Project Canterbury

Banks' Islands.

By John Palmer

From Southern Cross Log, Auckland, Vol. III, No. 34, February 1898, pp. 4-5; Vol. III, No. 36, April 15, 1898, pp. 6-11.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2012


"As Mr. Cullwick was to stay at Norfolk Island during the first voyage, and would take charge of the school, I was free to pay a visit to my old district. It was five years since I last paid a visit there, and I was naturally pleased to have an opportunity of meeting my old friends, and seeing how the work was progressing. It was to be but a short visit of six weeks, so that I could not hope to visit all the schools—or even all the islands—as I could wish to have done.

"The Southern Cross left me at Mota on Saturday, May 8th. On our way we had called in at Merelav in the early morning, and, steaming close in to the steep hill, woke up the echoes with an alarm from our steam-whistle—not only the echoes, but also the sleeping people. We pulled in at once to the landing place, to find no one there; but presently, one by one, they came running down the steep path, still blinking and rubbing their eyes. How happy, must these Christian times be, when they can one and all lie in bed comfortably of a morning if they choose to do so, instead of—as in old times—being up before daybreak, and crawling out of their houses with bow and arrow in hand, and walking warily round the village to see whether an enemy was lurking about in the neighbourhood.

"William Vaget, the deacon in charge, was soon on the scene, and gave a good account of affairs. All was peaceable, and the schools all in good working order. Most of the teachers and their wives in this part put in an appearance. One, an old scholar, introduced me to his eldest son, and begged that he might go to Norfolk Island this year. I had a great deal to do this day, so that I could not spare the time to mount to the village. We delivered our mail, and soon pulled round to Legel, where I had hoped to pick up Samuel Sagler and his wife, and take them to Gaua, to take charge of the work there. I found all well here, and a good report generally; but there were family reasons which prevented the move now, that will come later on.

"The Merelav people used to go in numbers to work in Fiji, and they brought back, in payment for their work, large stocks of clothing, so that this used to be a sort of cheap slop-shop for our boys. Often we have seen our boat's crew come on board with bundles of good clothes—shirts, trousers, etc.,—all of which were bought for a few sticks of tobacco. I was now asked to buy some yams, which I was ready to do, but, alas! they wanted print, and I had none with me in the boat. Samuel said, most pathetically, 'I am sorry for that, for many now cannot come to church on Sunday because they have not even a decent clean [4/5] malo to put on.' Here is an advance in civilisation! I was reminded at once of some of our Norfolk Island friends whose excuse for not coming to church was that they had no shoes to put on, when I reminded them that it is in my time they began generally to wear shoes. What a nuisance this question of dress is! The same day we steamed round to Lakona, and called in at three schools, partly to drop some scholars, and partly to see the teachers. The report of things generally was good; the same earnestness in their desire for teaching continues, and the schools generally are well attended. I found the Motalav lads very happy and contented; the Lakona people like them, and are hospitable. We anchored just at sunset at Qetepatau, where we landed, and some of the people came down to meet us. Thoughtfully, they brought down some lanterns, so that we were able to climb up the dark, steep path without much difficulty. The vessel had been seen inland, and most of the teachers ran down to meet us. Here we heard of the death of two teachers, natives of the place—Ambrose Wedaget (who is a scholar supported by the Sunday School at Mudgee, N.S.W.) and Andrew Weris. I met with a warm reception from several old friends, especially from David, a descendant of the Mota woman, who, many years ago, swam and floated across from Mota, a distance of over twenty-five miles. I was in time for evensong, and felt happy in giving a short address, which I hoped would help and encourage them in leading a Christian life.

"Next day we reached Mota, to find all well. George Sarawia was better, perhaps, than usual, and able to walk about and visit the schools. Robert Pantutun, who was left very ill last year, was better than one expected to find him; he had moved to Tuwai, and taken charge of the school there.

