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Round about the Torres Straits

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

Chapter X. New Guinea To-day

WITH regard to the progress that the New Guinea Mission has made under the present Bishop, the Right Rev. Gerald Sharp, I cannot do better than avail myself of the kind permission of the Bishop of North Queensland to quote "whatever you like" from his most fascinating account of his recent visit. I should like to quote every word of it, but I must severely restrict myself to the limits of a chapter.

"One of my earliest landings was near to Mukawa, the Mission Station a little north of Cape Vogel, where we spent Sunday, May 7. The spot where we put ashore bore till lately the suggestive title Siragi-kapukapuna (the place for the roasting of visitors). The village of Boga-boga, three miles further down the coast, was long notorious as the best market for the disposal of prisoners. The recognized exchange for a man was three pigs, and Boga-boga took trouble with its pigs, so as to be always in a position to purchase a man. I visited Boga-boga, and was introduced to the ex-cannibal chieftain; he has not accepted Christianity, but the majority of his people have done so, and I was present at a Confirmation held there a fortnight later.

"The Mukawa Mission Station is in the charge of Rev. S. and Mrs. Tomlinson, who began at Dogura in 1891, with Albert Maclaren and Copland King, and they have with them Miss Oliver, who has been nearly seventeen years in the Mission. The pioneers of those early days stood every chance of learning the exact meaning of the pregnant nomenclature adopted by the native for those spots at which his country might be entered. I have read Mr. Tomlinson's diary for 1891 and 1892. The published records of the Mission are mild and reticent when compared with this plain and unpretending journal.

"Attacks of fever, almost incessant, were varied by cheering messages from the Boianaians or Radavans to the effect that they were coming to kill the 'dimdims '(foreigners). Sixteen canoe loads of men from these villages landed on one occasion close to Wedau, and would certainly have carried out their threat had not the Wedauans mounted guard round their dimdim friends all night. That an enemy so formidable did ultimately withdraw, having done no harm, was due, humanly speaking, to the protection of the far less warlike Wedauans, but the Mission party have always felt that they were guarded by friends more than mortal.

"I cannot now enlarge further on what I learned from the documents of those days. It is enough to say that one looks with a certain wonder and respect at the Tomlin-sons and Mr. Copland King, and one feels one ought to congratulate them on this, among the many other far greater achievements, that they are actually still alive. About the time that the fever carried off Albert Maclaren, and for long after that, there seemed every probability that they who remained would themselves 'go out 'in a manner more abrupt.

"On Sunday morning, May 7, I was present at the Eucharist in the Church of St. James, Mukawa. There were 107 communicants, and nearly all the adults of the village were present. The Bishop celebrated and Mr. Tomlinson gave an address. The Mukawan language is terrific; a little word like 'holy' is 'kao'aobaisiena,' and that is nothing to some of them. The sermon was quite brief, but the service took at least an hour and a half. The rows and rows of men in loin-cloths filling half the church, kneeling as still as statues, bolt upright upon the shingle floor, and the corresponding rows of women in their grass skirts on the north side, offered a striking example of worship to the beholder. Our launch boys and house boys, Boianaian Christians from a hundred miles further south, filled a row near to me, and worshipped with much devotion; knowing every word and movement of the service by heart, it did not inconvenience them that the Mukawan language bore no resemblance to their own.

"The worship within, in that dimly-lit palm-leaf-covered church, and the bright and friendly greetings all round in the sunshine without when the service was over, carried to the mind a sense of a people loving one another--and their visitors--from the heart fervently, and I remembered that only 500 yards away was Siragi-kapukapuna!

