Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter VII. 1898-1900

On the 26th of August a meeting was held to consider the question of mourning. Bera, Soga's uncle, though not baptized, had put an end for ever to the customary killing on the death of a chief; there was no longer any question of that in Soga's case. What they had to decide was the question of what other customs were to be observed.

"I had an interesting meeting after dinner with Lonsdale, Eric, Nabe, Herbert and Ellison. The people were curious, and wanted to know what was going on, and we had to drive them away. We settled the points of mourning for Soga, which are these:--The time of mourning will last till the taro is fit to eat, which will be early in January. Then they will give the last feast. The people are to wear Bugotu cloth or coarse clothing, except for prayers and on Sundays. The public are not to use Soga's watering place or his private entrance to the reef. No one is to wear a hat or smoke when passing the burial ground, or in the spaces adjoining. All sails are to be dropped (except for strangers) between Bathabani and Soviri. And all this is to cease when the last feast is given.

"The public mourning used to be very much more severe and lasted for two or three years. The fruit trees have been cut down, but it is to be understood that this is the last time such a thing is to be done. All persons who expect a new malo (loin cloth) at the end of the mourning are to bring each a piece of cloth to be given to someone else. This year they made a rule that each village, coming to the [43/44] funeral feast, must bring a supply of food, and that brought by one village was given to some other one. In former times every one who came to the feasts, or wore mourning, expected to be fed and clothed at the expense of the village at which the death occurred."

Another thing still more important remained to be done before the breaking up of the gathering of chiefs and people. Soga had appointed his two sons Lonsdale Bojofi and Ellison Gito to succeed him, but this appointment needed the public assent. "I called all the chiefs together and a great many of the people came as well. I pointed out to them the mischief that occurred when there were a number of petty chiefs without a head, and also the good that had resulted in Bugotu from Soga's single and strong rule, and I asked them to settle there and then, before they separated, what they intended to do.

"First Nabe (Soga's brother) spoke, who by Bera's will was co-partner with Soga in the kingdom. But he had allowed Soga to take the first place, and he himself remained as merely a village chief. Still, if he chose, he might with right claim the succession. He said he was too old to take up the leadership, and he was quite content to remain as he was, and acknowledge Soga's arrangement.

"Then Eric, another brother, who had the next claim, said at once he did not want to be chief.

"It was a relief to hear them renounce what was undoubtedly their right, if they had chosen to claim it; for complications would have ensued and divisions must have occurred.

"After these two there was no one else anywhere near the throne, and voices on all sides declared that it was 'good'; and they desired nothing better than to have Lonsdale and Ellison to reign over them. But some of the [44/45] older heads, considering their youth, suggested that Nabe and Eric should be their counsellors. This was speedily agreed to: and then I told them that they must honestly abide by their promises. We stood up for prayer, and I blessed the young chiefs before them all.

"Then there arose a general conversation, and I heard talk going on about Hugo. The people wanted him back. I went across to Hugo and said: 'Do you hear what they are saying?' 'I hear,' he said very shortly. 'Well, what am I to say? they will ask me presently.' 'I don't know, I want to go back to Vaturanga. That was just what I had expected, for those are his own kith and kin--not the Bugotu people--and his heart is there. I had not got back to my place before Nabe said, 'Will you send Hugo back to us?' 'Yes, I will, if you will be advised by him, and if he will consent to come. You know you didn't listen very well before, and that was why I let him go away.'

"'You let us have him back; we want him to advise us.' And there was but the one cry from chiefs, teachers and people, 'We want Hugo.'

"I was a good deal touched, for it showed how they really valued him in their hearts, and had found it out when they had lost him; though his last year in Bugotu had been a hard one for him. There had been a good deal of jealousy shown at his being ordained deacon, and some of those, who should have known better, had taken pleasure in more than slighting him!

"It was a matter which could not be settled in a few minutes; and I asked them to wait until the morning, when they should have a final answer. During the day Hugo and I discussed the question in all its bearings, and decided that he should stay six months anyhow, to give them a good start, and after that he should return to [45/46] Vaturanga. To my surprise, Isabella was as reluctant to stay as he was, yet she is a Bugotu woman and all her relations are here. It was amusing how at intervals during the afternoon people kept coming and urging their request. 'Hugo is going to stay, isn't he?' 'I don't know yet.' 'Oh, well, you make him.'

"There were only two chiefs who did not attend the meeting; one the head of an almost entirely heathen village on the outskirts of Bugotu--a colony of bush people--

"The other was a Christian of many years standing, who considers himself a very big man. The first, I believe, went away on purpose to avoid acknowledging Bugotu as the paramount power; the other simply said he would not attend, being, I believe, jealous of the two young chiefs. These are the only two men who have kicked as yet. I was glad to be here when it occurred, for I had influence with both, and was able to use it in a way which I think will strengthen the hands of the new rulers of Bugotu. May God bless them both. They are both men of worth, each in his own way, and will do their best for their people."

