Project Canterbury

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

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.



THE map of the Bugotu district is very puzzling, there are so few names compared with the number of the crosses marking the site of Christian School Chapels. All round the south-eastern corner of Ysabel there is a fringe of these crosses, and we read of the Christians at Sepi, Vulavu, Pirihadi, &c., but cannot identify each on the map. In fact this is very much the case all about the islands. The villages are built of bamboo and similar materials, which soon wear out, and they are not always rebuilt on the same spot.

The people are often moving about, and are of a nomadic tendency for various reasons; partly from the occurrence of a raid or the fear of one which would equally scatter the people; partly, again, from the necessity of being near their gardens--their sole dependence for food--which tend to move further away as the new ground gets cleared, and the old is allowed to lie fallow; or a quarrel may break up a village, or the situation may prove unhealthy and it may be better to alter it. The people are not lost to the Church, but it is hard for anyone who does not know the place by actual experience to say exactly in which village along that coast certain events happened. It does not really matter, however. Soga has wandered a good deal. At one time he moved his whole following to Vitoria, an island where he thought they would be more out of reach of the head-hunters, and live more at ease. It lay half-a-mile from the mainland and contained the general living houses and canoe houses of his people, and a hundred and fifty yards away across a reef was a rock which he fortified, surrounding with a wall the crowded huts in which he and his people slept and their valuables were stored. But after a time he had to move again, for it proved very unhealthy. It was swampy, and the people became fever stricken, and a good many of them died. It was a great disappointment to Soga after making his village so secure to have to move once more, but there was nothing else to be done, and he and Anika spent the last years of their life together at the new village of Sepi.

This failure to choose suitable sites for villages is in its way a sign of progress. They knew how to choose a situation in the old days when the one point to be considered was whether it was defensible. In old days everybody was so afraid of his and her neighbour, that nobody dared live on the open beach, where they might be murdered easily. It was so unsafe that they went inland and hid amongst the trees [66/67] long after they left off living actually in them. Now all this is no longer necessary, and they like the convenience of being near the sea. But they have no experience to tell them of the danger of river banks or steaming mud flats, and as they have always been accustomed to lay every illness to the spite of an enemy, it does not readily occur to them, even now, that the enemy who is killing them may be poison from a fever swamp, which could be defeated by leaving the place. Change of air is, as we have seen, a great remedy of theirs, although they explain in a superstitious manner the fact that it often does good.

Village of Sepi, Ysabel, Solomon Islands, with Soga.
(From a Photograph by Bishop Montgomery.)

Sepi is fairly healthy, but at one time a returned labourer brought whooping cough from the plantations. This produced a very serious epidemic, and caused many deaths, literally decimating the population. One who died was little Agnes, the only daughter of the chief and his wife, and the darling of their hearts.

"My Father.--I cannot write a long letter to you, because grief has come to me, for my child is dead with me, and I continue wretched. I have not done anything [67/68] against God." Such were the pathetic words in which Soga told the Bishop of the loss, which evidently he felt seemed like punishment.

When some time later Dr. Welchman touched there in the Southern Cross, Soga and Anika were still mourning most bitterly. They had not cut their hair and had hardly washed since the little girl died; they wore nothing but their oldest rags, and leaving their own nice house, they had gone to live in the canoe house in great discomfort.

The little grave was a sad sight, with Agnes' clothes and all her little treasures hung round it, even to a card of buttons, which had been given her to make a necklace of some day.

