Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter II. 1890-1

Fifty years ago Santa Isabel Island in the Solomon Islands must have been anything but a pleasant place of residence. Head hunters came down from New Georgia and Roviana, or the chiefs raided among themselves. No man could have felt his head securely fixed, and the only tolerably safe dwelling places were the forts on the hills and the houses in the trees.

Some twenty years before Bishop Patteson's first visit to Santa Isabel, a saintly Roman Catholic Bishop had lost his life in the effort to bring the knowledge of a better life to the people. Lost it, not from any personal enmity, but from his own ignorance. Anxious to make friends with the natives, who came on board his ship, he made them presents of axes and knives. As an overture that was quite wise; the unwisdom lay in going ashore the next morning ignorant of the fact that no native can resist the temptation to try the sharpness of a new tool. Even now no trader would turn his back on a heathen boy to whom he had just sold an axe.

There was no malice in the blow that killed the Bishop, merely a desire to test the axe. His body was buried on St. George's Island, where, many years later, the spot was pointed out by some natives, and the body identified as that of the Bishop by the episcopal cross, which some superstitious feeling had respected and left.

Under these conditions it needed some courage to undertake missionary work on Santa Isabel, yet one volunteered to go, by name Wadrokal.

A lad from the Island of Nengone in the far South, who [6/7] was at the Kohimarama School in New Zealand (the first Melanesian School to be started), came one night to Bishop Patteson and said, "I have heard all kinds of words used, Faith, Repentance, Praise, Prayer, and I don't clearly understand what is the real great thing, the chief thing of all.... Then I read that the Pharisees knew a great deal about the Law, and so did the Scribes, and yet they were not good. Now I know something of the Bible and I can write, and I fear very much; I am very much afraid. I am not good, I am not doing any good."

So Bishop Patteson gave him a class of boys as a beginning, and, when he left Kohimarama, he went to Savo, where there was a small colony of Bugotu people, and taught there for a time, ably helped by his wife Carrie. But that did not satisfy him, and he asked to be put down on Bugotu, the southern portion of Santa Isabel.

This man Wadrokal was a very fiery character, and Bera, the most powerful of the Bugotu chiefs, was a very strong hot character too, so their intercourse was not without friction. Nevertheless Bera was so far influenced by Christianity, however irritating a specimen he might consider Wadrokal, that he left orders that no one was to be killed at his own death nor any food or property destroyed.

His son, Soga, also a great head-hunter with his own bodyguard of executioners as befitted his rank, obeyed Bera's orders, but celebrated his own accession by a very successful raid in the North, bringing back forty heads, which, he explained later to Bishop John Selwyn, had been a gift!

The Bishop took a different view of the tale and spoke very severely to him, pointing out the obligation of a chief to protect lives, not to destroy, and of the judgment of God on such acts of murder.

[8] An illness soon afterwards made Soga think there might be something in the Bishop's words, and he sent for him to the small island where he had retired to be out of the power of the malicious tidatho (ghost) that he believed had caused his illness.

The Bishop administered quinine and brandy, first tasting it himself and giving some to the attendants, after which precaution Soga finished the dose; then the Bishop knelt down and prayed, and Soga recovered.

From that time Soga was a firm friend to the Mission, and himself became a disciple. He learnt to read and write really well, was keen on translation work, and finally took the decisive step of putting away all his wives save one. In 1889 he and this wife were baptized, and 170 of his people.

This was the man in whom Dr. Welchman was to find a firm supporter and friend, and such was the country in which he was to work.

On the doctor's arrival at Vulavu at the end of May, 1890, Soga was absent, having gone to Gao where there was a large dancing party. Meanwhile, Hugo, the teacher, had cleared his own house for Dr. Welchman's use. This was on Vitora, a small island, where Soga was living at the time. The diary describes the house: "It is built on piles in the water and is approached by a long inclined plane of boughs lashed together, and very uneven for walking on. The house itself is about fourteen feet by seven feet, and the height in the middle is about five feet five inches, so that I cannot stand quite upright in it. There is a tiny veranda at both ends just wide enough to sit on, leaning back against the wall with my legs hanging over. But, there being a door at each end, I get a good draught through and it is [8/9] always cool, Hugo says. The gentle ripple of the water underneath is rather pleasant."

