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 VIII. Solomon Islands--Gela

IN the very centre of the Eastern Solomons lies Florida, as the Spaniards named it, or Gela, as the people themselves call it. It was a strange thing to have a Christian island in the midst of others which were virulently heathen. I pictured it sending out its missionaries to the darker lands as Britain and Ireland used to send their Aidans and Columbas and Bonifaces to Picts and Scots and English and Germans in old days.

Like ourselves, the people of this island were great traders, and canoes came often to its shores from Guadalcanar and Malaita to buy pigs and food with their red shell-money. It is comparatively small, some thirty miles long, and divided into three by two channels, the Sandfly Passage and the Ututha, each about thirteen miles long.

Probably the natives had never been quite so bloodthirsty as some others of the Solomons, but they had been head-hunters like the rest. They had "cut out" many trading vessels and murdered the crews, and they had had the temerity to attack the sailors of H.M.S. Sandfly in 1880, the only case of an attack on a man-o'-war that I ever heard of in these islands. One of our best teachers was a man named William Kenda, and he helped in his [167/168] young days to "cut out" the trading schooner Dancing Wave, when she was lying at anchor at Olevuga, on the north end of the island.

Between the New Hebrides natives and these there is a very wide interval. The New Hebridean makes his canoes out of a hollowed log; these cut planks out of a tree, warp them in the sun, chop them with an adze into shape, and then sew the planks together with fibre, stuffing the seams with native glue. A high prow and stern are added and beautifully inlaid with mother-of-pearl. As no outrigger is needed, a canoe, driven along by from two to forty men, can travel at great speed in smooth water, although after the steadiness of a boat it might feel to us a little cranky. The houses are equally well built, the walls of bamboo, the roofs thickly thatched with sago palm. Their canoe-houses are big enough to contain ten or more large canoes.

Christianity took hold on these people nearly twenty years before I first met them, having begun with only a foothold in Boli, under the protection of Takua, the chief. Charles Sapibuana, a Gela man who had been trained at Norfolk Island, carried the "teaching of peace" across the island to the district of Gaeta, where another chief reigned. There were six great chiefs on Gela, who had far more authority over the people than was usual in the islands. Everywhere Sapibuana spoke strongly against the worship of the tindalos--the spirits of bygone chiefs--whose emblems, clubs, axes, and ornaments were zealously preserved by the living [168/169] chiefs. He went into all the sacred places and haunts forbidden to the people and dared the tindalos to do their worst. He set up schools, and taught the people to put their trust in God. Thus he and Alfred Penny, the white missionary who was with him from the beginning, saw a very wonderful conversion of the people gradually take place.

Then came a set-back; old Kalekona, the chief of Gaeta, lost some of his red shell-money, and left his people. He set as the price of his return either the restitution of the money or someone's head. The Mission influence was already strong and none of his people wished to take a life. Unhappily, just at this time (1880), H.M.S. Sandfly was surveying the coast of Gela, and a boat from her was seen to go ashore on Mandoliana Island, a mile from the coast. Six young natives put off in a canoe, crept through the bush, and attacked and killed the bluejackets whom they found bathing in the stream; they then tracked Lieutenant Bower in the bush and murdered him. The murderers were caught and punished, and my predecessor, Bishop John Selwyn, was thanked by Parliament for the help which he had given in the matter. But Kalekona was pardoned, and soon afterwards he brought all his tindalos to Penny. War was then made against tindaloism in all parts of the island. When I arrived, life along the coast had become safe, and the people had moved their villages from the bush down to the shores, where life was more comfortable; where they could get their salt water for cooking, and fish, and move about and [169/170] see their friends. Fighting thus came to an end, the big chiefs could no longer do as they pleased, and the tribes of the island became united.

I first stayed in Gela in 1896, and during my years in the Mission saw a great deal of these people, and really came to love them. When I lived in the Vanua at Norfolk Island in early days I had a good many Gela boys with me, and think I may say that if at first the brown-skinned youths were not so congenial to me as they were to my colleagues, the feeling was broken down by the Gela boys in my house.

