Project Canterbury

Round about the Torres Straits

By the Right Rev. Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

Chapter IX. The People

IT may be well, before speaking of the work during the episcopate of the present Bishop, to give a little more detailed description of the country and people, and the present Bishop of Carpentaria has kindly allowed me to quote from his fascinating book, "In Far New Guinea." Unfortunately, most of the copies of this book were destroyed by a fire at the publisher's, and it is therefore far less known than it deserves to be. Speaking of the coast occupied by the Mission, he says: "At the eastern end of the mainland of New Guinea the land runs out into a long narrow point with a ridge in the middle of it, the end of the long mountain range which forms, as it were, a backbone from far away to the north-west in Dutch and German territory to East Cape in the south-east. Away to the north-west the mountains rise to unknown heights into the region of perpetual snow. The mainland at the end of the Cape is low and covered with coco-palms leaning out over the sea, but very soon the land rises suddenly, and the hill is covered with a dense scrub, a dark green mass, with at certain seasons splashes of bright red in the foliage. Round the Cape you travel--if the wind and tide suit--and then a course is shaped at a very sharp angle to the direction you have come. Native villages, the houses on piles, line the shore, roof and walls of plaited coco or sewn sago-leaves, or palm-leaves of some kind or other, blending in perfect harmony with nature. Colours of various hues from crotons and dracsenas brighten the scene; canoes are pulled up on the beach; native gardens cut out of the scrub or the mountain-side are surrounded by a fence of poles to keep out wallabies and wild pigs; the natives walking about in the villages, or sitting here and there as they watch the vessels go by, add a touch of life to the scene; the women, with their skirts of coco-palm leaves or sago-leaves, swinging and swishing with the motion from the hips, walk along, some carrying bags of food or bundles of wood suspended from their shaven heads, and it may be a baby on top of the load, or carried straddle-wise on one hip; the men, with their great bushy heads of hair, carry a spear or tomahawk over the shoulder, for a man never goes without one or the other, or both. A little netted bag or small plaited basket is suspended from the shoulder containing areca nuts and lime spatula, a little gourd of lime, a few pepper-leaves, and various odds and ends, as numerous and perhaps more useful than those which every schoolboy carries in his pocket. The men have little clothing, but their dark skin obviates any suggestion of nakedness. They have merely a cincture round the waist, it may be of twisted human hair or plaited vine-roots, no thicker than a boot lace, but of many strands, and a loin-cloth of palm-leaves, treated with heat of the fire and marked with a pattern, fixed to the belt in front and behind. Farther up the coast these loin-cloths are made of the bark of a mulberry beaten out and often dyed with quaint stencilled designs, and the end behind hangs down nearly to the ground, so that it is no wonder some strangers who did not go ashore went off to tell of people who certainly had tails. If there be one who has been fortunate enough to have been away working for the white men, or who has made copra to sell to some trader, he will be distinguished--or his friends will, for they pass round their property--by a fathom or so of calico, red or blue, or white or vari-coloured, or which had been in time past of some such colour, though now the dirt has sobered all down to a dull yellowy hue; this will be wound round the waist, the end falling to the knees, and fastened round his body is a leather belt with watch-pouch and knife sheath, the former innocent of timepiece, but filled with small articles compressed into a small space, the other nearly always with a knife in it, for what can be more useful to a native? The pigs and a few fowls wander under the coco-palms investigating everything, apparently on quite friendly terms till the fowl lights on something, only to be made to relinquish it by some interfering pig.

"From East Cape to Cape Ducie you run along not far from the shore, and the scenery is much of the same character, and then it all suddenly changes. The mountains are still close to the beach, with but little fore-shore, but the scrubs give way to grass on the mountain sides, and the rounded ridges to sharp razor-backs which zigzag from the shore to the range behind. The top of the range alone is covered with scrub, and there are dark lines of foliage in the gullies between the ridges. So sharp are these razor-backs that a man can only just find footing, and they fall sheer on both sides to the valleys. In the wet season the mountain sides are streaked with silver lines of water falling in cascade after cascade, rushing, tumbling, hurrying as though impatient to get back to the sea, their mother, and only at peace when they rest on her bosom. The mountains look as though they had been suddenly raised from the sea in bygone ages, and the water had washed bare the sides of all that was soft and loose, carrying back what it could to the sea that had been robbed. And indeed the huge terraces of coral, 1,000 feet up, rising cliff on cliff, tell of the days when all was under the sea."

