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 VII. Moa--A Queen's Garden

Shakespeare has no heroes--only heroines. There is hardly a play that has not a perfect woman in it, steadfast in grave hope, and errorless in purpose. He represents them, as infallibly faithful and wise counsellors, incorruptibly just and pure examples, strong always to sanctify even where they cannot save.--JOHN RUSKIN.

MOA ISLAND, lying about thirty miles to the north of Thursday Island, is one of the gems of the Torres Straits group. It was doubtless named long ago by the natives, after the giant wingless bird, now extinct, whose remains have been found in New Zealand and Queensland, its toe-bones being as large as those of an elephant. Moa Peak points to volcanic origin of the island as do also the granite boulders and the pumice stone. The island is beautifully wooded, and the bush from within is a true fairyland. Colonnades of tall slender bush trees nestle their heads closely on a cushion sky; their trunks and branches are festooned with creepers, and jewelled with delicate orchids, the beauty of whose forms and colours fills one with wondering delight. Gaily-coloured insects and reptiles abound, many of the ants, spiders, and snakes having venomous stings, but none so generously troubles some as the tiny malarial mosquito. While Moa might well be called a black man's paradise, it would probably be centuries before the white man's blood became inured to the malarial mosquito, or his nervous system to the wearing effect of the tropic sun.

Although one end of the island had been inhabited since the time of the headhunters, as the islanders are [41/42] proud to prove, a large part remained untenanted until 1908, when a South Sea island reserve was proclaimed, under the control of the then Government Resident at Thursday Island, Mr. Hugh Milman. This at once became the home of a colony of South Sea islanders, their wives and children, to the number of about one hundred all told. Those Kanakas who had lived in Queensland over twenty years, or had married Torres Straits women, were allowed to remain when the others, by the white Australia policy, were deported to their islands; and so it was that a number of Christian Kanakas asked permission to settle at Moa. Their next request was that a Christian teacher might be sent to them, as their children were growing up without any kind of teaching, and the settlement had no leader.

The Rev. J. Jones, then commissary for Bishop White who was in England, was therefore commissioned by the Government to send a teacher, and the settlement became part of the Diocese of Carpentaria; the name chosen for the mission station was "St. Paul's," in affectionate regard for Mr. Hugh Milman, who was a nephew of Dean Milman of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. Mr. Milman took an active part in the founding and afterwards, till the day of his death, in the building up of "St. Paul's."

It is now a most picturesque village; the grass houses are built on both sides of a wide sandy street along which runs an avenue of coco-nut palms and variegated crotons. Further inland on both sides of the creek are the village gardens, where are grown the indispensable taro, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes, also bananas, pineapples, and, where the ground is marshy, hundreds of luscious rose-hearted water-melons, that queen of island fruits.

The task of finding a teacher for Moa was no easy one. Mr. Jones, then vicar of Thursday Island, thought the conditions needed a man to cope with them. There was no white person on Moa, there was no teacher's house, no school, no regular means of communication with the [42/43] mainland; but no man could be found. Miss Buchanan had a few months before returned to Thursday Island after the trip to England for an operation on her foot. The doctors in London thought she would have to lose one foot; the operation, however, was so successful that Miss Buchanan not only came back with two feet, but she was able indoors to use a stick in place of the crutches. As an act of thanks to God she desired to take the vows of "Deaconess," and on January 5, 1908, while a torrential storm of rain raged outside the Cathedral, a beautiful peace reigned within while Bishop White ordained Florence Griffiths Buchanan to be first Deaconess in the Diocese of Carpentaria.

It was during the months following that the need for a teacher at Moa became urgent; with characteristic humility and the ever-present desire to give others the first chance, she waited, until, no one offering, she said "Here am I, send me."

For herself she felt overwhelmed that the goodness of God should thus have opened the way for her to live wholly among her "Dear Boys," many of whom had now left Thursday Island for the South Seas or for Moa. On May 19, 1908, the mission boat anchored in the bay, and a crowd of Moa people waded into the shallow water to meet a little procession from the dinghy; in front, the vicar of Thursday Island (Mr. Jones) bearing in his arms a frail but precious burden, the pioneer missionary to Moa; behind him, the faithful Fijian, Joe Bann, bearing her crutches; trailing after him came Fanny, his wife, and Mary, his child; ever since the Deaconess came to Thursday Island Joe had been one of her helpers, and during the years at Moa, Joe was her right hand.

The best grass house in the village was to be "Teassher's" house. The space inside was divided by a grass partition; in the smaller division was housed Deaconess's cane sleeping chair, her portable chest of [43/44] drawers and round zinc bath. The larger room was living room, schoolroom, church, dispensary, and council chamber in turn. The floor was covered with grass mats the furniture consisted of two tables, a like number of chairs, a blackboard, a form (the seat of honour for the two village councillors and the policeman); in a corner was the baby organ, which went with Deaconess everywhere, but as one foot was lame, her good foot, as she called it, did all the pedalling.

A month after her arrival the mission boat called with stores and letters, and the Deaconess wrote: "The crew of the 'Francis Pritt' have just left, taking my letters for Thursday Island. 'Dear Boys,' it is so touching to hear them say they are praying for the work on this settlement. Their 'We no forget you' is ringing in my ears as I close up my little grass house for the night, knowing as I do how wonderfully God has heard and answered their prayers in the past. I am so glad you sent the bamboo blind, we wanted so badly a door for our little outside kitchen; the fowls evidently thought it a hen-roost and you would hear lively altercations between them and Fanny. While Joe fixed up the door Mary and Fanny went fishing and brought home three beautiful fish, sapphire blue all over; we had them for tea. A new baby arrived to-day. I celebrated the first birthday since my arrival with a present of a tin of milk. It has certainly come to find no clothes in the world, for it has not a stitch of anything and I have given away every rag I have. The people are very poor and with no forethought, the women very indolent, so much so that they prefer sitting in dirt to cleaning their houses to sleep, to eat, to yarn is their life. The councillors and I have made a rule, therefore, that every Friday the women must clean their houses, and on Saturday a councillor goes round the village with the policeman to see that it has been well done and marks any defaulter. Then I keep reminding them of mat-making, so grass [44/45] has been gathered and is drying, and by having a mat-making class with instruction twice a week for them, and a Bible Class on Sunday, I hope to raise their minds to higher things."

