Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter IX. 1903-4

In June, 1903, the new Southern Cross was dedicated, and was taken out to Melanesia under the command of Captain Sinker, many members of the Mission Staff, old and new, being on board. But having been once passed as fit for work again Dr. Welchman would not wait, but started out at the beginning of the year. "I am not going to wait for the ship," he said, "I want to get back quickly." He caught the ship at Auckland, as she was starting on her last voyage and landed at Vulavu on the 5th May.

"I found everybody very well and had a warm welcome. Sam Devi, Catherine and the children and a heap of others all came to greet me: it was a delightful meeting."

He lost no time, but sent messengers at once down to the villages announcing his coming. On the 7th May the Southern Cross proceeded up the coast to Kia, where there was a hope of starting a school.

"That school," wrote Dr. Welchman later, "owed its existence to two factors, love and fear. For years attempts have been made to introduce Christianity there, but, in spite of Soga's personal friendship with the chief Rona, nothing could be done. He and his people laid the obj'ection to a school at each other's door. In truth, they none of them desired it: they found head-hunting too profitable and too amusing an occupation to give up lightly.

"However, a certain section, who often came to Sepi, would, of late years, have accepted a teacher on trial, had it not been for Rona's paramount influence. One of these [62/63] young men, Sagevaka, himself a sub-chief, came to Sepi about three years ago, and during his visit, a Christian maiden named Janet fell violently in love with him, and, in spite of the remonstrances of his friends, insisted on marrying him. She was comely: he accepted his fate and took her back with him. Being a young woman of will, she urged her husband to live away from Rona and to have a teacher whom he knew. He might have found some difficulty in the latter part, but as it happened Rona had been implicated in raids on Bugotu and was in fear of the Civil power, so he did not actually refuse but played a waiting game."

Kia is about ninety miles from Sepi with a large district in between absolutely depopulated by head-hunting raids. The difficulty of entrance to Kia is well known, and Dr. Welchman writes, "The ship was off Austria Sound in the early morning and went in, though the place was recognisable with difficulty from the chart which the Austrians had made. The captain made his way in, scraping the bottom in one place where it is marked nine fathoms and just before breakfast ran aground in a place which should have had ten fathoms. R.P. and I took the Bugotu men and went off in a boat to Kia. We left at 9 o'clock and reached Sagevaka's village at 12.30. He and another chief were there. We sent off a messenger at once to Rona, and then talked with them about a school: they are quite willing to have Ambrose and Selina if they will go. We waited till 3 o'clock, and, just as we were leaving, a messenger from Rona came to say that he was ill and could not come.

"On our way to Kia we had to shoot a most extraordinary rapid in a passage which was only about twenty yards wide at the outside, between large boulders, and caused by a difference in the level of the tide on each side [63/64] of the Island. I never saw the like in the Islands: we expected every moment that the boat would be dashed against the rocks. On our return the tide had turned and we shot down the passage again in the same way--a most curious place."

The next morning the ship succeeded in getting off the reef and made for Kaipito. Here Dr. Welchman was met by Ben Hageria and more than a hundred people with women and children, none of whom was wearing charms. Here also he found a warm welcome, old Figirima sending a large present of food as his greeting.

On the departure of the Southern Cross, Dr. Welchman made his headquarters for a time at Vulavu, picking up the threads of his work again. He had the joy of finding that under the Holy Spirit's care his work in the past had borne fruit, and the Bugotu Church had gone forward, instead of falling back, in his absence.

He took occasion while at Vulavu to talk to the people after Evensong, about starting a Prayer bell at 9 p.m., "When all should go home and say their prayers; after which no young people should go out alone without lights. This was agreed to, and the bell was rung that same night."

He visited Buala and talked to them about God, and urged them to have a teacher.

