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Endeavour to Purify the Church in the Banks Islands.

By Cecil Wilson

From Southern Cross Log, Vol. XVI, No. 191, Sydney, April 15, 1911, pp. 147-154.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2012

[147] Endeavour to Purify the Church in the Banks Islands.


MISSIONARY work is not confined to the evangelization of heathen tribes, and the expansion of GOD'S' Kingdom. There are times when it must be directed to the reformation and improvement of the Church already built, and to the discovery of new methods
which shall bring about better results.

During the past year we set ourselves to bring about a reform of the Church in the Banks Islands, by forbidding its members any longer to practice suqe, koli, tamate, and gana matea, customs which they had received from their heathen forefathers, and which were now hindering their Christianity.

For many years these eight islands have been classed amongst the Christian islands of Melanesia; but with the exception of Merelava, Merig, and Rowa, complaints of their spiritual deadness have repeatedly been made against them. In Gaua and Lakona the people lacked stability, and for want of it could not provide their own teachers, and soon wearied and disheartened those who came to them from other places. In Mota and Vanua Lava the schools seldom met, the children were untaught, and the people seldom attended prayers. In Ureparapara the men still practised magic, and the teachers fell away into sin and had to be replaced by others. Even Motalava which has sent missionaries to so many islands was now badly reported of, and it was feared that it would become as lukewarm as Mota, its sister-isle.

But whilst in these islands the Church was so weak, and the services and schools seemed to exercise so little attraction for the people, a feast of the suqe society when a man advanced a step in rank, or a koli feast to do honour to a new house, or a gana matea or death feast to remember the fifth, tenth, hundredth or thousandth day after the death of some one, or a tamate feast when a boy was initiated into one of the many secret societies, attracted crowds from all parts of the island on which these things were held.

It was noticed that wherever the old customs were strong and the people deeply interested in the business connected with them, there always Christianity was at its weakest; and wherever the customs were lightly thought of, or had died out, the Church was strong, the schools well attended, and the children educated, the people industrious, and money abundant. For some reason [147/148] unknown to us Christianity and suqe never thrived together; and it was evident that in some places if the old custom were not checked: or suppressed altogether the Church would become extinct.

Seven years ago the Rev. H. V. Adams was in charge of these islands. He was the first white missionary to live all the year round with these people, for previously it had been our custom to spend only the winter months in the island, and to retire to Norfolk Island for the summer to teach at S. Barnabas, We had a much smaller staff in those days, and depended almost entirely on our native clergy and teachers with the occasional supervision of a white man. Mr. Adams, when he spent his first Christmas in the Banks, found that the old native customs had come to be practised at this time of year. They had, in fact, been postponed for the most part until we were all far away from them, and afterwards the people gave themselves up to them. Now the paths were closed from time to time to all except members of the various tamate societies, fires could not be lighted, women and children had to retire to the bush as they were amongst the "uninitiated", work ceased, and of course school and Church services. In addition to this general condition of laziness, a license was sometimes given to immorality at many of the koli feasts, and as a matter of fact almost every act of immorality could be traced to these occasions. It was evident to Mr. Adams that he was not wanted by the people then, however glad they might have been to have had him before, and a great deal now came to light of which he had had no idea previously, and he found himself engaged in a fierce fight with the native customs.

With him at that time I went into the whole question, and we discussed the situation with the people. Mota was the headquarter of all the societies and the other islands promised to give up these practices if Mota did. Accordingly we held a meeting of men in that island. They pleaded that they were all in debt, and that only by circulation of money by means of suqe and other feasts, could they pay them off. They said that a general forgiveness of debts was impossible. Equally impossible was a general payment, for sufficient native money did not exist to pay all debts. Whenever a feast was made the giver of it gave away immense quantities of money, and some of this reached everyone, and thus debts could be paid, but they forgot that the unfortunate giver beggared himself by his generosity, borrowing, in order to give to others, at the exorbitant interest of 100 per cent. However the people held that they could be honest only by retaining the suqe, and so we then agreed that its meetings, with what was evil in them left out, should be permitted, but that they should last but one day at a time, and not for forty or fifty as [148/149] previously, and that if this "one-day rule" were broken, the people would give up the customs altogether.

Soon afterwards Mr. Adams retired to S. Patrick's, Vureas, and Mr. Palmer had charge of those islands in his place. I think he came with a leaning towards the old ways, for his father, Archdeacon Palmer, and Bishop Patteson had allowed them, although they had looked forward to a time when the people would become "enlightened" and give them up themselves.

However, no great improvement followed on the promised reform. There was no more life in Church or Schools than before. Norfolk Island boys sometimes expressed a dislike to return to their homes because of the suqe. And after six years Mr. Palmer wrote that the only way to save the Church was to suppress the native societies. There was no doubt that the "one-day rule" was being broken everywhere, and so, in accordance with the contract of 1904, the people might be called upon to give up customs which they could not reform, and which had been proved to be injurious to their spiritual, moral, and social life.

