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 IX. Solomon Islands--Malaita

BY far the wildest island in the Solomons was Malaita. The natives call it Mala--a very good name for it. A brave man, John Still, an old Etonian, opened up the way into it; another brave man, also an old Etonian and Still's great friend, Bishop John Selwyn, helped to make the opening. Selwyn found at a place called Port Adam, near the southwest corner of the island, two castaways from Santa Cruz, who were being held as prisoners and would doubtless have been eaten. One of these he was able to buy, and by this means got on a friendly footing again with Santa Cruz and the Reef Islands, where, as has been said, it had been dangerous to land since Patteson was killed in 1871 and the bombardment by a warship which followed. The other castaway escaped from his captors by night and took refuge on the Southern Cross on her next visit to Port Adam. The Bishop refused to give him up to the natives, who launched canoes and rafts with the intention of cutting out the ship. Happily she had a little steam-power, and was able to get safely away.


It was fifteen years after this, in 1894, that I first saw Malaita. There were at that time half a dozen [187/188] or more boys there who had been to Norfolk Island, and who were holding the fort, Blundell Comins coming across from Ulawa or San Cristoval each year for a short time to encourage them. There was one small school at Saa, a little way down the east coast from Port Adam, but it was in a state of siege. A price was on the head of anyone who wore clothing of any kind, however little, as that was the badge of a Christian or school-man. There had been a school at Port Adam, but it had been attacked and dispersed. For a hundred miles this island stretched, just black heathendom, without a gleam of light anywhere to alleviate it, except at that corner where the Christian village of Saa lay. Men returning from Fiji and Queensland, who had become Christians there, threw away books and clothes and became heathen again because there was nothing to help them. "It is finished," they said, and reverted to their old habits. But this was only for a time.

Murder was nearly an everyday occurrence. When I first met young Fakaia, chief of Port Adam, in 1894, he had just killed a man, and when I saw him six years later he had just killed three. When we came to know other parts of Malaita we got quite used to hearing of murders. If a chief died, someone's life had to be taken. Fakaia in a kind of way had protected the small school at Port Adam, but no one's life was safe there, because of Fakaia's own killings. He came on board our ship, and when I spoke of it said, "This is meat which we do not often eat," [188/189] meaning that killing was not a common thing with him now. He had a very large shell ring in his nose, and a comb with a long tail to it stuck in his hair. His bodyguard, who was also his executioner, an enormous fellow, paddled his canoe round the ship whilst his chief was on board.

When I first landed at Saa the heathen were besieging it, for the reason that the Christian chief had died and no life had been taken for his death by the Christians. On the beach were a number of men, armed with rifles and spears; but no school-people--these were at their morning service. We made friends with the besiegers, and presently the others came down to see us. The contrast between the two was extraordinary: the enemy naked, dirty, and fully armed; the school-people in their white loin-cloths, clean, and with quiet, good faces. I had never seen such degraded faces as those of the Malaita people in their native condition, so stern and coarse, with discs of mother-o'-pearl let into their nostrils, pencils of shell nine inches long through their noses, and delicate pearl ornaments stuck in the tips of them. The women in the canoes, when they came alongside the ship, were also naked, and as noisy and coarse-looking as the men. Marauding parties would creep along the coast and come ashore as friends, but no one dared to sleep so long as they remained. Both parties might sit together on the beach all night, but they would keep themselves awake by singing. Money was out for heads; a curse could be removed only by taking a life, and by [189/190] treachery and murder men could become chiefs. Our teachers had a price on their heads, and yet they were ready to come back from Norfolk Island to live here and try to make their degraded friends Christians.

