Project Canterbury

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

Reprinted from "Mission Life."

London: William Macintosh, 1869.


IN June, 1856, the Bishop and Mrs. Selwyn, and Mr. Patteson, left Auckland in the Southern Cross. Mrs. Selwyn was to be left at Norfolk Island, with the Pitcairners, just arrived at their new home, while her husband and Mr. Patteson went on to Melanesia. The following sketches from her pen give a graphic account of her visit:--

"We paid our visit to Norfolk Island on our way to Sydney, in June, 1856; but the Pitcairners, who were to be removed thither, because they have out-grown their own island, had not then arrived. The Bishop's hopes of finding the Governor-General of Australia favourable to his wish of making Norfolk Island the head-quarters of his Melanesian work were not fulfilled, as Sir W. Denison did not feel himself at liberty to accede to it: it therefore stands over for the present. Meantime it is consolatory to know that our Melanesian work cannot now be held responsible for any changes which, in their altered estate, may be observed among the Pitcairners; for, however much to be desired, it is hardly to be [97/98] expected that they will always retain that peculiar childlike character which has hitherto made them a praise upon earth.

"After leaving Sydney, the Southern Cross returned to Norfolk Island, and was off the settlement on the 4th of July. Not discovering any signs of life on shore, we were about to stand out to sea again, when a boat put off from shore, and a party of Pitcairners: came on board. They had, it seems, arrived three weeks since, and having been promised by the officers of H.M.S. Juno, who superintended their departure, from Pitcairn's, an early visit from the Bishop, they had been looking out daily for his arrival. They were rather a foreign set in appearance--cheerful in, manner, and miscellaneous in attire. Mr. Patteson accompanied them on shore, one of the party remaining on board to give information on various points; but very little was taken by this motion, for, on standing out to sea again, it became so rough, that our friend John Quintall had to retire from public life before he had made much progress in the statistics of his people.

"On the next morning we went on shore in the public whale-boat, which was carefully piloted over the bar, and through the surf, by men who seemed to be as much at home in a high sea as is a Thames waterman on his smooth river. We were received by a large party, including Mr. Nobbs, the chaplain; [98/99] and found that the people had, only two days before, drawn lots, after their manner, for the numerous empty houses (formerly those of the officers, and those who were connected with the convict establishment,) in which they were just settled. The huge prisons and barracks are reserved for public, though happily not now for their original purposes. In Government House, another reservation, but in their keeping, rooms were assigned for our use--somewhat grand apartments, as to height and proportions, commanding what would be a pretty view, but that the huge unsightly prisons spoil it to the eyes both of mind and body.

* * * *

"The bell called us at ten on the next day, Sunday, to assemble in the chapel: a large, melancholy building, within the precincts of one of the great prisons. The contrast was striking between the present and the last congregation assembled here; those hardened, sin-stained men, who we may hope did, some of them, find pardon and peace, and this child-like flock. They were nearly all present: at one end a school of nice looking children, the men at the other--the women the middle; a musical division of the people, the basses, the firsts, and the seconds being in separate groups. All but the very young and the very old take part in the singing, and the effect is very fine. Still finer, however, is that produced by the universal responses [99/100]--the beautiful cadence they make in it, and the perfect time they keep. I do not suppose that they ever heard a word about intoning, or the like; but they show how natural it is in having, untaught, a most pleasing form of it, which it is hoped they will never lose, but engraft upon a choral service--a thing that would be perfect among them, in that it would be congregational. Notice was given of a confirmation the Bishop hoped to hold upon his return, he desiring them to make careful preparation in the interim, which some were, indeed, most careful not to forget.

