Project Canterbury

The Isles That Wait

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1911.


NOT till 1862 did the mission ship reach Florida, or Gela, [The g is nasalized, and pronounced as if n preceded the g.] as it is always called by the natives. It may well be called the "Garden of the Solomons," and it would be difficult to imagine anything more lovely than the reach called the Sandfly Passage. It may be partly that after the dense vegetation of the other islands, the open park-like stretches of land on Gela are specially refreshing to the eye. They have the effect of sward at a distance though when near at hand they are seen to consist of coarse tall grass. Of old the island bore as bad a name as any, and the ship had to be as much on guard, and close doors and portholes as carefully when arriving at Florida as is the case now at Tikopia. Mr. Penny, to whom Florida owes so much, has written fully of it in his book Ten Years in Melanesia, and only a short sketch can be attempted here. Among its native teachers Charles Sapibuana stands out prominently. He was only twelve years old when he was brought up by Bishop Patteson to Kohimarama in 1866, where he formed a great friendship with Joe Wate of Saa, and the two were baptized on the same day, January 25, 1869, at Norfolk Island. He was confirmed in 1871, the last confirmation held by Bishop Patteson before his final voyage, and Charles as well as his friend Joe Wate were in the boat which went back from the ship at Nukapu and met the canoe containing the murdered body of the Bishop. Previous to this Charles had been in danger of lapsing into the heathen customs of his friends, when on his holiday; but this event made too [72/73] deep an impression on his mind for his faith ever to fail again, and during the following summer at Norfolk Island, he seems to have gone through a time of thorough self-examination. He wrote a letter to Dr. Codrington of confession and penitence, and from that time onwards walked humbly with his God, and worked earnestly for the furtherance of His Kingdom.

Mr. Penny says of him, "His power began to be felt at once; for from the first he set himself against what was wrong with quiet and unflinching determination. Of course he met with bitter and dangerous opposition, but he passed unhurt through all, though the threats of vengeance and plans to kill him might well have daunted a less determined man. The conversion of his brother and his brother's wife, who were baptized in 1878, was the first-fruit of his labour." And again, "Charles Sapibuana has gathered round him what will, under God's blessing, be eventually a Christian village. Thirty-four converts were presented by him for baptism. The order and discipline of the place, the attendance and behaviour at the services, and the knowledge of the school children show a mixture of perseverance, method and energy on his part which cannot be too highly commended." In 1880 Charles and his wife went up to Norfolk Island for further instruction and were present at the consecration of the beautiful chapel of St. Barnabas, built in memory of Bishop Patteson. A more beautiful chapel is, I suppose, not to be found in the whole mission field. Its font, aisle and sanctuary pavement formed of Devonshire marble, the reredos of beautiful Italian carving and mosaic work, the east window lights filled with lovely stained glass. Even the ordinary steamer visitor comes out of the chapel impressed and solemnised, while to those of the mission it is at once a constant inspiration and a haven of exceeding peace; and the memory of it comes like a benediction to those who in distant islands are striving to live a life of worship with little of outward form to help.

[74] In the midst of all the rejoicing, even as the Bishop was leaving the newly consecrated chapel, news came of a terrible murder committed off the coast of Gela. A small man-o'-war schooner, the Sandfly, with a crew of thirty men was cruising along the coast, and one day Lieutenant Bower with a few men put off in a boat and landed on a small island with the purpose of bathing. Unfortunately for them Kalekona, a chief of Gaeta, was just then in need of a head with which to wipe out an affront, and his son Vuria with four other men, seeing the boat leave the ship, followed them and, creeping through the bush, attacked the little party, all unsuspicious of any danger and quite defenceless, having left all arms in the boat. Afterwards Vuria gave an account of what happened. "We landed on the other side of the point just as the sun was setting, and we crept through the bush till we could see the sailors on the beach. Three were bathing, one was cooking, and the Captain was standing over there drawing in a book. We waited till we thought the right time had come and then Holabosa gave the sign and we all rushed out. We fell on the men with our tomahawks. Their guns were in the boat and on the sand; but we were between them and the guns; and they had no time to take them up. One sailor and the Captain ran along the beach; we cut down the three who stayed, though one sailor seized a boat-stretcher and fought hard. Presently Utamate and Tavu came back, saying that the Captain had turned on Utamate with his fists, on which he ran back and the sailor had escaped from Tavu by running into the thick bush where we dared not follow. Then we cut off the heads of the three men we had killed." The sailor eventually escaped, meeting a returned labourer, Peter, who took him to another chief at enmity just then with Kalekona, and through Peter's influence his life was saved. But poor Lieutenant Bower, after trying all night to launch the boat, as was seen by the footsteps in the sand next day, and finding it impossible single-handed, [74/75] took refuge in a banyan tree, where he was shot next morning with one of his own rifles; his skull was afterwards found in Kalekona's house.