Two days later Soga returned, and Dr. Welchman went to call on him and was told about the expedition. Soga related that when the twenty canoes were seen racing through the water with his own canoe among them, all the big men of the dancing party took to the bush, suspecting a raid. He told how he had sent for them and said that he had come in peace to make friends, and, when one man still held back, he had said, "See, there is no weapon in my hand, put yours away and come and take my hand." Then he made them presents of porpoise teeth, cloth, and tobacco, and finally they all sat down together, and he made them a speech explaining what Christianity was. One can imagine that his audience would sit a little uneasily at first with one eye, at any rate, on the bush.

After this Dr. Welchman went about a little with Soga, and saw him hold his Courts of justice, Soga being seated on a clean white mat on the beach, his bodyguard around him, looking very warlike with their axes, spears and shields on the ground by their side.

At St. George's Island they visited the grave of the martyred Bishop, and the boys planted at the four corners a certain plant which always marked the site of a grave.

He heard from Soga of "some people of a different race, living round the point and governed by a queen, who led her men to battle and was known, in one case, to have killed thirty men. Bera had invited her to come and live near him on the grounds that, united, they could keep the enemy from Bugotu; it seems he was right, and that the queen's name struck terror into the enemy. When Soga left Sepi these people left with him and settled round the point, actually a different community but in friendly relations [9/10] with the people here. So far, they have refused to come to school or to accept Christianity. Their queen died last year or the year before (1888 or 1889) and they have not elected a new one yet. Their language is altogether different from that of Bugotu."

Dr. Welchman heard of strange customs, which needed looking into later, and always there was talk of raids and murders; and even in his own journeyings he was not always safe. There is an account in his diary of one journey from which they were hardly expected to return, even if they succeeded in reaching their destination alive.

The destination was Uta, two days from Pirihadi by canoe and land, the object being to make friends with a chief called Figirima, in his fort at Kakatio.

"The last part of our journey was the worst. When we had crossed the stream we began at once to climb a very stiff mountain, the path clayey and slippery with the rain. We went up and up, and I was very thankful for one or two spots where, for a few yards, a more gradual ascent gave us time to breathe. At length we emerged on a bare spot at the top of which stood Figirima's village, or rather castle. As far as I could see the ground was quite bare for a hundred yards from the wall of logs which hung outwards from the interior, and the gate, itself very narrow, was approached by a narrow path up a steep ascent. We had just left a path cut through the rock, the bottom of which was a trough one foot wide, and helped in the more perpendicular parts by shallow holes cut for steps. At the gateway were two huge logs set on end, but loose, and these sufficed to gain admission to the fort some eight or ten feet above. A bundle of reeds on either side served as a hold (when the logs were mounted) to pull myself into the very gate, and then, as plenty of logs were about, the rest was easy.

[11] "The houses were close to the door and to one another. We had to wait awhile till Kana got leave from his brother to go into his house, and we were soon all safely collected inside; very tired, but in grand spirits at our success. Some dry clothes made me quite happy. It was not quite five o'clock and we had walked for nine hours.

"While preparing food, I received a message from Figirima to say that if I had come to trade, or if I had come to talk, I was to go and see him as he could not come down to the house I was in. As it was still daylight we went at once.

"He lives in a large house in the centre of the village on a point above all the other houses. It is divided internally by a partition in which the chief lives, and the entrance to which is also covered by a screen standing some six feet high in front of it.

"The Kakatio people sat on one side of the house, I on the other, the interpreter in the middle: Figirima's brother, and sort of Prime Minister, behind the interpreter, and somewhere in the background, in a dark place I imagine behind the outer screen, the great man himself.

