Project Canterbury

Ten Years in Melanesia

By the Rev. Alfred Penny

London: W. Gardner, Darton & Co., 1888.

Chapter I. Melanesia.

Definition of the Field of Work—Efforts to Evangelize by Bishop of New Zealand—Bishop Patteson Consecrated Bishop of Melanesia—Mission Station at Kohimarama—Move to Norfolk Island—Bishop Patteson's Influence, and Death.

THE islands of the South Pacific to which the name of Melanesia has been given, include the groups of the Solomons, Santa Cruz, New Hebrides, and New Caledonia; while the general title of Polynesia has been applied to the ocean district which begins east and northeast from the Fiji Islands.

The two races, the Polynesian and the Melanesian, differ considerably in intelligence, colour, and [1/2] probably origin; though here and there, in the evidences of a mixed race, and blended types, there are signs of Polynesian immigration among the people of Melanesia.

The languages of this people, though they are reducible to principles which suggest a common root, and may therefore be more properly called dialects, present such marked differences in even the most commonly used words, also in sound and pronunciation, that the speech of the natives of one island is often wholly unintelligible to those of another from which they are separated by only a few miles of sea.

The first steps in the work of the Melanesian Mission were taken in the year 1848, when the Bishop of New Zealand, Bishop Selwyn, was enabled to make a voyage of inspection in H.M.S. Dido. At that time there was nowhere throughout the whole of Melanesia a resident European teacher; but the Bishop saw enough to convince him that the work might he begun. The natives, however, had not even then been left uninfluenced by European and Christian [2/3] intercourse. On the one hand there were traders in the New Hebrides, and whaling ships cruised among the more northern islands; while on the other hand the Roman Catholic missionaries were boldly advancing in considerable numbers, and the converts of the London Mission from Samoa and Rarotonga, placed on some of the Loyalty and New Hebrides, had by their simplicity and devotion made considerable impression. It was about this time that Monsignor Epalle was killed in the Solomon Islands, and the unhealthiness of the climate was so destructive to the natives of the Eastern Islands, that before the year 1853 more than fifty of those teachers were known to have died in Melanesia.

It was, then, towards the whole of Melanesia that the first working of the Mission from New Zealand was directed. When Bishop Selwyn was sent out he was told by Archbishop Howley that "his Mission acquired an importance exceeding all calculation, when his See was regarded as the central point of a system extending its influence in all directions as a fountain diffusing [3/4] the streams of salvation over the islands and coasts of the Pacific." When after seven years he was able to turn his attention to that department of the work committed to him, he found the whole field open, and unoccupied by any Europeans, though to some extent prepared by the labours of the native Christians from the distant Eastern Islands, who, little visited or supported by those who sent them, were willing to share the fruit of their labours with one who came from a district and speaking Maori, a language they could understand. There was no intrusion into other men's or other societies' labours; nor has the Melanesian Mission held a place where other European missions have come in. In the history of the Mission we see the field of its work curtailed by successive entrances of other bodies of Christian missionaries—the Southern New Hebrides occupied by the Presbyterians, the Loyalty Islands by the Independents and Roman Catholics; until the Melanesian Mission came to work on the Islands north of the 18th parallel of latitude, beyond which line it may be [4/5] said that no permanent residence of Europeans is possible.

The lines laid down by the Bishop of New Zealand for the working of the Melanesian Mission were guided by two considerations: first, the impossibility of placing European Clergy on these islands, on account of the number that would be required for their Christianization, and because of their unhealthiness to a white man as a permanent place of residence: and secondly, his conviction that a native ministry was indispensable for the establishment of the church, in order that the people might be taught, not only in their own language, but by the example of Christian lives among their brethren.

It was in accordance with this plan of work that, in the year 1849, the Bishop of New Zealand made his first voyage into Melanesia in quest of scholars. In his little vessel, the Undine, in company with H.M.S. Havannah, he sailed to the Southern Islands, and among them, owing much to the preparation made by the Eastern [5/6] Native pioneers, he was able to find five scholars, with whom he returned to New Zealand, shall not forget the story which Mrs. Selwyn told me at Lichfield before I joined the Melanesian Mission how she had been a long time without news of the Bishop while he was away on this island voyage, when one night, without warning—for the schooner had come into the harbour and dropped anchor in the dark—her husband returned. Before she saw him she heard his voice, and with it the unknown tongues of the Melanesian boys, chattering in the excitement of their first landing.