Fred Howard, the trader in Ugi, was killed by a party of these men because one of them, in Howard's employ, had blown himself up with a dynamite charge. Later, old Amasia, who had been away in Fiji and come back a Christian, was killed for a murder which he had already committed when he left the island fifty years before. James Ivo, one of our Gela teachers, was stabbed to death because a man had been cursed by his own wife, and the only way to remove the curse was to kill someone. Joe, one of our firemen on board the Southern Cross, was shot on the Mission-house verandah at Gnore Fou for some reason unknown. Because the chief's father at Ferisubua was killed, a price was put on Hopkins' head, and on all his people's, at Gnore Fou, near-by. Two white men belonging to a Queensland Kanaka ship were shot at Atta Bay. One of our sick teachers, John Oiu, and his wife were forced by his people to leave their village, because, had he died, some school-people would have been killed for not having taken a life in. revenge for his. If a woman from one of the artificial islands should be touched by any friendly hand during the thirty days after her confinement, or buried if she died at that time, those doing the kind act would themselves be killed. A very much longer list of murders could be made, but [190/191] these show how cheaply life was held in Malaita. If one were to state that it were better to be a pig than a man in that island, it would be no great exaggeration, but yet it was dangerous to be either one or the other.

The appalling conditions of life for this debased humanity naturally showed in the faces of both men and women. I have never seen such faces anywhere else. Yet for strength, virility, courage, and hard work these people were the best of all the islanders. As Kanakas they were the most valued in Queensland, and they were also the most dangerous. When I was there in 1896, on a visit to the sugar plantations where some nine thousand of our Melanesian islanders were at work, six Malaita men had been condemned to death for killing an old swag man. I pleaded for them on the ground that they knew no better, and five were reprieved.

Cannibalism is an unpleasant subject, but as it was a custom more practised here than elsewhere, it may be well to say something more of it--as it was told me by a man with a face like Bill Sikes, Harper Houedi. When I first saw him in 1903 he had just run ten miles to his Confirmation at Roas because he had missed being confirmed at Saa. Two years later, when I was at Saa, he came into my house for a talk. He said that he and his friends, living along the Maramasike Channel which divides the southern end of Malaita from the mainland, had not themselves been cannibals because they believed that the spirit of the eaten man would haunt and kill [191/192] them; but that they had often cut a man up for others to eat. This may have been true or not, because it is a common thing for islanders to profess that they themselves never sank so low as to eat human flesh. The best parts, Houedi said, were the back of the neck and the breast. Generally a man was not killed for food, but because of some offence, such as quarrelling, cheating, stealing, or adultery; or the offence might be much more trifling, and anyone was liable to be killed and eaten by his relations. A woman who cried out when her husband was beating her would quite likely be eaten because her husband was tired of her. Man-eating had no religious significance, however, so no man was ever offered as a sacrifice. For this pigs were used. Nor was there the belief that by eating human flesh the man's power was acquired. The victim's legs would be sliced above the knee and roasted; and his blood drained off into small bamboos, which men carried about in their net-bags. Human flesh was considered better than pig.

It surprised me to hear that cannibalism had become a custom in this island only within the memory of men now living. It seems that on their raids in San Cristoval the Malaita men saw flesh being eaten by their enemies, or at any rate heard that it was eaten. When they returned to Saa and related this their story was disbelieved. On the next raid--a kind of voyage of discovery to see if their enemies did really eat men--the fact was proved, and on their return some of them began the horrible [192/193] practice, which soon became that of the whole people. This may be true or not, but it was believed to be so by the older men.

The Malaita people had their ghosts, and their priests who knew how to approach them. On one of the little off-lying islets I was once on the point of sitting down on a heap of dirty stones, but was told in time that this was the altar, and the dirty old man standing in the doorway close by was the priest. Whilst we were holding a school' at Port Adam, one of these priests was declaiming to a number of men close by about ghosts. After a death in the village, or a murder by someone unknown, a priest would accompany a party of men to the villages around, and sit watching for a ghostly light to appear above one of the houses, a sign that the man they looked for dwelt there. A terrible suspense would weigh on the villagers, men, women and children, till the party went off and they could breathe freely again.

When we called for the first time in 1894 at Roas Bay, where a British sailor had lately been killed, the people were expecting the visit of a man-of-war, and seeing our vessel, which they knew, they asked us to give them a teacher, and to take two of their boys to school at Norfolk Island--a gesture of good behaviour by which they hoped to ward off punishment. We made friends with this crowd on the beach, and took their boys, and gave them a Motalava teacher, Johnson Telegsem, who went ashore with all his belongings to make a school. Many books [193/194] ridiculing Christian missions are written by people who have never seen them. Here I saw them as they are, and not as these books describe them. This place Roas, with Port Adam and Saa, were at that time the only places in Malaita which Christianity had touched, and even here it had won just a foothold, and no more. It was a dangerous island for anyone to live in, or for any white man's ship to call at. The Queensland Kanaka agents, calling for recruits, did not go ashore, although fully armed.


