Project Canterbury

The Isles That Wait

By A Lady Member of the Melanesian Mission [Ellen Wilson]

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1911.



THE special feature of the Melanesian Mission consists in its being an island diocese, comprising islands varying in size from 100 miles in length down to the tiny sand islet just rising into existence, and bearing proudly on its bosom its first wee cocoanut palm. Every island has its own characteristics, its own dialects, few or many according to its size.

Melanesia is divided into two parts, the Solomons in the north, and the Torres, Banks and New Hebrides in the south, with Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands forming a connecting link in the centre. Curiously enough, the feeling between north and south is as strong as in the old days of Scotch and English feuds, although there is no history of any old feud or war; indeed, the distance separating them is too great for that. Yet the feeling is there, strong enough even now on Norfolk Island to blaze up into action at a moment's notice. If you ask a southerner why these quarrels arise, he replies, "Because the northerners get angry so quickly." To the same question a northern boy will reply, "Because those of the south are so ready to sulk."

As a rule the southerners are of a lighter colour and less energetic than the northerners; the women work less hard, and are less demonstrative. Yet exceptions immediately spring to one's mind, and Meralava in the south is brimming over with energy. They are, perhaps, more ready to leave their homes in the south, [7/8] at any rate Meralava and Motalava are both noted for their missionary enterprise. As for fighting, there was probably not much to choose in the old days when Bishop Patteson's presence in Mota enabled a native to take his first long walk from his village. In those days did a woman but go to get water from a hole some 150 yards away, her husband went with her ready to shoot in case she were attacked. With all its excitement there must have been a distinctly dull side to life.

What had the gospel message to bring that would be new and welcome to these people? Fighting and head-hunting were alike their business and their sport, for Melanesia has no beasts of prey to call out the courage and endurance of the hunter. Snakes and centipedes are the only things to be feared, and the former are mostly harmless. Head-hunting took the place of the deer hunt, and where stags' antlers adorned the hall of a Scottish chief the gamal of a Melanesian would be ornamented by smoke-blackened skulls, while in either case the choicest portions of the victim would form part of the banquet. There is a group of islands in the Solomons where the raiders from New Georgia used to pause and rest that they might pass on and fall suddenly and silently on the villages in Guadalcanar in the early dawn, while the people were still asleep, and so gain a harvest of heads. In Bugotu there is a part depopulated at this day by the head-hunters of old. The artificial islands off the coast of Mala, where the people live crowded together in an almost inconceivable state of squalor and degradation, bear witness now to the insecurity of life there; while in part of San Cristoval human flesh is at the present day carried about by canoe and sold in the various villages, giving us a faint notion of what life must have been sixty years ago when the people very literally sat in darkness and the shadow of death.

And death, once experienced, whether brought about by the poisoned arrow, or the knife, or the shark, or [8/9] the charm of the magician, where did the unclothed spirit expect to go? Were there any happy hunting grounds or banquet halls in store to which it might gladly hasten? Only the vaguest notions seem to have prevailed about such matters.

In most islands the spirits are believed to go off to some distant place where they wander about aimlessly. In a certain bush village on Guadalcanar, where ancestor worship prevails, the departed spirits are believed to hover near their old homes and to render service to the living. The most attractive "Panoi," or Hades, is, perhaps, the one on Bugotu, described to Dr. We1chman. Here the wife of the great chief, who rules over Panoi, meets each spirit on the bridge crossing the deep moat, which surrounds the gardens of Panoi, and examines it to see whether the chief's mark is there. If no mark is to be found she throws the spirit into the moat, from whence it emerges as a butterfly, but if the mark is there she admits the spirit, and he lives with the chief and feasts on spiritual bananas. Even this future does not sound quite soul-satisfying: nor could the present life have been thoroughly enjoyable with the constant dread of the head-hunter or the still more dreaded enemy who might at any time charm your food, or lay something in your path equally fatal in its effect or with the chance of meeting a "Mai" and being forthwith struck with a madness ending in death. Even a perfect climate and an unlimited supply of food could hardly compensate for these constant possibilities, and as a matter of fact the food supply was by no means inexhaustible, and times of shortage, if not of actual famine, were of not infrequent occurrence. Altogether Melanesia, sixty years ago, was no Paradise nor yet a land for the tourist; and the man who should first convey thither the tidings of a higher, wider life, needed to be not only an enthusiast, but a thorough sailor, a linguist, and a leader of men, one who should combine an iron frame and an iron purpose [9/10] with an attractive and winning personality. With the need came the men, in the persons of Bishop Selwyn and Bishop Patteson.