The Bishop visited England in 1855, and returned in the following year, accompanied by the Rev. John Coleridge Patteson, fellow of Merton College, and followed by the new mission schooner, the Southern Cross, which the liberality of friends at home had provided. In this new vessel a most complete survey of the islands was made in 1857, when landings were effected on sixty islands, and thirty-three scholars brought back to New Zealand.

[7] This time was a remarkable one in the history of the Melanesian Mission. The French then claimed the large island of New Caledonia, as appendages of which they afterwards tools possession of the Loyalty group, and the Isle of Pines; and the Southern New Hebrides were occupied by the Presbyterian Missionaries from Nova Scotia.

At the same time there was a great advance in the Banks Islands, which lie to the north and in sight of the New Hebrides; and the discovery of a safe harbour, in which the Southern Cross could lie at anchor, made the establishment of a central school for this district possible on the Island of Mota while in the Solomon Islands the experience of the year's island voyage gave assurance of a greater willingness among the people to allow their boys and young men to go with the Bishop as scholars.

As the old field with all its promise was left, a. new field of abundant promise was displayed, and the Melanesian Mission entered upon its [7/8] proper work; a work not diminished because a region of Melanesia was resigned into other hands, but directed according to the nature of the case towards its proper and permanent object, those Islands of Melanesia which are too unhealthy for the permanent residence of European or any foreign teachers.

The establishment of the Mission now seemed complete. A Melanesian College had been built in New Zealand, at Kohimarama, near Auckland, by the liberality of Miss Charlotte Yonge; its system had been tested, its promise was developed, its own band of teachers was formed, and there was one engaged in it fitted, by the testimony of all who knew him, to be the head of the work. John Coleridge Patteson was consecrated a Missionary Bishop on S. Matthias' Day, 1861, and took from thenceforth the direction of the Melanesian Mission, surrendered to his care by the first founder and director of it, and his instructor in the work, Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand. Six years passed away, which, though not unmarked by [8/9] stirring events, but it is not my object to dwell longer upon this period of the history of the Mission than is necessary to sketch the outlines of its early stages. Careful and regular teaching, the steady discipline of school and domestic work, had borne most visible fruit in the scholars from the Banks Islands; while among the natives themselves, their barbarous habits were at least modified and subdued, and the people throughout influenced in favour of the Gospel by the example and direct teaching of their countrymen.

But the difficulties of working from New Zealand as head-quarters became each year more evident. Twelve hundred miles of sea between Kohimarama and the nearest island to he visited, made the yearly voyages long and expensive. The climate also of New Zealand was shown to he too severe for the tropical islanders: a move was therefore indispensable. The Government of Queensland offered a site for a Melanesian School in Curtis Island on the coast. The situation was very convenient, but upon examination it [9/10] was found in some important respects unsuited for the work.

About this time, however, Sir John Young, Governor of New South Wales, with the consent of the community, offered a settlement in Norfolk Island. This offer was accepted. A thousand acres of land were purchased by Bishop Patteson, and the purchase money invested for the benefit of the Norfolkers. Whatever was moveable at Kohimarama was taken to pieces and shipped on board the Southern Cross, and with a pioneer party, under the. Rev. John Palmer, was transported to Norfolk Island. Thither the Bishop, Clergy, and remaining scholars followed in due time, and the Melanesian Mission cleared out bag and baggage from New Zealand in the summer of 1867.

With the greater advantages of Norfolk Island, a milder winter and easier access to the scene of operations, the progress of the Mission became more marked. Viewed from the outside, however, the definite results were not very great. Those only who were patiently following out the [10/11] system of working devised by the founder of the Mission, saw, in the few faint patches of dawn then chequering the darkness of heathenism, the assurance that sooner or later the day would break.

Three years after Bishop Patteson was killed I joined the Mission, and entered into possession of his house in Norfolk Island. Though the house had not been tenantless in the meanwhile, the furniture and arrangements were exactly as he left them when he started for his last voyage. But it was not the fact that I found his father's arm-chair in my sitting-room, and a few photographs and a pair of old silver candlesticks standing on the mantel-piece, which most deeply impressed me it was the evidence I saw, or rather was conscious of, that the memory of the Martyr Bishop was a living power for good in the hearts of the people for whom he had lived and died, and that in the testimony of their lives it could be said that he, though dead, as still speaking.

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