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

By Frances Awdry

London: Bemrose & Sons, Limited, 1902.



PERHAPS the most settled Christian villages, and condition, of any in Melanesia, are to be found in the next group--the Banks Islands.

The Mota language has, as we know, been adopted as the one everyone learns and uses--white and black alike--in Norfolk Island, and this gives them an advantage. Also the islands are mostly small enough to be early permeated by Christian ideas, the only two large ones, Vanua Lava and Sta. Maria, being much the most heathen of the group still.

And again, in a certain sense, the character of the people makes them not so much better, as easier to influence. They are not so quick and fiery for good or evil as the Solomon Islanders or the Cruzians, and they are more docile and domestic in their ways, which makes Christian village life easier; they take more readily to the ways of civilized life. But, perhaps, if they have less to overcome at the beginning they attain to less in the end. There is a good deal of truth in the old saying: "The greater the sinner the greater the saint," and a heathen who has made a great conquest of himself to begin with, often seems, when a Christian, to attain to greater heights of spiritual zeal and happiness than one to whom conversion has been a fairly easy matter.

As a rule, as long as they stay in their own islands the Banks men are a little inclined to be sleepy. They believe, and they settle down to Christian social life, and they do not commit very gross sins, but they are "slack" and contented to go on in a humdrum way, and not keep pressing forward. But there are, on the other hand, many who, having gone to other groups, have made splendid missionaries; especially those from Motalava, Merelava, and Mota.

Mota has been Christian for so long now that we find Christians of the second and third generations with families growing up round them who have never known heathen conditions. This is in most ways a great advantage, but not quite in all. We can hardly exaggerate the benefit it is to them always to have known that murder and, impurity and such like sins, are wrong. At the same time there is something very helpful in the sense of escape from the power of evil, which animates the early Christians of any island, and this is not felt in the same way by those whose souls awoke after light had already dawned on their fathers and mothers.

[130] These islands are chiefly extinct volcanoes--some sudden peak rising out of the sea clothed with dark vegetation, and round the central cone, in the course of ages, the busy coral insects have formed shores, where landing is possible, though not easy.

Another name for Mota is "Sugar-loaf Island," which gives an idea of what it looks like from the sea.

Boys Wading, Motalava.

North of Mota we come to the small island of Motalava, with the tiny islet of Ara by its side, separated from it by a shallow lagoon, across which it is possible to wade at low water. Ara has given its Christianity to the larger island connected with it. It was the parent home of Edwin Sakalrau, who lived through a short holy ministry at Pek on Vanua Lava, and of another abler brother, who became the apostle of his own islands.

He was one of Bishop Patteson's earliest and, perhaps, most dearly loved scholars, and had a chequered history. Very able, very eager, devout, and zealous, he was somewhat emotional, and though really and truly religious, he failed, when a young man at Norfolk Island, to watch against the sin which most easily besets his race, and fell, to his own bitter grief and that of his friends. But he repented most bitterly, and comforting himself with the remembrance of the forgiveness of "David and the Prodigal Son," he rose again unto righteousness, and became a power for good on all around him. It is to his earnest work and high tone that Motalava has for years [130/131] owed everything. He returned to Ara, and thirty years ago was ordained deacon, and not long after priest, and was a model parish clergyman.

His own Ara was his home, but from thence he superintended the larger island, which is now girdled with a succession of schools and churches of a very good and advanced type. And the priest loved God and his neighbour with all his heart and soul, and worked hard till old age was upon him, and then--God only knows why anything so terrible was allowed to happen--he fell, and his life closed, not as we had hoped it would in a calm and saintly old age, but under the saddest of all clouds. He, who had led so many to righteousness, died last year of grief for his own sin, and it is not possible to speak lightly of it. Yet we may take comfort in the hope that his sins which were many are forgiven, for assuredly he loved much, and pray that Ara and Motalava may think rather of the long day of zealous work for God than of the sad clouds in which his sun went down.

If Motalava has given many sons as missionaries to other islands, so has also Merelava, the steep island home of Clement Marau, the invaluable missionary to Ulawa.
It is pleasant to know that the old father who gave a third son to Bishop Patteson undeterred by the death of his two elder ones, lived to see a fourth son a Christian. William Vaget was ordained priest last year, and is working amongst his own people, dispersed amongst the villages which nestle on the wooded sides of their steep mountain home.

