Project Canterbury

A Sketch of the Life of the Right Reverend George Augustus Selwyn, Late Bishop of Lichfield, and Formerly Bishop and Metropolitan of New Zealand.

By Mrs. G. Herbert Curteis

London: J. Parker and Co., and Newcastle: G. Hickson, 1878.

Chapter III.--First Voyage to the Melanesian Islands: Missionary work there: Consecration of Bishop Patteson. 1841-1867.

In 1848 the Bishop determined to make an effort to reach the Melanesian Islands, which he considered to belong to his diocese. They had indeed been commended to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the Colonial Office, by a geographical error in his letters patent, had assigned to him a diocese extending from 50 degrees of South latitude to 34 degrees of North latitude. This wide commission he took, with humorous gravity, in a literal sense. And the way in which he accomplished his first sight of these scattered islands [24/25] was very characteristic. H.M.S. Dido being at Auckland, he asked leave of the Captain to accompany him on his voyage among the various groups of islands which gem the Pacific Ocean. This request could not however be granted; and the Bishop had to leave the ship with no prospect of his ardent wish to join her as a passenger being accomplished. But when the ship was ready to start, the Captain was surprised to see the importunate Bishop appear again; and this time he was successful in his application, for it took the form of a request to occupy the place of the "naval instructor," who was willing to await at Auckland the return of the vessel. The knowledge of mathematics and navigation possessed by the Bishop enabled him to fulfil his part efficiently; since he was as well acquainted with the art of sailing a ship as many a more practical seaman. Indeed the Captain of a merchant vessel once remarked to a New Zealand clergyman, "It almost made him a Christian and a churchman to see the Bishop bring his schooner into harbour." What he saw of the Melanesian Islands during this voyage strengthened his determination to visit them again, "should some door be opened by which God may show His willingness that the work should be begun." Accordingly in the following year, (1849) he set off on his first voyage in the little schooner, the `Undine,' cruising about the islands and trying to open friendly communication with the natives. His plan was to persuade them to allow him to take some of their children to New Zealand, where they might be civilized and taught the elements of Christianity, while they in turn might impart their own language to their teachers. In the winter the Bishop proposed to return with them to their homes and leave them until the following year, when he would again fetch them if they should be willing to come.

[26] He went first to Aneiteum, where he visited the Scotch Missionaries already established there. He also visited other islands, never interfering if he found any mission work going on: but after an interchange of kindly intercourse with the missionaries he would push on farther in search of fresh unbroken ground. This rule the Bishop invariably followed out in his mission work, as he held strongly that divisions were the ruin of the cause which all had at heart. But whilst holding what he called "the Abraham and Lot principle" in abstaining from occupied fields, he embraced every opportunity of cultivating personal relations with all who were striving to serve the One Master. He conferred a great benefit on the Scotch Mission at Aneitum in the following year when he returned to the island, by bringing a wooden house with him on board his little vessel for the Presbyterian Minister. This seems a simple act of brotherly kindness; but it was unfortunately made the source of some annoyance to the Bishop, as it was considered in England that he had needlessly gone out of his way in taking this trouble for a member of another mission. Happily his large heart was proof against attacks of this petty nature, as he had undoubtedly many such to undergo from those who at a distance were quite unable to form a correct judgment as to the best mode of action.

The Bishop's remarkable influence with the people of the islands is thus described by a naval chaplain on board a man-of-war in the Western Pacific, which was piloted by Bishop Selwyn in the 'Undine.' "He would not allow his crew of four men to have a musket or any weapon of defence. His wonderful presence of mind and dignified bearing, and a certain something quite undefinable, had such an influence over the savage mind that the natives never [26/27] seemed to contemplate the possibility of his molesting them; and therefore they never dreamed of carrying out their rule to avenge the shooting of one of themselves by the sandal wood traders, by killing and eating the first white man who fell into their power." [Guardian, May 15th, 1878.]

On his first voyage the Bishop brought back five boys with him to Auckland, where they were placed in S. John's College, with the young Maoris; and after six months the Bishop took them back in the 'Border Maid,' (a new vessel, presented by the Australian dioceses of Sydney and Newcastle,) to their own homes. The hold of this vessel was fitted up as a schoolroom, and the Bishop and his fellow-workers kept school regularly. Everywhere his quick-sighted reading of countenance, his habits of order and of forethought, his calmness and courage, enabled him to go through scenes of danger unhurt. All depended on his wisdom, energy and presence of mind. On one occasion when a boy fell ill, the others at once proposed to throw him overboard because, they said, he was unhappy and made others so: his life was "no good." The Bishop however was near enough to prevent this catastrophe; and he showed the boys that this was not the right way to treat a sick comrade, but that they should rather lessen his troubles and restore him to "happiness" again. [The Island Mission, p. 23.]

