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Fiji and the Fijians 1835-1856

Chapter XVII — the limitations of the missionaries

page 274

Chapter XVII
the limitations of the missionaries

From a review of the history of Fiji in this period it would appear that nearly all the mistakes made by the Methodist missionaries were due to their narrow-mindedeness and an obstinate conviction that their own religious position was unassailable. It might be possible to include both these limitations in one and say that the fundamental defect which that kind of knowledge which scientific investigators have acquired and made known in the last seventy years. The missionaries had almost unlimited assurance; but it was based upon knowledge far too restricted in character.

They undertook one of the most delicate and difficult tasks in the whole range of human activity; nothing less than to change the soul of a people. Their avowed object was to save the souls of the natives by converting them to Christianity; but in Fiji that involved a change in every department of their lives-political, social, economic, as well as religious. As David Cargill pointed out before he had been in Fiji five years: "The religion of Fiji is interwoven with the politics of the kingdom, and the economy of every family." In their attacks on the religion of the people the missionaries were, as we have seen, ruthless, and the effects were far-reaching. They took much away, and left the natives in such an impoverished condition inwardly that life was hardly worth living as compared with the olden days.

The captains of men-of-war who were also anxious for page 275the welfare of the natives acted more cautiously, mainly because they were broader-minded men who were educated by the conduct of great affairs, and the management of large bodies of men. They did not interfere with the more innocent customs and institutions of the natives, and although they would have been glade to see the chiefs and people embrace Christianity, and even recommended them to do so, they refrained from making attacks on their gods. The missionaries on the other hand, interfered with everything their politics, their method of conducting business, their marriage system, their dress, their recreation and above all their religion.

It must not be forgotten in criticizing the missionaries that the life of the Fijians would have been modified in many ways by their contact with civilization weather the missionaries had gone there or not; and that, if civilization had exerted its influence through traders and adventurers only, their condition, would have been very much worse physically, morally and spiritually. Instead of being led on to sympathy with nobler ideals of living the natives would have been left in a welter of wickedness taught them by beach-combers and their ilk. Except in very rare cases indeed, no fault can be found with the moral standards of the missionaries of this period, and the splendid example of disinterested service which they almost invariably set is worthy of the warmest admiration. It was not in moral grandeur or spiritual fervour that they were wanting; it was in knowledge—knowledge of men and affairs; and knowledge of scientific truth especially that branch of it which is concerned with Evolution. Had they known more about anthropology they would Evolution. Had they know more about the native customs and institutions; had they understood something about psychology they would have seen the danger of denuding the life of the native of so many of its page 276sustaining interests; had they understood Evolution they would have preserved what was good in the old religion, and grafted something better on to it. But they did not understand these things. Very few people in the middle of last century did.

They would have better and saved themselves from many a blunder had they only exercised more common sense and caution in dealing with the souls of the natives. The Roman Catholic missionaries were their contemporaries and notwithstanding their comparative failure in this period, they did display a more tolerant spirit in dealing with native customs and institutions, and they did try more than the view. They were not so narrow-minded as the Methodists.

The effects of this narrow-mindedness have already been revealed to some extent in the preceding chapters; but more needs to be said if only in the hope of preventing the repetition of such blunders in the future.

The missionaries were all too ready to assume that what was right and proper in middle class society in England must be appropriate to Fiji. They decided, for instance, that the natives were not adequately attired, and that they must at least come to church services more "decently" dressed; and so they provided the men with shirts and trousers from the mission store, and the women with prints and calico. The trouble was that the natives did not know how to use European clothing. They were so proud of being dressed "white man's fashion" that they would not take their clothes off. When wet to the skin they would sit with them on before the fire till they were dried, and would even go to sleep in damp clothes. The result was pneumonia which has carried off a large number of natives in the South Seas.

The blame for this however, does not lie at the door of the missionaries so much as their supporters in England who page 277insisted upon "proper clothing." One of the members of the London Committee wrote to Thomas Williams recommending that the men should wear exactly the same suit of clothing as was worn in England. Williams protested and sent back a statement of what he considered suitable for a Fijian in the tropics. It included much more than would be considered appropriate now; but there was no coat. Besides the pressure from middle class England there was the vanity of the natives themselves to reckon with. The women demanded prints of gorgeous colours, and the men were proud to be dressed "white man's fashion." The extent to which some of them were influenced by this conceit is amazing. It is so even to this day in the Islands. I have seen a native on the road near Vila in the New Hebrides rigged out in a crumpled top-hat, a coat faded to a dirty green, a waistcoat without a button on it, and a pair of trousers with only one leg reaching below the knee—strolling along with head erect giving himself airs of superiority! Had the missionaries not gone to Fiji at all the natives would have dressed "white man's fashion" and probably much more shabbily.

