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 XVI. Moa--continued (1910-1915)

MISS GERTRUDE ROBSON, who died in July 1917, after being engaged for some years in missionary work in New Guinea, and who paid many visits to Moa, kindly permitted me to quote her description of the children of Moa:

"A great deal of the charm of the life at St. Paul's Mission, Moa, conies from the children on the station. They are so bright, so happy, so all-pervading, like the bush flowers which brighten the island after the wet season. At sunrise, when the bell rings for them to assemble for bathing parade, you hear them twittering and chirping round the belfry like honeysuckers. A few minutes later their voices and laughter come to you mingled with the music of the waves on the beach. They emerge from the sea fresh and shining, but there seems to be no need of towels for they dry like ducks. At morning prayers the children flock in silently to their places, boys on one side, girls on the other. Each kneels a moment in prayer, very reverently and simply, eyes shut, faces raised, hands folded, and then sits on the matted floor quietly until the hymn is given out.

"They enjoy singing, and have musical voices and musical ears enabling them to sing in parts very correctly. After prayers the children stand till their elders have filed out and then follow.

"Breakfast consists of bananas, yams, or, if times are good, of damper. When the big bell rings for school the children, who have been getting firewood for their parents, or sweeping up in front of their grass huts with quaint home-made besoms, come swiftly and gather round the doorstep until a small bell is rung, then you hear all down the line a murmur, "Teassher has rung the bell,' with great emphasis on the verb, for their tastes would lead them to say 'ring.' They are much like other children in school.

"Their answers are never stereotyped; they reason out things in their own way. Very few white children are so conversant with the Catechism and Old and New Testament stories. They learn writing, reading, arithmetic, and singing, besides a little geography and general knowledge.

"All their work is done standing or sitting on the floor, and for all equipment they have slates and pencils, and a few Primers and First Readers.

"After school, if the tide is low, they go out on the reef, armed with their little fish-spears and iron hooks, and generally bring home a good store of fish and strange-looking sea-beasts for the evening 'ki-ki.' They go far out on the reef, their blue or red lava-lavas or overalls making bright spots of colour on the brownish green coral, and their voices ringing out in one of their school songs, or a hymn they have been practising for service, or sometimes a strange native melody.

"At the evening prayer there are sometimes some very sleepy little worshippers. The rows of babies begin by escaping from their mothers to scramble across the floor to a father or big brother or sister, but they generally drop to sleep before the service is over. The children play about in the village or on the beach until nine o'clock, when the Councillor blows a blast on a big conch shell or the policeman on his whistle, and all fly to their grass huts, curl up on a mat, and are soon asleep in spite of mosquitoes.

"One beautiful moonlight evening the children had a little 'cobba-cobba 'or 'sing-dance,' as they call it in English, on the beach. First the girls danced and sang on the hard white sand, on which the moon threw their waving shadows as they swayed gracefully to and fro in perfect time to the strange, wild melodies they chanted. Then the girls sang, beating time with their hands, while the boys danced the hunting and fishing dances of their fathers, the little silver ripples washing round their feet at times, and the glorious moon background silhouetting their graceful lithe figures. At the sound of the whistle they melted away as if by enchantment. The most venturesome would hardly dare disobey a Councillor.

"On Saturdays there is no school, but the children are bound to do some work for their 'teassher.' They bring wood and water, and clean up the square on which the school is built.

"It is a pretty sight to see the little figures weeding and sweeping among the coco-nut palms. Now and again a shrill cry of 'Basket!' is heard, and a boy with a palm-frond basket goes round to collect a pile of weeds, which he carries away to be burnt. They manage to get a good deal of fun out of it. Every now and then a chorus of fresh young voices breaks out into a native song or perhaps a recitation from the Reader, 'Ha ha! look at me,' or 'I am a fat cat.' There will be a peal of laughter at some witticism, or a storm of indignation, 'Naumi sleep all the time,' or 'Andai he too much play,' or 'Bilo he make map along sand.'

"And when Joe, their Fijian taskmaster, says, 'Now you fellow, altogether finiss, now you go climb Moa Peak or you go swim Naghir '(a neighbouring island), off they fly like a flock of dark butterflies. The children are not allowed to speak their native dialect, or 'language' as they call it, at all in school hours, and are discouraged as much as possible from using it at home.