"The conversation was carried on through Philip, who put my Mota into Bugotu, while a Kakatio man translated that into Uta. Figirima wanted to know what we had come for. I told him we had come to see him, the chief of Uta, and to make friends with him. He said he was glad to see us, that he thought it very kind of us to come so far along such a bad road, and he would like to be friends with us.

"I told him that if he would like to come with us I would take him to pay a visit to Soga, and that the boat would bring him back to Ravihi. At this I heard a great deal of very loud, energetic and nervous spitting, and at [11/12] length he said I had startled him by the suggestion, but that he would think of it.

"Next I asked him to send us some boys to be taught; to which he replied that he had heard a good report of Christianity, and would like to know more; and that by-and-by he would pay Soga a visit and make some enquiries. Then he said that we were to rest at Kakatio all the next day, and not return till the following morning; a great compliment, as they don't care about visitors making long stays. With that the Conference ended, and we returned to get our food.

"The house was crowded with visitors and the doorway blocked with children as long as light remained. The people were very civil and brought us food and water. It rained most of the night, and my bed of logs and reeds was very hard, so I did not get much sleep.

"We were up betimes and had prayers, and soon after were sent for again. I prepared a present for the chief and some trade.

"We entered his house and sat down in solemn silence on our separate sides. In a few minutes, much to my astonishment, out came Figirima bouncing up in a nervous sort of way and stood beside me, shyly holding out his hand: he was quite trembling with excitement. I told him how glad I was to see him, and we sat down side by side on the log. Then I told him I had brought him a present, and he retired behind the screen; I had seen my last of him.

"I gave him some tobacco, some cloth and a big knife, with an interval between each present and a little speech. When this was over he and I had a little trade, he handing the things over the screen and taking back in the same way. He said he had not many things of Uta manufacture, and [12/13] these were mostly lime boxes and net bags. When I said I had enough of these, he said he had nothing else, and then the trading finished.

"Towards afternoon another summons came, so up we went again to hear the chief's last words. He made quite a long speech, ornamented with emphatic expectoration, from behind his screen and to this effect: 'I am glad you have been to see me and that I have spoken to a white man: and now I want you to tell the enemy and all the world that you are my friend, and that this place is yours. I want to pay Soga a visit, but at present I have not enough things to make a suitable present, and it is hard work for me to go as I have no canoe, and my people do not know how to paddle. When I have got my things together I will go to Bugotu, and Soga shall tell me all about Christianity. Then I will send you some boys. You have come a long way on a hard road and I shall not forget it. I wanted to give you some things, but they are poor, so I have told them to tie up a pig for you, and it is waiting outside for you. Now go back to your house and rest, to-morrow you will set out on your return.'

"That being over we went out, having asked leave to go round the village.

"The fort is about forty feet wide and eighty feet long in a parallelogram. The fence is set at an angle of forty-five degrees, and cross posts, set along, serve as standing places for the defenders in case of attack. Plenty of large stones lie all along inside. There are three gateways, which are nightly secured by logs. Outside, the ground has been cleared all round, and the sides of the hill have been all dug away so as to make a nearly perpendicular wall beneath the fence. The houses are well built and large, some thirty-six in number. The chief's is the largest of all in the centre [13/14] of the castle. It is about sixty feet by thirty feet and some twelve feet or fourteen feet high.

"The view on all sides is lovely. Lofty hills and steep gullies: peak upon peak rising far into the distance, while towards the sea, not more than five or six miles in a direct line, can be seen the windings of the Kaipito river. St. George's Islands and Thousand Ships' Bay were plainly visible and also the mouth of the Kaipito. Kakatio is 2,000 feet high, but the next mountain must be 1,000 feet higher.

"In the village are about forty fighting men, but within call are another 150 scattered about among the villages and hills. Next to Figirima's house is an erection like a dovecot, a sort of shrine in which are deposited charms to assist the people in fishing or hunting pigs; they consist only of pig bones. No burials and no slaughter of animals is allowed within the fence, and I saw no rubbish heaps; a few small trees and mummy apples grow there.

