Project Canterbury

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

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.



WHEN the old chief died, a spasm of excitement thrilled through those assembled in the house, and under its influence some man, almost instinctively, seized a tomahawk and cut down a woman belonging to Bera's family. In old days this would very likely have been the beginning of a series of deeds of mad cruelty; but Soga, who at once took the lead, respected Bera's charge, and the man was seized, and his life was only spared on condition of his friends paying a heavy fine.

The appointed successors were brothers--inferior chiefs--but Soga, who was the master mind, forced Vou into the background and took sole possession of Bera's great powers and responsibilities.

Soga was about thirty, or rather more, at the time of his accession. His past had been that of most chiefs of his island and date. He had "wiped out" villages like his neighbours, and had been guilty of the usual cruelties and crimes, and, of course, had several wives. But he was a more powerful character than was commonly found; a born ruler and administrator, with strong common sense and the forcible will that for evil or for good compels obedience. He had a body guard of executioners, whom he later on rather quaintly utilized as Churchwardens ; but in these days there was no knowing what he might do with them.

However, Bera's death removed some difficulties from the work in Ysabel, as Vou was willing to attend school at Vulavu, and was actively friendly, whilst Soga was not the reverse. Indeed, at first, both brothers asked for schools and teachers in their villages, but, unfortunately, just then Soga fell sick, and he at once took it as a sign that his Tindalo was offended by the school, and therefore had made him ill. Reasoning was no use; Soga was really frightened, and the school must cease, and cease it did; but he was too shrewd a man not to observe what went on around him so there could be no doubt that in time the great wave of disbelief in the power of the Tindalos which was sweeping over the Solomon Islands would have its effect on him also. And so it did prove, but in the meantime the beginning of the new régime at Bugotu was an anxious time.

It was not till some time later that Bishop J. Selwyn was in that neighbourhood again, and Soga, hearing of his coming, at once sent to request the customary present on his accession to power. This is due in courtesy, and to refuse it would be in [62/63] the native mind equivalent to a declaration of hostility, and therefore be impolitic, so it was sent; but it was not pleasant, as the accession had been signalized by Soga with a fierce raid to the north, in which he killed thirty or forty people, and care must be taken that he did not suppose Besopè was willing to condone a little headhunting on such a great occasion. The opportunity to pay the chief a visit which should combine congratulation and some very plain speaking did not, however, come at once, for influenza swept down on the coast in its sudden way, and for some time the Bishop and Hugo Goravaka (then the head teacher in those parts, though not as yet in Holy Orders) were too busy dosing the congregation of the village where they found themselves, to have time for visits of ceremony. It was a funny sight to see the Bishop and teacher engaged with a big spoon ladling out doses to the congregation of men and women, who sat in their places, patiently waiting each his or her turn for the spoon as it passed down the lines.

When the opportunity came to visit the chief, he, was found to be as bad as his neighbours with influenza, and to require a dose before a lecture. He cannot have been quite easy in his mind, for he himself began the subject of his murderous expedition, saying "he had been sent for by the people up there." The Bishop told him that "sent for or not he was wrong to go; he ought to have had moral courage to refuse." He drew a vivid picture of a chief strong and fearless in defence of his people, but not for destruction, and went on to speak of God's protection and the Judgment before which we must all stand. The men assembled, listened with interest, and made shrewd remarks, and so the Bishop and Hugo went away. As they came out of the house they noticed a flag flying near one of the houses, and asked the meaning of it. It was a signal that Soga's baby having now been fed, anyone might go and see it on payment of one fish's tooth. Apparently it cost two teeth to see this important infant before its meal.

Before the week was out the Bishop and Hugo had to hurry off to see Soga again. He was much--worse; indeed, reported to be alarmingly ill; and if he had died his followers would certainly have declared the Bishop's medicine had killed him, and would have taken a bloody revenge upon the school. They had to make a journey of twelve miles, for the chief had moved to a little island to which it was hoped the Tindalo had not power to follow him. They found him very ill, but scorning the idea that the medicine was to blame for it. A mixture of quinine and brandy had done wonders for the patients on the coast, and as Soga was quite willing to try it, it was solemnly mixed in full view of the chief and his followers. "Taste it," Hugo said to the Bishop. He did so, and then Hugo. Then every man of the little court had a sip out of the shell, and after that the sick man had his dose. It was thus made abundantly clear that if it was dangerous they all shared the danger, and as he administered it the Bishop spoke of how the issues of life and death belong to God alone, and prayed for His blessing on the remedy.

