Manuscript letter of John Palmer to his sister Harriet Palmer, 1864.
Church of Melanesia Archives, Honiara, Solomon Islands, Item 23.
May 10th Tuesday. We were delayed some days on account of contrary winds & bad weather but being quite ready to start we determined as the weather seemed about to improve to make a start - so early this morning after breakfast we embarked - this is always a most disagreeable time as there is all the hurry of getting last things ready & first on board, a last look round, clearing up, & putting away. One is always glad when it is all over & one is well on board with one hopes but few things forgotten, for you know we go out of the world of stores, shops, & such conveniences of civilization, esp we have to be somewhat careful & have nothing of importance left out of our list -
Our party this year consisted of the Bishop, Mr. Pritt & self - the lay party: Atkin, Pearce & Hullett, the two latter being fresh to the work, two Norfolk Islanders Edwin & Fisher whose names I have before mentioned, 29 Islanders & the usual ships company. At 9 am the last of us embarked, the anchor was immediately weighed & we were soon out of the harbour having a rather strong westerly breeze. This is a pleasant wind to start with as we then run under the lee of the land for some distance & so have a smooth sea. Nothing occurred of any note between NZ & Norfolk island - the usual amount of dirty weather and consequent sea sickness excepted.
For my part I was very glad to get on shore & stretch my legs again. The people are very kind & friendly. In the evening we had a meeting of the inhabitants men & women when the Bishop spoke to them of some plans which The Governor of Sydney & he had talked about for them - such as endeavouring to get a vessel for themselves & trading to one of the colonies. Some of them have a certain amount of energy & they desire to improve their land &c & support produce in order to improve their condition in many ways - the great drawbacks to any real advancement are - first, their own disposition to take things remarkably easy - & secondly having more food than they know well what to do with - they have not the inducement of hunger to make them industrious. How to get them out of their lazy habits is a great puzzle. They could if they chose support several things very acceptable to N.Z. & which could find a ready market there. One great drawback to the island is that there is no harbour - so that frequently it may be some days before a landing can be made from a vessel & vice versa. The Bishops proposition was that their port should be in whichever colony they chose to trade with, & that the wives and families who sailed the vessel should also live at that port. They could also learn to make many things which they now know nothing about such as cheese, butter &c & so another export would be added to their present ones. The plan seemed to be approved of highly by the people but whether it will be adopted remains to be seen.
The meeting wound up with singing, which as I think I told you before is very fair - some of the bass voices are very good & a few of the altos fair. It really is a great pleasure to get asleep on a firm bed after rolling about for a whole week at sea. I fancied I had only had about an hours sleep when Edwin called me at 6 am to bathe - they have a nice beach in one place & [a crossed out] stream of fresh water running into it so that after a salt water bathe one can wash off the salt & feel nice & clean - a great advantage in my opinion.
We had an early service before breakfast & lots of talking with the people after that meal till dinner time, after which we again embarked adding two to our party, to pull in the bishop's boat.
Our next place of call was to be Nengone but we [got there crossed out] sighted it so late in the afternoon that unless we had been willing to lose a night's fair wind we had not day light to land in - so Nengone was given up - but most likely the bishop will call on his homeward voyage. This is not one of our Islands but the bishop lived there some years ago, & it was afterwards given up to I think the London Miss Society. His object in going there was to see two young fellows who properly belong to our party, one of whom was left behind two years ago very ill. Landing at Nengone being out of the question we made a course for Eromanga where we expected to find our stores which were bought in Sydney & forwarded there by a vessel going to load with sandalwood.