At Bagevu, where George Giladi was teaching, a party came down from the hills to hear about this new religion and have it explained. "After I had talked to them, a question arose as to an old man, Soboi, who was suspected by them of having an evil spirit (tidatho) in him, and was accused of having compassed the death of many people by means of the charm called bei. I was asked whether he ought to come with them when they join the present village as they say they will. I called him and found an elderly [64/65] mild looking old gentleman with a pleasant face. He denied having practised bei, or wishing to kill anyone. He said people told him that a tidatho possessed him, but he did not think so himself, and he wished me to decide. I inspected him, and told him that I was quite certain that there was none in him, whereat he smiled delightedly, and all the people began to laugh and said they must have made a mistake: all were relieved."

The quiet course of a teacher's Conference at Vulavu was suddenly broken by hasty tidings brought in that Ben Hageria's village had been burned, and six out of eleven houses had been destroyed, and among them Ben's own house with all his possessions. The originator of the fire was a four-year-old child, who had lighted a torch to look for something in the wall which was making a noise.

When Dr. Welchman visited Malabolo a few days later he found the people ranged in two rows, men on the one side and women on the other, waiting to greet him. They had been looking forward to show him their new village; instead, they were standing among the charred stumps of their houses. The first thing they had done was to rig up a shanty for Ben, and a long building to serve as school-house and Church.

From Malabolo, 750 feet above the sea, Dr. Welchman made a stiff climb of three hours to Juleka, 1,800 feet above sea level. The visit is interesting as an example of his method in starting a Christian village. He gave himself a short rest, after his breathless climb, in a shanty which had been put up for him, and then took the assembled people "into Johnson's, the teacher's house, and gave them an account of the Faith. They were all very friendly and I counted sixty-seven. Before sunset I had another meeting in Johnson's house, after which I asked them to say [65/66] definitely, if they had made up their minds to follow the faith of Christ. There was a murmur of assent and two or three of them said, 'if we had not made up our minds should we be here to-day? Should we have thrown away our charms, and should we have agreed to leave our homes and make a new village here?' Thereupon I accepted them all as catechumens, and began prayers with them. In the evening we had talk on various matters concerning the place."

The next day, after one more talk, Dr.Welchman was off for another four and a half hours' walk, having no doubt been freshened up by the "quite cold night." He is now in the country of our old friend Figirima (Resubuka) and among the aged catechumens whom he accepts is Figirima himself, and it is decided to baptize him by the name of Abraham, "as he is the father of the faithful whom we hope to be a multitude in these parts." Thus does Figirima advance from his dark hiding place behind the screen into the light and freedom of the New Life, and stands openly beside the Font, no longer afraid.

Another event this year was a visit to Lord Howe Island to put down some work boys in company with Mr. Woodford, the Resident Magistrate, the description of which has a special interest.

"On arrival at Lord Howe we were met at the beach by four men carrying two ropes of new leaves or a creeper with leaves. One they passed under the boat and one over us. Then we went ashore and were met by the 'Missionary,' as he called himself, who sprinkled us with the juice of a young coconut, waved a broad ribbon of banana fibre against us, and brushed us with a leaf brush. Then we had a long talk with the king of the Island, a fine looking man. We visited the Gabu house which was full of figures of all [66/67] sorts of animals and charms hanging from the roof. The walls are made of coconut mats. The woodwork shows little else but coconut; there is scarcely any other wood on the Island. We walked to the cemetery, which was a surprise. It is very clean and neat; the graves lie closely side by side, and each grave has a headstone, some of them coloured. Some were wrapped in mats to let the paint harden before exposing it to the sun. The grave of Ouilah, the late king, had a much larger slab. A man, in a suit of black oil skins, was sitting on the wall at the foot (which was toward the west), and four women were sitting wailing, sometimes gently, sometimes loudly, and have done so for seven or eight months; they will continue wailing for four or five months more.

