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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.


IN May, 1866; the Southern Cross again sailed for the Islands, leaving at Kohimarama Mr. Pritt with twenty-seven Melanesians, whose education it had been thought best not to interrupt. The first stage was, as usual, to Norfolk Island; then the New Hebrides were reached, landings made, and the usual work began. A few extracts from the journal of this voyage will give the best idea of it.

"On Monday we spent a hard-working morning in a manner very necessary for the success of our voyage, yet not corresponding exactly to the notion that people usually form of the duties of a Missionary. At seven A.M. the Bishop, Mr. Palmer, and Mr. Atkin, with three of our scholars, went off to a boat cove nearly two miles distant, where a large party of natives was assembled in great excitement, each man carrying yams, or sugar-cane, or a pig, or some other article of trade. The boat was of course surrounded in a moment, each man pressing forward to sell his goods. We succeeded in most places, after one or two visits, in making the people understand that we [254/255] must buy by weight, and not by the number of the yams, which of course vary greatly in size. So the Missionaries became yam and pig-dealers for the time; a steelyard is hung upon the nearest branch, and a hatchet is given for 70 lbs. or 80 lbs. of yams. The people deal honestly enough, bringing more yams to make up any deficiency in weight, and highly approving of our honesty when we return a yam from a basket above weight. The noise is deafening: every one is anxious to get rid of his produce; every one talks at the same time and at top of his voice; men shout, and women scream, and pigs squeal, and every one is wet through with wading, and covered with the fresh soil from which many of the yams have just been taken, and stained with the turmeric which covers the bodies and mats of the people. At last the boat, quite full of yams, and pigs, is shoved off, and then the excitement subsides; the people sit quietly round the Missionary, who remains on shore while the boat returns to the schooner. Pigs and yams are forgotten for a while, and the talk is of their affairs in the island, and our customs in New Zealand; questions are asked about our motives in taking away some of their young people; many volunteer to come with us, and we have no difficulty in securing any amount of attention while we tell them, when we know the language sufficiently well, the old and new story, and contrast [255/256] a life of peace and happiness with their suspicious mode of life, their quarrellings, and fightings.

"These days are always fatiguing. It is necessary to be watchful without appearing to watch; to say a word here and there at the right time, to keep every one in good temper; the mere noise is distracting, and often, as to-day, two distinct languages but imperfectly known must be spoken at the same moment, to say nothing of directions in their languages to our own scholars from other islands assisting us in the boat, and the bartering hatchets, &c., for yams.

"Often, where we are not well known, these visits are attended with some risk. It is impossible to buy all the yams, and it tries a man's temper to have to carry back unsold a heavy weight, it may be a mile or two, to his village. Not unfrequently some reckless fellow sends an arrow after the boat's men who have not satisfied his longing for a hatchet; they have little idea of the value, and no idea of the sanctity of human life, and think no more of shooting at a man than a school-boy of throwing a stone at a bird. But for this very reason the boat ought not to be suffered to leave the vessel without some thoroughly responsible person, well acquainted with native habits; the Bishop invariably goes himself. The islanders, of course, seize upon the opportunity afforded by these visits to obtain hatchets, adzes, fish-hooks, &c., and we must barter with them, or give up all hopes [256/257] of obtaining a friendly introduction to them. Moreover, we must feed our large party on board. We can only redeem this 'barbarism of barter' by remembering that it is a necessary step to a more perfect acquaintance with each other.

"June 21.--To-day we lowered the boat in the early morning off Whitsuntide Island, where the Bishop is well known to many of the people. We stayed but a short while, however, as we only wished to tell them that we hoped to return in two or three months. The breeze was still very stormy, and it took but a short time to sail on to the north side of Leper's Island. This magnificent island is inhabited by a singularly fine race of people. Never was a place more completely misnamed. The natives live in a very sad, quarrelsome way among themselves, but they know us now in many parts of the island, and a visit to them has become far less anxious work than it once was. Yet to-day we saw a very good illustration of the character and habits of the people, their friendship to us, and their suspicious, uncertain behaviour to each other.

