Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter XV. Moa (1908-1910)

THE Island of Moa lies about thirty miles to the north of Thursday Island, and is some sixteen miles long by twelve wide. It is marked by a high mountain called Moa Peak, which is a conspicuous landmark throughout the Strait. To the east is the sharp volcanic cone of Naghir, and to the west the large Island of Badu. When in 1905 the South Sea Islanders were deported from Queensland, a certain number were exempted, either because they had been twenty years in the country, or because they were married to native women, or because they were possessed of property. These men settled down, with Torres Strait Island women as their wives, on the Island of Moa, and in 1907 the Government Resident at Thursday Island asked me to be responsible for their spiritual welfare, as most of them were already in touch with the Church of England. The only teacher available was a devoted woman, Deaconess Buchanan, to whom I refer in a later chapter. She settled down among them quite alone, and in a very short time acquired a wonderful influence over them.

The people of Moa supported themselves by fishing for shell and bĂȘche-de-mer in a cutter belonging to the island, and by gardening on an extensive scale. So industrious did they show themselves in this respect that the Government at my suggestion increased the size of their Reserve to six times its original area, in order to provide room for their distant gardens and plantations, only patches of soil being suitable for the purpose. The village consists of grass houses built in New Guinea fashion, with a floor of bamboo raised several feet above the ground. I never saw much architectural originality except in the case of one man, who built his house in the shape of an eight-pointed star and explained that the eight little triangular recesses were intended as bedrooms for his children in order of their arrival! The village is, like the other Torres Strait islands, governed by two Councillors, whose robe of office is a red jersey with the word "Councillor "on the breast. They are aided by a native policeman, and have as assessor the white missionary or, where there is no Mission, the Government school-teacher.

The duties of the policeman are somewhat unusual. At 6 A.M. he rings a bell and takes all the boys and girls down to the beach for a bathe, threatening, it is presumed, all sharks, sword- and stone-fish with the terrors of the law if they intrude. Bathing over, it is his duty to go round and see if the wives are getting their husbands' breakfasts ready. One over-zealous policeman on Moa nearly caused a wives' strike. They came to me and complained that he not only came to see if they had the pot on the fire. They did not object to that, but they said that he came in and looked to see what was in the pot, and they considered that to be an interference with the liberty of the subject. So after full inquiry I had to decree that in future the policeman might come to the door and see if the pot was on the fire, but he was not to enter or look inside it, but take for granted that it contained something more than hot water.

The men were fined for any offence against the laws of the community, but women were usually set to weed the paths! Any grave moral offence was, however, punished by shaving half the head, a mark of disgrace which was much dreaded.

I do not know why this punishment was restricted to the women, but inequality of social justice prevails in the Torres Strait as well as in more civilized countries.

A record of a visit to the island in July 1909, about a year after the Mission had been started, will show how steadily the work of the Mission was growing.

"I left Thursday Island at 11 A.M. in the Francis Pritt. The weather was squally, but the wind and tide favourable. A heavy squall near Scott's Rock compelled us to double-reef the mainsail, and there was a rough sea, but we did fairly well and ran in through the opening of the reef under Moa Peak a little before 4 P.M. On my last visit we could not see to enter, and had to anchor outside all night, a very unpleasant experience. It was dead low water and several patches on the bottom seemed unpleasantly close. I went ashore about 5 P.M., and as the new church house was not yet occupied, I took up my quarters there. About 7.30 P.M. all the community gathered for prayers, and I gave a short address. I slept on the veranda, and when I woke in the early dawn I looked down the long line of the broad village street, planted each side with young coco-nut trees, to the conical grassy hill behind, the Peak wreathed in clouds above it, and then towards the east, where the dawn was brightening over the sea behind the volcanic island cone of Naghir, and showing the white waves breaking on the reef, which was already beginning to show its rich red brown in contrast to the blue water beyond. At 6 A.M. the first bell rang, and all the children gathered for a swim under the care of the policeman, and at 7.15 the community met for morning prayer. After breakfast I visited the school, and was much pleased with the intelligence of the children. I was explaining to them the meaning of a sacred monogram which hung from my watch-chain and said, 'It came from Athens, but I suppose you don't know where that is,' when I was answered by a chorus of 'The chief town of Greece.' Some reference was made to the new Governor of Queensland, and I found that they could tell me all about his name, history, and previous appointments. The reading was excellent, though I chose a part of the Old Testament that they had not previously seen, and the drawing and map-making were particularly good.

"The rest of the morning I was occupied in passing the contractor's work on the new house and other practical matters. In the afternoon Soni, one of the Councillors, took me out to see the gardens, which are doing remarkably well. The bananas and yams are bearing well, and the coco-nuts coming on. He had lost nearly a ton of pumpkins owing to there being no boat to take them to market, and I promised to take a lot in for him by the Francis Pritt. In the evening the new church room was used for the first time, and there was ample accommodation for all. Not much furniture is needed, as the congregation sit on mats on the floor. I confirmed four men and six women. The service was a very solemn one, and the congregation most reverent. The singing was very sweet, and far more powerful than had been possible in the old crowded little thatch house.

