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.


Religion is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as "Human recognition of superhuman controlling power." This would describe pretty accurately the average Melanesian's attitude to the spiritual world. Often, in reading books written by experts about these people one is often moved to say of some statement: "They believe nothing of the sort." But the wise man should add: "At least I have never heard of it." For it must be remembered that Melanesia is a big place and its inhabitants consist of a set of very loosely connected groups of islanders. Each group probably has its own particular set of practices and beliefs, and no-one should suppose, because he has never heard of any particular custom, that therefore it does not exist.

Bearing this in mind, it is possible to convey a fairly clear idea of the underlying foundation of the religion of the Melanesians. In the sense of a formulated faith or set of standardised rites they have no common beliefs; but if religion is defined as "the human recognition of superhuman power," the Melanesian is of all men most religious. St Paul seems to have found the Athenians "too religious"; he would certainly have said the same of the Melanesians had he known of them. There is practically no incident in life, from conception to burial, and after, which does not involve to the Melanesian the recognition of some superhuman controlling power. To these people the whole world is full of supernatural powers, some conceived of as personal, some not, all playing their part in the daily life of every man. Few of them could formulate this belief in words, but fewer fail to act upon it as a certain fact. The European, who finds it difficult to define this conception, has been obliged to adopt a Melanesian word, mana, which means, roughly, superhuman power, in order to describe it.

[137] Mana may be ascribed to a living man, a dead man, a ghost or a spirit, a formula of words, an inanimate object, a manufactured charm, a tree, a rock, a river--indeed to almost anything--in this way religion is interwoven in the very texture of the Melanesian's daily life. Since everything may have this supernatural power, it follows that a man must be exceedingly cautious in all his dealings. The whole religion of the Melanesian may, in consequence, be summed up in the one word "Caution." Many would say "Fear," but that is too strong a word. The cautious pedestrian does not "fear" a motor car. It is not, I think, so much the fear of mana that is at the back of their mind as the need for caution to avoid vexing the mana-possessing person or thing. Generalisations are seldom quite accurate, but if one must generalise one may say that the Melanesian feels sure that he is hedged about by a myriad unseen powers. It is to his interest to see to it that at any rate a proportion of these powers should be on his side, or at least should exercise a benevolent neutrality.

His religion, therefore, is devoted to securing the active assistance of some unseen, superhuman power, while at the same time he must be careful to propitiate the other innumerable powers that might, if so disposed, be actively hostile.

This purpose he seeks to achieve by sacrifices, generally of the fruits of his garden, sometimes by animal sacrifices, probably, in rare cases of extreme danger, by human sacrifice. For lesser matters of every-day occurrence it is enough to wear or carry some article, to utter some form of words that will effect the desired purpose, or to arrange some sticks or stones or such like things in proper and due order, as custom has directed from time immemorial. These practices we are inclined to class under the description of magic or superstition, but I believe that they are as much a [137/138] matter of religion to the Melanesians as are many of our own customs of worship.

If you were to ask the Melanesian why he does each particular act, provided he did not think that you wanted him to give a definite answer in support of some theory of your own, I believe that he would invariably say "Because we have always done so." I believe it to be a mistake to suppose that the Melanesian, any more than most other people, can give a rational account of his religion. He acts as he does because he has always done so, and if you try to find out the root reason, I think you will waste your time. It seems to me very doubtful that the custom arose from any single cause, or is continued with any definite idea of the efficacy of particular words or actions.

"It is our custom," is the first reply that you will get if you ask "Why?" and if you press for an answer to the further question "Why is it your custom? " rather than feel humiliated by confessing his ignorance, the Melanesian will provide you with an answer drawn from the bottomless well of his imagination. Of course, if he knows the kind of answer you are looking for, so much the easier for him.

The same applies, in my opinion, to most of the traditions of these people, their origin is "Wrop in mystery," their form has been developed in reply to questions of troublesome people who wanted to know why.

