Project Canterbury

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

Reprinted from "Mission Life."

London: William Macintosh, 1869.


NOW began the last summer which was destined to be passed at Kohimarama--so long inseparably connected with the Melanesian Mission. For a long time--in fact, ever since 1856, when the Pitcairn population had been removed to Norfolk Island--Bishop Selwyn had wished to have some nearer point than Auckland for the central school, and more especially one whose climate would be less trying to the delicate tropical frames of the scholars. Bishop Patteson had long felt how great this advantage would be; more especially since the terrible visitation of sickness in 1863 and 1864; and he had now the offer of two sites--one on Curtis Island, in Queensland, Australia; the other on Norfolk Island, which had once been refused to Bishop Selwyn. Climate and situation recommended Curtis Island; while character and population weighed in the balance for the abode of the Pitcairn people. Finally it was decided to make a trial of Norfolk Island, and Mr. Palmer, as we have before said, took up his abode there for the winter.

[270] Quietly and uneventfully the summer passed on, both at Kohimarama and Norfolk Island.

As this is the last time that we shall see the school at work, let us take a peep at it through the eyes of one who had long known and watched its progress--Mrs. Selwyn.

"Once more I am at Kohimarama, where the outward aspect of things has changed considerably for the better since I was last here. It is much more attractive to the eye now that the latest erections seem to complete the Quadrangle, and that the many gables of the old wooden buildings are covered with creepers. Basking is not the order of the day in this busy place, but groups of boys may be seen sunning themselves under the walls, making the air alive with their lively talk and very funny ejaculations. They come to learn, and habits of industry are daily enforced. But the teaching is in subservience to the precept about new bottles, which may refer to quantity as well as to quality. The wild things have time enough to amuse themselves in their own way, catching fish, cooking and eating it, throwing spears, &c., &c.

"So many lads have now come in succession from so many of the islands, that perhaps they know what to expect at Kohimarama; otherwise it must be a curious change to a little fellow who was following his tropical devices in his own wild way, to be [270/271] suddenly set down in a class with many things hitherto not dreamed of in his philosophy, in his hand--books, slates, copybooks. What can be the object of such articles? and why should he be solemnly kept to them at regular intervals! But the light dawns upon him as progress is made, for though the lads have the ignorance of children, they have the capacity of men (herein is one of the difficulties of the problem), and they learn readily enough; and in all that their fingers can accomplish, such as writing and sewing, they get on fast, being decidedly neat-handed. School is followed by some industrial work, for the benefit of the community; some go to print, some to cook, and some to till the ground. All serve in rotation as cooks and stewards; they have in succession been so well trained in this department that they can roast and boil and set out the table without any supervision. They also learn dairy work with a readiness that is surprising in people who have no quadruped on the island larger than a rat, and to whom hitherto cocoa nuts have been the only cows. The dairy is a temple of cleanliness, and the work is done with conscientious fidelity patiently; as you would say if you could see the gravity with which they will hang over a skimmer full of cream till the last particle of milk has dropped through. It is quite pleasant to see them so exact and faithful in that which is little, as it leads to the hope that they [271/272] may carry the same mind into that which is great. The garden, too, with its abundance of vegetables, which has supplied the commons for months, is also their care, chiefly that of one man, who has a decided taste for gardening, his natural genius having been developed by Mr. Pritt.

"A word, too, must be here said about the female department, on which so much depends. What will do more for any set of people than carefully trained mothers? for be the fathers what they may, instructed, wise and good, and as polished as you please; ignorant, wild, unnurtured mothers will neutralise any advantage to the children. Mrs. Pritt's department, therefore, of training the women, stands in a high, almost in the first place, and to her chiefly is due the care which converts the raw material into a very useful fabric, with the orderly habits and neat ways that tell so much in domestic and social life. For the most part the women are wives of some of the scholars, and they learn in school like the rest, and in an industrial way become quick little seamstresses and tolerable washers and ironers. It is true that in this Institution man is the cooking animal, so the women do not learn much about kitchens, but they are busy enough it would seem.

