Project Canterbury

The Isles That Wait

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1911.


IN the meantime Mota was sending out teachers both north and south, to the Torres and to the New Hebrides, which, together with the Banks, are now included under the one official name of the New Hebrides, governed by the joint commission of England and France. In 1878 Edward Wogale, who had been ordained deacon on the same day as Robert Pantutun and Henry Tagalad, was put down at Loh, one of the four islands in the Torres Group, and in twelve months had gathered as many scholars round him. Visiting the island in 1880, Bishop John Selwyn was struck with the exceeding dirtiness of the people and the prevalence of sores, the latter caused by the former, which he had never seen equalled in any of the other islands. It was common to find three or four families crowded together in one house. Their burial customs, too, were of the most insanitary kind. The dead body was placed on a platform, screened off by bamboos, only a short distance from the gamal, where it remained for ten days. On the tenth day the head was removed, washed in the sea and then placed in the gamal, while the rest of the body was left in a small enclosure: the state of the atmosphere may be left to the imagination, and necessitated a wad of sweet-smelling herbs in each nostril. It was not surprising therefore that Edward Wogale should have been found in a most pitiable condition, his body covered with terrible sores and reduced to a skeleton. He was taken away for change and rest, but as soon as he felt better he insisted on returning to his work though the risk was great, and in 1883 he died at his post. The people sorrowed much and buried [59/60] him after the Christian fashion, fencing round the grave with care; they also took good care of the widow and her two children. Edward Wogale was the younger brother of George Sarawia, and had joined the mission school when quite a young boy. "He was the most thoughtful and intelligent of the Melanesian clergy, his mind cultivated and refined by long, close and affectionate intercourse with Bishop Patteson and by his teaching in higher subjects, begun in this case at an unusually early age."

After his death Robert Pantutun worked there for a time, taking for his second wife a Torres woman. The labour trade was doing a brisk business in the Torres Islands, as Robert found to his cost one day when his class of baptismal candidates went off in a body to the recruiting ship. Later, the labour trade grew to such an extent that it threatened to depopulate the island, and induced the chiefs to petition the governments of Queensland and Fiji that the recruiting might be stopped. Meantime Christianity was slowly gaining ground, infanticide and the horrible burial customs were dying out, but the Suqe remained as a great obstacle to Christian fellowship. There were specially rigid laws connected with the Suqe in the Torres, one of which forbade a man absolutely to eat in any other place than that particular spot in the gamal which was his by right. For him there could be no culling of a temptingly ripe banana in his garden, no enjoyment of a choice morsel in his own house. Nor might any other hand venture, to dig up the yams in his garden. He alone must dig, he alone must prepare the food. Therefore a member of the Suqe could never become a Christian; "fellowship" was unknown. Seeing this, and knowing too how hampered the work had been in the Banks Islands by the Suqe, Mr. Robin, who came to work in the Torres in 1890, determined, if possible, to put a stop to it, and to make the resignation of those customs a condition of baptism. The difficulties seemed insuperable, but in reading what followed one is reminded of [60/61] the words "Do not look at God through the human difficulties, but look at the difficulties through God, counting on the supernatural and Divine power." Such was the power of the new teaching that ere long seven men threw up the Suqe, followed year by year by many others.

"But," said Mr. Robin, "no chief of the first degree could persuade himself to be the first to abrogate his position. And so there were four men in this rank, three of whom were very old, who from the first resolutely cut themselves off from all communication with us. The fourth, whilst friendly and professedly desirous to join us, insisted on two conditions being observed before he would himself take the decisive step: he stipulated (1z) that all the natives of lower rank should break their Suqe before or at the same time as himself; (2) that the other chiefs of equal rank should do the same. His three fellow chiefs on the island of Loh died; he and a remnant of some forty natives of second, third and fourth ranks still held out. The sequel is most striking; the chiefs ate themselves out of the Suqe. Curiously enough, they have made a rule about it, namely that any one intending to do so shall descend grade by grade, eating in each place and at each oven till he reaches the space near the door, where the little boys, who have not been initiated, eat. Then a great feast takes place outside with the women. During my visit Tegalgal with a number of others, who joined him as he reached their grades, did this. On the occasion of Tegalgal's last gamal meal, after all was over we got up, and every one together gave a great shout, making the welkin ring indeed. Truly it was an awe-inspiring thing to see, for one seemed to feel the breath of God about one, and to hear the still small voice speaking to the heart of this man and his friends."

