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South Sea Epic: War and the Church in New Guinea

Compiled by Ruth Henrich

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1944.

Chapter VI. White Troops in Papua

American and Australian troops who passed through Papua, or were stationed there, were at first terrified of the natives because of the old stories of head-hunting and cannibalism. This attitude soon changed to one of friendliness and admiration for the Papuans, coupled with some astonishment at their attainments, and a whole-hearted admiration for the missions responsible for their training.

In the beginning of the war it was appalling to hear of the ignorance and fear of both the Americans and Australians of [39/40] the native peoples. All they had ever heard of these people was that they were fierce head-hunters and cannibals, and until they had conquered their fear, some underwent terrific experiences for nothing.

A party of Americans were forced to bring their 'plane down in unknown territory. Certainly the spot chosen was flat and green, but that meant swampy country. However, they managed to get out safely and began walking in the hope of finding a village. Either after one or two days or at nightfall they suddenly heard drums beating in the distance. Their minds being filled with drums, feasting, head-hunting, etc., they turned round and walked miles in the opposite direction, and were found in the nick of time about the fourth day after their plane had landed. To a person in the know, drums just mean that the people are happy and that a village is near, so these poor weary souls might have perished for nothing.

Some of the native people chew betel-nut mixed with lime. This makes their teeth and lips very red indeed, and some of the old people have dribbly mouths and broken teeth. Altogether they are not a pretty sight. A new unit had just arrived from Australia with weird and wonderful tales of the native people. As darkness was falling they came upon a number of these red-toothed native warriors. Word quickly went round amongst our men that these natives had just come from a cannibal feast and that their lips and teeth were covered with human blood. Most repellent to our chaps, and so the story goes that they shouldered their rifles and walked up and down, wherever they were, too frightened to lie down as they might be the next victims.

A.B.M. Review, December 1st, 1942.

Letter from a member of the Australian Forces in New Guinea.

Well, I must say our Church missionaries have done marvellous work up here in teaching the natives Christianity and schooling. The Missions up here are marvellous. Gee! they are fine buildings, and the Bishop is a great chap. He treats the natives very well, and they respect him and think the world of him. Very clever man he is, and brave also. Even though the Japs are practically at his door he refuses to leave the island. He says this is his and the natives' home and he will not leave it for the Japs, or anyone else. The [40/41] boys, known as "Mission Boys," are very clever, trustworthy and exceptionally honest. Very clean in habits and ways and they certainly are a credit to the authorities responsible for the establishment of these Missions up here. So you see how much good they have done. I never realised it so much until I saw things with my own eyes.

From the A.B.M. Review, December 1st, 1942.

Letter from an A.I.F. Lieutenant who did not believe in Missions.

I was utterly surprised when we reached our destination at the complete transformation of scene--gone were the jungle rain and mud--instead we found beautiful grass lands and verdant hills, bathed in glorious sunshine, with Native villages strewn along shelving, coconut palm shores. This is a veritable paradise and it seems like an oasis after the dark, steamy jungle scene a week ago.

I have not seen a happier lot of people than the Natives here, and it's a pleasure to observe them, stripped of the conventions which form the bugbear of our white civilisation. The Native girls wear only banana leaf skirts, and rightly so, as it would be a crying shame to conceal more of the bronze beauty of their bodies. All of them have been educated at the Anglican Mission here and are beautifully clean. Theirs is an ideal unspoilt life playing in the sun, fishing, tending their gardens.

We trade tobacco, biscuits and bully-beef with them for fruit and vegetables, but even if we had nothing to offer they'd overwhelm us with hospitality just the same. I never thought missionaries did so much good work. They have erected a Cathedral on the top of the hill, which is comparable to St. James's and is much more beautiful inside. You know my ideas on Church; still, I have visited the place just to please the missionary Padre, who is a great scout and has been of invaluable service to us during our operations here. If you want to see something really impressive you should visit a church filled with a Native congregation. All the mission women have been evacuated during the last few days--we had the devil's own job in inducing them to go.

I was surprised and pleased that you know of the place to which I have been. We all appreciate the assistance we obtained from Bishop Strong, Father Bodger, and others [41/42] of the Anglican Mission. I am sure that the New Guinea Mission will benefit greatly after the war is over. Father Bodger, by the way, is one of the greatest characters I have met or ever hope to meet. The man is always on the go, never seems to rest (even though he suffers from heart attacks), and what he does not know about Natives over a large portion of the Papuan coast is not worth knowing. He has installed an electric plant, has Native medical boys (one of whom can perform operations). I could go on for hours stating what he has got. Altogether a fine fellow and I and the chaps up there, for once, did not think it an imposition to go to church.

From the Northern Churchman, March 1st, 1943.

Letter from an American soldier to his Rector in New York.