"But things have changed since then. These people, once so fierce and truculent, like nothing better than to prepare pleasant surprises for their benefactors. There was some important building work in hand at Boianai, and some heavy timber had been cut at Waraka six miles up the coast. The Bada observed one evening to a village councillor: 'I must go up in the whale-boat and get these posts to-morrow.' (That would have meant a day's absence and pay for a crew of nine.) The councillor replied, 'Bada, you need not go, the posts are here.' The arrival of the posts was accounted for in this way. It was observed that they would soon be wanted, and that very day thirty of the people, starting at five a.m., without saying a word to their priest had walked to Waraka and dragged the timber down to the sea and into the water. They had walked back in the water waist-deep, using the sea as a canal, and pushing the timber in front of them. They chose of course a calm day, when the sea could be so used, but the journey included many swims round coral reefs and promontories. For this labour, which had kept them from their gardens more than half the day, the good people were more than rewarded by the delight of their Bada, whom they had saved so much time and expense. An opportunity of doing a service to his Church and his teachers "never escapes a New Guinea Christian. Life is now full of these surprises, so different in character from the sensations of twenty years ago.

"On Sunday, May 14, there was a Eucharist with hymns at seven a.m., the Bishop celebrating, and the church was quite full. The epistle and gospel were read in Wedauan, the rest of the liturgy in Ubir. Besides Mr. Fisher, few persons in the Mission speak the latter language. The work of Mr. Money upon it was of the greatest value, but the Scriptures have not yet been extensively translated into it. The Bishop, though he prefers to preach in Wedauan, reads the liturgy in many languages, but I noticed that he was up late on Saturday night, May 13, familiarizing himself with it in Ubir, which, next to Binandere, is the most difficult of the languages.

"A very notable event of that Sunday was the Baptism of 112 persons, which>began at about eleven a.m. We made our way to the Kamaban, Creek, which enters the sea a quarter of a mile from the Mission house. The catechumens, the heathen, two priests and their attendants, and Miss Gertrude Robson crossed over by a bridge to the further side. The Bishop, the native Christians, about 250 of them, and the rest of us remained on the near side. Behind the catechumens there was a background of jungle--mangroves, pandanus, ferns, and a tangle of vines, with their long depending ropes and graceful catenaries, and more distant palms beyond. The two priests, Fisher and Gill, stood nearly waist-deep in the stream with their attendants. When the service began the deepest hush fell upon the assembly. When the moment for the Baptism arrived the catechumens were called by their native names by one of the readers assisting, and when called waded into the stream up to one of the two priests. A few at the beginning were baptized by affusion--water being poured on the forehead from a shell--but the majority by immersion. These latter knelt in the water and were plunged once beneath it while the formula was recited. After being signed with the Cross they passed on and slowly made the passage of the stream, fifty yards wide at its mouth and flowing fast from recent rains, its broad bosom marked with swirls and eddies. It was not quite strong enough to carry them off their feet, though some preferred to walk out towards the bar, where its force slackened. The adults were breast-deep, and the smaller candidates were in up to the shoulders, and all came over slowly through the sweeping volume of water to our landing. Four, five and even six were sometimes strung out between our shore and the place where the baptisms were proceeding. There was something very impressive about this little procession, continuing, as it did, with its personnel always renewed, for about an hour. What, one asked oneself, were the thoughts of these newly acknowledged 'sons of God' as they 'came up out of the water'? Surely to them, too, 'the heavens were opened,' and they experienced a new and heartfelt joy, and a sense of their nearness and dearness to God exalting them.

"We watched them passing over, those strong, lithe, virile figures, freed from the dark inheritance of a past out of which loom melancholy shapes of evil, entering now upon their new and blest condition, issuing, as it were, out of their native jungle with its wild and terrible memories, crossing the mystic flood, and presently standing among their Christian brethren. Nature seemed to be offering her choicest strength--the high spirit and the splendid physical energy of the children of this romantic land to be sanctified and devoted to the service of Christ.

