Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter XI. 1906-8

A rest of three months in New Zealand took away the look of age and weariness which had shocked Dr. Welchman's friends, and he returned on the ship in September looking comparatively well.

He was now fifty-six years old, considerably older than most of the staff on board, and the light-hearted atmosphere grated sometimes on the man who had been in closer contact than most with the sorrows of life. He did not quite realise that their light-heartedness was the natural reaction from months of loneliness and responsibility; that this time on board was, probably, their last bit of holiday relaxation and fellowship before again taking up their Island work. Dr. Welchman also deplored the fact that the solid theological books were neglected for the lighter literature provided by kind friends. But he got little sympathy from the Bishop, who encouraged the gaiety and was the centre of it all, knowing well that a serious vein ran underneath, and that the rule was observed of a time for quiet and solid reading in the early morning.

Dr. Welchman longed for and welcomed Bugotu all the more; and the welcome he received was very warm, as was that given to Hugo Hebala, who was on board also, having been brought back to be ordained among his own people.

There is no diary available for this voyage, but an eyewitness has left a short record of the Ordination at Mara na Tabu.

[92] "We put Dr. Welchman down at Sepi, which was plunged into deep mourning by the death of the second chief's wife, Dora. On this account none of us landed and the ship went on to Mara na Tabu. Those of us who were new to this part were speculating where it would be, and had just decided that the Island we were skirting could not be it, when suddenly the ship rounded the further end and a lovely home-like view met our eyes. A peaceful strait of water with the Ruth lying at anchor on the right, a low-lying spit of land planted with coconuts and, to complete the picture, a tiny wharf.

"We had a warm reception from the few people there, Catherine doing the honours of the place very ably. Dr. Welchman's house is native built with a sanded floor. The Church, too, is native in all its details. In place of hangings at the east end there are beautiful screens of plaited bamboo, black and white. The seats are superior in width and stability to most we have seen, and there is a Baptistry formed by the same bamboo screens as at the east end. "There are several school houses, an iron-roofed store, and an ingenious device for catching rain water. Catherine's house has a partition and raised sleeping places with bamboo poles running the length of the house, on which to hang their clothes."

Oct. 19th. "We were in the boat by 6.30 a.m. to attend Hugo's ordination. The view was lovely in the early morning light, and the foreground was ablaze with the coloured dresses of the assembled crowd. We made straight for the Church, where four chairs had been placed for us in the Baptistry, an attention we appreciated more fully when we saw Mr. Drew balancing himself precariously on a fractional space at the end of a bench.

"Presently the congregation filed in, two of the teachers [92/93] acting as sidesmen, while Catherine overlooked the women. It was pretty to see her come down the aisle to meet Clara, Hugo's wife, and lead her up to a seat on the front bench, Clara following with the gentle dignity that characterises her. Then the hymn was given out, and the procession of some twenty-five teachers entered, followed by Clement Marau, Hugo Goravaka and the Bishop, Mr. Durrad acting as his Chaplain.

"Impressive and touching as had been the ordination at Norfolk Island of the three deacons from the Banks' Islands, this was even more so from the fact that those, from among whom, and with whose unanimous consent, Hugo had been selected, now stood in the Church as witnesses. Here, more than ever, did one feel that strange force of concentrated thought which charges the air to an almost unbearable degree.

"The Bishop gave his charge, speaking of the Ministry to which Hugo had been called, with its higher claims and increased suffering, and of the divine strength that came with it. He exhorted the people to help Hugo with their prayers, to be loyal to him, to believe no tales against him, to believe nothing that they heard, only what they saw. The service took nearly two hours, but it did not seem long."

The ship also visited Vella Lavella and Bai where Mr. Andrews was working. It was not a popular anchorage owing to the sulphur springs, which turned the ship's white paint black, and necessitated an instant cleaning after departure.

