Project Canterbury

John Steward's Memories

Papers Written by the Late Bishop Steward of Melanesia

Edited with an Introduction by M. R. Newbolt

Chester: Phillipson and Golder Ltd., 1939.


The early days of a new District Missionary's life are chiefly occupied in "settling down" and getting used to the strange life and stranger people of the Islands.

The start for his first tour of the district is a great event; he looks at the huge pile of stuff collected as the necessary minimum of luggage for a fortnight's tour, and wonders how it will ever get into the boat. Imagination refuses to face the fact that it will all have to go in and come out, if not every day, at least two or three times a week, and as he wants to visit as many villages as possible in the time, the probability is that every day except Sundays will see the whole load taken out of the whale boat into whatever sleeping quarters he may hope to find.

I am speaking of the early days in Guadalcanar; probably nowadays he will find at each school village a small native house for himself, with a table, possibly a chair, and quite a comfortable native bed, but in those days "village vicarages" were few and far between. Sometimes a little schoolhouse afforded shelter to the boat's crew and myself; more often I had to share the great sleeping house of the young men of the place. Except for the absolute lack of privacy and for the smoke of the wood-fire, kept smouldering perpetually in case anyone wants a light for his pipe, there was little hardship in this. The natives were nearly always hospitable, and, with their natural good manners, realised that the white man did not like to be crowded; they would give us all one side of the house, or at any rate as much room as they could spare. But one needed such a lot of room. One had to take everything likely to be wanted during the trip, a bed, a chair, a box to hold one's clothes and serve as a table, all the necessary cooking utensils, food, and something [41/42] to read--and for a very rapid reader a supply of books to last a fortnight is no small addition to the load. Above all, one had to take the Communion Vessels and altar linen, and try not to forget the wine and wafers for Communion. More often than not, food had to be taken for the boat's crew as well; so on the first night on tour the luggage was a formidable mass. Fortunately, the bulkiest things were food-stuffs, and the burden decreased each day till, on the return journey, there was some degree of comfort in the boat. After the first trip, one seldom took so much stuff; experience taught what was necessary and what was not, though one made a good many mistakes by the way. The first mistake was to suppose that a bed and chair were luxuries easily dispensed with. A single trip without them was enough. The discomfort, to a European, of having to sit on the ground whenever one was not on the move must be experienced to be realised. It seems that when they have been used to a chair, one's legs are never comfortable for more than a few minutes on the ground, and one's back longs for something to lean against, even for a moment. Sleeping on the ground, or on a table or a form, is all right when one is dog tired, but it is not comfortable, is generally dirty, and is hopeless on bad nights. Lack of sleep soon makes a man irritable in the tropics, and the fatal fault in a pioneer missionary is irritability.

At first, the novelty if this kind of travelling made up for its discomforts, but when the freshness had worn off I am afraid it was only a stern sense of duty that drove me round my district at all. But it was worth it. When you begin to realise what a visit means to a lonely teacher in a heathen village, who depends on you for all his help, spiritual and physical, you feel ashamed to let discomforts count for much. There is a good deal of monotony about these tours, but in those days there was always something new and different to be expected on each trip.

[43] More often than not there would be the news of another village, a little farther on, where the people were friendly and where a teacher might be received. At any rate it would be well worth going to see. And then would come the excitement of visiting an unknown district, of seeing new people, and trying to get into touch with them; for that was the main work of a district missionary in those days.

One would arrive at the place, run the boat on the beach if the landing was good, some native who knew the people would jump out and lead the way into the village. There, one shook hands with everybody who seemed at all ready to do so, smile in a generally amiable manner, and wait while the interpreter explained matters. Then, after introductions, I sat down by the chief and tried through the interpreter to persuade him that we had no ulterior motives, but that it would be a good thing for all concerned if he would let us put a teacher down there. Generally speaking, the chief did not need much persuasion. He and his people had probably talked the matter out long before our arrival, otherwise they would not have welcomed us at all; we should have hardly seen any one, certainly only a few of the men, and no women and children hovering about on the skirts of the crowd. This was a safe sign to look for. If there were women and children about, all was well; if not--if one only saw the men of the place--it was pretty certain that we were not wanted and that the sooner we got back into our boat the better for all concerned.

