The Story of The
New Hebrides Mission
1868 to 1965
The title image, taken in 1881, includes some of the first Communicants at Kwamera on Tanna. Also included in this group are a number of natives from Aneityum as well as a native teacher at far right.
Mission Interest Stirs :
Interest in supporting a Christian Mission to the New Hebrides was stirred as early as 1852, when the Rev John Inglis of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Mission toured New Zealand prior to leaving for the Islands as a Missionary. With regular reports of his work filtering back to New Zealand, interest soon grew in supporting our own Missionaries to the Islands.
At this time the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand was divided up into the "Northern Church" and the "Southern Church" (the latter consisting of the Provinces of Otago and Southland). The Southern Church, being represented by the Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland, was very much based on Free Church of Scotland ideals and this would influence it's choice of Missionary for many years. It was to be 40 years before the two Churches sorted out their differences and joined as one which meant that Mission activities over this period operated independently of each other.
Work Commences :
The Northern Presbyterian Church enthusiastically agreed to support a Missionary in 1862 and appointed the Rev William Watt, a Theological student of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, in 1866. Rev Watt and his wife Agnes finally arrived on the Islands in 1868 and commenced work on Tanna Island.
Not far behind, and equally anxious to play it's own part, the Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland, finally agreed in 1867 to send a Missionary to the New Hebrides. A "Foreign Missions Committee" was elected to take charge of the matter and an annual Mission collection authorized to support the new Missionary. The Rev Peter Milne, a young Free Church of Scotland Licentiate was the first to be appointed, eventually spending a remarkable 55 years on Nguna Island. After a four month voyage to Dunedin in 1869 with his wife Mary Jane, they later left for the islands, and commenced work on Nguna Island in 1870.
The "Dayspring" Mission Vessels :
In conjunction with the Australian Presbyterian Church Missions, £5,000 had been raised in 1863 to purchase (for £4,000) and support a Mission supply vessel, the "Dayspring I", a brigantine of 115 tons, being launched in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1863. The sighting of the "Dayspring" off shore was a joyous occasion, bring supplies and letters from home and contact with the outside World. News travelled slowly to and from the islands and it was natural that everyone would worry when communication with new Zealand was so infrequent. After it's loss in a hurricane 10 years later (this was actually considered a good record), the "Paragon", a second hand schooner, was purchased for £3000 in 1876 and renamed the "Dayspring II". In these early years, there was no organized and reliable shipping service to the individual islands and it was imperative that regular supplies could be shipped from Australia and New Zealand.
"Unhurried Caution" :
The Missionaries, particularly Rev Watt, wrote of the need for further assistance, however despite a reasonable level of giving, assistance was not forthcoming for some considerable time. Perhaps the extreme difficulty he experienced and the slowness of the natives to embrace the Gospel led to some misgivings by the Church and a consequent desire to proceed with unhurried caution.
The 'rigid' European forms of conveying the Gospel to unsophisticated natives and the 'dependence' on Worship may have been the cause of this initial lack of interest. While Mrs Watt wrote kindly of the natives' friendliness, affection and readiness to help, perhaps the true meaning of the Gospel was not adequately conveyed with the 'message' not always being matched to the circumstances of the people.
A Norwegian Lutheran :
The Southern Church, led by the Rev William Bannerman and a zealous Missions Committee promoted it's Mission work with unflagging zeal. They were anxious to secure another Missionary however none was available. When the Rev Oscar Michelsen, a Norwegian Lutheran, offered his services in 1877, their problem was conveniently solved. After a year of language study with Rev Milne on Nguna, Oscar was stationed on Tongoa where he ministered for over 50 years.
Native Practises & Customs :
The natives were highly superstitious and engaged
in spirit and ancestor worship. Tribal warfare and cannibalism existed
on all islands which meant the natives lived in a constant state of fear,
even of neighbouring villages. Native women were usually treated in a very
subservient manner by their husbands. Infanticide was not uncommon.
