British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R.E.N. Smith
Nguna Island
In far too many works of fact and fiction, missionaries have long suffered from a somewhat unhappy and demeaning image - the sad priest in Maugham's Rain is only too typical; the few excepted from either condemnation or mere faint praise (hiding a number of damns) are the Roman Catholic Fathers. I have found that while the good fathers generally deserved this warm appreciation, most of the priests of every other variety of Christianity were equally worthy and hard working men and women, carrying out what was often a thankless task on a minute salary, and frequently in conditions of considerable discomfort. As an administrative officer in Africa and the Pacific I have had much to do with missionaries, and have never received anything but hospitality and good advice (this last not always taken) from them all. There have been the occasional exceptions, but then not all colonial officials or traders were paragons of virtue, hospitable manners or honesty.

Among the missionaries I have known there are too many to particularise, but I have especially warm memories of the ever helpful Bob Murray, of Nguna Island in the New Hebrides, who managed to combine his parochial work with membership of the Condominium's Advisory Council with the immense labour of translating the Testaments into the local language. He and his splendid wife, Jessie, always provided a haven of welcome when one visited their island. Wherever one went in the Condominium (and later in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands) one found both missionaries and mission-provided or trained teachers and volunteers in lonely spots, and all doing their very best. Today's crop of Vanuatuan English speaking politicians, business people and officials owe much to the labours of these sterling people. It was on Bob Murray's Nguna that I came across a practical example of the value of church initiative. On this island, where there was no standing or running fresh water, the foundations of the church near the mission had been built as a huge water cistern, fed from the church roof - a highly practical solution to the water problem that I doubt came from the brains of any government official or imported expert.

Chididi Church
From my earliest days in Nyasaland I had dealings with several varieties of missionary, for the country was well covered by them. One of my earliest encounters was salutary in inculcating a high opinion of them. On Christmas Eve in 1950 I drove a number of friends up the mountain to a service at the Protestant Mission at Chididi above Port Herald in my Jeep Station Wagon. This four-wheeled monstrosity was my first motor vehicle and the least successful, being an unhappy compromise between a jeep and a young bus, with neither the four-wheel drive and gearing of the jeep nor the comfort of a car. It showed that its true allegiance was to Old Nick when it snapped its front spring halfway up the mountain. This spring - believe it or not - was also the front axle, so that when it broke the wheels splayed outwards and any form of progression was impossible. I therefore spent Christmas morning trying to fit a replacement; fortunately the American pastor in charge of the mission was a passable mechanic and he did most of the work, which was extremely Christian of him, on this his busiest day of the year. It was the Seventh Day Adventist Mission near Cholo which ran the most up-to-date hospital in Nyasaland and their skilled care was widely sought, though a young woman friend of ours found it a little disconcerting as she lay on the operating table when the surgeons asked her permission to pray for her!

Jeep Station Wagon
In Nyasaland many missionaries stand out in my memory, and two quite different missions are vivid in it to this day. One was the Roman Catholic Mission at Utale, in the Shire River valley. This was some miles deep in the bush from the little trading centre of Balaka, a singularly hot hell-hole, whose ground water supply was of a particularly infamous hardness and taste. Utale was a large mission of the Montfort Marists (the White Fathers did not operate in the Southern Province), an order based in Algeria and, though largely French, had a remarkably cosmopolitan make up - Father Schmidt at Chiradzulu (who made powerful cigars) was German, another father was Russian, while Bishop Hardman at Nguludi near Zomba was a tough character from Lancashire. Utale Mission was in two parts, the mission proper and an adjacent leper colony. The dominant figure here was the retired Bishop Auneau, an awe-inspiring figure who allowed our little son to play with the tassels of his belt and then fixing us with an eagle eye, observed that "Ze best playsing for a child is anuzzer child". We hastened to reply that we agreed with him thoroughly but refrained from adding that indeed were doing our best to oblige him.

Utale Mission
The priest I most admired was Father Bossard, who was in charge of the leper settlement at Utale. A jovial white bearded Breton with the brightest eyes you ever saw and hands like hams, he did everything - he made the bricks, built the quarters, drove the tractor and did the ploughing and always, above all, cared for and comforted the sick and dying with a loving and cheerful compassion. Though an elderly man, his physical strength was remarkable - he was said to have lifted the tractor out of the mud it was bogged down in all by himself with a mighty heave, undoubtedly assisted by both appeals to the saints and some good Breton oaths. He was the nearest thing to a saint himself that ever I came across, and I have known some fine men and women in my wanderings.

