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Obituary of Robert Henry Codrington

By S. H. Ray.

From Man, November 1922, pages 169-171.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2008

[169] Obituary.

Robert Henry Codrington, M.A., D.D., September 15, 1880-September 11, 1922. By S. H. Ray, M.A.

The death of the Rev. Dr. Codrington at Chichester on 11th September has removed the last surviving witness of the heroic age of the Melanesian mission, the friend and companion of Patteson, and the first by his researches and writings to bring the claims of the Melanesian peoples to the serious attention of students of philology and anthropology.

Robert Henry Codrington was born on 15th September, 1830, and was thus within four days of completing his 92nd year. He was educated at Charterhouse (1845-48) and Wadham College, Oxford, a Scholar from 1849 to 1853 and a Fellow in 1855. He was ordained in 1855-7, and, after a short curacy in Oxford, went to Nelson, New Zealand. Here in 1863 he met Bishop Patteson and was invited by him to go on the Island Voyage in the "Southern Cross." Thus began his first [169/70] acquaintance with Melanesians. When I saw him last, at Easter of this year, he still retained a vivid recollection of his first voyage to the islands.

In 1867, just after the Training School had been established at Norfolk Island, Mr. Codrington joined the Melanesian Mission. He undertook the supervision of the studies of the younger members of the Mission Staff, and began to cultivate that close personal friendship and sympathy which gained him the intense affection and confidence of his Melanesian pupils.

After the martyrdom of Bishop Patteson in 1871, Mr. Codrington became head of the Mission, but declined to accept the Bishopric. The reason given for his refusal, as mentioned by the Warden of Wadham in a recent letter, was very characteristic of his modesty. "He thought the mission would gain more by the appointment of a first-rate man from England." As a writer in the "Southern Cross" log remarks, he realised "that with his own special gifts he could do more valuable work by building up the characters of individual Melanesian lads at Norfolk Island and by devoting himself to a study, at once scientific and sympathetic, of Melanesian speech and customs and manner of thought, than by assuming the responsibility of organising and governing a missionary diocese." Mr. Codrington's enquiries at Norfolk Island and occasional visits to his old pupils, accumulated material for his great book on "The Melanesian Languages." This was published in 1885 and contained thirty-four Melanesian Grammars, exhibiting the languages of the islands from the Central New Hebrides to the Central Solomons. It contained also a Comparative Vocabulary and Grammar and chapters on Phonology and Numeration. It was not only a record but a model for future students. The lingua franca of the Mission was the Mota of Banks Islands, and Codrington's pupils took an active part in the presentation of their own languages by means of the Mota they had learned at Norfolk Island. Some even inquired themselves into new tongues.

In 1883 Mr. Codrington returned to England to supervise the publication of the New Testament which he and the Rev. John Palmer had translated into Mota, and received the degree of D.D, from Oxford. In 1887, shortly after his return to Norfolk Island, he retired from active service in the Mission field.

During this period in Norfolk Island Dr. Codrington reviewed and extended the results of his earlier enquiries into the religious beliefs and folklore of the Melanesians which had been printed in 1879 and 1880, and investigated their sociology. The final result was his book on "The Melanesians: their Anthropology and Folklore," published in 1891. In this he was again aided by his pupils, many of whom recorded in their own language, or in Mota, their actual experiences in the ceremonies described.

After his retirement from the Mission, Dr. Codrington had accepted the living of Wadhurst, Sussex; but did not retain it long. In 1892 he again visited Norfolk Island, and there, with the Rev. J. Palmer, collected material for the Mota dictionary which was published in 1896. He became a Prebendary of Chichester and in his quiet home in the precincts of the Cathedral lived a retired life full of literary and linguistic interests. His house became a place of pilgrimage for new recruits to Melanesia, and he never lost his love for the Mission, but kept up a large correspondence with his old pupils. I first knew him in 1888. I had sent him a first specimen of my own study in Melanesian and a few queries on the languages. He straightway invited me to Wadhurst, and henceforth took a lively interest in my studies. His knowledge and sound judgment were always at my service, and his books were always available for my use. I, at least, can understand the affection and reverence felt for him by his Melanesian pupils. Nothing can be truer than the words of a correspondent of The Times: "He was the soundest of scholars, kindliest of teachers, most practical of saints, most genial and tolerant of friends."


1873. O vatavata we tuai. St. Barnabas. (The Old Testament, assisted by Rev. J. Palmer.)

1875. O Lea we Wia. Amon Mathew me rave. London. (Gospel of St. Matthew, assisted by Rev. J. Palmer.)

1876. O vatavata we Tuai o tuan Vavae mora Prophet nan. St. Barnabas. (Old Testament portions, assisted by Rev. J. Palmer.)

1876. O Lea we Wia. Amon Mark me rave. London. (Gospel of St. Mark.)

1876. Epistle of St. James (Mota). Auckland, N.Z.

1877. Selections from the Epistles and Revelation. St. Barnabas.

1877. Sketch of Mota Grammar. London.

1879. Notes on the Customs of Mota, Banks Islands. (Royal Soc. of Victoria.) 25 pp.

1880. Religious Beliefs and Practices in Melanesia. (Journ. Anthrop. Inst., X., pp. 261-316.)

1880. O vavae ta England. English Grammar. St. Barnabas, Norfolk Islands. (English Grammar in the Mota Language.)

1884. On the Languages of Melanesia. (Jour. Anthrop. Inst., XIV., pp. 31-43.)

1885. Sound-changes in Melanesian Languages. (Proceedings Philological Soc., 12 pp.)

1885. The Melanesian Languages. Oxford.

1885. O Vatavata We Garaqa. London. (Mota New Testament, assisted by Rev. J. Palmer.)

1889. On Poisoned Arrows from Melanesia. (Jour. Anthrop. Inst., XIX., pp. 215-219.)

1891. The Melanesians--Studies in their Anthropology and Folklore. Oxford. 1894.

Story of a Melanesian Deacon: Clement Marau. Written by Himself. Translated by R. H. Codrington, D.D. London. (Marau wrote his story in the Mota Language.)

1896. A dictionary of the Language of Mota, Sugar Loaf Island, Banks' Islands, with a short grammar and index. London.

1902. O Vatavata we Tuai. Tavaliu II. (Job to Malachi in the Mota Language.) London.

1903. On the Stability of Unwritten Languages. (MAN, No. 11.)

1914. O vavae vatogo ape Vasasa nan. Melanesian Mission Press. (Lessons on the Miracles.)

1915. O vavae vatogo ape Vavae tenegag nan. Melanesian Mission Press. (Lessons on the Parables.)

Besides these, large portions of the Book of Common Prayer and various religious books were written or translated into the Mota Language. S. H. RAY.

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