In my report on the year 1909 I wrote that in 1910 we hoped to kill the suqe altogether, and that to help us we meant to call in teachers from Merelava, one of the islands where this custom had been given up. Alas! however, for the great anti-suqe champion who was to lead the Merelava attack! He came to Mota with a dozen Gaua men, all well armed, for they had heard that they would be opposed with violence. They protested that suqe and all other heathen customs should be abolished, and then, on their way home, the weather being bad, they "bought a wind" from a weather-doctor, and fell into one of the very same heathen practices which in Mota they had been denouncing. However, this was more a failure of a Gaua Mission than of a Merelava one, although the leader of it certainly was a Merelava man. The Merelava teachers who were placed in Mota did some good work, and helped to bring the campaign to a successful issue.

We opened the new attack last year on the suqe in my Pastoral in the Sala Ususur, the Mota newspaper, published bi-yearly at Norfolk Island, and with an article by Mr. Palmer, showing the disadvantages of the old customs. These were read by the teachers in the different churches. In June Mr. Freeth was landed' with me at Merelava. There we believe the suqe to be extinct, having been given up some years ago at the instigation of the Rev. William Vaget, the native priest. The stone ruins of the buildings of the society were in every village, but the people ate together, and the best man of each village was the chief, without regard to wealth or rank in the suqe, In Merig also there was no suqe.

[150] In Gaua the Rev. J. Qea has been combatting the suqe for five years with some show of success, but death-feasts were extremely common. He told me that suqeism was really a religion, and that the people could not follow two religions at the same time. "Take away suqe," he said, "and they will appreciate the Gospel"; but as long as that remained all interest would be centred in it.

The Mota people received us very kindly, and I preached in every village, showing that the time had come to give up entirely heathen customs, and reminding them of the condition under which Bishop Patteson had baptized them—that when they became more advanced Christians they would of themselves give up these things.

It happened that Robert Pantutun, one of our deacons, died during the fortnight we were in Mota, and I of course ministered to him. A week before his death he unburdened himself to me on the real condition of Mota, and declared that suqe was the one cause of the falling away. He said that in order to gain rank in it money was needed, and to get it sacrifices were offered as in old days. Rain, wind, sunshine, health, and sickness were all bought from those who had power over these things. He said that he had spoken in every gamal (suqe club-house) and salagoro (tamate meeting-place) repeatedly, and with tears, against this practice of' heathenism, but his voice had fallen on deaf ears.

Suqeism was nothing more nor less than heathenism. By Christian Sacraments the people were receiving GOD'S help, and by sacrifices they were, or believed they were, also gaining that of other spiritual beings. They received Holy Communion in Church when opportunity offered, and they had gana tapug (ceremonial eating) in the gamal at other times. They were trying to follow two religions at the same time; and the fault, Robert Pantutun said, was ours, for the suqe should never have been allowed to remain when the people first accepted Christianity. We had, as we thought, killed heathenism, but we had left suqe, like a tree not properly ring-barked or destroyed, and every year it budded and brought forth its crop of heathen practices.

Previous to this we had regarded suqe as an interesting native custom, giving considerable pleasure to the people, adding gaiety to their lives, and not essentially, or even necessarily, harmful. Now we were obliged to say that it was heathenism pure and simple, and that those who were Christians must renounce it. A meeting of the men was called, and it happened that Robert died on the very morning of it. I read, therefore, his words to them, having written them down at the time, and begged them to decide to give up these things, and when they said they could not I solemnly forbade them, and ordered that in future [150/151] anyone participating in heathen customs should be excommunicate for three months. Some were well-pleased by this decision, particularly the younger men who see through, and are weary of, the nonsense and deception of the old ways, and privately ridicule the upholders of them. However, these were quite in a minority, and now had to suffer some persecution from the others. Only five men came to bid us farewell when we left the island—three lads who were for us, and two men who seemed bitterly opposed to us.

Motalava welcomed us as warmly as Mota had, and we were .assured that if we had found heathenism in Mota we should not do so here. Suqe certainly had not the same strength here, and [151/152] the Church was in a better condition; but we had been told that suqeism was a religion, and that wherever it existed sacrifices to stones were offered; and wherever prayers and sacrifices to other gods are offered there is heathenism.

