Project Canterbury

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

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.



IT will now be well to say a little about the groups individually, and it seems best to begin with Ysabel, far to the north, and work our way downwards by degrees.

We spoke of Wadrokal and his wife being left amongst the head-hunters in Bugotu in 1876. What head-hunting was exactly we cannot explain here, but the name in itself tells it was a post of danger.* [Footnote: * See Appendix I.] Throughout all the groups the practice has existed more or less, but the worst place for it was and is amongst the Northern Solomon Isles, and Bugotu was for a long time the station where the Mission came most in contact with it. Bera, the head chief of the district, not merely of the village, was the friend most addicted to it.

In old days fear of these raiders used to drive the villagers from terra firma at night to sleep in tree-houses--curious nests built fifty feet and more above the ground. In his early days, Bishop Patteson visited one of these lofty places of refuge, climbing up a ladder to a bamboo hut perched amongst the branches, with a verandah round it piled with stones to throw at enemies. It was a very wonderful production indeed, but it was best not to make too close an acquaintance with it, for it was even dirtier and more crowded than the average native hut. Still, before the days of fire-arms it was really safe. But when guns were introduced, the day of the tree-houses came to an end. They fell into ruins, and the people took to living on the tops of high rocks instead and making fortress villages.

There was a celebrated one of these for a time at a place called Tega, near the south point of Ysabel, where a Christian chief, Samson Ingo, took up his abode, with a teacher called Oka for a chaplain, and to it many of the neighbouring people resorted, to be under the protection of the chief and within reach of Oka's instructions. For some years Tega was a very interesting and important place in the Mission work and history, but its day is over. Samson's death removed the protection which had kept the community together, and it dispersed along the different villages of the neighbourhood. But this does not mean that Tega was a failure. These Christian villages serve their turn, and are most valuable whilst their day lasts, and when they break up it is because the circumstances which called them into being no longer exist, and the school on that particular spot is no longer needed. [57/58] The inhabitants, if good Christians, carry their influence with them wherever they move, and leaven other districts.

Chief's Canoe House, Bugotu.

Wadrokal was not at Tega, but at Taitahi, a few miles further along the coast of Ysabel, toward the East. As we know, he was an old pupil of Bishop George Selwyn--a good man, though rather arrogant, touchy, and self-important. He was always ready to volunteer when there was danger, and was very much in earnest in his missionary zeal, but he was difficult to get on with, and it was with some misgivings as to how he and the mighty Bera would agree that the Southern Cross left him at Bugotu when it sailed southwards. Bera was about fifty at this time, and a very great man. He was a polygamist, and had fits of extreme cruelty, in which he did dreadful things, chiefly at the instigation of his mother, a terrible, bloodthirsty old woman, whose influence over him was unbounded, and always used for evil.

[59] But though he was a murderer and many other bad things that barbarians generally are, he was not without a certain sort of kingly nobility, and when taken in the right way could be generous and public-spirited; and he promised to protect the school, and kept his word. He had named as his successor a grandson, called Kikolo, a well-disposed young man, who made friends with Wadrokal, and came to school, and upon whom the missionaries founded hopes for the future of Bugotu. But though Kikolo and others were hearers, Bera and the deacon did not get on at all, and there was a great disturbance between the chief's party and the school party, in which two of Bera's men were killed, and their lives had to be paid for when the Southern Cross returned in 1878. Exactly what it was all about it is no use to enquire. A teacher must often be "bold to rebuke enthroned sin," and no doubt Bera's sins needed rebuking. But in many of the chiefs there is an instinctive nobility which, whatever it may do in sudden passion, in cold blood does not resent rebuke which it feels is brave and conscientious, although it will not stand tactlessness, which seems to it mere insolence.

Anyhow, it was clearly impossible to leave a teacher in the country and under the protection of a chief he had so thoroughly offended, and happily there was work at Nufiloli, in the Santa Cruz group, for which Wadrokal volunteered; and the school in Bera's village came to an end for the time, though Capel Oka at Tega was able to help Bugotu Christians and enquirers.

