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The Isles That Wait

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1911.


ONLY a short distance from Mota, to the north, lies Motalava, with the little islet of Ra separated from it by a lagoon which, at low tide, is fordable. From Ra came two other scholars of Bishop Patteson, the two brothers Edwin Sakalrau and Henry Tagalad.

There is no special feature to distinguish Motalava from its neighbours; there is the same volcanic rise: in the centre, with the edge of level land near the sea, the same dense vegetation. Yet the people are different, and a Motlav man or woman is easy to distinguish anywhere. There is an alertness about them, and a force and energy, which has sent them out in all directions--Vanua Lava, Santa Maria, Torres, Santa Cruz, Mala, San Cristoval, have all been helped by them, while Tikopia, that small island of giants, is regarded by Motalava as its own special mission. Teachers have steadily persevered there, undeterred by the unpleasant little habit peculiar to the Tikopians of putting their visitors out to sea in a canoe when their presence ceases to be amusing.

Motalava itself owes its first teaching to its own countrymen, and especially to Henry Tagalad, who was taught first at Kohimarama and then at Norfolk Island. He was the boy of whom Bishop Patteson declared, "He, of all who have come into my hands absolutely stark naked and savage, gives now the greatest ground for hope and thanksgiving." He was baptized in 1863 on the same day as Sarawia, Qasvar, and Taroaniaro. He was, perhaps, one of the best-loved of Bishop Patteson's scholars, none the less, possibly, because of the anxiety that he gave. His was a character that needed very careful guidance; [23/24] he was exceedingly clever, eager and warm-hearted, but emotional, and there came a critical time when it seemed as if he might fall away. But he rose the stronger for the temptation, and when Bishop John Selwyn was consecrated in 1877, Henry was working hard in Motalava as the first deacon there.

In quite early days Motalava began its work of ministry. In 1872, hearing that Mota was threatened with famine, the people met together and consulted how they could, best send help. It was not a case of helping out of their own abundance, for there was little enough food on the island, but it was agreed that a collection should be made on a certain Sunday throughout the school villages, and with the native money thus contributed they sailed across to Vanua Lava, the land of plenty, and bought a supply of food, which they took over to Mota, where it was thankfully received by George Sarawia, who was coping with disease and famine, the result of a hurricane which had destroyed the gardens as well as houses.

So Motalava grew in grace and prospered in spite of the labour trade, which threatened at one time to depopulate the island, and Walter Woser also came and helped Henry, and for many years its history was a bright one, with Henry Tagalad, a model parish priest, living the life he preached. One would fain write of the same peaceful close to his life as that which came to his old schoolfellow on Mota.

But, alas, in his latter days there came a swift temptation and a sudden fall, in bitter grief for which he died not long after. It is for us to remember only his long years of faithful service and to leave him in his Master's hands. After him Walter Woser was in charge, and now Ben Qarig, who was ordained deacon in 1905, is working there. The Suqe still prevails on Motalava, but the people have kept their promise, made to the Bishop, that the feasting should last only one day.

It is natural to turn from Motalava, the birthplace of [24/25] Edwin Sakalrau, to Vanua Lava, the scene of his labours. Vanua Lava is one of the largest of the Banks Islands, and a very beautiful one with fine hills and waterfalls, and possesses the one only good harbour in the group, Port Patteson, a harbour enshrined in the grateful memory of many a seasick passenger on the Southern Cross.

It is to Motalava that it has owed most of its teachers, both past and present. It is a common saying that a Vanua Lava boy, on his leaving Norfolk Island, should never be put down as teacher on his own island or he will do nothing. Indeed, in all the islands a boy does best in any village rather than his own. Not only is a prophet of no honour in his own country, but it must be much harder for a boy to stand out against old and evil customs when they are linked with his childish memories, and when those who practise them are his own kindred and friends.

To this island of Vanua Lava came Edwin Sakalrau and his wife Emma, brought there in 1878 by Bishop John Selwyn, who had previously ordained Edwin deacon at Ra. They were put down near Pek, and Bishop Selwyn tells how "we brought out the little altar table and set it up under the overhanging eaves of the school-house, and made a rude rail. The ground sloped away, and in the background was a magnificent banyan-tree. I am sure no bishop ever sent forth a more simple, earnest man to do his Master's work, and I am very happy about him." Three years later the Bishop found the village removed to a healthier spot on a natural kind of terrace commanding a lovely view out to the sea with Ureparapara in the distance. A church was already built, and the day of consecration was a memorable one in the annals of Pek. The church had been decorated in, no doubt, true native style, with bright coloured blossoms tied on to the posts, and stuck into the walls, and introduced wherever possible with brilliant effect. A reverent congregation gathered there, and the astonishing offertory [25/26] of £6 showed that Edwin had taught his people how to freely give, even as they had freely received, a lesson not yet learned by us even after nearly two thousand years of teaching.

