Project Canterbury

Ten Years in Melanesia

By the Rev. Alfred Penny

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

Chapter III. First Impressions

Arrival at Norfolk Island--The Mission Staff--Routine of Mission College--The Southern Cross Mission Barquentine--First Sight of the Tropical Islands--The Natives--Banks and Solomon Island Schools--Outrage and Cannibalism at St. Christoval--Florida-Takua--Ysabel----Head-hunting--Tree-houses--Death of Commodore Goodenough--Return to Norfolk Island.

WHEN I first arrived at Norfolk Island the Mission staff consisted of seven Europeans, of whom five were in Holy Orders. These were the Rev. B. H. Codrington, the Rev. John Palmer, the Rev. Charles Dice, the Rev. J. R. Selwyn, the Rev. John Still, Mr. William Kendall, and Mr. Alexander Kenny; of these, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Dice, and Mr. Selwyn were married.

The Rev. R. H. Codrington was then head of the Mission; he had declined to accept the bishopric on the grounds that the bishop must [28/29] be a sea-going man, to be which lie was physically unsuited. Looking back, I remember how unreasonable we considered Dr. Codrington's refusal. But he was wiser than we; he has shown that the study of the Melanesian languages is the department of his work on which his abilities may best be employed. His knowledge and labours in this department may be in some measure appreciated by a study of the comparative Grammar of Forty Melanesian Languages, which the University of Oxford has recently published, and the value of which they have recognised by conferring upon him the honour of a Doctor of Divinity degree.

The Rev. J. R. Selwyn, son of Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand and Lichfield, was consecrated Bishop of Melanesia in the beginning of 1877.

The Southern Cross, the mission vessel, brought me to Norfolk Island when she came down from Auckland in April. After the usual delay of two or three days, discharging cargo and shipping passengers, the ship sailed for her first trip that year to the islands with the returning party of [29/30] scholars, and Bishop Selwyn and Dr. Codrington, as I will call them for convenience sake, though I am anticipating their respective titles.

There are two distinct phases of existence in the life of a Melanesian missionary, the time which he spends at Norfolk Island, and that spent in the different islands of the Mission-field.

At S. Barnabas College, Norfolk Island, one's life is passed in routine. The day is divided in this wise--at 6 a.m. the bell rings for rising; 6.45 Matins, breakfast after Matins; 8 till 9.30 school, then work in the fields till it is time to return for dinner, which is at 1 p.m.; 2 till 3 school, then play till tea-time, which is at 6; after tea, Evensong; after Evensong, school till 8. At 9.45, the bell rings to call the boys indoors, all of whom are supposed to be lying down for the night at 10 p.m. Wednesday is a half-holiday; Saturday is a whole one.

The boys live in three houses; of these, when I joined the Mission, two were under the care of Dr. Codrington, and the Rev. J. Sill, and the third (Bishop Patteson's) was assigned to me. The girls [30/33] live in the houses of the married members of the staff, under the care of their wives. The married Melanesians, the teachers, who with their wives and families have come up to Norfolk Island for rest, and often medical treatment, live in some little houses, and in a kind of barracks called generally by the scholars "Alalange Paen" (under the Pines), from the fact of a clump of Norfolk Island pines over-shadowing their quarters.

How strange it all seemed at first The throng of dusky faces, black and tawny, their fuzzy hair reminding me of a housemaid's Turk's head, and their polyglot speech so confusing and, as it seemed, confused. Shall I ever know one from another? was my first thought. The group I had photographed before I left Norfolk Island gives an idea of what I saw; though only three or four of the boys, now men grown, who compose it, were there when I first arrived.

The ship and half the school gone, we settled down to regular work. Of course I could do very little to help in the way of teaching. I [33/34] had to learn the Mota language, which is the vernacular used at S. Barnabas, as a preliminary to everything else. At first, I remember, I took the charge of the kitchen garden in work time, in sowing and ordering which I studied colloquial Mota with my gang of under-gardeners. Three months quickly passed away, and then the ship came back, bringing Bishop Selwyn and Dr. Codrington, but leaving the scholars to be fetched by us, who were now to go for the second trip. This was the experience I had long looked forward to, the first sight of the tropical islands of the Pacific, and the actual work of the Mission upon the field of its operations. Mr. Bice, Mr. Still, Mr. Kenny and I were the white party on board.

