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.


Melanesian.--Hair usually ulotrichous, but sometimes curly and even wavy, usually slight on face and body; skin dark chocolate, sometimes very dark, but sometimes copper-coloured; stature short or medium, but very variable. The preponderating heights are 1.56-1.6 m. Dolichocephaly prevails generally, though brachycephally may predominate locally (C.I. 67-85); forehead commonly rounded, brow ridges usually not prominent; nose platyrrhine, sometimes straight, smaller than in the Papuan.

This description of the Melanesian, taken from a book published by a learned society, may fail to give the reader a portrait which, as they say, leaps to the eye; bear with me therefore if I try to give some general description of this island race, of its place on the globe, and of some characteristics of its people.

To get to Melanesia via New Zealand, simply walk up the map, due north, step over its topmost edge and proceed across two thousand miles of the windy Pacific. If the route via Australia is preferred, go to Cape York, which is the sharp spike on the extreme top right hand corner of that continent, then turn sharp right, or due east, and keep on for about two thousand miles in that direction. This brings you to the middle of Melanesia, which lies between the Equator and the tropic of Capricorn, having Papua on the West and the Fiji Islands on the east.

Melanesia is islands--islands of all shapes and sizes; the traveller can take his choice of them. Unless he should happen upon one of the two or three islands into which Polynesians have strayed he will find the people, at first sight, all much alike to look at, and most [123/124] people are struck, on first impression, by their ugliness. Natives who are handsome by European standards generally have some admixture of Polynesian or Malay, and it is necessary to spend some considerable time among the Melanesians and to know them really well, in order to appreciate their racial type. There are really fine looking people among islanders of the purest strain, but their attractiveness is that of expression rather than regularity of features. The average Melanesian is short, any man over five foot six would be considered tall; he is neatly built, with remarkably small hands, wrists and ankles, his feet are large, broad rather than long. The colour of his skin may be anything from a light, almost golden brown to deepest black, but generally he is of a dark bronze or dull chocolate colour. To the casual eye the Melanesian might be a mixture of all the coloured races under the Sun. I have seen pictures of Southern Indians, Negroes, Australian Blacks, Malays and even of Red Indians, which might have been portraits of natives I have known. As a rule he has irregular features, thick lips and a bridgeless nose. Unlike most coloured races, the coloration of the skin does not correspond with the regularity or irregularity of the bony structure of the face; I have seen perfectly black Melanesians with straight, almost European features, and very fair ones with faces like Negroes. The latter are not Albinos; these do exist among them and generally, poor things, are most repulsive to look at; their unpigmented skins get scorched and blistered by the sun and they seem particularly liable to a common skin disease, a form of ringworm covering the whole body.

It is not shameful for a Melanesian woman to have short hair, nor for a man to be long-haired. On the contrary it is the rule in the Solomon Islands for women to cut their hair short, while all the men in former days used to give much time and care to the arrangement of their locks. Many still do so. Carefully combed out [124/125] and bleached to a golden hue with lime, the hair of a Melanesian dandy is a wonderful sight, soft and silky from continual attention and standing out six inches round his head. When the sun catches the tips and makes a kind of "glory" of it in strong contrast to his dark features, he looks a most picturesque figure, especially when decked with a bright hibiscus flower, large ear-rings and his necklace of dog's or porpoise teeth.

It used to be the thing to speak of the Melanesians as one of "The child races." This is a useful label, but labels do not always give a trustworthy account of the contents of the packet. To treat them as if they were babes may lead to embarrassing situations and does not endear us to the "children" in question. I well remember an elderly native priest who was expecting a new District Missionary, saying to me rather wistfully, "I do hope the Bishop is not going to send us another boy?" As I happened to know that the Bishop was sending me, the question had an edge; it made me realise how galling to an experienced man must be the condescension of a callow youngster fresh from home.