There were no other certain signs, for wherever we went we always found the people armed, and they were very seldom at all effusive in their welcome; it was not the native manner to be so until they had got to know us very well. When that was the case no-one could complain of the lack of warmth in his reception; till then the visitor was "on trial."

[44] As soon as the chief had expressed himself as willing to accept a teacher, the next step was to get him to promise to build a little house for him and to feed him and look after him. This promise was always given and honourably kept. Then, unless we were going to spend the night there, came the ceremony of departure. The chief would make a signal, baskets of food would be brought forward for us, and after we had seen them and expressed our approval without any excessive show of gratitude, which would have been contrary to native etiquette, the presents would be taken to the beach and put into the boat. Then came my turn. Tobacco, calico, or perhaps, in the case of a man whom I very much wanted to impress, a knife or two, or even an axe, were handed to the chief for his own use and for distribution among his people. These were duly, but not effusively, accepted, and we made our way down to the boat. All our new friends, with much noise and good will, would lend a hand to push us off, and we would go on to our next point of call, debating in our minds whom we could send as teacher to this new station. Sometimes we wanted to sleep at the village, and then the procedure was different. First of all, leave had to be obtained. This seemed to be a favour which it was not etiquette to take for granted. The interpreter would ask quite humbly if it were possible for us to stay the night; the chief would appear to give the matter his deep consideration, and then say "Of course! There is plenty of room for all." Then, the chief leading the way, a procession would be formed to the big canoe house, where all the men of the village slept. A space would be cleared for us; sometimes the chief's own sleeping place would be offered to the white man; we expressed our approval of our quarters, and the whole population, except the chief and a few of his head-men, would make a bee-line for the boat and in a very short time all our possessions were in the canoe house, my bed and chair were opened out, my box-table [44/45] arranged near the chair, and the sleeping-mats of the boat's crew spread out in their places. As a matter of fact, the people were generally delighted at the idea of the white man spending the night at their village. Some of them had never seen a white man close at hand before, none of them had ever had a chance to be friendly with one, certainly never to have acted as his host. The white man himself was a curiosity, but what about all his wonderful possessions? Why did he carry all these things about with him wherever he went? Most amazing of all, what was it that made him suddenly burst into laughter as he looked at a block of papers. I think nothing was more utterly incomprehensible to them than to see and hear me laughing over a book. They had seen the teachers reading, but they never laughed (naturally, because the only books they had were Bible or Prayer Book), and here was one of these odd white people sitting, staring at a "buk," whatever that might be, and shaking with laughter. Even to this day, among our own people who have got used to our queer way of reading for amusement, I always find that the sight of one of us laughing over a book is a mystery to them. The native is full of fun, he appreciates a joke to its utmost and never seems to tire of it when once it has become a favourite, but he has no idea of a verbal quip or an extravagant piece of nonsense, unless it be very obvious indeed. Our European sense of humour is quite incomprehensible to him. After all, this is probably the case with every different nation, and so it need not be set down to his discredit. The Melanesian had no writing before the missionaries came, and had, in those days, no idea of what a book was.

Fortunately for the missionary, the Melanesian is a creature of etiquette, and one thing that most emphatically "is not done" is to watch people eating; so when the white man desired a moment's freedom from the companionship of his new friends, all he had [45/46] to do was to call to his "cook-boy" for hot water, make tea, open a tin, and he soon found himself alone.

No doubt some of the children, who could not be expected to know "manners" yet, would peep through the walls or door-way, but that was excusable. After all, one was a curiosity and must be prepared to take the consequences.

They had heard all sorts of stories about white men, they had probably peeped from a distance at them, but here was actually a real white man in their own village who did not seem to be an ogre, who might have fish-hooks or empty tins to dispose of. At any rate, here was an opportunity that no child of any race or colour could be expected to let slip; here was a circus and menagerie combined, with the added thrill that the main exhibit was outside his cage and might at any moment come out into the street into the very middle of them. This was the time for them to scatter, squealing in half fright, all excitement, till one or two heroic souls would creep nearer and nearer, and even come quite close and have their full money's worth of staring and grinning shyly at him.