Bai was an example of the beginning of a school village in a place where a very short time before the people had been head-hunters. The path up from the shore was of the steepest, simply because the track went straight up with hardly any foothold. On the small plateau, commanding [93/94] a magnificent view, there were as yet only three houses, that of the teacher, one unfinished house, and that of Mr. Andrews. The latter was partitioned off to form the school, and there he read prayers. The floor was of areca palm slightly raised from the ground: the black-board was home-made, blackened with muki, the nut used by the natives for caulking the planks of their canoes, and for inlay work. Here Mr. Andrews worked wholeheartedly, winning the love and confidence of the natives, and the ship left him happy in the belief that he was beginning a work that was to grow and endure.

On going round the villages after the ship had left, Dr. Welchman found in some places a revival of the old sorceries and charms. At Resubuka he was told of a man who had gone after his baptism to live in another place. His garden having failed, he applied to a relation for help, who told him to take a banana and a string of white shell-money, and burn them in the garden. He did so, but without any result; and his son Samuel, happening to see him, exclaimed, "What are you doing? You have just promised to put away all these things: do you want to die?" The father was much ashamed at being found out, and, strange to say, he fell ill shortly and "swelled up in his body."

During Dr. Welchman's absence the old chief Figirima had passed away in the Faith, at the beginning of the year. A man was now accused of having killed him by bei, viz. taking some bit of chewed betel nut belonging to him, saying an incantation over it and thus causing his death,--a form of sorcery prevalent throughout Melanesia. The only way of clearing the accused in the eyes of the world was to make him declare with his hand on the grave of Figirima, in the presence of witnesses, that he had neither worked, nor tried to work bei on the old chief. Having made this [94/95] declaration he added voluntarily, "Why should I want to kill him? I didn't want to, for he was a good friend to me." There was a strong suspicion that the accuser himself was the guilty one, being one of the three who would profit by the chief's death. Later he fled into the bush, having been all his life afraid of being bei'd, and at last went mad with fear, and died in the bush. An incident surely illustrating those words in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "Who through fear of death were all their life-time subject to bondage."

At Buma the mane tidatho, i.e. Spirit Man, came to Dr. Welchman, who writes: "He is a genial old gentleman, who told me that he did not work with charms, but the spirit talked to him at night. He hung a bunch of bananas in his house of which he ate from time to time, and the tidatho came and ate also, and so kept in touch with him. He told me freely of his visitors, among them were some of the baptized and one communicant." Acting on this information Dr. Welchman called up the delinquents, put back two who were catechumens, and finally preached on tidatho worship and the power of Christ's death against it. At Midoru the greeting was cold and no house ready for him. Quarrels were the outward sign of a decline from grace. Here he heard of a man who had missed a bit of betel nut and pepper leaf from his bag (the small bag carried by every native containing his betel nut and pepper leaf) and had fallen ill. Another man had also missed a bit of each from his bag, and feared that he might be bei'd also. "So the wives made up their minds to find out, and went to the bush and asked a certain Ruana to invoke the tidatho, which he did, and told the women that the tidatho had taken the missing bits and by a piece of leger de main had produced them; the men recognised (!) them as theirs, and Walter got well." There were other instances of bei, [95/96] and also of heathen wailing and unlawful extortion of fines. "There is 'a bad spirit in the place,'" adds Dr.Welchman, "and the teacher only sits and smiles. It has been a most unhappy day."

There was a most unpleasant assembly the following morning when Dr. Welchman went through all the points he had brought against them. He told them that those who invoked the tidatho were ex-communicate, that he would baptize no one, nor could he give them Holy Communion in their present state of mind: that he would leave them to themselves, which was apparently their wish from their unwillingness to receive him or to find him accommodation. Also he forbade anyone to come to Mara na Tabu until they could think and behave more like Christians.

"I said I would shake hands with none of them, as they had pleaded yesterday that they had only followed the old customs; to which the obvious reply was that they were supposed to have put away the old heathenism; but, since they preferred to follow them, it was not an old custom to shake hands; it was a mark of friendship."

So he shook off the Midoru dust from his feet and departed, leaving them all standing before their houses, somewhat woe-begone in looks, watching the departing canoe.