Six years afterwards, on one of my visits to Roas, I was struck by the wonderful change that had come over the people since I first knew them, and I asked if any had been baptised and become Christians. They said some had, and I asked these to cross with me a little stream that runs out into the bay and to sit upon the rocks. About forty of them waded across the stream. All the savagery seemed to have gone out of their faces, as though the grace of God were truly with them. The unbaptised school-people sat in two groups on the other side of the water--about a hundred and fifty of them--and beyond were a dozen or so naked heathen with spears and guns, standing aloof. I spoke to them all about the old days and the new life, and the water of baptism which divided the old from the new, and of Christ, their King and ours. They sat and listened, many of them the same people that we had seen in all their wildness and dirtiness a few years before; and [194/195] as a group of heathen men walked off, I reminded these that such they had themselves been a short time before. Patteson used to object to his Melanesians being called "savages"--they were just his beloved "brown people," because it was wonderful to see how quickly the savage nature could die out of them when they became school-people. As they shook off the chains of the old life and superstitions their faces also changed, and many became really beautiful. I have seen some that brought to my mind early Christians going to the stake for their faith. There stands out in my memory specially the teacher, John Oiu, one of the first to become a Christian in Malaita; he was always in danger, and had, I used to think, the face of a St. Stephen.

Year by year the number of our schools increased at the southern end of the island, where Saa and Port Adam lay. In 1899 we tried to get an opening at the northern end, at a place called Atta Bay, where we heard that a great chief named Qaisulia supplied the Queensland Kanaka ships with boys, in return for gramophones or other things which appealed to him. We found there off the coast a number of small artificial islets built by the "saltwater men" for safety from the "bushmen," with logs and stones and enough soil to grow one or two trees. These islets were built out on the reefs, breaks in which, with deep water in them, provided a kind of moat for the little fortresses. Qaisulia lived in one of them. When we arrived a noisy crowd of men boarded us, nearly all speaking [195/196] pidgin-English. Two boys who had been baptised in Queensland took us to a small island with only one house on it. Here an old man climbed down the wall into the sea, but as he saw us approaching in a boat he climbed up again and waited. He was alone; either his island was in the course of formation, and had not had time to grow, or a death had occurred there, and therefore it had been deserted. One of the largest of these artificial islets, which perhaps held three to four hundred people and was covered with small houses, showed no signs of life till we were close up to it. Then some boys sprang up and yelled, and, plunging into the sea, swam towards us. The old chief here was blear-eyed and hare-lipped. He asked me for ointment for his eyes. His home, he said, had been washed away last Christmas by a tidal wave, but the people had all got safely to the mainland, and now they had all returned. The next islet was about an acre in size, and had perhaps two hundred and fifty or three hundred people on it. It had one or two trees, and so many small huts that some were built out from the wall ten or twelve feet over the sea. We landed under the roof of a canoe-house, were welcomed with what sounded like a disdainful snarl from a crowd of women, and passed up the little street, black with dirt and so narrow that we had to creep under the eaves of houses now and again. A crowd followed us, and pigs in our path grunted as we stepped over them. A stone wall divided the island into two parts. On the near side of the wall lived all the [196/197] women and the married men; beyond were the homes of the boys and single men. There also were the canoes, and the ghost-house with a rough stone altar in front of it, and a great fishing-net suspended on stakes to dry. No woman was allowed to approach this; she would be killed if found anywhere near it, for it was supposed that women would bring bad luck to the nets and the fishing, on which the lives of all on the island depend.

