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 X. Solomon Islands--Guadalcanar and Savo

1. Guadalcanar.

Guadalcanar Island is one of the finest in the South-Eastern Solomons. It is about a hundred miles long and forty broad, with mountains rising to 8,000 feet, and a rainfall, it is said, at their summit, of 500 inches. It lies pretty nearly east and west, and nearly parallel to Malaita.

When I first knew Guadalcanar it was entirely heathen, without a school of any kind upon it, although only a few miles north was Gela, with its three hundred or more Christians, at peace, and almost entirely under missionary influence. There was scarcely any trade between these two islands, and not much communication, although they were practically one and the same people. Here there were thirteen kema, five of them the same as those in Gela, and all having the same forbidden foods. They also had sacrificed to the same great spirit, Koevasi, but Gela now had become Christian, and Guadalcanar remained untouched.

In 1894, on my first voyage, at a place fifty miles to the north, named Perihandi, on the southern end of Ysabel Island, which is called Bugotu, we picked up a Guadalcanar native named George Basilei, with his young Bugotu wife. George had been [208/209] captured at Vaturanga in Guadalcanar as a little boy in a raid of New Georgia head-hunters, together with his brother Hugo Gorovaka, and taken to the small island of Savo near-by; there they were sold to a Bugotu man, who carried them off to his home on Ysabel. George and Hugo became Christians, and the latter head teacher in one of the Bugotu schools. George, as far as we knew, was the only other Christian belonging to Guadalcanar. We determined to drop this seed into the place where he was born and from which he had been stolen. Thus, from being a slave, he became the apostle to this large island, for it was he who opened our way into it.

When we arrived at Vaturanga, towards the west end of Guadalcanar, we put him down with his Bugotu wife, in the charge of Kukuru, a chief, who said he would take care of them and their belongings, and we left them at a place called Savulei on the north-west corner of the island. The chief did take care of all the belongings of his new teachers, but he allowed no teaching. He said that as words came out of books, there must be ghosts in books. The books must therefore be thrown into the sea, and they were. For two years George, with his wife, lived amongst these people without attempting to teach except by his life. Not only his books, but his clothes were gone, and for these two years, living far up in the bush, he looked the same as all the others; yet it puzzled the people to see that he neither practised magic nor stole things, nor took part in killing men. They asked why he was different [209/210] from them, and he spoke of a spirit he had in him which caused the difference. He said, if they would build him a house on the seashore he would tell them there all he knew about this spirit, and he promised that the Bishop--who knew more about him than he did--would sometimes come in his ship and tell them more. They had all become extremely anxious to know about this spirit which made his life so strange to them, so a few moved down to the shore with him and built a house on the spot where Maravovo, the mission station, now is.

The land on the northern side of Guadalcanar, facing Gela, in a district called Tasimboko, is a plain for thirty or forty miles back. In the year 1896, before we had broken ground in the island, we had visited Tasimboko, and off a small village called Tetere found lying at anchor an Austrian man-of-war, the Albatross. Captain Mueller was in command, and he had brought with him a party of scientists under the leadership of a certain Austrian Baron, who were at the time trying to make their way through the bush to the mountains. I went on board, and the captain having letters with him for Percy Williams, asked me to deliver them. We had tea together, and I gave him some Santa Cruz arrows and bags, which he seemed pleased to have. He told me he should put them into the Vienna Museum, and that he might label them as given by me, he asked how we denominated Bishops in our Church, for in his own they were spoken of as "His Eminence." I told him that "The Right Reverend" would do. [210/211] On my leaving he thus addressed me: "Right Reverend Your Eminence Sir Williams, I have the honour." Soon afterwards we heard that the Baron and his scientific party had been attacked by bush-men in the mountains, and some, if not all, killed.

In 1897 Hugo, the brother of George Basilei, left Bugotu and joined George at Vaturanga. But disaster came upon them from the islands of New Georgia, two hundred miles to the West. Here a new canoe had been launched, at Narovo, and Bera, the chief, and his people wanted heads with which to mark the event and to blood the canoe. Five canoes therefore left Narovo on this quest, and arrived first of all at Russell Island, where Naule, the chief, told them he would guide them to where they could get what they wanted. He took them on, fifty miles or so, to the new little settlement at Vaturanga, and here, during a friendly talk, the visitors killed Biru, the head-man, and his wife, and took their little son Bololo away with them as a slave. The rest, with George, Hugo, and Isabel his wife, escaped. After that the people kept their school going far up in the bush, and were free from annoyance both from the coast natives and those of Savo. They had by this time got over their fear of books, and George and Hugo had translated some prayers and lessons into their language. When we came in the ship that year (1897), for the first time a number of natives of the island came on board. They were regular bushmen, and their bodies were covered with Tokalau ringworm. One of them, an old man, [211/212] gave us his son, Baringala, to take to Norfolk Island, our first recruit from Guadalcanar. In 1899, calling at Vaturanga, we found George very ill, still up in the bush, and we took him away for a rest.