Totemism is also a strong influence. I again quote Bishop Newton. "One cannot have much to do with the natives of New Guinea without being struck with the important part played by totemism in their lives and thoughts, and the influence it has upon their dealings with one another. It might fairly be said, if one were bold enough to make a definite statement, that animism is the religion of the people of New Guinea. Animism, with its peopling of the world with spirits, a belief which influences so largely the life and conduct of the people, combined with the belief in and the consequent attitude towards the spirits of the dead (which may or may not be a part of what is called animism). So totemism represents the principles which regulate the social life of the people. It regulates marriage; it decides the section of the community to which the offspring belongs; it enters into the ceremonies connected with death; it creates a sort of freemasonry or family relationship which influences the behaviour of people to others far removed from them in place of abode, in dialect, in customs. All who have the same totem are looked upon as being related to one another, and wherever they go they can claim hospitality and protection from all whose totem is the same. People go to a district they have never been to before; there they find fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and they puzzle you as they talk about them, till you remember they are totem relationships, not ordinary family ones. Men and women of the same totem may not inter-marry; to do so would be to commit incest. A young man will come to the missionary and ask advice as to whom he should marry, as there is no one of a suitable age in the village whom he can take to wife, and you suggest a name. 'She is my sister,' he will answer in astonishment, and you, bewildered, because you thought you knew all his relations, ask, 'How is she your sister?' to be told, 'Ai gugu togogi' (our origin is the same), and you understand it is a totem relationship, as close for marriage as a blood relationship."

The people in their wild state suffered, and still suffer, from many evils, of which cannibalism, which was almost universal, sorcery, and murder, were the worst. Speaking on this subject, Bishop Newton says: "Horribly brutal are some of the stories of surprise and massacre, sometimes with the meanest treachery, the guests at a feast turning on their entertainers at night-time in their own village, parties being waylaid in the mountains as they returned from a journey, and, all unarmed, butchered. Men, women and children were surprised in their gardens and murdered in cold blood, apparently from the mere lust of killing. It was not safe to travel far from home by shore. Journeys to any distance must be made by canoe. Nowadays there is fairly frequent traffic along nearly the whole coast-line; women travel alone and are unmolested, though even yet there is the danger of some cranky individual thinking over old times and taking vengeance for an ancient injury.

"There existed a never-ending vendetta. Life must be paid for by life, and the life of any member of a tribe or family, not at all necessarily related to the murderer himself, satisfied the law. Possibly the spirit of the murdered one could not rest till satisfaction had been made; there was a keen and lively--at times deadly!--sense of solidarity of race.

"Next to hereditary enmity and vendetta, the most frequent source of murder was sorcery and witchcraft. Most of the sorcerers were, and are, mountain people. It almost seems as though the fact that these people lived away in the dark scrubs, their life hidden from the shore people, invested them with unusual powers, for sorcerers and medicine-men alike come from the mountains, and the New Guinea native is strongly influenced by fear of the unknown. The crude Philistine dismisses the whole question of sorcery by saying, 'All sorcery is poison,' but as a matter of fact, in those parts of New Guinea that I know anything about, there is very little knowledge of and less use of poison. There is no doubt that people die because a spell has been believed to have been put v upon them. Whatever the power is, it is very real, even if it exists only in the belief of the sufferers, and is due to suggestion or imagination. The sorcerer believes in his own power, and the people believe in it too.

"The raw native, when asked what caused a sore on arm or leg, or foot or body, will answer at once, 'A spirit bit me,' and being pressed for details, will tell you exactly when and where. Possibly 'many, if not all, these sores have a nagging pain which suggests biting, for it is always 'A spirit bit me,' they say. Often and often in a village some poor wretch, with perhaps the whole sole of his foot one great sore, will sit in his house for weeks and make night hideous with yells, not merely from pain, but also to drive away the evil spirits which are 'eating him.' And if the unfortunate is thoroughly imbued with superstition he will accept no offer of help from a missionary. He is convinced the white man's medicine can do nothing to affect the New Guinea spirits, though it may be useful to counteract the work of 'dimdim' spirits."

The men must not, however, be regarded as mere savages. In their own way they work, and work hard--for example, they do all the building, all the work of the gardens up to the time the seed is planted, the making of canoes, the fishing and hunting, the carving and making of instruments. As Bishop Newton says: "The casual visitor to New Guinea, and even many of those who have lived in the country for years, and come into contact more or less--usually less rather than more--with the people, are agreed in one opinion: the men are inveterately lazy and the women do all the hard work. Those who have been able to see more into the lives and habits of the people know that this is really an unfair, an untrue statement of the case. The men are not lazy. They may not care for continuous hard work of any kind, except in their gardens for long periods; they lose interest and need change--except, again, in their garden work. They are wanting in sticking power, in application, and this is perhaps the great weakness of their characters. It may be that their lives are regulated by custom and tradition, with no moral force, and so there is no result in moral strength; it may be the enervating effect of climate; it may be the result of both causes combined. As a matter of fact, in all that part of New Guinea of which I know anything the heavy work is done by the men, and, so far as physical exertion is concerned, it is the lighter work that is done by the women. Probably on the whole the women lead the harder life, but then on the whole so they do in civilized communities, where a man works a certain number of hours and a woman's work is never done. His garden is the all-important thing in the life of a New Guinea native. In it he takes most interest and most pride. He is very fond of his children; he likes to have many pigs; he takes great care of pets--pigs, cats, and dogs; he thoroughly enjoys feasts and dancing; but his first, and greatest, and abiding interest is his garden. He is a born agriculturist, and thoroughly enjoys the work. The man--if there is one--who has no garden of his own is an outcast and a ne'er-do-well."