"Mota, as Mr. Wilson in his account last year says, needs stirring up. The first warmth and earnestness of faith has cooled, and there is not enough vigour shown by either clergy or teachers. Perhaps we look for too much; George has always been too modest and quiet, and this has grown upon him as he grows older. The people look up to him and respect him, and did he but assert himself I feel sure the people would respond, but it is difficult to get him out of the groove in which he runs. There is a fine school-house built, which will do as an assembly-room for meetings; this represents a large amount of work, all given voluntarily. My Sunday School class consisted of twenty men, whose ages ranged from perhaps 30 to 70; they were very attentive, and answered my questions fairly well."

(To be continued).

[6] Banks Islands,—Continued.

[ARCH. PALMER paid a visit to Banks' Islands, and inspected William Vaget, the Deacon in charge; thence to Lakona, where things seem prosperous; then looked up George Sarawia and Robert Pantutun at Mota. Things at Mota are prosperous, but not over-vigorous; still there is a fine school-house, and a large and very attentive class attended his lessons, and answered well. This paper tells of the Archdeacon's visit to Vureas, Motlav, and Vanua Lava.]


THE old man Wirita is one of my oldest friends—an intelligent man, who never tires of asking one all sorts of questions about all possible things and places. He is the oldest man on the Island, and one of my first friends, one of the first adults [6/7] baptised, and a staunch steady follower of Christ's religion ever since. There is no more regular attendant at morning and evening prayers; wet or fine, it is a rare thing to miss the old man's face in his place in Chapel. I did not see all I could have wished of the work in the several schools. We brought wet weather with us, and it was impossible to get about as one desired. The Soni school is certainly in better order, and the scholars are taught better since Robert took charge, but his health is very precarious, and many a white man would think his state of health quite sufficient reason to leave off work. Many of our teachers are now old men, getting grey and, alas, needing the use of spectacles. This is a great trial to some, who, naturally shy and nervous, put off the evil day as long as they can, and their congregation or class have painfully to listen to them stumbling through a lesson which they can hardly see to read. It may interest many of our old friends to know that four out of the five lads who were baptised by Bishop Patteson on the feast, of the Epiphany, 1863, and named after the then live Bishops of New Zealand, are still alive, and working as clergy or teachers amongst their people. They are Rev. George Sarawia and Charles Wolig, of Mota; Rev. Henry Tagalad, of Ra; and William Qasvaron, of Rowa; the fifth, Edmund Qaratu, died last year. The memory of Bishop Patteson is held very dear by these—his old scholars—and they like to talk about him, recalling his kind and loving ways and words.