I have listened to young Englishmen expatiating upon the respect in which they are held by their native flock, and illustrating this fact by the way in which the natives hurry to help them over rickety bridges or a difficult bit of track. I fear I have taken a malicious pleasure in replying, "Oh dear me, no, that's not because they respect you particularly; they pity you because you are so clumsy and feeble compared to themselves." When, recently four boys hauled and boosted me up a very steep and difficult path, clutching at whatever part of me came handiest, I do not think it was they respected "The Lord Bishop," so much as because they had pity on "the poor old man."

If only to remove the misconception that the untutored savage is either a simple-minded infant or a devil, or even half and half, it may be worth while to [125/126] point out some traps that lie in the way of the unwary. If we employ the standards of the European to measure the Melanesian, we shall not only fail to recognise his very real virtues, but may even mistake them for vices to be eradicated. The first step towards any effective work among the people with whom the Missionary lives must be to get into sympathetic touch with them, to learn, as far as possible, to understand their mode of thought, and to make allowance for the standpoint, so different from our own, from which they look at life.

Nothing is more disheartening than to find that ignorance has caused some kindly meant action to be ill-received, or some harmless joke to be taken as a deadly insult.

I must emphatically state my belief that no European can ever hope to fully understand the mind of a Melanesian, it is only possible to lift a corner of the veil that hides his mental world from ours. His customs seem utterly inexplicable to us, he fights, for instance, according to rules that remind one of The Rules of Battle observed by the White and Red Knights in Alice through the Looking Glass, at the same time our own customs are a mystery to him and he draws ridiculous conclusions from what he sees of them. The wisest words I ever heard from a brother missionary, a much older and more experienced man than I was, were, "The longer I live among these people the less I understand them." No amount of trying to live like one of themselves will have the desired effect; countless generations moulded in an utterly different pattern of life lie between us, the most we can do is to try to get a little nearer to them by endless sympathy and patience.

Mr. Dudley Kidd said very wisely, "I hold that the most insignificant and backward of the races of mankind has some unique thread to weave into the fabric of the Universal Church There is a grave danger that, in our desire to impart to such backward races the [126/127] benefits of our civilisation and religion we should fail to recognise the thread of excellence owing to its unfamiliar appearance.* [Footnote: * East and West, April, 1909.]

The Melanesians are strong in some respects where we are weak; they are weak where we are strong. We easily recognise their faults; we are in danger of being blind to "the thread of excellence" in their confusing character. Perhaps the Melanesian trait most frequently forced upon a European's notice is inexactitude. The Melanesian's mind does not grasp nice distinctions. His logic is severe and consistent, but quite untrained and very little affected by experience. His sense of right and wrong is perfectly clear, but it is not always the European sense, and though he is quite sure that he is in the right, he can neither explain his reasons nor grasp the European's standpoint; it is every bit as incomprehensible to him as his is to us. Lack of exactitude in his mental processes leads to the very common charge of untruthfulness and dishonesty. Two incidents, both drawn from my early days in Melanesia, will serve to illustrate my meaning. My work made it necessary for me to go to the different villages in my district at fairly regular intervals, and there was one village, not very far away from my headquarters, which I knew I ought to visit. The question was whether I should go there at once or wait till I made my next formal tour and the answer depended on how far the village was from my home. Being new to the district, I thought the best thing to do was to ask the native Deacon. He at once replied, "It is quite a long day's journey away," but I was still uneasy in my mind, for I felt that I ought to go, but to be honest, I did not want to; so I went back to him and asked him again. This time he replied, "It is quite close by." Now I am certain that this man was absolutely honourable and truthful at heart. Why then did he in ten minutes give two perfectly contradictory [127/128] answers to my question? At first sight one would reply, "Because he knew what answer you wanted, and, having no real feeling for truth in the abstract, he gave you the answer he thought would please you, it was his "native" idea of good manners. But, at this distance of time, I am inclined to think that he was fundamentally more truthful than I was. When I asked "is it far away," he knew that the question I really had in my mind was "Ought I to go?" and he replied in his own way, meaning, "After all, you are a Priest and I am only a Deacon; isn't it up to you to decide?"

