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

Reprinted from "Mission Life."

London: William Macintosh, 1869.


AT the beginning of the year 1853, a heavy loss fell upon the Melanesian Mission in the death of their most promising pupil, George Siapo.

He has been several times mentioned in this narrative; but perhaps our readers may not object to hear a little more about him. He was a Nengonè youth of considerable rank: when very young he had been adopted by Bula, one of the chiefs, son of another chief of the same name, whose cannibal propensities were strongly developed. Of this elder Bula the Nengonè lads tell a story that when an old man, wishing to marry a young woman who declined the honour, he had her killed and ate her; and if any one ever forgot to pay him due honour, it was his custom to have him killed and to eat him. His son, however, seems to have been of a more amiable disposition, and the friendship between him and Siapo was only severed by death.

The Bishop made Siapo's acquaintance in a somewhat remarkable way. Nengonè is a coral island without any depth of soil, so that water is collected, [72/73] not in wells, but in the clefts of the coral, which are sometimes 100 feet deep. On Bishop Selwyn's first visit in 1849, Siapo volunteered to fetch water from the coral pit for the white stranger; and, as he looked up at the Bishop from the bottom of the pit, the latter, whose universal knowledge comprehends physiognomy, was struck by the expression of his face, and resolved to try to induce him to come to New Zealand. He came, with two companions, and from that time proved to be one of the most hopeful of the pupils. He was tall and graceful in person, with a handsome, thoughtful countenance and expressive features, and his influence both among his schoolfellows and at home at Nengonè was always for good.

In the attack at Mallicolo on the watering party, it has already been described how Siapo marched on holding the water-cask above his head, unwilling to relinquish his trust even when the water was spoilt. On the Bishop's visit to Nengonè in July, 1852, in the course of the second voyage of the Border Maid; four lads were baptized, among whom was Siapo, who received the name of George. During the absence of the Border Maid among the other islands, he had a severe illness, which seems to have weakened his constitution, though he rallied from it at the time. He looked forward with some dread to his return to New Zealand, and said once to his friend the chief, "I am afraid I shall die some day in New Zealand." [73/74] His friend answered, "Even if you do, it is better that you should go." In the spirit of resolute obedience which characterised him, he said no more.

When the Border Maid returned from her cruise, Siapo came forward and said he wished to take back a young girl named Wabisane, sister of Bula, the chief, whom he hoped one day to make his wife. He thought that he should first like her to receive some training in Christianity, such as he had himself received. The Bishop highly approved the idea. It showed that Christianity had so far worked upon Siapo's character that he had entirely outgrown the heathen notion of a wife merely being a slave; and that he desired Wabisane to become to him a Christian helpmate and a companion. Wabisane, and another girl who came with her for company, were arrayed by the Bishop's own handiwork in garments made from a patchwork bed-quilt, and in due time they arrived at Auckland.

Soon after Siapo's return, however, he began to complain of pain in his right side, and day after day he grew weaker. He was moved down to the seaside for sea-bathing and warmth; but, though he rallied at first, it was not for long. Soon he was too weak to walk or to sit up; but still he took great interest in the lessons that went on in his room, and would rouse himself to explain Nengonè words to his teacher or Christian truths to his companions.

[75] About Christmas the Bishop went to see him before starting on his diocesan visitation, and finding that he was duly prepared, he administered to him the Holy Communion, and, when giving him his parting blessing, felt that they should never more meet upon earth. Except on such occasions, Siapo was indisposed to speak of himself or his inner feelings; and it was not until the 14th of January, when he thought he was dying, that he broke through all his natural and reverent reserve of character, and spoke plainly of his trust in Christ who had redeemed him, and his love of his heavenly Father who had first loved him. The thought of his own people, and the longing that they might he brought to the knowledge of the truth, was very strong in his mind. He repeatedly begged Mr. Nihill to return to Nengonè, and to teach his people whom he loved so dearly. For an hour or two before he breathed his last he was constantly giving messages to the other Nengonè boys on Mr. Nihill's behalf. "Wadokala, take care of Mr. Nihill when I am gone. Poor Mr. Nihill; you and I have gone together, and now I die and you go alone! "Almost his last words were, "Go to Guamha (his home in Nengonè), dear Mr. Nihill. Let Wapai, my brother, come to New Zealand and learn. Dear Mr. Nihill, you have been to Guamha; but there is only one God, and one home above in heaven." And with these words he fell asleep, and entered that home of which he spoke.

