Fiji and the Fijians 1835-1856
Chapter XI — ono-i-lau
The first white missionary to visit Ono was James Calvert who arrived there in a canoe in January 1840. David Cargill had tried, but was driven back by contrary winds. The only evidence available for a study of the history of Christianity in Ono up to the end of 1839 is supplied by William Cross, David Cargill, Thomas Jaggar and James Calvert who had to rely upon the statements made by natives of Ono who visited Lakemba after 12 October 1835. Natives are not reliable reporters. They are prone to exaggerate, especially if it pleases the person to whom they are addressing themselves. The reader must be careful to examine critically the details of the reports which they give especially in such matters as the number and quality of conversions; but there is little reason to doubt the general outline of their story from the days of their dissatisfaction with the old heathen gods up to the time of Calvert's arrival.
It appears that in the year 1835 there was an epidemic in Ono which carried off a large number of the people. They made frequent liberal offerings to their gods, but without favourable result, and they were driven to exasperation. It was about this time that Cross and Cargill reached Lakemba, and when the natives of Ono heard that their God was all powerful, and anxious for the welfare of His children some of the islanders decided forthwith to forsake their own unsympathetic and ineffective gods, and turn to Jehovah.page 169
But they were beset with practical difficulties from the outset. How was this Jehovah to be propitiated? They knew how to petition their own gods with offerings; but in this new religion the forms of worship were quite different. They had been told that the Christians prayed; but what was prayer? and how was it to be performed? In their perplexity they went to the heathen priest, and asked him to teach them how to pray to Jehovah. The priest with an eye to additional offerings consented.
"I know all about Him," said he, "if you want to worship Him I can tell you the way. Kneel down and bow your faces to the ground—so. Now hold your breath. Let no man breathe again till I give the word." And the poor men held their breath till they were well-nigh choked. Three times did the priest make them do this. Then he said "Keep silence, I will now report to your God. O! Lord Jehovah, these are Thy people who wish to serve Thee! As for me I turn my back upon Thee yet a while looking away from Thee. I worship another god. But do Thou take knowledge of these Thy people. Shelter them and do them good." Thus it was that the lotu first came to Ono, and this priest was the first teacher that the people had.1
This difficulty overcome they were immediately confronted with others. The lotu people sang to their God. They were willing to learn, but what were they to sing? Then, again, the true Christians had books in which there were wonderful marks that told them all about Jehovah, and spoke to people far away! How they would like to see those wonderful books, and learn to read the marks! There was only one way out of their troubles: they must get a teacher. They knew that the missionaries at Lakemba had come from Tonga where the new religion had been preached for many years; so they made up their minds to send two young men to Tongataboo on the next whaler that called to learn as much as they could about the worship of Jehovah, and, if possible, bring back a teacher to Ono. They were told at Tongataboo that no teacher was available, page 170and were recommended to go to Lakemba. Thither they went; but Cross and Cargill were sorely in need of teachers tor islands nearer home, and the best they could do in the circumstances was to appoint a young convert of Ono itself, one Isaac Ravuata, to do the best he could. Isaac arrived in Ono with the first part of the Conference Catechism in January 1838. He found that one hundred and twenty of the islanders had already embraced the new religion. Shortly afterwards—in the next month apparently2—Isaac was assisted by a Tongan teacher John Havea. Many of the converts visited Lakemba, learnt something, and on their return shared their knowledge with others. Progress was rapid. In September 1839 there were 120 men and 113 women worshipping Jehovah in Ono—nearly one-half of the total population. They had built a chapel 50 feet long and 25 broad; but in a short time it was too small to accommodate all the people who came to worship. Before the end of the year there were three chapels in the cluster of islands; some of the converts had learnt how to read, and nearly all were eager for instruction. They would give anything for books—yams, sinnet, native cloth in abundance.
This was on 12 December 1839. A small cutter was then lying in harbour, and he hired it at a cost of £10 for the voyage there and back. He had not gone far when a head wind drove them back. On the 26th a canoe which had been sent to Ono for food returned with the startling news that the principal teacher had fallen into sin! Calvert waited no longer. "Some have taken offence," he said, "others may do so." On the last day of the year 1839 he set sail for Ono in a canoe which was in charge of Josiah Langi, and reached Ongea the same evening. Next day he tried to cross to Vatoa; but was driven back by heavy seas. He made another attempt on 3 January and managed to reach the island after dark. On the 6th he set out for Ono. The sea was rough, but the wind was favourable. They passed round the reef to the south safely, and before dark were in the lagoon at Ono.