"When we arrived at Boianai on May 5 the priest in charge was still engaged in leisure moments in entering up, in various books, the baptisms which had taken place at his station on Palm Sunday, April 17. There had been 130 persons baptized on that day, many of them old men and women who had held back from entering the cate-chumenate for fifteen years. On Communion days no one speaks until after the celebration is over, and the church flag remains hoisted for the day. On these days also the servers are allowed to wear the crucifixes which are given them when admitted to their office. These customs, simple but expressive, mark what the people genuinely feel as to the pre-eminence of these days. There are twenty-three servers. Their names are written on two cardboard discs, twelve on one and eleven on the other. These are fixed behind a card that has two oblong slits in it, allowing two names to appear at a time. Thus are shown the names of servers for any day. After any two boys have served together there will be 131 other pairs going through the whole series of possible permutations by the contrivance of turning the discs, until that pair comes round again, when the cycle is complete. The servers never miss their turn, and they do all their work without being reminded. They tell from the kalendar what coloured vestments to put out; they know even from the number at preparation whether one or two chalices will be needed. When the priest walks into church everything is ready. Boianai and Vuruwara have their Eucharist on alternate Sundays. From the village where there is no service sixty or seventy people usually walk the two and a half miles to the other, making the journey in absolute silence.

"It is right that one part of the Church should rejoice in the grace manifest in another part, and take example by their devotion, or indeed I should hesitate to attempt to describe how these people worship. For the seven a.m. Eucharist the church fills slowly; some are there praying, as motionless as statues, for half an hour before the service begins. I can only say that the expression of joyful expectation on their faces is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The sonorous and musical Wedauan language seems to provide exactly the medium that is required for worship. The native ritual, like all the rest of their religion, is spontaneous, never stereotyped; it has great variety. It is a moving thing to see row after row of nobly built, athletic men and lads formed after the most perfect mould of physical beauty approaching the altar. Some genuflect as they come up the aisles, others bow their heads; some prostrate themselves before Communion or after, or both; there is evidently no standard use, each does what his own devotion prompts him to. To watch a youth with limbs that would do credit to an Apollo, with a torso and shoulders that would send a sculptor into ecstasies, his colour a rich, shining chocolate-brown, his dress a simple loin-cloth, his expression one of rapt spiritual calm--to watch such an one as he prostrates himself after his communion suggests many things: the consecration of the perfection of physical life to holy purposes, the oblation of soul and body as a living sacrifice for whatever Christ needs of him. Neither, I think, does he fail to perform what his worship promises. The moment he comes out of church he will be setting out on some Christian errand. He will make, perhaps, one of a party going to Baiwapa, or Vidia, or Gourapu, Gau, Gadoa, or Manisia--six hours' scrambling up a mountain gorge that last--in company with one of the lay-readers he will go to help in a service at one of these places. For not one of the outlying villages that is inside the six hours' radius is allowed to go without its service on Sunday, and the official reader runs no risk of a solitary mission."

The Bishop concludes: "Who shall say what New Guinea may not become if we rise to our duty? It is a land of visions and dreams, of wild splendour, of mountains and entrancing beauty, of primeval forests. Horrors of bloodshed and human ferocity have haunted its jungle glades and loaded it with the curse of Cain. Black and ghoulish past traditions and their present grim survivals hold many of its people in bondage, but when the ugly spell is broken and its fear retreats, a fascinating, childlike human playfulness fills the scene, and the actual daily increasing miracles of grace cause men to bow their heads. Yes, there is New Guinea, with its amazing anthropological riddles, its trackless philological labyrinths, its inexhaustible treasures--botanical, reptilian, and entomological, its vivid, fantastic, yet graceful and alluring folk-lore, its inscrutable tangle of spiritualistic beliefs and animistic legends, and its now emerging glory of Christianity pure and undefiled; and what influence, with all this store of wonder, has it exercised on the mind of Australia? It was in a dull material mood of political expediency--territorial expansion, imperial prestige, and all the rest of it--that we assumed control of this astonishing possession. We are not totally ignorant and unconcerned about it. But so little, even now, does it impress our slow imagination that it becomes the duty of even the passing visitor to try and record some of the impressions of so golden, romantic, entrancing a fairyland, where the human race has hardly left its cradle, and is waiting to know whether its still potential though much imperilled paradise is to be miserably denied and lost or gloriously affirmed and regained-God help the Church in Australia to make the right answer!"

It should be added that four natives of New Guinea have now been ordained deacons, and that four more are preparing for the diaconate and one for the priesthood.

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