There being no gardens, a market would often be held at some place along the shore of the mainland, and here the women rapidly exchanged fish for yams, whilst the men stood around with spears and guns. There was always a truce from fighting on market-days, but the business was got through quickly and the fishing folk returned to their little island, where only they could live safely without fear of treachery or aggression. I was introduced to the big chief, also to his chief "fighter," a big-chested, tall, powerful ruffian. Their faces lighted up with pleasure when I gave them presents of tobacco and hooks, and very soon nothing was left in my bag, because every man in the place had been introduced to me as either a big chief or a little one. No one had any more clothing on them than their pigs had, but none seemed at all ashamed of that, and all lived together as though there were not much difference between the one animal and the other. The network of stone walls across the island would have made it a hard place for an enemy to get out of, had he succeeded in getting in. Again we ran the gauntlet [197/198] of the women, and they clamoured fiercely for tobacco.

Leaving the islets, we went ashore on the mainland and talked to a chief, Rampola, who wished to have a school, but was afraid. He asked us, "Would we be strong with him if he were strong with us?" "Would we help him if he were attacked because of his school?" I promised that we would come every year and see him, and he seemed satisfied and called us brothers.

Off the island of Qaisulia, the powerful chief whom I have described as supplying boys to Kanaka ships, we met a canoe with over twenty men in it. We bought shells from them, but did not let them come aboard. On the following day we anchored in Coleridge Bay, and here Qaisulia himself, in a canoe with eighteen men, came alongside. Without hesitation he came on board, evidently a powerful personage, tall, strongly built, square-jawed and shrewd. His dress was a peaked cap, three thousand opossum teeth on a necklet, and a towel. He travelled in state and at ease, on a raised seat in the bow of his canoe, and told me he was "big fellow governor" over all this end of Malaita, just as the British Commissioner was "big fellow governor long Gela." He said he would protect all the schools we made, but laughed at the idea of having one himself unless a white man came and stayed with him. He and his men were quite friendly to us; we gave them a few presents, and now felt sure of an opening at this end of the island--a dream [198/199] that was shortly afterwards realised when Hopkins settled at Gnore Fou.

When we came to Atta Bay the following year (1900), our decks were black with these most uncouth, loud-voiced men, and canoes full of women and girls lay alongside. The same old blear-eyed chief met us near his islet in his canoe and said: "This ship good fellow; he no want to fight all same man-o'-war--all big fellow chiefs say same." A fair number of bad words were mixed up as usual in this pidgin-English sentence, but for all that it was good news, and we were given three boys to take away and teach.

Halfway down the west coast we found a place called Fiu, where twenty men, returned from Fiji, had made a school in Ako's village. It was a danger spot for them, and remained so for many years, because the bushmen knew that a school village allowed its people to be killed without avenging their death, and therefore they prowled around looking for an easy "life." Then we looked into Royalist Harbour, and made friends with a chief named Billy. He said it was no good asking his people to have schools before the bushmen had them; but he and his men could see the point when asked by which way they went into a house, the back or the front. When finally we returned to the southern end, we found a school had been made among the bushmen there who had raided Port Adam, and that the wildest man in that part of Malaita, old Qaihaiodo Wala--[199/200] which means "make the word straight"--had attached himself to it.

Much depended at this time on whether the school-people at Port Adam would now be able to catch porpoises as well as they did before they joined the school, for it was a custom to offer sacrifices and to fast and make their canoes tabu; then, with their "sacred" men in them, and with powerful incantations, to go out to sea and drive the porpoises into the harbour. If the fish broke through the canoes, the "sacred" men, all the time muttering prayers to keep them straight ahead, would call them back by their incantations. Once inside the harbour, crowds of men in canoes chased the porpoises into the shallows and drove them up on to the shore. Porpoise teeth are used as money, and so a good catch was valuable. It was said that the Christians caught more fish of other kinds than the heathen did. The question was, Would God be as strong with porpoises as the many gods of the heathen were? It was a trial of strength between the old religion and the new. The Christians prayed and fasted, and I blessed their canoes. They had a marvellous catch, and that pretty well settled everything in favour of schools.

By 1904 all the Port Adam people were either Christians or on the way to becoming so. Forty miles up the coast, at a place with a bad reputation for murders, the young chief and his men sat on the beach and watched us land and come up to him. Without speaking a word to us, he unloaded his [200/201] rifle, and bade his men unload theirs, telling them quietly that these bullets were not for us. When one of his men stole my tobacco-bag, he ordered him to bring it back to me.

