Project Canterbury

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

Reprinted from "Mission Life."

London: William Macintosh, 1869.


BISHOP SELWYN, accompanied by Mr. Patteson, returned to New Zealand in July, 1855. His first act was to make a voyage round the New Zealand islands, in which the powers of the Southern Cross were put to the proof, and found to be all that could be desired. This, and the necessary work of the diocese, filled up nearly a year; and it was not until May, 1865, that he was able to start on another voyage to the Melanesian Islands. As Mr. Patteson wrote in the April preceding, "The whole work has now, in one sense, to be recommenced, partly on account of the Bishop's temporary absence, partly in consequence of the death of Mr. Nihill at Nengonè last April. Consequently, this year the voyage will rather be one of discovery than the result of any previous arrangement with any native teachers scattered throughout the islands."

The year 1856 was a memorable one for Melanesia for another cause. It brought under the supervision of Bishop Selwyn the population of Pitcairn's Island, the story of which, well-known although it may be to many, deserves a special mention here.

[90] Pitcairn's Island is a small uninhabited point in Polynesia, which, as is now well-known, was the place of refuge of the mutineers of the Bounty, whither they brought their brown Tahitian wives. A wild story of crime working out its own Nemesis, as true a tragedy as ever entered the brain of Euripides, was enacted upon that lonely, sunny little island. Nine years after the mutiny, Young and Adams alone remained alive of the nine English sailors who had mutinied from the Bounty and formed the settlement: one year later, in 1800, Adams alone remained at the head of a numerous mixed English and Tahitian generation of children. He was a very different man from the wild mutineer of ten years before. He had become a quiet sober man, of earnest Christian character, and resolved to make the best amends he could for his past deeds of violence, by making the little colony of which he was the head, a settlement of steady God-fearing characters. He had by him a Bible and a Prayer Book, brought among other things from the Bounty, which lie studied diligently, and according to which he fashioned the life of the young generation of whom he was the head. In 1825 an English naval officer visited them, and reported of them that they "lived together in perfect harmony and contentment; were virtuous, religious, cheerful and hospitable beyond the limits of prudence; were [90/91] patterns of conjugal and parental affection, and had no vices."

In 1830, Captain Waldegrave of the Seringapatam, visited Pitcairn and described the islanders. Their cottages were open to all, and all were welcome to their food. Before they began a meal they invariably stood up and said grace; if any one arrived during their repast to share it, all ceased eating while the new guest said grace, also to which all responded Amen; after which the meal proceeded. So rigid were they in their religious rules that for years every Wednesday and Friday were kept as strict fast days. Old Adams, an entirely self-educated man, who had taught himself to read after his arrival at. Pitcairn, having observed the fast days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday mentioned in the Prayer Book, thought it right to observe these days in the same manner every week, though the work of tilling the ground was so severe that the poor labourers sometimes fainted from exhaustion over their work. In 1831 their numbers had increased to eighty-seven. The island being only 800 acres in extent, and very rocky, the difficulty of providing food and water made them determine to seek a new home at Tahiti, whence their mothers had come; but not finding the tone of mind or morality of their Tahitian cousins to their taste, they returned to their own island, where they remained until 1856.

[92] They were happy, about this time, in procuring the instruction of Mr. Nobbs, whose own history was almost as curious as John Adams' own. Originally a midshipman in the British navy, under Lord Dundonald, he was twice taken prisoner by the Chilians, and each time under sentence of death, escaping on both occasions by the merest chance. After having worked in irons on the roads and gone through many strange adventures, he found his way, with one companion, in a tiny little craft of twenty-tons burden, a distance of 3,500 miles to Pitcairn, where he found a home, and remained as schoolmaster among the people. Some years later he visited England and was ordained a clergyman, and still lives among his flock, being to the present generation almost what John Adams was to the first.

But with a steadily increasing population, it was plain that Pitcairn's Island could not long suffice for their wants; and accordingly, when one or two bad seasons had brought famine and convinced the people that it was impossible for them to remain, the British Government offered them a home in Norfolk Island, which was then uninhabited, since the occupation of it as a convict settlement had been given up.