The following year we did what I think the Mission had never done before, nor since. We forced our way in without being invited by any chief to come, and, indeed, very much against the wish of Sulu-kavu, the biggest man of that part. Percy Williams, a New Zealander, brother of the young doctor on Santa Cruz, and an old Cambridge football blue, offered to take a dozen Gela boys, if they would volunteer, and make a settlement at a place since called Maravovo, on the coast near to Basilei's village. Plenty volunteered who were then at school in Norfolk Island, and they all went and settled down. Old Sulukavu invoked all his deities to turn them out, but they held on in spite of his threats, charms, and murders. The old man relied most of all on the charm of the vele, which amongst his own people had never been known to fail.

Vele was a native of Russell Island, who years before had made a great name for himself as full of mana, or ghostly power. When he died the natives packed his relics in small wicker bags, each about three inches long, and sold them to the natives of Savo and Guadalcanar as a sure thing in the way of deadly magic. Probably more had since died from this charm than from all the spears, arrows, and guns in the island. With the bag on the little finger of the left hand, the vele-man leaps out from his [212/213] hiding-place upon the victim, who hears a hiss, and sees a figure with an outstretched arm before him. His head swims and he falls to the ground, and is pounded about his body with the bag, and told to die on the morrow--which he always does.

Sulukavu tried this magic on our little party, but he gave it up as hopeless, owing to the invaders' mana being too great for his. He tried stones over which magical songs had been sung, but these too had no effect, and sometimes the stones were hurled back at his men, and if hit by them they died. What was to be done? They killed a man in the next village, just to show the school-people what they meant to do. By this time a palisade had been put up all round the school at Maravovo, and a good house built in it. Then a certain number of women and children came and lived in the little growing village. The Government, for their protection, lent Williams six rifles. Meanwhile Sulukavu had spies watching day by day, and many of the bushmen had accepted his money for taking lives. Williams, one night, had a bag of vele bones shaken at him at close quarters--it was believed that the poor man who shook the bag died shortly afterwards from the shock of the white man's boot. The chiefs around repeatedly sent word that Sulukavu meant mischief, and had eaten a feast preparatory to wiping the school out of existence. Nothing happened, however, and the other chiefs, seeing their old powerful rival defeated, became friendly, and asked the Gela teachers to make schools in their villages too. [213/214] Sulukavu then threw up the sponge and himself came into Maravovo, where he was treated kindly and given presents, and so gradually he became our friend.

In 1907 he came off for the first time to the Southern Cross. I did not know him, but when I put my hand on the old man's shoulder, and asked him who he was, he told me he was Sulukavu and that he had come on board to see me--an ugly old fellow, with prominent underlip and a white beard. I made him a present of a shirt and some tobacco. The battle was finished, and our old enemy had become our friend. On the beach stands a great white cross put up in memory of George Basilei, who opened to us the door into Guadalcanar.

When I stayed for a time on Guadalcanar in 1909, schools had spread from Maravovo down and up the coast for sixty miles on either side, and the Gela Christians were passing on the faith to these people as fast and as well as they could do it. I landed from the little Government steamer, the Belama, at Tasimboko, and passed round, finishing at Cape Suhu on the southern coast, having visited a chain of schools and found peace reigning everywhere. All the bushmen and a great many of the coast people were still heathen, but they were all our friends. A little way up a river I saw a small ghost-house, in which the object of worship was the "Adam's apple" of a great man of the past. The vele charm was still an object of dread to the heathen, but was by now recognised as quite harmless to the school-people. For was not God stronger than any [214/215] heathen magic? Yes, and those who had tried it on others and failed generally died themselves.

