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Mission Life: The Melanesian Mission on Norfolk Island

Mission Life: The Melanesian Mission on Norfolk Island

Mission Life: The Melanesian Mission on Norfolk Island 1866 – 1920

In recent years Archbishop Sir Ellison Pogo from the Diocese of Melanesia paid an informal visit to Norfolk Island while recovering from surgery in Auckland. On Christmas Eve, he and his wife visited St Barnabas’ Chapel for the midnight service. The Archbishop was visibly moved during the singing of the carols, and afterwards explained that, in his mind’s eye, all he could see were rows of Melanesian faces joining in the singing and worship.

In his imagination, the Archbishop was recalling those years, between the 1860’s and 1920, when Norfolk Island was the site of the Headquarters of the Melanesian Mission, and the seat of the Bishop of Melanesia.

The Mission occupied over 400 hectares of land around St. Barnabas’ Chapel, Headstone and Anson Bay areas. Here they established their centre of operations, along with a training college for Melanesian students. Today, when one sees the open spaces and rural landscapes in the area around the Chapel, it is hard to imagine that it was once a very busy centre, with large numbers of houses and buildings, and several hundred students, mission workers, and missionaries going about their lives and duties.

The Southern Cross, a vessel owned and operated by the Mission, would make trips to the islands around Vanuatu and the Solomons, and bring back young men and women to receive an education and to be equipped to go back and carry out the work of the Mission in their own island communities. They usually stayed at Norfolk Island for 6-8 years, but were returned to their islands for six months every two or three years.

The Mission was a busy and productive complex, largely self-contained. There was a central area, known as the Vanua, surrounded by the Bishop’s house, the Chapel, the Hall (used as a dining room and schoolroom) and the Printery. Beyond the Vanua were numerous one storey weatherboard cottages and farm buildings.

The students lived alongside the Mission workers. They mainly occupied dormitory rooms which were part of the living quarters of the unmarried staff. Missionary wives were called upon to supervise and chaperone the female students. The relationship between the staff and students was one of easy trust and confidence, and students were free to wander in and out of the missionary houses at any time, to give a message, ask a question or just to seek a reassuring arm around the shoulder.

Pictures of the Missionaries have a Victorian and Edwardian formality about them, but they had well and truly left behind the comforts of home. Their little two room Mission houses were reasonably cosy, but there was little privacy, as each room opened onto a verandah so that anyone could come and go. Their fenced gardens were planted with a profusion of colourful plants, with many of them, such as the roses, honeysuckle, and geraniums perhaps reminding them of England. These little plots were regularly fertilised by guano from Nepean Island. There were many exotic plants and trees planted, many of which can still be seen in the area today. There were frequent invitations to ‘tea’ or supper between workers in their homes, but all dining was communal, and the staff were required to be very flexible, filling any role where and when it was needed.

The Mission was basically a school, and the day was punctuated by no fewer than 17 bells. The first bell at 6am called them to rise, and a short Chapel service followed at 7am Breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Hall usually consisted of foods familiar to the students, such as yams and kumera and other vegetables, supplemented by meats several days a week. Coconuts brought down from the islands were a welcome addition. Arrowroot was produced in large quantities and provided a useful invalid food. Pineapples, bananas, sugar cane, corn and some imported foods gave variety to the diet.

There were three short lesson periods during the day, where the Bible, English and a little arithmetic were taught. There were sessions for singing practice, always enjoyed, and a time for rostered chores. It was a basic principle of The Mission that the native Melanesians were to be regarded as students, and were in no way to fulfil the role of servants. No student was to be expected to perform any task that the workers and staff were not prepared to do themselves. There were, of course, many practical tasks associated with the smooth running of the community, including cooking, planting and weeding the gardens and field crops, milking, tending the herds and poultry, assisting the carpenter or the printer, and for the girls, assisting with the sewing. Photographs also show groups of girls carrying bundles of kindling on their backs for the stoves and coppers and fireplaces. The tasks were rostered. The most popular duty by far was assisting with the cooking, and all the rota groups became known as ‘kuk-sets’. Sometimes students volunteered for menial tasks for mission staff, but it was expected they would be paid.

There was free time between 3 and 6 each day, as well as Wednesday afternoons and the whole of Saturday. Many of the students took the opportunity to tend their own gardens or go fishing. The boys often gathered in their island groups in the native-style huts which they were allowed to build under the pines from wood or tin they found around the place. Here they would chat, and some senior boys could seek official permission to smoke tobacco. There may be games of cricket or arrow practice. Football was played, but Rugby was discouraged because the roughness of the game occasionally gave rise to passions associated with centuries-old feuds between students of the Northern and Southern islands. When such tensions were aroused, it is said that they were soon soothed and Christian harmony restored. In their free time, many students took the opportunity to tinkle on the harmoniums scattered around the complex. Several were musically gifted, and some even acquired a proficiency on the Willis organ in the Chapel.

