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In the Isles of the Sea: The Story of Fifty Years in Melanesia

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.

[1] In the Isles of the Sea.



SIXTY or seventy years ago, when there was no compulsory education in England, people used to speak of "the Cannibal Islands" as if that were a geographical term. Melanesia was one section of that vague region, and it was in the Southern Hemisphere. People who knew that much were apt to consider they knew a good deal; but we have got further, and need to know more.

Take a map of Australia and look at the islands nearest it to eastward, and you will find a chain of groups following the trend of the Australian coast, though some eight hundred miles distant from it. Beginning at the South, we come to

(I) The Loyalty Islands,
(2) The New Hebrides,
(3) The Banks Islands,
(4) The Torres Islands,
(5) Santa Cruz, with the Reef Islands and the Duff Group,
(6) The Solomon Islands, and then New Guinea far to the north.

These six groups are Melanesia, and fifty-two years ago it was entirely heathen,
and very largely cannibal.

This is how the change began. In 1841 England awoke to its duty to its rapidly extending empire, and sent out a Bishop to take charge of New Zealand. This was in itself an enormous diocese; but this charge was added to it, "the South-West Pacific Islands will look to New Zealand for the light of the Gospel," and the first Bishop chosen for the post was not one to shirk any responsibility laid on him.

Bishop George Selwyn was the right man for the gigantic task. He was in the prime of life, an Etonian of the most manly as well as of the most earnestly religious type. He was a good oar, could swim and walk splendidly, and all his natural gifts were called out in his great work. He and Mrs. Selwyn reached Auckland, which was to be their home for many years, in May, 1842, but for the first six years there was so much to do in New Zealand itself that it was not till 1848 he was able to visit the Islands of the Sea. That year he got a passage in H.M.S. Dido; next year he sailed in the Undine. Even then he could only visit a few, and he made the voyage over [1/2] those many miles of stormy sea in a little schooner of twenty-one tons, fit for his cruises along the coast of New Zealand, but not in the least suitable for crossing the Pacific from Auckland to Melanesia. But the good hand of his God was upon him, and he came home safely, and went again and again, bringing more and more lads back with him that they might see New Zealand and hear of Christ, and getting better known and trusted each time he went there.

George Augustus Selwyn.
Bishop of New Zealand, 1841 to 1867; Bishop of Lichfield, 1867 to 1878.
Founded the Melanesian Mission, 1849.

(After Portrait in Canon Curteis' "Life of the Bishop,' by permission of the Publishers,
Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd

The lads were brought to share the training in the Maori College near Auckland, and in the hope that they might in time return to their homes to season the lump of Melanesian population with the salt of good example and true teaching.

There were several reasons for adopting this plan of action. (1) A very unhealthy climate, in which it was unlikely a white man could live long fit for vigorous work. (2) A great number of islands living in such mutual fear and distrust of each other as [2/3] to hold very little communication, so that if the work was to be done by white teachers an enormous number of these would be necessary. (3) A vast number of languages; each island, and in large islands each district, having its own. For these reasons the only practicable plan seemed to be to spread the Gospel in the Islands by native teachers (developing in time into a native ministry) and guided by white clergy. As he expressed it, the Bishop wanted a Black Net floated by White Corks, and on these lines the Melanesian Mission has been worked from its first day until the present.

The Undine.
A Schooner of 21 tons. 1949 to 1857. Built at Auckland.

This little sketch aims at being the Story of the Net and what it has caught, not a Biography of the Corks. There are most interesting biographies of these to be read by those who are interested in the subject. ["Life and Episcopate of G. A. Selwyn, D.D.," by Preb. Tucker. " Life of John Coleridge Patteson," by C. M. Yonge. "Story of a Fellow Soldier," by the present Writer (a short account, intended for children and the uneducated). "Bishop John. Selwyn," by Rev. F. D. How. "History of the Melanesian Mission," by Mrs. Armstrong.]

And what sort of people are the Melanesians? In stature they are rather under our average, in colour they vary from a very light brown to a deep chocolate. In some parts they have cannibal traditions, but not in all. They are generally polygamists; but this, too, is not universal. They are quick and fiery in temper, not generally cruel to each other, but indifferent to the suffering of animals, and given to infanticide. They are as fond of their elder children as other parents, but they think no more of not allowing babies to live than if they were kittens or puppies. They have very little definite religion, but much fear of Tindalos and the ghosts of their heroes or ancestors, whom they believe to roam the world with both the power and the will to harm them. Their chief law is "a life for a life." On the other hand, they are fairly truthful and fairly honest; light-hearted and merry, they readily get fond of those whom they trust and who are kind to them, and they have a natural courtesy and the instincts of gentlemen to an extent which makes their manners very good Intellectually they have good brain power, but it is the exception for them to be much interested in book-learning, except for the sake of religion.

[4] It was always Bishop G. A. Selwyn's plan to avoid scandalizing the heathen by letting them. see the differences between Christians, consequently, where he found other Denominations (such as Presbyterians) established, he left that place to them and moved on, if possible, himself to places where the need was greater. He could not himself occupy nearly all the ground of which he was in charge, and he felt that even imperfect doctrinal teaching with a Christian rule of life is a great advance on heathenism.

Sometimes in his voyages he would secure not only a boy, but his betrothed wife. Betrothal takes place very early in the islands, and is usually arranged as a matter of business by the parents without any sentiment on the young people's part. But they get to care for each other in time, and it is such a dreadful drawback to a thoughtful Christian youth to have an ignorant heathen wife that it was a great advantage to bring both to New Zealand. When he had got a young lady on board it used to be funny to see the Bishop turn dressmaker for her benefit, as, of course, she could not be allowed to land or live in New Zealand in the very scanty attire sufficient both for health and decency in the tropical islands.

It was impossible to keep these children of the Sun in New Zealand in the winter. It is so much colder than Melanesia that, however warmly clad, they were terribly apt, even in the warm months, to sicken and die. They are very consumptive, and, moreover, are extremely susceptible to epidemics. They catch everything, and have it badly as a rule, and there have been many terrible times when some disease was sweeping through the school, and threatening to carry them off wholesale. When a boy or girl did die, there was, besides the sorrow of losing him or her, the dread of how the non-return (which might be regarded by the parents as a breach of faith on the Bishop's part) would affect the island from which they came.

It was unfortunate that their extreme delicacy made it necessary to take the lads back every few months into their heathen surroundings, for it often would prove that "the birds of the air devoured" the good seed the Missionaries had hoped would take root in their hearts, and many sank back to their old life. Still, throughout there were some bright examples, and some of the deaths so grieved over were very happy deaths, though they ended the immediate hopes for the island from which the individual came that had centred on him.

One of Bishop G. A. Selwyn's early converts, who lasted down into the present day, was a thoughtful and somewhat fanatical lad from Nengoné, named Mano Wadrokal. But in his New Zealand days, Melanesia could only be a secondary consideration to Bishop G. Selwyn, and the number of islanders affected by his teaching was necessarily very small. Till 1854 there was not even a Missionary set apart for Melanesia, so the wonder is that so much work was done, not that it was not more.

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