Gela is an island of small hills, some of them conical, and covered with a tall rank grass. White cockatoos, flying foxes, and pigeons abound, and food is plentiful, but the people do not excel at the cooking of it as they do in the Banks, nor do they grow such a variety of yams. One is never afraid, however, to eat what is given; in fact, the more native food eaten in the tropics by the white man and the less tinned meat and biscuits, the better in health he will be. Every Sunday loco--i.e., pudding of pounded yams--is made, and given to you wherever you may be, and this, covered with cream from coco-nut, is delicious.

When I lived in Gela I found that the whole island spoke only the one language, and so was different from all the others, in which forty or more dialects might be used; but it was divided into five kema or tribes. Some men were Gaumbata, some Kakau, some Hongokama, some Hongokiki, and some Lahi. Each kema had its forbidden food, and no oath was so [170/171] binding as one by the food which that tribe could not eat. For the Gaumbata it was the clam-fish. The Kakau could not eat the sea-slug (bêche-de-mer); to the Hongokama was forbidden the pigeon, and to the Laki a white pig, because their ancestors once killed a pig and singed it white, after which it got up and walked away. The Hongokiki could never eat a certain fish with a big mouth, for such a one had swallowed their ancestor Rangangela. In this manner he was carried away to the horizon, the edge of the world, where he followed the sun until it was overhead. There he saw a stone which Koevasi, the Creator, told him not to touch. When, however, Koevasi was not looking he pulled it up, and found that it covered a hole down which he could see the village of Ravu, where he had been born. A little house has been built for him by Koevasi, and this he slung on a rope and lowered with himself to the ground, and so came home.

The kema are like large families, and it would be equivalent to incest for a man and a woman of the same kema to marry. I came in for a wedding at a little place called Haleta. Two girls had been bought according to native custom, belonging to another kema. The price was a good round sum of money and a small amount of food. The girls' friends would have to give food and pigs equal in value to the money that was being paid for them. Apart from any religious service if they were Christians, the knot which tied a young couple was merely the exchange of food and money, which their friends, [171/172] who had arranged the marriage, provided. The man might perhaps have seen the girl in her village, but never dreamt of marrying her. If she did not satisfy his ideas of what he would like his wife to be (i.e., fairly well-liking, a good cook, and a good worker) he need not take her, and she could also refuse to take him. Should that happen, the money was returned; they would not be married, and no harm was done. The wedding party arrived in full dress, the man very smart in the very simple dress of the island--a scanty loin-cloth--but with eyebrows and moustache white with lime; the bride in the usual extraordinary "ballet skirt" of coco-nut fibre reaching to the knees, and swinging from side to side as she walked.

There are bays and snug anchorages in all parts of the island. These, coupled with the fact that the natives had ceased to be dangerous, made Gela a happy hunting-ground for the Queensland ships which came every year to induce men to go to the sugar plantations in Australia. In 1896, when I was there, one of the ships carried off seven of our school-boys from Hongo, and amongst them one of our Norfolk Island boys, Koete, who was home for h is holidays. He was a very promising lad, and could ill be spared. The Mission had spent money on him; but he was sixteen years old, and so could legally be recruited. His friends had accepted £1 as a douceur, which clinched the bargain between recruiter and natives; there was no kidnapping about it. But the father of the boy repented and strongly [172/173] objected to his son's going, and brought his share of payment to me with the request that I would get him back. We followed up the ship and found her at anchor on the other side of the island. The young skipper, a Greek, was very civil to us. .He had already a hundred boys from the large island Guadalcanar and from Gela on board, and as Koete was a trainee of ours, and as we and his father wished to keep him, he would let him go. In this case we were able to recover one of our school-boys because we happened to be on the spot, but the remaining six boys from our school were taken away to Queensland.