He was also entirely and warmly human, as the following story will demonstrate: Together with my master the District Commissioner from Zomba (John Sheriff) I had the good fortune to be present at Utale at the great celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the mission and also (I think) of the consecration of Bishop Auneau. For the only time in my life I sat down to lunch with three bishops and seventy or so Fathers. When the meal had come to an end and belts had been loosened, there was a roar of "BOSSARD" from the serried ranks of the fathers and he was thrust forward, blushing ferociously in the depths of his beard. Then, ably abetted by the Father Superior, he launched into a music-hall act that would have brought the house down at the Folies Bergere - it certainly had that effect at Utale. He sang, he danced and he yodelled. He even recited a thoroughly naughty poem - of the type well known to the army, rugby players and students, where the last word of each stanza should be low Indeed - but the reciter does not say it. Instead of the expected obscenity, he hesitates for a moment, and his assistant chimes in with an entirely unobjectionable word. This was nigh on forty years ago, and Father Bossard must have long gone to his reward - and Heaven will be a better place for his presence; he was a most lovable man.

H.B. and Ruth Garlock
The other remarkable mission lived at the other end of the doctrinal scale - the Church of God of South Carolina. This was run by the forceful Rev H B ("call me Hard Boiled") Garlock and his equally forthright wife. Her favourite expression to denote surprise was "My dear, I nearly had a haemorrhage of green paint". With two such delightful characters running the show, there was no doubt that the Church was a roaring success, even in a country already heavily missionised by longer established varieties of the Christian faith.

The Church of God of South Carolina was not only popular, but had even raised enough money to build a fine large church in the main African housing area in Lilongwe, to the opening of which the Town Clerk (Pony Moore) and myself (then the Town Officer) were invited. Fortunately neither of us was the guest of honour; this invidious position was reserved for Robin Rowland, the acting Provincial Commissioner. On the dais was a trinity of chairs, Robin looking distinctly embarrassed in the raised-up God-the- Father position in the middle, flanked by Hard Boiled on the one side and the latter's brother-in-law, the Rev Trotter, on the other. The church was packed with devout Africans, many of whom had open bibles on their laps so that they could follow the proceedings closely. I would note here that though the level of literacy in Nyasaland was allegedly low, there were very many Africans who could read and write - in the vernacular if not in English.

Once the service of dedication began, one of the reasons for the popularity of the sect became apparent. There were several enthusiastic young American missionaries present, some with cine cameras to record the scene, and the others laden down with a wide variety of musical instruments - mostly brass. Apart from the purely religious part of the service, there were hot gospel trios, trumpet solos, trumpet and trombone quartets - a remarkable variety show. The top attraction came near the end, when the ceremonial inauguration sermon was delivered by the diminutive but fiery Reverend Trotter. Having exercised his ministry in West Africa, he naturally had no CiCewa, so he held forth in English, each sentence being translated by a gigantic African evangelist standing one pace to the side and one behind him. Now the Rev Trotter was an inspired and dedicated hot gospeller, and accompanied his verbal fireworks with wide and extravagant gestures. This was fair enough, but his faithful interpreter not only rendered the English into equally florid CiCewa, but duplicated the sweeping histrionics, one sentence behind. Thus, when the Rev Trotter was hoisting his hands high in the air, the interpreter would be waving his somewhere around his knees, as the previous sentence required. The whole effect was hilariously bizarre; poor Pony was almost hysterical with painfully suppressed laughter, and the effort was too much for him, so that he had to be led out of the church before he burst. All the same it was easy to understand the popularity of the Church of God, for it had almost as much pomp and circumstance as the Roman Catholics, and much more entertainment value!