Since Bellinsgauzen had discovered the islands Ono had been visited by whalers only, and they had left no records. James Calvert's letter of 12 February 1840 giving an account of what he saw and did is, therefore, an important document. A few of its most illuminating statements may be summarized. He thinks that he had been obliged to sail over a distance of 200 miles to get there. The entrance to the lagoon was difficult. No English vessel could enter through the narrow and shallow breaks in the reef. In addition to Ono Levu there are several small islands within the reef, but only two of them are inhabited. All the islands are free from barren stony hills; the soil is rich, and coconuts abound when famine prevails elsewhere. There are page 172about 400 to 500 inhabitants and the decided majority are professing Christians.3 "What causes especial gratitude," he says, "is that the whole has been effected through native instrumentality, no missionary having previously visited the island." While he was there from 6 January to the 20th he married 66 couples, and baptized 237. The teacher who had sinned was expelled. Calvert tried to get away on 15 January; but was driven back by contrary winds. He left five days later and reached Lakemba on 22 January after an absence of three weeks and two days. What his wife thought and felt while he was away we are not told. We know too little about the mental anguish of the wives of these missionaries. They have left no journal, at least none that I have seen, except a few entries soon discontinued by Mrs Lyth.
In the report of this expedition Calvert says: "One cause for sorrow I find—though they are industrious the people of Ono have not prepared much property for the king who is about to visit them in thirteen canoes in order to bring riches from them to send to Tanoa." Calvert reproved them for this; but he made excuses to Tuinayau on his return stating that they were building churches and better houses. But that did not satisfy Tuinayau who had to discharge his obligations to his overlord at Mbau, and in 1840 he and his brother Soroangkali set out with six hundred fighting men for Ono. Soroangkali reached the island safely, but Tuinayau did not. A storm arose after he left Vatoa in which four canoes with about one hundred men were lost. The king himself was drifted to the island of Totoya from which he made his way back to Lakemba. In one respect at least it was well that Tuinayau did not get to Ono: the whole page 173of the islanders, Christian and Heathen alike, had made preparations to defend themselves. There would undoubtedly have been war, for the collection of tribute was not the only reason for Tuinayau's intended descent upon Ono.
On the island lived a well-born young woman whose baptismal name was Jemima. She was a devout Christian. "I was greatly delighted," says Calvert,4 "with the clear account she gave of her experience. She can read well and is devoted to God. Her services to the women of Ono are most important." But the lady had, for years, been betrothed to Tuinayau, and, no doubt, one of his objects in going to Ono was to bring her away, by force if necessary, to Lakemba. Calvert suspecting this had gone to Tuinayau before his departure and made an offering requesting that Jemima might be allowed to remain unwedded at Ono as she wished; but Tuinayau refrained from making any promise. Thereupon Calvert warned him that Jehovah would find a way of protecting His child. Soroangkali, knowing the king's mind, tried hard after his arrival at Ono and during the three months he stayed there, to induce the people to give up Jemima, and even presented a canoe to her relatives. But they firmly declined, and on his return to Lakemba Soroangkali advised the king to accept the presents and release Jemima. Tuinayau remained obdurate.
The disaster that overtook him on the way to Ono left a deep impression on the king's mind; but not quite deep enough to induce him to surrender the most valued of all the traditional privileges of a chief. Jehovah had given unmistakable evidence of His power; but the loss of prestige involved in giving up Jemima to whom he had been betrothed for years would have been an unprecedented disparagement of royal authority. For a time he appeared to be wavering. When Calvert visited him in the beginning of page 1741841 he got the impression that Tuinayau had given way, and he wrote at once to Ono instructing the people to send property in accordance with custom. On 18 March a ball of sinnet, three mats and six whales' teeth were brought as an offering. To these Williams (who was then at Lakemba) and Calvert added a large box and sixteen whales' teeth. In presenting them they told Tuinayau that the lady's friends were afraid of offending their God. They knew that argument would prevail if any could. Tuinayau remained silent for a time and then declined to accept the offering. Later on Williams and Calvert offered more property; but Tuinayau again refused it. At last Calvert took his gun and offered that. Even that was of no avail. "I warned the king and returned home," says Calvert.
The discerning student will not have failed to detect in all this the influence of the lotu on the traditional obligations and privileges of a chief. Later on Tuinayau was to tell Tanoa that he could not send him as much tribute as he desired because so much property was being handed over to the Christian mission. The missionaries resented that; but was it not true? The Lakemban chiefs complain that the lotu is undermining the respect of the people for their authority and traditional rights. That also was true despite the protestations of the missionaries. The people of Ono were more robust, downright and thorough than most of the Fijians; but the change that was taking place in their minds was looming in every other part of Fiji where Christianity was gaining ground.
