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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20

Heathen Life in the New Hebrides

Heathen Life in the New Hebrides.

The condition of the South Sea islanders was at first greatly exaggerated. Their form was said to be erect, and perfectly developed, and their minds were extolled for their quickness and the nobility of their conceptions. The high qualities of generosity and unsuspecting confidence were predicated of them. It was supposed that you were welcome to their hospitality and safe under their roof; that their individual, domestic, and social condition was like that of their beautiful island homes; and that their lives were happy, because they were ignorant of wealth, ambition, and the evils of civilized society. Contact with them has dispelled the delusion.—Traders, missionaries, and teachers after having lived among them, and seen their every day life, cannot confirm such glowing statements. Their condition, on the contrary, is one of want and suffering. Over their shipwrecked vessel floats a flag of distress with these words—"Come over and help us."

The more prominent features of their life, as seen from a Christian point of view, are these:—

1st. It is a life of poverty. Their tools, utensils, works of art, and articles of furniture are not only rude, but very few. A Native might carry all his moveable property on his back, or at least in his canoe. On their persons they have ornaments. In the houses of the more wealthy (if the word can be used) may be seen a few floor and sleeping mats, with some bark cloth, a pillow, a basket, a hank of native twine, a hatchet, a few spears and arrows, a cocoa nut shell for water, a fishing net, a bag of sacred stones, and perchance a musket. Out of doors you may see a plough, (a pointed stick five feet long,) a few fowls, a female dress suspended from a tree to dry, a canoe, a pig, and a dog or cat. It is impossible for any one on these islands to accumulate much more property than his brethren. As there is no law to protect him in the possession of it, he will be deprived of it, either by importunity or stealth.

2nd. It is a life of discomfort. It is true that the Natives when seen, for example, paddling their canoes, or sitting under the shade of the palm, or training the tendrils of the yam, in their ancestral possessions, or marching along the beach with their spears poised ready for launching at the first suitable object—seen in Such circumstances they may appear to be free and in want of nothing. But follow one of these Natives to his hut, see him in his family, or when thwarted, or injured, or when weak from age or sickness, and you will come to a different conclusion. His poverty is one cause of his discomfort. His hut is not a palace. The night air finds its way through the numerous crevices—it is dark, for there is no window—it is badly ventilated, for the doorway is low—it is full of smoke, for there is no chimney—it is nearly empty, for there is no furniture—it is unhealthy, for the damp earth forms the page 6 floor—it is uncomfortable, for it swarms with ants and mosquitoes, and there is no privacy, for it is all one apartment. When night comes on, all is dark save the feeble light of a dull fire—no evening lamp lights up the scene, and no interesting conversation, or new volume, occupies the family circle. If when sick, a Native loathe island food, he cannot have a change of diet. For him there are few kind attendants, and no well approved medicine. Even in health, his supply of the most common necessaries is precarious and is often exhausted, as a little, generally a supply for only one day, is provided at once. In bad weather he is often both cold and hungry.

3rd. It is a life of fear. It is impossible for us, brought up under Christianity and just laws, to feel the burden heathenism is, or the constant fear induced by it. In the first place, the Natives fear each other. This is to be expected where there is no law and nothing to check the selfishness and innate wickedness of the heart. Every man's hand is against his neighbour. Their hearts are not only full of bad intentions, but these intentions ripen into all manner of evil deeds. Every man knows how he feels toward his neighbours and the things that are theirs, and he judges rightly that they think and feel in the same way about him and his, and are only waiting for a favorable opportunity of proceeding to action. They fear the sacred men, who are supposed to have the power of causing all sorts and degrees of calamities. At their pleasure the rain descends, the wind rages, and men sicken and die. They fear the spirits—so numerous as to people the air, earth, and ocean—all malicious, easily provoked, and powerful to punish whomsoever they will. "To realise somewhat of their condition, let us suppose that all our knowledge respecting God, angels, and spirits—every idea that we have obtained respecting them from the Bible, were to be blotted out from our mind—that all this light were to be wanting, and that all that we knew of the spiritual world was learned from fabulous legends about ghosts, apparitions, and the appearances and doings of Satan, and suppose that we had a hereditary belief that every noted man was a wizard, and every noted woman a witch, possessed of such powers that by a few incantations they could bring famine, disease, or death as often as they would. If it were possible for its to realise such a state of feeling, we should have some faint idea of the grievous fear engendered by heathenism."

4th. It is a life of isolation. They have scarcely any intercourse with the world, with its countries, peoples and productions. They know little of it beyond their own islands, and as many more as may be visible from them. They have but little intercourse with the adjoining islands, which form a part of the same group. Looking at the numbers who have set out but have perished on the way to other islands, they are afraid to risk their lives in their frail canoes. Nor can many of them visit other islands from another cause—viz., the hostility of the Natives of one island to those of another. They only are safe who have a league of hospitality with those to whom they go. But a Native may not even know the whole page 7 of his own small island. From the hatred that exists between its several tribes, much of it may be a perfect terra incognita to him, and there are certain boundaries which he cannot pass without risking his life. Even among the members of the same tribe there is not much intercourse. They seldom live in villages, but build their huts wherever they may own a piece of good soil, or fruit trees, or swamp, or a canoe harbour. Mutual protection or aggrandisement is almost the only cause leading to combination. Even among the members of the same family there is not much intercourse; e.g., between husbands and wives, parents and children. Husbands and wives do not eat together or occupy the same end of a house, and they seldom consult together. In a word, a native by the time he has entered his teens is independent even of his parents; he can supply his own few wants, and as he seldom requires the aid of others, he comes to think almost exclusively of himself.