The mere enthusiast would probably have left his head to adorn the first gamal if he had not already lost his ship on one of the numerous uncharted reefs. But Bishop Selwyn and Bishop Patteson were good sailors, and possessed not only the personality which attracts and commands, but also the quick eye to detect danger before it is too late to retreat.

In these days of safety, when the ship anchors quietly and sends a boat ashore certain of welcome, it is difficult to realise the days, not so distant, when the Bishop would swim ashore carrying in his hat a book in which to write the new names and words he might pick up during the visit, and with a few presents hung round his neck, while those on board kept an anxious look-out; or if the place were known and boats were sent ashore, those who were left on board tell of anxious hours of waiting till the boat was seen safely returning.

It was on one of these landings, on Santa Cruz, that the two first martyrs of the mission gained their entry into that large army enlisted from such varied countries. Two landings had been made in safety, but at the third, where a crowd assembled on the beach, arrows began to fly as soon as the boat put off from the shore. Bishop Patteson held up the unshipped rudder to try and shield the rowers, but three of them were struck, of whom Fisher Young and Edwin Nobbs, two Norfolk Islanders who had volunteered to go down with the Bishop, died; for that dreaded consequence of an arrow wound, tetanus, set in, and through great agony, patiently endured, they passed to their rest.

Strange sights must have met the eye in those early voyages. The scenery remains the same; the coral beach, the dense island growths, relieved by the graceful cocoanut palm, the brilliant sea and the white foam of the surf; the dark, naked figures still assemble [10/11] on the shore, or paddle off to the ship, but all, if not actually friendly, have at least no hostile intentions. In those days, however, there was always the exciting element of uncertainty and danger.

One of the strangest sights must have been that which met their eyes at Mahaga or Bugotu, where they found what remained of the population living in the tops of trees "which grew out of the sides of a hill, rising on steep almost perpendicular coral rocks, and surrounded by a high wall of stones. From the wall a ladder led up to one of these houses, the floor of which was ninety feet from the ground on the lower side. The ladder was formed of a pole from four to six inches in diameter, to which cross-pieces of wood were lashed, the whole being steadied by double shrouds of supple jacks, the rungs themselves being at unequal distances, and all more than a foot apart." Up and down these ladders men, women and children were running unconcernedly; but Bishop Patteson, on the plea that he was "neither bird nor bat," objected to peril his neck, especially when William Qasvar reported that "going aloft was nothing to it." The people took his refusal as a joke, not dreaming that any one could regard the ascent as difficult, when a woman could run up with a load on her back, and think nothing of it. Later on the Bishop did make the ascent, and found some wonderful houses, one measuring twenty-three by ten feet, with palm-leaf thatch and bamboo-plaited floor. But dirt, heat and babies sent him below with alacrity after a day and night of "nesting."

And ever as they went the same ghastly array of skulls, hanging in the canoe house or gamal, and the poisoned arrows ever ready to fly.

