Project Canterbury

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

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.



PERHAPS more tears and prayers have been spent over the islands we call the Santa Cruz Group than over any other part of Melanesia, yet even now the work seems in its infancy. There are two groups of small islands, called the Reef Islands (of which are Nukapu and Nufiloli) and the Duff Islands, and there are three good-sized islands, Santa Cruz itself, Vanikoro and Utupua. The two last named are still untouched, but on Dëni [Dëni is the native name for the main island of Santa Cruz.] and Te Motu there are now schools. The Duff group is about one hundred miles from Santa Cruz proper, but it is always considered as part of the district.

The Mission is not the only body which has given life willingly for the good of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Navy has done the same. We have great cause for thankfulness throughout the whole district for the way our naval officers who cruise in those seas behave themselves. Whatever faults sailors may have, Melanesia knows of the British Navy as a just and self-restrained force, anxious for the true good of the islanders even whilst keeping them in order. This was never more true of anyone than of Commodore James Goodenough, who died in consequence of an attack from the natives of Santa Cruz in August, 1875. He was in command of the Pearl, and had spent some months cruizing amongst the Pacific islands in hopes of establishing friendly relations with them whilst studying the natural features of the coasts, the conditions of the life of the people, and the capabilities for improvement. He was deeply interested in the inhabitants, and anxious to better their conditions, and in many places he was well received. At Santa Cruz he was not reckless. It was not yet four years since the murder of Bishop Patteson, so he thought it safer not to land at Nukapu, but he had a special reason for landing at Carlisle Bay on the main island, and therefore took the risk, though he knew that a man of war had been attacked there some months before, therefore was very careful. He had hoped to take the Pearl in but found there was not enough water, so was obliged to convey his party in two boats. The natives seemed friendly, and invited him and the other officers to come with them to a village some way down the coast, but as it seemed as if they were anxious to separate the white men from one another, the Commodore turned back and ordered everyone into the boats. Before he himself had time to get in, however, the [111/112] natives poured a volley of arrows upon them, and he and five others were wounded. They had to row a mile to the ship, and then it was necessary, considering the danger of lockjaw, to get at once into as cool a latitude as possible; but before they left he desired his men to give the treacherous islanders a lesson by firing on the village where the outrage took place. He ordered them to fire with blank cartridge, and thus to make an alarming noise and frighten the natives away without hurting anybody, and when they were safely gone to burn the huts. This was done, and then he sailed south, not knowing whether he should die or live, but without the shadow of resentment against those who had behaved with such unprovoked treachery. He was very sorry for them that they knew no better and would let no one befriend them, that was all.

Six of the party had been wounded, and three died--the Commodore and two young sailor lads. Why they were attacked nobody ever knew; it was probably to revenge some injury of which the English Navy was as ignorant as it was innocent. Whatever the reason of his death, we count this Christian sailor amongst the martyrs of Santa Cruz, and Carlisle Bay is marked with a cross not unlike the one at Nukapu, and some of the adornments of St. Barnabas' Chapel, Norfolk Island, are specially in his memory.

Of course the murder could not but make the Cruzians afraid of retaliation and English ships in general, and so help to widen the breach between them and the Mission.

We have noticed how, in 1877, came the first opening for mission work in the group, by the returning of Tuponu to Nufiloli after he and the rest of the boat's crew had been cast away near Malanta, and how Aqua also was rescued and taken home the next year. This made the Cruzians able to believe that the Bishop was really their friend, and ever since there has been some sort of work going on both in the thinly populated little Reef Islands and at one or two places on the coast of Santa Cruz itself. There are now two schools on the main island, and four amongst the Reefs. Nelua and Te Motu were for some time the chief stations.

There are exceptional difficulties in the way of work in Santa Cruz. The first and greatest, perhaps, is that all work must be done on the spot, as in spite of their apparently magnificent physique these islanders are exceptionally delicate away from home, and often die if taken to Norfolk Island. Consequently at present it is very difficult to get individuals away to train out of sight of home heathenism. Considering, therefore, that the Cruzians have to learn Christianity in full view of all their heathen friends and associations, perhaps the progress is as rapid as could be expected. In 1901 there were about two hundred, and the communicants about thirty.

Bishop Cecil Wilson visited Santa Cruz on his first island voyage, and writes of it in his journal, November 2nd, 1894--"We reached Santa Cruz early, and were at once surrounded by canoes as we came up to Te Motu, and the first people to get [112/114] on board got there via the chains under the bows. Very soon the ship was covered by a noisy, shouting, laughing crowd, all intent on bargains.

Commodore Goodenough Memorial Cross,
Carlisle Bay, Dëni, Santa Cruz Group.

"Santa Cruz is very different from the other islands. There are swarms of people, and they are very ingenious. They build great thick coral walls, 3 feet wide, for defence against enemies and pigs, and their basket-work and mats are beautifully woven. In the centre of the village is the dancing ground, some eighteen yards across, smooth and level, and walled in by slabs of coral. A man who by his father's will inherits a dancing ground is not enviable. His friends and acquaintances may at any time come from any distance and ask for a dance, and the owner is expected to kill enough pigs to feed all who come to it. A friend of ours at Te Motu is kept quite poor by such an inheritance.

