Project Canterbury

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

Reprinted from "Mission Life."

London: William Macintosh, 1869.


IN the year 1842, Bishop Selwyn was consecrated to the diocese of New Zealand, together with the isles adjoining; but for seven years his time was so much occupied upon the mainland, that although the islands of Melanesia were always in his mind, he had no opportunity of personally visiting them and seeing their wants for himself. It was not until 1849, that he was able to sail in his little Undine, a tiny schooner of twenty-two tons in which he was wont to visit the various shores of New Zealand on his episcopal work to the northern islands, and thus to lay the foundation of what has since grown into the Melanesian Mission.

A less energetic man would probably have been content to work the large diocese which was already his, without troubling himself about the innumerable outlying islands beyond. And the difficulties which lay in the path of any one beginning to organise such a mission as might comprehend all these islands were so great, that a less courageous spirit might well have been daunted.

[16] First of all there was the innumerable quantity of islands, each with a different language, and most with several different dialects. The plan adopted by the London Mission and Scotch Mission of settling a European Missionary down upon a single island, to work it as Anaiteum was worked, was not feasible on a large scale, from want of suitable men, and from the expense it would have entailed, since even to place English clergymen upon islands where the climate would allow them to remain, would require as much as £50,000 a year. If every other difficulty could have been got over, there yet remained these two: that not one English clergyman in a hundred, earnest and intelligent as they might be, would be suitable for this work; and that all the northern islands lying near the equator are so unhealthy as to be uninhabitable by Europeans during the six summer months of the year.

Then there was the imperfect knowledge possessed of the islands, and the great care needed in sailing among them, from the numerous outlying reefs and shallows, and the rarity of any harbour fit for a ship to anchor in when the weather was unfavourable. And there was the well-known character of many of the islanders--fierce, treacherous, and prompt to revenge upon any white man the insults or injuries they had sustained from European or American traders, who came to their islands to obtain sandal wood for the [16/17] scenting of English fans and incensing of Chinese idols, and black sea-slugs to make broth for Chinese Mandarins.

Notwithstanding these obstacles, Bishop Selwyn did not desist from his resolve to organise some mission work among the countless Melanesian Islands. The success of the Samoan teachers had shown that it was possible to use the native element in this work more than had been done in most Missions, and he devised a plan by which the small English force he could collect might enlist, control, and finally render self-reliant a large staff of native teachers and clergy; each of whom, might in his own language, and in his own island, preach the good news of the Gospel, and become a focus of light, intelligence, and civilisation through which the islands might be changed from nests of barbarism to centres of blessing.

His plan was this:--To cruise about among the various groups of islands for some months in every year, and in the course of that time, to open a friendly communication with as many islands as possible, and to persuade the natives of these islands to entrust to his care some of the most promising of their children, who were to be taken to New Zealand, and kept there during the summer months to be instructed in the first principles of Christianity, and also to communicate as much as might be of their language to their instructors. In the winter, to [17/18] return again to the islands, and to take these boys back to their homes, relying on their good offices to ensure a friendly reception, and having from them acquired the power of communication with their friends in their own languages. Then, if any one of these lads proved to be apt and intelligent, and likely to repay the pains of further education, to take him again to New Zealand, and to go on with his instruction, hoping that he might one day become a teacher, catechist, and missionary among his own people; otherwise to leave the pupils of the past year at their homes, and to take others in their places, thus opening other paths whereby the Mission might penetrate to the various villages of each island.

This was to be the first step towards the foundation of a Church of Melanesia; but the ideal which the Bishop had before him, though, as he knew, it it was but little likely to be reached in his time, or even for many years after him, was far more magnificent. He pictured to himself a central school in each group of islands, conducted by native teachers, superintended during the winter months by an European clergyman, and paying frequent summer visits to New Zealand, so as to continue their own instruction and bring them under the influence of more cultivated minds. Thus they would never suffer from the isolation which fell so heavily on the Samoan teachers of the London Society, from the absence of [18/19] any systematic scheme of visitation of the islands where they were placed.

Then gradually from this beginning, as years went on, Bishop Selwyn hoped that the need for the supervision of English clergymen might cease, and that the Melanesian Church might become an independent body, with its own staff of clergy, its own laws, its own bishop. For he had no ambition to make the Melanesian Islands, either now or at any other time, into the likeness of an English colony. He had seen too clearly how the colonists in any land, and from every nation, were apt to belie their name of Christian in their dealings with the natives, and how the race of "niggers," as they contemptuously call them, dies out and disappears before the step of the white man. His aim was not to evangelise the Melanesians by means of his own countrymen, as a system introduced from without; it was rather to raise them to evangelise themselves.

Passing from dreams of the future to realities of the present, the Bishop sailed, as we have said, to the Melanesian Islands in the year 1849: his little Missionary vessel, Undine, being called upon to perform this longer and more perilous journey than any she had before known. In August, 1849, he was at Anaiteum, where he visited the Scotch Missionaries, and learnt from them particulars of their work, their difficulties, and their successes. Of [19/20] course, with such an enormous field of work spread open before him, he had no inclination, even had he had the desire, to disturb the missions of other religious bodies who had settled down upon any island. Bishop Selwyn always carried out the plan of doing all he could to help and encourage such missions, entering into friendly relations with the missionaries, and assisting them with his advice and experience, but not taking part in their public services. That his Christian charity, together with his conscientious obedience to the rules of his own church, were not undervalued by the members of other missions, is proved by the fact of the society which sent out Mr. Geddie and Mr. Inglis, the Missionaries at Anaiteum, having voted him a sum of money in aid of his mission, in consideration of his kindness to them.

The Undine made her first cruise among the Loyalty Islands, and also touched at New Caledonia and the Isle of Pines, and brought back to New Zealand five native lads--one from New Caledonia, three from Nengonè, and one from Lifu.

The Bishop found that he had not miscalculated on the willingness of the people to part with their children, when once the object of his taking them was ascertained. Among these more southern of the Melanesian Islands white men were better known, and there was greater community of language than [20/21] among the more northern islands; and his five first fruits of Melanesia were brought to Auckland and installed in St. John's College--an institution established principally for the benefit of the young Maories, whom Bishop Selwyn wished to educate.

The next step in the work was the sale of the little Undine, and the procuring of a larger vessel for Melanesian work. Undine had done her work well, was perfect for her size, and was especially dear to the Bishop as the gift of his various friends at home; but such a project as that which the Bishop had devised for Melanesia required a larger ship, which could accommodate a larger party on Board, and also carry a more adequate stock of fresh provisions.

The time rolled on: the first scholars of Melanesia were restored to their homes, and others were, taken in their places. In December, 1850, the new vessel, Border Maid, arrived at Auckland with four Melanesian boys on board; not, however, this time brought by the Bishop himself from their. islands, but handed over to him from Captain Erskine, who commanded H. M. S. Havannah. These boys he had taken on board at their own request, one of them having come and sat himself down and refusing to move, so anxious was he to stay and learn. One of these boys came from Bauro, in the Solomon Islands; two from [21/22] Erromango, and the fourth from Fate or Sandwich Island.

These boys proved to be bright and intelligent; and Didimang, the lad from Bauro, in the Solomon Islands, gave many proofs that the teaching he received was entering into his mind,--not only impressed in a parrot-like manner on his memory. After six months spent at St. John's College, the Bishop proposed to take the boys back to their islands for the winter months, and to bring back others, as he had done before. On Tuesday, July 8th, 1851, he embarked with his party, under an unclouded sky and upon a calm sea, for a four months' cruise among the Melanesian Islands.

Project Canterbury