Project Canterbury

The Wake of the Southern Cross
Work and Adventures in the South Seas

By Cecil Wilson, D.D.
Bishop of Bunbury; sometime Bishop of Melanesia.

London: John Murray, [1932]

Chapter VII. Solomon Islands--San Cristoval

Two hundred and fifty miles west of Santa Cruz lies San Cristoval, eleven degrees south of the equator, and the southernmost of the Solomon Group. A Spanish expedition from Callao in Peru, at the command of Philip II., and under the command of his nephew Mendana, discovered this island and the whole of the Solomons in the year 1566, and declared, as later they declared of Santa Cruz, that King Solomon had found his gold there. Exactly forty years later the Spaniards tried to find San Cristoval again, with the intention of founding a colony there, but they missed it and discovered Santa Cruz instead, which lies on the same degree of latitude away to the east.

On my first voyage in 1894 the trade wind died down, and we had to take to steam, doing not more than one and a half knots all night. The spanker flapped and shook the ship, giving one bad dreams of rocks and reefs. The Solomons stretch far away to the north, and are the most populous islands of Melanesia. They are far the largest in size too, averaging a hundred and thirty miles in length, and the most lofty, Guadalcanar, having mountains 8,000 feet high, on which the rainfall is said to be 500 inches.

[150] We were the only Mission in the Solomons, for Roman Catholics and others came much later. Christianity had taken a firm hold on Florida (Gela), where we had twenty-eight schools and about three thousand Christian natives out of five thousand all told; but outside that island in all the Solomons we had only twenty-two schools and about fifteen hundred baptised Christians. Altogether about six thousand people attended fifty schools in the Solomons.

At Ugi Island, which lies near-by San Cristoval, I met the Governor of Fiji, Sir John Thurston, on board H.M.S. Penguin. He was also High Commissioner of the Western Pacific, a little bearded man with a keen eye who knew more about these islands than anyone. He began very kindly by putting himself "unreservedly" at my disposal, because I had entered upon "a most difficult post." He had wished we would take Fiji into the Diocese, and spread the Fiji language throughout all the islands. Patteson, whom he had seen ten days before he was killed, had been willing, he said, to do so; but John Selwyn had objected, on the ground that it would complicate matters with the Wesleyans, in whose sphere, under the existing comity of Missions, Fiji lay. We had no school at that time on Ugi, and Fred Howard, the late trader, had been killed shortly before by a band of men from Malaita. A new trader had come, who was telling the natives that if they had a school it would make them all sick.

The island of San Cristoval is about a hundred [150/151] miles long, and rises to 4,000 feet above the sea; it is, like all the islands, covered with trees and tropical undergrowth. Bishop Patteson had established the Mission at a place on the northern end of it. At the time of my first visit we had three schools on the island, and these were not very bright spots, unless you looked at them against the darkness of the all-prevailing heathenism which formed their background. At one of them, Taki, a friend of the Christian chief of Wango, told me how many men he had killed as a heathen, and how many he had saved since he had joined the school. He was a friendly old fellow, and expressed it by saying, "You all same along me because Taki very good man." He was a great friend of any naval captains who called, and would give them information and help in various ways for the capture of wrongdoers. After the Protectorate of the Solomons was proclaimed in 1894 by what was commonly called the "Queen's letter," he used to wrap himself up in a Union Jack whenever a ship was sighted.

During my years in Melanesia we formed a strong station on the lee side--the west--at Pamua, and had a line of school villages to the north and south of it.

Custom and fashion are hard masters in San Cristoval. One sees very few children in the heathen villages along the shore, because the women kill them by pressure before birth, or give them to the old women to fill their mouths with mud and choke them, directly after birth. They do this [151/152] because it is the women who are made to do all the garden work, and they will not add to their labours the carrying of children to and fro. I was told that there was another reason--that the women wished to preserve their figures. The only children on the island were either stolen from the bush people or bought from them. Mr. Comins, who had been priest on the island before my time, saved the life of one new-born baby from three old women who were going to stuff its mouth with mud, and who were much amused when he asked them for it; they gave the child to him at once, glad to be saved the trouble of killing it. That baby became one of our best teachers in San Cristoval.