At daybreak we sighted Tana which has been more or less occupied by the London or Scotch Missionaries but not I think in a very wise way. Their plan hitherto has been very different to our own. Which eventually will prove the best remains to be seen, but theirs seems to have some very great defects which to me are so apparent that I can hardly conceive their persevering in the same plan. In breaking new ground they take apart of two or three Samoan or Rarotangan teachers with their wives, & place them on the new island - this is done with a view of preparing the way for the residence of an European Missionary. They hope that these teachers will [tell crossed out] learn the language - tell the people of the white Missionary & so prepare the people to meet the Missionary in a friendly manner when he comes to reside there. From their own publications they do not appear to expect these teachers to teach the people anything, some of their own men indeed consider them, as teachers, rather a hindrance than otherwise, not that they are not good men - for as to their goodness & devotion to the cause of Christianity few men, as far as I know, excel them - but they are only half taught & ignorant men, & utterly unfit to teach others - for the most part they have an idea that they know quite enough & will not learn more even if desired to do so. But real defects in this plan - are first that Samoa & Rarotanga are healthy coral islands, which these western islands are not, & that [1/2] natives taken from those islands and brought to these will better stand the climate than an European, is an erroneous idea. The deaths amongst these good fellows has been something frightful & yet plenty will be found to volunteer to the same work - some die from disease & want - some are murdered & all I suppose are more or less damaged in health. One of the last cases that I know of was that of four teachers & their wives placed on a new island amongst a wild set of people & left there whilst the vessel went to England - in the mean time the husbands all died & only two of the young wives remained to tell the sad tale. This is by no means a solitary instance. They put men on an island where sometimes they dare not land themselves, without food or conveniences in case of sickness, on unhealthy [islands crossed out] places, without any knowledge of the language, & without knowing whether the inhabitants are friendly or no - & to crown it all leave them sometimes for months together.
Then with regard to themselves they are hardly more wise; except that they endeavour to have the people made friendly for them - & have an interpreter to explain what they wish to say. Take for instance one example that of Mr. Paton at Tana - who is one of the Scotch Missionaries. The mention of Tana by the way has given rise to all that I have said about the plans of others. Almost as soon as he came out - without knowledge of the language - or of native people or native habits - or experience in dealing with people of the kind begun [?] with himself & young [?] wife placed there - in the course of a few weeks [?] only his wife died - & he himself soon after had to leave, & went to Sydney. In reading their books this always strikes me as so strange, that they place a man immediately on his arrival in the islands in a most difficult position & without any knowledge of language, habits, & customs to aid him - it is not as though this was the only plan of proceeding. They have a station at Nengone to which they could bring natives from any island they wished to operate upon, from them they could learn the language, gain experience in the management of natives, & when they considered themselves fitted for the work might go to that island with small party of young fellows who would stick to them & help them in any way they possibly could - health, & in many cases possibly life might be saved by such a plan & an immense amount more real work would be accomplished.
As it is, it is sad to hear of the numbers of deaths that have taken place & one would be only too glad to see some other plan tried. It is not as yet certain that the best plan has been found yet for working the islands - our own proceedings are altogether tentative. Each year brings some change in our plan as we learn more of the islands. Only a short time ago it was thought that a resident European missionary would soon be stationed in the island of Mota - now that idea is quite given up for the present as it is thought better to have a good party under ones command first - who by digging draining cleaning &c may make the place more healthy to live in - besides this we have a new plan of which I will speak presently which if carried out will enable us to have a much larger school & bring our influence also to bear more on the young men as well as the boys.
In the course of a few hours after sighting Tana we came in sight of Eromanga - it is a rather large island being some 70 miles I believe in length but has not much beauty to recommend it. Some part of it is thickly wooded but a good deal of the northern part is covered with a kind of grass - on the whole I should think it not an unhealthy place to live upon. You of course know more or less of this place - the island where Williams & Harris were killed, & still later, about 3 years ago poor Mr. & Mrs. Gordon.