The Kanaka traffic was at that time in full swing, and was doing an infinite amount of harm to the islands. From this particular island, of which the total population was about five thousand, five hundred men were away in Queensland, all having signed on for three years, and many of them, because there was no vessel to take them home when their time was finished, had signed on for three or six years more. Meanwhile their wives and sweethearts would wait for them, and might remain faithful to them, or might not. The population did not grow. And at last, when they did come back, they were no joy to look at, and their pidgin-English and extraordinary swear-words were not a joy to hear. As very cheap labour they may have helped to build up industry in Queensland, but when at last the traffic in souls was ruled out for the good of the new Commonwealth of Australia, every white man living [173/174] in the islands agreed that it was also for the good of the islanders.

It was always a great event to me when a man-o'-war paid us a visit. H.M.S. Pylades came from Rubiana in the Western Solomons, and anchored at Gavutu, in July, 1896, and I was asked to spend a few days on board her by Captain Adams. It was just like being in England again. Many of the bluejackets were Portsmouth men, and one had sung in the choir of St. Mary's, Portsea, my old church. They were a wonderfully fine lot, and I enjoyed my service with them and their hearty singing immensely. Until four in the afternoon a dead quiet reigned on the ship. Then the men went ashore at the trading station and walked about under the coconut trees. From eight to ten they sang on the foc'sle, and I joined them, with one of my boys. A petty officer asked me to give them a "homily." I declined, as I had already preached once to them, but I said I would give them a cricket match on the following Thursday. They jumped at this, and I left them to get my team together. They were all dead sick of what they had lately been doing further west--there having been a raid, the ship had been trying to get the heads of those who were killed in it. The captain told me how, sitting at dinner one night, it was reported to him that a trader, called French Peter, was on board and wished to see him. Peter was shown in, carrying under his arm something wrapped in newspaper; he proceeded to unwrap it, and presented to the captain on the dining-table [174/175] one of the heads. The latter complained he had had no appetite since.

I brought my team, many of them teachers who had learnt cricket at Norfolk Island. Stumps were pitched on the narrow path which ran across the coco-nut plantation. The trees, planted thirty-three feet apart in rows, made a perfect shade overhead. A ball hit high would go through the canopy above and be lost to sight until it came down through the branches again. One hit low would strike a tree and ricochet in any direction. The ship had first innings and scored 55. With nine wickets down we had made 50; then a lucky skier fell in the crown of a coco-nut palm. A lieutenant tried to climb it whilst we ran; natives would have walked up the tree, but a sailor with his boots on made poor progress. The onlookers yelled and war-whooped. It was given "six for lost ball," and we had won by one run.

The sins of the Gela folk were evident to all men. They were much too fond of money, unwilling to help unless well paid, and wanting in civility sometimes. I would call at a village in my boat, and the men might sit high up on the beach and let us pull up our boat by ourselves. There was a reason for this, however. It had been quite usual in heathen days for a visiting party to attack them when they were off their guard, or even while helping them to make their landing; thus they learnt to hold aloof from strangers, and they kept up the custom now.

Their love of money is shown in the price of wives. [175/176] In former days, when a chief married, he paid as much as a hundred and sixty strings of shell-money and a thousand porpoise teeth--worth five to the shilling--for the girl he wished to marry. In 1901 I found that this had become the common price for any wife, and the result was that a great many young men, having poor relations, could not marry, at all. This was the only island where it was possible to have annually an assembly of the whole people--a Vaukolu. That year the burning question concerned the price of wives. Between four and five hundred men were present, and at Holy Communion that morning there were a hundred and twenty-five communicants. Lipa, the heathen chief of Olevuga, and Solomon, the Christian chief, came in their canoes to the Vaukolu, and about a hundred teachers. We sat under the coco-nut trees by the seashore, and laws for the Church were made. As to the high price for wives, it was urged that a low one would bring them down to the level of pigs. The girls themselves said, "Am I a pig that I should be bought for a few strings of money?" However, everyone knew that the real reason for their price was the greed of the men. It was lowered to forty strings and four pigs and no more, and except the fathers or uncles of marriageable girls, everyone was delighted. But when the meeting was finished the girls would not speak to us.

