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Chapter XXVI. The Melanesian Mission.

From Robert Steel, The New Hebrides and Christian Missions.
London: James Nisbet & Co., 1880, pages 420-430.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2009



'The immense Pacific smiles
Round a thousand little isles--
Haunts of violence and wiles.
But the powers of darkness yield,
For THE CROSS is in the field,
And THE LIGHT OF LIFE revealed.'


THE diocese of the first Bishop of New Zealand, the apostolic Dr. G. A. Selwyn, embraced eighty-four degrees of latitude, from 50° south to 34° north, by a mistake of geography in his letters patent issued by the British Colonial Office. The diocese was also made to extend over twenty degrees of longitude, and this covered an area of 4800 miles by 1200. It was, perhaps, the largest diocese ever marked out for one bishop, and may truly be said to have embraced 'a thousand little isles.' They were almost all 'haunts of violence and wiles.' Occupied as the Bishop of New Zealand was with the duties of his wide colonial diocese, itself now divided into six, he frequently sailed along the coast, and became quite as expert in managing small craft at sea, as the Cambridge boat in his university days. For several years, however, he was not able to do anything for the heathen islands stretching over the South Seas. Still their case lay near his heart, and in 1847 he set sail in H.M.S. Dido on a voyage of inspection, as we have already stated. In 1849, he took a voyage in his [420/421] small schooner, the Undine, of twenty-one tons, with a crew of four men. He reached Aneityum, the most southerly island of the New Hebrides, in ten days, having sailed 1000 miles from Auckland. There he met Captain (now Admiral) Erskine of H.M.S. Havannah, in whose company he proposed making his trial voyage. The object the bishop had was to get young lads from the New Hebrides, the Loyalty Islands, and New Caledonia, to be taken to Auckland and instructed during the summer months, and then to return them to their own homes in the winter. For this purpose he founded at Auckland a college in which these young men could be trained in reading, writing, and in the elementary truths of the Scriptures. In this he was assisted by Archdeacon (afterwards Bishop) Abraham, a lifelong friend, and others. The Bishop of New Zealand had a wonderful art in gaining the confidence of the savage islanders of the Southern Seas. Though the languages of the islands were in most cases different from each other, he picked up a few words in them, and he carefully noted down the names of chiefs whom he met on one voyage, and as carefully inquired for them by name when he next visited their island. Human nature is the same all the world over; people like to be remembered by name. And in this way Dr. Selwyn gained a place in the affections of cannibal peoples. He extended his voyages from year to year towards the north, as his acquaintance with the seas and the people increased, and as he got a larger vessel. Most of the islands between New Zealand and the Santa Cruz group were visited by him; and, with the exception of the Loyalty Islands and the southern portion of the New Hebrides, most were without European missionaries or even native teachers. He had zeal, wisdom, and courage equal to his peculiar trials and difficulties. Few men have braved so many dangers, with less means of defence, in the service of the gospel of Christ. In his first voyages he had no charts, and had for several voyages to rely on his own [421/422] drawings and on some old Spanish and Russian charts. He had to command his vessel, take observations, calculate distances, pull a rope, and manage people on board speaking perhaps ten languages. When he had these natives on board, sometimes they brought their wives with them, and the bishop made dresses for the women, and when they were sick he even washed their babies. [1] [(1) See Life of Bishop Patteson, vol. i.]

It was thus the Melanesian mission was founded. In 1850, he attended a meeting of bishops of Australia in Sydney, and got an Australasian Board of Missions established, which had for its objects the conversion and civilisation of the aborigines of Australia and the natives of Western Polynesia. A branch of this was formed at Auckland in 1851. By contributions from Australia, the Border Maid, a schooner of one hundred tons, was furnished; and in 1851, the Bishop of Newcastle, New South Wales, who had been Bishop Selwyn's comrade in the Cambridge University boat, accompanied him on a voyage. In 1855, the Rev. John Coleridge Patteson, M.A., joined him expressly for missionary work, and Dr. Selwyn trained him to take the complete charge of the Melanesian mission. The Bishop of New Zealand raised £10,000 as an endowment for an episcopal see among the isles, and Mr. Patteson was consecrated Bishop of Melanesia in 1861. Bishop Patteson had a profound respect for the Bishop o£ New Zealand, and ever set before him the self-denying example of his pioneer chief. Bishop Patteson carried out the mode of work as the Bishop of New Zealand had planned it, and collected bands of young men, who were trained first at Auckland, and afterwards in Norfolk Island, to which the headquarters of the mission were removed. He was joined by the Rev. R. H. Codrington, M.A., of Wadham College, Oxford, who, like himself, laboured gratuitously. They together trained young men as missionaries to their fellow-countrymen. The chief sphere of Bishop Patteson's labours was in the [422/423] Northern New Hebrides, the Banks' and Solomon groups. Between the latter lay the Santa Cruz and Swallow Isles, where he eagerly sought openings. The islanders generally were much attached to him; and when he fell a martyr at Nakapu, in the Swallow group, he left his mantle on the members of the Melanesian mission to pursue his work. They have done this in sorrow, but not without hope that in the great day he and they may rejoice together over ransomed Melanesians.