The aged men of the tribe will have told the youngsters never to eat the flesh of the iguana, cockatoo, pigeon or crab, because that tribe never does so. Most of the young people take the injunction as a matter of course, but here and there, in the dim past, there have been disrespectful children, who would ask why? and would not be content with the stereotyped, time-honoured reply, "Because I say so, my dear."

Then, when pressed, the elder, who is ex-officio wise [138/139] and learned, replies, "Well, fancy your not knowing that. Everybody knows that our great-great-great-great-grandfather was an iguana or a crab, and that's why we never touch its flesh."

It is up to the modern Scientist to propound the theory that this proves that the idea of Evolution is instinctive in the human race.

The Faith of a Melanesian may be summed up somewhat as follows, "I believe in an ever present supernatural influence, with which I am in continual and intimate touch all through my life.

I believe that I am able to incline this influence to my own benefit.

I believe that if I offend against this influence I shall inevitably suffer."

This Faith reacts on his newly adopted Christianity, he is, if anything, over ready to accept as a matter of course direct Divine or angelic intervention in his daily life; he readily and naturally accepts the idea of the power of prayer, and of a mystic benefit received sacramentally, but at the same time he finds it very hard to conceive of any misfortune except as being a direct punishment for wrong doing.

Well-meaning Converts will badger a dying person until they "confess" some sin to be the cause of their suffering, sometimes they will go as far as to insist that the suffixing of one individual is the penalty of the sin of another. The death of a husband has been taken as the proof of infidelity in a wife (and the widow has been cruelly persecuted in consequence), or parents have had to suffer in the same way for the loss of a child.

The Melanesian's god is indeed a jealous one; offend him and the penalty follows quickly and inevitably, keep on good terms with him, by scrupulously fulfilling the customs he approves, and your life, both here and hereafter, will be as you would wish to have it.

[140] The trouble is that he is so jealous, and so easily offended that you may incur his wrath unknowingly. This is a misfortune that may befall anyone, and all the sufferer can do is to ascertain how he has offended and make peace at the earliest opportunity. If you fail to recover after you have done all that you can do, it cannot be helped, you die and there is an end to it.

Your greatest danger is that some enemy may have arranged a trap for you, whereby you incur the anger of the super-human power. This you can seldom avoid, though a careful watch over the food you eat or leave, the paths you tread and the things you handle will keep you reasonably safe, but this touches more closely the idea of magic and witchcraft than that of Religion.

Mention should be made of the Melanesian's ideas of a future life. To doubt the continued existence of the dead would never enter his mind. His ideas of that life are vague; it is not easy to get a clear statement on the matter, but he has no doubts whatever about the fact of survival. As to his practice in this matter, it may suffice to say that the Western spiritualist has much to learn from and nothing to teach the Melanesian in methods of communicating with those who "have passed over."

When we come to consider Witchcraft we are on firmer ground, because whereas in discussing Religion we deal with the opinions of the natives, which can only mean guess work for a European, here we have actual facts. Among these races witchcraft, religion and medicine merge into one another and experts will always differ as to where the dividing line is to be drawn. I do not propose to enter upon this very thorny subject.

Witchcraft, both black and white, plays a very prominent part in the daily life of the Melanesian. Every garden is protected and its fruitfulness insured by one or more charms, charms for fine weather, for rain, for suitable winds or calms, for success in fishing, hunting [140/141] or war are innumerable. A very useful charm that came into my possession was one for putting one's enemies into a deep sleep when one proposed an early morning raid on the village, while the benefit of a charm that rendered you invisible to your foes was qualified by another charm that enabled you to see people who had made themselves invisible.

An axe, which if planted on the outskirts of a village afflicted its inhabitants with severe sores on the soles of their feet, was not only a simple way of paying off some old score against them, but also handicapped them considerably when it came to hostilities.

Again, what could be more useful than a charm which hung at the prow of your canoe and signalled to you, when you came near to a village, that your projected raid would be successful?