From Mota I crossed over to Vureas on a rough and stormy day, and we landed safely, though with a good drenching. The Vanua Lava people seeing the boat passing took it for granted that Mr. Cullwick was on board, he having the reputation of sailing in rough weather—a sort of stormy Petrel. It was delightful to land between the big boulders on the Vureas shore amidst a crowd of people who welcomed us most warmly. They soon had everything out of the boat, and the boat hauled up safely out of the reach of the surf. Marion (Benjamin Virsal's wife, named after our good friends Archdeacon Dudley and his wife) took me under her care, hurried me up to the house, telling me to change quickly, and that the kettle was boiling. Asking where Benjamin was—oh! she said, he is on the Rot, gone for taro. And sure enough, after a time, old Ben, who has for years been crippled with sore legs, and has been near death's door several times, came running back like a young man, his legs healed, and in really good health. I was rejoiced to see him so well and active. He is not one of the bright intelligent sort, but one of the steady good ones, whose steady influence for good [7/8] has done so much for this part of Vanua Lava. The school enclosure is really very pretty, and the best kept one in the district. A good stone wall, built up of the boulders which abound here, encloses the buildings; a neat path of coral, bordered by cocoanut trees, various lively hybiscus shrubs, and plants of variegated leaves, leads up to the dwelling house, small and airy, with a verandah all round, and no doors: no need for locks and bolts night or day in these uncivilised islands now that they are Christianized. This, surely, is good evidence of the people living in the spirit of God's commands, and better than any amount of mere talk of spiritual life. The church, teachers' house, and Missionary's hovel, a stranger might call it, are in this enclosure, and it is intended soon to build the school-house here also: in the meantime the rest of the ground is cultivated by Benjamin and others, who have a plantation of taro, growing luxuriantly, adorning the whole' place with its handsome large bright green leaves. The church itself is a substantial structure; walls of stone, rough and uncut, cemented together with lime, thatched with the usual Sago palm leaf. A small square vestry with a high-pitched roof and long over-hanging eaves is attached to the west end at the north side. The front is ornamented with plaited bamboo, in some cases coloured according to the fancy of the adorner. The whole building in front had, to me, a very Japanese look, and therefore picturesque. The inside is very church-like, and a great improvement on our first churches. There has been any amount of labour expended on this building, and not only is most creditable to the people who worked so freely and willingly at it, but also an evidence of the spiritual life and a growing appreciation of what God's service requires. The people attend well at morning and evening prayers: it would make an English Vicar happy to have a like congregation at daily matins and evensong; they are a most reverent congregation, and a most attentive one. I could see but little of the school during my stay. Practically, I was shut up in the village for a week by an almost constant downpour of rain. The schoolhouse has not been repaired, as the intention is to move it, or rather build another one in the school vanua. The rain poured in all over the place, so that unless it was fine school there was an impossibility; we succeeded occasionally, and I found the school very fairly taught, so far as I was able to judge. Another village school, a few miles off, is in charge of Dudley (Benjamin Virsal's son). He and his young wife seemed to be doing very well there. I paid them one visit, when we had the school-room full at evening prayers and instruction. On the one Sunday I [8/9] was there we had 20 communicants at the early service, and a congregation at morning service of 195, although it was a thorough wet day, I mean a tropical wet day. I was myself surprised to see so many on such a day; had it been fine we should have had a crowded congregation.

My next visit was to Motlav. We had a delightful sail across the seven or eight miles: a sort of voyage I fancy it is supposed Missionaries always have—a nice soft trade wind, smooth sea, lovely sky and clouds, and deep blue sea. What could be more lovely. Still one of my crew soon began to wish the voyage over. It was very pleasant to be met at Ra by Henry Tagalad and his people. Men and women, boys and girls, all came down to welcome me, to drag up the boat and carry my belongings to the house. They made me feel that this was quite my home I was coming to. This is by far the best organised district in the group. Henry is a good pastor, and looks after his flock well. Schools are excellently taught, and the youngsters sharp as needles. It is a place to make one love teaching. They take in what you teach them, and are able to give it out again. The three churches here are built much in the same style as the Vureas one, and one description may well stand for all. I found all the teachers well, and the report of all was good. There appeared to me to be more spiritual life and earnestness in this district than in any of the other islands. Henry is very diligent in his work, visiting the different schools and doing his pastoral work diligently; all look up to him with respect, and respect his warnings and advice.

During my short stay here two matters struck me very much. The first was a matter of church discipline, a discipline which in the commination service we wish may be restored in the Church. A woman had been found guilty of misconduct, and had been interdicted from church and school. She now, through her husband, begged for re-admission: he himself said he believed her to be truly sorry for her sin, and wished her to be reinstated. Before Matins, in the presence of the congregation, the woman came forward and knelt at the chancel steps, whilst Henry (her pastor) read the 51st Psalm and other suitable prayers, and re-admitted her into the fold of Christ's church. It was, to me, a most touching scene. It was no mere ceremony, but a most solemn act done as in the sight of God, and so I feel sure the whole congregation felt it. The other matter was one of social order. One morning Henry asked me to release the first class from school as the head man wished all the men and youths to assemble to enquire into a matter of dispute. This was a question of the ownership of [9/10] a bread-fruit tree. The question was gone into, the facts of the case elicited, and the matter settled without any difficulty. Such disputes I have known in former heathen times to be the cause of a general fight, the bow and arrow always being resorted to by a man either to defend his property or to bounce another out of his own; now all such cases are settled by the head man. I find their decisions are given according to facts, and seem to me to give general satisfaction.

