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 story of the Brotherhood of Melanesia begins with a letter from the Bishop in the half-yearly newspaper of the Mission which is published twice a year, in one of the Island languages, and distributed by the Southern Cross on each of her voyages to the Islands. This letter was on the topic of Service, and suggested that some of its readers might hear a call to complete self-dedication to the service of God. It must have been read by some hundreds of the people, but did not seem likely to bear much fruit; until, in 1925, nearly three years after it had been written, a young Melanesian, Ini Kopuria, came to the Bishop and told him that he wanted to make the offer of himself and all that he possessed to God.

Ini had been brought up at the village school at Maravovo and at Norfolk Island, and had proved not only unusually good at work but also shewn that he possessed a very strong character and much more self-confidence and initiative than is usual in Melanesians.

After his return from Norfolk Island in 1921 or 1922, he had enlisted in the local Armed Constabulary and, though at first the discipline had proved irksome, he had done very well and risen to the rank of Lance-corporal, but after he had served two years, he had an accident, followed by a serious illness which kept him for some months in the Government hospital and left him permanently, though only slightly, lame.

During the long days of convalescence, he had thought a great deal over the past, and also over his future, now that his term of service was ended and his lameness made it improbable that he would be able to continue in the Constabulary.

As he lay in bed, thinking, it seemed to him that he had not made much of a success of life, in spite of [111/112] his training and his high hopes; and he began to look back with regret on his boyish days at school, when he had been happy, with quite a brilliant future before him.

It occurred to him to think how he had obtained that schooling, and those happy days. Why had he been chosen and so many others left? Who had paid for his food; his clothes, his teaching, his games, all those years since as a very little boy he had gone, a stranger, to Maravovo?

And he seemed almost to hear a voice saying, "I gave you all this, what have you given Me, in return?" Hitherto he had taken it all for granted. Now he was oppressed with a sense of the immense debt he owed to God and promised in his heart that, if he recovered, he would do his utmost to repay.

Then the letter that he had read more than a year before, in the Mission paper came to his mind and he determined that, as soon as he was well, he would go and see the Bishop and ask his advice and help.

As soon as he came out of the hospital, he came to me and told me his story. We had a long talk and decided that the best thing would be for him to come with me, on the Southern Cross and see if, among his friends and contemporaries at Norfolk Island, there were any of the same mind as himself. He found five others, and together we returned to my home at Siota to discuss the matter thoroughly.

After much discussion, we determined to found a Brotherhood of young men, all of whom should promise to remain unmarried, to receive no payment, and to go wherever the head of the Brotherhood, who was always to be the Bishop, should decide to send them.

As numbers increased, the Brotherhood was to be divided into Households; each household to consist of not less than six and not more than eight brothers, who would he under an elder brother, chosen by themselves out of their own number.

To each Household was to be assigned a certain [112/113] district and the brothers were to tour their district two and two, to prepare the way until the Mission could send a fully qualified teacher to live there.

Their mission was always to be to the Heathen, and was to be a mission of preparation only. After a time this restriction had to be modified, owing to the impossibility of finding the necessary teachers, and each household was given a district, where they might live and work under the supervision of the Priest in charge.

The Bishop was the Father of the Brotherhood, and the elder brothers were bound to write, four times a year, to the Father and report their progress or failures.

At least once a year, all the Brothers were to meet the Father, in Chapter; report progress, draw up the plans for the future and refer to the Chapter any difficulties they had met.

Any complaints of Brother against Brother, or younger Brothers against their Elder Brother, were to be openly ventilated in Chapter. If the Brothers themselves could not settle their differences, the matter was referred to the Father, against whose decision there was no appeal.

No Brother was allowed to utter any complaint or criticism, except at the Chapter; nor was he permitted to be silent about any grievance he might feel at the meetings of the Chapter.

A centre for the Brotherhood was found at a place called Tambiriu, on land belonging to Ini and given by him to the Mission. Here, later on, a school was started for boys collected from the various districts, where they could be prepared for admission into the ordinary Mission Schools.