The Missionaries did their best to discourage such practises. While some village chiefs resented their possible loss of power to the Missionaries, some villages embraced them due to their moderating influence and protection. Mission work in these early years made painfully slow progress and was at all times difficult and frequently dangerous.
The Northern Church engaged the Rev Charles Murray in 1885, being stationed on Ambrim Island which had previously been settled by the New South Wales (Australian) Mission. Sadly, within one year his wife Flora died leaving him to struggle on in continual ill health (Malaria) and ever diminishing native interest. He returned to New Zealand demoralized and his health broken by the constant struggle and the debilitating effects of malaria. His diary covering this his last few months on the island survives in the Archives.
The New Hebrides Mission Synod :
Although responsible for their allotted areas and to their home Churches, the New Hebrides Missionaries worked closely with each other on common issues and met annually for a Mission Synod meeting. Missionaries serving in the New Hebrides came from the Presbyterian Church's of New Zealand, Victoria (Australia), Tasmania (Aust.), New South Wales (Aust.), South Australia, United Free Church of Scotland, Canada, and the John G Paton Mission Fund (Australia).
Medical Work :
Dr Lamb was appointed by the Northern Church in 1891 to begin a badly needed Medical Mission to the islands. Inauspiciously choosing Dip Point on the volcanic island of Ambrim, he was at first faced with a hurricane which completely levelled the Mission buildings and killed his twin sons. Thereafter he faced fire which destroyed his temporary shelter, a threatening volcanic eruption, disease and death all took their toll.
Not finding a replacement for Rev Murray, two lay Missionaries were appointed, one being Mr John Mansfield who continued to serve the Mission until 1929.
A Missionary nurse was appointed in 1897, however
the continued strain on Dr Lamb led to a complete breakdown in health which
led to his resignation the same year. As a measure of compensation, the
Missions Committee continued to pay him a salary for the next two years.
Dr John T Bowie was appointed as his replacement in 1899 and took over the busy but problem beset hospital.
"Just Holds its Own" :
The Rev Watt continued to toil away on Tanna Island, however it was to be 12 years of patient witness before he had his first converts. In 1880, he baptized two men and four women with five more in 1884. The Committee noted however that, "The Mission just holds its own". The loss of his devoted wife Agnes in 1894 left him carrying on alone. The natives, to whom she was known as "Misi Bran", deeply and genuinely mourned her. They carefully tended her grave on Tanna.
In 1894, Rev Watt generously - or desperately - offered to forgo his stipend (salary) for two years so that another Missionary could be appointed to support him. Further assistance came slowly. Rev Alexander Gillies from Orkney arrived at Kwamera on Tanna in 1897 (20 years after the Rev Watt's first request for assistance), however by 1900 he too had suffered a breakdown in health leaving Rev Watt to struggle on again alone .
Conversion of Paramount Chiefs :
While initially working away on Nguna Island achieving very little, Rev Milne had managed by 1880 to convert some of the island Paramount Chiefs to Christianity and the Ngunese then joined the Church in large numbers. By 1890 the island membership stood at 800. Rev Michelson on Tangoa experienced similar results after a long initial struggle. When he left on furlough (leave) in 1891, he left behind over 2,000 Christian New Hebrideans including 200 Communicant members and 32 native schools.
The Labour Trade :
The Missionaries shared a practical concern for the everyday needs and sufferings of the island people. They fought long and hard against the European introduction of the labour trade. Traders called on the islands seeking workers to "sell" to the Fiji and Queensland sugar cane plantations as low cost labour. At first the natives were virtually carried off by kidnapping and entrapment. In one recorded incident, they were enticed aboard the labour vessel with jew's harps and red pocket handkerchiefs then promptly secured in the ships hold. The traders were unscrupulous and took advantage of the natives' ignorance of the facts. In later years the methods were perhaps less forceful but many men continued to be transported for labour. It must be said that in the early years of the 19th century, the New Hebridean natives working in Queensland (where they became known as "Kanakas") were reasonably well treated. When their contracts expired some did not wish to return to the islands after experiencing improved living conditions in Australia.