At the parliament in 1903 the price was further reduced to thirty strings and three hundred porpoise teeth, and I found in subsequent years that this [176/177] law was being kept. There was always plenty of business each year. If the people were reverting to their fear of tindalos, or if they were marrying without Christian rites, or if villages were not kept clean, or paths were not being kept open, these things could be talked over. Besides, it was the one occasion when the villages from all parts of the island met and feasted together on the food provided by the district in which the Vaukoluwas held. The people would make an offering of baskets and other things to be sold for the good of the Church. By 1903 Gela had missionaries in Guadalcanar, Malaita, Savo, and even Pentecost in the New Hebrides, and all these were remembered. This parliament of the people was certainly a most useful institution, and a very remarkable one for an island in the centre of the heathen Solomons.

Near Tulagi, the Government island, and Gavutu, the trading island, was another small island called Bungana, lying about a quarter of a mile from the mainland. The Mission had tried for twenty years to buy it as a station on the opposite side of Gela from Siota, but had not been able to do so. I offered £20 for it one year, a good price for land at that time, and it was refused. Another year I heard that possibly £100 might buy it, but that was absurd, and we did not consider it. In 1905 I was begged by the owner to take it, and I gave him the £20 for it, but could have had it for less. It came about in rather a strange way. Oliver Vuria, the teacher at Vuturua, entered my house one evening [177/178] whilst I was writing after a busy Sunday and said: "There are many people in the village who have made a papari (a vow) never to speak to one another or eat one another's food; can you make them friends again?" He explained that this papari was an old custom in Gela; that if one vowed, even in thought alone, not to have dealings of one sort or another with anyone, it was a papari, and binding. In old heathen days it could be undone by taking a gift of food or money to a man who knew the tindalo; but since belief in tindalos had ceased no one knew how to get rid of their vows, and some had been bound for fifteen years. They met as friends in church, but they could not speak to one another outside.

I said to Oliver that if the old-time rain-maker could release people from their oaths, I, as a priest of God, could certainly do so. He went out, and soon voices were heard all round the house. Two young men came in first; they said that three years ago they had vowed not to speak to one another. I asked, "Do you wish to be released from that vow?" They said they did, and I told them to join hands, and laid my hand on theirs and said, "I release you from your vow." They went away immensely happy. Then came an old woman with her tall son. She said that many years ago she had been angry with her son, and had "vowed" never to eat any food which he gave her. She was old now, and could not provide for herself--would I release her from her vow? I went through the [178/179] same form of release, and they too went away happy. Oliver then "made friends with" his stepmother, and Boroko, an old chief once with Patteson in New Zealand, with his brother and his granddaughter; another of Patteson's boys with his sister. Altogether that night twenty couples came and were released.

Next morning, on my round washing sore eyes and giving medicine, I came to a man with a sore leg. Having advised him before to foment it, I asked him if he had done so. He said, "No, for I want first to make friends with my father, Lavisi, who will not eat my food, nor live in the house I have built for him." Lavisi was called, and they made friends by my releasing them of the vow. The man said, "Now make him friends with his wife." More followed, and in the afternoon men began to arrive from other villages, asking me to come quickly, for they had all "made vows." I spent seven weeks in visiting the thirty-six villages of Gela to release them. The people sat at the lower end of the church, and came up to me in turn, and I said to each of them, "In the Name of God, I release you from your vow." I was feeling ill one day, and meant to pass one village by, but the teacher stopped me and begged me to stay. I released twenty-eight in that small village. The greatest number of people set free in any one village was seventy-nine, at Vunuha, but very few of them had only one papari; in many cases they had four which they asked me to break. In the end, over nine hundred people were freed from about three [179/180] thousand vows. It may be interesting if I mention a few more vows.