'O saintly dead, thou art not dead, translated;
'Tis o'er the rapt Elijah that we weep.
What matter by the fire and steeds elated,
Or rude boat rocking on the sunlit deep?

'He comes again transfigured in the glory;
His fallen mantle leaves us not the while;
His spirit wafts through other lips the story
Of Christ, of heaven, to each heathen isle.

'Alone he died, but not alone returneth;
Amid the dazzling ranks of Christ's array,
No starry banner with more lustre burneth
Than this pure cross of stars in that great day.

'The island tribes shall swell the grand procession,
The island martyrs crowned and leading these;
They still shall hail him, in their blest possession,
Their own apostle of the Southern Seas.' [1] [(1) The Rev. Zachary Barry, LL.D., Sydney.]

The work was carried on. The Rev. R. H. Codrington, M.A., while declining the bishopric, continued the mission, and the Rev. J. R. Selwyn, M.A., a son of the pioneer bishop, was found willing to take the fallen colours, and was consecrated Bishop of Melanesia in 1877. He had been a crack oarsman at Cambridge, and has proved a good oceanic missionary.

The Synod of the New Hebrides mission felt deeply the loss of Bishop Patteson, and passed the following resolution: 'In common with the whole Christian world, the members of this mission have been deeply moved by this lamentable [423/424] event. In every organ of public opinion, from the Queen's speech at the opening of Parliament down to the humblest colonial newspaper, this murder has been traced to the slave trade in these seas, against which this mission has so earnestly testified and so strongly protested. Bishop Patteson took always a deep and friendly interest in this mission, and was ever ready to render any assistance to it that lay in his power, and these feelings were warmly reciprocated by every member of this mission.

'Bishop Patteson's talents, acquirements, social position, and earnest piety, with his abundant and wisely-directed labours, have greatly elevated the character of missions in the estimation of all classes, both in the colonies and throughout the British empire, and have conveyed unspeakable benefits to the degraded natives in Western Polynesia.

'The mission herewith records its sincere sympathy with the members of the Melanesian mission, also with the relatives of Bishop Patteson, the Rev. Mr. Atkin, and the native assistant Stephen, on the irreparable loss which they have sustained by these lamented deaths. All three were cut clown in the prime of life, and in the midst of extensive usefulness.

'The prayer of this mission is that He who brings good out of evil and light out of darkness, who makes the very wrath of man to praise Him, may overrule this tragical and mournful event for the advancement of His own glory and the more speedy evangelization of these islands.'

The mission schooner the Southern Cross has an auxiliary screw, and can thus use steam-power. The working of her machinery has, however, been expensive; but the Melanesian mission could not carry on its work without it. Bishop Selwyn, in his publication when in England in 1879, expresses a wish to get a smaller vessel of thirty tons as a tender, to cruise among the islands when the Southern Cross is on longer voyages or away at New Zealand.

The mission estate on Norfolk Island contains 1000 [424/425] acres, about one-ninth of the whole land. £2000 were paid for it to the Government. Bishop Patteson contributed £1000 from his private funds for the expense of' removal and rebuilding. Miss Yonge, the talented authoress, and afterwards biographer of the bishop, gave the profits of her Daisy Chain, and other sums, amounting to about £1000. There are several blocks of buildings for the bishop, clergy, and scholars, chapel, schools, and workshops. Farm work and mechanical operations are carried on, whereby the island youths and their wives (for many have wives) are instructed and civilised.

Lessons in different languages alternate with work, and religious exercises are daily observed. Altogether the institution and its ramifications are an experiment of the most interesting nature in modern missions.

It would not become me to attempt to describe matters with which I am not so familiar, the ordinary working of this mission; but I deem it my duty to attach this record to my account of the New Hebrides mission, and to bid God-speed to a work which has already been honoured by the divine blessing; and to recommend an effort in the same direction to the missionaries of the Presbyterian Church in the New Hebrides, in addition to all they have in operation. What a happy issue it would be to have trained teachers, and ordained native ministers in charge of spheres of labour! It was the happiness of Bishop Patteson to ordain some; and Bishop Selwyn in 1878 held his first ordination in the South Seas, and set apart Edwin Sakelrau at Ara.