"It was settled the next day, upon the people seconding the proposal, that I should remain, with a warm invitation that I was to be left while the Southern Cross goes on to Melanesia into the hot latitudes. A special work was open--the preparation of the young people under Mr. Nobbs' direction for confirmation, besides the daily school, which was soon to be recommenced. Other ways of usefulness were before any one who should be competent, to put the women in the way of using all their novelties, and to bring them on in orderly household ways, which tell so much upon the character of a community. A methodical housewife, learned in all matters of domestic economy, would be invaluable to the women at this fresh start, but I hardly felt equal to the occasion. However, so [100/101] it was to be, and the Southern Cross was to sail upon the morrow. The Bishop walked over the island then with some others, but all in seven-leagued boots, which prevented my joining them and admiring with them the pretty little island with its wonderful vegetation. There is no great variety of wood: the pine is universal, and rather wearisome when unmixed with other trees; lemons, also, are in abundance, and in the valleys the tree-fern adds much to the beauty of the scenery.

* * * *

"When the Pitcairners first came to Norfolk Island they were received by a select body of the former staff, who had been left in charge of the property, and partly to instruct the new comers in the use of it. A flock of sheep, a herd of cattle, ploughs, teams, and carts, were made over to them. Accordingly, each selected his pursuit. Some took to the sheep, some to butchering, some to farming, some to the dairy. Gardening was not included; and as they do not seem to have notions themselves beyond a yam plantation or a potato ground (how should they?) the gardens, formerly the glory of this island, began to look most deplorable. As yet however, they hardly look at home in their new abodes, and perhaps, being that they are an out-of-door generation, and not very sensitive about appearances, they never will. The houses are [101/102] detached, nearly all of stone: the vestibule opens into four dark and empty rooms, whose chief furniture is neat beds covered with tapa, and the store of children who sleep in the same. Every one, young and old, gives you a peculiarly pleasant greeting if he meets you, and the heartiest welcome if you go into the house. Towards evening the preparation for the great evening meal is going on--a serious affair, for they have but two in the day, and at this more beef is disposed of than a labouring man in Devonshire sees in his house from year's end to year's end. Still, the elderly people are to be pitied a little in the change they have made, the women especially: they miss their almost tropical sun, they long for yams, and do not like the beef; moreover, they cannot hear one another in the lofty rooms; and they miss the concentration of their society which they enjoyed at Pitcairn's.

"There are only eight surnames among them: five of the 'Bounty stock,' and three new comers. The whole of the original set, of course, are dead, but eight of the second generation remain, and more than 190 souls besides. There are about forty-four children at the school, and a considerable small fry at home, too young to come. The nomenclature gradually increases in splendour, from the Dollys and Dinahs of early days, up to the Lorenzos and Alfonsos, Evangelines and Victorias, of the present [102/103] time. But truly, while the Quintalls and Christians are so numerous, it is well to have a distinguishing pendant in the first name; and, from their numerous intermarriages, they all seem to be in a state of relationship which it is beyond a stranger to disentangle. The families are so large that they may soon outgrow this island also, and if they continue to carry on their former plan of subdividing property among all, the portions will soon be no bigger than a pinch of snuff a-piece. No children can be more pleasing than these; in that they often have but one garment, and are barefoot, and sit upon their heels, they so often remind one of Maories, that it is a continual surprise to find them so ready to answer and so respectful. But then they have advantages unknown to our poor little natives, for they are trained to be obedient, and are corrected when they do wrong, and are kept in subjection to their elders. They are chiefly pale, dark-eyed little mortals, though some have more of the English type about them. The women wear, generally, a dark-coloured petticoat, and over that a short; loose frock, gathered into a band round the throat, and usually white; their glossy hair is always neat, braided in front, and made up into a peculiar knot of their own invention behind. On Sundays several nice gowns are to be seen, and a small sprinkling of bonnets. They looked so much nicer without [103/104] anything, or with the white handkerchief they otherwise wear, that, as the fashionable world seems to be fast learning to do without bonnets, it is a pity that the Pitcairners should now take to them to their own disadvantage.

"English is spoken after a fashion of their own, which is not absolutely after ours: a stranger would often be at fault in a narrative from them, and still less could he follow their meaning when they were talking one to another. It is curious to hear our nautical phrases in the mouth of an old woman, from whom, by her looks, you would expect no English at all--nautical English least of all. I was trying to console one for leaving Pitcairn's, where her asthma was so much better than it is here, when she asked me if I had ever been home again. I said 'Yes.' 'Ah, that is the way you get to windward of us, you see, for I shall never see home again. When my asthma is as bad there, I just lun lound t'other side of the island: you come after, and you can never know the person you saw was me, I am so well.' It is observable that no one, to prove, perhaps, their Tahitian descent, says the letter 's' at the end of a word if it can be avoided; but this is balanced by a vigorous demonstration of their English origin, in their saying 'mischievious,' and 'substract,' as pleasantly and naturally as children in any national school will do.