Much of the plain at Tasimboko is now taken up by white men for coco-nut plantations. At one place there was a large sandy patch kept as a reserve for megapods, or bush turkeys, a small bird with large feet which lays an egg twice as large as a duck's. This bit of land, about a quarter of a mile in length and a furlong in width, was divided into plots by the natives, who gathered all the eggs found in their own plots. The birds, which can scarcely fly, run about fighting and digging their burrows in the ground to bury their eggs. The natives say that they lay three times a day. Large hawks and fish-eagles, perching on the trees around, wait for a pounce on some unlucky young one.

Civilisation came gradually as the Gela teachers cleaned up the villages and made good schools in them. But there was much still (1909) to be "done. We found a chief near Cape Hunter on the southern shore who had made a great feast in his village; but a neighbouring big man, troubled at not being able to do things on the same scale and fearing that he would thereby lose importance, hired a band of ruffians to attack him. The chief himself, with his little son in his arms, escaped, but his brother and others were killed, and his wife and little girl captured. In this village there had once been a very large population, but vele and wars had killed off most of the people.

One of the barbarous customs of this district was [215/216] to shut up young girls in diminutive basket-houses, with a tabu that no one but their owners should ever see them. They were not allowed to wash, nor to go beyond the length of a short path outside their cages. I saw one chief with some of his fourteen wives round him, but his jefas--his girls in baskets--of course I did not see.

Human sacrifices were still offered occasionally, but the schools had spread a very strong public opinion against them. Torolala, a big chief in Savo (an island a few miles away), on account of some trouble, said that nothing would satisfy him but a man's head. His people tried to dissuade him; they told him such things were not done now, and offered to get him a fish instead, but that would not do for the chief. They would get him a pig, they said. No, it must be a man. He would not wash himself, nor cut his nails or his hair, until a human sacrifice had been offered. Accordingly three of his men came across to the coast of Guadalcanar, and finding a boy on a reef persuaded him to go aboard their canoe; the man behind then struck him with his paddle, and they cut his throat. So Torolala was satisfied. (For this crime the Government carried him off to gaol.)

Against this background the school villages shone out like beacons of light, and the natives, for the most part, were agreed that schools were a necessity if they were to have peace and happiness. We had bought a fair-sized piece of land at Maravovo, and during my stay there one year I cut down the first [216/217] tree to make room for a coco-nut plantation for the support of our schools. Soon afterwards a hospital and a printing press were established beyond the plantation, and now all the Mission's printing is done there--close to the very spot where George Basilei's school was broken up by the Narovo head-hunters. Ben Bololo, the little boy then stolen, is now one of the Christian teachers.

2. Savo.

The island of Savo lies thirteen miles or less from the north-west corner of Guadalcanar, and it is a strange thing that while Savo is famous for its sharks, one can venture with impunity into the water at Maravovo in Guadalcanar. One cannot go into the sea up to one's knees in Savo without danger of being taken. The big sharks lurk close to the shore waiting for their prey, because the custom of the island was to take dead bodies out in canoes a short distance and lower them with ropes towards the bottom; long before they reached it they would be torn to pieces. One of our little Norfolk Island boys was carried off while playing with another small boy close in to the shore. The natives would throw pebbles into the sea to frighten the sharks away before they bathed, and then dip quickly and hurry out. One of my crew-boys was inclined to disbelieve what the people told him, so, taking a handful of pebbles, he walked out to a depth of water just above his knees. Immediately he saw a large black shark facing him about four yards away, [217/218] and trying to get behind him; he saved himself by throwing his pebbles in front of it while he moved slowly backwards until out of the water.

They worshipped the sharks on Savo, believing that it was these that had created the island. Koevasi, the great spirit there--as on Gela and Guadalcanar--had made everything else, but it was two sharks that had made Savo. Once upon a time Sinobo, a chief of Vatilau, was bringing his sister to Guadalcanar in his canoe. The sun was hot, and he complained. They took a coco-nut and broke it, and each put a half shell on their heads. But the sister's fell into the sea and sank. She dived for it, and went down ever so far before she got it. By that time the canoe had passed away and she was left behind. Then Savokiki the shark came and saved her, bidding her put her hand on his neck, but not to lie on his back. Another shark came along and wanted to eat her, but Savokiki defended her, and she gave to the other shark her dog's tooth necklace, which pleased it. Then while she sat on a tree the two sharks tore up rocks and sand with their tails and built Savo. Many of the rocks came from Rua Vatu in Guadalcanar, and that is why there are no rocks at Rua Vatu now.