A series of charms would enable you to discover the personality of some unknown person who had done you an injury.

Some of these charms seem to lend themselves too readily to manipulation.

When the answer to the question "Who did it?" depends on the quivering of a spear held in the hand of the expert, or on the movement of a canoe in which those most interested sat, the opportunities for working the oracle must have been obvious, but the native never allowed such a regrettable scepticism to shake his confidence.

On the other hand, the movement of a nut, suspended by a thin string from the roof, while the enquirers sat round too far away to have any means of influencing it, would seem to be a more reliable method of discovering the culprit.* [Footnote: *See Suggestion and Autosuggestion by Charles Baudouin, pp. 208 and following. The pendule explorateur in different forms is found all over the world.]

[142] Only one instance of "scrying" or seeing the picture of a person in a mirror, ever came to my knowledge, nor have I heard of other cases, it was told to me as being a new thing to the people. The diviner was a man who had been to Queensland, and the means employed was water in a tin cup, so it may have been a case of borrowing from civilisation or from other islanders.

Much use is made of charms for sickness, and it is a debatable point how far certain decoctions which are employed are mere charms or have any actual medicinal effect. This might prove an interesting, possibly a profitable line of medical investigation.

The root of the wild ginger, the native name for which is in many places the equivalent for "witchcraft" or "charms," seems to be the foundation of many of the native medicaments, especially such as are supposed to be efficacious in procuring abortion, or as a love-philtre, but several other roots, as well as leaves or the bark of a tree or shrub are also used for various ailments.

The efficacy of a charm is generally proved by using it, though many things are supposed to be likely to possess power owing to their peculiar shape or colour. A stone shaped like a fish or a yam or convoluted like the entrails of a pig, will naturally be expected to have some efficacy in the catching of fish, the growing of yams or the rearing of pigs. A bright, glittering stone may be expected to bring sunshine, while a stone with a hole through it will strengthen the sight and render visible things that would be invisible to an unaided searcher. Very often there seems to be no obvious connection .between the charm and its effect.

Two large baskets full of charms were handed over to me to be destroyed some little time ago, and only a very small percentage of them looked as though they would be of any value at all. Little bits of rubbish and a number of very commonplace looking stones made up [142/143] by far the greater part of their contents. These latter would be charms which had proved their usefulness, and though much less interesting to look at, were probably even more valued than those whose shape or colour had suggested their use.

Apart from those which provided good harvests of vegetables or animal foods, the majority of charms are intended to harm an enemy, generally by producing sores, either all over the body, or as in the case of a scratch with a shark's tooth on a foot-print, on the sole of the foot.

The native, with his naked, unprotected skin is liable to continual scratches and bruises when at work or as he makes his way through narrow bush tracks. Until pain makes it necessary he is quite without any idea of applying any remedies and he is particularly prone to sores. Charms therefore have an irresistable attraction for him. Moreover a bad sore is attributed, not in the least to his own carelessness but to the action of a hostile charm. Even if no one boasts of being the perpetrator of the mischief, there are always likely to be secret enemies, or he may have stumbled on a charm intended for some other person.

The charm is a dangerous thing to trifle with, it is often double-edged, and if it fails to affect the person against whom it is directed it may recoil upon the person who uses it.

A good many years ago, after a long and very rough voyage in a whale-boat, two of my boat's-crew died. The reason suggested was that, though they were in my employ and very well-disposed to me personally, their chief had a grudge against me and had persuaded them to bring in the boat, a very deadly charm, which was to have put me out of the way once and for all, but as, owing to my possessing some other stronger mana, I was rendered invulnerable to its power, it had recoiled upon them with fatal results.

[144] If it was true that they had been given this charm, and if they believed in it, I have no doubt that this was, the actual cause of their death; for if a Melanesian is persuaded that he is going to die, he will die and nothing short of violence will prevent him.