The "Dear Boys," too, were far from perfect, for the Deaconess writes that she does not wish Mr. Jones to let anyone come out to visit her until the men had given up a dreadful habit of "spitting" even in her house, but after several severe reprimands she no longer had any trouble on this score.

The children of the settlement had previously run wild, and could neither read nor write. The Deaconess wrote, however, to the Bishop that they were her hope and joy, and that she meant to concentrate her efforts chiefly upon teaching them and shaping their characters, many of the older people being almost past teaching. Very speedily the little Deaconess got to work, drawing up village rules and regulations; time-tables of school hours, council meetings, choir practice, dispensary work, sewing and mat-making, and hours for Sunday and week-day services. A big bell was hung in the village and very soon the work of the community was regulated by "Teassher's" clock and all went merrily as a marriage bell. The rapid progress made by the whole community may be judged by the following account written by Mrs. J. A. Pattinson after a visit to the island with her husband (then sub-dean of Brisbane Cathedral) in 1911:--

"How rejoiced we were to see 'Teassher' and her family awaiting us on the beach. We were led up, a triumphal procession, to the schoolhouse where the dear 'Teassher' had thought of everything that could minister to our pleasure and comfort--for there are not naturally many comforts on Moa! Our first afternoon was spent in talk, with a little sing-song in the schoolhouse. The children sing so prettily, and we were struck with their musical voices and good time. Hymns and carols were sung for about half an hour, and then my husband told [45/46] them a story, to which they listened with great interest and attention. After that Mrs. Nash and I were escorted by the girls on to the reef, with its beautiful gardens of coral polyps of all colours, bĂȘche-de-mer, shells, and sea weeds--a real paradise of beauty. We stayed out till supper-time and after that the bell rang for prayers. It was most beautiful to see those South Sea people coming in, with such shy reverence; all of them, men, women, and children, kneeling for a few minutes in silent prayer, then listening with such earnest attention, and joining so fervently, in the prayers. If anyone has any doubts as to the wisdom of missionary work, I urge them to go to Moa. Not only are they learning to be earnest Christians, but Deaconess Buchanan has impressed upon them something of her own spirit, and their manners and polite, modest ways will compare more than favourably with many a white community. The children are wonderfully quick at answering the questions put by 'Teassher' on the chapter they have had read, and these questions and answers not only help the children but also their parents, many of whom cannot read. The next morning the bell was rung and prayers were said in 'Teassher's' grass house. They will sit on the grass mats to sing and read, and after prayers opportunity is taken to give out orders and notices for the day, and to consult on any knotty point which may arise. While we were there, a cutter from Mabuiag arrived with natives on board, and it was considered unwise to allow them to land, as they were not properly disinfected from dysentery. All this had to be discussed, and it was some time before they could see the reasonableness of the order. After prayers, Mrs. Nash and I went round the settlement, visiting every house. So clean they were, and we were charmed with the beautifully woven grass mats. Every one sits on the floor but we visitors had boxes provided for us. After lunch--which was a series of new and fascinating things [46/47] to eat; fish with blue bones, dugong, yams, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin--came the second annual exhibition. At three o'clock they all assembled to open the exhibition with hymn and prayer. Nothing is done on Moa without prayer; it is an essential part of their life. Many curious and interesting things were exhibited; excellent mats and baskets made by the women and girls; fishing nets, war clubs, fish-traps, canoes, and dance ornaments made by the men, and necklaces of shells and giddi-giddi seeds made by the children. It was quite a festal day, and every one so bright and happy. When the exhibition was over I gave a short talk to the women, four of whom were admitted to the Mothers' Union. These women had of their own accord given up smoking. Our festal day ended with a dance and moonlight swim, and boys decorated with leaves and sea-weed danced native dances with great vigour and grace. When they were all hot and exhausted, Mrs. Nash and I were carried off bodily for a moonlight swim. Sixteen girls and women came with us, and there were yells of laughter as we all splashed, dived, and ducked like so many brown shiny porpoises.

"On Saturday morning we had a celebration of Holy Communion at 7.30. Joe Bann had brought some flowers to decorate the table which was used as an altar. There were fifteen communicants, and seven of the older boys and girls who were preparing for confirmation were allowed to be present. Our delightful visit was very nearly over. Our last act before the final farewell was to take part in a little service of prayer and blessing upon the offerings brought by the people--bananas, pumpkins, and a hen, all of which were to be sold in Thursday Island, and the proceeds to be banked for the Moa Church Fund. They are very anxious to have a church built soon, and they want to do what they can to help themselves; it is a real labour of love. Then all of them, men, women, and children, came to the beach to [47/48] see us off, and with many regrets we left the happy colony, and the brave little 'Teassher' who carries on the work so nobly and whole-heartedly. Not a detail escapes her; she is absolutely at the service of her people in sickness, sorrow, and health, and they are devoted to her. Our homeward voyage lasted nine and a half hours, and we were not sorry to see the lights of the Government wharf as the tide was low and the rocks many."

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