"The boys are constantly stopping in play or school to 'make fast calico '--i.e. give a peculiar twist to the ends of their lava-lavas which keep them up in a marvellous manner. When reprimanded for talking or playing they burst into tears and rub each eye alternately very quickly indeed with their knuckles.

"Nasona, a little monkey of about seven, lifts up his voice and bellows if aggrieved--a simply tremendous volume of sound issues forth. One hesitates before arousing storms even of penitence in his heart, unless school is just over and he can pour forth his wails in the open air.

"On Sundays the children bring fresh flowers, ginger-lilies, or papaw blossom to decorate the room for service; and they come to church dressed in their very best, boys in clean singlets and lava-lavas--one in a sailor hat of which he is inordinately proud--girls in fresh print overalls; two or three of the babies in hot knitted woollen bonnets and little else. The children know all the responses, say the Creed, and sing the 'Venite 'beautifully. After Church and Sunday-school there is a class for older boys and girls, who are learning the second part of the Catechism with a view to Confirmation some day. The children are easily managed with firmness and kindness. For any misbehaviour in village life the Councillors sentence them to a day's weeding or firewood-getting. One day, when with great rejoicings, dancing, and singing a turtle was brought ashore, a heedless but lovable boy, Aarona, hurled his fish-spear at the turtle's eye, bringing it out on the spear point. When spoken to afterwards about this, he sobbed piteously.

"They are very good to the babies; quite big boys will watch them and tend them lovingly and skilfully. They are obedient to their parents, who have great affection for their children and take interest in their progress. One of the men was very ill, and 'teassher' scolded him when she heard he had carried his son Napau, a boy of eleven, home from the bush in the heat of the day. Mukubi, the father, just took the boy's feet in his hand and turned them to show how the sharp grass had cut them. No father will take his boy or mother her girl to help in bush or garden or on the reef without first asking 'teassher's' permission. And the children love school--give them a holiday and they will all be back at the school-house before long, and you hear 'A cat on a mat' or the multiplication tables being cheerfully recited.

"They have not many games. The bush and reef form their playgrounds, and each child has to help to procure the family 'ki-ki.' Sometimes on Saturday the bigger boys will go off into the bush early after wild pig, and oh! the joy and triumph, the song and dance with which the young heroes are greeted should they return carrying a pig slung on saplings."

In 1913 the people of Moa accomplished their task, long looked forward to, of building themselves a church, and I went over in November to open it.

The following account was written by an English lady visitor:

"With a view of assisting a little in the preparations for the many visitors, Mrs. Nash, Mr. Culverwell, and I accompanied Mrs. Cole to Moa on November 26. The Banzai brought us over very well, as the wind was fair, and we did the trip in just over four and a half hours. On Friday afternoon a contingent from Badu arrived. The village was filling up steadily with coloured visitors from the other islands. Four large booths or sheds of plaited coco-nut branches had been erected and allotted for their entertainment. In each shed some of the chief men and women of Moa prepared and served the food for their visitors. We watched one batch of men squatting on coco-nut mats before two long rows of plates and pannikins ready for a repast of yams, rice, bread and butter, and I don't know what else. Some pigs had been caught on Hammond Island, and a large quantity of turtle kept ready in captivity, besides large quantities of flour, sugar, fruit, etc. The white folk each brought some supplies, chiefly tinned, and we were supplied from the village with turtle, roast pig, etc. We had meals in the school hall as soon as our party grew too large for Mrs. Cole's veranda, and for sleeping some of us used the school veranda and the rest of us had tents. Mrs. Nash and I shared a commodious edifice with side walls of grass, end wall of coco-nut branches, a tent fly for a roof, and a thick layer of grass for a carpet. The bathing off the beach was glorious, especially when some dozens of native girls joined us and devoted much energy to seeing that we did not drown.