A story is told of a Planter, whose leading native worker fell ill and told his master that he would not recover. The Planter argued with him, explaining that it would be most inconvenient for him were the boy to die just then. The native saw the reason, perhaps was pleased that his master estimated him at his proper value, and consented to live a little longer.

Later on, he fell ill again. This time he was going to die. His master argued and pleaded with him in vain. No, he was going to die finish.

At last the Planter lost all patience and said "Look here, my man, if you want to die you can, but if you do, I shall give you such a thrashing as you never heard or thought of." The boy recovered.

I give this story, not because I am convinced of its absolute accuracy, but because, absurd as it sounds, it is by no means impossible. Such is the mentality of the Melanesian, and so great is the power of his mind over his body.

Everybody who has had any close and long knowledge of the heathen Melanesian will have known case after case where a charm has been effective, and I doubt if he could tell of a single case in which a charm had completely failed.

What is the explanation of this? Probably the power of the imagination. I have never heard of a case in which a charm was efficacious where the sufferer did not know that he had been bewitched.

A man may be in perfect health, but some friend tells him that a charm has fallen on him. At once he begins to sicken, with the proper symptoms. I am not [144/145] actually prepared to dismiss the whole question of witchcraft so simply; there may be more in it, there are very few missionaries who are prepared to say that they do not believe in a personal devil, or indeed hordes of them, but I do want to hear of a properly authenticated case of bewitching where the sufferer is not conscious of the attempt before he begins to feel its effects, and where there is no suggestion of the charm being accepted as the cause of an ordinary sickness or mishap.

Perhaps the most deadly and most widely feared charm in the Solomon Islands is that whose home is in Guadalcanar, it is known on most of the neighbouring islands by the Guadalcanar word Vele (pronounced as a two syllabled word).

Vele, in Guadalcanar, means generally a charm or a ghost. When I had a school of little boys at Maravovo, on Guadalcanar, a small and greedy child awoke in the night shrieking out "Vele, vele." At once a considerable number of villagers hurried up, and sympathised with him, one of them affirming, that it certainly was a Vele that had come near, because as it passed its shadow fell on him, and he felt it was warm.

This Vele is distinguishable by the fact that its body is cold and its shadow hot, generally the word is reserved for the Death Charm, the Vele which is pre-eminent in its power and virulence.

I have seen and handled scores of Veles, but only after they are "dead," after their power has been destroyed; for no native would come near or shew you the locality of a Vele that was still alive. It can only be handled in a particular manner and by its lawful owner, it must never be kept in or near a village, its hiding place must never be revealed to any outsider or the most direful results will follow, affecting not only the directly guilty person, but also his neighbours and his friends.

[146] Fortunately it is easily killed. Salt water at once destroys its powers; consequently it travels in a carefully sealed case, generally a bamboo-joint box, when it goes over seas.

It cannot endure being touched with the right hand, as this hand is used for certain purposes which render it impure.

Its appearance is not in the least awe inspiring. It consists of a small wicker-work case, varying slightly in size; sometimes as small as the two top joints of a man's little finger, sometimes as large as his thumb, with a loop-shaped handle at the top.

Even its contents look very harmless, perhaps there is a human tooth, wrapped in several layers of leaves and bark, perhaps only bark and leaves without the tooth, but a careful exploration will always shew at least one human hair. This is its soul, its source of power.

As far as I could ascertain, every Vele must have a human origin. Whether there are several sources of the Vele or only one I cannot say, but its fount of power is some human being, long dead, whose power resides in his hair, which is carefully preserved, by someone, somewhere, but by whom and where must be kept so secret that no one whom I asked could ever tell me. Even a Christian native will never lose his dread of it, though he may be able to resist its power or recover after it has attacked him.

One hair from an ancestral Vele-head is enough, but that hair it must have. No doubt the tooth and other contents add to its powers, and no doubt power-compelling spells are uttered at its making, but the hair is the one essential. Only a very few people have the secret of compounding a Vele, or possess hairs of power, and they are careful to put a high price on their labours. It is by no means every one who is rich enough to possess one.

