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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.


[Footnote: * From the Australian Churchman.]

Dec. 14th, 1868.--I have recently had the privilege of spending a week with my friend Bishop Patteson at St. Barnabas' Mission Station, Norfolk Island, the head-quarters of the Melanesian Mission. A brief account of what I saw there is certain to interest your readers. I am in no way connected with the Mission, and my remarks may be taken to be those of an impartial lay observer.

Norfolk is a little grassy island some five miles long, containing about 9,000 acres. The old convict town, with its huge dilapidated barracks and gaols, officers' houses and servants' huts, is situated on the S.E. edge of the island, where the little Nepean islet gives shelter enough to form a precarious roadstead available in certain winds. This old town is occupied by the ex-Pitcairners now, some 300 strong, all told. Three miles from this across the island, on its northeastern shore, and communicating by a fair road with "the town," and also by a fair road, some three miles long, with the other, eastern landing place at Cascade [284/285] Bay, lies the Mission Estate of about 1,000 acres, facing north, and sloping gently down to low sea cliff and a rocky shore. The land--a low table flat, broken by gentle gullies--is a light red soil, of fair quality, covered naturally by a close growth of wild couch-grass, sprinkled, after a beautiful park-like fashion, with Norfolk Island pines and "white oak," while the gullies and the flanks of "Mount Pitt" (the chief hill of the island, 1,000 feet high) are full of a thick growth of wild lemon scrub, tree ferns, wild cotton and wild tobacco, and guano. On a slight ridge, half-a-mile from the sea, stands the scattered group of wooden Mission buildings. The chapel, the Bishop's two rooms, the hospital, and a spare room, forming one building; the kitchen another; the mess-room and the rooms of the junior aides of the Bishop another; the two rooms of the Rev. Mr. Codrington and the dormitories another; the cottage of the married couples (black) another. There are four or five such couples of married blacks.

Fair space has been allowed in all these buildings, but they are nearly fully occupied by the present number, some fifty or sixty, including nine women (of whom six, I think, are married), and three girls. Should the number of students be materially increased, then the chapel, the mess-room, the kitchen, and the dormitories, must be materially enlarged.

[286] I pass on now to give some slight notice of the daily routine of life. First, the working staff:--the Bishop, five white clergymen, and one white candidate for orders, to be ordained (D.V.) next week; the senior Melanesian (black) scholar is also to be ordained next week. Farm bailiff (white) and carpenter (white).

No servants, white or black. This is a very noteworthy point of the Bishop's system of work--no menial servants, no mere paid labourers. The idea that "one volunteer is worth two pressed men" has never been more thoroughly carried out in principle and in detail.

Well, at 7 A.M. the bell rings for chapel, for about one minute, and all hands promptly repair thither. In spite of the vast variety of languages and dialects spoken by the fifty or sixty human beings collected from twenty or thirty islets of the Pacific main, no practical difficulty has been found in using "Mota" as the general language for chapel and school, so that in a short time a congregation of twenty languages are soon able to join in worship in the one Mota tongue, more or less akin to all the rest; and a class of (say) nine boys, speaking by nature five different languages, peaceably agree and easily unite in the using the one Mota language: just as a Frenchman and a German, a Russian, a Pole, an Italian, and an Englishman, all meeting in the same [286/287] cafe or railway carriage, on the same glacier or mountain top, might harmoniously agree to use French as their medium of communication. So the service is conducted in Mota by the Bishop and Rev. Mr. Codrington, and by George Sarawia, of Mota, who reads the lessons, and who (D.V.) will be ordained a Deacon of the Church of England next week One exception only is made--the Collect for the day is read in English, as a brief allowable concession to the ears and hearts of the English members of the Mission. The service consists of the greater part of the Church of England service translated. Some modifications have been made to suit the course of religious instruction. The Psalms are chanted, and hymns sung in parts, and always in admirable tune, by the congregation. Noteworthy are the perfect attention, the reverent attitude, the hearty swing and unison of this little congregation: a lesson (I felt with shame) to many of our white congregations.