The chiefs of these San Cristoval villages arrayed themselves in mariners' cast-off coats and bowler hats, but had no covering for their legs. Old Dodomani--who had opposed the opening of the school in a village and set off to burn it, but had fainted by the way and taken his sudden collapse as a judgment--would appear in a white wide-awake hat and a red-and-white check coat. The school-people wore a cloth about their loins, but the visitors from the bush had nothing on at all. One woman who joined the school was given a piece of cloth, and she came to church with it under her arm, because she said she was too shy to wear it.

Nearly all the boys are tattooed at an early age. A sharpened bone from the wing of a bat is the instrument used. The child is firmly held, and the point drawn with some pressure over the skin. The [152/153] pain, of course, is great. When one side of the face is finished, drums are beaten to announce the fact to all around. Then over the nose a bird's wings are pricked out, and the drums are again beaten. Lines to represent a red sky are made over his eyes, and the fruit of the salite tree between the eye and the ears; the cheeks are then covered with three rows of birds' wings, with supposed clouds between the rows. When the work on the other side of the face begins the drums are again beaten, and the women come and give money and presents to the boy's father and to the artist. When the operation, which takes a whole day, is finished, the face is mopped, but most of the blood is allowed to dry on it. On the next day it is terribly swollen, but two or three days afterwards the boy is out of pain. There is no colouring matter rubbed into the wounds.

Dogs also are much to be pitied. They are bred for their teeth, two of which in every dog are worth sixpence. They are used, too, for hunting pigs. The poor creatures are so thin that their ribs stand out, and one I remember seeing so emaciated that light was visible through the lower part of its belly. They used to come into my house at night and steal any food that I had not put away. Their coats were mangy and their ears long. At times all the dogs in the village howl together, perhaps as a protest against the way they are treated. If one by some accident grows fat it is promptly killed and eaten, but that seldom happens. In heathen villages, when their teeth are wanted for money, they are [153/154] buried up to the neck in sand, and a hot fruit put into their mouths to make them draw back their lips; at that moment the two teeth are knocked out. In school villages the men are more merciful and allow the dogs to die first.

The only way by which one can come to know people is by living amongst them. After visiting England for the Lambeth Conference in 1908, I decided to spend some time in San Cristoval, and, as is often the case after a change in a cool climate, I was suffering from a bad attack of malaria on the Southern Cross at the moment that we reached the place where I was to go ashore. Simon Qalges, a native deacon, whose home was in the Banks Islands, but who was breaking fresh ground for us here, was alongside the ship in his very leaky boat. I could not disappoint him, however ill I felt, and so I bundled my goods for a month's stay into a boat and went ashore.

The village consisted of only a house or two, because the people still lived in the bush. A small hut for canoes was near the shore, and in it I was to sleep. Unfortunately it was in a swamp, and after tea there James Faiato, the teacher, told me that the stones on the floor marked the grave of a great chief who had died two years before. James's trouble now was that the present chief, who was a sick man, had asked him to come and make a school, but that his sickness was continuing in spite of the school; and, further, the chief must, to conform with native customs, make a feast within the next two [154/155] years in honour of his predecessor, and offer a sacrifice. He would not offer it, he promised, in the village, but in the bush; and not he, but his young men, would make the feast, though if they came and took his pigs and nuts for it, he would let them. I advised James to have patience, and possibly before the end of the two years the chief might believe in God so truly as not to want to sacrifice to the snake-god. James thought the chief should give up his heathenism at once in return for himself having come and made the school; the chief considered that if James stayed there he might possibly do that, but was not sure.

The next paragraph I hesitate to write, because possibly I ought to keep it to myself; yet it is a memory, and as I am writing my memories I perhaps should put it down. It was late when the two men left me alone in my house, on the mud floor in the swamp. The place was cold, and a miasma pervaded it. Soon I began to shake. and the ague made my teeth chatter. I had never had such an attack before. As I lay on my bed and shivered, the thought of St. Peter's wife's mother lying sick of a fever, and the Lord taking her by the hand, and how the fever left her, came into my mind. I prayed that He would heal me so, and I put myself consciously into His hands. The ague died away at once; my teeth ceased to chatter. Then I thought, not of Him, but of the narrative, and I began to shake again. Then I tried to realise Himself again, and imagined His hand in mine. Again the fever [155/156] died away. Then I began to consider how a serious illness would prevent me from doing my work in this island, and what a pity it would be: the fever came back again. It passed away completely when I resigned myself into His hands, and it did not return. I slept, and on the following morning, instead of being very weak, as one generally is after a bout of malaria, I was strong and perfectly well, and was able to walk on to the next village without any difficulty. This village, Rumatari, was a very pleasant little place, but a gale blew, and I was wind-bound for eight days there. I had quite a good little school-house to live in, and the men were glad to come into it in the evening and tell me some of their beliefs and customs.