For five years Edwin spent himself among the people, ably seconded by his wife, to whom he was deeply attached, and whose influence over the women was very great, as was that of Robert Pantutun's wife at Mota. Her death, in an epidemic following, as was so constantly the case, on a hurricane, came as a very heavy blow, and Edwin did not long survive her. He died from a cold which settled on his chest, and which perhaps a wife's good nursing might have cured. Before passing away he called his assistant teacher and begged him to do all he could to keep the school together till the ship should arrive. When Mr. Palmer landed, the people were unable to speak for sorrow, but could only press his hand in silence. It must have been a great blow to Mr. Palmer, then in charge of the Banks Islands, to hear that one of his best teachers had been taken away: yet it must have been comforting to find, that although he had come quite unexpectedly after dark, everything was in perfect order, and the church lighted up for service just as Edwin would have had it.

It is sad, after reading the history of Pek, to have to record the unsatisfactory state of Vanua Lava at the present time; unsatisfactory in that the people seem content with so low a level of Christianity. It is an island containing many dialects, which present a certain difficulty to the missionary, but Mota is understood everywhere.

Perhaps the Suqe and Salagoro have deeper roots there than anywhere else, and this may therefore be a good place to explain what the Suqe is. For this we turn to Dr. Codrington's renowned book on Melanesian Anthropology and Folklore. "In every village and group of houses in the Torres Islands, the Banks Islands and the Northern New Hebrides, is [26/27] conspicuous a building which does not appear to be a dwelling-house. In a populous village of the Banks Islands, it is very long and low, with entrances at intervals along the sides below the wall plate, with stone seats or a stone platform at the main entrances at either end, and low stone walls planted with dracænas and crotons near the same, with the jawbones of pigs and backbones of fish hanging under the eaves; and very often the clatter of pounding sticks in wooden vessels and white clouds of steam make known the preparation of a meal. This is a gamal. The gamal is a club-house, and the club is called the Suqe in the islands where I have any considerable acquaintance with it. . . . Nothing is known of the origin of the club. It is not connected with the secret societies of the ghosts, and is not a secret society of the same kind. The club-house is in the open, and every one, except when new members are admitted, can see what is going on, though women are most strictly excluded. It is a social, not at all a religious institution; yet, inasmuch as religious practices enter into the common life of the people, and all success and advance in life is believed to be due to 'mana' by supernatural influence, the aid of unseen powers is sought for by fasting, sacrifices and prayers, in order to mount to the successive degrees of the society. To rise from step to step money is wanted, and food and pigs; no one can get these unless he has mana for it; therefore as mana gets a man on in the Suqe, so every one high in the Suqe is certainly a man with mana, and a man of authority, a great man, one who may be called a chief, whom traders may call a king. In the Banks Island stories the poor lad or orphan who becomes the fortunate youth rises to greatness by the Suqe, he takes the highest grade in this instead of marrying the king's daughter, . . . a man who has never entered has the nickname of a lusa, a kind of flying fox which does not gather with the flocks of the common sort. . . . In all these islands the distinction between each successive stage is strictly [27/28] marked, any one stepping over the boundary to the oven above him would be trampled to death by those on whom he had intruded."

As to the Salagoro, it is the name given to the house of the Tamate secret society, into which no women or children are initiated or permitted to watch any of its proceedings. The house is approached by paths, and signs on these paths warn off any but the members. When members are initiated they are usually compelled to remain secluded in the Salagoro unwashed and blackened by ashes for weeks or even months, given little food and their powers of endurance put to various tests. Dr. Codrington, speaking of the Salagoro, says: "It was a matter of principle with Bishop Patteson not to interfere in an arbitrary manner with the institutions of the people, but to leave it to their own sense of right and wrong, and their own knowledge of the character of what they did, to condemn or to tolerate what their growing enlightenment would call into question. So there arose among his early pupils the doubt whether it would be right for them as Christians to continue members of the Tamate societies, to seek for admission into them, and frequent their lodges. The Bishop put it to them that they should enquire and consult among themselves about the real character of the societies: did they offer worship and prayer to ghosts or spirits? Were they required to take part in anything indecent or atrocious? Did membership involve any profession or belief or practice of superstition peculiar to the members? After consultation they reported to him that they could not discover anything wrong in itself, except the pretence of association with ghosts, which had already ceased to be serious, and the beating and robbing of the uninitiated, which it was quite possible for them to refuse to take part in and to oppose. The Bishop therefore would not condemn the societies, and in the Banks Islands they continue to exist, and indeed to flourish more than it is at all desirable they should."

