Project Canterbury

Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia

By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937.


"AH bin 'Stralia. Bin Bund'burg, Cairns, Bisbun," says Joe Quai of the rolling gait and the hat on three hairs, our short stumpy bellringer and organ-blower. Nothing ever hurries him, but, if you worry him, do it away from your garden, or in sheer nervousness he will root up all the daisies with his very expressive feet.

The Solomon Islanders are worth consideration. They are hard workers when they have work to do and are as honest as can be. They came, most of them by way of Queensland sugar fields, to the cotton and sugar fields of Fiji. When the policy of indenturing Indian labour came into operation, some of them remained in Fiji. But few Solomon Island women were left in Fiji, and many of the men have since married Fijian women. The resultant offspring often combine the charm of the Fijian with the industry of the Solomon.

They are good friends, but can be very sullen and even dangerous enemies. The Vicar is invariably their traditional "protector" at any of the bigger centres in Fiji. They are just grown-up children to whom praise is as necessary as the censure that they must sometimes get. They speak that abomination of the South Seas, "pidgin-English," and their own particular brand of Fijian, for it is to be remembered that they hail from different parts of the Solomon Islands, where [36/37] practically each village has its own separate language. From such a Babel "pidgin-Fijian" has evolved for them.

Early on Sunday mornings, sometimes hours before the appointed time for service, the communicants arrive. In the eye of memory I can see them now--Joe the first arrival with bare feet and someone's discarded dinner suit. To the ten o'clock service later come all the available men, women and podgy children, some dressed in the usual waistcoat (sulu) and the women in Dorothy Perkins dresses of gorgeous hues. (Please don't blame our mission for this. It is rather ridiculous to see native women dressed up like mid-Victorian bathers even to go net fishing up to their necks in salt water.) Before the bell rings there is a procession to the Vicarage kitchen, to quench their thirst and incidentally to see if there are any spare bananas, or other refreshment about. When the last bell rings the men carefully knock the ashes from their well-seasoned pipes and to service they go; not, however, until each has deposited his pipe in its own particular niche in the ivy on the wall. They will never take them into church.

They sing right lustily with all the harmonies introduced and blending wonderfully. One Christmas they sang "Hark! the herald angels sing" in Fijian to a Tongan tune. I think the tune owed much of its inspiration to "There is a tavern in the town," but it was so effective that we decided that they should sing one hymn each Sunday night at the European service. [37/38] The experiment justified itself, though the main soprano had a voice of such strength and volume that I had to warn any visitors as to where they should sit to avoid its vibration. At times they produced a fifth harmony, very like the sounds of an Eastern bazaar; a remnant, maybe, of their own barbaric chantings.

The "water queue" in the kitchen one Sunday morning revealed two rather pleasant looking, strange lads, who, I was informed, had arrived from a place on another island about sixty miles away with their father, who was under the local medical officer for treatment. Thomas Ravaoia, one of our old men, came a week later to say that he wanted to go to Wainunu to take the sick man home again. Had the sick man recovered? "No, dokitor he do him no good. I fix him some Fiji medicine." (The Fijians have a good knowledge of herbalism.) Some six weeks later Thomas returned. "Well," I asked, "how's the patient?" Quite nonchalantly he replied, "He die" and after a moment's hesitation added "and his wife." "What, both dead? What about those nice looking lads?" "Oh, one he die," was the response. "Well you certainly have 'fixed' them," I was compelled to observe.

Solomon Islanders' funerals were usually an ordeal. Invariably they coincided with terrifically wet days, and the burial-place, as a rule on top of a hill, even under ordinary dry conditions would have been more easily reached by a mountain goat. One "dressed" [38/39] for such occasions in abbreviated shorts, no hose, canvas shoes, cassock looped up round the waist, ready then to walk through the creeks or slip and slide on soapstone native tracks. A trusty, sure-footed native on either side of one was a relief coming down. A shower and the application of iodine on the scratches made by tropical undergrowth and sensitive grass completed the day.

A coffin is always considered a necessity, even though they wrap it in native mats and tapa for the burial. I have before me one of their pathetic little notes, written by the village scribe for the turaga-ni-koro (headman).

"Please I ask you respectfully, if you well please, would you kindly and let me borrow the sum of £1 for my trouble. One little girl from my village died this morning 7 a.m. but the father no work is old man. But I don't like them to bury her in mat without any covin. I want that to buy a covin for her and I will pay that back to you.

"I hope that you will receive my letter in good surprise.