The woman has a very busy life, and among her multifarious duties is the care of the pigs. Bishop Newton says: "She cooks the food for them and feeds them every evening, so that they are kept about the village, and do not stray far. She tames the little pigs, which have a bridle of native rope around body and neck so that they can be led about and get accustomed to the village. So important is the care of the little pigs that a woman must take one with her wherever she goes, unless there is someone to whom she can hand her charge over for a time. A woman cannot attend service when she is looking after a pig, though sometimes, when her sense of religious duty is strong, she comes and brings the pig with her.

"The duties of looking after her children and her pigs, cleaning up her house and her village, making and mending fishing-nets and bags, gathering firewood and cooking, making her own and her daughters' skirts, making ornaments for herself and her children, gardening and fishing, give the woman in New Guinea plenty of occupation as well as variety; she cannot be said to lead an idle-life."

Of the spiritual work accomplished by the Mission, up to a time some six or seven years ago, Bishop Newton writes: "We have not attempted to dissociate our converts from the everyday life of the village. We have been conservative in dealing with native customs. We have aimed at training teachers from amongst our converts, teachers who may become missionaries to their own people, and we hope in time that most of the teaching will thus pass through the medium of the native mind, and so be more adaptable to the people than it can be when presented by the foreigners who can never enter into that mind. We have boldly faced the risk of allowing our Christian children from our Stations to go back to the village life, hoping that they would raise the tone and ideals of their people, even if their own tone and ideals were lowered. We have shrunk from 'glass-case Christians,' too jealously guarded against temptation. We have allowed our Christians formally to discuss questions that affect the native Church. We have religiously recognized the validity of native marriage and carefully avoided any action which might tend to degrade such unions by exalting at their expense the peculiar sanctity of Christian marriage.

"We have had lamentable failures amongst our native Christians, and also some wonderful successes, as in our limited capacity for judging we reckon failure and success. We have not been able to counteract the indifference and the casualness of the native character, the lamentable want of sticking power, the tendency to drift which is so great a weakness of the people, to the extent we hoped, but it is far too soon to judge; and there are instances of loyal Christians who have stood firm in spite of severe temptation, which give us courage and hope and which strengthen our faith.

"There are still gaps to be filled in along the coast, and we have done practically nothing for the inland people. The districts, which are nine in number, are under the charge of a white man, always, if one is available, of a priest. To the Central Station of a district are gathered a few boarders, boys on all such Stations, and girls as well on two, where there are white women to take care of them. There are Sub-stations which are under the charge of South Sea Island teachers, or of Papuan teachers whom we have trained ourselves. A couple of South Sea Island teachers are placed in charge of the Station, and they set to work to build their house, a school, a church, and to make a garden. All this means a good deal of work for the people, who give their help willingly in exchange for tobacco and small articles of trade, and the teachers get to know their people, and pick up peculiarities of dialect. As soon as the buildings are ready the children are gathered for school in the mornings five days a week. The school teaching would doubtless shock any inspector of schools, make him hold up his hands in holy horror and tear his hair in despair. The children have a lesson on Scripture or Catechism or the Commandments immediately after the school has been opened with a prayer and a hymn. Having retentive memories, the children soon learn the Commandments in a cognate dialect, parts of a simple Catechism, and hymns and psalms. They are taught to read and write and to do simple arithmetic, and in spite of the incompetence of their teachers as schoolmasters they do learn. Certainly an educationalist would pronounce most of our out-station schools a hopeless failure, yet they do a most important work, and are a very valuable factor in the Mission influence.

"Services are held on Sundays in the centres of population in the neighbourhood of the Station in the open air, and the life of the teacher in his daily work and his daily intercourse with his people is preaching the most important lessons, all the more effective because, though they act the chief at times, these South Sea Island teachers enter into the everyday life of their people, are sympathetic and kind-hearted and ready to help those in distress. Indeed, one sometimes fears that they are so soft-hearted that they get imposed upon.

"Of course, where there is a white teacher or a coloured one who has had some training, there is a marked improvement in the schools, and the best work is done at the Central Stations of the district, where a few boarders are gathered to live a more regular life, and to be taught in school with the local village children. Our hope is that out of the hundreds of children who pass through our boarding-schools a few of them will volunteer to become teachers, for it is our aim to raise up a staff of native teachers, and in time priests and deacons, for the work of the Church in New Guinea, and it is from our boarders on the Mission Stations we hope most--in fact, from them alone can we have any hope of a supply.

"It may be that strangers passing through the village will see no difference between Christian and heathen, but then we are working, not for human judgment to decide, but for that judgment which looks on the heart and judges righteous judgment. Some do, indeed, fall back and seem all the harder to influence, but while we are prepared sadly to admit failures and to confess disappointment, we are no more ready to admit that these condemn our work than that the catastrophes condemn, let us say, the principles of aeronautics in these later days of scientific progress. And we can as fairly claim to be justified by our success as the flying man can point to a successful flight as a proof of the tightness of the principles on which he is working. Why should missionary work be judged by failures, when everything else in life is judged by success?"

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