One day the chief at Rumatari asked me to his house, and explained how news was spread by signalling. He had a hollow log for a drum, and two sticks were the rest of his signalling apparatus. In every village there are two or three men who know the code and can make signals and read them. Thus the latest news is telegraphed throughout the district, or possibly throughout the whole island. When a new canoe-house is to be opened and a feast made, the drum of that village thuds out to all and sundry something like this: "Tomorrow the feast will take place; come to it, but behave well--no quarrelling." Then the names of all the villages invited are hammered out, and they are told that there will be yams, taro, pigs and other food dealt out to all who come. Or, the approach of an enemy [156/157] is announced, and all round are told not to imagine that all is well; the enemy is at hand; bring spears and shields, and help to drive them off. Or, the village has been attacked; the drum then tells it out in tragic beats.

James Faiato, of course, knew all about death-feasts. Four were made for a chief; the first, when the body was washed a few days after death. For this a man's life had to be taken. and no one washed until that had been done. At this feast unscraped yams and other unpalatable food was eaten. The second feast celebrated the taking of the dead man's head and jaw out of the grave, and setting it up in the canoe-house over the grave, just under the roof. A long fast would follow, lasting for months, during which the people totally abstained, some from yams, others from tomago and various kinds of food. To the third feast men of other villages, who had also been fasting, were invited to come. Possibly four years or so later they would carve an image on a post of the canoe-house and call it after the dead man. A little house was then made for the skull, and the most important people offered their sacrifice before it. The fourth feast followed. James said that after killing the man and washing the chief's body, sorrow was altogether put away, and people began to laugh again, but they did not dance until the fourth feast. When the head was taken up people were sad and talked of him, and of how he used to feed them. At the last feast a large bowl of pudding, with a pig set on the top of it, was placed [157/158] at the foot of his carved post for those men to eat who had borne his body to the grave.

Sometimes there is a desire to remember all the great men who have died, and a new canoe-house is put up to their memory. Then all the posts are carved with their different faces, and called after them. The house in the swamp in which I had slept was like that. The ghosts of the dead great ones are supposed to protect those still living, and sacrifices are offered to them. When yams are ripening, one is tied to a shelf overhead, upon which the head of some great man lies, and he is supposed to look after the whole crop. At the northern end of the island the bodies of ordinary men, and probably of all women, are thrown at death into the sea. At the southern end the chiefs are buried, but their heads are exposed in carved wooden sharks; whilst the bodies of common men are thrown into the sea or exposed on rocks and up trees.

The souls of the dead are thought to go to the little islands which they call Malau (The Three Sisters Islands). People visiting these say they see footprints on the sand. If they are near the sea it is a sign that someone by the sea will die in San Cristo-val; if seen near the trees, that someone in the bush will die. At times they actually see the soul of a man who they know is still alive. When they next meet him they tell him what they saw on Malau, and soon afterwards he dies. It is not supposed that the souls of the dead live on for ever; after a while they go into a small cave and disappear, and that is their end.

[159] The great spirit in whom probably everyone in San Cristoval believes has the form of a snake. I heard three different names for him--Kaaraha, Kahuahuarii, and Kahasubwari, names which remind one of the great Kaa in Kipling's Jungle Book. Serpent worship is a very old form of primitive religion, and very widespread. Moses' brazen serpent was broken up because the Israelites were worshipping it; amongst the Greeks and Romans there were traces of it; Zulus and Red Indians are still addicted to it; and here in this island the worship of the snake was in full force. At Ngorangora village the old chief told me the common belief was that the first male came from a coco-nut, the two blind "eyes" becoming the man's eyes, and the eye that one pierces, his mouth. A man who had become a snake gave birth to the first woman. The snake coiled itself round the child to which he had given birth, and the first man, seeing the child in danger, chopped the snake to pieces. The pieces kept on joining up again, but the snake, tiring of the treatment, left the island and settled in Gela or Malaita. Finding that San Cristoval could still be seen from there, it retired to the high mountains of Guadalcanar, where San Cristoval was out of sight. However, everyone says it really lives at Haununu, a village on the other side of San Cristoval. Every year when the nuts ripen word is sent from Haununu that sacrifices to Kaaraha are to be offered. Earth brought from Haununu is kept in every canoe-house on a shelf under the roof, and a piece of pudding is burnt under it by one who knows [159/160] the right words to use. On the succeeding days the rest of the pudding is eaten by the people, the men eating it on the second day, and the women what remains on the third. The canoe-house is decorated for the occasion, the decorations being afterwards thrown into the sea at some spot which thereby becomes sacred, and the shore near-by is planted with crotons and flowering plants.

