Project Canterbury

Florence Buchanan
The Little Deaconess of the South Seas

By Emlyn Jones

New York: The Macmillan Co., 1921.
London: The Central Board of Missions, 1921.

Chapter II. Treasures of the South Seas

THE final fate of the South Sea Islander is as hard to predict, as it is to say how he came to be heir to a thousand isles. Points of a sunken continent, these islands are said to be, kept up to sea-level by the busy coral builder. Well have they been called "Isles of Enchantment," with their evergreen woods, their warm blue seas that lap the dazzlingly white beaches. Night after night the stars, wonderful in size and number, blaze in the deep blue of the sky; while on moonlit nights the scene becomes one of transcendent beauty. The Islanders, where they are remote from traders, live a life of easy indolence; their wants are few, and easily provided for by sea and soil. Furniture they have none, beyond woven mats on the earthen floors. Their grass houses are built in a few days over a framework of saplings. Clothing ranges from nothing, to a lava lava (or waist decoration) of grass or painted, paper-like bark; delicious fruits such as the banana, paw-paw, passion fruit, mango, and pineapple are eaten raw, while fish, turtle and vegetable foods are cooked over a fire of sticks, or wrapped up in big green leaves and deliciously roasted in a ground oven of hot stones. The Pacific Islanders love the sea, swimming, surfing and fish-spearing forming part of their everyday occupations, while many hours are wiled away hollowing out their tree canoes, plaiting the coco-nut fibre into ropes, and shaping the pandanus-leaf sails. Their artistic instinct finds an outlet in the carving and colour-[8/9]ing of geometric patterns on their canoes, food-bowls, war weapons, and even at the cost of excruciating pain, on their own shining brown skins. When it is added that the Islanders are intensely religious, it seems as if to live and die a South Sea Islander "were Paradise enow". But the sum and substance of their religion--and the shadow darkening all their lives--is fear, the fear of evil spirits. The trees, the rivers, the moonbeams, the wind, the stones, and the hearts of men themselves may, at any moment, become their agents, and at all costs the evil spirit must be propitiated or driven out the basic motive of all their cruel and often immoral religious rites, including cannibalism itself; is "Fear". Their language contained no words signifying love or forgiveness until they were grafted in by the pioneer missionaries.

From such homes came the Kanakas whom Miss Buchanan found on the Bundaberg sugar plantations, when she came to her brother at Cakwood in 1888. The seamy side of the Kanaka traffic between the South Sea Islands and Queensland was unknown to Miss Buchanan, for the planters themselves were often quite unaware of the vile means by which the recruiters in the South Seas often obtained the "Boys". Once they reached Queensland they were generally well treated, though, on some of the plantations, they learned little but what was evil, and the death-rate was very high. In 1882 a Royal Commission was demanded to inquire into the Kanaka traffic. That an inquiry was needed is seen from such an extract as the following from the Report issued in 1885: "Natives were seduced onboard by false pretences; some were forcibly kidnapped; the nature of their engagement was never fully explained to them; they had no comprehension of the nature of the work they had to do; they attached their marks to contracts which were deliberately misrepresented to them." The verdict was, the traffic must cease in 1890.

"The one bright spot in this dark story," says Mr. [9/10] Paton in "The Kingdom in the Pacific," "is the earnestness with which the missionaries and Christian planters in Queensland sought to win the Kanakas for Christ" Miss Buchanan (whose health improved considerably under the influence of the equable heat of Queensland) threw herself with enthusiasm into the work of teaching those Kanakas who came to the classes the English language and the Christian religion. The work had been begun six years before, by Miss Florence Youn, who lived at "Fairymead," an adjoining plantation, and it increased so rapidly that it became necessary to organise it under paid workers.

In order not to be a burden on her brother's time by getting him to drive her backwards and forwards to Fairymead, Miss Buchanan determined to learn, to ride a horse; but in so doing, she was thrown, sustaining such dreadful injuries to her head that for some days her life was despaired of. She regained consciousness, however, and after some weeks was allowed to get up, but found she could only walk on one foot; this necessitated weeks more on a couch, during which by patient exercise the foot was gradually restored to strength. However, her busy brain was pondering future schemes of work, while her brother, seeing that she had no thought but to begin work again with the "Boys" as soon as she should be strong enough, built for her a school-church, that her work might be made easier. Her brother's wife, who nursed her so tenderly, tells how her great suffering at this time proved quite inadequate to damp her ever fun-loving spirit; or to quench her ever-constant desire to be doing something to make somebody happy, especially children; so some of the long hours on her couch were wiled away in making ragdolls, upon whose bald heads she glued, with many a joke, tops and tonsures of her own glossy black hair, which had been shorn off in her illness. She always after kept her hair short, and close brushed to the shapely round head. The horse accident [10/11] left a permanent scar on Miss Buchanan's forehead, and a legacy of acute recurring headaches, which at intervals laid her low for two or three days at a time.