[76] It was not until Siapo was gone that it was fully known how much had been lost with him. The removal of his influence told among the lads of the college; and the Nengonè lads who knew him only told afterwards of his manful adherence to what he had been taught in New Zealand, notwithstanding the mockery of his countrymen and the threats of the chief, so that by his influence he brought many who had been enemies of the faith to accept it. Yet the good seed which George Siapo sowed in his short life had not been wasted. Many of those who then knew him are now most useful themselves as teachers, Wadokala among them; and by them the memory of Siapo is still cherished as that of one who pointed to his companions the way to the Golden City, though it was not his to lead them to its gates.

Wabisane and her companion, as well as a younger brother of the former, were considered fit for baptism in the June following, and also a boy named Nikeula, from Doka, and Cho, a young chief, from Lifu, both islands of the Loyalty group. Each of these five were separately asked whether they wished for baptism, whether they understood what it was, and to what it pledged them. They all took time to consider, and deliberately consented. They all seemed to have well counted the cost; and those who witnessed that evening service on the 7th of June, when the Bishop baptized them, will not easily forget their reverent [76/77] manner and earnest countenances as they stood by the font, and were signed with the sign of the cross, in token that hereafter they should not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.

Another lad, John Thol, before mentioned, also died during this year. He was of a wilful and wayward temper, but seemed to improve much during his last illness; and he was genuinely attached to the Bishop and his family. He was buried by the side of George Apali, his cousin, who had died the year before.

A somewhat amusing anecdote is related of the Lifu lads who accompanied John Cho, the young chief of that island. They were always very respectful and dutiful to him, and once, when a Mallicolo man struck him, and the fight which of course resulted was stopped by a teacher, the Lifu lads brooded over the insult all day, and said that Hakhai, the assailant, would have been put to death in Lifu before the white men came and taught them better. Still it seems they expected some satisfaction from Hakhai for having dared to strike their chief; and the only way in which they could be appeased was by showing them an Eton List, and pointing out to them how nobleman's names occurred promiscuously with commoners, and how all distinctions of rank must be overlooked at school, if each is to have fair play, and no favour.

At last the school year was drawing to a close, and [77/78] the Bishop found it necessary to take the lads back to their islands. But pecuniary difficulties had arisen in the affairs of the Mission, owing to the gold fever, which rendered seamen's wages so high that it was beyond the power of the Bishop to keep a Mission ship all the year round. The Border Maid, too, was not a new ship, and wanted extensive repairs; and the Bishop thought it best to part with her, and to trust to obtaining a ship for the voyage when the time should come for his return to the islands. But when the time came, and he advertised for a ship, none could be found: the gold discoveries had attracted the seamen away from their usual haunts, and even the Border Maid, under her new owners, was employed in carrying provisions to the gold fields. He therefore was obliged to take his Melanesians to Sydney, and trust to be able to procure a vessel there.

On June 29th, 1853, the Bishop arrived at Sydney, after a stormy voyage of eighteen days, and a narrow escape from shipwreck off the Australian coast. The Bishop writes:--

"Little Umao (the attendant of the sick English sailor, who had been ailing for some time) is certainly not the worse for the voyage; but we have lost poor Nabong (a Mallicolo lad). On the eighth or ninth day he was seized with violent pains in the head, by which his reason was partially affected, and he remained for two days uttering cries of distress. He was [78/79] removed into the cabin, and every attention, I hope, given to him; but his violent hysteria, or whatever it might be, ended in stupor, and on the fourth day he died. He had been baptized by the name of George, being the third of that name who had died among us. I never before performed a funeral at sea, and it seemed even more impressive than on land. The solemn pause, and then the heavy splash, answering to the words, 'We commit his body to the deep,' fully equal, I think, the effect of 'earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.'"

Three of the lads who had been brought with so much hope from their islands in the Border Maid a year before had thus passed from among their companions. The year, although attended by a fair measure of success in the actual work of the Mission, had been one of anxiety and trial. Yet the promise which comforted the Jewish exiles returning to their ruined home, there to build afresh that national Church which was to prepare the way for Christianity, might well encourage these devoted men who sought to extend the kingdom of God to the lonely Pacific islands--

"They that sow in tears shall reap in joy:

"He that now goeth on his way weeping, bearing forth good seed,

"Shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him."

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