"We took our two scholars ashore, and on the way the father of one of them met us and got into the boat. He had, of course, some information to give of fighting among themselves and the neighbouring villages. One of the lads begged the Bishop to steer a little more to the eastward, as it [257/258] would be unsafe for him to land two hundred yards from the spot to which he directed us. A crowd of people met the boat, bringing presents of yams, taro, cocoa-nuts, native mats, &c. The Bishop was laid hold of, as usual, as he went ashore; pigs' tusks (a great ornament at this island) were thrust on his wrists, a bow and arrows, amongst other presents, put into his hand; men, women, and children were all thronging to touch his hand, and exhibiting every mark of welcome. They begged him to go in shore and eat some food, to sleep there, to stop among them; but he was obliged to tell them that he had many scholars on board whom he wished to take without delay to their homes, and that he could not stay now, but would do so (D.V.) on his return. Then he waded back to the boat, calling out for some hatchets to give to these friendly islanders, when one of the lads whom he had just taken on shore hastily ran up to him with a frightened look, and said, 'Get into the boat; quick, quick; pull away directly; they are shooting here!' No one thought of shooting an arrow at us, but some quarrel had arisen among them in a moment, the women ran off, and so this pleasant visit broke off abruptly. This is a fair specimen of the reckless, lawless way of living throughout these islands. Any one mischievous person has it in his power to bring on at any moment a serious quarrel; the men join in on [258/259] one side or the other from impulse, from mere excitement, or from some feeling that, right or wrong, they must take the part of a kinsman or member of their village. Then some one is killed in the heat of the quarrel, and so the beginning is made of a series of retaliatory acts which may prolong the quarrel for years. A hundred yards from the shore we were again talking and exchanging articles of trade with the natives in their canoes as if nothing had happened. What a grand island this is! The long slopes of the lofty hills are literally covered with forests of cocoa-nut trees and bananas.

"We filled up our water-tanks the next day at a beautiful waterfall in Aurora Island, where the people sitting about us watched the bush anxiously, with arrows fitted to their bow-strings, expecting at any moment an attack from the neighbouring village, with which they were of course at war. The Bishop several times begged them to go away, saying, 'If you choose to quarrel, I don't want to have anything to do with it, and I feel pretty sure that there are faults on both sides. If the other people, who are stronger than you, come up and find me alone, it will be all right, because I am a friend of both. But I have no desire to be shot by either party in the mélée, with an arrow not intended for me.' However, our friends, though they left us for awhile, could not be restrained [259/260] from coming back to get a few fish-hooks and presents from us. We had a delicious bathe in the clear foaming stream.

"June 23.--We landed at eight A.M. at Mota. A large party met us on the beach expecting to meet their friends, and we were pleased to find that they received the news of twelve of their people remaining in New Zealand without a sign or word of dissatisfaction. Not that they did not express some disappointment, but they at once said, 'Quite right; we know what you keep them for.' The few things that Mr. Palmer needed for his three months' residence on the island were soon landed; and, after hearing a good account of the state of the people, and making necessary arrangements with our scholars, whom we had brought with us for a short visit to their home, we returned to the schooner and sailed across to Araa Island.

"Here we landed Henry Tagalana, Fisher Pantutun, and Wenlolo, and spent a pleasant hour or two with our old acquaintances. How different our feeling is with respect to these islands from what it was only a few years ago! There is now, thank God, so much hope mixed with the sorrow for evil customs still prevailing and the comparatively small progress already made.

"We left Araa at three P.M., set the square sail, and started with a fair sail for the Solomon Islands. [260/261] Sunday was a close rainy day, the thermometer marking 86°--hot enough for our mid-winter day! All our party on board well; and many of them dabbling about like ducks on deck, in the heavy rain. We were almost becalmed for a day on our way down to the Solomon Islands, and we fell in with the close rainy weather, of which we have had so much experience of late years, as we made the first island of the group to which we were bound.