With the Banks Islands the remaining group now visited by the Melanesian Mission is closely connected. Three islands only of the New Hebrides are now worked by this Mission. Their names are Maewo, Araga and Opa, or Lepers' Island, so called from the prevalence of some of the terrible sores to which these races are subject.

Merelava is between the two groups, and though reckoned amongst the Banks Islands, has kindred ways, ideas, and language, which makes it a sort of link with the New Hebrides.

There is very little to say about these three islands which distinguishes them from other groups. There are much the same difficulties there as elsewhere, and the same ways of dealing with them. Opa is a rather specially quarrelsome island, but there are many schools, and good work has been going on there for a very long time. The very fact of the people of Opa being so specially ready with their weapons, makes the story that follows the more striking.

About twenty years ago great hopes were centred on an able energetic young Opa teacher named Charles Tariqat, who had settled at Tavalavola.

"When we left Opa at the end of 1887," says the Island Voyage, 1888, "Charles was full of plans for building and more aggressive work. in his neighbourhood. Now [131/132] we return to find, him dead; killed by a gun accident. He was so greatly looked up to by all the people, and the other teachers are so lacking in the qualities required, that the school at once fell into confusion, and knowing that it would be so, we hurried to Tavalavola as soon as we heard the sad news. The greater part of the congregation met us in the schoolhouse, and received the Bishop's words of sympathy and comfort with pleasure. Though it is some time ago, they still wore signs of mourning. Some of them had allowed their hair to grow long, and had adorned it in the usual mourning fashion, and some of Charles's near relations did not come out of their houses. His old father appeared after a time, and we could not but be very sorry for him; Charles was his only son, and he is very old and needs someone to take care of him. Charles did not forget this, and left the charge of him to Samuel, the lad who was the unfortunate cause of the accident which resulted in Charles's death.

"Poor Samuel told us the story; he was in great grief, for he loved Charles dearly. This was how it happened. A number of Tavalavola men had gone to a feast at a neighbouring village, and Charles and Samuel were standing near each other talking, when the gun which Samuel was holding somewhat carelessly, went off, and the bullet entered the teacher's shoulder He was brought home in a canoe most tenderly, but nobody ever doubted that he would die; and so he did after lying quite conscious for ten days, and being able to talk much to those about him. While he lay in his small house waiting for death, he used to gather the Christians of the place continually round him, and to exhort them to be steadfast and faithful.

"Heathen friends and relations gathered from a distance, urging him repeatedly to allow them to avenge his death, but he spoke most strongly, and absolutely forbade it. Moreover, he made revenge impossible by a native ceremony. He called Samuel to his side, and putting his hand upon the lad's forehead in the presence of certain chosen authorities, said a particular form of words, the effect of which would be to hinder anyone from attempting Samuel's life. And in token of his own confidence as well as forgiveness, he made the solemn request that, as he must now leave his aged father, Samuel would 'collect his firewood and dig his taro ground'; in fact, look after the old man as Charles had done."

And very thankful Samuel was to have the power of so doing.

There was no doubt whatever that this brave and quiet Christian death made a great impression on the whole neighbourhood, and Samuel was not in any way punished for his sad misfortune.

Round the coasts of the two larger and more easterly islands there are fringes of schools wherever there is population, but some parts of them both are very sparsely inhabited, and they are not safe to cross inland, so that almost all the travelling and visiting has to be done by boating along their shores, which are rather dangerous for it, as anchorage is difficult, and the sea open and stormy. Still they are, unfortunately, not too difficult for labour vessels to visit, and they have suffered much from their [132/133] attentions, and have also, we are glad to admit, got back some returned sons who wish to keep up at home the Christianity they have learnt on the plantations.

The work here is as important as anywhere else, but it has few distinctive features, and as the population is not very responsive in character, the work made slow progress there till the last ten years.

Maewo still is sleepy, but in Opa and Araga the progress in the last decade has been simply marvellous.

In both islands the schools have multiplied by eight, Opa's three schools having become twenty-six, and Araga's six, fifty.

In Raga the backbone and moving spirit of the work has for many years been an excellent man from Mota, called Thomas Ulgau. He is as humble as he is good, and shrinks from ordination for that reason; otherwise he would have been a deacon long ago.

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