We read of a happy sequel the next year when he found the people in a more sober and Christian state of mind, when three penitents were received back into the Church, and when, after supper, "many came and sat round, and we talked as in the old days. It is a happy change."

At Barasaka a happier experience awaited Dr. Welch-man; for there a sorcerer, Siama by name, came to see him, who said that he had given up the practice and had [96/97] come to prayers, but that people had come and worried him into doing it again. His mind, however, was now firmly made up to refuse to have anything more to do with sorcery, and he wished to seek Baptism. Before admitting him as catechumen Siama was told that he should bring his instruments of sorcery, which he did that afternoon, going across the valley on purpose to get them. They were easily carried, being "a very dirty bag full of manuni (a leaf steeped in fragrant oil), and a tin match-box in which were some scented beans."

In a later interview Siama told Dr. Welchman "that he worked by dreams only; no one instructed him, but he perceived that he was in communication with the spirits Tadone, Niodi and Gonu. In a dream they told him what spices and leaves to use for their habitation. The bag of leaf strips he kept hung up in his house. He never sacrificed to it nor to the tombs of the spirits, indeed, he did not know where they were. He was mostly called for in cases of sickness; then he would tell the spirits his errand and bid them accompany him. He then went to the sick person's house and lay on the bed next to him, when his spirits would hold converse with those plaguing the patient, and order their departure. If they were not willing the spirits would argue the matter out with them. They did not always succeed, but he did not know why, nor did he take any steps to gain their goodwill."

When the Church was dedicated to St. Gregory at this village, where there were, as yet, only twenty-four baptized persons, the people brought their offerings. These would have put our English sidesmen to some embarrassment, when it came to the collection, for their bags would have proved quite inadequate in size. The difficulty was met by spreading a cloth on the Sanctuary step, and on it were [97/98] laid five stone axes, one stone adze, two spears, seven clubs, four pieces of tappa cloth (beaten out bark), one small breast-plate of shell, fifty-six pieces of engraved turtle shell, and last, and highest of all in value, Siama's "sorcerer's bag," which he laid down as a sign of his renunciation of sorcery. With it went all chances of worldly gain and fame.

This was a year of mingled disappointment and cheer. At Thathaje there had been incessant quarrellings and trouble, till Hugo Sote, the son of Samuel Devi, was sent as teacher. His coming brought peace and the people were prevailed on to end their quarrels. "They confessed their faults one to another, made compensation for injury done, withdrew demands for fines, and became a happy family."

Sepi, one of the earliest Christian villages, was causing much anxiety, having fallen from its first state of grace, and there was a good deal of immorality. "They are steeped in greed to make money," Dr. Welchman wrote, "that and immorality always go hand in hand. Ellison is doing his best. I much wished him to go to Norfolk Island to read for deacon's Orders, but his relations would not hear of his going so far away. It was a great disappointment to both of us, but he was taken ill with pleurisy about the time we were discussing his chances of going: that seemed to put a stop to it, as he would not be able to stand the much colder climate of Norfolk Island."

Vulavu, on the other hand, was going on steadily in spite of the fact that the principal man of the place had fallen into sin. Following the usual rule, their first impulse was to break up the village and scatter, "but Patteson Boto kept his head, and, being supported by the elder men, he persuaded them to sit still, and they had the wisdom to follow his advice. I went there as soon as I could, but they had all settled down again. The man made full [98/99] confession and took his punishment in the fear of God: but it must have been a bitter pill to swallow."

At Logahaja sixty-one of the seventy-nine adults that he had baptized on that memorable day were presented for Confirmation, and their collections for the year amounted to nearly £6.

"Kia," Dr. Welchman writes, "is a different place from last year. A new spirit has taken the people; and instead of being a noisy, self-assertive crowd, they were quite modest and gentle in their behaviour. It looks as if they had at last found the Way. Instead of the patronising 'We'll-put-up-with-you-for-a-bit' sort of air, which was natural to them, they came rather shyly, talked quietly, and were all ready to get my traps ashore in their small canoes. That was another sign of grace. It looked promising, and I decided to examine some of them for Baptism. Ambrose and I picked out about twenty for Baptism, and of these I found nine who satisfied me that they realised the step they were about to take. I accepted them, but conditionally, for they had yet to pass a more crucial test.