The Southern Cross is a barquentine. Her gross register is 150 tons. She has an auxiliary screw driven by a compound engine of about 100 horse power this is available only in a calm, or near land, but small as it is, it is of the greatest value in saving time, and frequently in avoiding danger. She is [34/35] commanded by Captain Bongard, and her complement of men is a mate, boatswain, engineer, cook and six sailors, all Europeans.

This accessory to our work entails a very considerable expense, as those who know the cost of ships can tell, but it is absolutely indispensable from the nature of the work itself.

With the first sight of the tropical islands I was, I confess, disappointed the dense masses of foliage, and the dull, dark colour of the trees, did not come up to my expectations of what a tropical island would be like. Neither did the results of the work of the Mission among the natives, as I was able to apprehend and appreciate it, make up for my disappointment.

Miss Yonge's Life of Bishop Patteson had, I think, prepared me for something more than I was able to identify at first acquaintance. There was also this to be said a severe epidemic of measles was passing through the islands that year, from the effects of which a great number of the natives were suffering. This would account for much of the listlessness and [35/36] untidiness which I was so surprised to see at Mota, the head island station, and which so unfavourably impressed Commodore Goodenough, who landed at that island about this time. My opinion may have been hastily formed, but such as it was I must give it if I am to relate my own experience in this work.

Passing through the New Hebrides we landed Mr. Kenny at Ambrym, and Mr. Bice at Opa; then, calling at a few places only in the Banks Islands on our way down, for we had to call everywhere to pick up some one on our way back, we made sail for the Solomon Islands.

It was here that both Mr. Still's and my interest centred. He was then in charge of the southward division of the Solomon group, the Bauro district; while I was about to be introduced to the sphere of my future work, the most northern islands as yet reached by the Melanesian Mission.

The Solomons are different in appearance and character from the Banks and the New Hebrides. There is the same predominating feature of dense, [36/37] dark green foliage, but it is varied in some islands by large open spaces covered only by grass of a colour much lighter than that of the trees and the size of the Islands, some more than 100 miles long, and the height of the mountain ranges, some as much as 8,000 feet above the sea, make so great a contrast to the smaller islands we had lately left, that my ideas of tropical scenery were thereby more fully realized.

The Church in the Solomons is even now in growth and development far behind the point to which it has attained In the Banks' Islands: then it was immeasurably behind. We had left a native priest at Mota, and a native deacon at Ara, with a good staff of teachers at work in the different islands of the southern group in well established schools; and the native Christians had already reached very considerable numbers, especially in the Banks Islands, the result of which was seen in the altered lives and habits of the people. We now found ourselves in a very different state of things. There was then no school in the Solomons that did not depend [37/38] for its existence upon the presence of one of the Mission staff. There were those who were fit to be teachers, men who had completed a long course of training at Norfolk Island, but they had as yet been unable to stand alone against the weight of opposition and indifference presented by the minds and habits of the people. There were also among the natives some old scholars, trained and I believe baptized in New Zealand long before but they had lapsed into heathenism, and so were rather a hindrance than a help to Christianity.

What the people were like the following story will best illustrate.

In one of the villages at which Mr. Still and I landed we saw in the canoe-house the trophies of a recent fight. These canoe-houses are fine specimens of native architecture and of skill in carving; they are used not only for housing canoes, but for feasts and gatherings, and are representative of the power of the chief and of the place to which they belong. In one of these, at a place called Mata, in the Island of San Christoval, [38/39] we saw ranged along the roof broken spears, and clubs with their keen edges jagged and hacked while on the ground, scattered here and there, were skulls and fragments of human bones. A party of men had come from the Island of Malanta, about forty or fifty miles away, to attack the village. The Mata men, warned of their coming, prepared an ambush for their enemies, and in the grey light of the early morning, at the moment when the canoes touched the shore, and the crews were intent on getting safely through the surf, so that they could neither fight nor fly, their enemies rushed upon them and killed them to a man. This, however terrible and deplorable such internecine warfare may be, they were justified in doing, for they would have been themselves killed if the attack had been successful; but what was that in horror to the feast which followed, the terrible traces of which we saw?

From the Bauro district we ran down to the Floridas, and anchored in Mboli harbour. At last, after nearly four weeks in the ship, I reached [39/40] the islands I was looking forward with such interest to see.