Here, as in so many places, the work was retarded for lack of teachers. Toga had to wait for some time after they had made all the preparations they could, clearing a site for the future school village and building [61/62] a hut there, where they used to assemble every Sunday morning and evening when they thought service was going on at Loh. There they would sit and, looking across to Loh, talk of the time when they too would be taught. Once they went across and begged for, and obtained, a very small scholar to go back with them, taking a few letter-sheets that they might make a small start anyway on the ladder of learning. At last the longings of the people were satisfied, and they have a very good teacher from Motalava, named Katlavle.

Mr. Durrad, who was put in charge of the Torres group in 1906, found the returned Kanakas rather a trouble, as they usually return deteriorated by their contact with white men. Also they return with Queensland notions of money and prices which are impossible, asking the full market price prevailing in Queensland for a bunch of bananas, and for a piece of land expecting the price that it would fetch in the middle of a large city.

One of these Kanakas brought back a white woman whom he had married in Queensland before there was any idea of expelling the coloured labourers. One admires the loyalty which made the wife follow her husband to a land where she must forgo all that belongs to civilisation: probably she had to part with all her possessions on landing at Tegua. Mabel, wife of the teacher at Hiu, a Motalava woman, when visiting Tegua found the unfortunate woman lying on the ground in her native house very ill with fever, with her four little children ill around her. Mabel, who had been to Norfolk Island and knew something of white women's ways, did what she could for her comfort. "We were all very sorry for her," said Mabel; "at first she was very bright and made friends with the women and joined in the dances, but she did too much and now she is ill, and the four children are ill, and she has no nightdress and only one blanket. We wanted to take her back with us to Hiu, but her husband would not allow it: he used to be kind to her, [62/63] but he is so no longer, he takes no care of her." The case is so sad because nothing can be done. Mr. Durrad did all he could for her, and found her a pleasant-spoken person, but she has married a native, and nothing can undo that step. One can picture it all too well: her arrival in the place determined to make the best of things, finding the women friendly and the life attractive at first from its novelty. And then as the climate told on her strength and spirits, and time only showed how she remained a stranger to the real village life and native thought, her courage would fail. Her ignorance of garden work and native cooking would make her an object of kindly contempt, and her husband would grow to regard her as an encumbrance. One's heart aches at Mabel's description of the poor fever-stricken woman surrounded by her four children, with no milk to give them, without the barest decencies of life, nor any white woman near to whom she could unburden her soul. It is but another example of the evil attending a mixed marriage.

At Hiu Charles Septembok and Mabel are working, and the people are gradually becoming Christians, and all the more earnest Christians, it is believed, on account of the opposition offered by the majority. Christianity involves a complete social change here, where family life is non-existent.

Mr. Durrad writes: "One of the great dividers is the Huga. It is an elaborate society which concerns the male portion of the community. No man in the Huga can eat with any other man not of his particular rank, and he cannot eat with any woman. This was the difficulty. It is a serious thing to tamper with an institution which enters so deeply into the lives of the people as the Huga does, and yet there was no help for it but to do so. It could not be ignored." (It was explained to the people that one of the marks of Christianity is the idea of brotherhood.) "They could never receive Christianity while the rigid division of ranks continued. They were left to take their [63/64] choice. After much searching of heart those who desired Christianity said they would eat together. For some, the saying was too hard, and they went back, and walked no more with us. Some things before their baptism they pledged themselves to give up. They renounced all intention of resorting to magic in order to procure other people's sickness or death. This magic power is the most potent spell of heathenism in the Torres. The thought of it is the one great dread which clouds the mind of every one."