[64] Within a week Soga was about again, and very grateful. He at once sent the Bishop a canoe full of presents, and boys from whom to choose suitable ones for Norfolk Island, and allowed a school to be started in his own village.

Not long after this there arrived from a distance three canoes of suspicious appearance, and passed down the coast in full view of where the Bishop was staying. He himself was laid up with ague, but Hugo had the promptitude at once to take the boat and follow them, arriving just as a crowd of armed natives had assembled on the shore to prevent their landing. The firing had actually begun, but Hugo lost no time. He at once pushed his boat in between the canoes and the shore right in the firing line, and by himself taking the strange chief on shore, stopped the battle before any harm was done. They were allowed to land, and were hospitably treated. Nevertheless these very men went on to Soga, and asked him so urgently to sell them heads at 7s. 6d. apiece that Soga sent post haste for the Bishop to back him up in his refusal. The Bishop told them very forcibly what he thought of them for demanding other people's lives when they had just had such a very narrow escape of losing their own, and Soga sent them back to New Georgia without any heads except those they wore on their shoulders, and, it is to be hoped, thankful that those were still there!

We have spoken of the good work done by Hugo, and we must not forget to mention Marsden Manekalea who was heroic, too, in his own quiet way. When he went to Ysabel he was as other teachers, except that his eyes were not strong; but in removing a creeper some dust fell into them and poisoned them, so that they got terribly painful, and when the Southern Cross returned it found him in total darkness. He was at once sent to Norfolk Island, but it was too late; he would never see again. Perhaps he felt as did another blind Melanesian, who, when his friends tried to persuade him that his blindness was a punishment for deserting his Tindalo, and would be removed by returning to him, answered that he "was quite contented that God's Face should be the first thing he ever saw again." At all events, Marsden took his trial with equal courage and cheerfulness, and did not let it spoil his usefulness. He could, and did, still teach, and he fearlessly went to reprove a chief for some misdeed, although he knew the chief meant to have him killed for his boldness. A man was standing over Marsden with raised tomahawk ready to beat out his brains when the chief gave the signal; and though he could not see, Marsden felt this. But he wanted to have a smoke, and turned to this very man and asked him for a light. The man was so astonished, he let his weapon fall harmlessly. It was done in absolute simplicity, not in bravado. Marsden knew he might he going to be killed, but as he was calm enough to wish for a pipe he saw no reason why he should not ask for it. Another time, when a long way from land on a preaching tour, the boat upset and he had a long swim for his life. Of course, like all Melanesians, he could swim--they learn it as they learn to walk--but it was a serious [64/65] difficulty not to be able to see the land he should make for. His companions guided him ashore with their voices. When he started he knew well the danger of such a journey, but he preferred to do his duty, even at a risk, rather than shirk it for a safe and easy round of work, as some people would have done.

A year or two later Bugotu saw Soga coming to school regularly and having put away all but one of his wives. Soga never did anything by halves, and having put himself under instruction he was not satisfied till he had learnt to both write and read well; a thing very rarely accomplished by Melanesians unless they begin when young. By precept as well as example he was promoting education wherever his large influence extended, and the way to please him was to build schools and attend them, and to keep the peace.

In 1889--five years after Bera's death--Soga and his wife Anika presented themselves for baptism with about seventy of their people. It was a very striking scene. Thee service was held out of doors with beautiful tropical surroundings of trees and coast view, and on each side of the font was a line of people, the chief first of the men, his wife first of the women. He looked very quiet and dignified as he thus in the truest sense led his people to the font, as if he had counted the cost and made a full surrender of himself. The Christian name he chose was an unusual one. He was called Monilaws, the Scotch for Menelaus. It was chosen as being unusual, and so marking him still as a chief, but he was seldom called by it.

However, it did not need a Christian name to remind Bugotu that its chief was now a Christian. His whole life was so changed, so unmistakably turned from darkness to light, that his followers could not forget he was no longer a heathen.

Project Canterbury