Project Canterbury

The Isles That Wait

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1911.


AND now let us take a closer look at the work itself after forty years interval and see how those scholars, whose education had been carried on with such unwearied patience, love and prayer, fulfilled the hopes of their teachers and carried out the work bequeathed to them. Banded together for a few years at school, they returned in due course to their various islands, some to leave their indelible mark on the mission, others, less gifted, to be nevertheless a quiet leavening influence for good in their villages, and a few to be a bitter disappointment to their teachers.

Although it was from the northern islands that Bishop Patteson procured the greater number of his earliest scholars, yet it was in the southern group that Christianity first took its firmest hold; and the language of Mota, the little sugar-loaf island in the Banks, is the language taught at Norfolk Island, the link which unites all Norfolk Island scholars. The point has been much discussed whether the choice of Mota was a wise one, but the majority appear to agree in its being the best medium owing to the simplicity of its structure and the richness of its vocabulary. Mota is the Christian mother tongue of the mission, and, as such, is very surely rooted.

Let us then take a look at Mota first. On May 24, 1859, Bishop Patteson writes, "On Monday at 3 p.m., we sailed from Port Patteson across to Mota. Here I landed among 750 people and the boat returned to the vessel. I walked with my large following from the beach, up a short steep path to the village, near to which, indeed only 200 yards off, is another [16/17] considerable village. The soil is excellent, the houses good, built round the open space, which answers to the green in our villages, and mighty banyan trees spread their lofty and wide branching arms above and around them. The side walls of these houses are not more than 2 ft. high, made only of bamboos lashed by cocoanut fibre, or wattled together, and the long sloping roofs nearly touch the ground, but within they are tolerably clean and quite dry. The moon was in the 1st quarter, and the scene was striking, as I sat out in the open space with some 200 people crowding round me, men, women and children; fires in front where yams were roasting; the dark brown forms glancing to and fro in the flickering light; the moon's rays quivering down through the vast trees, and the native hollow drum beating at intervals to summon the people to the monthly feast on the morrow. I slept comfortably on a mat in a cottage with many other persons in it. Much talk I had with a large concourse outside, and again in this cottage, on Christianity; and all were quiet when I knelt down as usual, and said my evening prayers. Up at 5.30 a.m. and walked up a part of the sugar-loaf peak from which the island derives its English name, and found a small clear stream flowing through a rocky bed; back to the village where some 300 people assembled, sat some time with them, then went to the beach, where the boat soon came for me."

In a later voyage of the same year he landed with Bishop Selwyn, who had previously thought of the neighbouring and larger island of Vanua Lava as the site for the principal station. But, as Bishop Patteson expected, he changed his mind when he saw Mota, "the dry soil, the spring of water, the wondrous fertility, the large and remarkably intelligent well-looking population, the great banyan tree 27 paces round; and at once said 'this is such a place as I have seen nowhere else for our purpose. . . .' So it is settled (D.V.) that next winter I should be here, if, alive and [17/18] well, and that the Banks Islands should be regarded as the central point of the mission." In 1860, the school was set up, to the great delight of the natives, who worked hard at the erection of the mission house; even unroofing their own houses to supply thatch, and making liberal presents of breadfruit and yams. What gained the party a special welcome was the belief that Qat, their old creator god, and his brothers, who had sailed away long ago, were now returning to them. Recollecting the stories of Qat's mischief and his marvellous power, one fears they must have been a little disappointed to find him and his brothers changed into such an industrious and order-loving community.

Such was the beginning of Christianity on Mota, but ever connected with its establishment will be the name of George Sarawia. Belonging to Mota by birth he happened to be on Vanua Lava when the ship visited it in 1857, and was one of five boys who came on board; two of them, Wompas and Sarawia, ventured to stay for a few hours while the other three made a speedy retreat to the shore. But when Evensong began the boys were terrified and Wompas fled on deck, while Sarawia, not feeling sure of the way, found himself obliged to remain, trembling in every limb, for what deadly charm might not this lengthy incantation work on him with its mysterious recurring refrain of "Amen"? However, he seems to have been reassured as to his safety, and both boys slept on board that night. Wompas went on shore next morning some inches shorter in stature, but with an addition to his wardrobe and armoury in the shape of a red cotton nightcap and a hatchet. His lost inches, severed by a razor, remained to gladden the heart of a sailor, and consisted of a wondrous erection of hair, with protruding horns. Wompas and his nightcap are heard of no more, but Sarawia went later to New Zealand, actuated, as he himself said later, by the thought that he should go "where everything began, [18/19] and collect for myself axes and knives and hooks and clothes, and bring back a great quantity with me. I did not go for any other reason." When he came back for the first time, he says, "I told my people about the other islands I had seen, but they knew nothing about them. We only knew of six islands and we thought there were no others. We saw some of the white people in the ship, and we thought that perhaps they lived where the sun begins, for we see the sun red when it rises and when it sets, and we thought that these men had made their clothes red with dye from the sun. When I returned from that journey I stayed at home two or three years. There was fighting and I joined in it. We killed men in the fight. I saw no harm in it; I thought it was good; a sign that I was still unenlightened."

