Project Canterbury

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

Reprinted from "Mission Life."

London: William Macintosh, 1869.


SHORTLY after Mrs. Selwyn arrived at Norfolk Island, the Southern Cross was pursuing its kindly mission among the islands to the northward. In order to make our readers more fully understand the method pursued by those who presided over the Melanesian Mission, it will be necessary to enter rather more into details respecting this voyage than we shall have to do about the succeeding ones, making use, as we do so, of the journal of an eye-witness of the scenes he describes.

"On the 17th of July, 1856, the Mission party reached Anaiteum, which has already been mentioned as occupied by Mr. Geddie, a Presbyterian Missionary from Nova Scotia, assisted by Mr. Inglis, whom the Bishop had brought to the island in 1852. Nine years before, in 1847, Anaiteum had been in a state of complete heathenism: now, out of a population of 4,000, only 200 or 300 still remained heathen. Schools were established all over the island, under the management of native teachers; large chapels had been built at the two principal stations, and [112/113] boarding-houses for young men and women, under the superintendence of the Missionaries. It was an encouraging sight to meet with at the commencement of the voyage of the Southern Cross, and the Bishop's party, after a friendly visit to the Anaiteum Missionaries, left the island, heartily wishing these noble-hearted and devoted men God-speed in their work.

"July 17. The Southern Cross left Anaiteum, intending to sail for the Loyalty Islands, but the wind proving unfavourable, the Bishop resolved to visit the most distant islands first, and to call at the nearer groups when he came home.

"July 19. At nine A.M. this morning we sighted 'Fate,' or Sandwich Island. Beautiful beyond description are the masses of forest, the tropical vegetation, the sandy beaches, undulating slopes, and upland scenery; but, alas! the character of the inhabitants is sadly at variance with all these outward advantages of situation and climate. We knew that they had killed the Samoan native teachers, and that cannibalism was practised more systematically here than in almost any island of these seas--chiefs sending presents of bodies to one another, like baskets of game; consequently we were cautious, sailed to the land, but stopped the way of the vessel when about a mile from shore. The first canoe that came off had five men on board--girdles of beautifully plaited [113/114] cocoa-nut mat fibre round their waists were their only clothing, but some had wreaths of flowers and green round their heads, and most of them wore mother-o'-pearl shells, beads, &c., round their necks, and in their ears."

Little could be done at this island. Two of the men chose to remain on board, and were taken up to cruise among the other islands, in the Southern Cross: a short taste of civilised life, which has often been found useful in inducing the people to trust themselves with the Bishop for a longer sojourn.

"July 21. The Southern Cross reached Spirito Santa,--another of the New Hebrides group." The description of these islanders makes one think of the account of the Do-as-you-likes, in the "Waterbabies:" let us hope that the moral of that charming fable may not be fulfilled in them, and that the influence of the Melanesian Mission may prevent their race becoming extinct in 500 years.

"On we rowed, about half-a-mile farther to shore. Such a lovely scene; a bend in the coral reef made a beautiful boat-harbour, and into it we rowed. Clear as crystal was the water--bright as tropical sun could make it was the foliage on the shore--numbers of children and boys playing in the water, or running about on the rocks and sands; several men about, all of course naked, for, as they lead an amphibious life, they find it convenient. They work little. [114/115] Bread-fruit trees, cocoa-nut trees, and bananas grow naturally, and the yam and tara cultivation are weeded and tended by the women. They have nothing to do but eat, drink, and sleep, and lie on the warm coral rock, and bathe in the surf. There was no shyness on the part of the children, dear little fellows of from six to ten clustering around me, unable to understand my coat with pockets, and what my socks could be. I seemed to them to have two or three skins." The chief and principal men, however, were absent, attending a great feast at some distant village, and without their consent none of these children could be taken to New Zealand for education.

