Project Canterbury

The Church in Melanesia

Edited by Stuart W. Artless

Sydney, N.S.W.: Melanesian Mission, [1936]

Chapter 4. White Women Workers and their Work

By Miss Ellen Wilson.

"Women who gave themselves to evangelise their sex in the middle decades of the 19th century, deserve something more than-passing acknowledgement. They were not always borne up by the prayers and sympathy of their women folk at home, as their modern successors are. They were not supported by the thought that the extension of women's work amongst women was eagerly looked for and that young recruits were preparing to take up new tasks as might offer. At home, save for a few, they were merged in the personalities of their husbands. The more honour, then, to those who showed, under difficulties more abundant than have to be faced to-day, what Christian women could do in the Mission Field." (J. Buckland--"Women in the Mission Field.")


"If women workers come into my district I shall turn out." This cry, wrung from the heart of an earnest priest, expresses fairly well the attitude of the Melanesian Mission to the women's side of the work forty years ago. The conditions of Island life, the lack of communication, the scant ship accommodation, all tended to make the Melanesian Mission a man's Mission.

It was Bishop Wilson who first realised that a one-sided development resulted in an imperfect whole. If the women who bear and tend the children are left behind, it means that each fresh generation begins its life steeped in the old superstitions. Moreover, wherever woman may be found, whether she be labelled chattel or drudge, she contrives to be the prevailing influence in the home and the village. It has been said, with truth, that at the time Bishop Wilson took the matter in hand the women of Melanesia were two generations behind the men.

It is true that a certain number of girls had been brought up to Norfolk Island, the educational centre at that time, and placed under the care of white women at the Mission Station. By them the girls were carefully trained as wives for the boys who were being educated also on Norfolk Island. Splendid results there were from that training. Finer women there were of that first generation than perhaps will ever be seen again: exceptional women to meet the exceptional times that called for great courage and endurance.

"Were you not terrified?" someone asked one of these after she had been recounting some of the perils they had been in from the heathen chiefs, who were bent on wiping out the Christian schools. "Terrified?" she [41/42] answered. "No; I was only indignant that they should fight against our Lord." Mary was only one of many such. But the number that could be brought was necessarily small. Moreover, they had a sad habit of dying when the first child was born. That the child should die was an accepted certainty, but the mother's death was not a foregone conclusion, and it gave a bad impression of the effect of Norfolk Island conditions on the health of the girls. How then were white women and Melanesian women to be brought into contact?

Now the Bishop noticed that, when two white women were taken round on the ship, an unusual thing occurred. Instead of keeping well in the background or hiding altogether, the women crowded down to the beach and gave their white sisters a cordial welcome. Without either side understanding a word of the other's language, the liveliest conversation seemed to be going on and a complete understanding to prevail.

So Bishop Wilson, in the face of much opposition and the shaking of many heads, resolved to bring women workers down to the Islands, and in 1906 two stations were being worked under Miss Kitchen and Miss Hard-acre; one on Gela (Florida) in the North and one on Raga in the South. There were two workers at each station and, for the first time, white women were to live among the people, tend the sick and the sores, and hold school for all who would come. Very primitive it all was. Classes were held on the verandah and under the house. Students of all ages, from the very old to the very young, inclusive of the babies on their mothers' backs, whose attendance was purely compulsory, reluctant and protesting. Some of the older students never got beyond the alphabet; but to stand on the very lowest rung of the ladder of learning lifted them to an enviable height above their fellows, standing on the ground. It may be doubted whether they ever grasped more than the very elementary facts of Christianity, they did not attempt to understand the Trinity in Unity, their sense of sin was not in the least profound. But they absorbed that which [42/43] brought a light into their eyes, which had not been there before. It brought a sense of safety and guarding Love into their lives. It was the vision of a Home of wondrous loveliness that suddenly brought a radiant light into the eyes of a dying woman and evoked the cry, "Oh, how beautiful!"

The work began and went forward in spite of halts, sickness and difficulties: girls received a very simple training in habits of cleanliness and a sense of individual responsibility. A perceptible change came into the homes and lives of the women and reacted on the men.

After a time it was felt by some that, in order to carry out a more thorough education, it was essential that the girls should be taken right away from their home surroundings and educated apart in the same way as the boys. There was much to be said in favour of this, much to be said against it. Girls are more imitative than boys. Would they become too far removed in habit and ways of thought to take their places again easily in the home life? A swelled head does not fit in very comfortably, and heads swell very quickly, alas! in Melanesia. Would there be formed too broad and deep a chasm between the finished scholar and those she had left behind? The ideal arrangement, surely, would be a station and a school on every island. That ideal is on the very far horizon and never likely to be realised.

Meanwhile schools were started, and are prospering on Bungana in the Solomons, and at Torgil in the Banks' group. Here girls receive a good simple education and a training in all things that will fit them for their future home life. They learn, what they cannot learn elsewhere, the team spirit, and the habit of doing a thing steadily and doing it thoroughly because it is a duty. Each learns to realise that she is part of a Community, a large family of which she is an important member. She learns, therefore, to help others in time of sickness and trouble, instead of ignoring them as is the manner of the heathen. Above all, she learns the privilege and joy of being a Member of Christ, a Child of God, and [43/44] an Inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven, with the Sacramental Grace and Guidance belonging to that Membership. It is these Helpmates that the boys are anxious to secure for their wives; it is these, we hope, who will influence and help their less educated sisters, and whose homes will be centres of light to the villages.