The 'Border Maid' returned to Auckland with thirteen scholars in October, 1851. The joyful news was brought to the College that she had anchored off the coast during the night; and immediately after morning service a long file of black boys were seen coming up from the vessel with the Bishop and his party. The warm welcome with which they were greeted can be imagined; and they were soon all settled [27/28] down quietly at work. "The Bishop's College," says an officer of H.M.S. 'Fantome,' who visited Auckland in 1853, "is a collection of Elizabethan-looking small buildings, with farm establishments (in the same style) attached. The Bishop is, indeed, a wonderful man. The true Christian, the champion pedestrian, the perfect scholar, the polished gentleman, the eloquent preacher and linguist, are united in him. His energies are untiring. I have seen him come out of church, hailed by a host of Maoris all holding out their hands and shaking his with true fervour, and his lordship having a word in their own pretty language for all." [Malone, three years in the Australasian Colonies: p. 245.]

The next year, to the Bishop's great delight, he secured two girls to bring with him to Auckland; and he proudly brought them up the beach, one on each arm, arrayed in garments of his own handiwork made out of a bed-quilt and ornamented with a scarlet bow. Little Wabisane, and little Wasitrutru (the latter name meaning 'Little Chattering Bird') were the names of the girls who were afterwards called Sarah and Caroline, after Mrs. Selwyn and Mrs. Abraham. George was the name most frequently given to the boys; and the first Melanesian who was ordained was George Sarawia.

In 1854, after thirteen years' absence, the Bishop was obliged to visit England to treat with the Government for the sub-division of his Diocese. During this visit he preached at the opening of Cuddesden Theological College; and at Cambridge delivered four stirring sermons. He preached devotion to Christ and self-sacrifice for his cause. "Offer yourselves to the Archbishop," he said, "as twelve hundred young men have offered themselves for the Crimean war to the Commander in chief. The voice of the Lord Himself is asking 'Whom shall I send, [28/29] and who will go for us?' May many here answer at once, 'Here am I, send me!' " One young man who heard the Bishop's appeal, being possessed of some £12,000, with further expectations, offered all his money to the mission. The Bishop, however, positively refused to avail himself of this tempting offer; yet its acceptance would have relieved him from the irksome task of going about from place to place begging for help. He refused to benefit by the enthusiasm, perhaps transient, which his own eloquence had enkindled; and, though always willing unhesitatingly to accept personal service, he would not take any of the young man's money. Another result of this appeal was the offer of the Rev. Charles Mackenzie to head the Universities' Mission in South Africa. And in memory of this visit a new schooner, called the "Southern Cross," was presented by friends for the use of the Melanesian Mission, to which also the profits of the "Daisy Chain" past and future were dedicated by the authoress.

In March, 1855, the Bishop sailed again to New Zealand, taking with him the Rev. John Coleridge Patteson who had, so many years before, resolved one day to follow him on hearing the heart-stirring words of the farewell sermon at Windsor. None of all the faithful band who attached themselves to the Bishop stood so nearly to him in the place of a son as did this devoted chaplain, whom he speaks of "as a sort of divine recompence for my two boys left in England." They left Auckland on their first voyage in the new Schooner, on Ascension Day, 1856; their object being to penetrate into more tropical latitudes than the mission had ever yet realised. This was always the Bishop's favourite day for starting on his mission voyages, that so the charge might still be ringing in their ears "Go ye into all the world and preach the [29/30] gospel to every creature." Whilst cruising among the Islands to the North, they left Mrs. Selwyn alone at Norfolk Island, to teach and influence the daughters of the Pitcairn people newly settled there, calling for her again as they returned, laden with fresh Melanesian pupils, to Auckland. For Auckland was still the head quarters of the Mission, and continued to be so till 1867, when it was removed to a more suitable climate in Norfolk Island.

In 1861, on S. Matthias' Day, at S. Paul's Church, Auckland, the first Bishop of Melanesia, Rev. J. C. Patteson, was consecrated by Bishop Selwyn, Bishop Abraham, and Bishop Hobhouse. The scene of the consecration is fully described in the "Life of Bishop Patteson," and need not be dwelt upon here. It seemed to all present to be the crowning moment, full of unclouded happiness and perfect satisfaction, in the life of the Founder of the Mission.

Project Canterbury