Practical Benefits of Missions :
Island trading was encouraged as a means to generate revenue, communications improved and basic medical assistance was provided. A program of education and training native teachers was initiated. The Missionaries also tried to limit some of the unfortunate effects of previous European contact!
A Volunteer Catches the Synod's Imagination :
The Southern Church, despite some promising success, was by 1887 less interested in sending out additional Missionaries and contributions had tapered off somewhat. But a young volunteer, the Rev Thomas Smaill, managed to catch their imagination and they agreed to send him out, including his new and equally capable wife Helen in 1890. They were stationed on Epi Island where they immediately received a favourable response which boded well for their future success. His death from a chill in 1902 after rescuing a native woman during a hurricane was a crushing blow to the Islanders. His loss was also keenly felt by the whole NZ Church which had finally solved their differences and combined in 1901. His wife Helen loved the islands and it's people and had equally shared her late husband's evangelistic zeal. She arranged to assist the Rev Thomas Riddle, her late husband's replacement on Epi, for 4 more years. As late as the 1920's she desired to return again, but her health prevented this.
The Tangoa Teachers' Training Institute :
This highly successful institution opened at Tangoa in 1895 specifically to train native teachers and was supported by all the Protestant Missions working on the islands. The missions considered that it was important to equip the native people with a Christian based education and training in the almost total absence of any organized Government attempt. That the islands were run by a confusing British and French "Condominium" meant that many issues such as education were not given a priority in the face of many other more pressing political and administrative problems. The influence of the Church in the area of education in these and later years was significant and pivotal for the islands to be able to slowly take control of their own affairs in future years.
The "Dayspring III" Mission Vessel :
The "Dayspring II" was sold just prior to 1890. She was proving to be too small and was acknowledged to be slow and uncomfortable to sail in. The Australian Missionary, Dr John G. Paton raised the large sum of £6,000 during a visit to Britain in 1884 - 85, then managed to increase this with additional donations to £7,000. This time, and after some extremely heated discussions, a steamer was decided upon. The "Dayspring III", a handsome vessel of 157 feet, was built on the Clyde in Scotland to the order of the Victorian Presbyterian Church Foreign Missions Committee, arriving in Australia in 1895. On only her fourth voyage to the islands she sank on the 16th October 1896 after striking an uncharted coral reef near New Caledonia. The insurance pay out amounted to only £4,000 and with a more frequent commercial shipping service available, the decision was made not to replace the vessel.
Women's Missionary Support Organizations :
By 1900, the giving for Missions in Otago and
Southland had increased to double that of the Northern Presbyterian Church.
A Ladies Missionary Aid Society, which aimed to raise funds to support the education of Missionaries children back in New Zealand, had initially been formed in the south in 1891. A Zenana Mission had also been formed to encourage support for the Missionaries and their work. These two groups combined to form the NZ wide Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union (PWMU) in 1896, becoming an indispensable driving force in raising funds for Missions and supporting the Missionaries during the ensuing years.
Mission Boxes :
One very practical way that parishes and groups
supported the Mission was by way of the mission box. Rev Watt made the
first request so that his native converts could be 'decently' dressed :
"Pardon me if I suggest that a box from some congregation or other of the Church once a year would be very acceptable. Such a box might contain remnants, calicoes, prints, hats, caps, etc. As the goods required here need not be of the latest fashion, things a little bit out of date with you would do quite well...."
Indigenous island dress was usually rather scant and, to the Missionaries eyes, unseemly. Mission Boxes continued to be made up for many years thereafter, both for the native congregations and for the Missionaries and their families as well. The latter, including messages of support, did much to help dispel the great feeling of loneliness and isolation felt by the Mission families.
