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.


Guadalcanar is one of the larger islands in the Solomons, and has three characteristics which differentiate it from the majority of the other islands.

In the first place it is more mountainous than the rest of the group. On the greater part of the coast there is hardly any flat land at all, the foot-hills begin to rise almost from the beaches; on the weather side of the island the coast is precipitious except where a river debouches on a shingly shore.

On the other hand, there is a considerable stretch of flat land running inland for several miles, forming a well watered and fertile plain, such as is not found elsewhere in the group, so Guadalcanar is one of the most easily cultivated islands in this district. It is now occupied by a large number of flourishing plantations, and would have been one of the first islands to be opened up were it not for its third distinguishing feature.

While the majority of the islands have a most irregular coastline, and offer plenty of harbours and safe landings for small craft, Guadalcanar is practically without any harbours at all with the exception of the extreme south-easterly end, where a group of small islands forms with the mainland, Marau Sound, which is a perfectly secure anchorage for ships of all sizes in all weathers.

As the pioneer work of the Mission has always been done in the Mission Ship, the Southern Cross, it was this harbour that naturally saw the beginnings of the work.

In the very early days, 1856, Bishop Patteson called there and was given some of the young boys of the locality to take to Norfolk Island, where, in accordance with the custom of the Mission, they were educated and trained as missionaries to their own people.

[59] The first item of this programme was carried out with quite a number of lads, but the second was never successful. The natives were friendly enough, both to their visitors on the ship and to their own folk when they returned from Norfolk Island, but they would not accept the New Teaching.

In an interregnum between two Bishops, Bishop Montgomery, then of Tasmania, made a tour of these islands about 1890, and wrote of Guadalcanar: "This is one of the apparent failures of the Mission."

In those days it was one of the wildest spots on the Solomons; none of their neighbours, with the exception of the islanders of Malaita, had so bad a reputation as the people of Guadalcanar.

Amongst themselves they were continually engaged in raiding and murder, and, largely in consequence of this, they recruited for the sugar plantations of Australia and Fiji in considerable numbers; indeed the Guadalcanar boys were usually called "Solomon Boys," as though they alone came from that group of islands.

Shortly after Bishop Montgomery's visit the Mission ship gave up calling at Marau Sound and the work was transferred to the other end of the island, where, near Coghlan Harbour, or to use the native name, Maravovo, were to be found a certain number of smaller bays, suitable for anchorage and landing during half the year.

One of the commonest practices of the heathen times was the kidnapping of small children by parties of native marauders who sold them to the chiefs of other islands or of other parts of Guadalcanar.

As one would expect, the native children were always warned to be very careful not to stray any distance from the village unless in large parties or accompanied by elders with arms for their protection, but children are much the same all the world over and there were always some who did not attend to this warning.

[60] These often fell a prey to the kidnappers, who lurked near a village in the thick bush that hems in the narrow track on either side.

When a child of suitable age was seen without any efficient protector, the kidnappers would seize the child, frightening away or killing its elder companions, and hurry their prisoner to the canoes which they had beached near at hand.

There was always a demand for children so procured, and there would be little difficulty in disposing of their captive to some chief who was looking for an addition to his family.

The fate of the stolen child differed according to its sex. If it were a boy, it was "adopted" into the family of its purchaser. Here he took his place among the children of his master and might live out his life on the same lines as the other children of the place, becoming perhaps a leading warrior or even a local chief.

But another fate was usually in store for him. It was almost an universal custom that when a chief died a number of his household would be killed to accompany him to the under world and enable him to appear with a following suitable to his rank, and it was from the number of his stolen and adopted sons that these companions for the hereafter were selected.

Thus the life of a kidnapped boy did not differ very greatly from the life he would naturally have lived in his own land; he was treated in every way as a natural-born son, unless or until he was chosen to die with his master, if that master should himself die during his adolescence.

For a girl, the future was far worse. A horrible custom existed among the chiefs by which they shewed their power and importance.