At Kohimarama Sarawia made rapid progress, being remarkably intelligent as well as possessing a very sweet disposition, and we hear of him before long as at work on the Acts of the Apostles, composing and doing the press work entirely himself. He was baptized in 1863, confirmed two years later, and in 1867, the Bishop put him down at Mota, where his influence soon became very great, not only because of the excellence of his teaching, but from the simple earnestness and beauty of his life. He had his difficulties. The Suqe, with its rites and ceremonies, entailing weeks of absence from school and church, proved a great obstacle to his work, and to George Sarawia the only plan seemed to be for the mission to acquire a certain amount of land where a Christian village might be established, at liberty to lead the new life. This was carried out, and the village received the name of Kohimarama after the old school in New Zealand. Here George Sarawia worked with marvellous results, assisted by Robert Pantutun. He was ordained deacon in 1868. When Bishop Patteson called at Mota, on his last voyage, he found 289 candidates for baptism and all eager to question him on the new [19/20] faith, so that he had hardly a moment for rest, being besieged night and day. A church, built of coral stone, stood as witness to this victory of the Cross over the powers of darkness.

It was one of the Bishop's happiest experiences, and he left with the intention of ordaining George Sarawia priest on his return. And, with that hope in view, George worked on and waited. One can imagine how, as the weeks went by, they began to watch, how one and another would go to the cliffs and strain their eyes for a sight of the ship, a larger vessel now than the little Undine, and can hear the excited shouts of "Aka, aka," when at length she was descried on the horizon, and how the entire village would flock down to the beach to welcome the Bishop.

But the ship came in silently and sadly with the flag half-mast, bringing thee news of his death, and George had to face the shock and to help his people in this crisis. He gathered them together, and told them that though the Bishop was dead, the religion he had brought was from God, and therefore the work would go on because it did not come from man but was the work of God. And then, having comforted his own people, he set out at some peril to his own life, to steady and comfort the school people on the other islands. For the feelings of the Christians must have been somewhat akin to those of the disciples when their Master was taken from them. Who was there to help them now? To whom could they carry their questions and their difficulties? So George set out to do what he could in the way of help and encouragement.

Filled with this desire it must have been rather disconcerting to find the people on Gaua disposed to take anticipatory revenge on himself, fearing that their boys, who had been taken to Norfolk Island, might now remain there for ever. It did not seem to help matters exactly, and no doubt this conviction gave force to George's argument, which was to the effect that if [20/21] they had any other and better reason for killing him, why do so by all means, but as for their boys they were as safe as ever, and would return to them as usual; fortunately the Gaua people were open to reason and allowed George to proceed on his rounds.

In the following year, 1872, George Sarawia was taken to Auckland, and ordained priest, but his return was saddened by finding that his excellent wife Sarah had died during his absence. Thus in one year he had lost his spiritual father, to whom, under God, he had owed everything, and the wife who had proved herself such a true helpmeet. But sorrow only deepened his character and he worked on for many years, looked up to and beloved by all. His counsel was sought by all the neighbouring villages, for apart from his Christian influence, he was a man of considerable social position. His was a stronger personality than that of Robert Pantutun, who died in 1910, while George and his wife and their son Simon, who married Robert's daughter Agnes, are all laid to rest. George was in ill health for some years, but continued to do his work up till the end, when he called his people together and urged them to lead good lives according to the new teaching sent by God.

When the Southern Cross arrived, a few weeks later, three men were silently waiting on the beach, and behind them was a black-board, on which were written the words they could not speak, "George Sarawia died last Sunday, August 11."

Bright as was the beginning, the religious life in Mota has not kept up to its first high level, owing in a great measure to the influence of the Suqe. This, in old days, was an institution of great value, with its rites of initiation and its regulations. The Suqe was the one source of moral training, and its history is of intense interest and value both to the missionary and to the anthropologist. The latter is apt to deplore its decline. Yet experience has shown that where the Suqe remains Christianity languishes, and that, [21/22] whatever it may have been in the past, the Suqe is now chiefly an excuse for feasting and indolence: the teaching is practically nil.

Reading the records of the past it is sad to hear of a project formed recently for dividing the island into two parts, and gathering into one half all those who wished to live a Christian life, leaving the other half to those still attached to the Suqe. The plan has not been carried out, and there is every hope now of a revival setting in which will render such a step unnecessary.

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