"Coming back we passed the canoe place, and I counted sixty-eight and I could see quite as many beyond. They were all dug-outs with outriggers, and built of drift wood. When we got back we found the boys, who had just taken their things ashore, being exorcised by the 'Missionary.' "

Little did Dr. Welchman think that thirty years later some of the Melanesian Brothers would land there carrying ashore the "Good News." Possibly some old men may still be alive who can tell of this visit of the Magistrate and "the Doctor."

Dr. Welchman had long felt the need of a place where he could assemble the teachers for a course of instruction, lasting a month or two, and for that he needed space for houses, Church and garden. The Island of Lilihigna, or Cockatoo Island as the traders called it, seemed to offer what was required. It lay at the south end of Bugotu not far from Vulavu, and was once the lurking place of head-hunters but now lay deserted. The purchase took some time to arrange, but eventually the land was made over to [67/68] the Mission as a gift by the owners: clearing began at once, and by the end of 1904 Lilihigna was ready for occupation.

In Captain Sinker's account of the ship's first voyage in 1905 he writes of Lilihigna, "When I was there last voyage it was just an island covered with huge trees and thick scrub, but with Dr. Welchman's usual energy he has had a portion cleared, which must have meant an awful lot of hard work, as some of the trees he had cut down are huge. On the island now are ten or eleven houses, quantities of yams, kumaras, etc., and coconut trees planted, a well sunk for water, boat sheds and a most delightful house built for Missionary ladies. Everything is splendid. Dr. Welchman is to be congratulated upon the rapid progress he has made."

The name Lilihigna was too closely associated with the old times of terror and bloodshed to be suitable for a Christian station of peace, and the new name of Mara na Tabu signifying "All Saints" was chosen by general consent.

Dr. Welchman has himself given a description of the daily life at Mara na Tabu:

"As soon as the Southern Cross was gone we began school. All the scholars had not yet arrived, but we do not wait for that, as we must make the most of our time, which is always too short for what we have to do. The first classes consisted of a number of teachers, about twenty, who come every two months or so for two days of classes. They begin on Tuesday night, so that the distant men may have time to leave after their Sunday duty: Wednesday and Thursday are given up entirely to classes, and we usually manage to get in one class on Friday morning before they leave to be home for Sunday again. This happens about every two months, and they seem to value the classes, both by the [68/69] excellent way in which they come, and by the copious notes they take of the subjects. Twice a day we have singing also, a much needed practice, which has had a good effect already in improving the music in our churches. There are always matters on which they need advice and help, so that each day is well filled. When they have departed we return to the regular routine of daily school and work.

"On ordinary days we have school on the New Testament directly after Morning Service; then biscuits are served out and they go to work till ten, when they come in to breakfast. During the heat of the day we have arithmetic and writing, followed by half an hour's sol-fa. In the afternoons they write their answers to questions on the morning's work, and after supper they come in to a class on the Old Testament or Prayer Book. Nearly always they petition for a little singing afterwards, especially if there is a new chant or hymn on hand.

"There are not many who cannot read; these are supposed to be taught before they are admitted to Mara na Tabu, but there are a few exceptions, and these Sam Devi takes.

"There is no difficulty about getting scholars; but it is a matter for regret that numbers must be limited in order to do justice to them.

"School had scarcely begun when an interruption occurred in the advent of a young man, working with one of the traders, who had scalded his legs badly with boiling tar. He needed constant dressing, and the owner of the Lily and Grace readily left him to my care, as he could get neither rest, quiet, nor proper attention on a small vessel. The very next day after his arrival a more serious case was brought; that of a native of Mala who had been shot in the back with a Mauser rifle. It was a bad case for the bullet [69/70] was deeply lodged and at first could not be located. The Resident Commissioner happened to pay me a friendly visit, in passing, and was readily impressed into service as chloroformist and through his aid I was able to locate the bullet in the shoulder blade, where it was doing no harm, and the man made a steady recovery. The Commissioner knew nothing till then of the accident, if it were so; but he took immediate steps to arrest the offender, who was duly tried, and got off fairly easily with a year's imprisonment. But he had also to wind up his affairs and leave the Protectorate. Men are not allowed to abuse the natives with impunity here.