Belief in the snake was gradually waning, but, in addition, everyone had various ghosts to whom they sacrificed, some supposed to have more power than others. Two years before I stayed in the island a report went abroad that Kaaraha had left Haununu and gone to the big bay near Rumatari. The people of Haununu tried to persuade it to return, but it had completely disappeared. At the time the school was opened at Ngorangora there was a large stone in the village sacred to it. Hugo Silter, the teacher (a Banks Islander), began his work by throwing the stone into the sea, and as nothing happened the new religion took the place of the old.

I only once visited Haununu, and that was with a trader named Captain Svensen, who took me there on one of his trading excursions. His reputation amongst the natives was so high that it helped me immensely to go there in his company, and the people were much impressed when he advised them to build a school and have a teacher. But all my time in Melanesia this village remained the sacred village of the snake worshippers.

Captain Svensen was known to all the natives in [160/161] the Solomons under the name of "Captain Marau," because his head station was at Marau Sound in Guadalcanar. He was a great friend to us, and because he treated the natives fairly they all liked him and would sell him their copra, or land for plantation purposes, wherever he wished to buy it. After nineteen years in the Solomons he left with a fortune, and built a home for himself in Brisbane, overlooking the spot where once he used to run a ferry-boat across the river. There was a story told of him that whilst he was away from Marau Sound another trader, known as "Jack," settled there and persuaded the people to sell their copra only to him. Svensen, returning after a long absence, heard from the natives he was to have none of their trade; they had promised to sell it only to Jack. Svensen said to them: "What for? Jack he no good." They replied:" No, Jack he good fellow." "Very good," said Svensen, taking ten sovereigns out of his pocket and showing them to the men. "You look him, you look him," and he threw them into the sea. "Now you talk along Jack. You tell him to throw money all same along sea." They did talk to Jack, and he declined to do the same. Svensen thereupon got all the trade back, and Jack had to go away.

In San Cristoval, if a man is accused of stealing pigs or other crime, he offers to be tried by ordeal to clear himself from suspicion. The ordeals are very severe, but if the alternative is death he prefers to go through one. First, the man's protecting ghost is invoked. Then a stone is heated red-hot. He [161/162] lifts it in his two hands over his head, drops it and catches it, and lifts it again. Yet once again he does it, and if then his hands are not burnt he is considered innocent. Or, a hot stone is put on a wide leaf, and leaf litter thrown on it; if the litter burns he is guilty. Or, he eats a burning gum-torch; if his mouth is burnt he is guilty. Or, a pile of dry coco-nut leaves some feet high is made, with a pole passed through it a little above the ground for him to walk on, and another pole above for his hands to hold. The leaves are lighted, and the man passes through the fire. If his legs are burnt he is guilty. Or, he may elect to swim through water full of sharks or crocodiles; if they divide out and let him go through, he is innocent. There are other ordeals, such as eating lime without leaves to cool it. It is hard to conceive of any man ever coming through and establishing his innocence.

Coasting along in my boat, I visited school villages one after another both in Ugi and in San Cristoval. The best of them in the latter island was Heuru, where there were about seventy children in the school. Had it been a heathen village there would have been but two or three, and those not born in the village, but bought from the bushmen, for, as I have said, the custom of the island was to kill their babies. An abundance of children is always the mark of Christianity in this island. Most attractive they are, too, with their hair shaved off except for four or five tufts, reminding one of a French poodle-dog. Old David Bo, chief of Heuru, had replaced [162/163] the pigs, which generally roam every village and sleep with the people at night, by real live children. Also, the pigs having been got rid of, the gardens, instead of being three or four miles away, had been brought close to the village. Notwithstanding the well-being of Heuru, however, there was trouble. When I arrived one evening from Ugi soon after dark, not a light was to be seen. We could not find our way to the landing, and so lay out in the Bay and hallooed, and when that failed, lit the lantern. No cry answered us and no light appeared; the village seemed dead. We felt our way in and landed. Almost at once we met the teacher, Sam Gede, who had come down to the beach to reconnoitre. He said they were expecting a raid from Malaita, and had thought us to be the enemy. No time then was lost in getting our boat and belongings ashore, and we heard what the trouble was about. Probably our landing, although, of course, we were unarmed, gave a sense of security to our people and would deter the aggressors, for I heard no more of it during the days that I spent at Heuru. Yet their anxiety was justified.

