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Francis de Sales Buchanan: Missionary in New Guinea

A Memoir by Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923
New York and Toronto: The Macmillan Co., 1923.

Chapter III. Boianai

MR. BUCHANAN went to New Guinea in 1899, and he remained at work on the staff of the New Guinea Mission until his death in 1921.

During the whole of these twenty-two years he never took a furlough. Only once did he get even as far as Samarai. He had been unwell, and was sent by the Bishop to see the doctor. It was taken for granted that the doctor would order him south for a change, but a couple of weeks later Buchanan turned up again at Dogura to say that the doctor did not think it necessary for him to go south, and he returned in triumph to his post.

Very soon after his arrival in New Guinea he was placed in charge of Boianai.

Boianai is a village on the coast about twelve miles from Dogura, and had not had a very good record. Albert Maclaren, the founder of the Mission, visited it within three months of his arrival on the coast in August, 1891. The natives had been constantly sending threatening messages to him, saying that they would come and kill him, and would kill the Wedau people, too, for having received the Mission. [27/28] Maclaren landed alone, and went straight up to the houses, and made friends by an exchange of presents. Ten days later came news of a fight between two Boianai villages, and a chief was killed. Maclaren at once returned, sympathised with the villagers, and urged them to forgo any revenge. He spent the night there, and the exposure on his journey brought on the illness from which he died three weeks later. Mission work began at Boianai in 1895, when Mr. C. B. Elwin and Willie Holi were placed there. Mr. Elwin's health gave way, and Willie Holi, with another islander, worked on until his death in May, 1899. He gained a great influence over the wild and turbulent men, but on one occasion he was struck on the head and on another occasion his tank was poisoned, but some friendly natives walked along the coast to warn him.

Mr. Buchanan arrived in September and immediately took up Willie Holi's work.

It must have been a tremendous change for a man of fifty, with no knowledge of native ways, or character, to be suddenly plunged into the life and conditions of a New Guinea village, and to be obliged to stand alone. He suffered from one tremendous disadvantage. He was quite unable to learn the language, and after very many years the utmost that he could do was to read the service with many blunders and mispronunciations, or to interlard his pidgin English with a few native words from all [28/29] sorts of sources. What a heavy handicap this must have been may be gathered from Bishop Newton's words in that most delightful book, "In Far New Guinea": "The language has a very definite grammar with exact rules, and the natives are very careful to speak it grammatically. The little children rarely make a mistake in the villages, and they very soon learn to use the correct words for shades of meaning. The natives shiver when they hear a false concord, as painful to them as discord to a musical ear, and they are fond of their language and proud of it. Their sense of humour would be touched, as some word was used which gave a meaning quite different from that intended to be expressed, but often the pain swallowed up the humour. One could see how they suffered when in his ignorance a preacher trampled on their most tender feelings and murdered the delicate touches of the language they loved:' But God in His providence had provided a means whereby the difficulty was to some extent to be solved. Bishop Newton writes: "After the death of Willie Holi in May a South Sea Island teacher named Richard Bourke kept things together until Mr. Buchanan's arrival, and worked with him at Boianai and Uga till his death in 1920. The relationship of the white man and the South Sea Islander during twenty-one years of work together is one of the most wonderful things in the history of the Mission. The confidence placed by the white man in his South Sea [29/30] Island colleague, and withal the firm discipline he exercised over him in a quiet way, and the affection and devotion of the Islander for his master, was touching. Mr. Buchanan was never able to master the language, and Dick felt he had a great responsibility to watch over his master, and to see that what he said was done. Again and again he has said, 'I can't stay, I must get home to my master; he wants me.' Dependent though he was on Dick, Mr. Buchanan never allowed the reins to fall from his hands, and Dick never presumed. It was remarkable how, in spite of his inability to speak the language, Mr. Buchanan got to know all that went on in the district, and even in the mountains behind Boianai. He could understand a good deal of what was said, and he got to know the native mind so that he could piece things together. Of course, he was sometimes wrong, but the wonder is that he was so often right. He had to use Dick as interpreter up to the end, but he was able to take the services and to teach the catechism, and never failed in that. The people came to understand his peculiar dialect, and without any malice, but with perfect enjoyment, one or other in the village would mimic his language, and all who listened would roar with laughter. They not only respected him, they loved him, in the village; they knew that he loved them, and would willingly die for them, and his influence over them was very great. He with Dick Bourke laid a good foundation, [30/31] and to a great extent the wonderful upbuilding of the Church at Boianai in later years is due to the quiet, solid work of Francis de Sales Buchanan--work done under very great difficulties."