Again, later on, my headquarters were on a little island about a quarter of a mile from the mainland and when I went round the district it was my custom to leave my houseboy behind in charge of my belongings. I returned from a tour to find some tins of meat from my private stores lying under the verandah instead of being in their proper place in the store-room. I asked the boy what they were doing there and the lad, believing that I was suggesting that he had taken them for his own use, burst into tears, protesting that I ought to know that he would never steal my things. Yet at the time he was wearing a belt that he could only have got by going into my bedroom and taking it. "Not only a thief but a silly liar as well," would be one's first reaction. Still I was convinced then and remain convinced to-day that he was genuinely hurt at my apparent doubts of his honesty, and perfectly sincere in his protestations. How do I explain this? To be perfectly honest, I do not know; but I think that somewhere in his mind was a clear distinction between goods he was honestly entitled to use, and things which it would be stealing to appropriate. A man who takes a shirt, clearly and plainly marked with your name, and comes to visit you wearing it, is a very peculiar type of "thief." This is a case of "stealing" which did not actually ever happen to me, but to a brother missionary and to his dying day the missionary could never explain the thing, for the [128/129] "thief" is one of our most trusted native teachers. My friend made a virtue of necessity and presented the shirt to the man, though not without indignant protest. I believe the teacher was as much amazed at the missionary's attitude as the poor shirtless missionary was at the teacher's it was a case in which the native and European points of view were so different that neither could possibly understand the other. While I freely confess that I am quite unable to follow out the working of their minds, it may be confidently asserted, that these natives had not the slightest idea that they had done anything to be ashamed of.

The same lack of definiteness marks their language. When a respectable old man introduces you to his "mother," you are interested and pleased, but when, within ten minutes, he introduces you to two more "mothers" you begin to get confused. Again the native word that, as we should say "means" friend, also and especially, "means" "Lady-friend" or one's betrothed. Hence, when an English new-comer replied to the question, "And have you a "friend" in New Zealand?"--"Yes, I have a great many of them," he was surprised that his hearers, who were also his pupils, were more shocked than impressed. Of course it is generally quite incorrect to say that any word in a native language "means" any English word. It is simply the term a native uses to express some connection for which we, in English, have many different words.

He expresses an indefinite relationship where we prefer to use a definite, exclusive term.

In the same manner he cannot comprehend our exactness in dealing with him judicially. He has a very clear idea of what he feels to be justice and injustice, but he has no notion of concrete British "Justice." A person accused of crime must be either guilty or not guilty. A sentence of "not proven" or a case dismissed for lack of evidence, means to him a declaration of [129/130] innocence. A charge of immorality was being heard by a missionary fresh from home; as is often the case, there was no clear evidence, the accusation was hotly denied and the missionary accordingly "dismissed the case." The natives who had brought the accusation came to me and complained of the miscarriage of justice. "Of course," they said, "we know that you Europeans do not consider indecency of that sort reprehensible, but we natives do. Will you come and settle the matter for us?" It would have been useless to attempt to explain to them that even a European did not condone what was a very unpleasant charge indeed. They would simply have said "Well, why then did so-and-so acquit him?" I suggested that they and the missionary had misunderstood one another and re-heard the case. The evidence was indeed quite insufficient; but my verdict of "Guilty until you confess," was hailed as a really sensible judgment, and fortunately proved, to be the right one. Of course, you will say, this was utterly unjust; but, my duty, as I saw it, was to deal with the matter in a way which the natives, who were the only people concerned, could understand and appreciate. It must be a terribly difficult business for the Government official who is hampered by British Law and legal procedure and it is no wonder that his efforts are so little appreciated and that he is so often used as the unwitting instrument of revenge. What can you do when a native pleads "guilty" to a crime that he has not even thought of, because he supposes that it is the proper thing to do? The most successful and the most respected official will be the one who entirely disregards the prisoner's plea of "guilty" or "not guilty," disregards, too, most of the evidence, and gives sentence according to his own judgment, but he would run the risk of a severe reprimand if he made a mistake and it came to the ears of his superiors. A missionary has a hard job, but my pity goes out to the conscientious officer, who really tries to give the native a square deal.