Immediately after service chinks out the breakfast bell, and with marvellous promptitude and punctuality whites and blacks, lay and clerics, are seen, flocking to the mess-room. The whites sit at the upper end of the table, but beyond the special privilege of tea all fare alike, chiefly vegetable fare--yams or sweet potatoes, and carrots or vegetable marrows, as may suit the season, with plenty of ship biscuit for more ambitious teeth, and lots of milk to [287/288] wash it down. Soon afterwards comes school for an hour and a-half. Then work for the boys and men--planting yams, reaping wheat, mowing oats, fencing, carting, building, as the call may be--only no caste distinction, no ordering about; it is not "go and do that," but "come and do this," whether the leader be an ordained clergyman, a white farm bailiff, or a white carpenter. This is noteworthy, and your readers will gain no clear idea of the Mission if they do not seize this point, for this is no matter of mere detail, but one of principle. The system is not that of the ship or the regiment, of the farm or the manufactory of the old country, but essentially of the family. It is not the officer or the master saying Go, but the father or the brother saying Come. And to this, I firmly believe, is the hearty cheerful following and merry work of the blacks chiefly due.

At 7 P.M. is dinner--much the same as breakfast; meat, though not unknown, is the weak point, as yet of the Mission dietary. In the afternoon, work; at six, tea; in the evening, class again for an hour or two--this evening class being sometimes a singing lesson, heartily enjoyed by teacher and taught. At some time in the day, I forget precisely when, the boys have to prepare matter arising out of the lessons they have received viva voce.

There are evening prayers, and bed-time is early.

Noteworthy are the happy conjunctions of perfect [288/289] discipline with perfect jollity; the marvellous attainments of a happy familiarity which does not "breed contempt."

I presume I need scarcely say to your readers that, besides education in reading, writing, and arithmetic, through the medium of the Mota language, instruction in the Holy Scriptures, and the most careful explanation of their meaning and mutual relation, forms a main part of the teaching given. The men and boys of the senior classes take notes--notes not taken by order, expressly to be inspected, but, so to say, private notes for the aid of their memories; and from the translation given to me by Bishop Patteson of their notes, I should say that few, even of the senior class of an English Sunday-school, could give anything like so close, sometimes so philosophical, an explanation of Scripture, and that sometimes in remarkably few words.

One most effectual means of doing good remains to be noticed. After evening school the Bishop, his clergy, and his aides, retire mostly to their own rooms. Then, quietly and shyly, on this night or the other night, one or two, three or four, of the more intelligent of the black boys steal silently up to the Bishop's side, and by fits and starts, slowly, often painfully, tell their feelings, state their difficulties, ask for help, and, I believe, with God's blessing, rarely fail to find it. Such is the routine for five of [289/290] the six work days. Saturday is whole holiday, and all hands go to fish, if the sea permits, or perhaps to play rounders, or what not. Merry lads they are, as ever gladdened an English play-ground.

On Sunday the early chapel is omitted. The full liturgy is divided into two services--I forget the laws--and a kind of sermon in Mota is given; and in the afternoon the Bishop, or one of the ordained members of the Mission, usually goes down to "the town" to relieve the Rev. Mr. Nobbs in his service for the Pitcairners.

Now, as regards the manual work of the station, this general principle is observed--women for washing and housework, and men for planting and outdoor work; but no one, white or black, is to be too grand to do his share. The Bishop's share, indeed, is to study and investigate, and compare the languages and the necessary translations; but no one is to be above manual labour--no one, qua white man, is to say, as it were, "Here, black fellow, come and clean my boots;" "Here, black people, believe that I have come to give you a treasure of inestimable price: meantime, work for me; am I not your superior? can I not give you money, calico, what not?"