"We landed our island party in the early morning of Wednesday, June 27; and, in spite of light and baffling winds, managed to reach the village of our San Cristoval scholars on the same day, and took them on shore at 8.30. P.M. A pretty sight it was. Their friends had lighted a large fire under a tree, whose branches reached over the edge of the little boat cove. Their dark forms were grouped round the fire, blazing up into the branches of the tree, and the thick dark foliage behind contrasted with the white line of surf on either side of the narrow passage behind us.

"On the next day we reached Anudha Island, and landed our scholars. The feeling of the people here is becoming very friendly, and we hope to spend a short time with them soon; but we were anxious to take on our scholars to Ysabel Island without delay.

"The morning of Friday, June 29th, was unfavourable for working into our anchorage at Ysabel. Thick rain-squalls obliged us to give up the attempt [261/262] till after mid-day, when the weather improved; and by 2 P.M. we were once more at anchor. We have, indeed, much to be thankful for. Out of sixty-nine Melanesians with us last season, one only has been taken from us by death; twenty-seven remain at Kohimarama; but ten, who spent the former winter there, have now been taken home for a holiday; so that forty-one scholars have been returned in safety. How different our reception might have been if we had brought back diminished numbers, with sad tales of sickness and death. Thank God! we have been, spared this, and everything looks hopeful; though we learn each voyage not to expect to see any great or sudden change, but to be thankful for any appearance of improvement, where everything so greatly, so fearfully needs it.

"The south-east end of this great island is very mountainous. Each valley contains its small population: and, as a general rule, the inhabitants of one valley may be presumed to be at war with their neighbours. They cannot contrive to live close to each other without opportunities occurring of committing frequent depredations. Women, yams, pigs, are stolen; quarrels and deaths follow as a matter of course. But men and lads who belong to hostile tribes meet freely on board the Southern Cross, and have been with us in New Zealand. We came hither as the friends of all, and partisans of none; but the [262/263] insecurity of their mode of life shows also the extremely uncertain character of our work. A whole tribe with which we have become acquainted, whose language, after much labour, we have learned, may be driven away, dispersed, or even almost destroyed in a few days or weeks; and we are powerless to prevent these evils. We can, indeed, remonstrate, and urge the people strongly to lay aside their old jealousies and feuds; but we all hear of countries unsettled still, after centuries of so-called civilisation, and what must we expect here?

"The Bishop slept on shore last night at a most extraordinary habitation. A site for the village has been chosen on a hill surmounted by steep, almost perpendicular, coral rocks; the forest has been cleared for some space all round, so as to prevent any enemy from approaching unperceived; there is a wall of stones of considerable height on that side of the village where the rock is less precipitous, with one narrow entrance, approached only by a smooth, slippery trunk of a tree, laid at a somewhat steep inclination over a hollow below; but the tree-houses with which we made acquaintance of old at this island are at this place on a scale almost incredible. Tall trees rising out of the steep slippery sides of the' hill are chosen for these great bamboo nests, of which there are six at this one village. From the wall of the fort--for so the village may fairly be called--or [263/264] from the base, ladders are carried up to these tree-houses. It is surprising to see men, women, and children, passing up and down these ladders. The Bishop confessed that he was afraid to make the attempt in the dusk of the evening. It was his intention to sleep in one of these curious houses, but he says he had no idea of their real character at this particular place. A day or two afterwards, however, he went up into the highest tree-house, and, with Mr. Atkin, made careful measurements. The house in which the people wished him to sleep is built on the top of a tree which rises up, from the hollow before mentioned, near the fort. The top of the stone wall is on a level with the trunk, at a height of thirty-four feet from the ground. The ladder reaching from the fort to the tree-house had forty-two rowels at an average distance of eighteen inches from one another. The whole height of the house from the ground is ninety-four feet; its length is eighteen feet; breadth, ten feet; height, eight feet; all being inside measurement. Some of the trees were at a much greater distance from the fort, and the ladders at a proportionately greater angle. One woman, carrying a load, walked up one of these ladders without touching anything with her hand, with no balancing pole, after the fashion of our civilised performers, and without exciting the least remark or notice from the people standing about. [264/265] On the naked branches of these trees one man was walking about, hanging out his fishing net, without grasping anything with his hand, where one slip would have sent him down on to stones and stumps of trees ninety or one hundred feet below. Accustomed from childhood to these feats, they seem wholly unconscious of any danger, or indifferent to it. No accident occurred whilst they were making these houses, though to us it seemed an almost impossible undertaking to accomplish without the aid of wings.