We landed in the afternoon & found our stores all save & well taken care of by Mr. Henry a sandalwood trader - he is a man of a very different stamp to the generality of sandalwood traders, appears to treat his natives well, gives them plenty of food & tries to do them any good he can. He kindly offered to send off all our stores in his large boat which was a great convenience to us, as some of the packages were very heavy & might well have stove in our whale boats - so he sent off one boat load immediately it being too late to send them all off. He has his wife & family here - who all looked well considering they have lived some 8 years amongst these islands three of which have been spent at Eromanga. They told us that on the other side of the island the week previously a European had been killed with some 14 natives of Tana who were collecting sandalwood. These frays [are crossed out] have been usually brought on by the European who usually is a man of very inferior character - he brings with him some number of natives from another island to work at the sandal wood, only half feeds them, & then if they complain gives them muskets & sends them to find food for themselves, which of course means go and steal it where you can & if necessary shoot any who oppose you. Then of course men of this character are sure to conduct themselves so that some man or another would wish to shoot him, & in many cases he only lives by having created a dread of his rifle, amongst those with whom he lives. Such men as these of course create endless difficulties for a Missionary to contend with, they bring with them all kinds of extraneous evils without any single benefit. Mr. Henry told me nearly all the sandal wood had been cut, that his natives were fetching it from a distance of 20 miles from his station, & that he did not think of staying more than another year there.
In the morning we landed again & found [all crossed out] the rest of our stores already in the boat, we delayed it some time to buy a few large pieces of sandal wood, the Bishop wants some to make into seats &c in our chapel - we have already a handsome [2/3] [altar?] made of solid sandalwood, & he wants to have some of the furniture to correspond with it. I also took the option of buying a small log which I shall have worked up in some [way?] or another. The whole station has a delicious scent of sandal wood, it is a pretty spot by the side of a stream, but too low in situation to be really healthy - this was the cause that Mr. Gordon moved higher up the side of the hill on the opposite side of the river, & so was entirely away from both Natives & Europeans. They state here that his life would have been safe had he remained on the flat - the answer to which is that he considered his wife would have died unless he moved to a more healthy spot. The Bishop pointed out in the distance the spot where his house stood & also the copse where he was murdered. He also pointed out the spot where Williams & Harris were struck down - it is quite close to the shore & not I suppose 20 yards from where their boat was.
There are two native teachers here who seem to have behaved very well - one is named Mana - they have got together some 100 people who profess to have received their teaching - at all events they appear willing to [receive the teaching of crossed out] be taught by any missionary who may come to them - so far this is a better state of affairs than has ever happened in this unfortunate island before - possibly Mr. Gordon's brother, who is out in these parts along with other missionaries in a vessel called the "Day Spring," may think it well to remain there - if so I should thing [sic = think] there is a good opening for him, Mana's congregation being a capital nucleus [?] from which to work. The man who actually killed Mr. Gordon is said to be since dead.
We embarked again about midday [?], the Bishop having [unclear] of Mr. Henry's. We had calm weather after leaving Eromanga for a day or so [?] - kept quite away from the Islands so that we might have the benefit of all the breeze there was and on the fourth day at daybreak were off our landing place at Mota. As soon as we were dressed we lowered the boat & landed amidst a crowd of people who were ready to give us a friendly welcome. We had to tell of the deaths of two poor boys here - one belonged to the village where we landed, so soon as it was known that he was dead the women who were sitting in a crowd by themselves et up their dismal cry of "tangi" - a sound that one may hear a mile off or more. We made enquiries [after crossed out] about the sickness which was raging when we left - it had continued for some two months after our departure & had during the whole time carried off about 170 persons - about 1/10 of the population. On proceeding inland to one station we met the brother of one of our boys coming to see if his brother were alive - he soon [threw off inserted] got rid of his anxious look when we gave him a favourable answer and glad I was to be able to do so for his friends might have given us some trouble possibly had he died besides which he is a nice boy & one we should have been very sorry to lose. Our buildings looked dreadfully dilapidated - the roof of one quite destroyed - the whole presented such a disheartening appearance that we were for sometime doubtful what to do - however by the promise of a hatchet [& such?] to about a dozen men they undertook to finish the roof in the course of the day.