"One of our first works at Mara na Tabu was to dig a well for the women's use. Until now we had only one well, the water of which could be used for drinking as well as bathing. It was always a nuisance to find out who was at the well, or who was going to bathe; we managed to divide the bathing hour fairly, but when folks have not been used to clocks, it is hard work to make them understand times, and sometimes the women were late in drawing their water, or the men had been dawdling on their way home from work, and somebody had to wait. It took a little consideration to find a suitable spot well out of sight of the other well, yet not too far. It was flagged with stones, and a causeway laid outside, so that both the wells should be equally good. It was a great relief not to have to stand and shout to know if anyone was at the well. And it pleased them all, as they do not bathe in the same place, if circumstances permit; and even though times may be separate, they do not approve of using the same spot.

"We had matrimonial difficulties, sometimes serious. One teacher, who had been married some years, had been living apart from his wife, because she would not follow [70/71] him to the bush where his home and school lay, and she was backed up by her relatives, who inflamed her against him. Many charges were laid against him, which proved to be either untrue or grossly exaggerated, except one; that he had beaten her, and it was not much to be wondered at, for she was an exasperating little mortal: but he had to eat humble pie for it. The rule at Mara na Tabu is that all married teachers shall bring their wives with them. Last year he was permitted to come alone, as it was not his fault, but when he appeared next time without her, he was sent to fetch her, and took Hugo Goravaka (who was on a visit to Bugotu) with him and, not daring to face the angry crowd of relations, sent Hugo to negotiate. With a good deal of argument and moral 'suasion' he got her away. She stayed a few days in a very sulky condition, during which she showed a remarkable readiness of epithet to her husband, and then bolted home again. When sent for again she refused to come; but later in the evening her friends thought better of it and brought her over. Her home is only a mile or so away. After that her history was quarrels, escapes, and compulsory returns. One day she was seen wading across the reef, and on being intercepted by Sam Devi in a canoe, explained that she was only going to wash her clothes; unfortunately she had only the clothes she was wearing so it was not even a clever excuse. But in the afternoon she went with the women to fetch water and bolted again. How many times she was brought back it would be hard to say, and how many times she was 'talked to' harder still: but prayer and patience will do much, and in the end she gave in, even to going of her own free will with her husband to his bush home, where she seemed to all appearances to be perfectly happy.

"Sometimes the women quarrelled, and then things were [71/72] unpleasant; for they would not cook food, except for the workmen, whom they dare not neglect. Neither dare they leave me without vegetables, so that sometimes two or three days would pass before I was aware of anything more than a stiffness among them. They always got a good wigging, for their quarrels were about such silly things; a word would be said in joke, and then one would fire up, and retail it with additions, until they were at daggers drawn. It is curious how hardly religion conquers racial antipathies; it was always Bush against Beach, just as it was in the old days of fighting, and perhaps shows on what slight grounds the old feuds rested. Then after a lecture, impartially distributed all round, there would be peace. We had two or three such; once they declared that they would go home; but when they not only heard that they might, for I was sick of the lot of them, but had given orders to the workmen to transplant the lot of them to the other shore, from whence they could go home how they liked, they looked doubtful, and presently I saw them all busy in the kitchen, on quite friendly terms. That was the last, for shortly after I got rid of a couple, who were the starters of every row, and peace reigned. This worst row of all was the result of one woman saying in joke to another, 'What big mouths you bush people have,' i.e. 'What a lot you eat!' which was true, and therein lay the sting.

"There was a long piece of land running all down the middle of the island, which was below the level of the high tide in places, and separated from the sea by a bank at each end. It was always flooded, and bred mosquitoes by the million. We cut drains at each end to allow the water to run, and then carried sand from the shore to raise the level. It could not be done continuously, but was a bit of stock work to be done when other work was at a standstill. The [72/73] teachers always brought each a few men on their School days, and it became a regular thing to ask those who did not school, and who would only have loafed about, to lend a hand, getting a small present for their work. In this way we had the pleasure of seeing the water disappear, and, with the water, the bulk of our mosquitoes.