The Rev. J. Hunt says: "I first met Francis de Sales Buchanan at Boianai in 1906. I had only been a few months on the Mission, and was recovering from a bad attack of blackwater fever, when the Government launch Ruby came in and Mr. Turner, the Eastern Division magistrate, offered to take me on to Boianai for a change. I gladly accepted, as I had heard much of Mr. Buchanan, who had then been on the Mission seven years without furlough, and was one of our most remarkable lay missionaries. I was landed at Boianai, close to the station, and found Brother Francis with some of his boys waiting for me. He was even then venerable looking, with a fine flowing beard almost white, and he was delightful in his welcome and his desire to put the best of everything at the disposal of his guest. I found that he led a life of great simplicity, living mainly on native food. I have sometimes heard it said that missionaries live better than ordinary traders and planters. I do not think that this is so, but what happens is that when a rare visitor comes it is made as far as possible a feast-day, and little presents sent by kind friends in Australia are brought out. He lived in a native house, but he had built a fine church, school, and all buildings necessary to a station. I [31/32] soon discovered how deeply he was devoted to the Boianai people and to Richard Bourke and Luke Papuka, the two South Sea Islanders who helped him in his work at Boianai and at the outstation of Vurawara. To Richard Bourke he was especially attached, and would ascribe to him and Luke most of the good work done at Boianai. He never learned to do more than read the Wedau language in which the services were held, but he was wonderfully understood by the natives, with whom he conversed by the use of a few local words and a kind of pidgin English, which I can best describe as 'Buchananese.' Apart from prayer, in which he had the deepest faith, the secret of his great success in his work among the natives was his great love for them. This was shown, among other things, in his care for the boarders at the schools, his interest in the native crops and gardens, and his earnest desire to deliver them from the power of their belief in witchcraft and other superstitions. His allowance for personal income was for many years £20, and later £26. A great proportion of this was spent on the station or in some form for the benefit of the Mission. I went to Evensong on the Eve of Ascension Day. There was no great crowd such as became usual in later years, and when I celebrated next morning there were only a dozen communicants.

"Brother Francis never missed the Annual Conference. It was a time of refreshment and an [32/33] opportunity to meet other members of the Mission. He said: 'If it were not for our Annual Conference we should know no more of each other than we do of the Methodist Mission at Dobu."

The second Bishop of New Guinea, the Rt. Rev. Gerald Sharp, now Archbishop of Brisbane, arrived in New Guinea in May, 1910, and writes as follows: "Certain incidents stand out in my memory with regard to Mr. Buchanan's time at Boianai between my arrival in New Guinea and his going to Uga. One is the dedication of the hew church which Mr. Buchanan had built at Boianai, and which I dedicated on August 2, 1910. It was built all of native material, of course, and was distinctly handsome and well built. In particular, the roof, made of coconut leaves plaited together, was so firm and good that it is there to the present day (1922), and has never had to be renewed. I remember, too, dedicating a very well built church at Vurawara, some three miles away from Boianai, on December 28, I remember, too, spending Low Sunday, 1911, at Boianai in order to give the Boianai people their Easter Communion, for it had been impossible for any priest to be there on Easter Day itself Mr. Buchanan's anxiety that numbers of communicants and so forth should be kept up, and that none should be absent from their places, was always very great--almost too great; and I well remember his agony of mind when at 6.30 on the morning of Low Sunday, half an hour before the [33/34] Celebration of the Holy Eucharist was timed to begin, the cry went round the village that the whitebait had come. Every now and then, perhaps once or twice a year, the edge of the sea would be filled by countless millions of whitebait. The sea was simply rippling with them. You had only to go in with a net and you would catch as many as you could carry. Sometimes they only remained a few hours and went away again, and they might not come again for a year. The temptation, therefore, must have been enormous to forsake their Easter Communion for the whitebait. Mr. Buchanan came to me with a distracted face, and said: 'It must be the Devil that has sent them.' I said: 'It is rather risky theology when a vast amount of good food is sent to a place to put it down to the Devil. Do not worry; this is a putting of the people to the test. If they give up their Communion for their whitebait it will show that they ought not to be there.' Eventually it turned out that a few, possibly twenty, yielded to the temptation, but the others were all in their places."

"Here at Boianai," says a New Guinea "Report," "Francis de Sales Buchanan for twelve years, in conjunction with Richard Bourke, an Island teacher, lived a life of great simplicity and self-denial. He has never taken any leave or holiday. Going to Boianai when a purely pagan community, he left it twelve years later with the Gospel in possession, and the manner of his leaving it was in harmony with his whole career. [34/35] Feeling himself unfitted for the priesthood, he always asserted the claims of Boianai and its growing band of Christians upon the services of a priest as soon as one was available, and declared that when that need was met he would go farther along the coast and open a new Mission-station, and so he actually did in 1911."

Under the care of the Rev. S. R. M. Gill, the priest who took his place at Boianai, the district made rapid progress, so that a few years later Judge Murray, the Lieutenant-Governor of Papua and a Roman Catholic, was quoted in the public press as saying that Mr. Gill in the few years he has been at Boianai has accomplished what would be a satisfactory result of the labours of three or four generations. There is no crime at Boianai; no child ever dreams of staying away from school. The houses are well built, the people are clean, the village streets and roads are kept scrupulously in order, no rubbish is seen lying about, everyone has plenty of food, everyone seems contented, and everyone seems to have work to do and to enjoy doing it. But perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that Mr. Gill, while doing all this, has at the same time strengthened the self-reliance of the natives; for although he is the cause of all this progress, he has done it in such a way, through the village council, that the people really think they have done it themselves. Thus the results are likely to be permanent. "My praise of Mr. Gill and his village," says Judge Murray, [35/36] "may appear to you exaggerated, but I can assure you it is not."

This is high praise, but Mr. Gill is, as we shall see, the first to confess that it was Francis de Sales Buchanan who laid the foundations which made such wonderful progress possible.

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