Project Canterbury

The Isles That Wait

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1911.


THE episcopate of Bishop Wilson will always be remembered as having seen the beginning of women's work in the islands. As long ago as 1890 Mr. Plant had seen the need and wrote, "I feel more and more convinced that something further must be done for the female population of Gela; for it is without doubt that in many cases hitherto they have been active elements for evil. Time and circumstances naturally preclude me from doing much to help them, and I can only hope that some means may be devised whereby greater numbers may be brought under the influence of the Norfolk Island ladies." But curious as it may seem, the idea was carried out in the face of strong opposition. One worker even went the length of saying that if women came into his district he would turn out! No doubt it was partly fear for the women's safety; more, perhaps, because it was a new departure. A wise minority, however, realised that so long as Nature's laws remain unaltered, women have at least an equal share with men in the making and rearing of the next generation; possibly, too, their own experience taught them that their influence is equally great for good or for ill on their own generation. Therefore a mission which only educates the men cannot be said to be doing its work thoroughly. The women could not all be taken to Norfolk Island, and, if they could, the life of the girls is necessarily more artificial there than that of the boys, and therefore not so wholly desirable. The only solution seemed to be for white women to go down and live in the islands, so that the native women and girls need not be taken [121/122] away from their natural surroundings and outdoor life and work, which fits them so admirably for wifehood and motherhood; and yet might learn how much higher a position is that wifehood and motherhood, than they had yet dreamt of, how great its privileges, and how tremendous its responsibilities. Up to that time the rearing of children had been looked upon as a burden to be shirked without misgiving or regret. Tenderly must the angels have carried the souls of those innocent babies, buried alive by their inhuman parents, heedless of their cries, to a land where they would find the loving care denied to them on earth.

Mention has already been made of Mrs. Welchman, whose work was so soon cut short by death in 1897. At last in 1905 the two first women workers, Miss Kitchen and Miss Hardacre, went down to Gela. The following year Miss Hardacre and Miss Hawkes opened a station on Raga, and in 1909 Miss Hawkes and Miss Tench settled in the Banks, dividing their time between Mota and Motalava.

The results have justified the wisdom of the venture, and experience seems to show that it is wiser to have two centres and to spend part of the year in one and part in the other, besides taking a short yearly tour into the distant villages, thus coming into touch with a greater number of women. There need have been no fear as to the treatment they would receive from the native men. There is a great latent chivalry in the Melanesian nature, and the white women have found in the men their most staunch helpers and friends.

It is not altogether easy work; the ground is so fallow, and generations of inferiority have rendered the women's brains very obtuse; on the other hand it makes the work all the more interesting. A group of women come perhaps for the first time to school and sit looking at the teacher with dull impassive faces. Their eyes, so quick to discern all that belongs to their outdoor life, fail to see any distinction between "m" and "n"; their fingers, so nimble in weaving mats [122/123] and baskets, find the wielding of needle or pencil well-nigh impossible; their brains seem incapable of retaining the simplest fact. Come again in twelve months' time and look for that group; you will not be able to identify them. The dull faces have lit up, the fingers have learned to grasp a pencil and needle with some skill, as the words on the slate and the finished workbag will show you, the latter now containing a skirt already begun by its proud owner. The facts retained, as yet, may not be many, but one at least has been laid hold of, that, beyond this life of labour and pain, there lies a bright and happy future. To see their eyes grow soft and glisten as they hear of Paradise and the life beyond the grave is one of those many rewards granted to the teacher to cheer her in her sometimes discouraging work.

In the island schools teacher and students alike have to reckon with an element of disturbance which does not occur in our schools and universities at home--to wit, the infant contingent. In Melanesia the nursery is a perambulating one, namely, the mother's back; therefore as the nursery attends school the baby perforce attends too. Now Melanesian babies are a most conservative race and regard this new school fad with abhorrence. The Bible class they just tolerate, because it requires no physical activity on the mother's part; but when slates and pencils are produced their remonstrance is loud and prolonged. They pounce on the pencil, they snatch at the slate, they fling themselves about, they refuse to be laid on the ground, until absolutely exhausted by their emotion; frequently they have to be borne off the scene when the shrieks become too ear-piercing even for the mother to endure. Yet in spite of this the women make progress, learn to write neatly and even to take down dictation, while some of them sew really beautifully, far better than many a white girl. Slowly but surely also the effect of their education is seen in the greater cleanliness of their persons, and the intelligent brightness of their faces. [123/124] Something has come into their lives unknown before, to raise, to brighten and to purify.

But it is through the women teachers that the chief work must be done. To train and help them as far as possible by separate classes and by every encouragement to make them feel the honour and responsibility of their position; and many of them are doing excellent work, setting a good example in their home life and helping to raise the tone of their village. One of them, who went up with her husband to Norfolk Island to get "brushed up," was pathetically anxious to learn all she could in the six months and was overjoyed when the six months were extended to a year. "I want to learn more of the Book," she said, "I don't want to go back like E----- who knew no more than when she came; I want to be enlightened that I may be better able to teach when I go back."

Of course different islands require different methods; what is suitable in one island would be quite unsuitable in another. In Raga it is a case of laying the foundations, for a large proportion are not yet baptized. One woman, whose brother and sister were both Christians, hung back for long, neither coming to school nor prayers. At last her sister confided to the missionary that what kept her back was the fear of being divided from her little dead child to whom she was passionately attached. The clue thus given, it was not difficult to lead the conversation on the next visit to the subject of the departed, any to try and show how the love between mother and child is God given, and the bond only strengthened and made eternal, when linked to the chain of the greater love of Christ, that chain which binds us all together and keeps us safe. Nothing more was said, but the following Sunday Metalaidede was seen making her way to school, and from that day she rarely missed either school or prayers and was baptized in due course by the name of Elizabeth.

