Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter IV. 1893-7

On the 25th of June, 1893, Dr. Welchman was ordained priest, and in 1894 he was called off for a time to other work.

It had become increasingly clear that a school was needed in the Islands themselves. The Bishop had already written of the need to start a colony at Siota, Florida, Solomon Islands, believing that "if we are given wisdom and means we may make little Florida a source of light to all the Solomons." On St. Luke's Day, 1893, Mr. Comins had bought Siota for 400 dogs' teeth = £10. The hill had been tapu for several generations, although the origin of the tapu is very doubtful. One legend connected it with the coming of a tidatho (ghost) from Mala, another linked it with Bugotu: certain it is that there was a sacred bamboo clump at Siota, and though men passed along the beach they never lingered or slept there.

With the coming of Christianity the tapu came to an end; and on the purchased site it was decided to establish the school. The labour of clearing and building was immense under a burning sun; for the hill was covered with bush, and on the shore were large trees stretching out huge arms about the level of high water. But in a year's time the school was able to begin, and twenty-five boys were brought as the first scholars from Bugotu, Mala, Ulawa, Florida, and San Cristoval.

It was arranged that Mr. Comins and Dr. Welchman should be alternately in charge, Mr. Comins going to and from Norfolk Island and Dr. Welchman from Bugotu.

[25] This arrangement broke into the latter's district work, but, on the other hand, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his future teachers were having a chance of better education and, as he said, "the year or two at St. Luke's would enable us to judge more accurately of their characters, and enable us to select those who are most likely to be earnest teachers with the love of God planted in their hearts."

In 1896 Dr. Welchman went up to Norfolk Island to be married to Miss Helen Rossiter.

The Rossiters were one of the few English families on the Island, Mr. Rossiter having been sent out by the English Government to open a School for the Norfolk Island children when the Community was allowed to leave Pitcairn and settle on Norfolk Island. Helen Rossiter had been working in the Mission for some years, and was in all respects well fitted to be the wife and helpmate of a missionary.

The day of the wedding was a red-letter day in the annals of the Island. The morning was perfect, and the Chapel beautifully decorated with young palms, arum lilies, and roses. As the pair left the Chapel they passed under arches of palm leaves held by the boys, and then, standing on the grass outside, they received the cheers of the boys and the good wishes of their friends. Who could have foreseen, on that happy morning, the sorrow that lay so near ahead?

On the 8th of October they left in the Southern Cross for the Islands; and wherever the ship touched the white woman was an object of intense interest. But she was a very bad sailor, and one day she fainted and fell, knocking her head severely on the hard deck.

At Siota a crowd of people, chiefly women, were gathered to welcome them, and Mrs. Welchman was delighted with [25/26] her new home. But the voyage had weakened her, and on the very first Sunday she fainted again.

She made a brave effort to carry on in spite of her weak state. Those who know anything of island life know how the daily work must be carried on regardless of any feeling of sickness. One reads of her having a big washing two days later, followed by a big ironing next day; no doubt the accumulation of a month's voyage. Apart from the ordinary work, there would be the unpacking and settling in; although as a matter of fact some of the wedding presents were never unpacked.

From that time onwards the entries in Dr. Welchman's diary contain the constant words, "Helen a little better," "Helen not so well." On Christmas morning she had to be assisted home from the early Celebration. On the 3rd of January he writes, "Helen very ill, I begin to despair of her." On the 5th, "Helen weaker, if anything, though the sickness is less: God knows what I shall do if she does not mend soon." On the 12th comes the entry, "Helen dying," and then "She was unconscious all day to everybody and everything except me, and I am pretty certain she recognised my presence and tried to speak. She was very quiet and in no pain: she died at 9.40 p.m. very peacefully: may she rest in peace!" Then come the heart-broken words, "Not yet married six months, and our Father has seen fit to part us. It must be right, since He never makes a mistake, but it is hard yet to realise. Six months of unmitigated happiness, though I was weak and ill the first two months and Helen the last four. I have at least the memory of a good and loving woman in my mind."