"On Saturday, soon after midday, the Bishop and the rest of the Thursday Island visitors arrived in the Goodwill, kindly lent for the occasion by Mr. Walker of Badu, and Mr. K. O. Mackenzie most kindly taking charge of her. A large number of people had hoped to avail themselves of the opportunity for a visit to Moa, but various causes, among which might perhaps be reckoned a very boisterous wind on the preceding day, and the prospect of the 7 A.M. start, had thinned down the number of passengers to ten, Miss McKee and Miss Mills representing the lady visitors. The Goodwill is fitted with steam auxiliary power, but unfortunately the engines refused to play their part. The wind was contrary at starting, but Mr. R. Hockings kindly came to the rescue with his motor-launch and towed the Goodwill out as far as Tuesday Island. After that all went well except for the trifle that the Bishop was the only passenger not prostrated by sea-sickness. On Saturday evening at 7.30 a short service was held outside the school-house. Some hymns were sung very sweetly in native dialect by rows and rows of dark figures squatting in the sand. Mr. Cole then gave notice of the Sunday services and, in the name of the community generally, welcomed all visitors, white and coloured. The Bishop then gave a short address, telling the folk of St. Paul's what pleasure it gave him to be present at Moa for the opening of their church. He proceeded to remind them that gladness and rejoicing were acceptable to God, but that they must be careful that these never degenerated into over-excitement and licence, and that they should also remember that gaiety and pleasure were given us as a refreshment, that after them we might return with renewed vigour to our daily work.

"As a rule dancing is severely discouraged on Saturday nights, but this being an exceptional occasion notice was given that dancing would be allowed till 10 P.M., when all the village must be quiet. We went to see a little of the dancing. Any one in search of good movements for physical-culture drill might well take notes on the Torres Strait Islanders' dances. They consist of one set of movements repeated over and over again to a spirited but rather monotonous chant, and each island has its own particular songs and dances. The men's voices are sweet and deep, but the women's are apt to be shrill. On Sunday morning the whole village assembled outside the school hall to be marshalled for the procession. First came the processional cross borne by the head boy of the Mission school. Then all the Mission schoolboys in clean white singlets and red and white striped lava-lavas. Following them came the schoolgirls, and then the women. These were all dressed alike, in white dresses with a bow of dark red ribbon on their hair, and the effect was excellent.

"The men of St. Paul's came next, and after them followed the Bishop in his cope, preceded by Mr. Cole bearing the pastoral staff. The native visitors formed up and lined the route to be taken by the procession, and the white visitors took their places in the church. At 9.30 all were ready and the procession moved forward singing, unaccompanied, 'Onward, Christian Soldiers.' It was very picturesque to see the gaily clad islanders with their eager dark faces moving solemnly along. They walked in procession all round the church, and then, still singing, filed up the aisle and took their places. The church just held the white visitors and the St. Paul's folk, and then all the others came up close to the open doors along each side of the church to hear the service. The Bishop proceeded with the Dedication and Consecration Service, followed by a celebration of the Holy Communion. The singing throughout was beautiful, and displayed the clear enunciation of the English language, which is one of the excellences of the Moa teaching. The congregation were very reverent and attentive.

"The Bishop in his sermon congratulated the people of St. Paul's on having collected out of their own money the entire cost of their church, with the exception of two small grants from English societies: and on having built it entirely themselves without having to employ any hired labour. He pointed out to them that the need of a community for a building set. apart and consecrated as a church might be compared with the need of a seaport town of a jetty. It represented the spot on which they met to offer their prayers and praises, just as the jetty was the place where all the produce of a country was collected together and then loaded on the vessels and sent forth across the sea. Also they met in the church to receive the blessings of God, just as the jetty was the place where all the imports to a country were discharged by the ships which brought them from abroad. His Lordship also made a touching reference to Deaconess Buchanan, now lying dangerously ill in Brisbane, and reminded his hearers how much the Mission owed to her devotion and love. He hoped that their new church would be a great blessing to them and to their children after them, and that gradually the sacred memories associated with a place where we have prayed and praised in joy and sorrow might cling to their church and make it to each one of them the dearest spot upon their island.

"After the sermon the head-man of the visitors from Maubiag took his place just below the sanctuary holding an offertory bag, and the stalwart Maubiag men and women filed up the aisle, dropped their offerings into the bag, and passed out through the chancel door. When Maubiag had filed through, Badu followed, and then successively the Yam, York, Adam, and Cocoanut Island representatives filed up the church and dropped their offerings into the bags held by their respective head-men. Some of the children had been grasping threepenny and sixpenny bits so firmly in their hot little fists that determined efforts were needed on the part of the mothers to shake them into the bags. Hymns were sung while the offerings were being made, and then a collection was taken up among those inside the church. The whole offertory amounted to over £52. Besides the white visitors there were a large number of native communicants.