The following year H.M.S. Cormorant was sent out to punish the murderers, and, after investigation, Captain Bruce sent a message to Kalekona saying that if he would surrender the five men, of whom one was his own son Vuria, the matter would be considered as settled. The Bishop interviewed Kalekona, who naturally found it difficult to make up his mind on the matter, but finally he himself went on board and gave up his son with the skull of Lieutenant Bower and the other properties. It must have been a wonderful scene. The stately figure marching through the double line of white men drawn up on deck, not a muscle of his face betraying any fear, and bearing in his hand the ghastly token of his people's crime. Even with that to remind them of the dastardly deed, the spectators must have admired the courage which brought the chief alone and unarmed into the midst of his enemies, trusting to the Captain's word. It ended in the chief murderer, Utamate, being executed on the beach in the presence of all the people. It was a terrible incident, but it led to the Bishop's getting a firmer hold on Gela, and the door was opened wider for the entrance of the Gospel.

In 1882 Charles Sapi was ordained deacon on Gela, Mr. Penny presenting him to the Bishop. "Few," says the Bishop, "certainly in modern times, have been ordained so completely in the midst of their work, and with the proof of their fitness around them as he was. For almost everything we saw or heard had their origin, or its adaptation and improvement from him. He had gathered together the people by whom he was surrounded, and had mainly taught them: he had kept them together by his influence and example: he had trained the voices which sang over him as he knelt before the laying on of hands; and he had done this in spite of opposition and even of threats of violence. [75/76] It was therefore with a glad heart that I committed him to the work of the ministry."

Meantime a change had gradually been taking place in the heart of Kalekona; the blood shed on the little Island of Madoliana had not been shed in vain. At Hogo, near the scene of the murder, two schools were established, and Kalekona, though not as yet himself under instruction, called the people together and proposed that they should destroy their "tidalos." It was a tremendous step to take, to deliberately reject and destroy all that they and their fathers had held sacred, to cast off the old protective influences and to stand for the moment helpless and forsaken. But the deed was done, the images and relics were cast into the sea and the way made clear for the coming of the true King. One regrets to add that Kalekona could not find it in his heart to part with his own special tidalo, which no one else had ever seen, it having always been kept in a secret place, where the chiefs visited it to ask for protection before starting on any expedition. Later on, however, he gave it to Mr. Penny: it was a stone of the size of a lemon, carved into a human head. But this was after he had begun to come for instruction to Charles Sapi along with many others. Shortly after Kalekona died, and there was a fear that the usual bloodshed would take place, but, possibly owing to Charles's influence, no death or quarrel occurred. The last year of Charles's life was eventful in the conversion of the Hogo people, those persistent enemies of the Gaeta district. It was a teacher from Gaeta who was sent by Charles to instruct them, while the chief Tabukoro himself went to Gaeta to be taught by Charles. It was indeed a miracle of Divine grace which brought the wild, red-handed chief to sit at the feet of the Christian teacher, giving up the source of his illgotten gain to apply for the Heavenly Treasure. That same year Charles Sapi went up to Norfolk Island to be ordained priest and also for a much needed rest; but on their arrival they found an epidemic of influenza [76/77] raging, to which Charles succumbed. In his weakened state he had no reserve of strength with which to fight the illness, and so passed into more perfect rest than that which his friends could procure for him.

In that same year Florida lost the man who had led them to the knowledge of their Father, for after eleven years of untiring work Mr. Penny returned to England. It was Mr. Plant who carried back to the people the news of Charles Sapi's death, and for six years he too worked in Gela till the same illness that had carried off Charles attacked him also, in England, where he had gone to recruit, and with the like weakened strength he succumbed and died. Meanwhile two native teachers, Reuben Bula and Alfred Lobu, now respectively deacon and priest, were doing good work. Both are still alive, the excellent Reuben Bula labouring faithfully in his district, though now much enfeebled by ill health. Alfred Lobu dates back from early days, and was a friend of Charles Sapi. He has done grand work in the past, but in his old age he has become more indolent and a love of money has hindered his spiritual growth. Yet he has had, and still has a wide influence.