This is not the only way in which the history of this little cluster throws a concentrated light on the history of Christianity throughout the archipelago.
In his next letter written on 10 August 1841 Calvert informed the Missionary Society that he had paid another visit to Ono in the missionary ship Triton, and that a war page 175had been going on for three months immediately before their arrival between the Heathens and the Christians; that eight lives had been lost, six Heathen and two Christian, and that it had ended in a victory for the Christians a few days before their arrival. He deeply laments the war; but only a few were killed, and now there are very few Heathens left; nearly everybody has accepted Christianity. The inevitable trial of strength between the old gods and the new; old customs and new; old beliefs and new; and the almost invariable result when Jehovah had demonstrated His power in a decisive battle. Thomas Williams was the next to visit Ono. He found only three Heathens left and they joined the lotu before his departure.
In August 1843 just before he left Lakemba for Somosomo Williams again visited Ono in the Triton. Trouble had arisen because of the alleged tyrannical conduct of the teachers. Williams went to investigate it. On 4 August, after long interviews he found that the unpleasantness had arisen because the head teacher had yielded to the entreaties of two covetous Tongan teachers, and authorized a system of taxation which would have impoverished the people for a year or more. The taxpayers had protested and the teachers deemed it prudent to retire. In passing to a neighbouring island they narrowly escaped a watery grave, and were forced to put back to the land they were fleeing from. The directing hand of Providence was detected in this; "conciliatory measures were entered upon, and the teachers resumed oversight of their respective charges." Williams was surprised to find that these unhappy relations between the teachers and people had not affected the attachment of the natives to Christianity. The teachers were well cared for: each had a new house, and when Williams examined them he found them better informed in doctrine than any other teachers in the Lakemba circuit. They confessed their error, page 176and the whole affair, "not so painful as he had anticipated" was settled. It had been arranged that he should leave on the 5th; but a southerly sprang up, and Captain Buck could not safely send a boat to fetch him. So he returned to Ono Levu. On Sunday, the 6th, he found the people well grounded in the Catechism, and chanting the Creed in good style. He preached to them on the text "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed." "Greater attention from a native congregation I never witnessed," he says. "Most of them seemed unwilling to lose a single sentence that fell from my lips." On the 7th he visited the schools, and found that the members of the head class could write well. After the adults had been dismissed the drums beat and in marched sixty children of both sexes in good order. With the assistance of two native carpenters Williams constructed, before he left, a rough model press to be worked by a lever. It was to be used by the natives to express the juice of the sugar-cane or the oil of the nut; and thereupon he made a reflection which shows how clearly conscious he was of one of the most serious defects in the mission work of his time. But that will be discussed later.5
All the reports that follow bear testimony to the sincerity of the people of Ono and their grip on the essentials of religion. James Calvert visited them again in the Triton in October 1845 and found the people in the throes of a great revival. "Several desired to die soon lest they should sin again;" many wished to preach the Gospel, and said they would go anywhere in Fiji. No less than eighty-one strong young men had been set apart for preaching and exhorting in the previous three months, and "the true missionary spirit dwelt in them." Calvert selected five married men to go with him for the work and "not one of them knew whither he would be sent."page break page 177
Next year Dr Lyth on visiting the island found that a Roman Catholic vessel had been there, and one chief had promised to join them. It was rumoured that the priests intended to establish a rival mission. Lyth therefore decided that John Watsford who was on board should be left on the island for a year. John Hunt who was chairman of the District Meeting finally approved; but pointed out that it was very embarrassing, because there was so much need for missionaries in other less advanced places. Besides, Ono was a very lonely place on which to leave one missionary. If sickness overtook Watsford and his family disaster would be almost unavoidable: there would be no white man within a hundred miles to render assistance. "Why don't these Roman Catholics go to places where there are no teachers?" he asks. That was indeed a reasonable question; but there were specific reasons why John Hunt should have hesitated to put it. He himself had some years before sent Jone Mahe primed with anti-papal arguments to Wallis Island where the Roman Catholics had for long been established!
Watsford's report and that of his successor David Hazle wood furnish valuable information. Each of them stayed a year and learnt far more about the real condition of the islands and the people than was possible for visitors of a few days. We hear something about the inconveniences of living there, and the shortcomings of the people; but far more about their sterling qualities and especially the sincerity of their religion.
