Project Canterbury

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

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.



WE know in Marau's own words what Besopè seemed to his island charges:--"At Norfolk Island I lived in the Bishop's house, and there he looked after us, the Bugotu, Maewo, and Opa lads, and Dume and me from Merelava. Oh! this Bishop Patteson --he was a wonderful man. His loving disposition was beyond all thought. Every single boy of us he loved entirely. He took the hand of one and another, and snapped fingers to say 'Good morning,' as if he thought himself no greater than the boys. He would put his arm round the neck of any of us black fellows, and call him 'My son,' and sometimes he would put his nose to one of us boys as if he were his own child, or as if he was of no more consequence than ourselves. My eyes have seen this, and my hands have felt it. [Snapping fingers and snuffing noses are two familiar salutations between equals, consequently they seemed great condescension on the part of the Bishop.]

"Sometimes I used to wonder when he slept and when he woke; for there he was, sitting and reading, and not lifting his eyes from the book. And I used to think whether this our father was ever hungry, or whether, perhaps, he was solid inside, and so did not eat food.

This Bishop Patteson of whom I write was one who spoke softly, but there was a spiritual force which could not be mistaken in his words. I myself have felt it so, as if God put power into the Bishop's soft words and into his love."

Such was the impression Melanesia's first Bishop made on a little heathen boy, who saw him for about a year before he was twelve years old. It was some time before Marau was baptized, taking the name Clement, after one of his elder brothers; but the impressions of those early days have never faded. In that last year of his life the Bishop had a bad illness, and possibly did not as usual take his meals in the Hall, which may have caused the child's wonder whether he was not "solid inside."

Bishop Patteson was denied the happiness of ordaining one of his own "boys" priest. He ordained George Sarawia, of Mota, deacon, and in 1871 was so much pleased with the way George managed his island parish (Kohimarama, Mota), that he felt he might be advanced to the priesthood. This would be a great step forward, and a very substantial help; for there were now many communicants within reach of Kohimarama who could never receive the Holy Communion except when [17/18] the white missionaries were within reach; but if George were ordained priest, they would be able to have the help much oftener.

The August of 1871 was a very happy time to the Bishop. George had over one hundred candidates for Baptism, and the fact that many of these were infants implied progress; for it meant that Christianity was so far understood and established now that there was good hope these infants would be virtuously brought up to lead a Godly and Christian life, which, of course, nobody can promise for them so long as all the tone of society is heathen.. Only in Mota had this condition of things [18/19] been reached. Elsewhere, there were, of course, many Christians, but they were isolated. Mota possessed the only Christian village.

A Melanesian Church.
Interior of St. Aidan's, Loh, Torres Islands.
(From a Photograph by Rev. L. P. Robin.)

Besides presenting all these candidates, George had got a capital Church built, something much better than native school-houses ; and when he sailed northwards in September, 1871, Bishop Patteson fully intended to return after visiting the Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands, when he was to ordain George Sarawia as the first island priest.

But it was not to be. The happiness of that time in Mota was the chief joy of that voyage, for everywhere else there were terrible stories of the cruel deeds of the labour vessels. Of these there were three kinds: (1) the properly-conducted Government vessels, from which there was no treachery to be feared ; (2) the "Snatch-snatch," as the natives called those which kidnapped, but did not murder; (3) the "Kill-kill," which were utterly reckless and cruel. Where it was personally known, the natives saw a difference between the Mission vessel and the labour ones; but to Melanesian eyes all white men look very much alike, and there is no doubt that some of the labour traders were wicked enough to use the native trust in Besopè to their own advantage.

The Southern Cross. No.2.
93 tons. Yawl-rigged Brigantine. 1863 to 1873. Built at Southampton.

This year the suspicions of the natives had been aroused by cruel misrepresentations. Not long before the Southern Cross, with the Bishop and his Chaplain, Mr. Atkin, on board, really arrived at Nukapu, one of the reef islands of the Santa Cruz group, five men had been decoyed on board a labour vessel by wretches who told them that Besopè was on board, but was ill in the cabin, and wanted them to come to him there. In trust, they went on board, and were carried off, and rage settled down on those left behind.

[20] It was while this treachery was still unavenged that the Southern Cross came near Nukapu, and the Bishop got into a boat to cross the surrounding coral reefs between the deep water and the shore. There were a good many boys on board, as usual, and some elder men, amongst them Stephen Taroaniara, a teacher from. San Cristoval, a chief, and much thought of by his own people, and Edward Wogale, a clever, thoughtful Mota man, brother of George Sarawia and Charles Woleg.

Edward has told the story of the Bishop's last teachings to his elder class:--As we were going to that island where he died, but were still in the open sea, he schooled us continually upon Luke ii., iii., and iv., but he left off with us with his death. And he preached to us continually at prayers every morning, every day, and every evening on the Acts of the Apostles, and he spoke as far as the seventh chapter, and he had spoken admirably and very strongly about the death of Stephen, and then he went ashore upon that island Nukapu."

Thus it was, with the lesson of prayer and forgiveness for enemies fresh in their minds, that the master left his scholars, never to return to them. Nukapu lay as it had done when he had landed there before, basking in the blaze of a tropical afternoon, the sun sparkling on the breakers and on the white coral beach, and the dark masses of trees that came down to the shore.

Several canoes were hovering about, and the Bishop collected a party to go in the boat with him--the Rev. Joseph Atkin, Stephen Taroaniara, John Ngongono from Mota, and one more. Things seemed not altogether satisfactory, but Bishop Patteson's principle was that it made people trustworthy to trust them; so he got into one of the native canoes and went ashore in it, leaving his own boat outside the reef. The boat and some of the canoes drifted about together for about half an hour, during which there was some talk, and the natives did not seem unfriendly, until suddenly a man stood up in one of the canoes and shot an arrow into the mission boat. Apparently it was a signal, for at once the other natives began to shoot, crying out as they did so: "This for New Zealand man" (Mr. Atkin); "This for Bauro man" (Stephen); "(This for Mota man" (John).