5th. It is a life of cruelty. They are cruel to infants, especially to females. There is no rejoicing at their birth, being regarded rather as a burden than a blessing. Mothers not un-frequently, to save them the trouble of rearing their offspring, destroy them in the womb, or after their birth, by leaving them in the bush or killing them outright. They are cruel to the old and the insane. The hoary head is not respected, and as the insane are supposed to be possessed by evil spirits they are rather maltreated than cared for. They are cruel to the sick. At first they are waited on, but if the sickness continues they are left to provide for themselves. Hence many die mainly from want of food and drink. They are cruel to women. They are the servants of the men, and do much of the manual labour. They fish, dig, gather fuel, collect food, cook, and nurse their children. On Aneityum the words wife and servant are interchangeable. If a woman meet a man in a narrow path, she rushes up among the tall grass with her back to the path till he has passed. Before high chiefs they go on their hands and knees. They sit apart from the men, and must not touch certain kinds of food. On Aneityum when a man died his wife was immediately strangled that she might be his servant in the other world as well as in this. They are cruel to those who have injured them. An offence they will neither forgive nor forget. It would be considered unmanly not to take vengeance. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth at the very least. If no opportunity occur of retaliating for years, the memory of the event is kept up by notches on trees or other means. They are cruel to strangers, e.g. to natives who when fishing have drifted away from their own islands—to natives who land on a part of an island other than that they intended to visit—also to shipwrecked sailors who in boats reach their shores: they escape the vengeance of the sea only to be seized on shore and their bodies cooked. They are cruel to Teachers and Missionaries. On almost all the islands where Teachers have lived for a time, some of them have been killed—perhaps as many as twenty in all. On every island where Missionaries have lived they have experienced much cruelty, and on one, Eromanga, four have been killed—Williams and Harris in 1839, and Mr and Mrs Gordon in 1861.

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6th. It is a life of ignorance and error. They are ignorant of many things useful to them in this life, and to a great extent with regard to this world, with its continents, islands, nations, languages, and productions—animal, vegetable, and mineral. The Aneityumese, when they saw the first ship off their island, concluded that it was a great spirit coming to them, and endeavoured to frighten it away by blowing on their conch shells. They are ignorant of the causes of natural phenomena—e.g., volcanoes, earthquakes, eclipses, storms, &c. A barometer belonging to the missionaries on Tana was believed to cause wind, because the missionaries were seen consulting it during gales. They are ignorant with regard to the heavenly bodies. With them the sun and moon are equal in size and greatly less than this world of ours, and equally distant with the stars. They are ignorant of the causes of sickness and death. They believe that disease is caused by sacred men, who produce it by sorcery. When a person takes ill, his relatives some-times endeavour by a present to appease the disease-maker. Missionaries and teachers are regarded as sacred men of great power, and are blamed for many of the epidemics and other calamities that occur. The Natives believe that if they receive the message of these men, viz. the Gospel, they will certainly take sick and die. This belief in the deadly effect of the Gospel is a most formidable obstacle in our way. They are ignorant of everything connected with their eternal welfare. They know not Jehovah, the living and true God. They are all idolators, worshippers of stones which are the supposed residence of spirits, none of them objects of love, but all requiring to be propitiated. These gods are legion, and each has power over a locality or class of objects. One causes the taro to grow, another presides over bread-fruit, another gives success in war or fishing, another causes the pigs to thrive, and so forth. They know nothing, then, of the true God or of their relation to Him as Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor—nothing of their souls, or of their fall in Adam and of recovery through Christ—nothing of the Law or Gospel—nothing of heaven, hell, or of the eternal world.

7th. It is a life of helplessness. Like babes, they cannot elevate themselves physically, intellectually, or spiritually. Unless aided, they will never procure the comforts of civilized life, their knowledge on all subjects will remain the same, they will continue to practise all their cruelties, and they will never attain to the knowledge of God. One generation will just resemble another. They may go back, and sink, and add to their wicked customs, and lose a portion of their little knowledge, but they will never rise by their own unaided efforts. When Cook was at Tana he saw the women carrying burdens as if they were pack-horses. The same sight is still seen there, after the lapse of ninety-two years.

8th. It is a condition of unconsciousness. They are to a great extent ignorant of the painful circumstances in which they are. They resemble some one in the last stage of disease, or one who has been stunned by a blow on the head. He is in critical circumstances, but he knows it not; he makes no effort to help himself, not even page 9 a sign to the by-standers. The sight, of him is the only thing to call forth help from the spectators. Just so; the condition of the New Hebrides Natives more than their words call upon Christians to help them.

In the words of Scripture these people are—hateful and hating one another—perishing for lack of knowledge—their dark lands are full of the habitations of cruelty—destruction and misery are in their ways, and the way of peace have they not known—they are sitting in the region and shadow of death, and have no light.

If such be the condition of these people, what Christian need envy them? They are blessed who know the joyful sound; yea, happy is that people whose God is the Lord.