"We walked into the bush, to see a native village. Ten minutes' walk brought us to it. Cottages, all of bamboo, tied together with cocoa-nut fibre, thatched with leaves, a ridge-pole and sloping roof on either side, reaching to the ground--no upright poles or side-walls. They were quite open at the two ends, and from twenty to forty feet long. I cut down two bamboo canes: they grow to a height of thirty or forty feet. The people here bring their fresh water from the hills in bamboo canes, divided in half longitudinally, and supported on cross sticks, so making an aqueduct through the woods for a great distance. We went to see one, and drank from it with no little satisfaction. They fill a hollow bamboo, about nine feet long, with water, and, having stuffed up [115/116] the ends with grass, carry away the water to their houses."

July 24. In the afternoon the Southern Cross was lying becalmed off the south-western shores of Bauro, or San Cristoval, a lovely island of considerable size in the Solomon group. "Oh the beauty of the deep clefts in the coral reef: lined with coral, blue, purple, scarlet, green, and white; the little blue fishes, the bright blue star-fish, the white land-crabs, walking away with other people's shells! But who can show you the bright line of surf breaking the blue of this truly pacific ocean, and the tropical sun piercing the masses of foliage which nothing less dazzling could penetrate? How lovely it was! There were the coral crags, the masses of forest trees; the creepers, literally hundreds of feet long, crawling along and hanging from the cliffs; the cocoa-nut trees, and bananas, and palms; the dark figures on the edge of the rocks looking down upon us from among the trees; the people assembling on the bright beach--coral-dust it may be called, for it was as fine as sand; cottages among the trees, and a pond of fresh water close beside them, winding away round the cliff, till hidden by a bank of wood."

This island, however, was not actually visited for some days, as the Bishop liked to have his Sundays quiet, and therefore stood out from Bauro, and on the following day visited two Maori-speaking islands, [116/117] Rennell and Bellona, both very small. On the 30th of July they went to Mata, a village at the north-west of Bauro. Iri, an old acquaintance, was chief of this part of the island.

"First we went to Iri's boat-house, where we saw three new canoes, all of exquisite workmanship, inlaid with mother-o'-pearl, about forty feet long, and as beautifully made as, I think, any workman with all the tools in the world could have done it. Then we went to Iri's house, the council hall--long, low, open at both ends, and much like those at Spirito Santo, but with a very low side-wall of wattles. Along the ridge-pole was fastened twenty-seven skulls--two but recently placed there, and not yet darkened with smoke; and I remember they told us there had been fighting not far off. There we sat down, and the Bishop, who had brought his book of their language on shore, talked to them, and gave almost a little lecture in this Golgotha, alluding plainly to such unsightly ornaments, and saying that the great God hated wars and fighting, and all such customs." Returning to the boat-house, they were feasted with cocoa-nuts, and then walked to their boat. Four lads had already made up their minds to come away with them, and one young man was already on board the vessel, with the same intention. The people crowded to the beach to see them off, Iri walking up to his waist in the water.

[118] The next island visited was Gera, called by Europeans Guadalcanar. In appearance it was like Bauro, and the two languages, though different, were similar in some respects, so that the lads from each island could comprehend the speech of the other. "The people came off at once with yams, and no bows and arrows. Soon we had twenty or thirty on deck, and a brisk traffic for yams was going on with those in the canoes. These were not so graceful as those at Bauro, though of the same race. Here they wear more ornaments, many of them having plugs of wood crammed into their noses, and one man having half-a-dozen small skewers branching out from each side of his nose, like a cat's whiskers." Two Gera lads came away with the Bishop, making in all seven from the Solomon Islands.

"August 2nd. To-morrow we hope to call at Malanta, and if we find that the language of Bauro is understood there also, it will open a great field for Missionary labour indeed. Three islands, each about seventy miles long, very fertile and very populous, wholly heathen, and no one claiming any prior right to them than the Church of England. I suppose we may safely assume the population of these islands alone to be at least 20,000; possibly much more.