In spite of this continual cloud, or perhaps because of it, the Torres islander diverts his mind by the frequent pleasure and excitement of the dance. At the inspiring roll of the drums the most anxious forebodes feels his pulses quicken and, in the excitement of the next few hours, is conscious only of the joy of life, and forgets the perils that threaten to cut it short. Clad in a long cloak of rustling leaves, wearing a brilliantly coloured helmet (the making of which is a jealously guarded secret), he steps forth out of the dusk to join the dancing throng; the pungent fragrance of the scented leaves, worn in armlet and belt, the glare of the blazing firewood add to the intoxication of the moment; all else is forgotten as his steps quicken to the faster beating of the drums. In the morning apprehension may again seize him, but for the moment he is oblivious to all save the intoxicating present. His counterpart might perhaps be found in civilised society.

A year before Edward Wogale started for the Torres Islands, Thomas Ulgau and Maslea left Mota to sow the seed in Raga or Pentecost. They found the soil anything but promising, rendered hard and unworkable by the power of magic and cannibalism. There a widow had her natural sorrow materially increased by the fear of being clubbed to death by the chief. A whole neighbourhood, on the other hand, would hear with very real concern of the death of a chief, knowing that many lives would be sought to avenge it, and their garden walks would be taken for some time in a state [64/65] of trepidation only too well grounded. The prospect of being eaten in addition would, probably, not trouble them much, although all these things might naturally deter a missionary unused to such ways. But Thomas Ulgau and his friend courageously took up their abode in the midst of these rather uncomfortable surroundings, and although for long years little or no result appeared (for after fourteen years only three villages had received a teacher), Tom still worked on patiently and faithfully. His reward came at length, for in 1897 over twenty schools were established, and the demand for teachers was greater than the supply. Raga owes much to Thomas Ulgau and is conscious of its debt, for his memory is held in great affection and honour. Bishop Wilson, visiting the island in 1897, found villages whose only teacher was a lad of, perhaps, sixteen or seventeen, who was reading prayers and teaching them to read, while Thomas paid them a visit when he could. In these villages were living together in harmony men who a few years before were bitter enemies. In this same year the Bishop writes: "On July 7 I was at Lolvenua in the hills. The classes were finished and the great day had arrived. People had come together from all around; the village was crowded with visitors, and the church filled to overflowing. There were only thirty-five candidates, but they were the most influential people in the country---chiefs nearly all of them, with their wives and children. Viranubu, the old fighting chief of Lolvenua, a man of very strong character and grand physique, but with a limp from a spear wound in the thigh, led the way in making the answers to my questions. He and all the rest answered each one separately for himself, according to our custom. I shall never forget seeing that ring of men and women standing round the font in the little church, and one by one renouncing their old way of life and their old superstitions. And then the baptism itself and the solemn reception, with the words, 'We do receive this person into the congregation of Christ's flock, and do sign [65/66] him with the sign of the Cross.' It was glorious receiving such men into the Church of Christ! But no one rejoiced more than they did themselves. The chiefs had killed their fattest pigs in honour of the occasion: enormous ovens had been at work all night, and fowls and yams had been cooked in abundance. At the feast there sat down together men who, a short time ago, could only have met to fight: now they were rejoicing together over the entry of some into the Church of Christ, and over the peace and love which the gospel had brought to them all. Shortly after this I went to a great feast, an uninvited and unexpected guest, but having no doubt that I should be made welcome.