"All this has been rendered necessary by their continued quarrels. They never heard of another mode of living. Insecurity of life and property causes no questioning and little uneasiness; it is simply the necessary condition of human life. They fear no attack when once safely lodged in their houses in the clouds. They say that no one would dare to attempt to burn or cut down the tree, for they keep a large stock of stones and spears aloft, and say that they could crush any men who attempted to come near the tree. There is a stage outside the house, and a trap-door in the bamboo flooring, from which they drop heavy stones; and, no doubt, the fighting-men run about on the branches, and throw their spears as fearlessly and securely as if they had a footing on firm ground.

"The next day the Bishop went to the other [265/266] villages, inhabited by the enemies of the people among whom he had passed the night. They possess a situation impassable by any persons not provided with cannon, and have no occasion to use tree-houses, for their villages are built on two projecting crags at the two horns of a shallow bay, which it is not altogether easy to climb with the help of the people, and which no one could hope to enter if they offered resistance. The height of these steep rocky cliffs, almost impending over the sea, is about 150 feet; and, in one case, the cliff is almost perpendicular on three sides, and on the land side, also, for a height of about twenty feet. A strip of bamboo affords some hold for the hand; but it would have been trying to the head, had not the precipitous face of the cliff been broken and cleared here and there by shrubs growing out of the rock.

"The Bishop spoke to the chief men, telling them that he was well aware of their feeling towards the inhabitants of the other villages, and entreated them to put an end to their continual fighting. He was told that they were all at present living in peace; but there is little dependence to be placed on what they said. Of course, neither party much liked his visiting their enemies, and his treating them all alike--that is, one day he had the chief man of one party at dinner in the cabin, and the same night the two young chiefs of the opposite party slept on board. [266/267] They all met apparently in a friendly way enough on board the schooner; but they have no intercourse with each other, according to their own account, at any other time."

Mr. Palmer had been left at Mota, while the Southern Cross proceeded on her voyage, and remained there eleven weeks, until he was taken up on her return. He was well acquainted with the language of the island, and from what he was able to do for it during even this short time, it was plain what an advantage it would be to the island when one of their own people, who could stand the climate, should be advanced enough to be placed among them as their Missionary.

At Wango, in San Cristoval, Bishop Patteson spent a week or ten days. He hired a small hut, for the rent of one hatchet, in which he with two scholars took up his abode. One of the lads, however, deserted him, but the other remained faithful, and always took charge of his few possessions when he went out. He spent his time in making friends with the people, and taking occasion, when he could, to talk to them about the object of his coming; and, though they did not seem very eager to hear, he, now and then, heard them talking among themselves in a way that showed that some impression had been made upon them. Thus, he heard one man telling the rest, how a man was not like a pig or a dog, [267/268] which died, and was buried, and came to an end; but that there was another part to a man, which he called "Adaro," which would live when the man's body died, and be judged for his good or evil deeds. The doctrine of moral responsibility and future judgment is that which has to precede all other teaching in the instruction of the heathen, as the Lesson of Advent Sunday precedes those of Christmas, Easter and Ascension-day.

The Southern Cross touched at Wango for the Bishop, and her course was turned homeward. She called for scholars at the various islands in her southerly voyage, and with a large number on board arrived at Norfolk Island, where Mr. Palmer, with sixteen Banks Islanders, was left to make the experiment of a summer school there. The rest of the party arrived safely at Kohimarama, where those who had been left with Mr. Pritt during the winter were found safe and well, and all gathered together in the little chapel for a service of thanksgiving for the blessings granted to them all.

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