Project Canterbury

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

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.



THE Floridas lie in a sort of triangle made by larger islands--Ysabel to the north, Mala to the east, and Guadalcanar to the west, and the ocean only to the south. The passages between it and the other islands vary in width, but both Mala and Guadalcanar are near neighbours.

Of course as great efforts have been made to reach these islands as others, but so far progress has been slow. Though first visited in 1856 it is not till recently that a real footing has been gained in Guadalcanar, where there are now six schools.

In the history of the Church in Guadalcanar the name of a heroic pioneer, now gone to his rest, shines brightly. Basilei, afterwards George Basilei, was a native of Guadalcanar. He was stolen or sold away to Bugotu when quite a child, and as a boy found his way thence to Norfolk Island. But Guadalcanar held his heartstrings, and as his education progressed he felt a longing to go back to his own people and tell them the glad tidings. It may be said of him, "he came unto his own, and his own received him not" (surely a great honour, though a sad one, to be thus like his Lord). He was landed one year by the Southern Cross, and received by the chief with assurances of friendship and support. But no sooner was the mission vessel quite out of reach than the chief turned against George, robbed him of all his possessions, forbade him to hold a school, and set him to work in the village garden with hardly food enough to keep life in him. When the Southern Cross returned next year, it found George very nearly starved, but with unbroken spirit. He was removed to another district, which seemed better disposed, and here he was joined by the Deacon Hugo, who was also a native stolen or sold from Guadalcanar in childhood. At this place--Vaturana--the people themselves were as friendly as the fear of their neighbours let them be. They did not hurt the teachers, but dared not openly assemble to be taught or collect around them. George and Hugo stayed patiently, they built themselves a house and planted a large wooden cross on the seashore for an outward and visible sign that they claimed the island for Christ, and they managed to get a few boys to come and be taught. After a while their wives joined them, and their strength was increased by the return of a Guadalcanar Christian--David, who had experienced both Queensland life and Norfolk Island teaching.

[97] In 1900 George Basilei was called to his rest, after some years of much danger as well as difficulty, but he had fought a good fight and made a good beginning. He lived to see seven boys from Vaturana offered in one year to the Bishop for Norfolk Island. It may be said that George held open the chink through which now Mr. Williams and twelve native teachers from other islands have got their footing in Guadalcanar. This is a very remarkable missionary movement, and it is to George Basilei, under God, that we owe it.

Hugo Gorovaka is still there, and will certainly, if God spares him, make way in time, for he is a remarkable man. After Soga's death Bugotu petitioned that he might come back and live there again, and he stayed with the people during their first days of startled desolation. But he felt Guadalcanar had the most claim upon him, and the greater the difficulty of getting hold of the people, the more Hugo's brave spirit longs to overcome it.

Guadalcanar is a beautiful island, with a fine range of high mountains along the interior, plainly visible from the sea as vessels sail past, but no white man still dares venture inland at all, and very little is known even of the coast, except in a few places, as the inhabitants are wild and unfriendly, and therefore dangerous to strangers. And they are distinctly antagonistic, not merely indifferent, to the teaching of the Mission. Undoubtedly here, even more than in Florida, the evil influence of Godless white men has done great harm. The small island of Savo, off the north-western corner of Guadalcanar, is the rendezvous of a very bad type of trading population, and there is no doubt whatever that they keep up the superstitious fears of the natives lest schools should bewitch them and make them refuse to have them in their villages, because the traders know that if once the mission ideas get a real hold on the island it would counteract their influence and turn the tide of native opinion against their profligate habits and unjust gains, and if this were done the people could appeal to the English Commissioner, who has now power to interfere, and could legislate against the traders if the people themselves wished it.

The hope of Guadalcanar lies largely in its returned labourers. There are a good many who have been taught and baptized in Fiji or Queensland who are now returning, and if these will co-operate loyally with Hugo and his some sixteen teachers, they may do much.

Till two or three years ago, Mala, the great island which lies to the east of Florida, was almost as badly off as Guadalcanar, for there was hardly anything at all going on there except in the neighbourhood of Saa, at the extreme south of the island. The north coasts were untouched by Christianity as yet, they refused steadily to have anything to do with schools or to come under the influence of the missionaries at all. They dared hardly take their gifts even, they are so afraid of coming under their spells and getting into their power. Even traders hardly landed on Mala, the people were considered so dangerous. Yet, strange to say, the Mala [97/98] boys, of whom there are great numbers on the plantations, are great favourites there. They are a fine manly race, and away from home respond heartily to Christian teaching. Many have been both baptized and confirmed in Fiji, and it is to be hoped that when they come home they may by degrees remove more and more the abject terror of charms, which at present makes their country afraid even to smoke mission tobacco or use mission fish-hooks, lest by so doing they should surrender their own individuality, and have no will or power of their own left. Already brighter days are beginning, however, and the Mission may now be said to be in touch with a great part of the island. The last report gives eleven schools and over six hundred baptized, and progress is very rapid now. The ground took long preparing for the seed, but it is good ground. This applies chiefly to northern Mala. As we have said, there has long been a little colony of Christians in the south, where the seed, sown with prayer and watered with tears, has taken deep root in the hearts and lives of the few who have stood firm there under great difficulties.