The poor mother was almost broken-hearted, and Soga was unhappy and despondent. "His child was dead, his people were falling ill every day, and dying all through the district." It was beyond human aid, both from the nature of the sickness as well as the number of cases and the area over which they were scattered. Only one thing could be done. A day of fasting and prayer was ordered. Soga roused at the idea and sent out his men to call all the teachers for counsel. The day was fixed, the instructions given, and every Christian was summoned to take part. They observed the day with jealous strictness. From sunset to sunset no fire smoked in Bugotu. As had been directed, they partook of no food, but in addition they abstained from water, and also they did not smoke nor chew betel--two things which are the very life of a Solomon Islander. "These are food to us," they said. Most did not even bathe. The churches were thronged throughout the day, and countless prayers went up from hearts strong in faith to the Father, Who alone could succour His children. Alms were laid on the table of the school chapels or offered at the altar. In heathen days there would have been a "religious service," it is true, but it would have taken the form of a raid and the shedding of much human blood to avert the evil. Now it was all Christian Prayer, and even the heathen who lived near and were affected by the disease kept the fast and collected their alms, and, we will hope, prayed also, though they could not join in the public prayers of the Church. And the plague was stayed. From that day there was no new case, the sick began to mend, some even who had been thought to be past hope, recovered, and the two or three who did actually die after the day, were moribund when the Fast began. It was a great day for Bugotu. Soga was raised from despair and took his place again.

Soga was a man of many interests, and took statesmanlike views about managing the people and matters for which he was responsible. He was keenly interested in the translation of St. Luke's Gospel into the Bugotu dialect, and gave most valuable help in the work. He was very anxious it should be translated into really good Bugotu, not merely into what would do; and though at the time the work was going on he was building a new house, and was therefore specially busy, he gave up some time every evening to translation. Then, thinking that was not enough, he took to [68/69] coming in the morning also, and would even sometimes propose a third sitting in the afternoon; so anxious was he to get a great deal done during the few weeks which were all his friends could stay with him.

When at last, with all this help, the translation of the Prodigal Son was completed, it was read aloud to him, and he was so delighted that he laughed aloud, approvingly, saying "That is good! very good! "The meaning of it seemed to burst upon him as if it were new when he heard it thus in his own language.

At first, when he gave up putting people to death for every offence, some of them were inclined to take advantage. For instance, a man who had been guilty of several thefts, and had impudently denied them, disregarded repeated summonses to appear for trial by the chief. Soga was anxious not to be severe--he had done so many cruel things in his time that he hated having to punish anybody. But it is a chief's duty to rule with diligence, and he must be obeyed. At last, therefore, he sent a strong armed party, who surrounded the man's house, took out of it everything that belonged to his mother or anybody but himself, and then burnt it. The offender they brought back an unbound prisoner to the chief's presence. He was terribly frightened as well as surprised, and did not know what Soga was going to do with him. He was thankful to find he escaped with his life, though he was heavily fined and dismissed with a caution. Soga said: "I had to punish him, but he is still my son."

Soga's justice was carefully meted out, and he became more impartial as his Christian character strengthened; and when it was needed he could show a magnificent generosity. It will never be forgotten how he once trapped a party of head-hunters from New Georgia, and when he had them at his mercy, and they were expecting death according to heathen laws, he shewed what a Christian could do, and let them go unharmed, though he must have been sorely tempted to take revenge for many raids that they had made upon his people.

It was not to be expected that he would never make a mistake nor yield to temptation. It is very difficult for a chief to be impartial. He was so nearly always, even to the extent of fining and practically outlawing his brother Charles Vou for an act of cruelty; but once he told a lie to shield and save from excommunication his son, who had done wrong, and he tried to cast the blame on an innocent person. This had to be dealt with: his son was excommunicated, and. after due penitence received back again, and he himself was publicly censured and his confirmation postponed. He bore it manfully, and acknowledged himself in the wrong, and so little did he resent it that he allowed his wife to be confirmed and to become a Communicant while he was not one.

It came within his province to judge and decide about matters of many sorts; and amongst the Christians, however much in earnest, there were still cases of violent temper which, yielded to, caused deaths that we should call manslaughter, or very [69/70] nearly murder. In such cases heavy fines and banishment from their own island were the usual punishments.

Years passed on, and Soga and Anika were old people, according to the reckoning of their short-lived race.