Dr.Welchman stayed in Sepi for some little time in order to give support to the two young chiefs, who were feeling insufficient for the heavy responsibilities suddenly laid upon them, and who seem to have turned to him for advice and help. He always said he would only give them his own opinion so that they might follow it or not as they liked; but he urged them that when they had to judge they should make the sentence a fact and not alter it. When they said they would like an older person to judge he advised them "to consider it part of their duty, and to keep it in their hands."

When things seemed settling into order Dr. Welchman [46/47] paid another visit to Kakatio and found a schoolhouse this time in which he took up his quarters. The village was deserted as all the men and boys were away fishing. It poured with rain and everything was wet, while Figirima himself was a disappointed man, and lamented like any modern father over the want of obedience among the people "who would not listen to him, and were all scattered about, and everybody thought himself a chief."

But, at least, there was the neat little school house and about twenty children attending. In the evening three teachers came in and they began to translate the Lord's Prayer into the Kakatio language. "It is difficult, the more so that Reuben does not know Bugotu very well, and John has forgotten much Kakatio." Can one wonder that all early translations require some revision!

While there, a message was left that Dr. Welchman was to go and see Goregita at Kario, as he wanted a teacher. This was welcome news; but no one knew the way, for no one wanted to go. Finally a message was sent to the chief asking him to come. The messenger returned on the third day, "Goregita was very ill, and could not possibly come, and I must go to him. He would send his men to meet me at the stream, and if I could not climb the road they should carry me and anything I had with me. He must see me.

"If the man was ill I must go; so I warned my party that we should start early. 'Are you really going?' 'Of course I am, so you must find a guide,' at which a good humoured groan went up." But the guide was found and they started at sunrise. "It took us an hour to reach the stream, which we followed up. It certainly was stiff, for the precipitous banks allowed no paths, and our way was over large boulders most of the time. An hour and a half of this brought us to the beginning of the road up the hill. [47/48] We had our breakfast and a bathe, but no men appeared from Kario. Then they showed me the road. I could see nothing at first but a flat-faced rock, twelve or fifteen feet high, over which water was flowing, but a closer examination showed some crannies in which I could just get my toes, and with them and my fingers, I got up to the top. My friends at Kakatio had not misled me: the road was bad without a doubt. Foothold was insecure; it was very steep, and where the road led round a rise it was often loose and sometimes broken away. It was slow work, for we often had to stop to get our breath. About half way we came to one of the forts with which many of the points were crowned. It was a clever structure. Built on the extreme edge of a spur of the mountain, the ground had been dug away behind, and so a mound was formed about twenty-five feet in height, and a four-sided stockade enclosed five houses. The logs of the fence had sprouted again from the top, and were bearing flowers, which made it very picturesque and also gave shade to the houses. The labour must have been great; for the ground was dug with sticks only, water being trained in channels from above to wash away the earth as they loosened it. We passed three of these forts on the way, and we could see more at points on every side, telling only too plainly of the constant state of fear in which these unfortunate people live.

"It was nearly four o'clock before we reached the village, if it might be called such. Four miserable, grimy buildings of a flimsy appearance were collected in a small open space. The dirtiest and most degraded-looking was Goregita's. He came out to meet me. 'Glad to see you are well again; I thought you were very ill.' 'No, I'm not ill, but I have a cough, and my leg hurts me, so that I can't walk.' Later in the evening I got out of him that he didn't come because [48/49] he did not want to go to Figirima's village. He was jealous of my always going there, in fact, and wanted to share the glory of a visit from a white man.

"I was struck by the little crowd that suddenly appeared and thronged round when I went outside, and my boys told me that only two or three of even the men had ever seen a white man before, the women and children never. They seldom go beyond their immediate coast, and when they go down to Bugotu, they keep in the out of the way places. They make no copra, for they have no coconuts, and I did not hear of their going to catch turtle.

"Goregita told me, in answer to my question, that he was anxious to have a teacher to live with him. I asked him why, and he said he had been much troubled by the enemy, who harried him continually, and, within a month, they had forced him to give them two of his people as captives: he had noticed that where there was a teacher the people lived in peace, and they were seldom or never disturbed by raids. So he thought if I would send him a teacher, he also would be left alone. 'Then you don't want your people to be taught?' I asked. 'No, I only want one of your teachers to come and live here.'

"Then I told him I had no teacher to give on those terms, and I showed him how it was that the presence of a teacher acted in preserving peace in a village--that the people learned not to fight among themselves, but to live as brethren: and that, if they lived according to the will of God, He would protect them against outside enemies: but that if they did not become His children and live accordingly, not all the teachers of Bugotu could make him safe any more than the Bugotu people would be safe if they broke His commandments. I might as well give him my coat to set up as protector: it would be just about as [49/50] useful. He listened very quietly to it all and said he did not understand.