In the heathen days all that was sought for in a wife was a strong worker with, if possible, a quiet temper. To be sure a certain aptitude for conversation seems to have been also a desirable quality, if one may judge from a remark made in the Norfolk Island Hospital some twenty-five years ago.

The Sister in charge had been entertaining a caller and had had to supply most of the conversation herself. This was overheard in the ward, and, on the Sister's return, a boy asked, "Sister, can't that woman talk?" The Sister had to admit that she had not contributed much to the conversation. "What will she do when she is married?" asked the boy, with anxious interest. "A man expects his wife to talk to him." The talk would be of village gossip, but what could be of greater interest? It was the wife's duty and privilege to gather and serve it up with an added spice of her own. The tongue could be used for other and unpleasant purposes, too. One recalls sadly a delightful boy, whose home was made hell by a wife, forced on him by his parents. A girl of whom one of Sam's friends said, "She scolds, scolds, scolds from morning until night; we are all sorry for him." The scolding was silenced by Sam's withdrawal to Paradise, where the sounds of a scold cannot leach, and trebly blessed and restful must Sam have found it. He was too good tempered to be a ready beater, and it is doubtful whether even a stick would have produced silence for long.

What a contrast is found in the words written by a boy, in deep sorrow over the death of his wife, trained on Norfolk Island. "She was not like other women," he wrote. "She never scolded, she was always gentle." Or again in the witness of a present day young teacher [44/45] to the worth of his helpmeet, "She helps me in everything." The wives of the Rev. Robert Kakau and the wife of the Rev. Lionel Longarata were trained at Bungana, the latter having spent several years in Missionary work with her husband on Santa Cruz. The Rev. Ben Hageria's wife is an old Norfolk Island girl, and her daughter, Helen, whom she has brought up on the same lines, has married the Rev. Nelson Tegna. Indeed, the majority of the native clergy have educated girls for their wives, no longer a hindrance, but companions in full sympathy with their husband's work.

A great help has come to the Mission in the establishment of the Community of the Sisters of the Cross at Siota. Highly trained teachers, their school has proved attractive to the boys and girls of Gela, who come eagerly from near and far villages to learn. Teachers also from other islands are being brought for a few months at a time that they may follow a course in the art of teaching, that other village schools may profit in their turn.

At the very time that the Sisters were starting for their new work, a call was given to two girls in the far away and little known island of Sikaiana. It reads almost like one of the legends of St. Patrick.

During the time of their instruction for Baptism under Brother Ini, they were drawn by a strong desire for a more consecrated "Way." The fact of "a native Brother" being possible seemed to hold out a like possibility to them. They remained steadfast in this wish for three years. When the Bishop gave leave for them to go to the Sisters to test their vocation, they put together their few possessions and departed, knowing nothing of what might lie before them, intent only on reaching their goal.

"They arrived at Siota somewhat bewildered, for they had never before left their own small island. But they were obviously delighted to have got even so far on their way, and plainly filled with ardent desires to learn. Their delight in every new thing was a joy to see; and, with they quickness to learn went spiritual insight and [45/46] a steadiness of purpose even more rare. As soon as possible they were given opportunities to help in the Sisters' school. After two years' experience Ann has shown herself to be almost the ideal teacher for young children. She has now a small class of about a dozen boys and girls, just above the kindergarten stage, whom she teaches in a separate little schoolhouse close to Sister Gwen's, the latter supervising Ann's preparations. Never were there twelve better behaved and more interested children, and between them and their teacher there is a very real bond of affection. Marie has rather more practical ability--and a better memory than Ann. She, too, is engaged in teaching with Sister Madeleine. She is perfectly charming with the small children."

On the Eve of St. Thomas' Day, 1934, they were admitted by the Bishop to be Novices in the Community of the Cross. They follow their own customs in food, and wear a habit of Sikaiana pattern, for it is desirable that they should be obviously native. They are called "Ta'ina," the Sikaiana term for Sisters, and the Rule is at present more or less unformulated. During 1935 three others from Sikaiana were admitted (and two from Mala are "testing their vocation").

"Doubtless there will be some whose fears for the outcome of this new development may outweigh their hopes. But there are many of us here who believe this to be a movement of the Holy Spirit--Who we confidently assert has been the Power in the establishing and building up of the Brothers." (Bishop Baddeley's words.)

And surely a proof, if we needed yet another, of the marvellous working aid of the Holy Spirit in every part of the Mission.

While the Schools for girls have been steadily doing their work, the District Stations have also been kept up, though with little increase in their number. The one on Mota was given up, and that on Guadalcanal was short lived; on the other hand a new station has been opened on Oba. Miss Wench, after long years of school work, [46/47] exchanged it for her original district and went to Tasim-boko on Guadalcanal, there to strengthen the efforts of the Rev. Robert Kakau for a revival of Church life, which had grown feeble.

