FAR away in the Southern hemisphere lies a tract of the Pacific Ocean thickly studded with islands--less known, perhaps, than any other part of the world, attainable by the high-road of the seas--and inhabited by a perfectly distinct race of men from the olive-coloured, straight-haired Malay population of the adjoining tract of Polynesia. This tract of country lies between 150° and 170° east longitude, and between the equator and the tropic of Capricorn, and, together with Australia and New Guinea, on account of the dark skin of its inhabitants, received from the French the name of Melanesia. At present the term has come to be applied only to the islands to the north of New Zealand, between the limits already named, which, either by accident or design, were set down in the letters patent issued for the consecration of a bishop for the diocese of New Zealand as the boundaries of his jurisdiction.
The Melanesian Islands, for the most part belong [1/2] to the coral formation, and are of volcanic origin; the igneous rock having apparently been gradually upheaved to its present position from the depths of the ocean, and when near the surface, having been worked upon by those wonderful little coral insects which, year after year, raise their tiny cells higher and higher, until they appear above the water; and then some further volcanic disturbance forces up a cone or ridge of rock in the centre, which, after a time, becomes clothed with a garment of tropical verdure such as we in England can but faintly imagine. Those who have seen these coral islands describe them as surpassing in beauty any scenery which can be seen elsewhere. Like the Happy Isles of Avalon, they lie
"Deep-bosomed, happy, fair, with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea."
And lest the waves should beat upon them too roughly, the outworks of the coral form a reef around them, on which the long Atlantic rollers break with surf and spray, while within, between the reef and the shore, the crystal water is still as a lake, and in its depths can be seen the variously-coloured forests of coral, alive with rainbow-hued fish darting in and out among their branches. Then the beach is composed of no sober-coloured sand or shingle, but of glittering white powdered coral; beyond, rise white coral crags, festooned with trailing creepers many hundred feet long, and convolvulus flowers measuring seven inches [2/3] across: and above them, again, rises a bank of tall tropical trees--bread-fruit, almond, cocoa-nut, and bananas--which spread in a dense mass, wherever man has not thinned them, into the centre of the island, and blue parrots and other tropical birds chirp and chatter among their branches.
When Nature is thus bounteous, however, danger arises from her very bounty, and we see that the "thorns and the thistles" which the earth was to bring forth to Adam were rather a blessing than a curse. In the Melanesian Islands poverty is unknown, since the wild fruits are free to all; but since the earth needs no cultivation--or, at least, very little--to produce food for man, idleness is the result, and from idleness spring endless feuds and fightings, undisciplined passions, degradation of mental and bodily powers, and general savagery. Such is invariably the condition of any untaught people to whom "the stern old fairy, Necessity," has never come near to make them use their wits or die. In whatever way our heathen ancestors may have been superior to the Melanesian heathen of the present day, it is to be attributed less to the inherent vigour of the Aryan race than to the blessings of the ungenial climate which made them work to live, and by the discipline of daily labour, prepared the soil for the seed of Christianity.
Unlike the race which inhabits Polynesia, the [3/4] Melanesians, though considerably varying in height, colour, and general characteristics, have more of the Negro character than of the Malay. Their lips are not so thick, their skulls not so receding, nor their hair so woolly, as those of Africans; but they are still more removed from the olive skin and straight hair of the Maori or Polynesian. While, too, the language of Polynesia is often the same in two or three large groups of islands, it is a common thing in Melanesia to find an island in which the inhabitants of one village cannot understand those of the next. The dialects of their languages are so numerous and so unlike, that even those which most resemble each other are as far removed from one another as German from French. Their constant wars, of course, aggravate this tendency; for their villages are in a normal state of feud, and few intermarriages take place, unless the wife is carried off and stolen, which hardly tends to soothe the feelings of the opposite side. Sometimes a whole tribe will be exterminated in this way, by internecine fights; sometimes one tribe will be wholly scattered and destroyed by another, and its very language lost. Often a village will be found to consist of five or six huts only; and if no change takes place, it is more than probable that in a few years' time that village will have ceased to exist, and its dialect will be heard no more.
Yet, notwithstanding this, there is much that is [4/5] attractive in the character of many of these islanders. 'They are not unlike grown-up children--children in their easily excited passions and readiness to be amused, but men in strength, years, and capability of gratifying those passions. Where a child would strike another with his clenched fist, a Melanesian would shoot him dead with bow and poisoned arrow. Yet they are very easily touched by kindness, and once brought to love a superior being and to look up to him, may be led through that love to the exercise of the powers of conscience, and through this, again, to the higher life of the soul, and to the full consciousness of humanity--the love of God.
Norfolk Island, the southernmost point of Melanesia, was not originally comprehended under this name, but may now for all intents and purposes be said to belong to this division of the Pacific Ocean. To the northward of Norfolk Island, the principal groups, or archipelagoes, are the Loyalty Islands, comprehending among others, Nengonè and Lifu: the New Hebrides, among which are Anaiteum, Erromango, Mallicolo, Mai, and others: the Banks Islands, the best known of which are Mota, Valua, and Vanua Lava: the Santa Cruz Archipelago, named after the largest of its islands; and the Solomon Islands, among which are Bauro, or San Cristoval, Gera, Malanta, and Ysabel.
The Loyalty Islands, being farthest from the equator, are habitable by Europeans, and have been [5/6] occupied by the labourers of the London Mission. Anaiteum and a few of the more southward of the New Hebrides have been evangelised by Scotch missionaries from Nova Scotia; but the rest of the islands, being uninhabitable by Europeans for more than six months in the year, had been left to their primitive condition, and, indeed, had never even been thoroughly explored and laid down in the Admiralty charts. Like the Ancient Mariner, Bishop Selwyn might well say,
"We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea."
The New Hebrides and the Santa Cruz group enjoy the unenviable distinction of systematic cannibalism. The Banks and Solomon Islanders are for the most part free from it. Originally, probably, the practice was connected with some religious rite, and they believed that by eating their enemies they became possessed of their prowess and valour--sole admiration of barbarous tribes. But there seems to be little idea of a sacred character connected with their cannibalism as generally practised; and, of course, the people in general have less opportunity of practising it than their chiefs. Those who came from islands where cannibalism was usual were not found to be less teachable or more confirmed in their evil habits than those from other islands.
In no part of Melanesia does there appear to be [6/7] any relic of an earlier and purer religion, such as remained to the Peruvians in the time of Pizarro, and, though in a less degree, among the Red Indians of North America. Fetish-worship is the only form of religion which remains to them. The men in tools islands cook at a sacred fire which the women are not allowed to approach--possibly some relic of ancient sun-worship: beyond this, they have a vague dread of the powers of nature, and a defined one of their priests, who have such power over them that if they curse them, the victims will sometimes at once go home and die of terror. In some islands sharks, crocodiles, and serpents--fierce and destroying creatures--receive a species of worship; and a vague dread of ghosts seems to be the only idea in many islands bearing any resemblance to the belief in the immortality of the soul.
Such were the people over whom Bishop Selwyn found himself placed as pastor in the year 1842.