The Missionaries were quick to develop opportunities where the natives could generate revenue to become more self - sufficient. One method was by means of producing arrowroot which was generally used as a thickener in soups and cooking. The natives generously spent countless hours digging up the arrowroot bulbs, scraping them, continually washing the resultant mixture in sea water then fresh water to remove impurities, then drying in the sun until the remaining white powder was ready to be packed into barrels. The arrowroot powder was shipped to New Zealand (and other countries) where it was initially distributed by women's Missionary groups then latterly by a commercial organization. The funds earned were used to build additional churches in the islands and, in some cases, as a donation towards NZ mission funds to be used elsewhere. From 1880 to 1918 on Nguna alone, over 26 tons of arrowroot had been produced giving a net profit of £1,945.
The Work Tapers Off :
By 1910 when the Rev Riddle transferred to the newly formed Punjab Mission, the work in the New Hebrides was tapering off. This was caused by a rapidly decreasing population and the feeling that little room existed for further expansion of the work as most areas were then adequately covered. The reduction in population was primarily caused by introduced European illnesses and epidemics decimating the native population. The effect of the labour trade had also reduced the native population, many natives having decided to remain in Queensland. In fact, by 1930, many believed that the New Hebrides Mission as a whole was coming to an end.
30 Years Takes It's Toll :
Thirty years of Missionary work was taking
its toll on the Rev Peter Milne of Nguna. As at 1900 he had seven islands
and 32 native schools under his care and the constant physical demands
were taking its toll on him. His son William Milne was appointed as a lay
assistant to help him and his daughter Miss K. Milne was appointed to assist
with teaching work. It was indeed a red letter day in the history of the
New Hebrides Mission when the Rev William Milne was finally ordained as
a Missionary in his own right on Nguna in 1905. He slowly took over his
father's duties, the work continuing to grow slowly but unspectacularly,
routinely characterized by a comment in one of his reports that "nothing
outstanding" had happened that year. By this time the whole island
was nominally Christian.
Sadly Rev Peter Milne's wife, Mary Jane Milne, died in Dunedin in 1908 after returning to 'gather up' her family back into a family unit. She had keenly felt the constant separation from her children who had been sent back to attend school, one of the drawbacks of Mission life and a problem that was still evident many years later. She had held the hope that with her departure her husband would completely hand over the work on Nguna to his son and retire to New Zealand.
A Devastating Volcanic Eruption :
The work on Ambrim, including the busy 100
bed hospital and the medical work in general continued to fulfil an ever
increasing need. However, in December 1913 a spectacular and devastating
volcanic eruption totally destroyed the mission buildings, leaving a desolate
scene without vegetation and a lagoon where the hospital buildings and
it's idyllic grounds once stood. The staff managed to escape safely averting
an even greater tragedy. The remaining native population suffered great
hardship including disease and then the ruination of the copra crop by
With the outbreak of the "Great War" in 1914, the hospital was not replaced, it's place being taken by the already established Australian Paton Memorial Hospital at Vila.
For some years the work on Ambrim was overseen by an Australian Missionary, the Rev Maurice Frater who was based on Paama until Mr John Mansfield was appointed Locum Tenens in 1924. In 1930 another volcanic eruption caused his Mission Station at Wuro to be obliterated under a flow of hot lava. From 1933 the island was transferred permanently to the John G Paton Mission Fund Committee based in Australia. This was a sad ending to work that had begun in such high hopes including its pioneering medical Mission work. That all was totally lost ranks this as one of the most costly Mission undertakings by the NZ Presbyterian Church.
The Demands of Mission Life :
The demands placed on the Missionaries and their wives are unimaginable by todays standards. They all endured great isolation and loneliness and were unable to easily visit their fellow Missionaries. They toiled long and hard while often suffering illness and malaria in the trying tropical climate. Death was an ever present visitor, especially among the Mission children. Two Doctors, Dr Lamb and Dr Bowie were forced to leave the islands, their health broken down with illness and strain of work.
The Great War :
The "Great War" of 1914 to 1918 was a difficult conflict to explain to the native people who could not understand that Christian peace - loving nations were fighting each other in a bitter war.