[131] This inexact and wide way of looking on life is shewn in their conception of personal property. The Melanesian is the true Socialist. He is perfectly ready to share his possessions with another and expects others to act in the same way towards him. He considers it a shameful thing to refuse a request, and, consequently, does not expect any expression of gratitude in return for a favour. What Professor Spencer says of the Australian Aborigines is exactly true of the Melanesian, "He does not thank you for a gift, because it never enters into his head that you need thanks. He is always ready to give whatever he has to his neighbour if he needs it, and it does not dawn upon him that you are not the same. It seems to him the most natural thing in the world to give or to receive."

The civilised man is intensely individualistic, the Melanesian as intensely communistic. Sometimes extremes meet. They do so in the case of the "cadger" for both the European and the Melanesian agree in despising this unpleasant person--the European, because he is always asking, the Melanesian because he is never giving. The native is quick to learn that you expect him to say "thank you" but it probably means as little on his lips as, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, it does on yours. He realises that it is our idea of good manners, and he conforms to it, but his mind must be a queer jumble if he tries to understand us. We expect "thank you" when we give him a pennyworth of tobacco; if he does not pay up his "tax" of perhaps as much as a pound, he goes to gaol, but nobody says "thank you" to him when he pays up readily.

We teach the Melanesian to say "thank you" and think that we are educating him in gratitude and manners. Perhaps what we are really teaching him is selfishness, possibly he is learning from us to set an exaggerated value on personal possessions. By making so much of a trifling gift and demanding from him a recognition of its worth, we may be teaching him a new [131/132] scale of values which makes him niggardly and calculating in his offers of personal service. Older Missionaries say that he used to give his service freely, but now he demands a pretty high rate of pay. Quite possibly the Melanesian had a lesson to teach us in practical Christian fellowship, while we, full of our own inborn ways of thinking, fancied that we were inculcating Christian virtues in the dark mind of the poor benighted heathen.

As his conception of time and punctuality is indefinite so is his sense of any need of providing for the future; he is not by nature thrifty. Because he has no idea of putting by for a rainy day, we call him casual and improvident, but until the arrival of the European, he had no "rainy days"--though in the literal sense of the words, he has few that are not. The Melanesian can accept very literally the injunction to "take no care for the morrow," and it is hard to see he is morally the worse for it, or any less happy than we to whom a hard climate and means quite incommensurate with our desires make care an inevitable part of our existence.

Except in the Polynesian settlements and in a few places where there is probably a Polynesian strain, the Melanesian knows no class distinctions. This fact must be remembered in connection with another charge which is often brought against him, namely that he is impertinent and insolent, will answer back rudely and will treat you exactly as you treat him. It must be galling to be rebuked for profanity by a cook or a garden boy, but the blame does not rest entirely on the native. The unspoiled Melanesian is nearly always a gentleman; he means nothing by his seeming rudeness, he does not even know that it is rude. "He seems to think he is as good as his boss," says the white man; probably, as a matter of fact he never thinks about the question at all; certainly to him the idea of "master and servant" is a foreign importation. Very rightly he sees nothing [132/133] derogatory in domestic service, and your house-boy may be the son of a chief or of a humble villager. When first I joined the Mission and was set to work in the kitchen on Norfolk Island, I was amused because a boy asked me if I had been a cook at home. No doubt he was rightly astonished at my skill in cooking, but the interesting point is that it did not seem to him at all odd that I should do that kind of work.