In 1901 a man who had much to do with the christianisation of Malaita, Arthur Innes Hopkins, had joined us. When offered as his field of work the northern part, where Atta Bay lay, he accepted the dangerous post with such pleasure that it was impossible to think of putting him in any more peaceful place. On a promontory of the mainland, known as Gnore Fou, directly looking out on to a wide reef studded with artificial islands, he settled himself down among some men who had become Christians in Fiji. These built a small loft for him, and they slept underneath him with their guns. The British Commissioner sent a message strongly advising him to go away because the place was too dangerous for a white man to live in, and offered him a passage in the Government ship. Hopkins thanked him, but said he would stay. There were now three white men working on Malaita, all missionaries, two of them of our Mission at opposite ends of the islands--Ivens strong in the south, Hopkins in the north--and one from a Queensland undenominational Mission, a Mr. Pillans, halfway down the west side. No other white men had yet appeared upon the scene. Soon after, the bushmen behind Gnore Fou killed a man of Ferisubua, one of the small islets on the reef. Hopkins' little school was thereby scattered, and when we next went there we [201/202] found only four men and as many women. A strong stockade had been built round the village, and men kept watch at the narrow entry day and night. Away down the coast at Fiu, Ako, the Christian chief, was surrounded by bushmen and shot. His companion escaped--one bullet passing under his arm, another past his ear, and a third just missing his body; deafened and dazed, he dived into the river and got away.

Three days later Hopkins and I arrived at Fiu, and in the beautiful little church just lately built, and curiously decorated with white, red, and black devices, we gave Holy Communion to twenty people and I confirmed five others, whilst an armed man paced up and down outside. Later prayers were said, and fifty or more joined us. Their attitude was that of people who knew they might be called on to die for their faith at any time. I never saw anything more solemn, or faces more reverent and peaceful than these. As the school grew stronger the heathen became more antagonistic. They constantly demanded "fines," and threatened to fight the school-folk if they were not paid. Seven times they had paid these unjust fines, and were now impoverished by them. The Government did nothing to protect them, nor would it allow them firearms, which, even though not used, would have scared their enemies away. The man who walked up and down outside the church during our services had a rifle, but no cartridges--a fact unknown to the aggressors. Notwithstanding all this, after [202/203] Evensong that day the whole village went in procession from the church to the river (where Ako had been killed during the week), and in it we baptised twenty-five more.

The next year Hopkins and I sailed or rowed in our two whale-boats along the western coast from the south end to the north, calling in at all the villages we saw by the way. On one of them, Foiai, the people were deserting the old dirty heathen place where they had lived in their unregenerate days and, passing over a stream, were building for themselves new homes and a Christian village. At Fiu we found the bush-people still annoying those who attended the school. Two armed men followed us to the river to protect us when we went to bathe. Next day we came to a small village where a man was trying to make a school, but as yet he had only one scholar. We rowed past fifteen artificial islets, from each of which a canoe came out with a request for tobacco, or to give us the news. One said that a bush party was out against Gnore Fou, and wanted the life of Alec, one of our crew-men. The news did not affect his cheerfulness in any way, probably because every man in these parts is well used to such tales. These little islets off the coast, in some cases only a stone's throw from each other, were often at war amongst themselves. When peace was made, as at Santa Cruz, that island which had killed the most handed over to the other as many "lives"--generally of children who had been captured elsewhere--as were necessary to make things equal. [203/204] Each poor little "life" would be taken by other children with arrows. One island was in ruins because its chief had been enticed ashore and killed by four bushmen, and so, according to custom, the island was deserted. Another was quite old and had a few trees growing upon it. The people constantly repair or enlarge or build them, so that they may feel safe from bushmen who have no canoes and cannot swim.