The missionaries as we have seen insisted on one man one wife; but there they had no alternative. The Committee in London commanded them strictly to admit no man or woman to membership in the Church Society who was not a monogamist. There were no doubt many evils associated with polygamy, and the missionaries may have been right in taking a firm stand against it; but it was not without some advantages which are not referred to in the correspondence. It does not appear, for instance, that the effect of monogamy on the mortality of children was thought of by any of the missionaries; and yet it was well worth considering. When a chief had many wives the one with child was free from further intercourse till the child was weaned; but when he had only one wife it would frequently happen that she would page 278have to bear one child while she was suckling another. In the tropics that was too much of a drain on a woman's strength, and had its effect on infant mortality. The British government dose not now interfere with the polygamous custom of the natives.

The narrow-minded unsympathetic way in which the missionaries attacked the religion of the natives has already been considered; but something more must be added in this context. The only respectful reference which I have found in all this correspondence to the Fijian's regard for his gods was made by Thomas Jaggar. In his letter of 9 July 1844 he gives an extract from his Journal under date 14 January 1844. He tells us that while conducting a service at Rewa the king and chiefs sent a message telling the people not to sing because their gods would be angry. A chief had just been killed, and it was their custom at such times to be silent. "I could not but admire," says Jaggar, "the attention which they paid to that which they believed their gods disapproved though I regretted their superstition." So far good. But note what follows: "I sent back a message saying 'we can't stop singing to the true God because of the feeling of your false gods.' " And he was a foreigner in this king's territory!

But it is in the correspondence of Joseph Waterhouse that we find this outrage on good taste carried to the furthest limit. In blatant irreverent iconoclasm he surpasses all the missionaries. He went to Fiji announcing his determination to put an end to all idolatry, and the following extracts from his own reports will show how he set about it:

At the metropolis of Rangi-rangi there is a large stone which is said to be the mother of Dengei, the great god of Fiji. Whilst on our march I noticed a stone set up by the wayside about eighteen inches in circumference and two feet in height, dressed with a liku; and upon inquiry was informed that it was a female GOD! An unsculptured stone—a goddess! A basaltic rock an object of human worship!! I could scarcely believe my own senses. No persuasion could induce page 279one of the natives to touch it, and some of them seemed horror-stricken when I lifted up my foot, and bade adieu to her majesty by giving her a hearty and contemptible kick. Oh! where's the wonder that these worshippers of stone have hearts of stone!-Poor Feejee!1

Is it possible for vulgarity and want of consideration for the religious susceptibilities of others to go further?

Yes, perhaps, in this second act of desecration not long after he had settled down in Mbau:

On 9 May (1854) an attack was made upon a sacred forest in our vicinity, the carpenters being conveyed by water to the spot. Solemnly bowing before the Creator one of the teachers prayed aloud, and besought Him to prevent any evil coming to them while they attacked "Satan's forest." They then felled some of the monster iron-wood trees which have been considered sacred for ages. Some of the poor carpenters trembled very much lest an evil spirit should kill them'.2

Protect, O Lord! Thy simple-minded children of the South Sea Islands from the blighting influence of such vulgarians as Joseph Waterhouse.

No wonder the natives suffered from heart-sickness, In their contact with civilization bringing its more efficient fabrics, implements of husbandry, weapons, of, warfare and sailing craft they were bound to be haunted with a senses of their inferiority; but where was the need or justification for adding to these disappointments such outrages on their religious susceptibilities? When a Fijian bowed his head in submission to a superior power lie performed an act essentially religious that" diffused a hallowing feeling' through his soul; and whether he did so in the presence of an image, a fish or a bird, or his priest is a, subordinate matter. In his stage of mental development he needed these embodiments and incarnations of his gods to help him in his worship. Waterhouse takes refuge in plausible rhetoric about stony hearts and worship stone. But whose heart was the more indurated on both these occasions of desecration—his or the trembling native's? It is not quite fair to the rest of the mission-page 280aries to quote Joseph Waterhouse. Their iconoclasm was not so vulgar as his; but all of them could be fanatical in their denunciation of the heathen religion; and they must share a good deal of the responsibility for the heart-sickness that overtook the natives in the transition from the old order to the new.

