THE NEW HEBRIDES - A TRAGICOMEDY
It was unfortunate for the intrepid Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society that he landed on the island of Erromanga, towards the end of 1839, not long after there had been a fracas there between the natives and some white sandalwooders, who had shot dead the son of the chief, Kauiaui. The mission party were on the beach at Dillon's Bay when they were set upon by the Erromangans. Williams and a young man named James Harris, who was just about to begin his missionary endeavours, were clubbed to death. Polynesian mission teachers were then placed on Erromanga. the natives did not kill these. they simply disregarded them and left them to starve.
Nearly twenty years elapsed, and then the Reverend George Gordon and his wife, who were Nova Scotians, set up on Erromanga. They began, after two years, to make converts, but of a dubious kind it appears from Gordon's complaint that those who came to church on Sunday at other times worshipped the moon, "the image of which they exhibit at their idolatrous feasts, which are regulated by the moon and are great abominations". On a May day of 1861 a party of natives came to Gordon and asked him to go with them to treat a sick man. Gordon went and, along the jungle path, was chopped down with a tomahawk. The natives then returned to the house and murdered Mrs. Gordon. George Gordon's place was taken by his younger brother. He lasted eight years. One morning a native asked him for a empty bottle. the missionary went to get it for him and as he stooped the native put a tomahawk through his skull. another missionary, another eight years, and the "Martyrs' Isle" as Erromanga is called, had a church attendance of 600.
The Presbyterians bore the brunt of savagery, and of native retaliation to white outrages in the New Hebrides. Their records of how they bore it are sanctimonious to the point of being almost unreadable, but of the fact thee is no doubt. They had easily the best protagonist and propagandist, and an unexampled funds-raiser, in the Reverend John G. Paton of the flowing silver locks and beard. It was the thunder of Paton, more than of anyone else, that rolled the clouds of opinion that finally washed out the recruiting traffic. And his influence did not end there, as we shall see. Catholic missionaries were early in the field, on Aneiryum. some were butchered and they left-they got no encouragement to stay from the Presbyterians who abominated Popey almost as much as they did paganism-and they did not come back until 1885, when the French made a bid to colonize the islands with a view to annexation, and saw the Cross as a good forerunner to the Flag, though not to the extent of giving the priests any solid backing in francs. the Mission picture in the New Hebrides is still principally Protestant.
I will not wear the idea, which has been so intellectually fashionable, that the missionaries have done more harm than good in the islands. The harm, in terms of the upset of native beliefs and culture and social organization, was inevitable, due to the expanding commerce and communications of a widening world. Bad as the record of white contact has been, it would have been a good deal worse if the missionary had not been there to keep a vigilant eye on the operations of the recruiter, the trader, the planter and, even, the Government official. The missionary often cried "Murder!" Over lesser crimes, he was, frequently, a man of little real intelligence and no humour; and his ruthless destruction of "pagan" objects of art is something to weep over--but his presence was utterly necessary and his influence was and is a good thing overall, yesterday and today.
However, the missionary's role of shielding the native from injustice is not his major one. He most important part he has to play is, when the native's own beliefs are shattered, to put something in their place. He does not do the initial shattering, though he does accelerate the process. Native beliefs break up under the impact of civilization because white contact reveals to the native so many things and behaviours which are not accounted for in his heaven and his earth and for which his bible of myths has no explanation. The native fees second-rate because the white man has so many "clever" and materially superior things. This leads to a feeling that white man is provided for. He begins by wanting the white man's gun. He ends by wanting the white man's God. He may kill the first missionary, in order to loot his house or because he blames him for a sickness or a drought. A few years later and he is asking for a Mission on his island.
That is commonly the native attitude, of course there are exceptions to it. In parts of Malekula the tribesmen are still very anti-white. this sometimes happens with inland tribes. The white man who had settled down as a trader, say, with a coastal tribe whose implacable enemies are the bushmen, is identified in the bushmen's mind as their enemy's ally. The coastal tribe is glad to have the trader for the availability of his goods and as a market for their produce, and are likely in regard him rather proudly as their white man. I know one Melanesian trader who established himself very amicably, then decided he would do better business if he moved his store to another tribe's area. We can't let you go to our enemies. We like you, but if you insist on going we'll have to kill you." He talked them out of it.