"Of all the places I have ever visited Ono is far before them all for mosquitoes," says John Watsford. From December to March they could get no rest, except by crossing the lagoon to an islet near the reef. David Hazlewood writes in the same strain: "Bed curtains were not proof against them," he declares. It was while his wife and some of his children were away seeking refuge on the islet near page 178the reef that the hurricane of 5 April 1848 swept down upon them. Hazlewood and one of his girls were at the time on Ono Levu and could do nothing to assist the rest of the family in their exposed situation: there was no chance whatever of crossing the lagoon in the storm. He had to stay where he was in agony of mind till the third day when the fury of the wind abated, and he was able to make the passage. He found that the little hut in which his wife and children had been sheltering was blown away; but to his inexpressible relief all were safe and his wife "in quiet of mind at peace."
Watsford had something unpleasant to say about the teachers. They were thinking too much of themselves and overriding the people: "One of the teachers was a Tongan and he wished to rule the land as well as preach." Nor could Watsford give a favourable report of the schools: "Our teachers generally are miserable instructors" he says, "having but little or no training themselves."6 In a later report he says that "the teachers can't be trusted for long. They are good men; but have little knowledge and are easily led astray." But of the sincerity of the people he speaks in the highest terms. He devoted himself immediately after his arrival to the task of improving general education, and found the people responsive. In addition to reading, writing and exercises in the Catechism he encouraged them to learn by heart the Gospel of St Matthew. He enforced cleanliness and order and was soon rewarded by seeing the people well dressed in native cloth. The day of the public examination of the children was memorable. People came from all the towns; every child had a new dress, and every face beamed with delight. The Sabbath was strictly observed: no food was cooked. At his request they gave up smoking tobacco, page 179and "the tobacco plant was pulled up with other noxious weeds"!
It is a fine tribute from a capable and worthy man. No doubt Hazlewood was influenced to some extent by the con-page 180trast with the dreadful conditions prevailing at Somosomo, and the utter lack of interest in his religion there; but there were substantial reasons for the praise he here bestowed on the people of Ono. Many of them had a grip on the essentials of true religion.
Ono is a lonely place, but the grace of God is here and I am thankful for the appointment. I hesitate not to say that this has been the happiest year not only that I have spent in Fiji, but in any part of the world. I have never seen the effect (of Christianity) so general on a people as on the people of Ono…. We seem to have removed from the verge of Hell to the precincts of Heaven. In temporal things the change has been as great as can well be conceived. At Somosomo no one would move his hand or turn his head for us without expecting payment, or bring us any food without expecting double the worth of it; but here the people are all ready to do whatsoever you may wish, and never make food without bringing us a share, and a large share too; and never think of asking anything for it. You may give them something or nothing as you please.
In spiritual things instead of a small chapel and empty too we have here a large chapel the workmanship of which does the people great credit as the superintendence of it does Mr Watsford. This is well filled every Sabbath and week day too either at preachings or school, and that not with inattentive worshippers, but with those "who call the Sabbath a delight and the holy of the Lord honourable," who catch the word as the water of life, or as sensible that "man doth not live by bread alone but by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God." Their attention to all services is worthy of the imitation of our friends at home. Their unfeigned love of each other, and kindness and attention to the sick, and unbounded kindness to us all stand in glaring contrast with the poor infatuated Heathen we have left. In many here we see Christianity in earnest. Religion is not a thing by the way but their all. I have often been delighted to hear them say when asked their state of mind under affliction: "Good is the will of the Lord"; "I give thanks continually"; "my soul relies firmly upon God"; "I rejoice in His will"; "I am willing to live or die as He sees best" and such like is in general the language of their hearts and tongues.
It was customary with the Methodists to meet at "lovefeasts" in which the members present were expected to give utterance to some of their deepest thoughts and feelings. One such was held at Ono on 29 December 1847, and Hazlewood reproduces in his Journal some of the testimonies given. Aisea Vatu a local preacher: "I know that God is near and helps me sometimes in my work. I love all men. I do not fear death. One thing I fear—the Lord;" Aisake Vuta an old teacher: "I know that I am a child of God. I have the same Father that Jesus Christ had;" Hama Rara a local preacher: "I rejoice that God has called me to this work. If God sees fit to take me to another land to preach the Gospel, Well! If he sees fit that I should die in Ono, very good! I intend that God shall rule me;" Sera Loko, a female class leader: "My child died; but I loved God the most. My body has been much afflicted; but I love Him the more. I know that death will only unite me to God;" Joni Toka, an Ono teacher who had gone to Ongea, and been starved almost to death there: "I did not leave Ono that I might have more food in Ongea; I desired to go that I might preach Christ. I was struck with stones while in my own house; but I could bear it. When the canoes came they pillaged my garden; but my mind was not pained by it. If I am to eat bad food, very good;" Wiliami Raivakatu: "I have been near death in frightful form; but I did not fear."