Was the religion of the missionaries themselves so free from imperfection that they could afford to treat the shrines of the natives with such contempt as this? If only they had been capable of taking a critical survey of their own orthodox beliefs it might have made them a little more tolerant. There was, I believe, much that was ennobling, sustaining and inspiring in the religion of these old Methodists, and I shall endeavour to explain what I conceive to be the best of it in the last chapter of this book; but there were also inconsistencies and defects, and at least one very blasphemous doctrine for which I can find no parallel even in the most cruel beliefs of the Fijians.

The worship of many gods instead of one filled the missionaries with horror. But who among us even now after all the thinking of the last century knows for certain whether the Almighty stands absolutely alone, or is at the head of a hierarchy? It is quite clear that the missionaries in Fiji had not really made up their minds whether there was one or a plurality of Gods in their own religious repertory. When they were denouncing the hundred and one gods of the Fijians, they proclaimed in the most unequivocal language that there was one God and one only; but no sooner had the teachers entered upon their theological training than they were informed that there were three Gods—the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and to these the Roman Catholics added a Goddess—the mother of Christ. But if there is no impropriety in believing in three or four Gods where is the blas-page 281phemy in believing in a dozen or a hundred? It is amazing in reading the records of this period to find how readily the missionaries could pass from the most dogmatic assertion of a single God to one equally dogmatic about the Trinity. In his letter of 4 June 1843 in which he gives an account of his visit to many of the outlying districts in Fiji John Hunt assures us that the natives are children in intellect: "You cannot convince them that it is impossible that there should be two Gods considering the Divine nature and government." And yet that same John Hunt told his pupils that there were three Gods! No doubt he, like the rest of them, would fall back on the Athanasian creed to resolve the inconsistency; but how far do these fantastic subtleties about One in Three and Three in One serve to enlighten any sane man on such an improvised mystery?

That was not the only inconsistency preached by the old missionaries to the natives. In one breath they asserted that their God was a kind Father full of love and goodwill toward His children; in the next they laid on the Almighty the responsibility for the existence of a place of torture in the next world where the souls of the professionally unsaved would agonize for eternity!! Fijian mythology told of the dreadful experiences that were encountered by departed spirits on the way to Mbulu, but there was nothing quite so horrific as this Hell of the Methodists. There was indeed a lake of fire into which they might be deftly dipped; but there was a chance of getting out of that. It is mortifying to find that this was the only effective weapon in their religious armoury that the missionaries wielded in the early days, and that they made the most of it—every one of them. In a book of sermons in the Williams collection of manuscripts in the Mitchell Library I find one on the text "Let the wicked forsake his ways." "So sure as God exists," says the page 282preacher, "if you feel no pain for the evil in your hearts you will be pained with the unquenchable fire of Hell for ever;" and in another sermon this: "No soul can entertain a hope of salvation without the Gospel." Hell must have been a very densely populated underworld! The saintly John Hunt is as bad as the rest. On 26 February 1845 he quotes with approval a passage from Noah, one of his teachers: "the lotu grows at Makorotumbu—I make known to them that do not lotu the fire of Hell; and to them that lotu the love of Jesus."

The reader of Thomas Williams's Journal will not fail to detect another inconsistency which shows how unfair their judgments, passed on the conduct of the natives, could be when they were under the influence of religious prejudice. In every part of his Journal it will be clear that the great support for Thomas Williams in all his suffering and danger was a belief that Providence was guiding and protecting him. At no time during his service in Fiji—not even in the dark days at Mbua Bay-does he lose touch with that conviction altogether. He and all his colleagues display, in their own measure, the sublime faith of Job:—"Though He slay me yet will I trust Him." That shows the missionary at his best. But turn now to one of his entries for June 1847, and mark what he has to say of Tuikilakila's trust in his gods in spite of a severe rebuff at Malake while on his way to Koro-ni-ya-satha:

Tuilaila had exerted himself to secure success. He had cleaned the temples, weeded his father's grave aided by his favourite wife; killed his only bullock which with a number of pigs, puddings and baked vegetables he offered to his gods; prayed himself and made his priests shake and pray; fed and scolded, coaxed and threatened his priests; mustered his own forces, trepanned a number of Tonguese into his service; secured favourable response from the gods, and, after all came off thus miserably. Yet he cleaves to his gods!2

Observe the note of exclamation. Most people on reading page 283the Journal of Thomas Williams will feel that it was noble in him to hold on trusting in his God despite suffering, failure and disaster; but when Tuikilakila does precisely the same thing he is represented by Williams, and would have been by all the missionaries, as an obstinate deluded savage! What tricks this theological bias can play with the judgment of men otherwise eminently sane!

