Project Canterbury

The Island Mission: Being a History of the Melanesian Mission from Its Commencement

Reprinted from "Mission Life."

London: William Macintosh, 1869.


THAT earnest and indefatigable body of men, the London Mission, have for the last fifty years been at work on various islands of Polynesia. They are of the Independent body, and have gradually spread the knowledge of the truth throughout many of the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Those who have read a little book published some years ago, called "Night of Toil," will remember the early struggles of these men in introducing Christianity into Tahiti and the surrounding islands; and upon the same system they proceeded in evangelising the Figi Islands, and the Rarotongan and Samoan group. Their system was to settle down in an island, to gather around them a little congregation of native Christians, who, in their turn, went forth to preach in other surrounding islands, and thus prepared the way for fuller teaching than they themselves could give. The people of distant islands often speak dialects of the same language, so that one of the difficulties of Melanesian mission work is here unknown; and a person who understands the Maori spoken in New Zealand can [8/9] make himself understood by a native of Rarotonga or Samoa.

With a courage and zeal which might well shame us, enlightened and civilised Christians, these poor Samoan converts went forth from home and friends into an utterly new and strange country, where it was more than possible that they might have to yield their lives for their faith. They had none of the prestige of the white man; many of them could not read; all their bodily and mental possessions were the garment of cocoa-leaves around their waists, and that portion of Christian truth in their hearts, which, small and bounded as it was, had yet brought forth such good fruit. Probably an Englishman, seeing them for the first time among the people for whom they laboured, would have classed them altogether as ignorant savages; yet that their attempt was nothing impossible or ill judged was proved by the result. They found their way westward, as far as Nengonè, in the Loyalty Islands. Here they mastered the difficulties of a strange language, conquered the obstacles of a different race. In a few years half of the island had left off fighting and cannibalism. They had built a chapel, plastered with powdered coral-lime, and matted with cocoa-nut fibre, and a house of the same material, ready for a resident missionary whenever he might come to teach them; and they had learnt the name of Him who [9/10] made them and redeemed them, and knew the difference between right and wrong, and that God wished them to be good. If, along with this, the Samoans had also introduced certain religious phrases which their scholars repeated by rote without much idea of their meaning--if they were apt to give pointless, rambling discourses by way of sermons--no one could reasonably find fault with them, or expect their zeal and earnestness to cover the shortcomings of want of education. They did at least the preparatory work, without which the seed of Christianity could no more be expected to grow than corn in an unfurrowed field.

In other islands their work showed less success than in the Loyalty group. In the New Hebrides they were often driven away, or put to death by those whom they came to teach; but there was never any difficulty in supplying their place by others, equally zealous and equally brave. It must not be supposed that the English missionaries left all the danger to them, and only kept the places of safety themselves. The history of John Williams tells a different tale. He was murdered at Erromango in the year 1840, and others, as will be seen, have suffered in the same way since then.

One example of thee work of these teachers will suffice. The scene is Anaiteum, one of the southernmost of the New Hebrides, a most lovely island, with [10/11] a natural harbour formed by a sandy islet with projecting coral reefs. The island is edged, like other rural islands, with a line of shining silver beach, fringed with cocoa-nut trees, under the shade of which a few houses are built, with thatched roofs and walls, plastered with coral lime; above, a range of hills of every tint of vivid green, their summits canopied with dark grey mist, while under this background of neutral tint the bright colours of the foreground stand out in marvellous beauty. As in Bishop Heber's hymn, "every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."

Several Samoan teachers had settled at Anaiteum; and in 1845, Mr. Turner, one of the missionaries of the London Society, called there in the ship belonging to the mission, to see how things were prospering there. They found that two of the teachers had died--a man named Tavita, and his wife. Simeone and Apolo, two of the remaining teachers, had often been in danger of their lives. When a chief of the place where they resided died, it was proposed to kill them for the "weeping feast;" it being the custom at such a time to kill and eat any strangers in the neighbourhood, and also to strip their plantations for the same purpose. Simeone and Apolo, however, placed their plantation at the service of the feast-givers, and thus escaped being made a part of it themselves.

They had only made one convert-a man named, [11/12] Umra. The day school which they had established had to be given up, because the grown people did not like their children to be wiser than themselves. However, they had established a private night school instead, at which they had eleven scholars.

The English missionaries arranged for the location of Simeone and another teacher named Poti, in the district of a chief called Nohuat. They gave him a present, begged him to be kind to the teachers, and to listen to their instructions. He replied: promised a number of things, such as a plot of ground, help in house-building, protection against thieves, and a supply of food. Umra, the convert, who was sitting by, got up at this, and said: "Nohuat! that is all very well; but you have forgotten one thing: you must attend to the Word of God."

The chief hold which the Samoan teachers had upon the people of Anaiteum arose from the prestige of their being able to burn coral stones, and to make plaster and whitewash of the lime therein contained. The people fought less than in many islands; and in case of murder an apology, together with a pig, would settle the affair. They worshipped the spirits of their ancestors, had sacred groves, and believed in a kind of heaven for the good, which seemed to consist of plenty of food, and a hell for the bad, where they were starved. The teachers tried to persuade the people to bury their dead in the island, instead of [12/13] throwing them into the sea; but they found that a belief was spreading that all who were buried went to heaven, and all who were thrown into the sea, to hell, so that they wisely abstained from making a point of the matter. They had a custom of strangling a man's wife, or a child's mother, at their death, so that they might accompany them to the world of spirits. The Samoans bravely resisted this practice, often risking their lives in order to prevent it. One day they went to a place where all was ready, and the poor wife was brought out to be strangled. They spoke against it; the woman became afraid, and ran to them for protection. This enraged the people, and they attacked the teachers, who barely escaped with their lives; in the confusion, however, the woman was saved.

In 1848, three Scotch Presbyterian missionaries, of the Nova Scotia Mission, settled at Anaiteum, and the effect upon the island showed how patiently and laboriously the poor Samoan teachers, ignorant, lonely, and persecuted, had done their work. In 1856, out of a population of 4,000, only two or three hundred remained heathens. Schools were established all over the island, under the management of native teachers; large chapels were erected at the two principal stations, and boarding-houses for young men and women were attached to the dwellings of the missionaries. The rapid improvement of the [13/14] character of the people, their intelligence and goodwill, their quickness in learning to read and write, and willingness to adopt the social habits of their instructors, are so many facts which call for thankfulness in themselves, and give pledges of hope for the future of other islands which are now what Anaiteum once was.

Project Canterbury