"When we got back to the house we held a bazaar with the people, and all day long the trade went on. In the evening the boys informed us that they had quite cemented their friendship with the people, and had exchanged their names. Parako with Pilanudi, Palagora with Jetero, Uu with Guava, and henceforth they were to be known by these names. We engaged some men to carry our things and the pigs, for Kana's people have given him one in honour of our visit."

Seven and a half hours of walking in the rain brought them, next day, to their camping place for the night, and two hours more on the following morning brought them to the river. There they were able to bathe but the Kaipito people abstained, not being given to it, and fearing the current of the now swollen river. Many of them had only [14/15] seen the sea from their mountain and did not know how to swim.

By one o'clock the party reached the sea, and their boat reached Pirihadi at night.

The next morning "we publicly offered our thanks to God for His care over us in our late journey." Later on, in connection with this visit, Dr. Welchman wrote to a friend, "It seems to me that we ought to pray more for the heathen villages where we have no footing. I am sure I got my two boys in answer to my prayers, for the chief (Figirima) refused me for a long time, and when I found I could not get them, I gave myself up entirely to prayer, and left it in God's hands; and at last the chief voluntarily told me he had changed his mind; no more pressing on my part."

The results were more far reaching than he could have foreseen, for those two boys became two of his most trusted teachers, doing giants' work in the bush villages. Martin Tagraeita has passed to his rest, but Ben Hageria is still alive, a valued and beloved priest, and one of his scholars, Nelson Tegna, has been also ordained priest.

For the others, who exchanged names with their visitors that day, one Bugese who was presented for baptism a year or two later, said he wished to be called George. On being asked why he had chosen that name, he replied that he had promised George Bugese that day when they exchanged names that if ever he were baptised he would be called George after him.

Besides these constant journeyings and interviewing catechumens, Dr. Welchman was busy with his teachers and held his first Teachers' Conference. It began with a service and address. "We then adjourned to the School where we had a somewhat lengthy Conference, in which, [15/16] though they did not originate any subject, they talked freely on those I mentioned. I told them I wanted them to make the subjects of Christ's Sacrifice, Resurrection, and Return to Judgment, more prominent in their teaching of the catechumens, as I thought they were scarcely sufficiently aware of their importance. I advised them to pay particular attention to distinct and not too rapid reading of the public prayers, that the people might understand. Next I enquired after private prayers and found, as I had imagined, that the people use no private prayers at all, but are contented with the Church Prayers: if they miss they use none at all. I spoke to them on the subject.

"We then opened the question of translations, of which there is nothing for this year (except part of the Prayer Book), ready for printing. But Philip produced five hymns, which he has translated, and I hope to get them corrected to take with me: and Hugo has written me a few tales for a reading book.

"After some discussion, it was arranged that next year's work should be St. Luke's Gospel. Moffatt has five chapters ready and it was divided as follows: Chapters 6-9, Moffatt; 9-12, Bengere; 13-17, James and Ralph; 18-21, Philip and Oliver. To Marsden and Hugo I have assigned the correction of the Prayer Book, the Catechism and the rest of the Psalms, and Samuel, 21-24.

"They told me that the chief hindrance to their translations had been, first the want of books, secondly the want of lights for the evening. They are at work all the daylight and want to do their translation in the evening, about which I promised to speak to the Bishop."

Among those present was Hugo Hebala, then quite a young man, who was to become in later years a leader and a priest.

[17] By the end of October Dr. Welchman was back on Norfolk Island, and in the early part of 1891 was in very constant attendance on the Bishop (John Selwyn), who was beginning the long and painful illness that was to take him home.

News came to him in February that Soga had paid a visit to Savo, and warned the chief there that if he began a fight he would have to reckon with the whole of the people of Bugotu and Florida who would be called together to punish him.

On July 9th, 1891, Bishop Selwyn left for Sydney and England, accompanied by Doctor Welchman. He writes of the sad farewell scene at the Cascades: "All the boys were down at the rocks, and a great many Norfolkers, and the Bishop prayed for them and gave them his blessing before he was lifted into the boat."

It was their last sight of him.

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