"These people (of Gera) tattoo very little--their faces not at all. Their ornaments are really handsome--splendid pieces of mother-o'-pearl; they do not like [118/119] to part with them, however, and they string beads of small white shells in thousands. We made a calculation that in one girdle there were upwards of 3,000 shell hoops. Some of the men had small eyelet-holes of mother-o'-pearl worked into the tip of the nose, and into this they fix the nose ornaments, while the nose-ring goes under it. When Mr. Patteson showed an adze there was such a clatter to get it that he had to sing out--'Going, going, gone!' In fact, a regular auction was going on. We don't let them go below at all. You will wonder how we prevent it; but as long as we are cool and determined with them, all is well. Just putting one's hand on the shoulder and saying 'on't do that; come hither,' is sufficient."

For two days the Southern Cross sailed slowly up the western coast of Malanta, making boat excursions inside the lagoons, within the coral reef. They saw few people, although there were many signs of cultivation of the land, and it appeared as if a large population must be living inland--probably driven thither by attacks upon the sea-coast villages. They went ashore to fill their water casks at a river which flowed into a deep bay in the north of the island. "Sea and river alike fringed with the richest foliage, birds flying about--(I saw a large blue bird, a parrot, I suppose)--fish jumping, the perfectly still water, the mysteriously smoke of a fire or two, the call of a man heard in the bush; just enough of [119/120] novelty to quicken one to the enjoyment of such a lovely bay as no English eyes but ours have ever seen. Such exquisite scenery! Canoes coming off, and people on shore, sitting under their cocoa-nuts. Two canoes came to us, very shy, the men calling out, 'You don't kill men?' We shouted, 'Don't fear, this is a good ship; come on!' and they just recognised the Bauro words enough. Still they came on very slowly, one man acting a scene of a man being struck and killed; but all in full chorus shouted to them to come on. Our Gera men, speaking a language intelligible to them, had a regular parley with them. It took us a long time to induce one man to come on board. The Bishop at the wheel, Mr. Patteson tying red tape round the man's head, giving him fish-hooks, &c., which he instantly hung in the hole through his nose (and of course, as they are stark naked, and have no pockets, their noses and ears are convenient pegs for hooks or rolls of leaves)."

A conclusive proof that Bishop Selwyn was the first thoroughly to navigate these seas, was the fact that in the chart Malanta was put down as two islands, and the bay where they filled their water-casks as the strait between the two. However, happily for him, he was so constituted as to be able to carry a complete chart in his memory, which more than once saved the Southern Cross from severe disaster.

[121] The ship's course was now turned eastward towards the Santa Cruz group, one in which the inhabitants are proverbially less to be trusted and more treacherous than the Solomon Islanders. "Santa Cruz is a large and very fine island, thickly peopled. The Bishop has been here once before, but the canoes were so thick about the vessel that he could not hold any communication with them, but was forced to keep the vessel under sail and dodge them. They wore all the usual armlets, necklaces, &c.--no more rings and plugs--and strips of a kind of cloth made of reeds, closely woven. Their headgear is most elaborate; they have plastered their hair white with coral dust, some yellow, some red. Some shave half the head--and, considering that they have only sharp shells to operate with, very well they do it--so that two stubby ridges of hair stand up on a closely-shorn crown. All use betel-nut to excess, which blackens and destroys the teeth, and stains the mouth and lips. They bargain very honestly, but there are too many of them to do any quiet work; the island being so populous, there is scarcely a chance of getting hold of a few people quietly. They come off in crowds; so we hope to get a footing in one of the neighbouring islands, and so to operate upon Santa Cruz.

"It is very amusing to watch the natives criticising one another: our Fate, Bauro, and Gera fellows [121/122] were all lost in admiration of the elaborately plastered hair, the arrows and clubs of these Santa Cruz people; while offers of an exchange of necklaces, &c., took place, as if the fashions were studied here as much as at Paris."