[29] Certainly at the present time the Salagoro, in Vanua Lava, at any rate, is a great hindrance to Church life, which is in consequence at a very low ebb. The most cheering spot is Sanlan, where a school for boys was begun by Mr. and Mrs. O'Ferrall, and was ably carried on by Mr. and Mrs. Adams, and which is prospering and increasing in numbers. It is a central school for the southern group, including Santa Cruz, where boys are prepared for Norfolk Island; or if, as in the case of the Santa Cruz boys, they cannot stand the colder climate of Norfolk Island, they can receive a good education in a climate more akin to their own.

Santa Maria, which lies to the south of Vanua Lava, is of about the same size, and, like the rest of the islands, is volcanic. A large lake occupies the ancient crater, and discharges its water into the sea by a very fine waterfall. Santa Maria enjoys the distinction of being the most quarrelsome island of the group. Fighting is, or was, their great pastime, and if a fight were announced to be taking place the young men from other villages round, who had nothing whatever to do with the quarrel, would hurry up to join in the fun. When Bishop Selwyn was going round the islands in 1892, he was carried ashore at Lakona (as one part of the island is called) by a man whose share in one of these fights had proved decidedly lucrative. He had happened to kill a Lakona man, upon which a message was sent him by the friends of the deceased to the effect that he must either be killed himself on the first favourable opportunity, or else must abandon his own people and come over to Lakona, marrying the widow of his victim, and adopting the children made orphans by his hand. There was no hesitation on the man's part as to which he would choose, and he apparently lived happily ever after; as to the feelings of the widow and children, history is discreetly silent on the point. Another foreigner found a home at Lakona under somewhat different circumstances. In this case it was a runaway wife from Mota. She had set off to swim to [29/30] Vanua Lava, that refuge for wearied matrons, but breeze and tide combined to thwart her purpose, and she found herself instead at Lakona after a journey of twenty instead of seven miles. She too seems to have settled down and married, finding, we trust, with regard to her second partner, that she had not fallen from the frying-pan into the fire. Her descendants still tell the tale of her flight.

Cock Sparrow Point is always shown to the newcomer as the place from which the natives shot at the Spaniards of old. In 1862 Bishop Patteson for the first time walked about freely without a single arrow being shot, and in 1865 he even slept on shore and took away with him four boys. It was concern for the safety of these boys which made the people's fingers itch to put an arrow into George Sarawia's unoffending person. Later on, in 1874, Edmund Qaratu opened a school on Gaua, as the other half of the island is called, while a married couple from Mota carried on the school at Lakona, and both prospered. The labour vessels do not seem to have troubled Santa Maria, perhaps on account of the bad landings; but the internal quarrels and fighting proved quite as serious, an impediment to Church life, until Mr. Cullwick, who had succeeded Archdeacon Palmer in the charge of the Banks Islands, was successful in collecting all the chiefs together to discuss the matter, and it was resolved to collect all firearms and to settle all future disputes in conclave; and so began an era of comparative peace, which has continued more or less to the present day. At Lakona, however, in 1888, the work had a sad set back. A deacon named Marostamata, nephew to George Sarawia, had been teaching there with his wife for some years, both doing most excellent work, and by their influence averting many fights. The wife died in 1887, to the great grief of Marostamata. Soon after a heathen woman set her affections on the deacon, and when he turned a deaf ear to her, threatened to commit suicide and so bring the [30/31] vengeance of her people on the whole village. It was no empty threat, yet should have had no power over a man of faith and sound mind: some, who knew Marostamata best, say his mind had certainly become unhinged. It ended, at any rate, in Marostamata throwing up his work and going off with the woman, and no entreaties on the part of his old friends were of any avail.

It is one of the sad pages in the history of the mission, and one is glad to turn to a later period when Meshak Sisis and his wife Emma were put down at Lakona in 1905. He and Ben Qarig were ordained deacons on the same day as William Qasvars, who had proved his worth by long years of service. Meshak has done good work there in the last five years and is much liked by the people. With him were put down a young couple from the Norfolk Island school, George Lili and his bride Tabitha. She was niece to Meshak and head girl at Norfolk Island, where she had been a powerful influence for good among the girls: she was exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful, and great hopes were entertained as to her influence among the women of Lakona, who received her very kindly. For a year and a half Tabitha taught and helped them, fearlessly raising her protest against what was wrong, yet never alienating their affections. But she was needed for other work, and when her baby was born she was called away, to the great sorrow of all her friends and of her husband, who is still working on alone.