[Mss damaged:] ... house... premises ... ashore a few stores from the vessel [mss damaged: which then?] went over to Vanua Lava to stay in port for a week - our party on shore at Mota were the Bishop, Mr. Pritt, self, Edwin & Fisher - during the week the Bishop stayed we talked over the plans for the voyage and made some considerable alterations in them. It was now settled that we should remain at Mota about a month whilst the Bishop went to the New Hebrides returned his scholars & worked those islands a little - he would then return, take us on board & start for "Curtis Island" - this is an island uninhabited on the Eastern coast of Australia just on the borders of the Tropics & recommended by [Sydney crossed out] Brisbane people as a good spot for our central school. After examining this Mr. Pritt & self return to NZ by steamer leaving the Bishop & party to visit the Solomon Isds. & home by way of Banks Isds. picking up our party of boys. The reason for our return to NZ is that we have no work to do on board of any consequence whereas at Kohimarama we may be pretty well employed - Mr. Pritt in preparing books & lessons for our school & myself in printing the Gospel &c.
During the Bishop's stay [?] at Mota we walked about the island a good deal [unclear] the people talk [mss. damaged:] ... poor ... amongst themselves [?] on account ... as we feared they might have had - one man has been [?] shot at & wounded but that was from another cause. We found some of the small villages quite deserted, nearly all the inhabitants had died & the rest had left the places - it was truly a melancholy sight, the empty houses surrounding the once well kept little court in the middle.
It was very pleasant having the Bishop with us for a week at the commencement of our stay, he talks a good deal to the old people which is a great relief to all parties, for it is no easy matter to talk to a lot of old fellows of the kind - it has to be generally very small talk & any very small jokes go a long way - but then [they crossed out] at first when we come back to them there is a certain amount of sensation & curiosity excited which after a time wears off a little, until that is the case there is no cessation of their visits but our house is full to overflowing frequently & nearly always some few are in, so that quiet is a thing almost unknown to us - sometimes of an afternoon we determined to have an hours quiet & seizing an opportunity when no one is in we sport the door & give admittance to no one, but they are very good, if they know we wish to be alone they [will?] leave us to ourselves without [making?] any trouble about [it?] indeed some of these old fellows [3/4] are as thorough gentlemen as you will find in any part of the world - unobtrusive, [mss damaged] & courteous, indeed quite well bred men, of course we have many who do not answer this description., who are always obtruding, begging or teasing one in some way or another, but they are by no means the majority.
Our plan of operation was discussed, & we determined to proceed in a different manner from last year. We were to stay at the longest only 5 weeks so we determined not have one village school where [?] the chief teaching consisted in instructing the little naked boys in the alphabet, instead of this we were to try rather & have talks with the elder people or rather with any one who would listen in the different villages. We arranged also to have regular school every morning at our own station with whoever would attend, & as our won boys would be left by themselves some 2 months after we departed we were to have daily school with them. This was carried out - & we had a very regular attendance of people of all ages at our morning school so long as we were there. We attempted more to teach them something of the Christian religion, to make them think of the creator as one all wise & good, & that he creatures were made for some end & object - that they evidently were not [living?] to that end as shown by their daily lives - the [mss damaged: result?] of this, & the consequence to which it would lead. [mss damaged: We?] endeavoured to point out to them the remedy - the [mss damaged: very?] means of salvation through the atonement of our blessed Saviour. It is very uphill work[ing crossed out] teaching in this way, they take in so little of what one wants them to do, & every now & then some answer is given that shows that all ones pains to explain & make the thing clear have been quite ineffectual, & then all has to be gone over again - one one all point, & that well talked over & questioned both into & out of them is all that can be done [for?] one lesson, & then if a very little is really taken in by them, one is quite satisfied - mind I am now speaking of the village people who only have received instruction during the short visits here - it is different with our own boys who receive regular instruction & training & are moreover more used to our manner of speaking &c. I never realized before the great difficulty there is in teaching heathen people - the difficulty of eradicating old ideas & beliefs, & of implanting new ones. Then so many answer ones questions as they think one wants them to be answered, not as they themselves really think, so that one cannot get to what may be at the bottom of their thoughts. I never met any people who are so well satisfied with themselves in a moral point of view, & to convince them that in the sight of a Holy God [they?] are sinners & need pardon is one of the most difficult of lessons to teach them.
[The letter is incomplete.]