At this place on SS. Simon and Jude's day (October 28th), 1925, a little party, consisting of the Bishop, the Assistant-bishop, Mr. Hopkins, Ini and a few natives, went to see the site of the Brotherhood buildings and here Ini made his promise of self-dedication, kneeling under the shade of a large tree, close to the spot where [113/114] he hoped to build the Brotherhood House.

The form of words was his own, and is given here in English.

"Trinity, All Holy; from to-day until the day of death, I promise in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and before Archangels and Angels, Spirits and Saints, and before the Bishop, John Manwaring Steward, Bishop Frederick Merivale Molyneux, and the Reverend Arthur Innes Hopkins, representing the church here in Melanesia, I promise three things:--

I give myself and my land, together with all that is mine, to Thee. I will take no payment from the Mission for the work to which Thou sendest me. I will remain Thy celibate always till my death.

Strengthen me that I may remain firm, remain peaceable, remain faithful therein all my days till death Who livest and reignest, Three in One God, world without end. Amen."

Then we went back to the ship; the others going on ahead, and Ini and the Bishop following together, a little way behind.

This day has been kept as the day of the Founding of the Brotherhood, and the annual Chapter of the Brothers is held as near to it as possible.

From here we went on and Ini looked for and found his first recruits; but it was not until Whitsunday, 1926, that the Brotherhood was actually started. The Brothers-to-be had to make their arrangements and bid farewell to their relations and wait for the next voyage of the ship before they could all assemble together to be admitted to the Society.

Just before Whitsunday, we all met again at Siota, the first tentative rules were drawn up and the name "Ira Retatasiu", "The Brothers", was chosen. After Evensong on Whitsunday, Ini, Dudley Bale, Moffat Ohigita, Cecil Loga-thage, Maurice Maneae, Hugo Holun and [114/115] Benjamin Boko were solemnly admitted the first of the Society.

The primary purpose of the Brotherhood is set forth in the first Rule, which runs as follows:--

"The work of the Brothers is to declare the Way of Jesus Christ among the Heathen; not to minister amongst those who have already received the Law."

This rule has been modified as a result of experience and the Brothers are now allowed to live and work among those whom they have brought to the knowledge of God from among the heathen.

A second purpose of the Brotherhood is to ascertain, by trial, whether or no a vocation to the Religious Life exists among the Melanesians.

Many people hold the opinion that a celibate life is impossible for them, but such a view might seem to limit the power of the Holy Spirit. Should such a life be possible and vocations to live it exist, the Brotherhood will provide an opportunity for testing aspirants and a way of life for those who are able to pass through the test.

The promises are renewed each year, and any Brother may, at any time, after due notice has been given, retire from the Brotherhood, without blame.

Although this is not one of its main purposes, the Brotherhood is very useful in that it provides an occupation for young men who, having passed through our schools, are not yet prepared to settle down as teachers in a village school.

One cannot find it in one's heart to blame these young lads if, fresh from school with its companionship, games and organised occupations, the prospect of the humdrum life of a second teacher at a village school, doing nothing more interesting than teaching little children day after day, and helping in the daily services when the Senior teacher permits, does not appeal very strongly to them, and they often go away to work for a [115/116] couple of years on a plantation or a trading or recruiting ship, or join the Police as Ini did.

Again, the first thing the parents generally think about in connection with a boy fresh home from school, is his marriage, and it is by no means every young Melanesian of 18 or 19 who wants to get married just yet, especially as generally he has very little say in the selection of the bride.

Most of them leave school with a very real affection for the Mission and a wish to do something to repay the time and care and friendliness that has been spent for them; but two or three years spent away from home and the Mission influence, gives time for this affection to cool down. A few years work at home under an elderly and sometimes uninspiring Senior, with a wife chosen for him for family reasons and, possibly growing yearly more uncongenial, will have the same effect or even worse.

The Brotherhood offers these men an occupation away from home, just at the critical time, with a spice of adventure in it; and, as the promises are renewable from year to year, there is no danger of an irrevocable decision made on impulse at too early an age.

The majority, no doubt, will after a year or two, settle down to village life, but some, we hope, will feel the call to a longer, if not a life-long service. At anyrate, they will have kept in touch with the mission at the restless age.