Thirty or more years before, Lilimae of Bululaha, ten miles or so up the coast of Malaita, had taken a large party of men to the north end of San Cristoval to get heads. There they fell into an ambush and lost forty men, including Lilimae himself. His son stored up money for revenge, and now a younger Lilimae had it, and would give it to anyone who would take heads in this island, or in Ugi, or in [163/164] Ulawa. Thus all three places were living in expectation of a raid. The previous year a party from Atta Bay, at the further end of Malaita, tried for the prize, but lost men and killed none. They therefore added money to what Lilimae was holding. At the moment, in a small island near-by one party of Malaita head-hunters was lurking, and there was a second at Santa Anna, another small island to the south. The Government seemed to be incapable of stopping this kind of thing at the time.

We used to pay occasional visits to Santa Anna and to Santa Catalina, yet another small island to the south, and to Bellona and Rennell, a hundred miles to the south-west, but on these two latter islands we never did more than set foot. One who was with us on the ship in 1904, but was not allowed to go ashore, remembers how men emerged from the bush-covered hills in parties; how they ran forward over the beach and then hesitated; came on again when they saw that we were without weapons, and surrounded us. Whilst we communicated with them--without language, for none of them knew "English"--they remained on the alert and watchful; fine lean, tall men, innocent of clothing. We could get no boys there, and the women remained far back in the bush. We saw no weapons of war except short round-headed clubs. No other vessel but ours ever called, and the knowledge of tobacco had not reached them; we could not speak to them, and their only desire was to have knives from us. At Santa [164/165] Anna and Santa Catalina we had to some extent made friends, but had gone no further.

At Wango, in San Cristoval, where old John Taki was now chief--he whose killings in days gone by had been innumerable, and who was said to have purveyed human flesh along the shore in one of the Mission boats, which he had borrowed--I found a new church to consecrate. It always seemed queer to me to be living amongst people who so short a time before had been cannibals, and whose friends in the bush were so still. The teacher here was James Oha, once the baby whose mouth Comins had prevented from being filled with mud. The church was entirely native built, small but good, the outside of its west end painted red, white, and black, in a dog-tooth pattern. There were two doors, the one for men and the other for women, each with a large wooden cross on it. Inside the floor was carpeted with soft bark; there was an elaborately decorated font, very good book desks, all in native work, and cement altar steps. [At Fagani, a neighbouring village, the people set in the altar steps the red stone before which their sacrifices had been offered in bygone days, to signify the triumph of the Cross over heathenism.] A great feast was prepared on the Saturday, and on the Sunday morning I consecrated the church, a hundred and forty people marching round it with me in procession. Unfortunately a large tree had been cut down and left lying across our path, and this the procession had to climb over, jumping down on the other side. No one smiled, but an outsider would have seen [165/166] something a little ludicrous in our springing one after another with white surplices or flying robes from a height to join again the surpliced choir; but Melanesians are in deadly earnest over all church services, and the strangest accidents may happen without provoking mirth. I have, for instance, taken my seat at a Confirmation on a kerosene box turned upside down and covered with red cloth, and found it so rotten that I went right through it, but no one looked surprised. I remember, too, how one of our white clergy, when preaching on the power of God at all times to protect us, felt the shock of an earthquake, and saw lime spring from the walls and fill the church with white dust, and next moment realised he was outside the church. Recovering his courage, he re-entered, and found his congregation intact and waiting for him.

These simple people have a wonderful faith, and they are well worth working for. There have been some excellent priests on San Cristoval: R. P. Wilson, who was here for many years, to whom the Mission owes the head station of Pamua; H. J. Nind, who is still in the Mission; Harry Drew, who died of dysentery; and Dr. Fox, now living in Ugi, who for many years has been turning cannibals into Christians, and on his long tramps through the bush in native dress, living on native food, has learnt a variety of dialects for which the learned men in Europe already thank him.

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