No white missionary could be spared for Ono after 1848. The dread of a Roman Catholic invasion had passed away and there were urgent calls to respond to elsewhere. Henceforth up to 1856 Ono had to be content with a native assistant missionary under the supervision of the missionary stationed at Lakemba. The first man sent in that capacity was Joeli Bulu whose district included Vatoa. When David Hazlewood visited Ono again in 1850 he found all well, and gave an optimistic report of the condition of the people.
Success was greater in Ono than in any other part of the archipelago mainly because the soil on which the seed of the new religion fell was better. It is wrong to say that the Christians of Ono were what they were in 1847 solely because of the teaching of the new religion. That, no doubt, was vastly important; but the people of Ono were comparatively superior before they were affected by Christian teaching at all. Bellinsgauzen who discovered the islands in 1820 says: "We found indeed that the islanders were of cheerful manners, open, honourable, trustful and soon disposed to friendship."7 He makes no complaint—not even pf theft; but on the contrary, feels sure that the gifts which he entrusted to them to take to the king would be delivered: they will keep their word. Before he departed he had met all classes of the people from the king downwards, and his remarks were intended to apply to the people as a whole. page 182David Hazlewood emphasizes the same thing in his report of 1848: "I have never seen the effect (of Christianity) so general on a people as on the people of Ono." It was precisely this general distribution of good quality that impressed me when I visited the cluster in 1929. In other districts of Fiji I had met with a few individuals of more striking personality than the best in Ono; but nowhere, not even in the mountain districts of Viti Levu, did I find the rank and file so intelligent, manly, energetic, cleanly and joyous as at Ono. Christianity was able to do for them what it did because they were, to begin with, men and women of superior quality.
But besides that their environment was more favourable to the propagation and development of a strenuous idealism than any other part of the archipelago. Living farthest south they enjoyed the invigorating influence of a cooler and more bracing climate. The want of any safe passage through the reef that encircled them had at least this one advantage in these early days—the natives were kept comparatively free from the contaminating influence of a lot of white trash that visited the archipelago in trading ships and whalers. Their isolation helped their idealism in another way: they were spared the customary horrors which were the inseparable accompaniments of incessant wars between treacherous and covetous tribes separated only by an ill-defined frontier as in Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and Taviuni. They were overtaken by the usual war between Heathenism and Christianity; but that was among themselves, and when it had ended in a victory for the Christians they were free to follow their religious ideals without fear of external attacks. Had they been of inferior stock they would probably have deteriorated and sunk low in this isolation; but being what they were they not only attained to a knowledge of the realities of religion, but also went forth page 183in great numbers to evangelize their fellow natives in nearly every part of the archipelago, and, indeed, as far as Rotumah.
For the extraordinary success attained by Christianity in Ono both quantitatively and qualitatively the missionaries could not—and did not in those days—claim much credit. Indirectly, of course, by their training of teachers, their translation of the Scriptures and their superintendence they contributed valuable and, it may be admitted, indispensable aid; but for the true explanation of their phenomenal success we must turn to the people themselves. The movement began on their own initiative; it was carried on under the immediate direction of teachers rarely visited by the white missionaries, and a seal was set upon its triumph by the battle between the Heathens and the Christians in which the adherents of the new religion, were victorious. When John Watsford was left there in 1846 it was not because the sheep were in need of a shepherd, but that in the fear of a Roman Catholic invasion he might play the part of watch-dog.
1 Joeli Bulu: the Autobiography of o Native Minister in the South Seas; London, Wesleyan Mission House, 1871.
2 James Calvert is my authority for this; see his letter 20 November 1839 (M.M.S.M.).
3 It is difficult to reconcile figures from different reports. Thomas Jaggar on 17 June 1840 said there were 300 Christians at Ono. He no doubt got this information from Calvert. But when Superintendent Waterhouse visited Ono in 1841 he reported that in the war which had just ended a few days before their arrival there were about as many Heathens as Christians.
4 See Calvert's letter dated 26 June 1841 (M.M.S.M.).
5 See Chapter XIV.
6 The reader will remember my warning to distinguish between untrained school-teachers and trained religious teachers.
7 See Bellinsgauzen's Journal, vol. ii, p. 74.