There were seasonal rhythms too. In winter the head count was greatly reduced while the Southern Cross took missionaries and students up to the islands. This meant the native students avoided the winter chills of Norfolk, while the missionaries hoped to escape some of the ‘agues and fevers’ that beset them in the southern tropics. These voyages necessitated a great deal of activity in the Mission kitchens to provision the Southern Cross and prepare food parcels to accompany the missionaries, with items such as cakes and biscuits and lemon syrup.

Throughout the year, there were regular feast days and celebrations. The Chapel and grounds would be festooned with flowers and bunting. At Christmas time a there were gifts for everyone, and a young pine provided a Christmas tree. One year the tree proved too large for the hall, so the students lopped off the top, and fastened it above the building so that it appeared to grow through the roof. The missionary men took on the task of producing dozens of Christmas puddings to eat and give as gifts. On Christmas Day the staff enjoyed a more formal dinner, while the students usually elected to enjoy a picnic, and a pig cooked in an island style ground oven.

There are accounts of magic lantern shows and concerts where native dancing and singing were interspersed with more European parlour-style entertainments. There were even fireworks to accompany some celebrations. In 1903, someone came to the island with an early ‘cinematograph’ and film footage of the recent Coronation. There was great excitement, but the students were puzzled that there was to be no major clean-up to prepare for royalty!

There are several accounts of weddings between students. The couple would have been betrothed at a young age, and the girl was brought to St Barnabas so that she could study to become a good Christian wife. The bride was provided with a blue print skirt and a white blouse embellished with the same print. Her hair would be tossed, teased and embellished with white Vinca flowers. The young groom would be fitted out with new dungarees and shirt. Wedding rings were often carved from sixpences and shillings, and there were gifts from students and staff, including a kettle from the Bishop. Often two or three couples would wed at the same time. After a ceremony in the early morning, the celebratory feasting and games would continue through the whole day and evening. Oddly, all the festivities were quite segregated, and the young couple would not be brought together until later that night when they were led to their new married quarters.

The student body represented a great diversity of languages and dialects. The ‘lingua franca’ of the Mission was Mota, the language of the island of Mota where some of the earliest missionary work had begun. The Printer’s workshop was kept busy producing Bible portions, catechisms and tracts, not only in Mota, but in many of the local languages of the students. Some of the early missionaries were skilled linguists, and the decision to use a native language reflected a basic principle laid down by Patteson, who was the first missionary Bishop. He insisted that the aim was to ‘Christianise’the students, not to Anglicise them. They were to be encouraged to retain their own culture and customs.

One ‘Christian’ habit expected of the Melanesians was the wearing of clothes. This was actually an enormous undertaking, requiring at least one full time worker who, with the help of missionary wives and female students, was responsible for producing between one and two thousand garments a year. The work of the Melanesian Mission was widely supported in many different countries, and boxes of handsewn garments arrived regularly from Ladies’ Guilds far and wide. The Mission ladies were kept even busier supplying hand drafted patterns and writing thank you letters.

Many people who visited and reported on the Mission at the time painted a picture that is almost Arcadian. There were descriptions of a fertile and leafy landscape, where almost anything thrived, lemons, loquats, peaches and guavas growing wild everywhere, of colourful and productive gardens, and of strawberries that grew so prolifically that invitations to ‘Strawberry and Cream’ teas provided an ideal means of social exchange. Observations of the general running of St Barnabas note an orderliness and harmony that would be the envy of many a community, and an admirable family feeling between staff and students.

There were, however, many times of sadness and loss. The Victorian principle of ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ was firmly enforced, but infections still took their toll. Epidemics of dysentery, influenza and typhoid would sweep through the close knit community. Pleurisy and gangrene occurred regularly. If a student was found to be in the early stages of Tuberculosis, efforts would be made to return him to his people back in the islands. There were, however, many bedside vigils, and the little cemetery in the valley bore the names of many staff and students.

There was quite a degree of interaction with the Pitcairn/Norfolk community – social, commercial and ecclesiastical. Many Norfolkers had employment in the Mission and a number went to work in the islands at different times. The Mission’s first martyrs were two young Norfolk Island boys, Fisher Young and Edwin Nobbs. Rossiter, the Pitcairner’s schoolteacher had two of his daughters marry Missionaries, and Menges, the Mission Printer for many years, married an island girl and changed his name to Menzies. George Bailey, known as ‘the Musical Blacksmith’ married into the Christian family and settled on the island. Although none of the students were to settle here, many of their descendants still feel a strong connection with Norfolk Island.

In 1920, the Mission packed up and moved to the Solomons. Nearly all the structures and buildings were dismantled and taken away. A few cottages and sheds, plus some furnishings and equipment, were sold to the Norfolkers and moved to new sites. Visible evidence today of that thriving community are three buildings, including Bishopscourt, built in the later period of the Mission, and now privately owned, and the present Rectory which was originally a staff cottage. Most of the Mission land was returned to the government to be used by the Norfolk community.

Most importantly, there remains St Barnabas’ Chapel, which was handed over for the use of the Church of England along with some surrounding land. To this day this iconic building stands, an inspiration to both visitors and locals, and a reminder of the incredible vision of those Missionaries who made this island their temporary home over a very important period of our history.


Image Credit: St. Barnabas Chapel – Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 01 Issue 04, 2011. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.




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