On the other side of the island (Gaua) Joe Qealav of Meralava a deacon, has been doing splendid work. He is a man of strong character and of absolute fearlessness in the cause of right, and has immense influence over the people. What Joe says ought to be done is done, as the traders learnt by experience when Joe forbade the selling of cocoanuts on Sunday, and they found their visits on that day to be useless after the fiat had gone forth. Through his influence [31/32] dancing in connection with the Suqe has been given up, having been found injurious to Christian life, and its place has been taken by cricket, which has become very popular. New churches and new schools are springing up. One teacher, finding that the chief of a neighbouring village kept his people from school on the score that the distance was too great, cut away the ground from that objection by offering to remove his own village to any site selected by the chief, on condition of the latter's regular attendance: the move was successfully accomplished and a fine school-house built.

Poor Joe has gone through great trouble since he has been on Gaua. In 1907 an epidemic of whooping-cough swept over the islands, carrying off the little children in every village. Gaua was not spared, and the Angel of Death entered Joe's house and took three, of his little ones. Like all Melanesians, Joe was tenderly attached to his children, yet, although heartbroken at their loss, he bore up bravely, never once failing at his post in church, and going about his work as usual. What he had suffered was written on his face when the ship picked him up later, with his wife and three surviving children, in the hope that Meralava air might save their lives, but two died shortly after their arrival at Meralava. His eldest boy Clement was safely out of the way on Norfolk Island.

It was proposed to place Joe Qealav for a time on Mota in 1910, but when the ship called at Sarasag in April Joe was laid up from the effects of a fall and unable to travel; later on, however, he went and did good work there.

And what of William Qasvar, that other well-beloved scholar of whom mention has already been made, called "the Commodore"? After the adventures of his youth, when he accompanied Bishop Patteson on most of his voyages, the greater part of his life has been quietly spent on two of the smallest islands in the Banks Group, first on Ureparapara, then on Rowa, [32/33] although from them he has visited other islands in his boat. Yet, though small, they are two of the most interesting; the one an example of Nature's violent moods, the other of her quiet work. Ureparapara, i.e. the land with slopes, is a vast volcano, the crater two miles in length by about a mile in width. The east end of the crater has been blown away, and the sea fills up the interior, so that the ship can sail right in over still waters which no lead can fathom except at the very edge of the shore at the western end. The sides are wooded up to the summit, a height of about two thousand feet, and the gardens and villages were dotted about, invisible except by their smoke among the dense growth. There was no definite centre, and each village was so tiny as to make the work very difficult. After William left Rowa, Simon Qalges, his son-in-law, carried on the work energetically.

Rowa, on the other hand, but a few miles distant, is a flat coral island, still rising, with a few cocoanuts and a very slight bush. There are no gardens, and the people go over to Vanua Lava and barter fish for vegetables. No one who has seen Rowa, with its huge barrier reef, on a bright day will ever forget the brilliant colouring, nor the surprise, on landing, at seeing on this tiny islet, with its thirty or forty inhabitants, a beautiful coral church with altar rail and seats all of coral stone, capable of holding two hundred people. On entering, the same sensation of calm and peace comes over one as in a cathedral at home. The church is a witness to the devotion and quiet energy of William, who in those early days of constant intercourse with Bishop Patteson seems to have imbibed something of the spirit of his teacher, and to be doing his best to impart it to his flock. There is a unique custom here, originated by William, which takes place every Saturday night after Evensong, when any member of the community confesses publicly the faults which he is conscious of having committed during the week, after which a prayer is offered up to God for pardon.

[34] A visit to Rowa is always a pleasure and a refreshment. Pleasant it is to see the bright open faces of the people; pleasant to receive the cordial welcome of William and his wife, the quick-tempered, excellent Lydia. She was married to William on the same day that Emily was married to Robert. Pantutun, that gala wedding-day forty-one years ago on Norfolk Island, when the chapel was brilliantly decorated and full of interested friends, and when, the service over, the day was given up to feasting and merriment. Forty-one years ago, and. Emily has long since been called away; but Lydia, in spite of heart trouble, seems to grow younger every year, and to retain all the vivacity of her girlhood.

But good above all is it to spend a few moments in the cool church, a coolness most specially grateful after the burning row from the ship, and where a certain fragrance from the incense of daily prayer seems still to linger.

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