak was bold. He produced the picture of a donkey, and asked his native teachers whether they had ever seen that creature. "Certainly," they answered. "There are animals just like that far back in the bush." Delighted beyond measure at having discovered so interesting a fact in natural history, he put down the native name given him. I may say at once that it denoted a mythical sort of pig. The next problem to solve was a native word for "wild." After attempting to explain, the teachers gave him a word which they said was often used to denote the qualities of the monster in the bush. The adjective really signified "man-eating." Now there was but one step more to be taken. "Quench their thirst." The clergyman explained that he needed something more than merely "drink." It must be a word expressing the drinking of some one very thirsty. The natives assured him they had just such a word as he wished for. And with delight the translator reflected that now he had done a good bit of work which would earn him the praise of the Mission. The word given to him had certainly a peculiar meaning. It denoted the manner in which a man drinks when he has the hiccups and is trying to check them! It will be enough to say that for months, and possibly years, the catechumens of Florida used to sing in the hundred and fourth Psalm this startling paraphrase, "Where the wild man-eating pigs drink to stop the hiccups." The picture of a row of pigs suffering from hiccups is delightful. Every now and then in the old journals one comes across also a good answer to a question. The following is, I think, worth recording as the answer of a Florida man: "What is a lie?" "Gammon." Perhaps the following story will enable some to realize that a native may see no joke in what to one of us is extremely amusing. One of the clergy, I think Mr. Penny, had translated The Tale of a Tub for these people in order to amuse them. But they read of the tub and bunghole and tiger's tail and all with perfect gravity, seeing no fun in it. But Mr. Penny was equal to the occasion. He remembered that the Florida man is by nature a shrewd man of business and keen at a bargain. He therefore ventured upon addition to the old story, ending it in some such form as this: "as the men had hold of the tiger's tail through the bunghole a man came along the road; they shouted to him to come to their assistance; but he stopped and asked, 'What will you give me if I help you?'" This was received with shouts of genuine laughter by the class; now at last they saw the joke! I cannot conclude this account of Florida, however, without giving two more extracts from Mr. Penny's book. The first illustrates the wise policy of the Mission towards native amusements. "Dancing parties are among the most harmless of the native customs, and latterly we have been able to utilize them for the spread of Christianity. At first the Christians held aloof because of the Tindalo (ghost or spirit) influence upon the dancers, and because they would have to give up school and prayers during the tour. But when their numbers came to be considerable, the idea occurred to some of us to let a Christian party go attended by a teacher as chaplain, if the chief would consent to forego the Tindalo part of the business. On several occasions this has been done. A large dancing party started three years ago from Gaeta with a contingent of fifty Christians, and went the round of the Floridas. Each night and morning those men met together for prayers, and though at first they had to encounter ridicule, the ridicule in time gave way before their pertinacity."

The last extract has to do with the marriage question. "Bishop Selwyn makes it a sine qua non that a polygamist shall put away all but one wife before he receives baptism. That this is the right course in Melanesia, I cannot for a moment doubt, though the case of the woman put away is in some respects a hard one. . . . But she need not be homeless or friendless, or compelled to lead such a life as many of those who take the opposite view of this question assume to be inevitable. There are respectable people who will give her a home for the sake of her work, and with such she can live. Many of these women become Christians, and in the spiritual consolation and freedom from superstitious fear which they then enjoy, find greater happiness than they ever had as heathens; and though in their new life there may be somewhat of the hardness which Christianity accepts, yet they would not return to the old conditions so contrary to the faith in which they now find peace. . . . There remains the significant fact that in these particular islands a strong feeling exists in the minds of the native converts themselves against allowing a polygamist to receive baptism; and I feel sure that if an exception were once made, no matter how hard the case might appear at the time, it would set up a precedent most difficult to deal with in the time to come."

The happiness of the Christian life after renouncing heathenism is one of the bright joys of the work. Mr. Penny says, "We heard some men disputing about the 'new teaching,' and one said, 'While I believed in Tindalos I was like a woman carrying a load--I had to look where I trod, and I moved slowly; now I go where I like, and I am as light as a dead leaf.'"

At the same time, there are special difficulties which occur when the new teaching confronts the old belief, and one of these deserves an allusion, it cannot be more. Before the introduction of Christianity there were found in every village women who were given over to an immoral life, but the faithfulness of the married women to their husbands was general. Now that the class of profligates has been made to disappear there are signs of the advent here and there of the same sin in a new form invading the homes of the married natives. But I must say farewell to Florida! loveliest of islands!

In 1895 a new central school was built at Siota on Mboli harbour. Of late years the interest in Florida has centred round the central school at Siota. A piece of ground was bought overlooking Mboli harbour, for one thousand dog's teeth. The purchase was made upon the meeting of the Florida Parliament, when the representatives of every village in Florida were assembled at Belaga. The site was expected to be peculiarly healthy; but unfortunately the proximity of a marsh has made it unhealthy. Archdeacon Comins, however, attacked the marsh, and year after year the swamp has shrunk until ere long it will have vanished, and with it the mosquito-bearing soil and consequent malaria. At this particular Parliament Reuben Bula's influence made the chiefs actually eat together at the feast, a great step in social life; for the old native custom consisted in accepting the portion allotted and taking it away to eat in private.

It was in September 1896 that the new school building was opened with thirty-five scholars, and with the intention of making Siota a hospital for white men in these islands. It was a white boy indeed who first brought calamity to Siota. He came with dysentery, recovered and went away, but left the germs behind him. The natives were infected, some died, and Siota was boycotted. Dr. Welchman did all that he could, built a separate hospital almost in a day, and nursed the boys heroically with the aid of his scholars. On Jan. 12, 1897, one of the saddest blows the Mission has felt fell upon it here. Mrs. Welchman, a bride, and the first white woman to attempt to live in these islands as part of the Mission, died. It was an unexpected and a staggering blow, and for a time it threw back the cause of white women's work in the islands, soon, we believe, to be taken up again. At Siota too the attempt has been made to substitute English for Mota as the lingua franca of the Mission.

Writing of this island, as I now am, in 1903, I note that Tambukoro is dead, and Alfred Lobu has long been a respected priest of the Church.

Project Canterbury