"From Te Motu we came to Nelua, which is the chief school, a number of natives coming off to meet us and take us ashore through the surf, skilfully seizing the boat as a wave shot it up on the beach. These men are magnificent figures, with chests and limbs that a prize-fighter might envy, and they were literally clothed in shell ornaments. From eight to fifteen earrings hang from each ear, and there is a large piece of tortoise-shell through the nose; but this is merely finery, not clothing. The arms have a sort of sleeves made of a succession of broad armlets, eight or ten on each, and round the waist is a belt of white shells with an apron before and behind, which acts as a sort of kilt--really decent covering, but leaving the limbs free. Everything is beautifully clean; nowhere else in Melanesia are they so particular about this; it is a treat to see their clean and tidy villages.

"My first service here was Evensong, with the baptism of eighteen adults. It was very impressive. The church is large, new and highly decorated, and filled with a good congregation of these islanders, whom it has cost five white men's lives to win. At 10 p.m. the village people came to church once more, this time to say their private prayers, and after that all was still except for the sound of monotonous songs from the club house close by. There were twelve black boys lying round the fire in the middle of the floor, but in spite of the crowd and the smoke from the chimneyless fire we managed to sleep.

"Next morning began with a swim in the stream. At 12 o'clock I consecrated the church, and two hours later went with one white companion to pay my respects to Natei, the chief. He has been a very fierce old fellow in his day, and it is doubtful whether he is much better even yet. He has had many tussles with us in his time, and has repeatedly hired the people from the neighbouring village of Taape to shoot arrows into the Christian quarters at Nelua, but as Taape has a school now Natei must go elsewhere for ruffians if he wants them. We went in the boat to his place, and found him sitting outside his club house to receive us in state. He is distinctly a dignified figure; tall, grey haired, perfectly dressed in Cruzian fashion, and evidently [114/115] accustomed to command. There he sat and bade us welcome, then he made us follow him into the house, where he provided me with a head-rest and a fan, and signed to us to lie down. It is not good manners to talk to your host on such occasions, so I talked about Natei, and Natei talked to his followers about me. This shows that [115/116] we can get on without each other, and so preserves dignity. We commented on the nets, mats, ropes and furniture of the house generally. Natei discussed with his friends the fact that I had on a flannel blazer, that my feet showed below my trousers, and my appearance all round. Then he beckoned us to see his own house, where we found his eight wives, one small boy and a few silent friends. There was a huge pile of bags of feather money on a sort of platform in the middle of the house, for the chief is very rich. Once more we talked aloud to each other about the other party, then Natei rained upon me presents of bags, mats and food, and I in return rained upon him tobacco, beads and red and blue cloth. Then the eight wives began throwing nuts and mats across the room to me, and I in return went round shaking hands with them and bestowing on each a blue bead necklace. Then we retired, feeling that probably Natei was pleased; but it is hard to judge."

Sea-going Canoe--Santa Cruz.
(From a Photograph by Rev. W. C. O'Ferrall.)

There followed more services and a confirmation, and there seemed good evidence of real devotion amongst the people. Many more men than women came to church, but that was not to be wondered at. In Santa Cruz the sexes are kept apart rigidly, and for women to come to school with men would be highly improper, and it was only lately it had been found possible to establish a women's school. Now they had one they valued it. Many of them had to swim the river on their way, and when that was flooded to swim right out to sea, but come they did.

The villages are very much crowded together. The houses are beehive shaped, and in the middle of each little village stands its well-fenced dancing floor. Natei's ghost-house was a great feature of his village. Anybody might enter it who liked to crawl in. It was the same shape as the other houses, but rather higher. To the right as you entered was the altar, on which gifts or sacrifices were laid. In shape it was like a wooden bedstead brightly painted, and at the foot of it were coloured upright posts, all the same shape but of many sizes, each representing the father, grandfather, or other relation, whose memory the villagers still cherished, and placed gifts to their spirits upon the altar. On the matted floor were parts of large canoes, brought here to receive a blessing, that their voyages might be safe. The walls were roughly painted with pictures of canoes and such scenes as pigs feeding. Sacrifices and gifts are being constantly offered and before a specially important fishing expedition, men will lire in the ghost-house to acquire power, and not all their reverence for the ghosts will prevent them from laughing, talking, smoking and sleeping there.

Though Natei was still very heathen, and not very friendly to the Christians, he had not hindered his daughter from joining them. She had been christened Monica, and was a great contrast to her father, having a particularly sweet and gentle face.

Things looked very hopeful in those days of Bishop Cecil Wilson's first visit, but a great wave of sin and sorrow swept over the island soon after, and many of the [116/117] Christians lapsed into heathenism. It was a very dark night indeed, and the dawn is only yet partially come. Still it is coming.

Natei died, still a heathen, in 1897, and Monica has had much sorrow, but she is alive and doing well.

The school at Nelua has been re-started under a teacher called Henry Leabi, and is, we hope, getting new life.

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