This was the institution of "Tabu Wives." Each chief was entitled to possess as many wives as he could secure to himself; old women, middle-aged women, young women and girls, all formed part of his [60/61] household, worked in his gardens and bore him children. From the point of view of the native their lot was not particularly hard. Often the young wife of an elderly chief must have longed for a mate of more congenial age, still, many hands make light work, and very likely she consoled herself with the thought that she would have a much harder life as the single wife of even the finest young brave of her own village.

But the Tabu wife existed merely as an outward sign of the power of her owner. Each was carefully secluded in a separate small house, from which she was not allowed to emerge for any purpose whatever at any time during her life; food was passed in through the low door that was the only entrance to her hut. She lived in solitary misery her whole lifetime, for she was "tabu," set apart, and for anyone to set eyes upon her was death.

Such might be the lot of any little girl who was unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of these kidnappers of Guadalcanar.

However, our story is concerned not with these, but with one individual boy, who, somewhere about 1880, was kidnapped from the neighbourhood of Maravovo, and sold to the paramount chief of Bugotu, Soga the First.

This boy's name was Basilei. While he was still quite a young lad his master was converted to Christianity, and Basilei with the rest of the lads of the place came under Mission influence, and was amongst those selected as promising enough to go to Norfolk Island to be educated.

Another lad, a little younger than he, had come from Guadalcanar to Bugotu under happier circumstances. Hugo Goravaka had been taken from the same neighbourhood of Guadalcanar by the Southern Cross for training at Norfolk Island in the hopes that he might make an impression on his heathen relations when he returned as a fully trained teacher.

[62] As had been the case with so many other boys from Guadalcanar, he found on his return that no one was inclined to listen to him, and accordingly he was taken on to Bugotu, the missionary in charge of which island had also the oversight of such work as there might be on Guadalcanar. Here he became a teacher, marrying a Bugotu woman and settling down as one of the people of the island.

He came in close contact with Basilei, who by this time had been baptised by the name of George, and was also a teacher in the Bugotu Church.

These two must often have talked about their own island, Hugo giving George the news of the changes that had happened since George was stolen away, and speaking of their mutual friends and connections.

The Melanesian, transplanted from one island to another, in those days when there was very little inter-island communication, suffered terribly from home-sickness, and nothing pleased him more than to meet a fellow countryman and talk unceasingly about the homes they shared in the past, and to picture the great time to come when they should be able to return to them.

But George had an added inducement. Being himself a convert from heathenism, once part of the following of one of the greatest head-hunters of old-time Bugotu, he knew well what heathenism meant, and what a great change for the better came with Christianity. The spirit of a missionary burnt fiercely in him, and he longed, not only to see once more his home and fellow-countrymen, but also to bring to them the good news of great gladness that Christianity had given him.

We can picture him telling Hugo all his wishes and aspirations, and Hugo agreeing and sympathising, to a great extent sharing in George's enthusiasm, but having at the back of his mind, the recollection of his own failure.

But nothing could shake George's determination. At last he went to the Missionary in charge and told him [62/63] of his longing. Here too he met with scant encouragement. Many years of unsuccessful trials on Guadalcanar had made the priest very doubtful. George was doing a useful work on Bugotu, well trained teachers were scarce, was it right to leave the place, where he was badly needed, in the hope, which in so many other cases had proved vain, that he might gain a hearing on an island which had shewn only too clearly that it had no hankering after the New Custom? Bugotu was opening its doors to the Mission gladly and willingly, obeying Soga in this, as it had obeyed him of old.

Prudence, common sense and the needs of the island, seemed to show that George's right place was on Bugotu. One cannot be surprised that at first permission to make the experiment was refused him.

Still George persisted, and at last, rather hesitatingly, permission was given him to try.
Accordingly, when he must have been about twenty years old, the Southern Cross landed him on the beach at Maravovo, close to his own home.

We may be sure that a crowd of natives collected on the shore as they saw the ship draw near and come to an anchor, among these would be many from Basilei's own home, some who actually remembered him, who would be full of delight as they recognised him among the boys in the boat that put off from the ship's side, and when they learnt that he had returned to live amongst them, their joy would have been shewn in a way that one who knows the emotional side of the Melanesian's nature can well imagine.