The Englishman is so much accustomed to a distinct servant class and the Australian to coloured labour, that he instinctively expects a correct attitude from a Melanesian in his employ.* [Footnote: * The old Public School-boy in Steward's estimation, makes the best Missionary to these people, because he has been used to the system of "fags," and your "fag" who does menial tasks may be heir to a title but takes his job quite naturally.--M.R.N.] It jars upon him to hear some leading European--one of the Government officials, the traders or the missionaries, described and spoken to by his surname only, without any prefix of honour; he naturally likes to be called "Sir" or "Mister" himself. This curtness does not sound in the least disrespectful to the Melanesian; he has no word to correspond to our "Mister"; he calls his father by his name alone, his Christian name if he has one, and speaks of his chief, however great his power may be, by his bare name, with no title of honour. That the white man expects another form of address, is to him, just another of the European's inexplicable eccentricities. I do not wish to argue that it is desirable that he should address his priest as "Bill," and his priest's wife as "Kitty," but only to state the undoubted fact that, to him, there is nothing incongruous in doing so.+ [Footnote: + Elsewhere Steward speaks of the unwisdom of missionaries who encourage an undue familiarity in their servants. This makes employers dislike native Christians, but the native will, he says, soon learn that his new master does not appreciate it and will desist.--M.R.N.] In the earlier days few white men [133/134] were known or addressed in any other way. The Christian name, nick-name, or surname sufficed. It is only of recent years, with the coming of more formal Government officials and a more class-conscious type of settler, that the title of Mister begins to be demanded. Whether, with this outward shew of respect there has come a greater reverence for the European, is another matter, for real respect is only given where it is earned, never simply because it is demanded. The only title worth obtaining from the Melanesian's lips is that of "My Father." This means respect, and when given from the heart it also means trust and affection. It is dangerous to draw conclusions from a native language, but a race that uses "My Friend" or "My Brother" as the ordinary form of address, and whose sole title of honour is "My Father," may be not so very far from the Kingdom of God. Often one hears it said that the Melanesian cannot love, and has no word for love in his language. The European loves a few, likes some more, dislikes a good number, and is indifferent to the vast majority of his fellow men; the Melanesian has a general brotherly feeling towards all his neighbours. Which of the two is nearer the Christian ideal? It seems quite possible that here is one of those unexpected "threads of excellence," not merely unrecognised, but perhaps in danger of being eradicated as if it were a moral evil.

I think that inexactitude of mind, if that be the right term, is at the bottom of most of the characteristics of the Melanesian that seem so strange to us. He does not want to argue. He has always taken for granted the environment in which he finds himself, and still takes it for granted though his environment has altered profoundly in the last twenty or thirty years. It is still altering more and more as natives are less able to live isolated from foreign influence.

He shews this trait in his senseless adoption of European clothing. A man will come to Church proudly [134/135] attired in some article of female underwear, or appear in public in garments that we veil by others. A baby's hat on an elderly head, or one trouser-leg only, does not strike him as the least absurd. In the old days, the native women wore skirts of grass, and as one wore out, put on another over it and the old one gradually fell away. Recently they have adopted calico skirts, but they keep the same custom-a wise one when dressed in grasses, a filthy and unwholesome one when they substitute European dress.

I am proud to be able to say of the Melanesian Mission, that without interfering unduly with the freedom of the people, we have steadily set our faces against this misuse of European materials. In our schools and wherever the Mission influence is strong, the minimum of clothing consistent with decency (and cleanliness in that minimum) is the rule rather than the exception. Unfortunately the Melanesian has not learnt yet to distinguish the fitting from the unfitting in more important things that clothes. Neither his manners nor his language, his morals nor his health, have been bettered by contact by civilisation. But he will learn in time. At least I hope so. Otherwise one could almost wish that the more drastic methods employed in the bad old days upon the Red Indian and the Australian Black had been used in Melanesia.

God forbid that the Melanesian should die out; but this would be better than that he should be utterly degraded by contact with us and all his native virtues exchanged for imported vices, till he becomes the "nigger" that some of his visitors from civilisation appear to think he is.

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