So great was the joy that Miss Young and Miss Buchanan found in the bringing of the knowledge of Jesus Christ to the Kanakas, that a strong enduring friendship grew up between them. In 1890 the Queensland Government required that Kanaka labour on the plantations should end in three years; at the same time an urgent request came to Miss Young to take up missionary work in China. Far into the night in Miss Buchanan's house at N. Bundaberg where she now lived, the two Florences weighed their inclination to remain together against their apparent duty to part, with the result that Florence Young went to China and Florence Buchanan took over her work as Treasurer of the South Sea Evangelical Mission in Queensland.

In 1893 came the great flood which ruined the plantations, and Miss Buchanan, whose health at this time was giving great cause for anxiety, was rescued from her bed and carried to safety. It was many months before she was sufficiently strong to think of taking up work again, but while she was recovering she read an appeal made by the Rev. W. Maitland Woods, of Thursday Island, for a worker among the Japanese, Chinese and South Sea Islanders, and offered to go herself.

Arriving in Thursday Island in 1895, Miss Buchanan found hundreds of her "Dear Boys" working as crew in the pearling and bĂȘche-de-mer fisheries. That they formed the most peaceful, honest, and moral section of the mixed community may be said without fear of contradiction, and even during the three months of the monsoon, when they crowded into the island, they gave no trouble, except in instances where in league with white men they obtained drink. The white man generally managed to get away with most of the whisky, while the excited Kanaka was carried off to gaol, for it takes [11/12] but a little alcohol to make him mad. Sadly the little Deaconess saw her hopes dragged in the dust, but she diligently visited the shamefaced one in prison, to strengthen and encourage him to make a new start. Miss Buchanan had not been long on the island before it was found necessary to enlarge the South Sea Home, to which the "Boys" now came in numbers. So the "Boys" decided to send out Joe Bann (a faithful Christian Fijian) to collect funds among their countrymen out with the pearling fleet. After some weeks, Joe returned with his tin full of miscellaneous coins; when asked how much he had brought, Joe answered, "I don't know, s'pose you count him," and the box was found to contain just the amount they had needed to build a new Home.

Who shall adequately tell of the many happy hours, week in, week out, year in, year out, spent by Miss Buchanan, inside those hot tin walls, teaching her "Dear Boys"? So catching was her enthusiasm that these new Christians were not content to attend church morning and evening, and Bible class in the afternoon, on Sundays only, but every night at eight o'clock found the long forms in the schoolroom filled with "Boys" who with red handkerchiefs mopped their perspiring faces, while they struggled with the intricate spelling of the English language; and the little Teacher never got impatient with their slowness, and was quite happy to spend a whole evening teaching them to spell, to write, and to read a single text such as "God is Love".

During the monsoon, "Boys" came in crowds to the school and individual teaching became impossible. The Vicar and the Deaconess would then rig up the magic lantern, so that even those who could not read could learn the Gospel story. They joined in the tune if not in the words of the hymns; for, unlike the Japanese, the South Sea Islanders are very musical with rich, sonorous voices. The great event of the season at the South Sea Home was the Christmas feast, when the "Boys" pro-[12/13]vided pig and turtle, and the Deaconess and her friends contributed plum puddings, plum cake, and tea with "plenty sugar and mililik". For the later part of the entertainment Miss Buchanan showed a variety of lantern slides, ending up with the ever-fresh tale of "The Tiger and the Tub," and the picture of the man asleep in bed with his mouth wide open, while a never-ending line of mice ran over the counterpane and disappeared down his throat; and the Teacher loved the jokes as much as the "Boys".

On Boxing Day the order of events was a bush picnic to a neighbouring island, the end of such a picnic generally providing more excitement even than the start, on account of the eccentricities of the tides in these parts. On one such occasion the picnic extended over two days, the boats having made several exciting but unsuccessful attempts to grapple with the tide. The only shelter on that part of Prince of Wales Island was an old wooden cottage with outsheds, where lived an old English-speaking Maori, who did some pearling. The two ladies of the party slept in a room, the sole furniture of which was an iron four poster, and grateful they were for this accommodation. The tropical rain broke in great waves on the trembling tin roof. Far into the night, between the storm gusts, the voices of the men droned on, telling sea yarns; and every now and then sounded the knocking of ashes from their pipes;, and still the rain poured down next morning, while a merry party breakfasted on hot black "Cawfee" and cold Christmas pudding. Still the rain poured down; still the men smoked, and the women smiled, though there was no prospect of dinner, or of a start home; but John Maori came to the rescue; from his scanty store he provided salt pork and rice and more "Cawfee," and in the late afternoon a lugger with a rescue party from Thursday Island appeared.