Near my headquarters of Kasupe (when I was ADC there) was the great Anglican Church of the Ascension at Likwenu. This remarkable building looked extraordinarily early mediaeval with its thatch roof and entire absence of seating. The priest here was the Reverend Rashidi, a Yao, and therefore an unusual man to find in the Church, for the Yao were largely Muslim; it was Father Rashidi who christened our daughter here. The Bishop of Nyasaland occasionally visited the church and stayed in the little rest house, which on occasion he had to share with the profane and blasphemous elderly European widely known as old man Whincup, an ex-British Army NCO who had set himself up as a builder and did odd jobs around the country. He lived in some comfort with a small gaggle of African girls. Bishop Thorne, an ascetic and upright man, never chided Whincup or alluded to his far from Christian way of life, showing a remarkable restraint, but since as a young officer the Bishop had earned an MC in the first World War, he was presumably well used to sinners.

Another former British Army officer was a Roman Catholic father in the almost entirely French mission in the New Hebrides, Father Albert Sacco, who was, I believe of Maltese stock, but hailed from Liverpool and had served during the 39-45 war as an officer in the Royal Artillery. Yet another unusual Briton in this mission was a Frenchman rejoicing in the Christian names of Charles Edward - an ancestor had been a Jacobite refugee. He was in a peculiar position in the Anglo-French Condominium, for as far as the British half was concerned he was British, having been naturalised during his long stay in Fiji, but to the French he was legally one of theirs, for at that time French law did not recognise the acquisition of foreign nationality by a Frenchman who had not done his military service - Father Verlingue was truly condominial!

Onesua High School
Comparatively little of the mission in the New Hebrides was entirely religious, for since British Government financial generosity was never lavish most of the educational and medical drive was undertaken by the missions. You could not go very far without finding a village school, a clinic or dispensary, a District High School, or even a secondary school, often staffed by a mixed and splendid bag of New Zealanders, Australians, Britons, New Hebrideans, and Fijians, whose salaries would have nowhere reached even the level of a state dole here. Onesua High School was noteworthy in its cosmopolitan nature, in that its outstanding figure was the Reverend Galavakadua, a massive figure of a Fijian gentleman, but even he was over-topped by the astonishingly tall Miss Biggs, a New Zealander. She vowed that her great height came in most useful when royalty visited her home country, as she could see over any crowd. The Paton Memorial Hospital on Iririki Island in Vila harbour has now vanished, but in my time it was distinguished by two fine doctor/surgeons. Dr Knox Jameson spent many years there on a derisory salary, and went on to a senior position in Melbourne. Not only did he tend the sick, he was also the surgeon and even the mechanic, for it was his marine engineering skill that kept the little launch from Vila working, as well as any machinery. His eventual successor was Dr Ted Freeman, a vital and indomitably cheerful enormous Australian, with a brood of children as red-haired and rumbustious as himself. His later devoted work with brain-damaged people has made him celebrated well beyond his native shores.

Christianity in the Gilbert & Ellice Islands, where I finished up, was sometimes a problem to the administration, but not because of any overt rivalry between missions. The problem was in the enthusiasm of their adherents. Roughly half of the Gilbertese was Roman Catholic and the rest Protestant, and they took their faith very seriously indeed. The story goes that on one of the southern islands the RC bishop was not only refused permission to land but was bodily replaced in his boat. I do not know the exact details, but I do know that a notice board on that island in my day proclaimed "Only Protestants allowed here". On another island, Maiana, a bitter feud (over the expenditure of council tax money) between the two versions of the same gentle faith resulted in a young war, with burnings, broken heads and the smashing of canoes and bicycles, and had to be suppressed by a strong detachment of police.

Throughout the Gilberts, marriage between young people of differing sects was all but prohibited by parents and elders - they could live together and have children - but not marry. On another island there were separate traditional meeting houses in each village, for there was little socialising between the two sects; this separatism was so strict that even the tiny village stores would only deal with their fellow religionists. All the same, one was always welcome at any of the missions, and the priests and nuns were as fine a selection of people as you could meet, but even they had problems with the singleminded devotion of their respective flocks.

There is no doubt that in all three countries the work of Government and its officers would have been much harder and much more expensive without the efforts of missionaries. Apart from the religious nature of their work, they provided education and medical assistance, and sometimes even engineering aid that would have made the British Government shudder to its Treasury roots if it had been obliged to provide these services at its own cost. Most of those workers in the vineyard that I knew have retired or gone to their reward - one and all they fought the good fight, and may they rest well.

British Colony Map
1944 Map of Nguna Island
Colonial Map
Southern tip of Nyasland Map
Colonial Map
Utale, Liwonde
Colony Profiles
New Hebrides
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 86: October 2003


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