This morning while away from camp I came upon one of the most interesting pictures of my life. The natives were building a grass hut, and they had only the wood framework up. One black boy was perched on the top of the centre support, singing the hymn "Jesus Christ is risen to-day" in his own native tongue. It was at first quite a shock to me, but I realised that he had learnt it from the missionary. I called up to him and said that he was a good boy. He looked down at me and repeated a few times, "Me good boy, me good boy." He came down from his perch and began to sing again. I listened, then joined him in English. How strange it was to hear this primitive boy and myself singing praises to our God. Truly the brotherhood of God knows no bounds. One feels the presence of God more out here in the wilds of the world, and He alone meets our needs.

From Forth, May, 1943.

Letter from an Australian Lieutenant to the Australian Board of Missions.

It gives me pleasure to have the opportunity of expressing my admiration for the work of your missions in New Guinea. Although I have been unable to see this work proceeding under normal peace-time conditions, the effect of this work is very apparent even under present abnormal circumstances. [42/43] As a layman, my first impressions were of the honesty, loyalty and courage of the natives as compared with those of other countries we have visited, and we have arrived at the conclusion that the credit lies mainly with the missions for their training. It is unnecessary for me to dwell on the assistance they have given us under all conditions. I have also been privileged to join in many services here, both held in English and in the local dialect. One cannot fail to be impressed by the sincerity of the congregations, and it is always a pleasure to hear their singing, particularly when they harmonise the hymns. It is a great help to find that so many of the native population can speak and understand English, and in many cases the standard of education of the children seems excellent. These are simply impressions of an outsider, not an Anglican, who can, however, see enough to desire to help their work in any way possible.

From the A.B.M. Review, February 1st, 1943.

Letter from an Australian Chaplain to the Forces, serving with his men in New Guinea.

Perhaps you have guessed already that I am in New Guinea, a place which at the moment figures prominently in the news. We are camped in one of the numerous coconut plantations of the island, right at the edge of the jungle, which is absolutely impenetrable, except where definite tracks have been cut. The coconut trees grow to a height of forty or fifty feet, with the fruit at the extreme top, covered by the long graceful fronds. For a cigarette a native will climb a tree with effortless ease and hack down a bunch of green coconuts with a long, sharp knife, or machet, and give us a drink of the milk. Some of the troops like it, but I think it must be an acquired taste, for I can't say I really relish it.

The dusky-skinned natives are delightful fellows. Small in stature, they have thick bushy hair, of which they are immensely proud and take great care. They are clean, honest men, living a happy, simple life, and laugh and chatter all the time they are at work. A loin cloth or a pair of shorts is the only garment they wear, and usually they adorn their frizzy hair with a garland of brightly-coloured flowers or leaves, and sometimes cut a pattern out of paper and tie it around their heads. They speak a language called Wedauan, [43/44] and most of them have an intelligent smattering of English, making it fairly easy to converse with them and make them understand.

The majority have been brought up at one of the mission stations on the island, and I must say their conduct and training reflects great credit on the missionaries responsible for their upbringing. They are devout Christians, courteous and polite, and we can leave our possessions anywhere at all, knowing that they will never be touched by a native boy. A "boy" may be fourteen or forty, but he is still called a boy. The "Marys" or native women have been evacuated to the hills, and there are none in this area at all. They build huts for us in their own simple fashion; a flimsy skeleton structure with roof and sides made from plaited coconut fronds--not very strong, but adequate enough to keep out the rain.

The natives love music, and it was a great delight to me to hear them sing well-known hymns, all in harmony, a favourite being "Silent Night." Some of the boys were trained at Dogura and often speak to me of Bishop Newton, Bishop Strong, and of Keith Clarke, who was at college with me.

One Sunday afternoon the boys gathered in a hut they were building to say Evensong together. Nicholas, one of the older boys, had his Wedauan Prayer Book and Bible, and took the service in a most professional manner, even to quoting the names of the Royal Family in their correct order, whilst I followed with my own Prayer Book. They sang the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in plainsong, and it gave me an idea of the excellent work which has been done by our missionaries. After the service was over, Nicholas approached me and asked if I would celebrate for them the following Sunday, as they had noticed me taking a service for the troops in the morning. Of course, I readily consented to do so. It was an action which I must confess made me feel very humble indeed.

So, on the following Sunday morning, before the troops were up, I celebrated the Holy Mysteries for our dusky-skinned Christian brothers, with a rough table they had made for an altar at the end of an unfinished hut.

Although it was pouring with rain, the boys turned up in their clean clothes and knelt reverently to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. I had only expected about seven or eight, but the word had gone round and twenty-five turned up. [44/45] It was indeed one of the greatest joys and thrills of my life to be able to give these simple folk their Communion.

I have since learnt that before they go to work in the morning they say Mattins together, and when they return they say Evensong. What a wonderful example they can show us, simple as they are; and what a better world it would be if only we would follow it!

From the A.B.M. Review, November 1st, 1942.

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