During the interval between his "Profession" and the admission of the Brothers, Ini had not wasted his time. He had been making a tour of the district where he hoped to begin work, the hilly interior of Guadalcanar, and had promises of a friendly reception from several of the Heathen Chiefs. His work in the Police had lain amongst these people, and as he had a very good name for fairness and honourable dealing he was known and liked by chiefs and people alike.

Accordingly, when the Brothers came on board the ship, early on Whitmonday, with all their worldly [116/117] possessions on their backs, it was with high hopes that they set out on their first adventure.

It was just before sun-set when we anchored. A boat was let down, and the Brothers, one of our Priests and myself were rowed ashore to the place where the Brothers were to sleep before starting into the hills the next morning.

There was no time to spare if we were to be back on board and off again to our next place of call; so we said a few prayers, sung a hymn, and the Brothers knelt for a final blessing. Then we hurried back to the boat, the Brothers gave a cheer, we in the boat responded, and we returned to the ship, watching their figures grow dim in the fast advancing twilight.

There was nothing more we could do for them, except pray and hope for a good report when next we met.

For them, there was a night's rest in the nearby village, then the long tramp into the hills, into a strange country, doubly strange for some of them, who had never been out of sight of the sea in their lives, among strange people, speaking a strange language. Then--disappointment!

All their high hopes, and all those fine promises came to nothing. Chief after chief "they all began, with one consent, to make excuse." The first had "changed his mind." The second was willing, but his people were afraid of the anger of their god, and the chief dared not disregard their fears. At a third place, the same refusal; but here they had a message that, for the moment, cheered them up. The Chief was going to make a final sacrifice to his god, and, after that, would receive them.

But here again they were disappointed. When the time came the people were afraid, and appealed to the District Officer to forbid the Brothers to come into their village.

The Officer told Ini that he could not risk an outbreak, and though they were much amused at the [117/118] thought of the people invoking the help of an alien, and generally much disliked Government, to protect their gods against a Rival, it was a bitter disappointment.

After yet another attempt at yet another village, with the same result. Ini left the rest of the party at their headquarters and started off to visit the nearest Priest and talk things over with him. From there he made several expeditions and found a district where the people seemed really friendly. Some six or seven villages offered him and the Brothers a welcome, and Ini promised to come to them if he got the Bishop's consent.

Ini then rejoined the rest, and made his report. He found that they had made another attempt at the first village they had all visited, but all the inhabitants had deserted the place as soon as they heard that the Brothers were in the neighbourhood.

It was now close on SS. Simon and Jude's Day, and the Brothers all went to the school at Vera-na-aso, where the Bishop had promised to meet them for their first Chapter.

I was not able to get to Vera-na-aso by the appointed date, but the first Chapter of the Brothers was duly held on All Saints' Day, and it was quickly decided to give up the attempt on the district we had tried first, and to make a fresh start where a welcome had been promised, in the neighbourhood of Aola, about the centre of Guadalcanar.

Here they were at once successful. The people were glad to have them, they listened to them and followed their teaching, and, before long, they were further encouraged by a message from Marau Sound, at the extreme end of the Island.

This is a large land-locked harbour, containing several islands of fair size, some of which are inhabited while others form fishing-quarters for the inhabitants of the coast.

The people are mainly colonists from Mala, which, [118/119] at this point, lies not very far off. It was at Marau Sound that Bishop Patteson first got into touch with the people on Guadalcanar, and though the Mission had no station there and no dealings with the people since that time the tradition of his visit lingered among some of the older people, so that this new venture formed an interesting link with the very first days of the Mission in the seventies.

Ini and another Brother took up their residence at Marau Sound, and their work met with considerable success: so much so that they were able, before very long, to make way for a permanent teacher from South Mala, who came there with his family.

The 1927 Chapter was held at All Hallows' School, Pawa, the Mission's Senior School in the Solomons, where boys from the preparatory schools are trained as teachers, and it proved to be a very suitable place for holding the Chapter, as the Brothers had many opportunities of interesting the boys in their work and secured several future recruits among them.

During Ini's service in the Police, he had many opportunities of coming into contact with natives from all over the Protectorate as he went with the District Officer on his visits to the various plantations on Guadalcanar.