"Next morning at 7 A.M. there was a celebration of the Holy Communion, and the catechumens and elder scholars were allowed to be present at the end of the room. To my pleasure the 'Kyrie 'was sung most sweetly, and the whole service was very beautiful. We had no need of a reredos, for through the open window behind the temporary altar we could see the ranges of hills rising up clothed in vegetation, and adorned with pinnacles of rock, where the fleecy clouds were floating across the deep blue sky, while the noise of the surf on the reef and the sighing of the morning wind in the trees formed a musical accompaniment. Nothing could have been more reverent than the behaviour of the whole congregation. After breakfast I had a meeting of the men to discuss matters of importance to the community. The first of these was the question of the extension of the boundaries of the Mission, as the numbers were growing, and new-comers were having to go farther afield to find land suitable for cultivation. A petition had already been sent down to the Government, but no answer had been received, and I was requested to take the matter up. Then there was the need of some kind of survey and some marking and mapping of the boundaries of the different cultivations, and I promised to try to get some one to undertake this. Then there was the application of new-comers for land on which to build their houses, as the village has already nearly filled the long street parallel to the beach to the north. It was determined to allow new-comers to build to the south of the Mission Buildings Reserve, along the beach in the opposite direction, and a big tree was marked as the point at which building might begin. Then an intricate point was raised as to the ownership of certain coco-nut trees planted by others before the Mission was started, but choked and ready to perish until 'their lives had been saved 'by some of the villagers who had cleared and tended them. In some instances the original planter had given them to more than one person at a time, and the question was whether the tree belonged to the person to whom it had been given or to the person 'who save his life.'

"Then the united wisdom was asked to sit in judgment on an application for the adoption of a child, a favourite native custom. One such recent case had been emphatically censured and prevented. A woman with only one child had given it away to another woman apparently to save herself trouble. She was ordered to take it back at once. In the present instance the parents had eight children, and a single man of good character wished to adopt a little boy. It was resolved that while the practice of giving children for adoption was not to be encouraged as a rule, it might be permitted in this case on an agreement being made in writing setting forth all the conditions and circumstances of the case, so that neither side could afterwards repudiate it. After the council I took some photographs and watched the pumpkins being taken off to the Francis Pritt in a small cutter surrounded by delighted boys, hanging on to sides and rigging.

"At low water I went out on the reef and watched the men fishing with a net kindly given by Mr. Kashiwagi. It has been of the very greatest service, and seems to be well kept and looked after, although it has several times been torn by catching in it young sharks and other large fish. The haul that I saw consisted of some sixty plump little fish of about half a pound weight; often the catches are much larger. On Thursday afternoon I walked out to the beautiful little cemetery in a fold of the hills, with a vision of brown reef and white surf and blue sea beyond. There is only one tombstone, a marble cross with the inscription 'Alea, aged 19.' He was a young man just married, and his little son is laid beside him. The cross can be seen, so the lads who guided me said, far out at sea. The rest of the afternoon was occupied with going into many details of the work with Deaconess Buchanan, to whose untiring zeal and noble example the whole success of the Mission is due.

"In the evening all again met for service, and I baptized two men, one being the village policeman and the other the father of a large family. I had intended to go on board so as to be ready for an early start in the morning, but as we had some native passengers to take in, I determined to sleep on shore. It was fortunate that I did, as, when the dinghy was going off to the ship with some of the crew who had come on shore for service, it was capsized and sunk by the heavy sea, fortunately without damage to the boat or men, save a total wetting.

"I was determined to get off in good time and had every one up before 6 A.M., and there was a long procession along the beach in the grey morning to the point where the dinghy could come ashore on a sandy beach. There we parted amid much shaking of dusky hands and many cries of farewell, leaving the Deaconess to conduct her flock back to their abodes. We got off about 7 A.M., and it was well that we had made an early start, for wind and tide were both against us and we had to beat all the way in a flurry of squalls and rain, which at times blotted out all the islands, much-needed guides amid the perplexing network of reefs, which are very dangerous in the dark or when the wind falls and the swift tide bears you helplessly towards the reef without any possibility of anchoring in the deep water which extends to within a few feet of it. We came in a new way, round the end of the Long Reef and to the west of Wednesday Island, and arrived safely about. 4.30 P.M., after a most interesting and happy visit."

Some few months afterwards I visited Moa in the wei season for the church festival, which fell on January 25. St. Paul's Day.

