Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter III. 1892-3

Dr. Welchman's stay in England was very short, but it enabled him to see something of his family and friends, and to do a little speaking for Melanesia: also his heart was gladdened by the knowledge that his friend R. P. Wilson would be coming out before long to work in the Mission.

At the same time, the months were shadowed by the growing conviction that Bishop Selwyn would never be able to return to Melanesia, and Dr. Welchman's intercourse with him during the last eighteen months made the parting very hard.

On the 14th November Dr. Welchman set out on his return; this time on the new Southern Cross taken out by Captain Bongard.

The voyage was a long one, giving ample time for thought on his approaching ordination, which had been talked over with, and fully approved by, the Bishop.

On the 12th March, 1892, the ship reached Auckland "after a prosperous and happy voyage of no days, no accident to the machinery, no loss of spars or sails."

He made his thanksgiving at the early Celebration in St. Thomas' Church next morning.

As there was no bishop in Norfolk Island, and as Dr. Welchman was going straight down to his district, Bishop Cowie judged it wise that his Ordination to the diaconate should take place in Auckland at the Service of Dismissal for those going down on the ship in about three weeks' time.

Of his ordination day Dr. Welchman writes in his diary, "I reached the Bishop's Court about ten o'clock. The [18/19] Bishop took me into the Chapel and showed me the arrangements, and we knelt before the Altar a few minutes in prayer before retiring to robe. Preston brought me a cassock and surplice.

"Archdeacon Dudley gave the Address, taking for his text, 'Luke the beloved Physician.' He quoted the close connection apparent between evangelistic work and that of healing: and drew a touching comparison between St. Paul making his journeys attended by St. Luke, and Bishop Selwyn requiring my attendance. It would have been truer had I been more after the fashion of St. Luke. He then addressed me in most affectionate terms beyond deserving, when I think of all the past, and made these his final words, 'we wish you good luck in the name of the Lord.' Archdeacon Palmer then presented me; Dr. Kinder assisted in the administration and the Bishop and Archdeacon Palmer communicated me.

"There was, to me, a deep solemnity about the service; the deeper, I think, that I was very little nervous though my prayer book was so small that I could scarcely see to read the gospel. Perhaps it was that, in the early morning, after much prayer, I was feeling afraid of the responsibility I was about to undertake, and almost inclined, at the last moment, to question whether I had better not retire; when I took up a Bible and opening it by chance, my eyes lighted on the charge to Joshua--'Be strong, I will not fail thee.' This came home to my heart, and like a message from God, as it was, gave me comfort; and I could only pray that I might be found faithful. May the God of grace keep me in this office of deacon."

No deacon could have had truer friends to aid him with their prayers than were gathered round him that morning: many of them well known to all Melanesian Mission [19/20] workers: Dr. and Mrs. Kinder, Archdeacon and Mrs. Dudley, Miss Atkin, Captain Tilley, Mrs. Bongard and Helen Rossiter, who was later to be his wife.

That same afternoon at two o'clock the Southern Cross left Auckland, and reached Norfolk Island on Sunday, April 3rd. The following Friday he went through the ordeal of preaching his first sermon, his text Heb. ix. 14. He writes, "Felt very nervous at first, but soon got over it, though I had all the Mission Staff, the Metcalfes and a fairly good congregation of Norfolkers."

Then came a hurried packing and repacking and fresh farewells, and on Saturday the 9th April the ship sailed for the Islands. A very usual accident occurred on the drive down to the town when part of the harness broke, but the trap did not upset; and the skipper, who was just behind in the spring cart, helped them to mend up. "By four o'clock we were ready to start, Palmer gave us last instructions and we were soon under way. A very sea-sick crowd quite early in the day." One passenger had his own additional woe: "Ozanne has left his keys and surplice behind."

On the 17th May the ship reached Bugotu, Santa Isabel, in heavy rain and baffling winds, and anchored off Pirihadi to water.

"In the evening the cat was playing with something in the cabin, and Ozanne, going to get the prayer books, nearly trod on it. He called out and I went to see what it was and was just in time to see a 2 ft. snake making shots at the cat, who was trying to box its ears. I finished the game with a piece of whipcord. Everyone came to gaze and wonder."

Dr. Welchman found that a very roomy and well-built house had been got ready for him by the people at Sepi: [20/21] here he soon housed, and set in order, his possessions, and then took up his work with the added help that his ordination had brought.

From his diary one sees how much of his time was taken up with marriage difficulties, quarrels and separations. Heathen marriages were not likely to be stable, and the Bugotu women seem to have been anything but subservient. They have always been swift of foot and will come running where a Florida or Ulawa woman will walk. "I always know a Bugotu woman because she runs," said a worker to the wife of a teacher, and she laughed and said it was true. Perhaps they acquired the habit in those earlier days when they ran away from their husbands. There is a certain Catherine who haunts the diary, and seems to have run more than all the others put together.

Next, there were the old native customs--these Dr. Welchman was always careful to uphold, unless they were undesirable; but many of them badly needed reform, especially those relating to marriage. Of these were the following:--

1. Marriages were arranged entirely by the parents without the slightest regard to the feelings of the boy and girl.

2. A parent would arbitrarily condemn his daughter to a single life in order to have her services in his garden work.

3. There was a strange trick in vogue to raise money. A girl would be married secretly to a man and taken back at once to her father's house. In due time another suitor might present himself, only to find himself fined a hundred fish teeth for having made advances to a married woman.

4. There was a custom jae by which a man, who wished [21/22] to marry a widow, had to placate the spirit of her first husband by paying a sum of money to his relations, as it was her fault that had caused his death.

5. If a man fell ill, his wife was asked what she had done wrong to cause the illness: then she owned up (sometimes to imaginary sins), when the man either recovered, because confession had been made, or died because the offence had been of a very heinous kind.

In these matters it was a great help to be able to talk things over with Soga: over and over again we read of Soga's help; they had long talks up to midnight, and Soga gave valuable assistance in translation work. Also he could be relied on to execute strict justice in his courts. On one occasion only did he seek to screen a near relation; and for that slip he made confession and paid a fine in the valuable red shell-money, which is now a valued possession of R. P. Wilson, to whom Dr. Welchman gave it later.

But there were other difficulties that he had to face alone: the problem of how to supply teachers to the villages that were anxious to learn about the New Way: the grievous disappointments when those he most trusted and loved fell into sin: the disabling attacks of malaria.

Lighter touches come now and then, and the following extract from his diary reads like one from our daily papers:

"Some men have just returned from Savo where they have heard a wonderful tale about a two-headed serpent, which has been seen at Honggo. Tabukoro blew a conch and called all the people to see it, who assembled and gazed at it till night. As the day advanced it lost one head, then its wings, and its legs, and, as night drew on, its remaining head, tail and body disappeared. Tabukoro said it was a [22/23] Florida spirit come to punish the people for turning Christian: and that he would build a huge canoe and go out to slay, and the white people might do what they liked to him."

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