A queer case of dealing with spirits came to light whilst we were in Motalava. A koli feast had been arranged, and as I had not yet asked the people in the different villages to make an end of such things I was obliged to allow them to attend it. Simon, the chief of Pun, was giving the feast, and Lucy, his wife was a nembit, a person, that is, who mysteriously receives money from spirits. The natives say that many years ago a spirit came here from Maewo, and was taken in by a man on the weather side of the island, by whom she had many spirit-children. The woman and her children now lived near Pun, and befriended Simon and Lucy, from time to time entering the latter and speaking with four or five different voices out of her. In return for gifts of their favourite food, red yams (which Lucy ate), she received shell money from them, her teeth gritted on money as she ate, the cocoanuts she drank were found to be full of money, if she rubbed her hands or combed her hair it fell from them in all directions. Four years ago I saw Lucy produce money in this way, and at the time thought it very clever conjuring. The people held that it came from the spirits. Simon certainly thought the same, and from the day I witnessed the money come he refrained from all dealings with the spirits who he believed had given it. But now the koli feast had to be made, and on a very large scale. Native money to a ruinous amount had to be distributed to the singers, dancers, and people who attended. As the day of the feast approached the voices from Lucy became more and more insistent, begging for red food. "Why will you not feed us? We are kind to you, we give you money for your Church offerings, and we want to be baptised." At last Simon gave way and fed them. The next morning a pile of money was found outside Simon's back door, and at the feast it was distributed, and Lucy danced like one beside herself.

How it was done, I cannot say. But the people without exception believed that it was the spirits who gave it as a return for the sacrifice. Simon himself was frightened, and very penitent, vowing that he would have nothing more to do with them and expecting a death like that of Ananias and Saphira if he did.

Two old men, when asked on the eve of their confirmation if they had entirely renounced all that was evil, gave up each one a sacred stone. We heard too, of a custom of drawing spirits out of sick people by puffing in their faces, and the skulls of persons who had succumbed to magic appeared to be used to enforce the dictates of the tamate societies.

[153] There seemed enough heathenism remaining in Motalava to warrant our calling on the people to give up all the old customs which produced it. I preached in every village about it, and finally addressed all the men together and held a meeting to discuss it. The conclusion come to by the men was that the island would be impoverished if suqe were given up. It was useless to show how miserably poor they were already, compared with those in islands which had abandoned the old customs, and those who, as in the Solomons, had never had them. Though the highest chiefs were with us, the bulk of the people were against us. However they made an attempt to fall in with our wishes, and refrained from these things at any rate for some months.

In Rowa, which we next visited, William Qasvar, the old deacon, approved of the suppression of the customs because they held the people's interest to such an extent that they had no thought for Christianity, "The suqe is in their hearts," he said, and I have no doubt he spoke the truth.

At Pek, in Vanua Lava, where I found that the chief had lately bought rain from his Tes neighbours, I preached about the heathenism still remaining in the Church. The young men decided then and there to give it up. The older ones took the night to think it over, and then decided to follow the lead of the younger ones. Vatrat and S. Peter's, Vureas, likewise reformed themselves, declaring for a purer Christianity. Wosaga pretended to conform, but we discovered a garden, and a house with indecent figures set up before it, marks of a koli recently held.

At Ureparapara, one of the villages was strong in the suqe, and the school in a fallen condition. The other had reformed and was doing well.

The key to the whole situation lay evidently in Mota, "the first island," as it is called by the others, because there first Christianity was accepted in Bishop Patteson's days. Here suqe was strongest, and Christianity weakest. If we could win that one back, all the islands around would follow its lead. John Pantutun, Robert's eldest son, carries great weight in the island, and I enlisted his aid. After we had left the island in August he called all the men together, and argued with them repeatedly on the subject. They would give up their sacred stones, they said, and sacrifices, and magic, but they could not give up suqe and the other customs. They asked that I might give them another day to discuss the question again. This I did on the return of the Southern Cross. First, I exorcised their stones in their presence, and did my best to shame them out of their superstition. Then I harangued them, and left them once more to John Pantutun's persuasive tongue. The result was that the young men broke away from the older ones, and declared themselves for [153/154] reform, but the others remained obdurate. At last they all decided to give up suqe and the other customs for a year. If at the end of that time they were reduced to poverty, as the older men said they would be, they would tell us, and ask us what they should do. The meeting ended happily, and with three cheers to show that "the hearts of all were good." The stones we carried away to prevent further mischief.

In conclusion, let me say that we must not be too downhearted over this superstition in the native Church of the Banks Islands, remembering that in the early Church "Ecclesiastical legislation against magic continued for 500 years," and that as late as A. D. 625 the Council of Rheims inflicted penalties on Christians who took part in heathen observances. It may be that we, like the early Missionaries, have admitted the people too hastily into the Kingdom of GOD; but more probably the cause of the falling away has been our lack of clergy to feed the new converts with spiritual food as they came in. The Ladies' Mission Station, with Miss Hawkes and Miss Wench, has kept a high standard of Christianity before the Mota people this past year, and the women have certainly been touched, and have improved their ways. Nor is it too much to say these ladies have won the affection of the whole island. It is perfectly evident that no high level of Christian life can be maintained amongst the natives without the example and ministrations of a staff of white men and women in their midst.

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