"On Monday morning, January 24, I went on board the Francis Pritt at 9 A.M. with many forebodings as to the length and unpleasantness of the voyage, for it had been pouring with rain every few hours during the last week in true wet-season style, and there had not been a breath of wind to dispel the still, airless calm in which the rain fell in straight lines with deafening roar, and when it ceased the slightest sound was audible in the utter stillness. It had just ceased raining when I got on board, but the heavy clouds hung all round, and the tide was dead against our starting, while there was not wind enough to move a toy boat. As there seemed no chance of starting before the tide turned, I went down to the cabin to read, and after about an hour was startled by the welcome sound of the anchor-chain, and going on deck found that a light breeze had sprung up just sufficient to give her way, and in a few minutes we were waving adieu to the wharfinger as we crept past the end of the jetty and out into the open, when the breeze strengthened. Our way led round a long sandbank to the westward of Wednesday Island, but there is a little-used passage over the bank which cuts off four miles, and as the tide was high and wind fair we determined to risk it, and taking our bearings carefully were soon through and standing for the eastward end of the Long Reef. Soon Travers Island appeared ahead to the right of where Moa lay on the horizon like a reddish purple cloud, and in a couple of hours more, the wind holding fair, we were running to windward of its emerald green mounds and bearing up for Moa. We ran through the entrance at 3.45 P.M., after a pleasant and for the time of year remarkably quick run of over five hours, which I felt as a rebuke to my pessimistic anticipations. Moa boasts two flagstaffs, one in front of the Mission House, and the other in front of the Chief Councillor's. I was concerned to notice that these flags were half-mast, and on landing I was met by Deaconess Buchanan and the Councillors, who informed me that the child which was to have been baptized to-day had died the previous night, and as soon as I had got my robes the funeral procession started for the cemetery, which is about a mile away. The sun was still shining brightly as the little company wound along the narrow track through the long green grass, now passing an unfenced garden patch cleared in the scrub, now crossing a running stream--I had taken the precaution of adding sea-boots to my robes--now passing through a forest glade, till we came out on the natural clearing in the woods, backed by the blue sea and white-fringed reef, which forms the cemetery. The little home-made coffin was lowered and tenderly wrapped in mats before the earth was filled in by the hands of the sorrowing father and his friends, and we came away with sweet, solemn words of the Office ringing in our ears. After tea one of the Councillors came to consult the Deaconess. Three cutters loaded with natives of another island had arrived, having heard of our festival of to-morrow, St. Paul's Day. Where were they to sleep, what were they to eat--an important question when food is not too plentiful and hospitality expected to be unbounded--how long were they to be allowed to stay? It was decided that the married men and women and the girls were to be distributed and entertained as far as possible, but that the young men must sleep on board their boats, and that all must depart on the day after the festival. The Mission House was crowded to the door for Evensong, when I spoke of the Holy Communion about to be celebrated on the morrow. I slept on the Mission House veranda, and had, as I thought, protected myself sufficiently with a new mosquito net, but somehow or other they found their way in, and I spent most of the night in trying to find out how they did it. At any rate the net was 'stiff with them,' as the Irishman said, in the morning. The rain fell and the wind howled, and I congratulated myself that I was not on the Francis Pritt.

"At 7.30 A.M. on St. Paul's Day a most reverent congregation met for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries; and it was sweet to hear the soft voices singing the 'Kyrie' and breaking gently of their own accord, after the blessing, into the refrain of 'Lord Jesus think on me.' Most of the morning was spent in examining the excellent models of canoes, weapons, etc., sent in by the natives for the exhibition which was arranged on the veranda of the Mission House, and in awarding prizes, etc. At 2 P.M. the Mission House was crowded to the doors, when I announced and distributed the prizes for the best work. For models of canoes, etc., Samwell obtained the first prize for an excellent Maubiag canoe very carefully made and finished, and Sam Solomon the second for a finely ornamented specimen of a Solomon Island canoe, Soni obtained a prize for a pair of finely finished Lifu Island war clubs, and Mukubi for a good model of a dugong carved in wood and polished. Simeon obtained a prize for some remarkably clever water-colour paintings. Women's work was represented by twelve children's frocks, which had been sent to Thursday Island for criticism and award. All were declared to be excellently done, and the first prize was awarded to Alite and the second to Gene. The audience then adjourned to view the exhibits, which were the object of intense interest for the next half-hour. Among them were noticeable a clever model whale-boat and crew by Avieu, a Fiji canoe by Joe Bann, an excellent model of the Francis Pritt by Sam Solomon, and various native weapons and ornaments, and a vividly coloured portrait of Lord Kitchener by a Darnley native. Some of the bigger boys now retired into the bush to adorn themselves, while some of the women went in for a banana-eating contest which afforded much amusement. Presently singing was heard in the distance, and the boys returned dressed in bright green banana leaves, with bean rattles on their ankles and pink blossoms stuck in their hair, and treated us to a series of songs and dances, waving their painted cobba-cobba clubs to the time.