"Our fowls have been a success so far. We started with five fowls, three were cocks, and now there are upwards of sixty. They have provided us with festival meals, and served for roast beef at Christmas, and lamb for Easter.

"It is a strong testimony to the condition of fear which ever brooded over Bugotu in old days, that even now we are startled at the sound of a conch at unusual hours:--we were sitting in our house after supper, waiting for the school hour, when the sound of a distant conch was evident. School and prayers on the coast were over long ago, and even now no one blows a conch at night for fun. On the beach in the direction of the sound was gathered the whole population, waiting for the next peal. 'There it is! Who can it be?' All were a little scared; but a moment's thought told that no successful head-hunter would blow his conch coming into Bugotu as this evidently was, and then Samuel Devi hit on the most likely thing. 'It is a turtling party, and they have got one.' Nearer and nearer came the canoe, and he was proved to be right; for there was a fine turtle, sent as a present to Mara na Tabu. School was rather late that night, it is to be feared, but everybody feasted on turtle next day till the whole place reeked of it.

"Mara na Tabu has become a place for marriages of a certain character. Those in which there has been dispute in the legality, or those in which trouble is likely to arise. The rule in such cases is to have the banns published, wherever objectors are likely to arise: this is not necessarily [73/74] the present abode of the parties but is the fairest way of doing things. If no objection is raised the chief is told, and with his permission the rite is performed; if an objection is lodged, it is left to the chief to decide, and on his verdict the marriage depends. One marriage was interesting in that the fair bride had revelled in five different husbands. Her first husband went to Queensland, and she reported him as dead but he was not; so No. 2 retired when he thought there was a possibility of his return; one tired of her, she tired of another; then, before her baptism, she was married, Bugotu fashion, to a man at Nagotano; a few years after a heathen declared that she had been assigned to him in childhood, and carried her off, she consenting. It took much time to bring her to a sense of her sin, and the man was furiously obstinate for a long time, but at last they were both brought to reason, and she returned to her lawful husband: but it was felt by all her friends that nothing but a marriage at Mara na Tabu could bind such a fickle creature, and she was brought over the twenty-five miles of sea and was married. She is living quietly enough with her husband at Nagotano according to the latest reports. The man who had taken her begged me to take him with me to Bugotu so that he might be out of the way of temptation, a remarkable thing for a heathen to say, and he came. He is living at Vulavu, and lately, to the surprise of everyone, asked for admission to the baptismal class. He was not refused.

"The women worked at the gardens with energy, occasionally they probably let off steam on them, and under Catherine's (Sam Devi's wife) supervision we had always an ample supply of food, and only for a month or so had to draw on our stock of rice.

"There has been a marked improvement in the matter [74/75] of book knowledge and external work; of the internal, who shall speak? God alone knoweth the heart of man, but if outward signs may be reckoned, it was no slight victory for the Master that the woman was won for her husband, that the quarrelsome people listened to reason, and that all rebukes were taken humbly. May God grant that the spiritual advance has kept pace with the secular knowledge. So we still pray for His goodwill towards us."

Among the teachers gathered at Mara na Tabu at the beginning of 1904 was Hugo Hebala, who had come for special tuition before going up to Norfolk Island to prepare for the diaconate. He had been doing excellent work at Lageba, and there was a plan for his removing to Buala to form a large village there, which was carried out later. When Dr. Welchman first put the idea of the diaconate before Hugo, telling him to think it over and talk it over with Hugo Goravaka, the latter told Dr. Welchman that he and Sam Devi had agreed long before that Hebala was fit for Orders, but had kept their counsel; they testified to his zeal and piety. Both as deacon and as priest, Hugo Hebala's life bore out the truth of this testimony.

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