"Next morning I called the three chiefs, and reminded them of a former talk and the failure that ensued. They became very grave, for they saw what was coming, guessed what was to be done. I told them that, knowing their past lives as I did, I should require them to show that their profession of faith and repentance was not merely verbal; that they must take me to the nearest of the most sacred places, and in my presence begin to destroy the signs of superstition and cruelty. A momentary glance passed between them, and then they said very quietly, 'We will do whatever you think right.' I told them I wished to burn all the skulls, which were trophies of past crimes, and to desecrate the tombs of the tidathos: that it would be well [99/100] to take only a few men, so that it might be as serious as possible, and that I should suggest that the work should be done by the very men who had committed the murders. It was rather a large order, and I fully expected to have some objections raised: but their minds had been made up that they would have to do something of the sort, and they agreed to everything. I sent them away to make their choice of men.

"Next morning, Saturday, directly after morning service, the canoes were got ready and we started. I was beset by a small crowd, asking to be allowed to come too; but it was not to be a matter for levity, and I forbade any boys or even young men, who had not shed blood, to come with us. All the candidates for Baptism were there except one who was ill, and he sent a deputy, three or four catechumens and one or two heathen, whom I had not expected to see. They brought axes and firesticks with them. We soon ran round a point into a beautiful bay, and waded ashore over the encircling reef. Then we climbed up the precipitous side of a hill about fifty feet high. The ridge was very narrow, only about four feet wide, and in the sixty or seventy feet of its length were four well-built tombs: two of them very old and two newer ones. They were covered with flat slabs of coral, on one of which were marks of fire; round the bases were ranged in disorder some twenty skulls, each of which had a wound in it. One had been shorn in two, evidently by a tomahawk, it was such a clean cut; the others had been made with a club.

"The heads were all collected and heaped in the middle of the ridge while the axe men cut firewood. Then came the work on the tombs. Here there was a hesitation, for it is not a pretty matter, nor a trifling one, to desecrate the tomb of one's ancestor. And this one was the tomb of the [100/101] great-grandfather or great-great-uncle of Tivo, whose name had long been held in reverence. It was but momentary; I took the first slab and threw it down the hill into the sea, thus uncovering the tomb: then the others joined, and I had no more to do. Stone after stone tumbled down the hill, and in a few moments nothing was left but the foundation. All the bones were taken out and added to the heap of skulls; and the other tombs were treated in like manner. Then they made a large bonfire over the relics of victims, conquerors and conquered, and, as the smoke ascended into the bright sky, we gathered round the pyre and offered up a prayer to the Father of all men that He would accept the sacrifice. It was a solemn business altogether and nobody talked much; there was no idle chatter, and what was said was grave. They seemed thoroughly to understand the utter break with heathenism which they had made by their own act. When we returned to the village there was a large crowd assembled to watch the smoke; that was all they could see, for the island was hidden from the mainland. But they, too, were quiet: there was no joking.

"On the following Sunday morning, I baptized nine of them, one being a woman. We used the new Church for the first time, since we can now say that there is a nucleus of a Church there.

"Surely we may now say 'Kia has come to the Light.' Pray God that they stand true to their baptismal vows, and that the Lord may add to the Church such as shall be saved."

The training of his teachers formed the most important part of Dr. Welchman's work; he never seemed to grow weary in it. He never spared reproof; his best teachers, whose names are well known for their excellent work, [101/102] getting some sharp raps when they lapsed from the high standard set before them. None the less they came to consult him in all their difficulties and troubles, certain of a sympathetic hearing and wise counsel, and on his part he discussed everything with them. A teacher who had been having strange dreams, and who was altogether beset by temptations, and in consequence wished to give up teaching, was told to go and do hard work every day, besides receiving counsel as to his inner life. That teacher to-day is doing faithful work.