Norfolk Island from the sea looks bare, its coast being iron-bound, with basalt cliffs; but when it is once entered there is no want of vegetation, and it appears like one large park, the principal tree being [92/93] the Norfolk Island pine, Araucaria excelsa, which gives a character to the landscape. There are many relies of its former possessors in the jails, barracks, and public offices, used when the population of the island was the off-scouring of the convict settlements of New South Wales, and the graveyard bears tokens of the same sorrowful history.

Hither it was that in 1856 came the population of Pitcairn's Island--rather sad, especially the elder ones, at their transplantation from their native soil, but willing to acquiesce in a measure which they could perceive was for their good. Captain Hood, of the Fawn, visited them a few years later, and thus writes of their condition:--

"It is difficult to imagine a state of society in which life flows more pleasantly on, though in an even tenor, than in the homes of these amiable people, by whom the troubles and turmoil of the world are heard only as the echo of far-distant thunder. All being equal in fortune, prospects, and position, are free from the jealousies and heartburnings which embitter the enjoyment of life to the most wealthy possessor of the seeming good things of this world. May it be long before the auri sacra fames disturbs the quiet of the little colony! Whaling seems the favourite occupation of the men, and galloping after their cattle. They have thus both sport and profitable employment, which they vary [93/94] with work in their gardens and plantations, and now and then by a crusade against the rabbits in Philip's Islands. The women find abundant means of passing their time in attending to their dairies, and sewing for their numerous families. All are very fond of reading, and anxious to gather information from every source of the world and its history. Some are very well informed indeed. I made the acquaintance of one of the daughters of the first generation, whose knowledge of the manners and customs of different people, and the geography of their countries, was remarkably extensive. They have the advantage in this respect of their good fathers and mothers, who, when young, knew their Bible well, but nothing else. Only two of the men of the first generation are now living, Adams and Quintal. The latter, a quaint old man, told us that when he was a boy, playing with his companions early one morning on the beach, he was startled, like Robinson Crusoe with the footprints, by finding a big jack-knife on the shore, and seeing a number of branches of cocoa-nut trees freshly cut. Looking around, they espied a large strange object on the ocean; and running home, learned from their father, old Adams, that it was a ship. They remained under the idea for a long time (for perhaps lie thought it better not to instruct them in anything regarding the outer world) that it had come through the hole in the horizon where the sun rose."

[95] The code of laws which existed until a recent period was very curious; the titles of some of the regulations bespeak the primitive state of the people, e.g. No. 2, laws for dogs; No. 3, laws for cats; No. 4, laws for hogs; No. 8, laws respecting landmarks;. No. 10, laws for the public anvil. If a fowl were found trespassing in a garden, the proprietor might shoot and keep it, and the owner of the fowl was to return to him the powder and shot expended in killing it. The young lovers were also forbidden to carve each other's names with true love knots, as was their delight, upon the soft stems of the plantains and bananas. These regulations, trivial as they seem, were not uncalled for, as the fowls had so much increased that gardens were much injured by them, and the demonstrative ardour of the young men spoilt the plants which produced the staple articles of their food.

Their simple earnest goodness has not been marred by their change of abode. They are still the same quaint simple people, bearing traces of their mixed origin, and, of course, of their isolation from the rest of the world. Perhaps for this very reason they may be the more fitted to help in the work of evangelising the Melanesian islands to the northward, assimilated to them as they are by climate and habits, differing chiefly in the fact of being a Christian community.

In 1856, soon after their arrival, Bishop Selwyn [95/96] held a confirmation in the island, and the whole grown-up population was confirmed--eighty-six persons in all. It was a most striking service, old and young knelt together; from Arthur Quintal, the oldest man on the island, to boys and girls of sixteen years old; and all showing, by their reverence and earnestness, that they understood and felt what they were doing. Bishop Selwyn felt that some definite kind of work would be needed to keep them from falling below their present standard, and he greatly desired to engage them as fellow-helpers in his Melanesian work, which was afterwards done in some degree, as will be seen in the sequel.

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