[105] "The men had just brought in a supply of fish, and the whole place looked like a 'Kaénga Maori' a great pot boiling out of doors, an old women cooking, children scattered about, and every one talking at the top of their voices. One other article of food (besides beef, biscuit, and fish) they have in the milk, which is quite new to them, and much approved. My stock of provisions were sent out from the vessel, excepting the beef and milk; the kind people, indeed, desired to serve out rations of everything for my use out of the common store, as if I had been one of themselves. It is opened once a week by the magistrate, and tea, sugar, biscuit, and flour equitably dispensed to all, the butchers and dairymen doing their part daily. Bread is a luxury they have little knowledge of.

"The people, after their manner, cast lots for the houses, and no jealousies or discontent were apparent among them because some were better housed than others, though one poor woman with many children, who had drawn the Engineer Office, did say it was not altogether convenient. Poor Peggy might as readily think it not adapted to the wants of a small family as the woman in Dickens, who says the same of the heel of a Dutch cheese; but she did not complain.

"The school opened in the large barracks on the 14th of July. The great whitewashed barrack-room [105/106] is excellent for the purpose; and here Mr. Nobbs and his son Francis keep school from nine till two, five days in the week, the younger children being allowed one hour out of this time in which to run about and eat sugar-cane and lemons, which are to them what lollipops and apples are to the junior branches of the English nation. A mid-day meal is not the fashion, so there are no dinner-bags hung round the room: the children wait complacently till six o'clock. The girls often come with a pretty wreath of flowers or a string of beads round their shining braided hair, and always with pleasant smiling looks. Their somewhat tropical movements give little foretaste of the brightness and intelligence there is among them, for they would walk in as if they were following a funeral; yet the heartiness of their amusement at any fun that came in the course of the lesson was a temptation to make plenty of it.

* * * *

"The foundation of John Adams' teaching was the Bible and Prayer Book, which, followed up as it has been by the instruction of an ordained minister, has hitherto kept them free from any dissenting bias. They use, indeed, an American hymn-book left to them, as nearly all their treasures have been, by some whaling captain; but this, however it may have impaired their taste in sacred poetry and music, has not weakened their adherence [106/107] to their own Church. Certainly it is not to be expected that taste will improve upon very solemn words set to very cheerful tunes, with such names as Bethesda, Orion, Kentucky, the Old Ship of Zion, and the like. But though it is very much to be wished that they should have a little guidance and help in these ways, there was nothing in their way of singing them at all painful; it was done with no irreverent spirit, and with the simplicity of those who did not perceive the incongruity,

"On the 30th July, a third daughter was born to the young couple in charge of Government House. After their custom, all the nursing mothers in the place were alternately in attendance for the first few days, and babies abounded both by night and day. It was a most lively time, indeed; but the mother was attended as carefully, though far less quietly, as an English lady might be. The grandmother of the young mother came early in the day to see her descendant: considering that she was a great grandmother before she was sixty, she might live to see another generation still. Her mother also came into residence, with her twin babies, the youngest of sixteen children; and the daily attendance of aunts and great aunts, with sisters and uncles (quite young people), was something quite surprising. The sound of so many little voices playing round the house, with a remarkable absence of disputing or [107/108] crying, was very pleasant. A tropical version, altered to suit their ignorance of gooseberries, of 'Here we go round the gooseberry bush,' into 'Here we go round the cocoa-nut tree,' was highly popular, the elders joining in it with as much glee as the children.