On Mota, Motalava and Gela the work is slightly [124/125] different, seeing that all three islands have been Christian for some time. The work is no easier on that account. Miss Kitchen, writing from Gela says, "I think what has struck me most in living with these women is their indifference to spiritual things. They appear to think that religion is only for the men. They join in the singing in church, because they like it, but prayer and the sermon seem to receive little or no attention. Another striking thing is the hindrance they are to the men; they do not seem to think it their duty to help them. A teacher may be sent to another village, but nothing will induce his wife to accompany him, and the consequence is that he is half his time away from his school; and I am very much afraid it is the women who keep up all the old heathen customs; we hope to teach the rising generation better things." Yes, it is with the children and the younger girls that our best hopes lie; yet that the elder women are responsive has been proved over and over again.

One great aim of the women missionaries is to get the women to realise that they are members of a living working community, and that it is their duty and privilege to do something, however small, to help on the work. It is a little difficult at first to find the work, but a band of communicants have met together to make alms-bags for all the churches in the district, and, as they grow more skilful with their needles, they might well undertake to make some of the baptismal and confirmation dresses for which we are now dependent on kind friends at home.

The sight of unmarried women living independently was a source of great surprise at first, and frequent questions were asked, "Are you married?" "Have you been married?" "Are you going to be married?" But they soon accepted the fact that our ways are different to theirs, and a few, a very few sighed, or pretended to sigh over the happier conditions that enabled a woman to live an independent life if she [125/126] wished it. Some of the more inquiring spirits among the men put questions as to women's ways in a white country. "You say," said a young boy one day, "that the women in your land do none of the garden work, which seems to us a very bad custom; if then they have no garden work, what do they do every day? For a second the vision of bridge playing, pleasure loving blasé society women rose before the mind of the catechised, but rallying her forces she replied that white women cook and sew for their husbands, bring up their children, teach in the schools and nurse the sick, and with this list of occupations the catechist seemed satisfied.

What they cannot understand is that every family does not possess a garden large enough to supply them with food. When, in answer to further questioning, they heard that a few had very large ones and the majority none, they stared and said they supposed that those who had the large gardens gave food to those who had none. In fact our whole way of life is perplexing to them, the number of possessions we carry about with us, the quantity of plates we require for a meal, the vast extent of our wardrobe. It is impossible for them to think of us as otherwise than rolling in wealth, although to the eyes of a fellow countryman our possessions would seem of the fewest and simplest nature. Therefore it takes a little time before the people admit you into their confidence, your level seems too high and strange to them; but some common anxiety or sorrow breaks the last barrier down, and their confidence once gained the white woman may often learn facts of which the priest is ignorant, facts which may prove of considerable help to him.

It is worthy of notice that, although wife-beating forms part of the domestic routine in Melanesia, the Norfolk Island teacher rarely, if ever, beats his wife. It seems to be a recognised fact that she ought not to require, nor he to use, the stick. A conversation held [126/127] at a sewing class on one of the tours inland might be freely translated as follows. Teacher: "In England husbands do not beat their wives." Women: "Really? but you white women are different, they beat their wives with us." "What, does E-----'s husband beat her?" "Why, yes, I should just think so." "Does A-----'s husband beat her?" "Yes, rather." "But, C-----, your husband does not beat you surely?" C----- cheerfully: "Oh, yes! he beats me hard every day." "And G-----" (the teacher's wife), "does D----- beat her." Chorus: "Oh, no, of course D----- does not beat her." On one occasion a very sad thing occurred, for a man in a sudden passion, being provoked by his wife, struck at her with a stick and hit and killed the little baby she was carrying, the son, of whom the father had been so proud. Commenting on this, when sitting in the evening with a group of people, the teacher indignantly asked if such a thing were common. "You, Hugo, would you strike Bessie if she had the baby in her arms?" "Never," replied Hugo, with equal indignation," I should always take the baby away first and then beat Bessie!" When a wife finds her husband too trying she goes on a visit to the house of a friend. It is not at all a bad plan, for a few days' or a few weeks' absence enables each to appreciate the value of the other. Sometimes the woman returns of her own free will, sometimes the husband comes and fetches her, and the sky is serene again for a time.

Women's work in the islands is only beginning, and we cannot expect to see any great change as yet; but there is sufficient to make us take courage, and hope that, in the next generation or so, the ordinary Melanesian family life will be raised to the present level of the very few; and no happier home can well be imagined than that of a Christian Melanesian.

But in all Melanesia there are but three women's stations as yet, and other islands are calling out and asking why no white women come to them. Surely [127/128] there are some at home to answer to the call of their dark sisters? We do not need the woman of exceptional mental gifts; the crying need for such is found in India and Japan. We need rather the sensible, practical, good-all-round woman, able to teach and nurse and sew and cook and wash. Above all one who has had some training; training not only in practical things, but also in habits of devotion. In the islands a woman is bereft of all the outside helps to which she is accustomed. Giving out constantly, she has few opportunities of taking in, yet the need is greater than at home. Consequently it is to her quiet hour of devotion that she must look for a further supply; without it the best worker will grow dull and cold; yet the habit is not easy to attain without some training. An untrained worker will find the life far more difficult and herself of comparatively little use; but trained women are needed sorely. One thing is certain, that no one who answers the call to come out will ever regret it, but will rather be increasingly thankful every year for the privilege and happiness of working in this distant corner of God's vineyard.



Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, London and Bungay.

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