Well, this Christian democracy, if I may so call it, has worked well in the long run. A little patience, and boys who might have kicked if told to black boots for a white master, have gratefully volunteered [290/291] to do it for a well-beloved white elder brother; and girls have come to feel hurt to see their white teacher,--really revered and loved, really felt to be unspeakably their superior, sweeping his own room or dusting his own books, and have humbly prayed to be allowed to relieve him of that bother.

The subject grows under my pen, as it quickens my memory. I must hasten to leave the present to say a few words of the probable, the hopeful prospects for the future. The boys raise nearly all their own provisions--yams, maize, wheat, bananas, sweet potatoes, vegetables, fruit; and then the dairy, and a small flock of good sheep, will soon contribute effectually to working expenses.

After the ordination, now near at hand, of one white and of one black candidate for orders, the Bishop will have seven clergy to help him--namely six white and one black. With this staff Bishop Patteson feels, and I could well see, that he could easily treble the number of men and women under instruction; and the change of head-quarters from Kohimarama, Auckland, and New Zealand to Norfolk Island, makes it easier to bring away this larger number by increasing the number of trips of the schooner. Now the Bishop, for these reasons, is most anxious to increase this number. First, in order to increase the whole number, from whom to select promising candidates for orders--future [291/292] Missionaries to their own islands. Secondly, from the less bright and earnest scholars, men or women, boys or girls, to find a few Christian parishioners, so to speak--a few Christian families, whom to settle three or four, ten or a dozen, alongside each black Missionary, as a support, comfort, and reference in his hard campaign against the heathenism and brutal ignorance which will surround him, and threaten, else, to drag him back, like the Jews of old, even into concessions to sheer idolatry. Thirdly, old people, of whom little hope can be entertained even, to make them Christians, far less Missionaries, often ask anxiously after their sons or nephews, suspiciously after the Bishop's meaning or motions. To such the Bishop would fain be able to say, "Well, come along, my friend; see for yourself. Take a trip in the schooner. Come and stay a couple of months with us, and see for yourself how your young folk are treated!" And such men, the Bishop believes, and I believe, would go back to the islands, after their trip, convinced that it was all right, and, above all, a really good thing for the youngsters; and would be the Bishop's staunch friends down at the islands, perhaps useful pioneers to clear the way to extension of the Mission work.

As regards the present youngsters, the difficulty diminishes steadily; more and more of them wish to stay on to winter on Norfolk Island, and go on with [292/293] their education, and with their Christian education. Others, perhaps, similar in spirit, though differing in its manifestation, conscious of brawny thews and muscles, and skill in rowing and sailing, volunteer to break off the schooling they really love, to accompany him in his next cruise, to man his boat, to pull him ashore, and to face the poisoned arrows which, once shot, know no distinction of white skin or black, in the whaleboat's crew.

With such a subject it is hard to stop. What is the upshot? This, I think, from my own observation. The pioneer work is almost done. Next winter (D.V.) the Rev. George Sarawia and three or four couples of Christian Melanesian blacks will be settled on Mota as the nucleus of a Christian Missionary village, the first, please God, of many such. The Melanesian Mission is fast passing, has almost passed, from the stage of tentative doubtful experiment to that of ascertained success, of proved practicability. Every pound given to it tells. Every ten pounds will recruit (D.V.) a new boy from the heathen to the Christian army. Every fifteen or twenty will maintain a man, a candidate for orders such a man, for the work which lies before him, as is an undergraduate of Oxford or Cambridge for his work; and even, by the reflux of good which God gives to all good work, little as it was foreseen, it now seems to be highly probable that the linguistic [293/294] researches which this Mission has necessitated will yet throw bright light on many obscurities and difficulties of the Hebrew Scriptures. If we are worthy sons of the first great Missionary country of the world, we shall start gladly forward to help this good, hopeful work, and glow with honour and sympathy for our noble countrymen, with compassion and sympathy for the Melanesians, heathen wanderers or Christians, who have so much against them from which we, happy Englishmen, have been spared.

Sydney, December 14th, 1868.

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