At night, leaving Santa Cruz, they sailed round Volcano Island, a magnificent cone, in full eruption, rising almost perpendicularly out of the sea at the height of between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. It is one of the outlets of the volcanic force at work in the Melanesian Islands, to which it is supposed that the reefs of coral owe their gradual upheaval--the work of countless ages. "It was a glorious sight to see the great stones leaping and bounding down the sides of the cone, clearing 300 or 400 feet at a jump, and springing up many yards into the air, finally plunging into the sea with a roar, and the splash of the foam and hiss of the steam combined." Still pursuing her course to the southward, the Southern Cross reached the Banks Islands, inhabited by a quieter and milder race than the Santa Cruz group.

"A large canoe, with seven men, came alongside; they would not come on board, but Mr. Patteson went down and clambered into their canoe. These islands--Saddle Island, Mota, and Santa Maria--are scarcely marked in the chart, but yet are of considerable size. Great Banks Island is twenty miles long, and very populous, and the beauty of them is [122/123] quite indescribable. Fancy a cliff sloping away into a bank about 250 feet high, a narrow coral beach, and from the cliff a waterfall of 100 feet roaring away into a basin of rock covered with foliage, trees, and creepers, so that there is a grand rush of fresh water ten yards from the sea."

At both Saddle Island and Mota they were struck with the intelligent appearance of the natives, though they could not get any boys to accompany them to the vessel. At Santa Maria they rowed to two different bays, where large numbers of people assembled to meet them; they all behaved in a very friendly manner, "in spite" of the small parties of young men who displayed the spirit of malice or of fun by shooting arrows at them, which, however, did not fall within twenty yards of the boat. At a third place they again went ashore, and were well treated by the natives, several of whom waded back with them to the boat, and helped them out when they stumbled into the deep clefts of the coral reef.

The Bishop had hoped to revisit Spirito Santo, where the merry little lads had been seen playing in the surf; but the wind was from the south, and the surf was too heavy for them to land. Having landed, without being able to do much, at Aurora and Whitsuntide Islands, they arrived on the 27th of August at Mallicolo--the scene of the attack upon the Bishop in 1852. Sisinia, the chief, who had led the [123/124] attack upon him, and who had since carried him ashore upon his shoulders, was not there, nor to be heard of. Hakhai, the survivor of the two boys who had been at the College at Auckland, had been killed in war; and though one lad was very anxious to return with them to New Zealand, his father would not allow it. In every other respect the people were friendly, and seemed well disposed.

On the 1st of September they reached Nengonè. Early in the morning they went ashore at Neche, the station where Mr. Nihill had laboured and died. Mark, the native teacher from Rarotonga, met them on their way from the schooner to the beach, and returned with them. Their first act was to visit Mr. Nihill's house, church, and grave; on the last the Bishop put up a wooden cross, which had been brought for the purpose from New Zealand, upon which was carved, in the Nengonè language, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." Mr. Nihill had yet a home in the hearts of the people among whom yet had laboured, and many were the inquiries about his widow and little girl. Seven persons from Nengone--Caroline Wabisane, poor George Siapo's destined bride, who had married a man named Simeona, and her friend Sarah, now become her sister-in-law, with their husbands, and three other men--eagerly accepted the Bishop's offer of taking them back to New Zealand to see Mrs. Nihill, and to be instructed [124/125] by the Bishop. This made fourteen Melanesians--fifteen, if we count Caroline and Simeona's baby, who accompanied them.

The appearance of these Melanesian islanders at Norfolk Island, whither the Bishop next went to hold a confirmation, and to bring back Mrs. Selwyn, was a sight of great interest to the Pitcairners. The kindly people were extremely anxious to do all that was in their power to help on the Mission; they even offered to take some of the boys into their houses, and to treat them as their own children. The Bishop was more than ever convinced that Norfolk Island was the right place for the Missionary College; but since, as we have said, the authorities had decided otherwise, he did not resist, but submitted, and bided his time.

Having been away about two months, the Southern, Cross returned to Auckland.

Project Canterbury