"The printers stick to that work as to a trade, and already make themselves of great use. Lessons, [272/273] grammars, translations, are always going on; the varieties of dialects and the improvements in old translations always keeping up the supply.

"The teaching force here consists of the Bishop and Mr. Pritt, and Mr. Palmer, assisted by three or four young students. The elder and more instructed of the Melanesians also take their classes, thus beginning betimes to be exercised in that work which it is the one great object of their being brought here to fit them to be--teachers to their own people: and some prove themselves apt to teach as well as able to learn. The Bishop takes his full share from morning till night; not, indeed, the actual teaching in school, which Mr. Pritt conducts, but elementary and more advanced teaching in things Divine, according to the capacity of each class. Then, too, he has the constant teaching of the teachers, with the endeavour to make them in some degree masters of the principle of language, on the acquisition of which so much of their future usefulness depends. He has also daily readings with the young students who are in different stages of knowledge. But it is indeed to be hoped that some helper will come to take this division of labour with the English from off the Bishop's hands, in order to leave him free for his own especial part of the home life of the Mission, and which none but himself can do: the work, that is, of consolidating his stores of words and sentences [273/274] and constructions of each dialect, and putting them into such shape as that others may benefit by them hereafter. The like opportunities and the like capabilities will not probably meet again in the same man. There must be the delicate ear to catch the unwonted sounds; the ready tongue to express them; together with the ability to extract what is wanted from the Melanesians themselves. To put an unwritten language into form, to get hold of the names of abstract ideas, and again of the little words which link the speech together, and that out of people who certainly cannot guess what you are at, seems to an outsider, not versed in the business, a surprising success.

"The people differ very much as to the help they give to the Bishop, who, with pen in hand and ear intent, begins his questions to a group seated on the floor. First may come a set of Sesake lads, who will divulge very little of and about their mother tongue, and making it a matter of hard pumping to get at anything. To this party a printer will enter with a proof sheet of some other dialect, and the Sesake men go to sleep and rest their brains. By-and-bye a Mota set appears, and these, too, are quiet and silent, not to say dull. Now and then a meaning is given or a word used which seems to let in a ray of philological light upon researches into other tongues, to have affinities and open out vistas which [274/275] it is quite cheering to follow. The unlearned companion listens with admiring but ignorant attention to the hunting down of a word--a prefix or an affix it may be--up Polynesia, down Melanesia, till it comes to earth in Malay, and there it is left en pays de connaissance for future consideration.

"The Mota lads will be followed by a Mahaga set from Ysabel, bright, merry fellows, full of fun, talking and laughing, but not realising that when they have uttered a sound that nobody can speak and nobody can spell, it would be a help if they would but repeat it, instead thereof they constantly substitute another. Their sounds are truly wonderful, and seem to have but a remote connection with the old A B C of more familiar languages; yet the Bishop succeeds, after a while, in finding some letter, or combination of letters, which may express them sufficiently well, and so they appear in due course in manuscript, then in a printed form, till at last the lads read in their own words the great truths which they have first learnt orally. This is a most important part of the whole work, and one that one would gladly see the Bishop freed from other cares to pursue.

"And so all the work goes on, and grows by the addition of increments of knowledge; by the daily drilling of the people in habits of steady work, by the atmosphere of peace that surrounds them; and, above all, by the continual dew of the heavenly [275/276] blessing, for which it is comforting to think that many prayers are offered up by many friends, in many places at many times. Still it is not all couleur de rose. It is not a fancy piece, but an undertaking hallowed by the highest aims, yet subject in its working to all the flaws and weaknesses of human agency. To it belongs also the gradual and unequal progress which marks all human work, and its true record cannot be only of encouraging traits and lively anecdotes. It is not possible to cage so many wild birds without unceasing anxiety about their health. You cannot bring so many spirits, white and black, into close contact on this earth for months together without rubs. You cannot set a great machine going without expecting to hear it creak and strain, and you cannot keep it going without a continual effort; and what is there picturesque in all this?

"Moreover, the gathering in of much fruit is not to be looked for, still less to be the stimulus to exertion. Fruit is certainly the object; but the sight of it is not held out as the reward of the labourers, though they have the assurance that their labour cannot be in vain."

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