"Then I went on to tell him about the God Who was greater than all his spirits that he worshipped, and to whom he sacrificed, and how they only prompted him to evil, whereas God only showed us how to do good. If a teacher came he must come to teach them day by day what I could not tell him in a short stay. He evidently did not like it, but rather than go without a teacher he consented to a school being begun.

"Then I said to him, 'If I give you a teacher you must give me a boy to learn at Siota, so that he can come back to you and be your own teacher.' That was another affair altogether. 'There were no boys about.' I had just seen a score of all sizes outside. The people would not let theirs go, he knew, and he had none himself or he would send him. The enemy had carried off his last. 'That is it, you let your enemies bully you into carrying off your own people, who will never come back, and when I ask you for a boy who will come back often, and at last stay with you altogether, you refuse! If you don't give me a boy to teach you can't have a teacher.'

"Later in the day, after various attempts to make me alter my decision, he said, 'I have asked my people to give you a boy, but they all refuse, and so I give you my own son.' His tone was quite pathetic, and he had forgotten that he said he had none. But young princes are a heavy burden, and often too big for us. So I told him he had better give us one not quite so valuable. With that he brightened up and said cheerfully: 'He is not exactly my own son; I adopted him.' Then I smelt a rat. 'Where did you steal him from?' 'From Kokopu,' he said quite naturally. I accepted the boy Ragoso, who wept copiously, [50/51] expecting to be destined for sacrifice! We started in good time the next morning. I thought there seemed a longish tail of people behind us and when we came to the first halting place I found the whole population following and among them the chief who was too lame to come across the valley. They were all going down to the coast to fish. At sunset we were still a good way from the coast and we slept in some shelters which were kept in order for their use on these journeys. Next morning a couple of hours' walk and about two miles of paddling brought us to the coast; and, as I had expected, there was no Ragoso, though he had been with us the night before. And there was no chief, and only two or three guides. I told them that Goregita had played me false and I would have nothing more to do with him. The men ran all the way back to our last night's camp and told the chief the state of my mind. Goregita sent back word that the boy had gone to hunt wild pigs but should be sent after me. I sent a final warning, 'No boy, no teacher.'

"Two days later Ragoso appeared and, after two days of weeping, resigned himself to his fate, it being a happier one than he had anticipated."

Dr. Welchman's stay on Bugotu was one of only a few months, but he got through a great deal of work in the time with, apparently, no time for the rest of which he was really in need. Journeys, catechumens for examination, teachers' meetings, and translation work fill his days, with talks sometimes far on into the night.

In one village he baptized a baby whose father wanted it to be called Ambrose. He had already a son of that name, but as he was sickly the father thought he would not live long, and wished to be provided ready with another son of the same name: it evidently was a favourite name.

[52] He was pleased when Joseph Bengere asked that his new daughter may be called Helen. "It was my own desire, but I said nothing about it and was glad when he spontaneously expressed their wish. He and Eliza had been with me through all that sad time, and had been very good to Helen."

The following entry will strike a chord of sympathy in some breasts: "After dinner the chiefs and a crowd of people came in. I told them that four of my spoons were missing within a day of my arrival. There was much consternation and much talk. They thought it might be strangers about the place. I don't think so! They tell me that strange footprints have been seen on the beach, east, and they believe that bush people are on their way to work charms on Soga's grave, in order to disperse the people and cause their death."

He was indignant at a scandal which had been started, accusing Bengere's father of having done Soga to death with a piece of the peel of a nut that Soga had eaten, and the originator of the scandal had dared to add "that Soga himself had told him that the teachers had done it." Dr. Welchman did not rest until he had found out the name of this man, and made him confess publicly in Church that it was a lie invented by himself.

These old superstitions as to charms die hard, as did the head-hunter terror. Many a time the scare was raised of the enemy, and proved to be nothing more than a tree with peculiar branches, which looked like a war canoe on the beach, or fishing stakes, which had been mistaken for a sail, and the sail assumed to be the enemy. The crack of a stick in the garden was enough to raise the alarm, and testified to the reign of terror in which the people once lived--and, although peaceful in the main, life was not yet secure; for [52/53] Hageria asked to be allowed to wait before going up to Norfolk Island, as he feared his parents might be murdered by the enemy in his absence.

November saw Dr. Welchman back at Siota with Mr. Wilson; and once more there was an outbreak of dysentery resulting in five deaths; and when in the following year German measles broke out it became evident that the school was doomed, for parents refused to send their boys. It was therefore decided to close Siota for a time, nor did it ever again become a boys' school.

While at Siota Dr. Welchman had the care of Florida in the absence of a resident priest; but he returned to Bugotu the end of May, 1900, and from that time worked exclusively on Santa Isabel.

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