On one of these visits Ini came across a man from Santa Cruz, who had been in Queensland and attended a mission school there. This man told Ini that, when his time at the Plantation was finished, he was going back to Santa Cruz, and that if Ini could come there, he could promise him a friendly welcome.

In the past there had been a flourishing Mission Station there, but the last missionary had left some years ago, through ill health; an epidemic of dysentery had reduced the numbers of the people to a terrible extent, and it had been a fruitful recruiting ground, owing to the fact that the Santa Cruzians made such good sailors on the trading and recruiting ships.

[120] As a result of all this, the Mission Station was deserted and the population that remained had shifted to another part of the main Island, leaving only a handful of scattered adherents in that part.

We had always hoped to revive the work there, but the small number of available Missionaries and the decrease of population made it impossible.

During our discussions at Pawa, Ini told us of this invitation, and we decided to send him and another brother to make enquiries at Santa Cruz and to report to me.

If the prospect seemed favourable, and if the numbers of the Brotherhood justified us, we determined to form a second Household, with its headquarters in Santa Cruz, leaving the first Household to carry on in Guadalcanar.

Things move slowly in Melanesia, as the only dependable means of communication between Santa Cruz and my home in the Solomons is the Southern Cross; so it was some six months later when Ini again met me to give his report.

It was very encouraging. The people of some five small villages, spread over an area of about five miles along the shores of Graciosa Bay, though all heathen, had been very friendly, and seemed ready to accept Christianity if we could send them teachers.

Meanwhile, Ini and his companions had made a start, built a house for themselves, and three little churches, with very small "vicarages" attached and were ready to begin there if we could find the Brothers for the work.

Fortunately, by this time we had increased our numbers to about a dozen, and felt justified in forming the second Household for the attempt.

Accordingly, early in 1928, Ini and five others set out to establish the Brotherhood in Santa Cruz.

In June of the same year, I visited them, on my [120/121] last voyage through the Islands. They had made splendid progress, a very good Brotherhood-house was built at the headquarters, the three small churches were ready to be dedicated, each with its little house for the visiting Brothers, and a church-yard cleared for the burial of Christians. This is very necessary in Melanesia, as the heathen customs connected with death and the disposal of the body are often among the greatest difficulties in the work of winning the people to Christianity.

Ini had prepared a good afternoon's work for me. Three churches, three church-yards, and three houses to bless, involving a walk of about four or five miles; and, in addition, there was a plot of ground, about 24 feet square, enclosed by a coral wall, and consisting of thick undergrowth, to be "exorcised" as it was the abode of the local god, and until he had been subdued by someone with the necessary mana or ghostly power, the people did not feel safe in accepting Christianity.

I had not seen the spot till I reached it, after a long and hot walk, and I was a little vexed because my robes had been left behind, but when I did see it, and learned that the god took the form of a large rat, my vexation vanished. A rat-hunt, in a thicket, in Cope and Mitre, in the Tropics, when I was already very hot and rather tired, would have been neither pleasant nor dignified.

Ini was obviously rather grieved at the absence of vestments which would have lent impressiveness to the scene, but I pointed out to him that there was not time for anyone to go back to them, so we pulled down part of the wall and plunged into the thicket, followed by all the people.

We did not find the god, though his home under the roots of a good-sized tree was pointed out to me, and there seemed a general consensus of opinion that I ought to dig him out. We hacked our way into the middle of the "shrine," I expelled the god in absentia, and we made our way out the other side. In spite of the [121/122] absence of the robes and of the god, the people seemed quite content and not a little relieved, and we began our return walk to the place where we had left the ship's boat.

At our first halt, my robes were waiting, and we were able to dedicate the church, church-yard and house with all due ceremony. There still remained a walk of about a mile and a half, and two more churches, churchyards and houses to bless, all in Cope and Mitre, and it was with a feeling of some relief that I at last got out of garments, not intended for active exercise in the Tropics, and found that Ini had prepared a welcome and lavish tea for us.

Then we sailed away, and left them there, with good hopes for the future.

Since then, the Brotherhood has added fresh laurels to its crown; for two of the earliest members have gone to Fiji, to work among the Melanesians who have emigrated there.

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