There was, too, the amazing chance, of which they had been told, that he might want to take one or more of them away with him, to go to a thing called "school," where he would get wonderful things like the boat's drew possessed, and goodness alone knew what else.

Some of the villages were, of course, more interesting than others. In some lingered the absolutely untouched heathen life, with signs of the old fighting days, which were not yet "old" to them, but part of everyday existence. Such villages were to be found on the weather side of Guadalcanar, where the ocean swell, unbroken for hundreds of miles, was always rolling in on the beach, so that only here and there, in small bays and in calm weather, was any landing possible.. The very inhospitality of their coast prevented [46/47] much contact with the new civilisation, and kept old customs and ways of life going as they remained in the untouched interior.

Along this stretch of coast the beaches are mostly of shingle or black iron-sand, steep up from the sea and very difficult for boat work. A certain number of the people had come into contact with whites through recruiting ships seeking labour for the Queensland sugar plantations, but even so, the landings were so uncertain that the recruiting ships did little more than send boats close inshore to fetch any native eager enough for sight of the great world to swim off to them, be taken on board and sign on before the Government Agent. (Every ship carried an Agent to prevent any of the horrors of the old "blackbirding" trade from being revived). Even when they were returned from Queensland it was often only possible for the ship's boat to get fairly near the coast and the boys had to swim through the breakers, getting their boxes, with all the treasures they had brought from Australia, ashore as best they might. So the civilizing influence of the white man hardly affected the lives of these people, even on the surface, and had certainly not gone deeper. A few words of "trade English" and scraps of European clothing here and there were the only traces of it. At such a beach the missionary would land, watching his chance between the rollers while the villagers stood ready to seize the boat as soon as it touched the shore. But a 35-foot whale boat is not like a native canoe; it takes a good deal of hauling to pull up twenty feet of a steep beach, and though the missionary might get ashore dry, he was unusually lucky if his goods in the stern escaped a sea right over them, soaking his bed and bedding in a moment. However, the sun was hot, things generally dried long before bed-time, and he was not much the worse for a ducking. As soon as his boat was pulled high enough up the beach to be out of the way of the surf, he would clamber up the steep [47/48] shingle bank and make his way into the village. This was generally built on a small elevation, just where the shingle ended and firm earth began, more often than not near a small stream. On the edge of such a rise the first thing that met the eye was a rough stone wall, about three to four feet high, running along the sea front. Whether this was built for defence against raiders from the sea or simply as a place to display trophies of valour gathered by the people I cannot say. In the village I have in mind, it served the latter purpose. Along the top of this wall, like a neat coping, was a row of human skulls, probably dating back some years, all moss-covered and grey and green with age. These were the common trophies of their prowess in old head-hunting days, or else the heads of raiders from the sea who had gone head-hunting only to add their own heads to the collection of the villagers. Wherever they came from, they certainly conveyed in very legible type a warning to other uninvited visitors. After a passing glance at this novel form of decoration, I found myself at the door of the big canoe house, which was also the Chief's guest house, where his young men and any welcome visitors slept.

Outside stood a life-sized figure of a naked man and various crude but lively carvings adorned the door posts. The naked image was hideous beyond words, but very likely beautiful enough to native eyes. It was probably not in any sense an "idol," but rather the statue of some great ancestor of the chief. I remember once trying to obtain a most grotesque little figure that decorated the steerer's seat in a canoe. I found the owner very loth to part with it, though I had offered a good price, but afterwards it was explained that the owner would readily have given it to me, but it was "all the same photograph." I think it was a portrait of his father.

I felt rather ashamed of having tried to persuade the man to part with the family portraits, but this [48/49] showed that all the images in the Solomons were not idols. In fact I am inclined to believe that none of them are, but that they are simply statues with which they decorate their streets and meeting places, to commemorate the Great Ones of old. Before one derides the ignorant savage, one might turn one's eyes nearer home and think of some of the statues of local worthies in our English towns.