Sacrifices were offered to Koevasi, to Savokiki, and to the skulls of chiefs, these latter being preserved in baskets and carried to a place sacred to sharks when any sacrifice was to be made. Canoes were named after sharks, to give them power for voyages and fishing, and when old and done with [218/219] they were taken to Sogilovoga, the sharks' sacred place, there to rot away.

A chief named Gura used at certain times, with four or five of his men, to swim out to a black rock with a pig's heart tied to his neck, as a sacrifice to his shark. Standing with his men on the rock, he called for "Lambu." When "Lambu," the shark, came, he made his offering, and then he and his men swam back again to the shore. No one was ever known to be seized by a shark on this expedition. The British Commissioner, Mr. Woodford, somewhat of a cynic, asked me if our Christians would have the courage to do the same in the cause of their religion. The sharks belonged to those who sacrificed to them, and when a man happened to be taken by one, his enemy at once claimed that it was his particular shark that killed him. Probably they believed that the souls of the dead lived on in the shark, although they would say that the dead went to a high point on Guadalcanar (where our hospital now is), or to the Three Sisters Islands, to which place also the San Cristoval natives go when they die.

Human sacrifices were not offered to sharks, but parts of a man killed in battle might be, with the idea that the spirit of a man in the shark was glad to have him slain. Witchcraft was practised by throwing some object intimately connected with a man into the sea, and this would cause a shark to take him, or bring about his death in some other way.

[220] Our Mission tried for thirty years to establish schools on Savo. Williams' Mission in Guadalcanar had put two teachers there in 1900, but the whole island was dead against them, and it was these people who terrorised many of the Guadalcanar natives into refusing to have anything to do with schools.

A few years afterwards, a Mission boat with Dr. Welchman on board was weatherbound here for a few days, and Peraviko, the chief of Pagopago, took a liking to William Kenda, a Gela teacher, and asked him to make a school in his village.

At William Kenda's village in 1909 I found twenty-five people, the cream of the place, whom Kenda had been preparing for baptism since he landed, five years before, on his chance visit. These I baptised, and then confirmed three of the teachers. Next day I determined to walk round the island, and to visit all its eighteen villages. Fourteen of the men whom I had baptised, and also Kenda, said that they would come with me, and as we must take bedding and food, I was glad to have their help. At the very first village we came to, I was asked for a school. At the next we met Kosi, a very important man in Savo, big, fat and middle-aged, possessed with some authority from the Government, and calling himself a "policeman." He was dressed in a lady's vermilion blouse and a child's French red sailor-hat with a ribbon inscribed H.M.S. Kent, but he had no trousers. He had about twenty men with him, and was a great personage with an iron house and four [220/221] boats of his own. He gave us breakfast, and while having it, told me that he could not be content with only one wife, seeing that he had paid so much for his second one. After breakfast a widow came, and, with her, two chiefs who were quarrelling about her. Kosi took me aside, and offered me a pound if I would send her away, which I declined, and then and there held a small court of my own, that I might hear both sides. The woman belonged to Guadalcanar, and a canoe having arrived from there with money from a former husband to get her back, I told the two chiefs to divide this money and restore all they had taken from her and let her go. They agreed to this at once, and produced the husband's money and divided it between them; and, her own money also being found, she was soon returned to Guadalcanar. After that a man who had also acted as a Government policeman was accused of a crime, for which I made him pay a good stiff fine, and promised that the Government should hear of it, forbidding him to act any longer as a policeman. Another of Kosi's men was accused of having stolen five pounds from one they called "Missionary" Soro who was one of my fourteen companions. This man ran off at once when told to do so, got the money, and paid it back.

News travels apace in the islands, and when we reached the next village half the people in it were gathered together. My vermilion-coated friend Kosi and I sat down together in their midst. The first charge was against Kosi himself. It was said that [221/222] after a recent visit to Guadalcanar as a policeman to make an arrest, he had returned with a letter which he said had been written by me and by Hugo the deacon, bidding him to take in charge a man named Pongo, fine him heavily and receive the money to give to me. I turned to Kosi by my side, and asked him if this were true. He confessed it was, and he was made to fetch the money and give it back to Pongo. After that I assured the people that the "Governor" (as they called the British Commissioner) would take away Kosi's handcuffs so that he should no longer be a policeman. I then heard that Kosi had proclaimed that I had put him in charge of all the schools in Savo, and required him to fine anyone who committed any offence four strings of money. Kosi carefully explained that this was not strictly true, the truth being that Sulukavu, the old heathen chief in Guadalcanar who had been such a trouble to us over there, not I, had put him in charge of all the schools in Guadalcanar.