A man had vowed that he would not eat his granddaughter's food, nor his niece's; his daughter, not to enter her parents' house; a woman, not to sit in her husband's canoe, nor in the house he had built for her; a man, not to eat the food that his wife cooked; a man, that he would not sleep in his own house; an old man, that his wife should not come into his. Two girls, that they would not call their step-father "Father"; a woman, that she would take no money for her daughter when she married; a woman, not to eat fish caught by her husband or brother. One woman had forbidden her children to take food to their grandmother. A man had vowed not to live at Toa, and his wife that she would live there, so they separated; a girl, not to marry Sopi, and now she wanted to; Louisa, a scold, now promised not to scold her husband again, and he promised not to hear her if she forgot. Two men had not spoken to each other for six years; two women, for seven. They all went away excellent friends, laughing. A woman whose dead husband had vowed she should not cry for him, wished to cry; a woman had forbidden her elder daughter to whip the younger one, and wanted the order cancelled; a man vowed never to eat cabbage because once he had stomachache after eating some; two women, never to marry; six men, not to enter a certain canoe-house; and so on.

Amongst the seventy-nine that came up to me in [180/181] the church at Vunuha was an old man named Thomas, who said: "Many years ago I vowed never to sell my island Bungana to a white man. Now I wish to sell it to you, because the Government does not understand us and fines us sometimes when we have done no wrong, but we cannot make them understand. We want you to protect us." I said, "Do you wish to be released from your vow?" He said he did, and so I released him. Within a week the deeds were signed, £20 paid to Thomas, and the Government registered our purchase of Bungana.

As I look over these vows in my diary they make sad reading. Half the people had said the fatal "I will not," and so had bound themselves. None of us knew of the papari custom until my chance discovery of it, and we all felt that a load was thereby lifted off the island.

One day Oliver told me how he began his work, many years before, in Vuturua. "Charles Sapibuana and Penny were over in this district of Gaeta," he said, "and they told me to come here and make a school. I came, and five children wished to come, but the people threw stones at me, and I had to dodge the stones. I sent a message to Sapibuana to take me away, but he wrote: ' If you stood before a wild beast, would he not try to bite you? If you met with a hornet, would he not try to hurt you?' And so I stayed, and I stayed, and I stayed. Then one night the men went over to Malaita, and in the morning attacked the village of Qarea and took twenty heads. They came back and put them on a [181/182] stage at the landing-place for the women to see, and rejoiced over them, and made tabu the axes which had slain them; but I stayed in the village on the hill, and would not come down to the shore. Then the stone which was the chief's tindalo and stood with the axes on the sand toppled over, and he said it was our doing through the school, and he came up the hill. As I came out of my house he threw a great stone at me, which I dodged, and it broke three bamboos in my house. He threw another, and it broke more bamboos, and I said, 'What are you doing?' You may kill me if you like. I do not mind.' But he went away, and in a few days he died, for which I was very glad, because as long as he lived I and my school-children had to keep close together, for if we separated he chased us. Then another chief came, and he told me to build a house of prayer in his village, and I went, and soon forty people were coming to the school. In those days people used to say that the big rock on that point would split before the people of Vuturua accepted this teaching. But now there are only three who have not accepted it, and when last Christmas, Lavisi, the chief, and his brother Tuaria accepted it, that big rock split, and half of it fell into the sea."

Lavisi and Tuaria were two men whom I had released of vows. They too told me how they had "come in" to prayers the previous Christmas, and on that day the rock on the near headland broke in two. I saw the rock, which showed every [182/183] appearance of a recent fracture. These two old men were evidently pleased that their split from heathenism had split the rock; all they wished for now was to be instructed in the new faith.