THE WHITE PLAGUES
White contact was fatal to numbers of natives estimated at hundreds of thousands. They died like flies from introduced diseases. Recruiters brought measles to Erromanga and soon 1000, one-third, of the island's 5000 population, were dead. The latest available (1951) figure on Erromanga's native population is 465. The Presbyterian mission vessel John Knox also brought measles into the group. The Melanesian Mission's Southern Cross distributed influenza. As trading and missionary vessels with native crew extended their operation, the white plagues spread. To us measles is an endemic disease to which we have built up a certain immunity, and we are commonly coddled through it in childhood. The native had not only no such immunity, or any traditional treatment, but he suffered measles without any of the care that wards off "complications". In many cases pneumonia supervened-especially when natives lay in the sea or against the cold earth in ignorant efforts to rid themselves of the mysterious new fever.
The brig Edward from California in 1853 brought smallpox. Erromanga got this too, and meningitis. The first Gordon wrote, shortly before he was killed by the natives, many of whom blamed the missionaries for the diseases, "Some settlements are nearly depopulated, and the principal chiefs are nearly all dead. An oh! the fiendish indescribable hatred against us! there is quite a famine. The distress is awful and the cry of mourning perpetual." Other killers came-whooping cough, chicken pox, scarlet fever, diptheria, influenza. Aneityum's population, estimated to have been 12,000, was down to 1000 by 1880. Epidemic measles and the hate against the white man it engendered drove Paton, the missionary, off Tanna. The whole plagues swept on into the northern islands. Tribal "quarantine" barriers broke down as the coastal people, getting guns, went after their traditional enemies of the inland. Returning recruits from Queensland brought back gonnorrhoea, picked up in Australia from infected aboriginal women.
The American Dr S.M. Lambert, who conducted a most valuable Rockfeller Foundation anti-bookworm campaign in those islands in 1925-and showed the Condominium authorities how to do things they did not bother to go on doing-saw the new Hebrides as "a picture of a race being murdered by white invasion". He added, "Fiji and Samoa had been invaded too, but their conquerors had set about making amends." As Dr lamberts saw it, "The Condominium government was inviting its own downfall."
For many years missionaries alone grappled with the white plagues. They did what they could, the good, stern, zealous, self-sacrificing, dedicated men: the Patons and Geddies and Andersons; the Melanesian Mission workers on forty pounds a year; the ones who went out against influenza epidemics with prayer and eucalyptus, devoted French Fathers and nuns treating whooping cough with next-to-nothing; earnest, uphill, pork-abominating Seventh Day Adventists. the bodies of the natives were left to the care of men whose treaching and training was primarily concerned with their souls. Not only was the wastage of human life, in itself, appalling. Econimically it was insane to let the reservoir of native labour be poisoned and drained away. Today, with the task of developing problem and drained away. Today, with the task of developing the New Hebrides potential hardly more than begun, the acutest problem is shortage of native labour-the legacy of careless yesterday, blind yesterday.
Blind? Well, in spirit of all the evidence, all the medical opinion of the Speisers, Lamberts, Buxtons, Durrads and other authorities, the British Resident commissioner in June 1934 wrote to T.H. Harrisson, the Oxford Expedition biologist who had gathered a stack of evidence that introduced diseases were the prime killers: "I am of the opinion that the fundamental cause of depopulation is, or was, impact with white civilization." There is a theory, made popular anthropologically by W.H. R. Rivers, that natives die out through "loss of old customs" leading to apathy and feeling that life was not worth living. How would that account for that life was not worth living. How would that account for what happened on, for example. Erromanga? Undoubtedly a psychological factor can be a contributory cause of depopulation, but if the Melanesian psyche was as delicately adjusted and unadaptable as Rivers suggests, depopulation on a similar scale would have occurred in New guinea: it did not.
In fact, today, in areas of maximum white contact, where introduced diseases are being coped with best, native population, round certain Mission stations in the New Hebrides, is increasing. It is the bushmen, who still retain many of their old customs, who are still decreasing, because of our diseases and the influence and the absence of medical aid. In some white quarters depopulation was blamed on the lowering of the birth rate by such native practice as infanticide and abortion. Abortion, yes, it had become a factor in depopulation. but why? One woman said to Dr John Baker, leader of the Oxford Expedition, "What is the use of having children that will only get sick and die of the new diseases?"