Received thus with open arms,, George went with his newly found friends and relatives away to the village as soon as the ship sailed and left him after all these years, again at home.

He must have been full of happiness and high hopes for the success of his venture, but when the endless native gossip had all been exchanged, when he had settled down among his newly discovered family, he [63/64] would have lost little time in explaining the full reason for his return, and then the old story was re-told. They were delighted to have him back again, but this newfangled teaching he talked about did not appeal to them in the slightest degree.

As long as his talk ran on the strange customs of the white people at Norfolk Island and on Bugotu, as long as he told them tales of his boyhood with Soga's fighting men, they were all attention; but as soon as he began on his favourite subject of what he had come there specially to tell them about, their interest died away and he was left alone.

Every one liked him, he made himself useful whenever an opportunity occurred and he kept aloof from the quarrels and scandals incident to village life, but for his new customs and ideas they had not the smallest use.

It must have seemed to him that his advisers had been right and he had been wrong. For all the practical good he was doing he would far better have stayed on Bugotu.

The people were perfectly content with their old customs; they had got on very well so far without any novelties, and they were not going to risk offending their godlets by adopting new ways which would involve neglecting the powers they knew about and feared and adopting a lot of new ideas, the usefulness of which was more than doubtful.

From time to time the Southern Cross called there, George came down to the beach to see his old friends and teachers and to hear all the Mission gossip, what new comers there were, who and how many were there at Norfolk Island now, and all the countless little things that make up "home news." His Island Father, the priest with whom he had worked on Bugotu, who had set him down on Guadalcanar with his blessing and prayers; perhaps even the Bishop, keenly interested in his venture, would ask him how he was getting on, [64/65] how many had come to listen, how many little ones carne to school with him; and to all this he had always only one answer to give, "None yet."

George went back to his home, sore at heart, discouraged and unhappy, but determined, returning to the little, lonely life of the one Christian in a heathen place.

In spite of all, he would not give up; he refused to be disheartened, and refused to return to Bugotu or to go elsewhere. Somehow, sometime, he was sure that he would succeed; his motto would seem to have been: "If a thing ought to be done, it can be done," and he was determined that as long as he had the power, he would not cease trying.

So nearly two years passed by, with George just living quietly among his own people, doing his best at least to make himself useful and pleasant to everyone.

And then suddenly the chance came. One day, as two or three of the leading men of the village were sitting in his house, talking of one thing and another, the conversation turned on George himself.

They said how glad they were to have him with them, and how much he was liked there, always ready to lend a hand with the gardening or house building or any other of the many jobs to be done in a village. They had noticed how he never got mixed up in village scandals and seemed able to live at peace with everyone, neither sharing in nor causing trouble with the others.

"How is it," they asked, "that you are so easy to live with and always so ready to help and mix in our life and yet never get entangled in our disputes and squabbles?"

"Why," he replied, "it's because of this New Custom that I learnt on Bugotu and have been always trying to tell you about."

"What, do you mean to say that it is not just simply a new set of customs, but something that is really useful?"

[66] "Of course I do, it's not just new customs, it's a new life."

"Well, if we had realised that, we would have listened to what you had to say."

And so the tide turned. The elders listened when once they saw that this new teaching might have practical results; the children were encouraged to learn their letters and to do "figures" that some day they might read and write as George could do; they consented to come together to hear the prayers George read, and to listen to him as he explained the contents of his wonderful books, things hitherto beyond their comprehension, so gradually a little community of hearers grew up in the village.

Then came a fresh opening. Some years before this a raiding party from the little island of Savo had landed at Maravovo and wiped out a village so that now there was a vacant piece of no-man's land on the shore in the most sheltered part of the harbour.

The tribe to which Hugo Goravaka belonged were the nominal owners of the land. Why not move down there, with all who really wished to accept the New Teaching, establish a little Christian settlement and send over to Bugotu for Hugo to come there as their head?