The following narrative, published in the Melbourne Argus in 1874, gives a very pleasing account of St. Barnabas at Norfolk Island:--

'It was on Sunday the 22d November last that I visited the Melanesian mission station. There is a good road to the station from Sydney Bay, and along its course maybe seen some of the most picturesque views to be obtained in this beautiful island. The journey was over undulating country, [425/426] sometimes through groves of magnificent Norfolk Island pine, past clusters of white oak on the gentle acclivities, and frequent bushes of wild lemon. The thick carpet of grass was frequently covered with flocks of wild pigeons, and occasionally a few pheasants were startled from the covert. Approaching the station, some of the cultivated farm lands of the mission attract attention, and the fenced grounds give an air of settled comfort to the neighbourhood. The mission-houses are pleasant-looking wooden buildings, some of them prettily decorated with flowering creepers; and the church is quite an imposing building for so small a community. A conspicuous object in the church is a tablet erected to the memory of the late Bishop Patteson. The rooms of the martyred bishop are preserved with reverent care in the precise condition in which they were left by him when he started on his fatal cruise. There is the old chair given him by his father, his favourite books and pictures, and many little objects he liked to have near him in his plainly-furnished dwelling. There is also a photograph of the late bishop, taken a year or so before his death. No one who had not seen him since his visit to Melbourne, some ten years ago, would have recognised him in the picture. Instead of the youthful bright look of health and strength, and the calm confidence of manner which pervaded him at the time referred to, the portrait is that of a man much older than his years should make him, and having an inexpressibly sad and wearied expression.

'A few of them are married, and there are some unmarried girls among them, of whom Mrs. Selwyn takes charge. The dress of the boys is a flannel shirt and trousers, both garments being of divers hues. In addition to this they ornament their hair with bright-coloured flowers. I first saw the students at dinner in the large schoolroom, where they have their meals with the mission staff. Silence is not enforced on these occasions, but perfect order was preserved, and the islanders conducted themselves fully as well as the boys of any ordinary public school would on such an occasion. Those only who have seen these people in their savage state can appreciate the labour which must have been employed in instilling order and docility into them. They had all lost the wild look that a savage in his own home has, and they all appeared to be affectionate and docile in their demeanour. Bishop Patteson wrote of them: "They are most lovable fellows; we all become very much attached to them; but they were rather different when first we made their acquaintance." Instruction is carried on in an endless variety of dialects and languages, but the common tongue agreed upon, and that in which the books are printed, is Mota. The young men are not allowed to become ministers, or even church members, until after long trial; but even then disappointment is often met with. The most promising trainee will sometimes suffer a startling moral lapse, and the work is conducted under circumstances of trying discouragement. No servants are allowed in the institution, but those who volunteer little services receive a small payment. The school is looked to as the great work of the mission, and it is sought to form the characters of the boys by close and personal instruction. Each member of the European staff has a separate house, and the boys are lodged with the individual members in different lots. The students are encouraged to be friendly, and speak [426/427] openly with their teachers, and the discipline seems to be that of a well-ordered family. The lads appeared to be gentle and good-humoured, some of them engaging in manner, and they are said to take great care of their lesson books.

'In the evening I saw the students in church. They sat in rows upon forms, and no congregation could have been more reverent or attentive. The devotional exercises consisted of the evening service of the Church of England translated into Mota, followed by a brief sermon from the Rev. R. H. Codrington, M. A., the present head of the mission. The Rev. J. R. Selwyn and the Rev. J. Still also took part in the services. Mota in print looks as unpromising as English spelt backwards, but when spoken it is a singularly musical language. The congregation, led by the Rev. Mr. Brook at the harmonium, chanted the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, and the Psalms, in excellent style. One of the Melanesians read a lesson from the New Testament fluently, and the behaviour of the students throughout Mr. Codrington's address was marked by an unwavering attention, which seemed to show that they followed all that was said. The boys, however, are not deficient in life and spirits, as was apparent the following morning, when I saw them engaged in the game of "French and English." Their shouting and laughing could have been heard a mile off. The clergy of the mission diocese are now seven Europeans, and one native in priest's orders, and three native deacons; the native priest and two deacons being settled in the Banks' Islands. There are nine native schools established in the Solomon and Banks' Islands under native clergy and teachers trained in the mission. The winter voyages among the islands extend over more than seven months of time and 18,000 miles of sea. This is the most arduous part of the work connected with the mission. The voyages are prosecuted under circumstances of continual hardship and danger.