On Santa Isabel (Bugotn), Mrs. Sprott, single-handed, is carrying out that which was in the mind of Dr. Welch-man when he built the house at Mara-na-Tabu for the women who never came.

At Fiu, N. Mala, Mrs. Mason, in addition to her home duties, is doing all that is possible for one woman to accomplish. She looks after the sores and the sick, holds classes, and has succeeded in founding a branch of the Mothers' Union, of which she writes, "Since we started the Mothers' Union here some years ago, there has been a remarkable change in the women, and without exception now a new baby is welcomed and loved, not looked upon as a little pest, as of yore. The whole outlook has changed and consequently they and the babies are better tempered and happier. We have quite forgotten the practice of shaving the babies' heads at birth with a piece of broken bottle--also we do not give babies chewed up taro because they 'cried for it' on the second day of their lives. The fathers at first were sceptical, but most are resigned now, having seen the results."

There are visits to be paid to the outlying villages within possible reach. No easy progress along smooth roads and quiet rivers, but up and down slippery bush tracks, where foothold is difficult and the climbing steep. Tired and hot you arrive at your destination. Mrs. Mason gives a picture of the walk itself, and Mrs. Sprott another of the visit.

Mrs. Mason, writing from a bush village, says, "I started at 9.30 with three very juvenile bearers to carry my blanket and a few accessories, as I hope to stay a week. We started full of hopes, but soon found ourselves less buoyant by reason of the mud. One does not expect London pavements on Mala, but the slough of despond through which we ploughed was beyond words. We [47/48] crossed a beautiful river three times, and each time I washed the mud off myself, only to be splashed again to the waist with thick brown porridge.

"On the way here we passed through a heathen village, where I passed the time of day with the headman, who had a ferocious expression, a button in the tip of his nose, and was fully clothed in a battered hat and a very small bib for his loin cloth. The dogs barked, children yelled and scampered to their mothers, who went on stolidly peeling taro, but after we had passed I heard in surprised tones, 'She speaks like us,' and Mark called out, 'It is only her skin that is different.' There is much up and clown--chiefly up. On the way here, mostly mud or clay. After each ascent Mark cheerfully called down, 'That's done; only one more "up" now.' We came to a few yards of level where the path was dry, and he proudly told me, 'All our mountain paths are like this,' but, remembering what we passed and knowing what followed, I shall never believe him again."

Mrs. Sprott gives another picture. "I often feel that women's work among the natives is to give them a practical Christianity--schools are necessary, but from them must spring something definite. What we teach in the class we must help them to put into practice, visiting their homes, giving them lessons on the spot in cleanliness, health; showing them how to care for their husbands, their children, and themselves; teaching them to sew and make use of the natural material around them.

"Working in the villages among the women and girls is sometimes no small trial to one's patience. Having decided to visit a certain village, you arrive there perhaps in the early evening after a long journey. You settle into the hut which is to be your private hotel, prepare your 'bed' and put up the mosquito net, open a tin and get a hurried meal.

"The bell rings for Evensong, and the service is well attended. A few things are wrong and jar upon you, but you will speak about them to-morrow. Tired after [48/49] your day's travel, you hope the people will disperse early and let you go to bed. But not a bit of it! You have come, and you are not there every day: they mean to make full use of you! First one comes to chat, and then another. And what a long time they are in coming to the point! They are interested in all the things you have brought, such as the folding camp stretcher (if you bother to add this to your small luggage), and when you have explained in detail the uses of everything, you think, 'Now I shall hear what they have really come about! ' But no, not yet. So you ask after families and relations, and any sick folk there may be in the village, and you promise to visit them in the morning. At last you boldly say, 'Now I must go to bed.' And then they inform you that that is what they have come for--namely, to sleep in the same hut as you! You may be able to cut down your crowd of would-be companions to two, whom you fix up in a corner and then prepare to retire. But how often one finds that it is through those bedroom mates that you discover the doings and misdoings of the village. You thus get material to work on, and once begun, endless are the jobs you find to do, so that when the time comes for you to move on to your next stopping-place you feel you could concentrate on that one village and yet be busy.

"One can only say we try, feebly enough at times, to do our small part and leave the rest to the working of the Holy Spirit."

We read of all that has been done and is still going on with a deep thankfulness. Thankfulness for the work of the Nursing Sisters in the Hospital, whose influence is far reaching: thankfulness for the great uplift of the wives and mothers. And then we take up the map and count the numerous islands, which have not been mentioned, where the native women remain practically untouched. Thirty years have passed since Bishop Wilson brought down white women into the islands. Another generation has grown up, of which a small number may be said to have caught up and to be on a level with the men. The [49/50] majority remain as they were, two or even three generations behind. A wide chasm divides them from the educated Christian woman of to-day: their outlook on life are poles apart. Yet they remain, as ever, the prevailing influence: opposed to all reform, they cling to the charms and superstitions by which their lives are guided, and no one comes to persuade them of a higher, better way of life. Surely we dare not rest content till the fuller light has reached these also!

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