One of the most important articles in the belief of the missionaries was that the Bible was the inspired Word of God, and that everything in it dealing with geological, anthropological, paleontological as well as religious subjects was literally true. Thakombau had his doubts and told them, one day that if the Bible had been written by man and not by God they ought to say so frankly. He threw down a challenge—if they would go to the waterless islands of Ongea and Vatu Vara, smite the rock there and get water in that miraculous way he and his subjects would embrace Christianity forthwith. The challenge was not accepted. In the early pages of his Journal, while Thomas Williams was still at Lakemba, the reader will find a description of the artifice by which a belated traveller hoped to stay the sun in its course, and prevent it sinking in the west till he had reached his home. At the end of his description Williams places a note of exclamation. Would he have so punctuated verses 12 and 13 of Chapter X of the Book of Joshua wherein it is reported that at the command of Joshua "the sun stood still and hastened not to go down for a whole day?" I think not. But why not? Surely the one is just as incredible as the other.

There is some risk that in drawing attention to such anomalies the author will give an impression which is far from his intention. No serious student of history will be disposed to underrate the importance of the Bible in its page 284effects on the lives of European, American and many other peoples of the world. The influence of its teaching has been, and still is stupendous. Among the instruments used on this planet for the regeneration of mankind it has occupied a unique position. Irresponsible disparagement of its worth would be unpardonable. But there has been a deal of hard thinking on many subjects since the middle of last century; and the Bible like many other things hitherto sacrosanct has had to run the gauntlet of searching criticism. It is no longer regarded as a text-book in geology or any of the sciences however much men may be disposed to value it as a faithful record of man's spiritual development. The danger now is that those who have believed too much in the Bible hitherto may swing to the opposite extreme, and reject what is true and of the greatest assistance to man in his struggle toward spiritual attainment.

It is not surprising that the early missionaries in Fiji regarded every statement in the Bible as above criticism. The battle between science and religion had not begun, and belief in literal inspiration was centuries old. The Protestants of the Reformation rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility and accepted as a substitute the infallibility of the Bible. To the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in England it was nothing less than the Word of God, and the Methodists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century did not doubt it. The missionaries in this as in so many other respects must be judged by the standards and beliefs of their own time not ours.

And though it certainly tended to narrow their minds in some ways, it made them strong to do, to dare and if necessary to die. The men who have done great things in this world's history have not always been broad-minded men. Notwithstanding all these criticisms of the narrow-minded-page 285ness of the old Wesleyan Methodist missionaries in Fiji candour compels me to admit something on the other side. There is good reason for believing that in this workaday world forces must be concentrated and confined, sometimes within very narrow limits, before they can be effective. Steam must be imprisoned before it can drive an engine; flood waters which can exert mighty power so long as they are confined within the river banks lose their energy on reaching the expansive ocean. The broadest-minded men are sometimes (often may we say?) lacking in driving power; narrowness and efficiency often go hand in hand. Even in our studies we must narrow the field in order to do effective work. Specialization has its dangers-precisely the same as those which beset the missionaries. In the contest between religion and science narrow-minded denunciation has not always been on one side. Even between the protagonists of different interpretations of a single subject there have been recriminations almost if not quite as bitter as those between the different sects of a single religion.

Such reflections as these make us pause in our criticisms, and ask whether the missionaries could have rendered so much good and effective service if they had not been narrowminded? Some men in this world's history have succeeded in combining great breadth of mind with efficiency in their own specific work—Caesar, Alfred the Great, Frederick II, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lincoln—just as in science there have been a few who could take a survey of the whole field of research, and attain to pre-eminence in their own particular subject. They are the world's great men, and as valuable as they are rare.

The Methodist missionaries in Fiji were not great except in their personal characters—their faith, fortitude and passion for service. It may well be that had they been broader-page 286minded men they would have accomplished less in their own special sphere of work. As it was they did enough to deserve an honoured place among the men who have served Fiji disinterestedly and with distinction. Some of their achievements have already been discussed; it is time now to review the rest.

1 See his report dated at Ovalau 14 April 1852 (M.M.S.M.).

2 See his report dated 12 April 1854 (M.M.S.M.).

2 See his letter dated 28 August 1847 in which he gives this extract from his Journal under date 19 June 1847 (M.M.S.M.).