Passing the guardians of the doors, we went into the great house--our sleeping place for to-night. At first one could not see much, for it was very dark after the glare outside, but soon eyes got used to the gloom. It was a good-sized building, some fifty feet long and twenty-five feet wide, and perhaps fifteen to twenty feet high. The roof was supported by pillars of hard wood, left in the natural round, and by rafters of bamboo resting on the walls, which were about eight feet high.

Light was only admitted by the doorway, but that was of considerable size as it had to admit the chief's large canoe. The main purpose of the house is to shelter the various sized canoes of the village. The roof was thatched with the leaf of the sago palm, coloured a deep rich brown with the smoke of the cooking fires, and the fires, which are always kept smouldering, serve a double purpose--the hot embers provide a substitute for matches and the smoke acts as a fairly efficient preventive against mosquitoes.

As the eye got more and more accustomed to the darkness, one saw two or three canoes, some fishing lines and nets, the jaw-bones of numerous pigs and the heads and back-bones of fish, with here and there a turtle shell, the relics of past feasts. The central pillars, from ten to twelve feet apart and about a foot thick, disappeared into the smoky gloom of the roof, and just in front of the first of these pillars was the chief's sleeping place, which, he told me, was to be mine for [49/50] the night. It did not look very inviting; it consisted of a kind of bed, made of two or three roughly adzed planks of different thickness and varying pliability. I felt inclined to prefer my canvas camp bed to the royal couch, specially when I looked closer and saw, at its head, a neat little altar-shaped stone erection, about eighteen inches high, in the centre of which rose a wooden stake bearing on its point a nice clean human skull. On the pillar behind this hung the brass tiller-yoke yoke of some smart ship's boat. How did it get there? Perhaps one had better not ask.

I decided that I would not sleep here after all, but move my bed to one side where this grisly trophy would not meet my eyes. I was the more pleased to have done so when, next morning, some of my boat's crew said "I suppose you know that that was a white man's skull over the chief's bed-place?" I began to see a connection between it and the tiller yoke; a picture rose in my mind of the massacre of some landing party and of victory trophies carefully preserved. Yet the old chief had been the friendliest of people, the most courteous and hospitable of hosts. Let's hope he had nothing to do with the bad business. All the same, the bay where the village hides is called after a vessel which was "cut out" here and its crew killed.

By the time these thoughts had begun to take shape, my boat was far away from the village and there was nothing one could do. After all, these are only fancies; I do not know that it really was a white man's skull and the tiller yoke may only have been a piece of flotsam and jetsam, or got in the way of trade.

The next time I visited the village the old chief way dead, his canoe house in ruins and a flourishing Mission school, under the patronage of his young successor, had been established near the site. Times have changed in the islands, but my memory often goes back to the old man; he was sincerely friendly, most generous in [50/51] providing food for my boat's crew, and gave us a queer little boy to take away to school with us. When I first met him, he was a jolly, fat man, with a lean, cadaverous but cheerful old brother as his "Chief-of-Staff." We had sat trying to talk though an interpreter for some time in the afternoon, he on one side of me and his brother on the other, both of them plainly much interested in the white man, both doing their utmost to show their good will towards him. Indeed, the brother's attentions were rather embarrassing. I was smoking a cigarette as I talked (a cigarette was a novel way of smoking to them, they called it "a great man's smoke"). I had given one to the chief for the fun of seeing him lick it and then, putting it well into his mouth, try to smoke it in spite of the fact that it had come unrolled. The thin brother, with a most friendly smile, took my cigarette out of my lips and, putting it well into his toothless jaws, gave two or three puffs and with the same friendly grin returned it to me, deeply stained with the juice of the betel nut he had been chewing.

Among the natives, to take another man's pipe, smoke it for a moment and then return it, is a sign of great good will and brotherhood. I had often seen it done, but never before had it been done to me. He meant to shew that we were friends and that there could be no fears of ill feeling for the future. I called his attention to something that was, or was not, happening at the doorway and, while his back was turned, tore off the end he had been using and continued to smoke. Henceforward the way was clear, and nothing they could do was too good for me.