In 1897 Soga was confirmed, but could not receive Holy Communion till the following year, there being no priest resident on the island. In 1898 he paid a visit to the far end of Ysabel to make peace between two tribes, in which he was partially successful. He also acted the missionary (as he often did) by preaching the Gospel to them and trying to induce them to receive a teacher; this was in vain. On the return journey he was taken ill. He thought he would not recover, but would not allow Dr. Welchman to be summoned, because "it was so far for him to come." At last, at the urgent wish of his people, he did send; but it was too late, and he was dead before his messengers reached Siota, where the doctor and Hugo Goravaka were staying. Hugo had left Bugotu for Guadalcanar, and had come to Siota for a change and to help in the school. They started as soon as the crew were ready and the tide served, and took Isabella, Hugo's wife, to help Anika. It was a rough, squally night, but the anxiety of mind as to what might have happened, or what might happen, made the physical discomfort and danger of little account.

When at last they sighted the place they saw black smoke going up and a black flag flying from the fishing stage, and knew they were too late. They landed with heavy hearts, and not a soul greeted them, though there were hundreds of people hanging about the place who knew them; all seemed too stupefied and absorbed by grief to think of coming forward as usual to help with the boat, or to carry the things up to the house. At last a teacher appeared, much relieved to see them. He told them they had been expected all the morning; the people were as sheep without a shepherd and very much afraid they hardly knew what of. They had hidden in their houses to weep, and some wanted to take refuge in the hills from possible evil to come. The teachers had persuaded them to wait till the evening to see if Dr. Welchman came. If he had not done so they would have all gone, not even waiting for the funeral.

They then went up to the chief's house to see Anika, who, with her own people, was weeping in silence there. The great house was as full as it could hold of people, and it was not for some time they could see who was there. At last they saw Anika crouched weeping on the ground, and Dr. Welchman made his way through the crowd to her, and sat down, beside her. Their hearts were too full for speech, and at first they could only weep quietly, as, indeed, most of the people in the house were doing, though there was none of the hopeless wailing of the heathen.

Anika, amid her tears, managed to describe the illness and last days of the chief., He felt that he would die, but never spoke of it so. He always said: "'My children, I am going to leave you, but we shall meet again."

[71] Close by the place where Anika sat crouching on the ground the body lay in state, suspended by native cords from the rafters, and all through the time between death and burial, one watcher stood at the foot and another at the head, changing at intervals, but always very quietly. It was all very solemn, stately, and reverent, and the silence of the house was hardly broken by the hushed voices of those who had to give orders.

When night fell the silence gave place to a sort of subdued chant, telling in sad accents of the dead chief's virtues, and sayings and doings. It was sung by men only, and was very full of real grief, but there was no hideous ungoverned shrieking.

Missionary's House, Boromoli, Florida.

On the early morning of the funeral day there was a celebration of the Holy Communion, with sixty-one Communicants, of whom Anika was one, and all hearts were very full of the chief.

[72] For a coffin he was laid in a new canoe, very prettily decorated with mother of pearl. It took eight men to carry it, and as it was too large to pass through the church doors, the whole of the service was at the grave. This was in the little walled enclosure in which Agnes and a few near relations already lay. Bera was there and Soga was laid by his side, but only three men in the village ever had known the spot, Soga being one. There were numbers of people around, but only the family and the chiefs were allowed inside the wall.

It was very hard work either to sing the hymn or to give the few words of sympathy and instruction by which the common grief was pointed heavenwards, which all wanted; for all hearts were sad, and the sense of having lost their father and guide was strong upon the hundreds gathered from far and near, making the usually undemonstrative natives show their grief very plainly. It was indeed a wonderful contrast, with its Christian calm of sure and certain hope, to that other funeral some fifteen years before, of which we have spoken.

Soga has been succeeded by his two sons, who promise well, but they are young, and Bugotu will long miss the strong hand and enlightened head which have guided her for so many years. But he has left a great legacy of settled government and good traditions. The district has a Christian standard now, and it will ever have cause to thank God for the blessing of its first Christian chief, Monilaws Soga.

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