The chart will show that the Floridas are a group of small islands lying about midway between Malanta and Guadalcana, which are situated on either side of the Indispensable Straits. There are three large inhabited islands in the group, which, for convenience sake, I will call Mboli, Gaeta, and Olevuga, though these names apply only to the principal districts on each. A narrow channel, called Sudamore Passage, sixteen miles long and in places only a hundred yards broad, separates Mboli from Gaeta to the eastward, and a wider strait, known as Sandfly Passage, from the island of Olevuga to the westward. Besides these there are some fifty uninhabited islands of varying sizes, from the large island of Buona Vista, so named by the Spaniards, to tiny islets not an acre in extent.

The scenery here is very lovely. I wish I could give some idea in language of the queer-shaped hills with their fantastic peaks, their slopes covered with long yellow-green grass,[42/43] and crowned with cocoa palms or nut-trees: the long streak of sandy beach, dazzlingly white, meeting the pale blue water, of the tint of an Italian sky; and as one looks landward from the sea, valleys and mountains, where greens and purples blend in softening distance.

Up to the time of which I am now writing, when I first saw this scene, nearly all that had been done by the Mission in this district was to he found at Mboli. The material results obtained, however, were by no means inconsiderable. A Church school, the best native work for the Mission in the islands up to that time, had been built, but at considerable expense; and in this a large number of scholars, young and old, assembled for instruction, as long as the party from Norfolk Island were on the spot. But when the Southern Cross carried off the missionary and his scholars, the school collapsed, because there were no teachers old enough and reliable enough to carry it on by themselves, and no native converts to Christianity to rally round them and back up their efforts.

[44] Mboli harbour is one of the best in the Solomon Islands; it is easy to get into, easy to get under weigh from, and safe in all weathers. The station was, I suppose, chosen from its natural advantages in this respect.

Takua, the Mboli chief, requires more than a passing notice, as his name will occur several times in this story. He was no worse, but rather better than one would expect a savage chief to be, able to do as he pleased, and with the example of centuries of savage deeds as a precedent on which to shape his rule. He is an old man now, and his power, then very considerable, is now rapidly on the wane; so much so that I think of him as belonging to the past rather than the present. Whatever may be Takua's failings (they are many and great, no doubt), he has been a friend to the Mission at a rime when his protection was most needed, not only to gain a footing in the country, but to preserve the missionaries from danger. No doubt he found that it paid him to act the part of patron, for there were heavy fees directly and [44/45] indirectly paid for the privilege of his patronage still I cannot dismiss the memory of many a friendly act done by the old man in the days gone by, without, at any rate, very considerably qualifying the statement that worldly wisdom was the only motive that ruled his actions.

As a race the people are small of stature, but they are active and strong. In colour they vary considerably from dark brown to light tawny. Ordinary native male attire, though scanty, is decent. The women dress modestly, in ample petticoats made of cocoa-nut fibre.

While the Southern Cross was at anchor in Mboli harbour I slept on shore for one night, to make a beginning, and to take formal possession of the little house left by my predecessor. From Mboli we went round the Floridas picking up returning scholars; among whom was Charles Sapibuana, a man who was to play an important part in the work of the Church in this district. He had married in the April of that year and had returned to Gaeta, his native country, with his wife, but only for a [45/46] visit, the unsettled state of the place making it impossible for him to begin work there alone. He was returning, therefore, to Norfolk Island to wait until the following year, when I should he able to stay with him for a time, and give him such assistance as the presence of a white man would afford.

From the Floridas we went to Ysabel, the most northern limit of our work. We had then only one station on this large island, at a village called Nuro, and even this was not established permanently. Mano Wadrokal, a native of Nengone, one of the Loyalty Islands, was in charge of this school; but as he now returned to Norfolk Island with his wife, to be ordained, the school collapsed.

The Ysabel natives lived then in great fear of raids made by the headhunters; a danger which still exists, but is not so serious now. The practice of head-hunting with some of the Solomon Island Chiefs seems to be an absorbing passion. The strangest feature of the case is, that the heads of people with whom they are only not [46/47] definitely friendly, as well as the heads of their avowed enemies, are valuable to add to the collection. With them a head counts one, be the owner thereof who he may. Such a collection therefore becomes indicative, and the measure, of a chief's power. A. with 500 heads is a greater man than B. with only 300.