Another old chief, this time from a bush village, who had never seen a white man, expressed a desire to meet me, so we fixed a day for the visit and started off. When, at about two in the afternoon, we reached his village, there was no-one there. My guide, who knew the old man, set off to find him-only just in [51/52] time, for his heart had failed him at the last moment and he, with two of his wives, were just making tracks for the bush. His wives preferred to play for safety, but the old man himself was persuaded to come and see the white man.

He seemed still to have some qualms of fear till he saw me munching a roasted yam. Then all his doubts vanished. "Why, he eats just the same as we do." I was a human being after all. We became as friendly as was possible under the circumstances, and he put his "palace" at my disposal for the night. It was in a neighbouring village, two hours or so further on, and we had it all to ourselves. There were two houses, one I fancy was where his wives usually lived, but we did not go into that; the other was his own house, in a neat little stockaded enclosure, perfectly clean and carefully swept, and here we made our quarters for the night. Just outside our stockade was another, the walls of which were about nine feet high, but there were "loop-holes" through which one could peep and see the ruins of an old chief's house, overgrown with grass and obviously strictly "tambu" (tabu).

There in the middle was a little image, standing all alone in the thick grass. As I peered at it through a loop-hole I seemed to think that here the past and the future were meeting face to face. Some day, perhaps, a church would stand where he stood keeping his guard over the days of old and all they stood for.

We moved on early next morning to get back to my headquarters and left the little man in charge, nor did we ever meet again. I do not know whether he stands there still, after these twenty years. If he does he must be the very last of "the old guard" in his neighbourhood. Missionaries, District Officers and Planters have all settled near him since then, and I expect that he has crumbled away with the civilisation [52/53] and religion in which he played his part. But he may still be there, keeping his lonely watch, for it is surprising how, in spite of all the changes that have come, isolated traces of old things still remain, quite near centres of Government or business stations.

Only the other day my duties as Bishop took me back into his neighbourhood. I was making a visit to the Missionary in charge of the district and had landed at his headquarters on a Friday. I proposed to spend the week-end there, and, on the Saturday, the Missionary asked me if I would come and see a village about two or three miles inland, where he hoped to establish a school, and we started soon after breakfast so as to get our visit over before the heat of the day. It was quite an easy walk, as there are some miles of flat before one comes to the foot-hills of the mountains which form the greater part of the island. It was also one of the most beautiful walks that I have taken in the islands. It was by the side of a small, smoothly flowing river that wandered in and out amongst glorious tropical foliage and flowers. Easy walking, cool shade, beautiful scenery, made it a delightful morning. Quite soon we reached the place in question, to find that it formed part of a long straggling village that followed the winding course of the little river.

As the stream twisted and turned it embraced an endless series of little peninsulas between its bends, in each of which nestled a group of houses, each forming a tiny, separate hamlet, yet still part of the whole settlement. We saw the place where the people hoped to build us a little church and school-house. Our host was an ex-Queenslander whose knowledge of English caused me much delight, for while he greeted me with due respect as "my father," he addressed the Priest-in-Charge as "young fellow." Odd as it may seem, I don't think my companion was as delighted as I was.

After a chat with this old man, we moved on to see another of the little hamlets at another bend of the [53/54] river. We found the people very friendly and hospitable, empty kerosene boxes were brought for the weary white men to sit on by the banks of the stream, and we enjoyed a gossip with our native companions, though they spoke a dialect that neither of us completely understood.

After a short stay I thought we might as well be getting on our way home again, but as we started the native teacher, who was our guide, begged us to go a little further and see where the first beginnings of the village had been, for, as he told us, in the old days it had been one of the largest in the neighbourhood, though now there was nothing left but these little separated hamlets. As we were not tired and had plenty of time before us, we willingly agreed and followed the stream a little further on. When we came to the spot which the teacher wanted us to see, my companion called my attention to a cluster of three or four houses on the opposite side of the stream. "What are those things hanging on the wall of that hut? They look just like human bones." I had a good look at them, and agreed that they certainly did look like bones. "Let's go across and see; I don't suppose anyone would object."

We asked the teacher, who assured us that they were bones, and said that the people would probably raise no objection to our inspecting them. Accordingly we waded over and were met on the opposite bank by a fine-looking young man with a baby in his arms who seemed to be the sole inhabitant. He was quite friendly and let us look at the house.