We passed three places of interest that day: one where an old chief, who had refused to have a school until he had taken one more life, had lost his own in the course of his raid; another where legend told that Peraviko with eighty men defeated Sulukavu with four hundred; and the third, where the tree was on which the woman sat when the shark Savokiki was building Savo. We saw also the vent of a fumarole with a fair amount of steam and boiling water coming from it.

[223] At the next village the people were again waiting for us, and a chair was put for me under a tree, around which they gathered. First there was a dispute between Kosi and Simon about some land, and they agreed to divide it. Then came some men from Maravovo, who had come across to try to get back two jefas (slave-girls) stolen in old days, one of whom had married a Savo school-man. It was decided that she should remain with her husband, and the other go back. A man asked me to restore to him his daughter whom a chief had stolen, and I ordered her release. Kosi had now become quite friendly and cheerful again, and told me that he should retire into private life and have a school. At this moment a boat arrived with two men who had both been arrested on Kosi's order because one was practising the vele charm on the other. The man who had been charmed belonged to a school. He said that when he saw the vele pointed at him his head had spun round, and he thought he would fall to the ground and be touched with the charm and die. I asked, "But did you not remember that God is stronger than the vele?" He answered, "If I had not remembered that, I should have died." I told them Kosi had no power to arrest either, and further they complained that he had taken four pounds from each of them, also their boxes. I then promised the letter should at once go to the "Governor." That night a canoe left with it for Tulagi. Everyone was delighted, except Kosi. This seemed a day of triumph, for besides all these [223/224] cases which I had heard, William Kenda had argued well and wisely with many in the villages, urging that there should be only one way of living in Savo, and that the Christian way. My fourteen followers had sat round, and when men said that they must take one more life, or do something else, before they could join us, these urged with their deep voices, "Bale!" and then again, "Bale!" ("Come in! come in!")

On the next day the messengers returned from Tulagi with a letter from the Commissioner confirming all that I had done. There was great rejoicing, and at Evensong that night two old chiefs "came in," and another promised to do so next Sunday.

There was much to be done in every village we passed through, and when, at the end of the week, we came back to the place from which we had set out, we found a feast prepared for us under a big tree on the beach. It had been one of the happiest and apparently one of the most successful weeks in my life. We had rid the island of its tyrant, Kosi, and also the other so-called policeman; had restored stolen property to its owners; set two slave-girls free, rescued two women from bad lives, persuaded nearly all the heathen to "come in," and four villages had asked us for schools. There were still some, however, who held back. One had two sharks, which he fed with the food remains of anyone whom he wished to kill, and he could not give up his power over his enemies. Another wanted [224/225] to tattoo his grandchild's face first; after that he would "come in." I sat under the big tree on the beach every day to hear and dispose of the cases that we had missed on our way round the island. On the first day several cases of robbery of money were brought, and one of a boat. In each case I told the complainant to go to the thief and get back what he had stolen, which he did. William Kenda said he had no idea that such a "clean up" was going to take place. "Now," he said, "you go to the two white men, the traders, and tell them to 'come in.'" I did go to them, and I told them that the whole people had made up their minds to live better; and these two young white fellows, without any more persuasion, promised they would do the same.

When the Southern Cross called for boys to go to Norfolk Island, the people gave us eight, and when we came back in the following year I found they had already given up their custom of throwing the dead into the sea. Old Torolala, for whom I had pleaded to the Commissioner, had returned home and given up demanding lives as sacrifices when he was in trouble; he had himself "come in."

One wonders what became of all the man-eating sharks of Savo when the people ceased to feed them with their dead. Did they disperse and become a danger elsewhere? Next year two men were caught by sharks off the coast of Guadalcanar, where sharks had hitherto not been dangerous. The last I saw of sharks was when, on my last day in the island, I watched four men in a canoe fishing with a [225/226] cobweb for a bait tied to a long string attached to the tail of a kite. The kite rose as the men paddled against the wind. The bait danced along on the water far behind them. The big gar-fish with curved teeth rushed at it, took it, and could not get free. Down came the kite, and the men pulled it in as fast as they could to save it from the onrush of a shark, which almost threw itself into the canoe to get it. Time after time I thought the canoe had sunk, but it always appeared again with the men in it baling for their lives.

There were sharks in plenty in the sea round Savo, but there were more sharks ashore than in the sea.

Project Canterbury