Dr. Welchman took infinite pains with his classes and held Conferences regularly at which all matters were thoroughly discussed. At one of these he urged them to revive and encourage the old children's games, and to encourage the elder ones to play games too, considering them a wholesome outlet and a preventive of undesirable talk and ways.

His concern for suitable marriages never abated, recognising as he did that the whole well-being of the community rested on the Christian home. He encouraged large families by giving the mothers a small present. In one place the marriage market had been suddenly flooded by the five widows of Goregita, a heathen chief who was rather a troublesome person. They had all applied for Baptism on gaining their freedom, and Dr. Welchman hoped that a certain disappointed suitor might find consolation in one of them.

In his early days he advocated very early marriages, but he changed his views; and at one of the last Conferences he warned the teachers against them: the men, he said, must be content with betrothal.

It was on the second voyage in 1907 that the Bishop reluctantly withdrew the Mission workers from Vella [102/103] Lavella. He wrote to Mr. Goldie, the head of the Wesleyan Mission, stating that he found they could not remain without coming into conflict with the Wesleyans, and therefore had withdrawn his teachers.

If this was a great disappointment to Dr. Welchman, it was a still more bitter blow to Mr. Andrews, who had put his whole heart into the work. It was no less so to the people, who came on board to complain and expostulate, begging them to stay: one man becoming quite excited. But the withdrawal was carried out, and, as Mr. Andrews had for some time longed for Ordination, this break in his work made it wise for him to go up at once to St. John's College, Auckland, where special facilities were offered him. In 1911, after his ordination to the priesthood at the same time that Ellison Gito was ordained deacon, Mr. Andrews returned to Bugotu, where he died of overwork in the following year. Of him Bishop Wilson wrote, "Men around him grew better and lived nobler for his presence. White men and natives alike respected him for his sheer goodness."

Once more Dr. Welchman made a round of the villages before beginning another School term at Mara na Tabu. At Resubuka he found the people still sad over the loss of their chief. Sitting outside in the evening they told Dr. Welchman that they were unwilling to leave their ridge, because they would be leaving Figirima who was buried there, and who had told them not to go away, but to cleave to the Church and school. They also said that they would not dance that coming Christmas out of respect and affection for his memory. One is glad that the diary permitted one to follow the old chief on his journey out of the darkness of heathenism up the path that shines more and more unto the Perfect Day.

It was in one of these long evening talks, sitting in the [103/104] starlight, that the subject of reading came up: some found it very difficult. Dr. Welchman put before them the real reason of reading, which was to enable them to think about what they read; and some of his hearers were relieved to find that they could become enlightened through hearing, even if they failed in being able to read.

At Vatele he notes that "A man who intended to leave and go elsewhere, on some offence, altered his mind, because his wife had pitched into him so for taking her away from the Church to a heathen place, and had cried so much, that he could not stand it and decided to stop where they were. The next time I saw the young lady she was radiant. One for the ladies!"

Sad news met him at Kia, where things had seemed so encouraging. Ambrose had fallen into sin, and must be removed, a terrible blow. And to make it more difficult the people could not see why he should go. "They could not see that his sin was any detriment to his teaching a life of purity. It does not say much for their morals, and less still for their appreciation of the religion of Christ. It is difficult, almost hopeless at times, to make them see what sin is, and they need much prayer, since only the Holy Spirit can convince them of sin: they are not fit for Baptism. Fortunately, during these winter months they are all away nutting, and by the time they reassemble a temporary teacher will be available, and Sagevaka will be there to help him." He took Ambrose and his wife back to Mara na Tabu.

Earlier in the year a tragedy occurred at Mara na Tabu. "On March 19th," wrote Dr. Welchman, "a note was sent to me at school while I was setting the lessons. Before I had finished I heard a great cry, and went out, reading [104/105] the letter as I went. Poor Samuel! Poor Catherine! Hugo, the pride of their heart, was drowned off the reef at That-haje on his way home from here yesterday. His father warned him against returning home by canoe, for there had been a hard blow, and the surf was heavy at Thathaje, but he thought he could manage it safely, and went alone. A heavy roller upset his canoe in the middle of the bay, but he righted it, and went on. Half a mile further a second roller swept him into the surf, his canoe was dashed to pieces on the reef, and he was drowned opposite his own house within sight of his wife and a score of men who were powerless to help him. His body was not found. It was a great blow to us all, and has left Thathaje without a teacher for the second time within twelve months. Hugo was beginning to make his mark there, and had succeeded in making peace on more than one occasion. They are a turbulent crowd needing a strong hand over them, and there is no one else I know who is competent."