They were human bones, sure enough--two legs with the feet complete, and others which I am not anatomist enough to recognise. Over the doorway was festooned a back-bone, and on a shelf beneath were five or six skulls. Close by was a little enclosed place with a small hut just visible among the shrubs with [54/55] which it was thickly planted. We made judicious enquiries and found that the enclosure was the site of a chief's grave, the little hut contained his bones, the house was a shrine to his memory and was dedicated to some heathen spirit. Only the young men of the village were allowed to enter this house, to sleep there and to perform whatever were the due rites of the place. The bones were those of enemies whom he had slain, and formed a memorial of his valour; the skulls were also those of his foes--some of them still remembered as individuals. One, larger than the rest, with a great gash in it which might or might not have been the result of natural decay, was specially pointed out to us as that of a gigantic Mala warrior who had come there in search of heads and left his own behind him as a trophy for the chief.

The young man holding the baby looked on with a quiet smile while our boys explained this history, much as the curator of a museum might listen to the comments of a party of visitors to his collection. Here was a place, not three miles from a flourishing mission village, not a quarter of a mile from a place where we hoped to start another school, and within easy walking distance of at least two large plantations frequently visited by the District Officer of the island; yet here still lingered the old heathen faiths, the old heathen rites, and the memory of the old fighting days.

Probably, because it lies a little off the beaten track, we were the first Europeans who had ever seen this forest shrine, and, but for a chance glance across the stream we might have been within a hundred yards of it and never known of it.

Not the least interesting point to me was the matter of fact manner of the guardian of the place. Neither ashamed nor boastful, he let us look at the trophies and the grave as though it were all a commonplace of daily life. He was mildly amused at the interest we showed.

[56] More probably than not, the baby in that young man's arms will grow up under Mission influence, in due time be baptised, perhaps become a teacher, without any recollection of the fact that his fathers worshipped spirits and treasured the bones of their dead enemies.

Friendly relations once established and a native teacher accepted, the next thing was to persuade the villagers to let one or more of the young boys come away with you to school, with a view to eventually becoming missionaries to their own people.

With the children themselves one seldom had any trouble, but sometimes their elders were rather loth to let them go. Whether they feared they might never return, or simply were naturally unwilling to send their small sons to a place miles and miles away, one could not say. But there was never any doubt as to the willingness of adventurous boys for the experience.

One boy rushed into the boat, flung himself down and clung to the seat, refusing to let go, though his father tugged and scolded and we all lent a hand. Ultimately he was returned to his father, but only by means of the world-wide formula of persuasion used by elders to self-willed children: "Another time perhaps, dear."

"Another time" actually came for this particular child and he went away to school, first near at hand on Guadalcanar, later on at Norfolk Island. From the very first he showed that he had plenty of brains. He had not been more than six months at school in the islands before he had made himself a model of a deck chair, in which he delighted to sit in state. He would, perhaps, have made a first-class artificer, but when he went to Norfolk Island he had to fit into the regular routine of the place, and there his superabundance of wits landed him into trouble.

[57] As may be imagined, the teaching of Greek does not form part of the regular curriculum for small Melanesians, but some of the clergy thought it might interest their pupils to know that there was such a language and that the New Testament had been written in it. Accordingly, they showed the boys what the Greek alphabet looked like. This particular boy took such an interest in these lessons that he felt he must possess a Greek book, and helped himself to his tutor's Greek Testament.

Alas, he seemed to possess the communist's ideal to excess. Tuum meant meum to him, and he had to be sent home in disgrace. Here his talents took another form, and he developed gifts of imagination that were provocative of a good deal of trouble. Liar and thief? Was he merely a rascal, or was he born before his time? I can picture him in a more sophisticated civilization, a leading politician or a "best seller" among authors of startling fiction, but in Melanesia he certainly was not appreciated, and when, after several spells in gaol, he died, I am afraid no-one regretted him greatly, not even the present writer, whose protegé he was and who once dreamed great things of him.

The people were not always ready to give us their brightest children. Sometimes they went on the principle that what was no good to them might do very well for us. Beggars could not be choosers, and we were glad to take anything that we could get.

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