To obtain these trophies, a zeal and an enterprise are shown worthy of a better cause; fleets of canoes are equipped and despatched to make raids upon other islands far and near. I heard of one of these flotillas coming 200 miles to attack a village; others, no doubt, of whom I have not heard, have come from even greater distances. To guard against this danger the natives of Ysabel build houses in the trees, and made forts upon rocky promontories jutting out into the sea, as cities of refuge. I went up into one of these tree-houses when I landed at Ysabel. The tree in which the house was built must have been 150 feet high. The lower branches had been lopped off, leaving a bare straight stem below the platform on which [47/48] the house was built, 80 feet from the ground. It was reached by a ladder, made by lashing rungs across a stout pole spliced in lengths, the ends of the rungs on either side being made fast by a rope of twisted canes. This description does not, I know, tend to give an impression of security, while contemplating the thought of this ladder; and I shall be believed when I say that the ladder did not feel a bit more secure than the description reads. The rungs had a most uncomfortable trick of giving way in a slanting direction beneath one's feet; and the whole ladder creaked and swayed about in an unpleasant manner, so that I was very glad when I scrambled up on to the platform, and entered the house. Here a surprise awaited me: I had no idea from below of the skill and neatness which the construction of these houses would display.

The floor--smooth and flat, and perfectly clean--was made of split bamboos closely plaited; these had been laid upon a layer of soft bark, which again rested upon the woodwork of the [48/49] platform. The side walls were made of bamboos firmly lashed together, and the roof thatched with the leaves of the sago palm. In the centre of the house was a small circle of stones keeping in its place a layer of sand, on which the fire was made. In a corner of the house was piled a heap of yams for food, and a large bowl for water stood beside it. The interior of the house measured thirty feet by fifteen, and I was told that forty people had once taken refuge there. When an attack is expected the women and children go up into these houses, or into the forts, and the men keep watch. The news of one of the flotillas being in sight is sent down the coast by a peculiar cry, once heard never to be forgotten. If the enemy land, the men, if compelled to do so by a superior force, follow the women, and defend their position by hurling down stones upon the heads of their pursuers if they are rash enough to come within range. A heap of large stones was standing ready on the platform outside the door of the house. Stories are told of the trees being cut down by the enemy erecting a penthouse at [49/50] the base, beneath the shelter of winch they can work untouched by the stones, and of parties being surprised, after a long siege, by some one climbing the tree and setting fire to the house. But as a rule, if warning is given, the defenders are secure; the plan of attack most to be dreaded is when the enemy can land in the dark, lie concealed till the first glimmer of dawn, and then fall upon their victims and kill all before them.

The ship's head was now turned southward, and we began to feel homeward bound.

I will not unnecessarily prolong this chapter by recounting our daily experiences on board the Southern Cross on the voyage back. Those who know what life is like on board a small sailing ship know what it is to do 500 miles "full and by" in the teeth of a fresh south-east trade wind, and then another 1000, making "a short leg and a long one;" but my powers of description are not equal to painting the picture for those who do not know: our courses being first S.E. from the Solomons to Mota, and then south from Mota to Norfolk Island.

[51] The one painful incident of the voyage happened at Mota. When we called there on our return from the Solomons I found a letter waiting for me, which had been left by H.M.S. Pearl a few days before we arrived. It was from the chaplain, the Rev. J. Payne, telling me of the attack made by the natives of Santa Cruz upon Commodore Goodenough and his officers. The story is well known, I need not repeat it. But the letter, written by one who was on board at the time, and while there was still hope of saving the Commodore's life, made it all seem very real and doubly sad.

At last, for we had head winds for several days, we sighted Norfolk Island, and steamed up to the town anchorage; and as if to make our return the happier, a schooner had just came in from Auckland, bringing a mail from England. After nearly a year's wanderings, for I did not settle down at Norfolk Island when I first arrived, with this voyage so close ahead, was pleasant to come back and find rest and a hearty welcome. I can now remember with an effort ten of these returns [51/52] from the island voyage, but the memory of this one brings with it an interest I never felt in any other. I cannot expect my friends in the Mission who have homes at Norfolk Island, and all they hold dear awaiting their return, to sympathise with me; but as the years have passed, the attraction of the work in the Solomon Islands has become the greater, till I have come to look upon the time spent at Norfolk Island as a period through which I had to pass before returning to that work in which my chief interests were enlisted.

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