Dr. Welchman might have added, "Poor Agatha," for she and Hugo were a devoted couple, more openly so than is usual in Melanesia. The next day Dr. Welchman adds, "Sam and Catherine are both much broken down over the loss of Hugo. Sam took his classes, but I have provided for Catherine's." Two months later the birth of a little girl brought some comfort to their hearts and she was baptized, at Agatha's wish, by the names of Rosalie Hilda.

Dr. Welchman's last report gives an account of this final School at Mara na Tabu, and it will form a fitting end to this chapter--"The Mara na Tabu School for teachers opened at the Epiphany, and in a week most had assembled, and we were in full swing of work. Matins, Scripture lesson for the whole school, except the few non-readers, followed by two and a half hours out-door work. Mid-day school [105/106] for writing, arithmetic and sol-fa, and evening Scripture lesson for the first class which numbers thirty. The second class goes to Samuel Devi to have their reading polished; there are only five of them. Catherine takes the one woman and eight children who are still only in letters and small words, and the first class in turn teach the males, who are in the same standard. Confirmation and baptismal classes are held on Wednesday and Sunday. St. Matthew's Gospel and the Pentateuch were the subjects for the first half of the year. St. John's Gospel and the Book of the Acts for the second half. It must be understood that there was three months holiday, while I went visiting. They are all very keen on their schooling, and the most effective punishment that I have in hand is to forbid them to come to class. Yet they are not always being buttered for their knowledge and their application, but rather the contrary. At one time the women got very careless in their singing and so they were condemned to keep silence in the Chapel for a week, and we had only male voices. It was a great trial to hear the men speak and not be able to chime in. It was more than flesh and blood could stand, and next week they made no mistakes.

"Arithmetic is our weakest point. Combination of figures is a great difficulty to them, each figure having a separate identity in their minds; individualism is quite a Melanesian characteristic, so it quite naturally follows that they should apply it to their sums. But since 'Nought' means 'Nothing' they cannot see why they should not omit it altogether, without considering its effect upon the neighbouring figures. Indeed to them it could have no effect. They cheerfully take 925 from 286 and leave 61, unless they surreptitiously borrow an imaginary ten and leave 361. It puzzles them altogether, but they are getting [106/107] on and begin to see reason for things. One, far beyond his fellows it is true, can do compound division.

"The teachers have met here in good numbers four times for instruction and settlement of village business. A fifth will take place at the end of this month, October. We are going steadily through the Thirty-Nine Articles, in which they are much interested.

"An old school has been revived at Nuro, taking the place of Lageba in the same bay, which was deserted by the Buala people. Four new schools have been set up among the heathen, who are anxious to prove their acceptance of Christianity by having 'collections,' though there is no regular prayer in two of them. The other two are a little older, and are doing well under Wilson Doedoke at Kamanga, and George Giladi at Moro. A fifth will be started at Koakota by Thomas Gogomu as soon as this school season closes.

"One of the great features at our meetings now is the issuing of banns of marriage. No special ones allowed. This plan of marriage by banns has been in force for two years and has been freely accepted by the people: in that time forty-three licenses have been granted. Everyone belonging to the Church has to be 'Called' properly, and the objections have been very few before, and none afterwards, whereas they used to be plentiful and were a source of quarrels. We have much to thank God for, and not the least of His mercies is the blessed monotony in which we live.

"Pray for us that we may not become lethargic."

On the 11th May he speaks of the last three days before the teachers all left as a delightful time. "I felt very happy so that it almost seemed as if the end of all must be at hand."

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