With the help of Martin Tagraeita, Ambrose, and John Sara, he made the coffin; and the women, Emily Bunotia and Eliza Bengere, sewed a red cross on a sheet for the pall, [26/27] while from the garden he picked the last eucharist lily to lay on Helen's breast. On what agony must the stars have looked down that tropical night!

The next day the deacon, Reuben Bula, came over from Belaga to assist, but Dr. Welchman himself read the service, "the hardest task I ever undertook." Of this we are sure, that the delicate understanding and sympathy of the Melanesians would have been a comfort, and he himself writes of their kindness.

It is characteristic that in his greatest desolation he never asks, as we are wont to do, "Why is this?" It was part of the divine plan and, although "undone and altogether unstrung," he never questions the right of that plan.

As for Helen, she may have acted a greater part in the history of Siota than we know. But to us she seems to have passed through the Islands like a loving thought, which has not had time to find expression. Yet her grave, planted with beautiful crotons, remains as a witness to a woman's love and a man's unbroken faith.

The next day Dr. Welchman took up his work and school again; but he writes, "I have not heart for anything. I begin things and cannot finish them, I read and I don't know what it is about. Nevertheless I went about and saw the boys at work, and made some bread."

Tired out and ill, Dr. Welchman held on till the 18th of May when the ship brought Mr. Comins to relieve him and he was able to return to Bugotu, where he paid another visit to the chief Figirima in his fort on the hill. He had underestimated, however, the effects of the long strain and much fever, and had to own at last that he was done, and could go no further. "They made a stretcher for me and carried me up to the nearest house, and they had a hard job; for it had begun to rain smartly, and the path was [27/28] both very steep and slippery. They put me down at the house of a man named Daa, who took us all in. I had sent on to Tagraeita to get food ready at Kakatio and wanted to send Hageria, but he refused to leave me. He has taken me under his special protection and care." A change of clothes and a hot cup of tea set Dr. Welchman up again, and he began to regret that he had not struggled on to Kakatio, "which we could see across the gully and only about a mile round the ridge. However, they all said I was better where I was and they were right; I could not have got there."

"The next day Figirima sent word that he would send two of his men to carry me up to Kakatio; he was sorry for us staying down there, and he was afraid that we should not be properly fed, so he sent us a good supply of taros. However, I thought I could manage the rest of the climb, and we only waited for the rain to stop. It did not stop; so about nine o'clock we started and climbed the rest of the hill; it was steep, but we were there in half an hour, and then I got a change of clothes.

"The old man came out to see me, but he is very groggy on his legs and has bad eyes. We had a long and very friendly talk. He was glad I had come, glad to see his boys again and told me to stay as long as I liked; a great advance on former visits. When he retired behind the screen, I made him my present of two fathoms of cloth, a sheath knife, twenty sticks of tobacco, two gimlets, a spool of cotton, five large fish-hooks and a packet of very small ones, with which he seemed to be very happy. Sent off Hageria to see his father and to sleep there. Hageria says he will go to-morrow.

"In the evening after supper we sat in the dark, and I began to instruct the old man (who came out from behind [28/29] the screen for the purpose) in the elements of Christianity. He was much interested in the history of the Creation and said he had never heard such a thing before. During the night I heard two of them giving him an epitome of the work of the Church in Bugotu."

The result of this visit was the sending of two teachers to begin a school at Kakatio.

Dr. Welchman's examination of the catechumens was very careful and thorough, but the same standard of knowledge was not expected from the old people. On one occasion he writes, "An old man who had not answered badly but rather hesitatingly from his want of knowledge of the language, suddenly began to talk, on his own account, a mixture of Jajao and Bugotu in this fashion: 'I am an old man and I know nothing; I don't know how to talk Bugotu, but I have done many bad things; this man (the teacher) came here and I have heard about them, and I want to put them away and have done with them, and I know that Jesus Christ is my Saviour.'" Dr. Welchman adds in his diary, "I did not want to ask him any more questions."

In November he went back to Siota, where he was to take charge again with R. P. Wilson to assist him, little thinking what fresh trouble was to meet him there.

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