"The church is of fibro-cement and is painted a greyish blue inside, with dark beams, and a soft pink outside. It holds about two hundred people, and is seated with very good home-made benches. Three doors opening down each side as well as the doors at each end make plenty of ventilation, and the building is well put together. It has cost so far £160 for material, all labour being given free, and is free of debt. An altar has been given and a lectern and prayer desk are on their way. A credence table and brass altar desk are promised. A font and several other things still remain to be provided. The brass compass-bowl from the Volga wreck was lent from the Quetta Memorial Cathedral for the occasion, and in the afternoon the Bishop baptized three babies, Gaysha Alfred, Nappio, and Elsie. At 7.30 we had Evensong and the Bishop gave an Advent sermon on the words 'Thy Kingdom come.' The village slept in peace until about 1 A.M. on Monday, when dancing was begun very vigorously and kept up till 5.30 A.M. It would probably be resumed at short intervals all Monday and Tuesday by day and night until all the supplies ran out, and the five hundred visitors would then disperse to their various islands and the people of Moa resume their usual workaday life. At 7 A.M. on Monday our party from Thursday Island were on board the Goodwill for the return journey. We had a splendid trip and landed safely about 3 P.M., having all thoroughly enjoyed the share we took in the opening of St. Paul's at Moa."

It may be interesting to compare with the above an account of the same event written by Andai, a small Moa schoolboy:

"When the notice was given out to all the island that the Church of St. Paul, Moa, was to be opened on November 30 all the cutters came from all the: islands on November 28, and there were houses made for all the people. There were four houses made, one for the South Sea people, and the other three for the tribes of Mobiag and Badu, but when the people came from tin-other islands they were divided into three, and some gentlemen came on the Goodwill, and there was great feasting.

"When the bell went on Sunday morning for to open the church, all the strangers from all the islands made a line from Mr. Cole's house and right round the church in two lines, but there was a space in the middle and the people of St. Paul's went through the middle. All the boys wore the same kind of lava-lavas and singlets, and the women and girls wore white dresses. They had red ribbon on their head, and we, St. Paul's people, sang a hymn, 'Onward, Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before,' and our big boy wore a white dress like a quire, and he bore the cross before us. His name is Gayai, and when we went in, then the Bishop and our Missionary Mr. Cole went in, and there were hymns sung and the Bible read, and in the end we sang hymns and the collections was made. A head-man from every island comes and stands near the Bishop and Mr. Cole. He has a little basket in his hand. The people put their money in the basket and go out on the other door, and when all the people from the other islands had finished then we had some more prayers made and then we children came out and the Bishop gave the ladies and gentlemen, and the men and women of St. Paul's the Holy Communion, and after that the service ended.

"On the next morning, on Monday morning there was a great play in the village. We danced on the very hot day and were very happy, and there was capamoury made of turtle and flour, about five or six turtle, and in the night we danced and there were paper lamps hanged all around. The Yam Island boys their play was about spears. The Cocoanut Islanders their play was about shovels. The Mobiag boys their play was about a parrot. Their hats were made like a parrot's head, and when they moved the heads it looked like a parrot's head moved, and in the next morning they sailed away to their own places and the yams that were left behind the Councillors shared it out for them, and only the Mobiag people stopped, and then they went away on the next morning, and we were very sorry to see our friends go away.--'ANDAI.' "

It was a great blow to the Mission when Deaconess Buchanan was obliged by ill-health to give up the work which she had so wonderfully inspired, and her absence from the Church opening was greatly deplored. She died soon afterwards in Brisbane. Christianity seems to have made a real impression on the people of Moa. At any rate they try to order their lives by it. On one occasion a man, a fine young fellow, captain of the boat, came to me and said that he could not come to the Holy Communion because he had sinned. I asked him how. He said that some weeks before he had landed on an uninhabited island and in a tumbledown hut he had found an old tomahawk which he had taken away. "All time on the boat I hear a voice say,' Thou shalt not steal,' and at last I take up tomahawk and throw him far into the sea." I told him that I would try to find the owner, and some weeks after he came to Thursday Island and brought me eight shillings, a big sum for him, and double the value of the tomahawk. I found the owner, a Malay, who was so amazed that he promptly returned me half the money as an offering to the Church. On another occasion, a married couple said that they could not present themselves for the Sacrament because they had quarrelled. The man, speaking for both, explained as follows: "One day we work in the fields and all the time my wife growl and say I look at another woman and I no look at her at all, and at last she growl so much that I swear, now we both sorry for quarrel." Surely people whose religion enters so intimately into their lives are worth trying to help and teach.

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