"I have the honour to be sir

"Your obedient servant


I had returned to lunch one day to find a message awaiting me. I went off immediately to the Solomon Island head village, Wailailai, where was a very sick [39/40] woman, who had been ordered by the native medical practitioner to hospital. The road from the Vicarage follows the beach round a big bluff, called Gun Hill because it was the rallying point of the Ku Klux Klan and had a stockade for the protection of the white settlers in those hectic days. We leave the road at Vagadaci and skirt an open field on which King George and his brother played cricket on the Bacchante cruise, then climb, at first easily, through the plantations, then sharply up a steep hill to the village, which, in spite of the varied materials that make up the houses, is usually a model of tidiness and general good order.

They agreed to take the sick person to the hospital. They call that institution the vale ni mate (the house of death) mainly because they dally so long with their sick folk that they are practically gone before they reach there. An hour or so later the sick woman died, and the European doctor decided that a post mortem was called for. The Solomons hate the cutting about of the departed, and a scene ensued. I was called for by the headman. News quickly spread; the men left their work wherever it was and gathered in a sullen attitude in the hospital grounds. I can still see the face of usually quiet old Jo Au filled with barbaric fury, and the fierceness of his utterance, "Dokitor he cuttemup, I keel him"--and he meant it. I was always grateful that at last the doctor, in his wisdom, decided to arrive at his diagnosis by other means. A good friend is the Solomon, but an ugly enemy.

[41] Old Lui is one of the village characters. He dug a drain for me once with the most primitive of tools. He must be nearly seventy, is nearly coal-black, with few teeth, a pierced septum, which some time or other has carried some fine nose ornament, and the lobes of his ears completely torn away where once he carried his shell money. He is a good type of old man.

There is fatalism among these folk: twice before men who were useful citizens had said "I die to-day," and had proceeded to carry their simple statement into effect by going into the bush and sitting down to die easily. This is characteristic of many of the Pacific peoples. It is told of the well-known white "Queen of the Sud-Est," I think, that one of her native labourers came along one night with the statement "I sick, I die to-night." Her reply was, "If you do, I'll give you the biggest hiding you've ever had in your life"--and the "boy" changed his mind!

One Sunday I noticed that Lui was missing and discovered that he was very sick. I said, "Tell my Lui that I want him to get better quick, as I miss him." To my surprise the next morning when Tom Ravaoia ("the successful medico") had called with a loloma (present) of a fowl, Lui was to be seen creeping along, a very sick man indeed, to the Vicarage. His simple remark was, "I must come and see my fader." He had a hacking cough, a bad dose of 'flu and general starvation. While we fed him I arranged to send him into the hospital. A difficult task it is to [41/42] persuade them to go there, so I had to reason with Lui, to tell him that I felt that God wanted him to help me by setting his usual good example to the young men. It had been very wrong of Jonni (who had sat on a stone in the bush and died) not to have put off dying until I had come back, and he mustn't die so easily. He must go to the hospital and "lie down three days." Three days later a harassed Sister, knowing Lui's serious state, was looking for Lui, who was found once more waiting in the Vicarage grounds because I had said "three days." Back he went and his life was saved. Great it is to see him with unfaltering step walk to the wharf in company with other Solomons to help to work a copra ship.

There are times to chide. On one occasion I climbed to the main village to find some labourers. I had buried a really charming little girl, eleven years old Louisa, the afternoon before. She had followed her married sister within a fortnight to the grave with T.B., which, with leprosy and filaria, is to be found among these people. Although the house, a one-roomed native bure, had not been fumigated, two or three of the able-bodied men were lying about on the floor, while another was busy with a sort of pestle and mortar arrangement crushing yagona (kava) root for drinking. Kava is quite good taken moderately, but the Solomon drinks it strong and green, as well as intemperately. The result of excessive kava drinking is to produce an ugly scale over the body and often [42/43] over the eyes in course of time. I have on occasion visited their villages in the evening and taken a bili (coconut cup) of kava with them, but it is difficult to discourage the hardened old topers from the path of intemperance.

These picturesque children of nature are worth all the trouble one takes to try to understand them, in spite of their sometimes incongruous apparel, their poverty, their T.B., their leprosy and their green kava, We shall never forget their farewell, which began days before we left. The young men had prepared a special song of farewell which was led by their string band. It had a very attractive tune and the voices harmonised splendidly. The English translation ran very much in one part:

We will miss you,
We will miss you.
We have loved to see you stand up in church.
We have loved the sight of you.
Your face is like a beautiful white rose.

(Which everyone agrees was just a bit thick!)

One by one as the days went by they brought farewell gifts, tapa cloth, native mats, fans, shells, baskets and necklaces: and still then the men were anxious to sit up in the Vicarage grounds all night (for I was leaving in the early morning), but a good night's rest was a necessity.

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