Nor did Charles Sapi's work end with his death, for the staff of teachers he had trained went out to build up the Church in other outstanding villages. His latest scholar, the chief, Tabukoro, of Hogo, was baptized in 1891, taking the name of David, and, like his namesake, doing his best to rule well and in the fear of God. He died greatly honoured and lamented. A large cross of stone and an enclosed tomb of concrete work marks his resting-place, and to this day the natives passing by the spot take off their hats to the great dead chief. Alas! that they should possess hats to remove; but the returned labourers have set the fashion, and it is comparatively rare now to meet a native of any distinction bareheaded.

In contrast to David Tabukoro and Kalekona stands out the figure of another chief, Takua. He seemed at [77/78] one time favourable to the new teaching, and when one of his wives died he forbade the usual wailing on hearing that it was not the Christian custom. But he did not follow on, and presently got into serious disgrace. A party from Mala had taken refuge with Takua and were living under his protection, which did not prevent Takua from setting his desire on the young wife of one of the refugees. The girl made all the resistance she could, for apart from the fact that she had a husband already, her new suitor was an old man with many wives. At the height of her misery Mr. Plant happened to pay a visit to Takua and found him composedly chewing betel-nut quite regardless of the girl's hysterical tears. Mr. Plant, on asking what was the matter, was told that she had been bitten by a centipede, and had to accept the explanation, though somewhat sceptical. Later on he heard the tragic sequel. The girl obtained leave to go inland to see her friends, and when her leave was up she climbed up a bread-fruit tree and throwing herself down from thence was killed. Her friends took revenge, destroying Takua's house and threatening to kill him, which gave Mr. Plant an excuse for interfering. He found the Mala people all assembled and their blood hot, and it was only after great difficulty that Mr. Plant succeeded in inducing them to accept a heavy blood fine, and it was arranged that they should leave Takua and settle in another village. On being told the terms Takua replied, "What can I do? If I try to withstand you I must leave the country;" and so paid the money. Good came out of evil, for the Mala children attended school in their new home, and the chief lent his ear to the Christian teaching. But old Takua's end was dishonoured and lonely: uncared for save by his wives his life went out in darkness.

In 1889 Bishop Selwyn had found the work marvellously blessed. There were 1,085 children to examine, and the result highly creditable to the teachers. There were large churches to be seen everywhere, and the services reverent with very sweet singing. The Gela [78/79] singing is remarkable both for its sweetness of tone, and for the fact that the women always lead. It has a singular effect; the women's voices pitched in a key too high for an English voice to attain, and the men's voices joining in at the second line. Singular, yet not without its charm.

The great event of this visit was the assembling of the Vaukolu or native Parliament. A thousand Christian members gathered there, and chiefs once at deadly feud now met to discuss questions of peace concerning the general good. Among other questions discussed at these Parliaments has been the price of wives, which. was so high as to prevent any but the rich from affording themselves the luxury of matrimony, strings of native money to the value of £80 having been the price demanded in some instances. It was proposed and carried that thirty strings should be the price except in the case of a chief's daughter, when fifty strings might be asked. Female suffragettes being unknown the measure was passed with little if any opposition, but the women, who were gathered in a neighbouring building and no doubt heard what was passing, were exceedingly indignant and would not shake hands with the Bishop, who they considered was at the bottom of it all.

In 1906 resolutions were passed forbidding the tattooing of girls, a barbarous custom which is carried out at great torture to the victims, who were kept awake for one or two nights beforehand that they might sleep from sheer exhaustion when the operation was over. Severe penalties were enforced also against infanticide, which was still prevalent. The Gela women do very hard work in the gardens and are loth to add to this already heavy burden.

At Hogo John Pegone has built a very beautiful church, and also a house for himself in English style; it is raised from the ground and consists of two rooms; in the sitting-room is a table and chair, at which he writes. Hung up against the wall are his surplice and stole carefully covered by a curtain, pictures are on [79/80] the walls, and both rooms are scrupulously clean and free from dust. Yet only thirty years ago the village was completely heathen with the slave-hunting ferocious Tabukoro for its chief; John's own father red-handed with human blood, within sight of the shore where Lieutenant Bower and his men were fighting desperately and vainly with the head-hunters from Gaeta. The change in the lives of the natives is well described by Mr. Penny. "We heard some men disputing about the new teaching, and one said, 'While I believed in tidalos I was like a woman carrying a load. I had to look where I trod; now I go where I like and I am as light as a dead leaf.'"