"My companions seem to be always on the watch to learn; and, either from natural disposition, or from its being a national trait, any hint given is instantly carried out into practice. After describing an English kitchen, and the dealings with pots and pans, henceforth all under their care were kept as nicely as could be; and, to further orderly ways, a store-room and larder were cleared out for our use with great zeal. Our chief feat, however, was the making of bread. With soda on my part, and buttermilk on theirs, we made a scone, and from that got on to leaven, and thence, by the aid of potatoes (a rare treasure) and sugar, to a bottle of yeast, concocted upon principles innocent of any attention to chemistry. It was, however, kind enough to overlook this defect, and it proclaimed its excellence shortly after by a loud explosion, after which a superior batch of bread was made as good, that is, as the stale convict flour would allow. Some time after that a vessel touched at the island, from which we got some that was good, and made larger batches, dispensing to our neighbours, with the hope of promoting a taste for the staff of life.

[109] Coming home one beautiful evening, I met some girls going down to the jetty to see fish which had been caught this calm day. It was a pretty sight, indeed, in the brief twilight, the gay-looking fish lying on the stones, the water, where the great waves were not rolling furiously in, coloured by the glowing sky. Some of my companions longed to jump in. 'What, into those great breakers?' 'That's the fun,' whispered a young girl at my side. At Pitcairn's, it seems, 'the fun' was to swim out to sea, pushing a surf-board before you, and then to come gaily back with it on the top of a huge roller. 'You can swim?' asked a delicate-looking young mother of me, as we stood together; and when I owned my ignorance, the compassionate, half-contemptuous tone of her reply was very funny. Men, women, and children here take to the water like so many ducks. The girls think it a great pity that I, who am 'such a seafaring lady,' do not know how, and offer to teach me. 'You should soon learn from me,' said one, a noble-looking creature, reported, I could believe justly, to be the best swimmer of the party. These fine days promote a great desire for bathing. It would be pleasant before the sun was so hot as to blister them, which it seems it did dreadfully at Pitcairn's in the Christmas holidays; and no wonder, as they were chiefly spent in the water. Fortunately they were [109/110] short, as, for six hours at a time, would these mermaids remain in, with their surf-boards, swimming races. The great piece of fun was for one to keep possession of a rock in the middle of Bounty Bay, whence the rest would try to pull her down, and whence she would fling them off into the water. It sounded most cool and brilliant, and as if they ought all to have been named 'Undine.' A Christmas tree would be rather poor after this sport.

"Sometimes by invitation, sometimes in answer to a 'come in,' to a tap of the door in the evening, a stream of young girls will often enter--happily for me, ready to be amused with small appliances. 'Tip' was the most popular game among the boys, and 'Birds, Beasts, and Fishes' among the girls, sometimes followed by a wise talk about the animals, their use and habits; sometimes by anecdotes of monkeys and dogs which were much more approved of; and when there was no more to say the girls would sing. Sometimes the boys came instead; they arrived statedly for writing out confirmation papers, and besides the class itself three or four satellites also followed, to come in for what they could get when the work was over--uncles and nephews, generally every one. Occasionally it is only a conversation: a talk ensues upon the respective merits of Norfolk Island and Pitcairn's; opinions are divided, questions asked, 'Whether [110/111] the cows are not a great advance upon cocoa-nuts?' Answer, by a zealous Pitcairnite, 'Cocoa-nuts are the best of cows.' There is a total ignorance of everything like a nursery song or ditty: it was very amusing to find my stock of them received as entertaining novelties; and as the children in the house--Maria, Edith, and Evangeline Ophelia--were too shy to learn them, I was forced to get an older audience. Nursery tales of the stalest kind are received with great éclat, and 'Froggy would a-wooing go,' with shouts of laughter, by the singing of which I covered myself with glory and renown, and was considered, to my amazement, as a good comic singer!

"Their position has been so happy in some ways, in all so peculiar, that it is curiously different from teaching other people. They know very little of the world and its wicked ways; they never saw a poor person; and though they may have passing disputes, we do not hear of great quarrels. John Adams' precept of not allowing the sun to go down upon their wrath is not a dead letter; and in having all things common, they are brethren beyond most other communities; too much, therefore, that is matter of ordinary experience with others cannot be appealed to with them, though doubtless enough remains of the infirmities belonging to all the sons of Adam, to illustrate and, bring home a subject to their hearts."

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