At Saa, where Joe Watè has worked ever since he came to man's estate, and of which he is now the clergyman in charge, the surrounding heathen have said to him and his hearers in so many words, "You may wear loin cloths and go to school if you like, but you shall be treated like pigs if you do"; and it was no idle threat, they have been treated like pigs. But they went on bravely and steadily, wearing the small amount of clothing required by decency, which marks Christians from their heathen neighbours, and living in other ways quiet ordered lives, until by degrees, though not joining them in large numbers, those around them have learnt to respect them and to leave them pretty well alone. Moreover, it is remarkable that those who decline teachers for themselves often beg the missionaries "to go and teach their enemies, because they are very troublesome to us, and it would do them good to be taught your quiet ways."

The southern end of Mala is divided from the rest by one of the river-like straits we have noticed in Florida, and it is on the smaller island thus formed that Saa stands, and here, too, is the village and harbour of Port Adam.

Joe Watè must now be at least forty-six, for he was about fifteen when his dying godfather, Mr. Atkin (the only white missionary who understood the language of that part) asked him, "Who will speak to the men of your country?" Those sad scenes of September, 1871, were not thrown away upon the lad. He had seen the Bishop leave them without one word of farewell, he had watched his neighbour, Stephen Taroaniara, from San Cristoval, die for the islands, as well as his own special teacher and friend, and he knew it was his duty to live for them, even if he was not called upon to die. The lesson sank into his heart, and when he was old enough he came home and began the work at Saa. It was very hard, for his brother, the chief (whose name is also Watè), was a rough, unkindly man, and put many difficulties in the way of his people listening to teaching, whilst he domineered over Joseph in an [98/99] elder brotherly way, more than kin perhaps, and certainly less than kind. Nor was Dorawewe, the second chief, much more helpful, and moreover, poor Joseph had not married the right woman and did not deal well with the family troubles which this entailed. But through all imperfections he has persevered, and Saa is the parent village school, from which the several others in south Mala have taken their start.

Joe Watè and some of his Scholars at Saa.
(From a Photograph by Bishop Montgomery.)

Port Adam is a few miles from Saa, and it had for a long time a bad name for violence and treachery. It was here that the two castaways from the Reef Islands of Santa Cruz were found and redeemed by Bishop John Selwyn. It is about ten miles from Saa, with a good natural harbour, and when, ten years ago, the heathen attacked the station there, the Southern Cross took the whole of the schoolpeople on board and brought them down to Saa for safety. The enemy mistook the Southern Cross for a man of war, and were alarmed and over-awed by this proceeding, so that in about a fortnight it was safe for the Port Adam School to return home. And when the heathen press on Saa, on the other hand, the Port Adam people may be trusted to do what they can to help them.

[100] The teacher to whom Port Adam is most indebted is named Johnson Telegsem. He comes, as do so many other black missionaries, from the tiny island of Motalava in the Banks Group.

Lifelong and very tender friendships develope between the boys who are together at Norfolk Island, and Johnson was at St. Barnabas' with a special friend who came from Mala. The Mala lad was taken ill, and eventually died, watched and tenderly nursed by Johnson. When dying he, in his delirium, talked about his island and its needs in a way he probably would not have done had he known that his thoughts passed his unconscious lips. Prayer Book words came again and again, and specially "That Thy way may be known upon earth, Thy saving health unto all nations" was repeated over and over. When the spirit fled, Johnson knelt by the body of his friend and dedicated his life to mission work, and, when the time came, was sent to Port Adam. Here the chief's son made friends with him, and the chief's daughter went further still, and fell in love with him.

As a rule Melanesian marriages are very unromantic affairs to begin with, although the couples come to love each other faithfully. Marriages are arranged between the parents, and the young people have very little chance of knowing each other beforehand. But it was otherwise with Johnson and Lizzie.

It is far easier to learn about the lives and thoughts of the boys than the girls from the islands. Girls draw a veil over their home life, and when they have left it for Norfolk Island do not care to talk about it. This absolute ignorance of what will come home to their ideas makes teaching them very much more difficult than teaching the boys. Therefore it is a real gain when one less shy than the rest will sit down by one of the ladies of the Mission and chatter freely. Lizzie Liakulu was one of the few who would do this, and from her artless prattle it was seen how first the message itself had attracted this chief's daughter to school before she thought of the messenger.

"My father and mother are both dead," she began. "My father died first, and my mother was bewitched; bad people did this because my father was a great man. Soon after this my brother Joseph came away to Norfolk Island, and I began to go to school down there. I liked the teaching, it was good; I liked it very much. My grandfather used to love me, but he hated the school, and when I went to school he hated me and tried to stop me."

Lizzie's other relations, however, were friendly to Johnson, and Joseph in particular; and they gave her to him for wife, of which she was proud. "I was not sold," she said, emphatically; "I was given. There was no money paid for me. I do not like that custom of selling women like pigs. We are not pigs, we are women."

Lizzie showed much courage when she gave herself to Johnson and came down to Norfolk Island to learn what a teacher's wife required to know. Though civilized enough to appreciate school, she was yet savage enough to have an ornament of [100/101] shell or bone several inches long stuck through her nose and standing out on each side of her face, and there was no one on board who understood her language except another little girl.

When Johnson went back to Port Adam it was in a very much disturbed condition, and there was a proposal to keep his young wife safely in Norfolk Island, but the brave little girl begged to be allowed to go with him. If there was danger she wished to share it, or at all events not to be separated from Johnson and not know whether or not he was safe.

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