The boat pulled back at once, but not in time. John's cap was nailed to his head, Mr. Atkin had an arrow in his shoulder, whilst poor Stephen lay in the bottom of the boat with six arrows in chest and shoulders. Two hours from the time they left the ship they reached it again, and were helped on board, Mr. Brooke, the other white clergyman, attending to the wounded.

But Mr. Atkin could not give in yet, and when the sharp bone-tipped arrow had been drawn out, he prepared to go back and seek his Bishop. He must go, he felt, as no one else knew the one place where the reef could be crossed. He picked his boat's crew, calling, amongst others, two boys of about fifteen, Joe Watè, his own godson and namesake, from Saa, in Mala, and Charles Sapibuana, a native of the Floridas.

Nukapu Island.
(From a Sketch by the Rev. A. Penny.)]

[22]"Joe said to me and Sapi," writes little Watè, "'We are going to look for the Bishop? Are you two afraid?'

"'No, why should I be afraid?'

"'Very well, then, you two go and get food for yourselves, and bring a breaker full of water for us all, for we shall have to lie on our oars a long time to-day.'"

So they started, but there was a long waiting before the tide was high enough for them to cross the reef, and they watched the shore carefully through a glass, and saw people moving to and fro on it. At last they could cross, and then they saw two canoes coming out towards them. One cast off the other, and went back. The other, which had something on it wrapped from sight in native matting, drifted towards them, and they went to meet it.

As they lifted that something into their boat, a yell went up from the shore, and canoes put out to secure the now empty one as it drifted away. The boat rowed back to the ship, and as it came alongside only two words were spoken: "The body." They lifted it on board, still wrapped in native matting, which had been drawn together at the head and feet. A placid smile was on the face, and a palm branch with five knots tied in it was fastened over the breast. There were five wounds, but one at the back of the head, where the skull had been shattered by some heavy instrument, had clearly been the first and instantaneously fatal one. The other four were merely marks to tell the same story as the knots--that the deed was in revenge for five lives; for though, as it proved, the five kidnapped men were not all dead, their friends fully believed they were.

It was clear there had been a party on the shore who, disapproving of the murder, though they could not prevent it, dressed the body reverently and restored it to the friends. We can but say, with Fisher Young, "Poor Santa Cruz people!"

The sweet, calm smile helped the stricken party on board. Though they felt orphaned, they did not give way to despair or grieve for him so suddenly called away in the midst of his work. But they could not look on his face for long. Next morning the body was committed to the deep, Joseph Atkin reading the Burial Service.

There might, perhaps, have been hope of Mr. Atkin's recovery if he had been able to take care of himself at once, as white men are not nearly so subject to lockjaw as South Sea Islanders. At any rate, at first he seemed in no more danger than John Ngongono, and not nearly so ill as Stephen. It was at once evident that Stephen was mortally wounded, for besides the danger of lockjaw, one of the arrows had pierced the lung and broken there. When first he came on board he said to Mr. Brooke, who was taking out the arrows, "We two Besopè," meaning they shared the same fate; and he quietly settled himself to prepare for death, reading his Mota Gospel and Prayer Book as he lay, and talking to those around him in a way [22/23] that deeply impressed little Watè, who waited on him tenderly. John was doing well, and eventually he recovered.

Mr. Atkin went on, not knowing what was before himself, till Sunday brought certainty. Whilst administering the Holy Communion he hesitated and could not pronounce some of the words, and the Mota men looked at one another in dismay, knowing the sign only too well. He knew it, too, and spoke to his godson: "Stephen and I are going to follow the Bishop. Who is to speak to those of your country?" "I do not know." He did not know then, but he has since shown that the lesson of that terrible voyage was not wasted on him.

When the only two teachers who understood the language of his country were thus removed, there was for a long time no one who could "speak to them." But since he has been old enough to do so, Joe Watè has spoken with effect to his own countrymen at Saa--a particularly difficult post--and he has now been a deacon for some years.

[24] The other little lad who went in the boat was Charles Sapibuana, who later on served not long, but very excellently, the Church in his island home at Lango, in Florida. It was as if these two children had caught the torch from the dying hands of their elders, and had never let it be extinguished.

On St. Matthew's Day, the waves that wash his beloved islands had closed over the Bishop; on St. Michael's Day, they received the bodies of the young New Zealand clergyman and the Melanesian teacher; and then, just stopping at Mota to leave John Ngongono to be nursed at home, the Southern Cross sped on with flag half-mast, to tell the College at Norfolk Island that "the Lord had taken their master from their head."

Clement Marau gives in a few touches a sketch of the College on that day of its orphanhood. "When the news came that the Bishop and those two good men with him were dead, how greatly, how strangely, the feelings of this place were moved. Grief crushed down and utterly overwhelmed men's feelings. We had been joyfully expecting them (for the vessel had been seen coming in), and now all was lost, and grief for those three rose to a height and pressed upon us. For my part, because I did not yet quite understand things, I thought, 'Alas! I am here for ever,' which added wonderfully to my grief; and I think other boys felt the same. And continually I saw the clergy--Codrington, and Palmer, and Bice--standing in Bishop Patteson's room, sorrowful, and talking together about what should be done; and when the day was far advanced, we were all arranged according to our islands in the various houses, and the Rev. R. Codrington was the head of us, above all."

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