The suggestion was soon accepted, the houses were built, including a small church building and school room combined, Hugo gladly came, and in the village of Maravovo, the Mother Church of Guadalcanar was started just at the end of the last century. Here on the beach stands to-day a bronze Calvary, to mark the spot.

But the infant Church had still to pass through many troubles and vicissitudes. All the neighbouring peoples were heathen, for one cause and another bitterly antagonistic. Some feared the anger of the old gods, many mistrusted the thing as the importation of the whites, many who had gained wealth and importance as leaders in the propitiation and invocation of the powers of heathenism, feared loss of prestige, wealth [66/67] and power. Heathen chiefs were jealous of any other new authority: what would be their position when the rival powers of a Bishop, priests and teachers came into the land? It is not to be wondered at if at first the attempt to introduce Christianity met with bitter enmity from the vast majority of the natives. True, in many of the villages were boys who had been at Norfolk Island, but their influence had gone for nothing in the past and was worth little more now.

Physical violence, the powers of witchcraft, scandal and slander--all were employed to nip the innovation in the bud; but it still lived and slowly grew.

Neighbouring villages heard the news, came and visited the place, saw how clean and tidily it was kept, saw how happy and contented the people looked, and said: "We will give it a trial ourselves." Thus the Church spread wider and wider afield.

In 1900, a Priest from New Zealand led a body of native volunteers to Maravovo--some six or eight boys and young men, one or two from Guadalcanar, two or three from Gela, forty miles away, one from San Cristoval, sixty miles in another direction, one even from Mota, far away in the south, all trained at Norfolk Island, and all loyal to the Church and their leader.

A little one-roomed house was built for the white man, with a better Church and a School Room, and from Maravovo, little parties went to other villages and settled there.

There was still, for many years to come, much opposition, threats of murder were frequent, some one or two of the native adherents sealed their new belief in their blood, and died, unknown, unsung proto-martyrs of the Church of Guadalcanar, but the growth now was more rapid; the zeal and prestige of the white man was no small factor in the advance, and when after two short years, ill-health compelled the white priest to give place to another, the district of Maravovo extended for some forty miles up the coast.

[68] At the same time another missionary band, inspired, but not actually led by the European priest, set sail from Gela, to another part of the island, where the distance from land to land is not very great, and where there was already a small colony, speaking a language akin to that of Gela.

Here, some forty miles away from Maravovo, was started, under a native priest's leadership, another little branch of the Church, and thus, when the second priest of Guadalcanar landed, not more than ten years after the unhopeful record of Bishop Montgomery was made, some hundred miles of the coast of Guadalcanar had come under Christian influence.

In the meantime, French priests of the Marist Mission had landed and were making their influence felt, but there was plenty of room for all, and there was no great amount of friction.

From 1902, there has been a gradual but marked growth. Villages that were once entirely heathen or mere solitary outposts in a scattered line of Christian settlements are now firm centres of the faith, and Christians from Guadalcanar have gone as Missionaries to other islands.

It was not very long before the work had increased to such an extent that another priest was needed; one was left in charge of the area that looked to Maravovo as its foundation stone, the other took over the area that owed its origin to the Gela Church. Tentative beginnings were made in the bush villages, and though much of the interior still remains heathen (indeed nearly all, for the hill villages are hard to reach) practically the whole coast line of Guadalcanar, some three hundred miles in extent, has been Christianised by the Melanesian Mission, the Marist Fathers or the more recent work of the undenominational South Seas Evangelical Mission.

Of recent years the people of Marau Sound have begun to shew signs of a readiness to hear the new message.

[69] Mala and San Cristoval, where the memory of Bishop Patteson still lingers, lie not very far away from this part of Guadalcanar. From these islands, both the Marist Fathers and the South Seas Evangelical Mission have sent outposts to us. It was not till 1927 that the Melanesian Mission was able to resume work on Mala and San Cristoval.

To the Church of Guadalcanar belongs a movement, which unless it belies its early promise, should mark an epoch in the history of the Mission's work in the Solomon Islands. But this deserves a chapter to itself.

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