"A very remarkable thing took place in the midst of the ceremonies. Old Viradora, the greatest chief in the northern district of Raga, and almost the only one who has not joined with us, came forward and made a long speech, and ended by handing to the man who made the feast his war-club, directing that it was to be chopped to pieces and distributed amongst all the chiefs in the district as a declaration of peace and goodwill to all." Viradora is still a heathen, but the last report speaks of his having put away most of his wives. He was present in 1908 at one of the Christmas gatherings, watching the festivities and the huge throng of people with a look of not unkindly interest on his shrewd old face as he sat leaning on his staff. His son at Norfolk Island seems very hopeful, and to regard the putting away of his wives as a preliminary step to coming forward. He has never opposed the new teaching, and even schooled for a short time in the old days with Louis Tariliu; several of his sons are teachers, while one of them, though not a teacher, is a most staunch supporter and helper. Viradora's is a large family of some sixty sons and daughters. His wives at one time numbered forty, but were reduced to twenty: they occupied a harem village and seemed to be living very happily together, with the latest baby an object of [66/67] great interest to all. Probably they live in greater harmony than if they were a smaller community of four or five.

The work in Raga is much hampered by the labour trade. At a certain season of the year it is rare for the peace of the early morning not to be disturbed by the discharge of dynamite, which forms a hideous parody to the church bell calling to Mattins and Evensong. By fair means or otherwise these "wagasurasura," thieving ships, manage to carry off a number of recruits. Sometimes a matrimonial quarrel will send husband or wife on board, sometimes the love of change or money; but you never hear a returned labourer recommending the life. Not very long ago there was a flagrant case of kidnapping on Raga on the weather side where few boats go. The daughter of a head teacher had gone down to the water with some companions to barter vegetables for cloth. The others were shy and held back, but she stepped on to the rock, below which was the boat, holding out her hand with the bananas or whatever it was she had to sell. Instantly her hand was seized and she was dragged down into the boat, which made off at once, while rough hands were placed over her mouth to stifle her cries, and blows on her back enforced silence. Her companions rushed up the cliff and told the girl's father, who went off at once in his canoe. But the captain would take no notice of him, nor could he get a sight of his child, who no doubt had been hurried below at once, and he stupidly did not take the name of the ship, although the natives of another village were pretty certain whose ship it was. The father was almost distracted, knowing only too well the conditions that prevail on many of those ships, but nothing could be done, for the ships are legion and, unless definite information can be given, the Vila authorities do not take any steps.

The story, however, ends happily, and must have confirmed the teacher's faith in the power of prayer and [67/68] the care of our Heavenly Father for His children. The captain of the ship, fearing an inquiry, sold the girl quickly to another man on the neighbouring island of Ambrym, where Mabel fell into the hands of respectable people and were employed in housework under the eye and care of a married woman; and at the end of two years was returned to her home. The trader who kidnapped her, and who bore an evil name, disappeared in the ensuing hurricane season which claimed many as its victims.

Mr. Bice, Mr. Brittain and Mr. Edgell all worked on Raga, and after the lapse of a year or two Mr. Drummond was put down there. Under him the work has been thoroughly organised and church life greatly stirred up, especially in North Raga, where many excellent teachers are doing their work steadily and well. Mr. Hart is in charge now.

Peter Moltata's village, Qatvenua, can boast that not one of its men or boys is saddled by debt. The debt system in Raga is involved and intricate to a degree, but the fact that one village has solved the problem proves that it is not hopeless. North Raga may be said to be in a really satisfactory state. Central Raga is waking up, and it is hoped will show still further evidence of life now that Matthias Tarileo and his wife have settled there. Matthias has a blameless record behind him, and great hopes are entertained of his future work. From South Raga come occasional rumours of returned labourers having been killed and eaten, and though probably untrue, they show that the people are not held in good repute by their more advanced neighbours. Teachers from Motalava and Torres are to be found here and there, and it is hoped that before long there may be a native deacon. Mr. Hart has charge also of Maewo, which has had a wild past, and only now begins to show signs of life. At the north end Harry Aregi has done steady plodding work, and his village, Lotora, is quite the show village for cleanliness.