What strikes one as most surprising in the history of those early days is the willingness of the people to part with their sons to the Bishop, and the readiness of the boys to go. In 1849, on his first voyage in the little Undine, a schooner of twenty-two tons, Bishop Selwyn brought back five boys, and in 1862 Bishop [11/12] Patteson writes of bringing fifty-seven boys, speaking twenty-four different languages. The first difficulty was where to train them. To teach them with any success they must be removed for a time from their own islands, yet it involved a great risk to transplant them to a different climate. Still the venture was made, and for a period of eighteen years the Melanesian School was in New Zealand close to Auckland, first at St. John's College, and then in a lovely sheltered bay called Kohimarama; and here the broad lines were laid down on which the school has been conducted ever since. It has been well said that the first acts of Bishop Selwyn on landing in New Zealand were "entirely characteristic of himself and his work. He assisted in pulling his boat out of the surf, and kneeling down on the sand, gave thanks to God." The inculcating of religion and of habits of industry has always been the aim of the school training. Study at Norfolk Island occupies only a small portion of the day, and is never continued for more than an hour and a half at a stretch. The day begins and ends with prayer: the morning prayers at 7 a. m., followed by breakfast; school from 8.15 to 9.45, followed by field work; dinner at 1; school from 2 to 3, after which recreation; tea at 6 p. m.; chapel at 7 p. m., followed by school for half-an-hour; then preparation and bed. All along the aim has been to awaken in the boys and girls a sense of responsibility, of method and of the dignity of labour. The daily work is shared by all. The men go out with the boys to work, and the women share in the cooking, cleaning and sewing. It is essentially a working as well as a praying community. A boy comes up from his island home, where tidiness, method and punctuality are simply unknown. There on a dark wet morning he just sleeps on, seldom goes to any garden work regularly, and does nothing from a sense of duty; there is nothing in his surroundings or religion to awaken that sense. The boy comes up to school, and when the first wonder [12/13] and novelty of the striking clock, to the watching of which he devotes at first all his spare moments, has worn off, he must find the bells and regular hours intensely irksome. To have to get up at the same hour no matter what the state of the weather may be; to have to go to bed on a glorious moonlight night when your feet are itching to be away fishing or dancing, must be more than trying; to say nothing of being expected to keep awake in school, when you want to curl yourself up on your mat and go to sleep; to be called upon to eat in hall at regular, and, to your notion, quite absurd hours; all these must be abiding trials. Saturday must owe its greatest charm to the fact that you are allowed to cook your own dinner in your own way, and so for once get a decently cooked meal at a decent hour. But gradually the boy settles down, finds himself drafted into a cook set, and, under the direction of the head cook, has his daily routine of work to perform. Perhaps, if he be a thoroughly lazy boy, his first sharp lesson is learnt on the day when the head and second cooks choose their helpers in the big hall, where all the boys and white men are assembled, and he finds himself left at last the only one in the hall not chosen. There is, perhaps, no more just classification of the boys than that which takes place at the reforming of the cook sets twice a year after the ship has gone down; and the boy who is last to he chosen is seldom last again. So he rises by degrees to posts of responsibility, such as second cook, head cook, bread-maker; and the lessons learnt in kitchen or field work are not the least important in the gradual forming of his character: there he puts into practice what he has been taught in school hours.

The girl, too, who comes up absolutely unversed in what we deem essential to a woman, learns slowly to be clean in her dress and person, to be thorough in her work; so that she no longer needs to be called to do it, but at the right hour goes herself to light [13/14] the fire, or wash up, or whatever the work may be. She learns also to sew and mend, and cut out. Above all, she learns the rule of mutual help and kindness.

Now it is a large community of over two hundred in the summer season of the year, but the beginning was made in a small way at Kohimarama.

After a time, however, it became more and more evident that the climate was unsuited to the Melanesians, and so, in 1867, the move was made to Norfolk Island, where a thousand acres had been purchased for the Melanesian Mission from the Government of New South Wales, and where Mr. Palmer had been left previously with sixteen boys to fence and plant and build and make ready. Mr. Pritt, who had organised the industrial side of the work in New Zealand, was unable, on account of his health, to continue any longer in the mission, but he had so thoroughly established things that there was no hitch, and, thanks to the able training of Mrs. Pritt, Sarah Sarawia was competent to act as matron to the girls.

That same year brought Mr. Bice and also Dr. Codrington, to whom the mission and science owe so large a debt, and the outlook altogether was very bright; for a school had been begun on Mota, and already one of the old scholars was preparing for ordination, while many others were full of promise.

But the days of Bishop Patteson's ministry were drawing to a close. The years of strenuous work, and the loss of Edwin Nobbs and Fisher Young had told greatly on him, and those who knew him best felt that his death, at Nukapu, came, not as a sudden and cruel cutting off of his life, but as a very glorious and welcome close to his work here. The story is well known: how he went ashore, and, sitting down in a house on the beach, began as usual to talk to the people till, tired out, he lay down and closed his eyes to rest. How the man who had been told to do the deed came in and sat down beside him, exciting no surprise in the people already there, till he suddenly [14/15] raised his hand and struck the blow, so instantaneous in its effect that the Bishop never even opened his eyes. The sister of the murderer, now an old woman, has told Bishop Wilson how the people rushed out of the house in consternation, how the chief came hurriedly on the scene, of his anger at what had been done, and of his fear for the consequences to themselves. How, when they saw a boat putting off from the ship, they all fled into the bush, leaving her, the mother of a new-born babe, alone in her house, and how she lay trembling, feeling sure that the white men would take her life in revenge. It is all an old tale now, but the presence of the martyred Bishop seems ever to linger in the mission, and its most valued relic is the mat in which his body was wrapped when the natives laid it in the canoe with the five knotted palm-leaves on his breast.

Such was the beginning of the Melanesian Mission, and it seems more like a biography of two great men than a history. Since then the workers have multiplied and the field widened, so that individuals come and go without exciting much notice, for giants are no longer needed.

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