"When the boys had done their part they were succeeded by a strong party of Maubiag men wearing green girdles and curious mitres cut out of green banana leaf. They were very big powerful men, and gave a series of striking 'plays,' of which the most picturesque was the ball dance. Then they all retired, returned and planted with ceremony a flag bearing the picture of their island, and again returned to prepare their final 'play,' the Penirock Island dance. At 8 P.M. all assembled for evening service. As the Mission Room would not accommodate all the congregation, it was arranged that the singers and speakers should be on the veranda, and the congregation seated on the ground in front of the building. After a short evening prayer and hymns, I gave an address on St. Paul, and then came the feature of the evening, addresses by three elder men on their recollections of the conditions which prevailed before Christianity came to the Islands, 'when all was dark,' as they put it. First of all came old Kaio, who had caused some excitement earlier in the day by heading a little procession carrying a most realistic model, more than half life-size, of a South Sea Island bier containing a properly swathed and carefully carved and painted wooden human body, the toes projecting from the bier in gruesome fashion. This was erected on four high sticks in front of the Mission House to provide Kaio with a text. He described how, when he was a boy, every man slept weapon in hand, and to be a stranger meant to be instantly killed; how when he came first to Moa and Badu and Maubiag, mutual suspicion and warfare reigned where now all was peace and brotherly love; and how Christian burial had superseded the many superstitions and evil rites connected with the dead. Then came Soni, the Councillor, who told us of the feuds and hatreds that prevailed in his Island of Lifu when he was a boy, and of the depths of ignorance and darkness from which they had been rescued by the missionaries who came in their ship with many sails and anchored in the still lagoon 'where no tide run,' and where you could see through the clear water the anchor lying on the bottom twenty fathoms below. Now, he said, the Gospel of Jesus Christ had come like dynamite and shattered all the old evil customs and killed them dead, as when dynamite is exploded in the water and kills all the fish around. Lastly came Joe Bann, who also told us of his boyhood and of the heathen tribes up country, where it was death to wake the King, and where if a child cried and disturbed him it was instantly killed and eaten, and how the first missionaiy came and 'called the King for prayers,' and paid for his temerity with his life, and how now all was changed, and we were children of the light and no longer of the darkness; and how St. Paul's Mission was working for the people of Moa and filling their hearts with thankfulness. Fortunately the rain held off during the evening, and as the full moon rose over the rocky point of the bay and shone on the young palm-trees and the brown houses of the village and the breathless, listening crowd, it was a memorable scene. A final hymn brought the festival to an end., a day much to be remembered in Moa; and before midnight down came the rain and wind, and it blew and poured all night long, making me thankful that Moa is a snug anchorage in the northwest season.

"Matins and the school prize distribution were fixed for 9 A.M., but the weather was so bad that we had to wait until 10 A.M., and even then had to sing a number of hymns before the rain lightened sufficiently to allow of any one being heard at all. Among the boys Malaki and Napau were equal first with 436 marks out of a possible 452, and among the girls Alice was first with 447. A number of excellent coloured maps of Australia were exhibited, each child having done one from a copy and one from memory; a number of recitations and repetitions also showed the children's powers of memory.

"After the children and their parents had taken the opportunity of a lull in the storm to disperse, I found myself sitting as a judge in a long-standing matrimonial dispute, though the troubles are happily only in posse, and therefore it is to be hoped capable of a happy issue. The Deaconess and one of the Councillors acted as assessors, and on a bench in front of me were seated a comely damsel and a stalwart youth with melancholy eyes, while between sat the young woman's unbending mother. It was a case of true love on both sides, and all seemed to be going well when the mother suddenly withdrew the consent she had given some months before, and on which arrangements had been made for the wedding. I had to adjourn the case for more expert legal advice and evidence as to age, and the mother led away her sad and rebellious daughter in triumph. The rain continued to pour down and the wind to blow in wild gusts, and we were devoutly thankful that the weather had held up so well over the festival.

"In the evening a meeting of men was held, and a number of points connected with the work and government of the settlement were discussed. Next morning I left at 8.30 A.M. The night had been stormy and the sky was black and lowering. We had one of the roughest trips I remember, under close-reefed sail, and I was wet to the skin soon after starting, but the old skipper managed the Francis Pritt with great skill, and we came to our anchorage at Thursday Island soon after 1 P.M., though it was blowing so hard that it was not an easy matter to anchor at all. Altogether I felt that St. Paul's Mission at Moa had had a very successful festival, and I was thankful that I had been privileged to be present. We heard afterwards that a cutter had been lost the same afternoon near Naghir, not far off our course. The crew were picked up by another vessel which was in company. So the Francis Pritt once more proved her seaworthiness."

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