In 1903, on coming through the Ututha, I saw for the first time the new steamer which our friends in England and Australasia had given us. Three tall masts' appeared over the mangrove trees, and then the little steel ship of 590 tons. This new Southern Cross was a wonderful gift to us. She cost £22,000, which had been collected in four years. She could steam ten knots an hour, and we did two days' work in one day in her. But she had masts, and sails, and a full crew of sailors, in addition to her engineers and firemen, and my hair began to go grey when I heard from Auckland that she would cost £8,000 a year to run, for our income was only £11,000. A cynical friend at Gavutu said, as we came alongside to coal her, "I suppose this is the last time we shall see this ship in the Solomon Islands." To save expense we set to and coaled her ourselves, getting eighty tons into her in one day. Some of us filled the baskets, some shoved them to the ship, and others trimmed in the bunkers; not our best friends would have known us when we had done. But the wonderful thing which came to light afterwards was that the effort made in raising money for the ship had increased the income of the Mission by £4,000 a year; it had jumped to £15,000, and that was enough to pay for the ship's working, besides all the new work which we wished to do. From that time we were [183/184] able to visit islands which we had not touched at all before, because they lay up to windward or were too far away. We had a beautiful little chapel on board. We had proper quarters for white women, and were able to open up women's work in the islands for the first time; very soon we brought down four ladies to work, two together, in Gela and in the New Hebrides. We could also fetch timber for houses and carry comfortably a hundred and forty boys and girls to Norfolk Island. This ship has served the Mission for twenty-eight years. Very soon it was found to be too costly to carry sailors as well as engineers and firemen, so the masts and the sails had to go, and she became a full-powered steamer with a native crew. She costs a great deal to run and keep in repair, but it is not easy to see how a Mission like this can do without her.

Those who quite honestly believe, and they are many, that Christian civilisation and the interference with native customs by the missionary depopulate the islands, might be sorry rather than glad that this new ship should be given to us. There had been three active influences which without doubt were making for depopulation--the Kanaka traffic, which had constantly deprived Gela of its young men; the native custom of "vows," which destroyed the friendliness and unity of the people; and the greed which had insisted on a high price for wives. I might add, illnesses which steamers from Sydney often brought with them; but these people were hardy and did not seem to be much affected by them. In [184/185] spite of these influences and illnesses, I do not think that at the end of my seventeen years there had been any great decrease in the population. Every village was full of children--a striking contrast to the non-Christian islands around it. Our Mission, with its doctors, its medicines, its high standard of family life as seen by the boys at Norfolk Island, and its opposition to harmful customs, could only help to stabilise the people, neutralise adverse influences, and prevent the depopulation which so-called civilisation, with its shoddy clothes, alcohol, firearms, and diseases, almost invariably brings to child races.

Passing through the beautiful Ututha passage with the white cockatoos screaming overhead, one comes out into Boli Harbour, a quiet lake of water with Siota on the southern shore. This has been the headquarters of the Melanesian Mission since Norfolk Island was abandoned in 1919. It came to us first because it was a Naboth's vineyard for the villages that lay on either side of the harbour, and rather than quarrel about it for ever the natives sold it to the Mission for £10.

We had a school there, to prepare small boys for Norfolk Island, but the large swamp behind it made it so unhealthy that our two doctors, Welchman and Williams, advised the discontinuance of this effort. In the four years that the school existed we had twenty deaths, including that of Mrs. Welchman, the only white woman then in the islands. Welchman's verdict was, "Siota kills our children"; and as they were mostly his own Bugotu people who were the [185/186] victims, he withdrew and made a new school at Mara-na-tabu in his own island. However, by that time he and Comins had cleared much of the swamp, and drained it, and since then a great deal more has been done; the Mission has occupied it again, and the Bishop now has his home there.

Not far from the western end of the Ututha lies Tulagi (the headquarters of the British Protectorate), and Gavutu (Burns Philp's trading centre). Thus Gela, the first island in the Solomons to be won to Christianity, has become by far the most important in the whole group.

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