On Whit Sunday we had a celebration of the Holy Communion at Var, the smallest of the Motlav churches; but, as it was the turn of this church to have a celebration, we did not like to alter it. The congregation of 200 was rather more than the church proper would contain, and we had to give up the vestry for further accommodation. It was the first time I had seen so large a number of communicants together in Melanesia, and it did one's heart good, and one's spirit was raised to God in humble thankfulness, who had, by the power of His Holy Spirit, turned these people, once heathen, into humble, earnest Christians, who were now assembled to commemorate the death and sacrifice of their dear Lord. My thoughts went back to Bishop Patteson, and to the lovely moonlight night over 30years ago when I sat with him and a small family party consisting of Henry Tagalad's father, mother, brothers, and sisters, on the bright shiny coral shore, talking of many things and making warm friends of this then heathen family, and one thought how his heart would rejoice could he have seen the present result of the seed he was then sowing, and the harvest of souls now gathered into the Church and fed and nourished by the spiritual food of Christ's body and blood. Might he not indeed in spirit have been present then!

I was sorry not to be able to visit the Eastern end of the island Valuwa, but the constant rain made the paths impracticable, and the wind, or rather heavy sea, prevented my getting there in the boat. One of the teachers came over for the Whitsun Day service, and reported all well there.

At last a fairly fine day came, and we crossed over to Vanua Lava. The Rev. Sogovman was with me; he had spent some time with his wife at Ra, both seeking to recover from illness. He had improved very much during my stay at Ra, and was anxious to return to his station at Pek. We almost reached Pek dry, when down came such a downpour as I have rarely, if ever, experienced: the rain seemed to come down in sheets, and I struggled up the steep hill through a rushing stream of water pouring down the path. Alas! when I got to the top, expecting [10/11] to find a decent dry house to shelter me, I found the rain pouring in all through the roof, which was rotten and had not been repaired. Sogovman being away through illness, the teacher in charge had not troubled himself to see that the house was habitable, although he knew I was coming; he made a lame excuse, and had to suffer a bad quarter-of-an-hour in consequence. By noon the following day the roof was repaired, with the willing aid of the people. The church here is the old one built in the time of the late Rev. Edwin Sakalrau, and is getting out of repair; a new stone one is in course of erection, and will, I hope, now that Sogovman is again amongst them, be soon completed.

The day after my arrival here the Southern Cross arrived from the North with Mr. Robin on board, also the captain and owner of a cutter which had been wrecked on the Torres Islands. As the engineer was anxious to do some repairs on board, it was settled that the ship would remain till Monday morning, so that I was able to stay over Trinity Sunday and administer the Holy Communion. The communicants came in from the distant villages on Saturday, and I had a preparation service on Saturday evening, and on Sunday morning there were forty communicants at the early service. I saw nothing of the neighbouring schools, as I had no time to visit them, but the report was generally good, with one exception. On Monday, before daylight, we were off again, calling in at several places for letters and for some teachers who were to come to Norfolk Island to be married.

On the whole, I see a distinct advance in Church work, more so in some islands than in others. The missionary spirit, which shows the life of the Church and the living energy of God's Holy Spirit working in the hearts of the people, has grown; the Motlav people especially offering themselves for the work, and realising their responsibility to help to carry to others the good news they have themselves received. But the present state of the Church requires more and constant supervision; the time of building up requires more constant care and attention than the time of sowing; and the teachers require more assistance and advice than the one missionary to this group is able to give them. The district needs two European missionaries to keep up with the work; eight islands, with nearly fifty schools to supervise, is beyond the work of one man. It is hard, laborious, and rough work, but it has its compensations: working with such men as Henry Tagalad, William Vaget, Sogovrnan, Simon Qalges, and others of like earnest spirit, one thanks God for the privilege of helping and assisting them in building up His Church in this portion of Melanesia.

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