Gela having thus become the centre of light in the Solomons, it was thought very desirable to start a central school there, and Mr. Comins after much search for a desirable site found what seemed to be one at Siota, which was bought by the mission. A school was built and much labour and money expended on it by Mr. Comins and great hopes were entertained of the work that might be done there, not only as a school, but as a centre where the teachers might gather for instruction, and the white men come for rest. Mr. Browning was then in charge of Gela, and more than once benefited by a stay at Siota. Mr. Wilson in his short sketch of Dr. Welchman's life tells the short history and fate of the school.

"In 1895 the house at Siota was built by Archdeacon Comins on land bought by him, and Dr. Welchman transferred his energies to the development of the preparatory school there in co-operation with the Archdeacon. On the 30th July, 1896, he married Miss Helen C. Rossiter, who had for long been a worker in the mission at Norfolk Island. They two went down to live at Siota towards the end of that year, where she died on the 12th January of the following year, to his great grief. He never returned to live in Norfolk Island after this, and there is but little doubt that his heart's desire was to be laid to rest in the islands as [80/81] his wife had been. During the four following years he carried on his work at Bugotu ever endeavouring to extend Christ's Kingdom further to the west, while during the summer months he relieved Archdeacon Comins at Siota. A severe epidemic of dysentery broke out at the end of February 1898 at Siota, owing to a boy from Sibo having been brought there for treatment, who was suffering from it. It was a most anxious time for the Doctor, as out of sixty-two natives, forty were attacked, and there were eleven victims to the disease, including David Margay, a valued teacher. He himself was taken ill last of all just before the ship came. It broke out again, though not so virulently, in the autumn of the same year.

"Close to the house at Siota was a large swamp which had to be dealt with in order to lessen malarial fever in the school. It was vigorously attacked by Archdeacon Comins, backed up by Dr. Welchman. With great labour the bush was cleared away and the hills on each side were dug into, and, by means of pickaxes, shovels, dynamite, wheelbarrows and trollies run on lines, vast quantities of soil and rock were thrown into the swamp and a large area covered over. But Siota had got a bad name among the parents in the Solomons and they would not send their children there to school, so the place had to be abandoned just as it was being made a healthy spot. Those to whose happy lot it fell to work at Siota when it flourished as a school, do not care to visit the spot now, it is altogether too sad--that little hill with here and there an old post still standing out of the ground, a stone sunk fence, or here and there a tree foreign to the district. For a few years it was full of active life, but it seems now only a dream, and the cemetery alone remains a reality, where missionary's wife, traders and natives, baptized and unbaptized await the Resurrection of the Dead."

Siota must count among the failures of the mission; yet not wholly a failure surely, since who can say what good may not have come through the teaching [81/82] and the example given in those five years? Although frustrated for a time the idea of a school for the Solomons was not abandoned; for experience had proved that it supplied a real need, and so, when the tiny island of Bunana just off the coast of Gela became purchasable, it was bought by the mission, seeing that it was a healthy spot with no swamp and exposed to every breeze. At the present moment it has been cleared and made ready by Bugotu workmen under the supervision of Mr. Wilson, whose experience on Norfolk Island, San Cristoval and Siota is of great value in establishing this latest school. A little chapel and houses are springing up, and a large space has been cleared and crops planted ready for the hungry newcomers in October.

The white man's house which contains the school room was put up by Mr. Allen Christian of Norfolk Island assisted by his son. Mr. Christian has put up nearly every house on the islands and may well look back on his labours with satisfaction. It may naturally be asked why Bugotu men are employed rather than Gela workmen, who are close at hand. The answer is that Bugotu men are by far the best workmen in the Solomons; the Gela man works by fits and starts with a constitutional dislike to steady continuous labour, though for a short spell he will do splendidly.

English is the language taught the boys at Bunana, for the Solomon Islands are rapidly becoming the white man's land, and it is important for the natives' own interest that they should know the language of their invaders. Mr. Wilson's sister is with him, and it is hoped that a native teacher and his wife may be found willing to settle at Bunana. The wife will be the difficulty probably, as she will naturally miss the village life and the gossip of her kind and will find the society of a white woman a very dull exchange. There are projects also for a hospital, and Bunana will also probably be the site for the Selwyn memorial church.

Project Canterbury