Deep Island Time

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On 12th April 1904, Florence Young and nine other missionaries arrived at Malu'u in the To'aba'ita district of north Malaita, Solomon Islands. Among those waiting to welcome them was Peter Ambu'ofa, a twice recruited labourer from the Queensland canefields who had returned home ten years earlier.

Florence the missionary and Peter the kanaka (Pacific islander) cane worker knew each other well from Bundaberg where Peter had worked and where Florence had in 1886 started the Queensland Kanaka Mission (QKM) with the support of her family who owned a plantation there.

A QKM convert baptised in 1892, Ambu'ofa adopted not just the spirituality of this evangelical offshoot of Anglicanism but also its missionary zeal. He returned to spread the word but constantly communicated with Young and the Bundaberg mission by sending messages on the labour trade ships, urging them to come to Malaita and assist him to build the new church.

"To have Florence Young turn up at Malu'u at To'aba'ita must have been quite an amazing experience for him," says Clive Moore, professor of Pacific and Australian history at the University of Queensland. 1906 marked the year when indentured labour from the islands was due to cease. As this date approached, the QKM were at the forefront of lobbying the newly formed Federal and Queensland governments (and the King) against the policy of mass deportation.

The latter period of the Queensland labour trade saw a preponderance of recruits from the Solomon Islands, many of whom were Malaitans. From the 1890s onwards, Malaitans were the largest group in Queensland.

"They had a reputation in Queensland as being difficult and fairly aggressive and I think she took the challenge that they were difficult to deal with and was attracted to them," says Moore. In a 1903 letter, Young - no doubt contemplating relocating the QKM - enthuses that "hundreds of these men have been won for Christ in Queensland and are staunch and splendid Christians, and whereas in the early days it was a triumph to get one Malaitan man to school, now we have many hundreds in our classes and for years they have besought us to send missionaries to their Island."

In the turn-of-century campaign against deportation, one argument was that islanders would face rejection or worse when returned to their home villages. This was true in Ambu'ofa's case as he endured years of material deprivation, disease and several attempts on his life. The fact that he was the messenger of an alien god increased the risks. But he finally managed to establish a school and by 1902 had a following of about 200 and preached by mixing the To'aba'ita tongue with Pidgin English.

As Young and her colleagues saw QKM's adherents dispersing, they made a strategic decision to shift the whole operation to Malaita. Moore believes that despite having the backing of her wealthy family and friends, the decision to close the church in Queensland and move it offshore was a brave one. Young was a highly experienced missionary who had spent six years with the China Inland Mission before the Boxer Rebellion forced her back to Queensland.

Having moved to Malaita, the QKM became the South Sea Evangelical Mission (SSEM) in 1907 with its headquarters at Onepusu on the coast in west 'Are'are. Just as the QKM had consolidated its converts on the Queensland coast in areas not dominated by other churches, so too on Malaita, the SSEM had a strategy that was aimed at a rapid expansion that could not be matched by the larger (Anglican) Melanesian Mission.

"The Anglicans were very widespread in the Pacific and the Solomons and didn't have the finances that the QKM had," notes Moore. "But the QKM also set about it in a very practical way. It got its own ships. It set up a pattern of mission stations with a headquarters which was close enough to the headquarters of the Solomon Islands British Government to allow communications and strategically established a pattern of missions and smaller stations."

The Young family also managed to convince the British colonial government to allow them to buy a massive strip of coastal land for a coconut plantation, nearby SSEM headquarters. Moore believes this commercial plan must have entered into calculations for the church's relocation.

Onepusu on the west coast, Malu'u in the north and Kwai-Ngongosila in the east soon become bases from which the SSEM conducted its outreach and established its out-stations. SSEM sailed its 12-ton lugger via Aola on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Ngela Group to supply its bases. With each purchase of land, with each new school or house built, the missionaries were reaching out to Malaitans who were former Queensland labourers. And the Queensland mission encouraged returning labourers to settle in these new Christian communities rather than their home villages.

Moore argues that on Malaita the SSEM achieved within two years what the Melanesian Mission could not do in thirty years.

"They see it as something that God did. I see it as a logistical feat that was very well accomplished," he says.

Clearly, logistical success was leveraged off the back of church infrastructure long established up and down the Queensland coast and the dispersal of returning converts to all parts of Malaita. But QKM-SSEM theology and its egalitarian structure also played a part.

"They didn't have a clergy like the Catholics or the Anglicans and it seems that that fitted in very well with the needs of Melanesian Christians," notes Moore.

"I'm not saying they came to the native's level but there was a sense of human equality in front of Christ. That's a very, very strong belief that still runs through the church that grew out of the Kanaka mission."

Editor's notes: What was once the South Sea Evangelical Mission, the South Sea Evangelical Church (SSEC) today has grown to around 85,000 believers, 20,000 of whom are Papua New Guineans. Its numerical stronghold in the Solomon Islands makes up about 11% of the nation's Christians, its largest indigenous church. (Source: monograph by Clive Moore 2009, 'Florence Young and the Queensland Kanaka Mission, 1886 - 1906: Beginnings of an Indigenous Pacific Church')

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