[69] Opa is, I suppose, the most difficult of the three New Hebrides islands under our care. In old times the people were great cannibals, and Mr. Bice, landing there in 1871, did so at imminent peril of his life. To-day the island is completely "traderised." The people do scarcely any gardening: they have plenty of cocoanuts with which they can buy rice from the traders, or else they come over to Raga for yams. The Raga people in their turn go over for pigs, and on their return speak with pious horror of the want of religion on Opa; but it does not deter them from going there and staying for weeks whenever they have a chance. A year or two ago an old Norfolk Island boy sent his little sister over to the ladies' station at Lamalana with a letter begging that she might stay and school with them as there was no possibility of her receiving a religious education in her own village. However, Alicka's other relations resented this and fetched her back again after a few months. A year or two ago a Motalava teacher and his young wife volunteered to work on Opa. Now Motalava cooking is renowned, and the change to an Opa larder was great. At the end of a year the ship took back for a holiday a decidedly emaciated pair. "Nothing but bananas," exclaimed Cecilia, on being questioned as to their supplies; "every day, every day they cook bananas, nothing else, except when they buy rice; they do not know how to cook." Cecilia had a young baby, and must many a time have longed for the delicious puddings of her native land.

It was on Opa that Mr. Godden worked and made himself so much beloved. Here, after some years, he brought his bride. Many remember the arrival of the two brides, Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Godden, at Norfolk Island on their way to the islands, and the interest with which they were welcomed. Little did any one dream that only a few months of happiness were in store for the latter, or how tragically that happiness was to be cut short. Nor will those who went down [69/70] in the ship on her second voyage in 1906, and had seen the singularly happy home at Lolowai, ever forget the shock of hearing two months later at Maewo that Mr. Godden had been killed. The report said that he had gone by boat a little way down the coast, and then walked inland to a certain village where he was to administer baptism. On his way he stooped to pick out a stone from his shoe, and at the moment of stooping (his boat's crew having gone on in front) he was shot and hacked by a returned labourer in revenge for some injury received in Queensland. He had selected Mr. Godden as being the most important life he knew. The news seemed incredible, and still hoping against hope, the ship steamed in, a few hours later, to Lolowai Bay. The deserted beach told its own tale, and presently the silent launching of the boat and the black bands on the sleeves of the boat's crew dealt a deathblow to any hope that remained. It was in sad contrast to the cheerful visit paid two months ago in bright sunshine. Now the little party stumbled up the rocky path by the dim light of a lantern to the desolate house where the widow was waiting. Then it was that the whole details were given of the sudden assault, of the dying man's farewell message to his wife, and his words, "Let there be no fighting." The boat's crew did what they could, but before they reached the beach Mr. Godden had breathed his last. Then it was that the boys showed such true chivalry: removing as far as possible all traces of the murder, they wrapped the body in mats before the wife saw it, but, arrived at Lolowai, none dared tell her. Hearing the boat was in she hurried down to the beach, perhaps with misgivings in her heart, to be turned into sick certainty when she saw the quiet form in the boat. Had it not been for the boat's crew she could hardly have borne that time, but they watched over and cared for her day and night, finally trying to take her over to Raga. But the sea was too rough and the wind too strong; and they had to turn back and wait until a small schooner came and 70/71] took her over to the women's station. Mr. Drummond started for Opa at once, and Miss Hawkes went back in a day or two with Mrs. Godden, and together they packed up everything, and then just waited and watched three weeks for the coming of the ship. Great was the grief of the people, for Mr. Godden was much beloved, and justly so.

He never lost heart even when the task seemed most hopeless, and gave up his life completely to the work. One by one the people came to the house, bringing pathetic little offerings of sixpences and threepenny bits to the widow, and most pathetic was the scene on board when the time came for her to part from the faithful boat's crew. Never as long as her life lasts will Mrs. Godden ever forget what they were to her in those dark days of bereavement.

Mr. Stanley Howard from Sydney had temporary charge of Opa, and now he is succeeded by Mr. C. Grunling, who finds the work very uphill, but is doing his best to accomplish it.

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