It was on the occasion of another picnic that the writer, wandering some miles along the lonely beach, came across [13/14] a tiny hut where dwelt alone a South Sea "Boy" whose face was familiar at the South Sea school on Sundays. He was a woodcutter, and at week ends he came to sell his little boat-load of firewood in Thursday Island. I said to him: "But are you not lonely here in the dark evenings, Jimmie?" "Oh no," he answered with a cheery smile, "I read my Bible, and I sing my hymns."

Happy soul he had learned his religion from one who was no Sunday saint, but the spirit of whose religion was closer than breathing to her and "nearer than hands and feet". So effective was Miss Buchanan's teaching and so true her example, that the Christian "Boys" out with the fleet for months together remained true to her training, and this was no easy matter for these new Christians, for they were but a small minority amongst many heathen Japanese, Islanders, and even white men. Each evening after "kai-kai" the crews were left to their own devices; some gambled, some played cards, some drank sly grog; but the Christian "Boys" gathered round a storm lantern with their Testaments and hymn-books and together they pieced out the sentences, and practised the hymns, and prayed humbly and earnestly in their own words, as she had taught them to do. As Sundays came round, they remembered the day and held a service if possible, although it sometimes meant braving the bribes or the banter of an overseer. As a result of the classes on the luggers, other "Boys" joined in, from time to time, and quaintly-spelt notes reached the Deaconess asking for more Testaments. Writing to a friend she said: "I have been kept busy lately preparing and packing Testaments for my 'dear Boys' out with the fleet; I mark in each one, special passages and verses, so that they can find them easily for reading and learning, and you know how slow I am over everything". But those who knew the Deaconess and the quality of her work, knew also that whatever task she put her hand to she "began her work like a giant and finished it as a jeweller". Well [14/15] the writer remembers the Deaconess sitting hour after hour on a high stool at her desk, red-ink pen in one hand, ruler in the other, underlining the verses for her "Boys," writing in their names in her beautiful copper-plate writing, and packing up each with particular care.

It is pleasant, too, to remember that the "Dear Boys" in their turn loved to wile away many a leisure hour, in polishing and shaping a comb or buckle from a rough piece of tortoise-shell, and sometimes night after night when class was over at the South Sea Home, the grindstone would be heard rasping away on some choice gold-lipped pearl-oyster shell which all shining and iridescent would be presented to Miss Buchanan at Christmas. She had quite a collection of pearl crosses of all sizes and shapes, signifying to her the devotion of her "Boys". At one time four South Sea "Boys" clubbed their savings and bought a little boat for getting pearl-shell; they called it the "Florence" and, true to its christening, in time of stress and storm the frail barque met the fury of the cyclone with the courage of a David meeting a Goliath, and while many a big lugger broke up and strewed the ocean wave, losing all hands aboard, the little "Florence" sailed back to harbour, bruised but not broken, pearl shell all lost, but all hands aboard and ready to start on a new adventure. In the Captain's own words: "When I see the wind coming, I throw all my pearl shell away, and turn my boat stern to the wind; I pray to God and let her go, and go she did for forty miles over the reef, which ought to have torn the bottom out of any boat, but she blow clean out of the storm, and by'-m'-by, I put my sail up and turn her head home".

Looking back over Deaconess Buchanan's life, it is clearly seen that in taking up work among the South Sea Islanders at Bundaberg, she entered upon her real life-work, for though during some short periods, circumstances compelled her to leave her "Dear Boys" she always yearned to be back amongst them. Thus we find [15/16] her writing from Port Darwin to Mrs. Nash at Thursday Island shortly before leaving for the Brisbane Congress in 1913: "Remember me to all the dear South Sea 'Boys,' and tell them how I ask for their prayers, that God may send me to finish my life's service in their island homes amongst 'Boys' whom I taught at Thursday Island in the first years of my life there, and who returned from there to the Solomons". The possibility of her entering upon this new venture had just previously been suggested to her by the Bishop of Melanesia, and we have the amazing spectacle of this fragile little woman over fifty years old with a crippled foot contemplating with joy the possibility of journeying to the Solomon Islands there to begin a new life under some of the hardest conditions of life possible for a woman in the mission field. How glorious the band of saints and martyrs now gone before, who, laying aside those things which the world holds dear, hazarded their lives to bring the Gospel light to the Pacific Isles; such were Williams, Selwyn, and Patteson; such was Florence Buchanan, such were the eighty-two South Sea "Boys," who vying with one another in giving what they had gained, went forth as missionaries from the South Seas to the distant island of New Guinea, during the years 1871-99, there laying down their lives for the Gospel.

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