In 1883, some five years after Wadrokal's departure, a great trouble threatened Bera and Bugotu, for Kikolo fell sick. He was, in fact, in consumption--a disease to which, even in their own warm islands, the Melanesians are very liable. But as no one is supposed to die a natural death, Bera was quite sure a Tindalo (ghost) was killing his grandson, and moved him about in hopes of getting Kikolo out of its reach. It was a hopeless case, as the Bishop saw when he returned to the islands that year; all that could be done was to give medicine to make the cough less distressing at nights; and when he went southward for some weeks in other islands he probably hardly expected to find Kikolo living when he returned.

But Bera was a chief unused to defeat, and he fought hard and piteously against the coming sorrow. Thousand Ships Bay is studded with numerous islands, quite small, and generally uninhabited, and from one of these to another he dragged his dying heir, in hopes of getting him out of reach of the hostile ghost. Bera and his whole following went the round of these islands. On each, in those few weeks, they built houses and erected palisades, and went through, in place after place, all the process of opening up a new country, although they stayed such a short time in each. All to no purpose! Kikolo got worse instead of better, and at last it was evident, even to Bera, that the end was coming and was very near. So he was carried back to the chief's usual residence, that he might die there in state and be buried as became [59/60] his rank, with a general gathering of the people to wail and howl for the appointed number of days.

As he had been a hearer, Oka was anxious Kikolo should not be buried as a heathen, and as soon as ever he heard of the death he came to Bera and offered to make a coffin. Bera consented, and Oka went back to Tega and set to work; but it was not to be. Bera's terrible old mother was a more bigoted follower of the old ways than her son, and she persuaded him to observe the same barbarous rites with which former chiefs had always been buried. The dead man was placed upright in a deep grave, which was filled up to the neck, when fires were lighted to dry the skull, which was then removed and set up in the kiala or boat-house, to be sacrificed to as a Tindalo. Then the dead man's wife and child were dragged to the grave and killed, so as to be buried with him there, along with his guns, money, and valuables of all sorts.

Even this was not enough. Everyone had to bring some offering of value and cast it into the grave, and whole rows of cocoanut trees and groves of bananas were cut down, as it is a sort of sentiment that since the dead man can eat of them no more, no one else shall either. Then the grave was filled in, a heap of stones piled over it, and the whole assembled clan began a dismal wailing which lasted many days, sorrowing most truly as those sorrow who have not learnt Christian hope.

Oka had really done all that he possibly could, but it was dreadful when the Southern Cross returned to find what had happened in its short absence. Possibly if the Bishop had been on the spot he might not have been able to do much good, but he regretted not having been there to make the attempt. He knew he could for the time have prevented the murder of the wife and child, and it might have saved them altogether. But this was not certain, as if the terrible great-grandmother meant Bera to kill them she would have got it done as soon as ever the Bishop was safely out of reach.

Of course, he had to go and pay a visit of condolence to the grief-stricken chief, for whom his heart could not but ache, although his office required that he should speak to him very plainly and show him the uselessness of kicking against the pricks as he was doing. He told him he was trying to fight against a power stronger than that of his Tindalo: the death of his appointed successor, whose life he had tried so hard and so vainly to save was a proof of this, and he would be wise to accept the defeat and its warning, and do no more atrocities lest worse misfortunes should overtake him.

Probably at the time Bera did not feel as if anything worse could happen, but later on his conduct showed that he had thought over the Bishop's stern words. When the Southern Cross went southwards that year, though an old man, Bera was still well and strong; but the Bishop never saw him again. He sickened and died within a few months of the grandson he had mourned so passionately.

[61] When he felt his end was near, he called some of the people round him, and gave them a charge: "Let no one be killed for me. Do no damage to the food or to people's property when I am dead; there has been enough of this. I did it when I succeeded to the power I am now dying from; I have done so often. Soga and Vou must succeed me and share my power. I charge them to see these commands carried out." So died Bera, the last chief of the old regime of Bugotu.

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