[147] The method of employ and the effects of the Vele are as follows. The possessor of the charm selects his intended victim, either from personal spite or from the motive of mere pride of power.

He then, holding the case by the loop between the second and third fingers of the left hand, lurks hidden in the bush beside the path on which his victim is expected to pass.

When the victim comes within hearing the Vele-man cries "Hist, hist," in a loud hissing whisper, at the same time shewing the Vele to the victim as he looks in the direction whence the cry came.

As soon as he sees the Vele, he loses all power of control over his actions, and is obliged to follow the Vele-man into some secluded part of the bush.

When the Vele-man has led him to the chosen spot, the victim falls into a fit, and rolls convulsed, biting the earth and chewing sticks, leaves and rubbish till his mouth is filled.

Then he lies inert, and the Vele-man approaches nearer He points the Vele at the main joints of his victim's body, being careful not to touch him. Then boasting over his prey, the Vele-man cries out, "It is I," naming his own name. "It is I who have Veled you, in three days' time you shall feel my power."

Now, a Vele-man who possesses a Vele is a very dangerous person, were his name once known he would be at once killed, as a matter of precaution, by the villagers.

As soon, then, as the victim recovers sufficiently to move again, he sets off for the village to tell the people that so-and-so is a Vele-man and has bewitched him; but as soon as he gets near enough to his village to smell the smoke of the cooking fires, all recollection of the name of his aggressor fades away from hiss mind. All that he can remember is that in three days he will begin to suffer.

[148] My several informants differ here; some say that he forgets everything until the charm begins to work, is dazed and queer and can give no account of what has befallen him, while some seem to think that it is only the name of the man that he forgets.

Anyhow, as soon as the period named by the Vele-man, which is generally three days, but may be more or less, is passed, he falls ill with violent pains in all his joints, to which the Vele has been directed, and dies quickly in fierce agonies.

Personally I have never seen an actual case of Vele-bewitchment, but one of my predecessors as Bishop, tells of a Christian so bewitched and at the point of death, who recovered by compelling himself to dwell on the greater power of the God he had learnt to trust. Apart from such a case, the natives will tell you that no one has ever been known to survive the stroke of the Vele.

Native description of all this differ slightly in details, some saying that the Vele-man fills his victim's mouth with leaves and twigs, which introduces the possibility of administering some actual poison, which is the real cause of death.

Here is a matter which a Doctor might investigate, for the question as to whether the natives employ poisons in such cases of bewitchment is, I believe, still unsettled.

Connected with witchcraft are questions of possession and of dealings with spirits, whether of the departed or such as have never lived on earth as human beings.

Possession by an evil spirit or spirits, or what the native claims to be such, generally takes a form akin to the running amok of the Malay, but is less deadly in effect.

The "possessed" rushes wildly about beating trees and houses with a club or bamboo he has snatched up. As the villagers generally pursue him with yells of [148/149] excitement, carefully getting out of his way if he rushes towards them, it is not surprising that before long he works himself into a state of semi-frenzy which ends with his collapse from physical exhaustion. The native will deny that he acts of his own volition in the least degree, but sceptics say that this kind can be cast out by a judicious dose of a stout cane, repeated at intervals if necessary.

Sometimes the cause is clearly a brooding over some real or fancied injury, culminating in a fit of wild rage which shews itself in destruction of property, seldom in personal violence.

The native is easily worked up into a state of wild excitement, and the fact that he is pursued and hunted by others while in this state no doubt greatly aggravates the symptoms, until the sufferer probably is not responsible for his actions. It is possible that some form of brain trouble may in certain cases actually be the originating cause.

I once had among my boat's crew a boy subject to this kind of possession; the first instance of an attack occurred during my absence and the boy was tied up before he became violent. A brother missionary, who was present, told me that he believed it to be an actual case of possession, and that the boy declared that he was under the influence of a snake-spirit.