On one, everybody was busy boring holes in porpoise teeth. A week or two before they had caught thirty porpoises. As there are two hundred teeth in each, six thousand teeth, at the current price of a shilling for ten, would bring in about £30. We talked as they toiled. I asked who had built the island. No one answered. Then one said, "We don't like to say his name--he is debel" (devil). "Do you pray to him?" I asked. They said they did. "Why do you pray to the man who made the island, and not to the great Spirit God?" No one answered, but some laughed.

As years went by, more peaceful conditions began to reign in Gnore Fou, and the stockade was taken down as the villages spread out beyond it. One could walk safely a short way into the bush, where the villages were absurdly small, some having only two or three houses in them. When these bush-people make a raid two or three hundred men combine, the fighting men taking positions round the place which they are attacking, and the rest supporting them. Once a man is recognised as a fighting man [204/205] he is personally safe from attack, and probably many of the murders were due to men hoping to establish a reputation for themselves as fighting men. But without doubt the chiefs also maintained assassins, who made their living by killing any man for their chief at a price. When Queensland Kanaka ships came along the coast to pick up boys for the sugar plantations, high prices were paid for bullets; for if an assassin could earn three pounds by taking a life for his chief, five shillings for one bullet was not so dear.

Amongst the many bays into which Captain Sinker pushed the nose of the Southern Cross was one towards the north end, called Suu Aba. At the bottom of this bay were some artificial islets, and on one was a big strong fellow, Singalia, the chief. We would go ashore and make friends with his people, and he come and sit on the deck of the ship. On one of these occasions he enumerated to me all the schools he knew on Malaita, and he was very much in favour of them. On the opposite side of the bay were two native men, returned from Fiji, who were building a school under his patronage. He said these two were as good as white men, and that all the bushmen were quiet and friendly. His faith in the white man later received a rude shock.

One day there arrived a vessel called the Wheat-sheaf with six white men on board who said they were in search of treasure which they knew to be buried somewhere on the shores of the bay. The captain, wearing a cocked hat and sword, asked [205/206] Singalia's permission for the other five to go ashore and look for the treasure. Four left the vessel, the fifth, unknown to the captain, being down below with fever. This man, when his four friends had gone, heard the captain offer Singalia all the "trade" in the ship, tobacco, arms and everything, to the value (he said) of £1,500, if Singalia would kill his passengers. Singalia declined. When the treasure-seekers returned from their useless quest, the sick man told them of the captain's little scheme. They seized him, sailed away, and carried him off to the British Commissioner at Gela. I never heard what became of him. Apparently, coming from Fiji, he had promoted a syndicate to find treasure in the Solomons. He carried the members of his syndicate with him in the ship, hoping they might be disposed of at a price, in which case he, as the sole survivor of the company, would be able to claim the schooner. On the way back to Fiji one man threw himself overboard; they all lost their money, and but for the happy chance that Singalia had abandoned the customs of his fathers, might also have lost their heads.

On the west coast of Malaita a very small school had been formed at Qarea by some returned men from Fiji. To make themselves safe, Konae, the chief, built a little fortress on the edge of the cliff with a good strong coral wall on the landward side. One night a hundred bushmen attacked this village by placing a rough ladder against the cliff. They offered peace to the people inside the fortress if [206/207] they would drive away the school. When this was refused, the bushmen fired, but it so happened that a bush-chief named Qaqae had come to live in the fort, unknown to them, and he fired back, and killed three of the enemy. Not having expected retaliation of this kind from a school village, they fled, promising to come back shortly. Konae then begged us to give them a white man to live with them; as this was not possible, we called for volunteers at the neighbouring village of Fiu, and three native men declared themselves not afraid to go. When I last saw Qarea in the year 1911, the fort was a mere relic, for the village had spread out inland, owing to the general desire among the people for peace and safety, and had become so large that none of their neighbours dared attack it. Konae with thirty of his men, dressed in white, came down the hill to the river to be baptised, the first Christians in that part of Malaita.

As I have already said, the men who returned from Queensland and Fiji did not help us when we first began work on Malaita. Yet in the end it was to their simple faith and their native courage that the planting of Christianity was very largely due. Spontaneously their schools broke out after a while, and lit up like beacons all along the shores where they settled. Without them such progress as our Mission made in this dark island would have been impossible.

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