Deacon the anthropologist, in 1926, was asking Malekula natives to bring him skulls. "Soon," a native said to him, "you white men will be able to take the skulls of the lot of us." It was not as bad as all that. When the population had decreased from the estimated million (or half a million if the most authoritative estimates are considered too high) down to about 48,000, then the decrease levelled off. There has been increase, apparently, during the past twenty-five years. the estimated population now, 48,500, cannot be taken as a measure of the increase because as native census extends there is less guesswork in the population figures.
Depopulation has been "arrested and probably conquered", it is claimed officially. "Strong upward trends are noticeable in many areas, particularly where modern Mission teaching and medical services have long been effective." Those statements have appeared, in exactly the same words, in each Colonial Office report since 1948. No details on how strong are the trends or how many the areas showing increase-just the same old reassuring sentences in the island, casual report which you have only to compare with any annual report on Papua or New Guinea to see how indigenous it is.
Syphilis has never been a problem in these islands. The natives have always had framboesia, yaws, which is not a venereal disease but it is still syphilis's cousin; and the two are antipathetic. Gonnorrhoea, on the other hand, has had terrible results in south Malekula and on Malo, according to Harrison the biologist. He says it is worst in regions where the natives do not drink kava: the kava drinker seldom gets gonorrhoea. Harrison, the Cambridge man who came with the 1911 Oxford Expedition, is very pro-kava. The Missions tried to stamp it out-except that, he says, some of the French mission priests "wisely took to drinking it themselves". With such a kava authority as tom Harrisson available, I would not attempt to tell you about the brew made from the smoke-dried root of Piper-methysticum, a cousin of the betel-nut palm, except to say that I have drunk the stuff in Fiji, but only ceremoniously and in small quantity. It had no perceptible effect, and it doesn't taste like anything I want a drink to taste like, in appearance it is most unprepossessing, like the water in a puddle after horses have been through.
Harrison, who doesn't much like the taste of kava either, but admires its influence and effect, drank it copiously on Malekula and I take his world for it that at the end of a year there with the northern cannibals, he could have drunk any Big Nambus under the table if there had been a table. He points out that every white man who lived on that coast before him (very few had) died of blackwater fever, and suggests that his survival is due to kava which is "a major uretic, and keeps the bladder and kidneys going like a fire engine". Harrisson's picture of himself getting stewed on kava in the men's house at Matanavat, a Malekula village, is too good not to quote:
Kava negatives the legs. You cannot walk any more when you get enough of it aboard. Your arms later get almost unliftable. But you can usually crawl over the soothing earth floor to get another suck at the dope. Your head is affected most pleasantly. You feel like you feel when you are in your first year at Cambridge and a policeman comes up and tells you you had better go home and you talk to him like as if you weren't drunk and you think hell I'm clever all right and do I think quick and I'm looking the old Robert what, and he is so used to it and picked for this because he is so godarned good-natured and he just says "All right, sir: the proctors are around, you'd better be pissing off, sir." You don't get drunk on kava. But it speeds up your increasing slowness. Thoughts come cleanly. You feel friendly, not beer sentimental, never cross. The world gains no new colour or rose-tint; it fits in its piece and is one )easily understandable) whole. Talk, talk, talk, the world becomes a beauty if voices mellowed against the jumpy wall shadows, out of faces that push dark mouthfuls of white teeth or green fid over the Malekula earth, under your feelingless bottom. You cannot hate with kava in you. And so it is used in the making up of quarrels, and in peace-making. ...
Fall then asleep. You will wake up in the morning fresh and without any hangover, maybe a little stiff in the legs. But so hungry and mentally up that you will shake that away, quick. You do the same thing next night and every night. It is part of the male life, the pub, with words as darts and skittles. Some of the pleasantest evenings of my life have been spent drinking kava, listening to the endless running flow of the words, the trivial described as only the "lowest" savage and the highest genius can describe it; so that every angle, incident, word and thing appears again to conjure up a sense not simply of "He said to me, I said to him" (our way), but with all the materials of reality arranged by the teller into his own pattern.
It is high time we got closer to the man who writes like that, so I propose to bring him on in one of those between-acts performances called an entr'acte.