I had never seen a case myself, and was very sceptical, believing that the sufferer was a great deal more conscious of his acts than he pretended and that, were he not hunted, he would respond to quiet treatment.

One evening, some weeks later, I heard a commotion in the village where I was staying, and going out of the house, heard that Edward, the boy in question, was "mad" again. I hurried out, calling to him by name to come to me, but the hunt was already well in progress.

It was almost pitch dark and all one could see was a figure flitting through the trees from time to time,[149/150] which was greeted with yells of "There he is," and a rush of the hunters in his direction.

He was armed with a long bamboo pole, with which he beat the trees and houses as he ran.

I failed for a long time to get anywhere near him, but at last I saw him rushing towards me, waving his bamboo. Here seemed to be an excellent opportunity to put my theory to the test, and I went towards him, calling to him in a reassuring manner. When he reached me he absolutely collapsed into my arms, with wildly beating heart and staring eyes; run to a stand-still.

There was certainly no fight in him then, but his physical exhaustion was so great that I cannot say whether he yielded because he recognised me, or simply because he could no longer stand from bodily weakness. He was in a semi-unconscious state, and was easily carried into the house and laid on a native bed. He lay there, still panting, half rigid and with his fists tightly clenched. As long as he was left untouched he lay quietly, but any attempt to unclench his hands seemed to cause paroxysms of struggling to get away. After a while he slept quietly, and awoke the next morning, physically none the worse, but distinctly ashamed of himself.

Without pronouncing upon the possibility of possession, I am inclined to hold to my first opinion in such cases that, were the boy to make an effort in the beginning, he need never have an attack at all, and that were he left entirely alone as soon as he begins to shew signs of excitement he would soon stop for lack of encouragement. I should say that generally, first of all comes a sulky brooding over injuries, then an outburst of rage, then, excited by the disturbance he is causing, and urged on by the attempts made to capture him, he gradually loses all control of himself until his bodily strength is finished and he collapses into a state of helplessness and then into sleep of exhaustion and recovery. [150/151] Where, as is sometimes the case, there seems to be no first cause in a sense of injury, I am inclined to think that some brain trouble is at the bottom of it. Scientific investigation of local forms of physical and mental sickness is still in its very infancy in the Solomons, perhaps not yet brought to birth.

Another very interesting form of possession, an instance of which I have been told of as occurring at Norfolk Island, is that of possession by the spirit or spirits of the dead.

The case in question was that of a boy from Southern Melanesia who was a pupil at the School at Norfolk Island at the time. The boy fell into a kind of trance, in which he lay, unconscious of his actual surroundings, and when spoken to, replied in a voice quite different to his own. Some of his fellow countrymen spoke to him and asked him who he was; he replied that he was such and such, giving the names of two of the natives of his island who were known to be dead, and gave further answers describing their state in the other world. I have never actually come across a case like this myself, but I believe it is by no means unknown in other parts of Melanesia.

Melanesian Ghosts are also pretty plentiful, there are spirit-forms that lurk in the bush or sit on the rocks on the shores of the islands and try to get into communication with men and women. It is fatal to have anything to do with these beings, but fortunately they generally have their feet turned the wrong way, or some other distinguishing mark that warns one in time of the danger. I have known a Melanesian who not only heard the ghosts of recently dead neighbours dancing near the spot where I lived, which was their last place of call before departing to the under world, but also, in another place, declared that he was attacked and thrown down by an invisible ghost, who was admitted on all hands to haunt the locality.

[152] Both these places were quite close to where I lived at one time or another. Fortunately Melanesian Ghosts do not seem to worry Europeans, though I have a close friend who says that he has smelt a Melanesian sea-ghost, and never wants to smell another.

Haunted places are very frequent in Melanesia, perhaps their undesirable reputation may be the reason why so often missionaries are allowed to build their houses there, certainly the ghosts often seem to select most eligible building sites.

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