'To feed and clothe 184 students is no slight undertaking. The mission is much indebted to friends in New Zealand and South Australia for welcome gifts of clothing; but there still remains a great deal of work in the hands of the ladies of the mission and the female scholars. The food for so many months is more than the farm can supply, and even under favourable circumstances of weather and crops, large quantities of biscuit, rice, and sugar have to be imported. The staple food, however,--sweet potatoes and maize, with very much of the meat,--is produced on the place, and the industry employed in the production of it is looked upon as a large part of the training of the Melanesians. The islanders soon learn to read and to write a fair hand. What seems most remarkable is the existence of a printing office, and South Sea island compositors as leading instruments in the mission work. When a savage has been taught an art, it seems a wide step in the direction of civilisation. The Pitcairners had never seen a printing-press until the one in use at the mission arrived on the island, and many of them felt impelled to visit it.

' The impression one gains altogether by a visit to the Melanesian mission station is that a great deal of unceasing hard work is gone through every day, and that what is done is understated in the modestly-worded reports which are issued by the principal.'

[428] The field of the Melanesian mission embraces groups of islands from the northern part of the New Hebrides to the Solomon group, and extends from 17° to 7° south latitude, and from 168° to 158° east longitude. There are very many islands in the diocese of Bishop Selwyn, some of which, especially in the Solomon group, are very large. There is a great work yet to be done to bring the dusky tribes into the fold of Christ. Bishop Selwyn is well adapted to the work, and takes well to the sea and the rough life among the islands. He is more careful than Bishop Patteson was, both in his manner of life and exposure. Bishop Patteson injured his health by living too much upon native food. Missionaries in Polynesia do not generally find it to their advantage to do so, and as Bishop Selwyn says, 'I do not think other people are gifted with his taste for liking native food.'

If the mission be adequately sustained, and well supplied with European clergy, much progress may be made, especially as after so many years native youth are being well instructed in the gospel. Dr. Selwyn ordained Edwin Sakelrau in April 1878, to be missionary at Ara in the Banks' group. Among these islands the Melanesian mission has won its greatest success. But it is pushing on to the Santa Cruz Islands, and has got a good footing on Nakapu, where Bishop Patteson perished. The Rev. John Still had taken charge of the work in the island of San Cristoval, but his place now requires to be filled up. The Rev. Alfred Penny has charge of Florida, and a colleague is wanted for him at Savo. The Rev. John Palmer has laboured at Mota. 'The islands of the Santa Cruz group,' says Bishop Selwyn, 'offer a glorious work to any one who will try to "avenge" Bishop Patteson's death.'

It is not his death alone that thus needs to be avenged in love. Around these islands martyrs of discovery and humanity as well as of religion met their death. The bold Spanish adventurer MENDANA died near Santa Cruz in [428/429] 1595, Captain CARTARET'S expedition in H.M.S. Swallow had experience of sorrow there in 1767. He was himself ill, his master was mortally wounded, the lieutenant, gunner, and thirty men were rendered incapable of duty. Several of them died there. The great French navigator LA PEROUSE, who surveyed so much of the Pacific coast, perished, with all his company, at Vanikoro, the southern island of the group, in 1788. D'ENTRECASTEAUX, sent to search for La Perouse in 1793, died as he sailed from Santa Cruz to the Solomon Islands. In 1864, Bishop Patteson's boat was attacked, and two of his faithful assistants in the mission, sons of Norfolk islanders, EDWIN NOBBS and FISHER YOUNG, died from the wounds inflicted by the savage natives, suffering severely from the agonies of tetanus, but in peace with God their Saviour. In September 1871, Bishop PATTESON fell under the clubs of the heathen a short distance off, in the Swallow group, while his thoughts were full of Santa Cruz and its people. And lastly, when on a mission of humanity to the natives of the same island, the excellent Commodore GOODENOUGH died from their hostile arrows. Thus for nearly three centuries has the history of the Santa Cruz Islands been tragic in relation to European life. The gospel of Christ is the only means of changing such savage people. The Hawaian Islands, where Cook perished, have been Christianized. The Samoan islanders, where La Perouse and others were in danger, have been Christianized. Fiji, where many deeds of blood were perpetrated by a cannibal people, has been Christianized. The New Hebrides, where Williams and Harris, and the Gordons, and many native teachers, suffered violent deaths, are yielding to the gospel of Christ. In the Banks' group, Mota is Christian, and the others are receiving teachers. The blood of the martyrs in the Santa Cruz archipelago and in the Solomon Islands will also be the seed of the Church, and the Melanesian mission will reap the harvest from the seed of blood.

[430] 'Then let us brace the languid arm,
And nerve the feeble knee:
Deem not those lives, those toils, those deaths,
Unfruitful; faith can see
In each a germ of gospel growth
Of blessings yet to be.
The islands of the Holy Cross,
Misnamed by vaunting Spain,
What time she swept the tropic seas
For glory or for gain,
Shall win and hold that blessed name
Through bishop, sailors slain.'

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