The Death Of The Rev Peter Milne :
The Rev Milne had continued to live with his
son and wife on Nguna, helping where he was able. Prior to the Great War
he had returned to Scotland to visit his old home and family but also to
see about the printing of religious books in native language. He took great
pains to assure the NZ Missions Committee that his extended stay in Edinburgh
was being put to good use diligently translating works and seeing about
their printing while not wasting his time on needless sightseeing or other
unimportant things !
A unique event occurred in 1919 when he and Rev Michelsen, both founders of the NZ New Hebrides Mission, lived to see its Jubilee.
His ongoing presence became somewhat problematic for his son in later years but he meant well and above all the Christian cause was always uppermost in his mind. He died on Nguna in 1924 aged 90 years after 55 years service keeping alert to the end.
Rev Michelsen Retires Twice :
Likewise Rev Michelsen had a successful ministry
on Tongoa. Despite repeated bereavements (he lost two wives), the scattering
far and wide of his children, and devastating hurricanes, he laboured on
virtually without interruption until 1924. After departing for New Zealand,
no replacement could be found, so he promptly returned for another two
year period, assisted by his two daughters who received a small allowance
from the Missions Committee. He ran his Island on Lutheran principals which
meant that he placed less control in the hands of native Elders and congregations.
None the less, he successfully achieved the winning of his Island for Christ,
encouraged island trade as a means of self support for the island and improved
roading and communication. Unfortunately, his trading activities became
rather too organized at one stage leading to a charge of illegal trading
being laid against him then later his daughter was subjected to a similar
charge. These charges were laid by commercial traders who felt unfairly
disadvantaged and great pressure was put upon him and his family by the
Mission Synod and the NZ Foreign Missions Committee to set a Christian
example and completely abstain from all commercial activities.
Rev Oscar Michelsen retired with his third wife to New Zealand after 46 years service and died in 1936 aged 91.
A Fresh New Face on Tongoa :
Rev Michelsen's replacement was the Rev Basil
Nottage, very much of the 'new school' who commenced work there in
1932. His methods of evangelism differed markedly from that of the Rev
Michelsen and a less formal relationship developed with his island congregation.
He observed that although the island was nominally Christian, only half
the communicant membership appeared at the Lord's Table and many of the
people had lapsed badly. He also noted a great deal of indifference and
moral laxity. Some of this indifference may be attributed to Rev Michelsen's
Lutheran principals where he had held an unwillingness to place more authority
and responsibility in native hands.
Rev Michelsen's age and consequent inability to cope so well without adequate assistance no doubt also took its toll. His autobiography reads of a kindly man with the welfare of his people uppermost in his actions.
The Rev Nottage noted the low general standard of education. To encourage native Church leadership and assuming of responsibility, Rev Nottage worked hard to raise the standard of the native schools. He ensured that the brightest native pupils were given advanced lessons. Linked with freely distributed religious books in the local native language, he slowly restored the spirit of the Island congregations.
A Distressing Death :
In April 1937, a mentally ill native rushed into the Rev William Milne's house on Nguna and attacked him with an axe, leaving him dead. The Mission suffered a crushing blow with this tragedy and it severed a family link with the Mission going back to 1870. The native population keenly felt the loss of their beloved Christian leader and mentor and equally shared in the Mission's loss. That this tragedy was caused by one of their own made their grief the harder to bear. Mrs Milne returned to New Zealand and mourned her deep loss for the rest of her life. But she never forgot her beloved islands and their people. When the new Onesua High School was established in the early 1950's, she generously and selflessly donated the large sum of £500 towards the building costs.
The late Rev Milne was replaced on Nguna by the Rev Ken Crump who proved to have a long and successful ministry on the island. He also saw the need to improve education and set up a school similar to that started by Rev Nottage. The Anglo - French Condominium Administration had not organized formal education nor provided facilities so it was left to the Missionaries to take the lead. The Mission inspired higher educational standards achieved by the native students had a very positive benefit. Native students entering the Tangoa Teacher's Training Institute from the Mission schools held an improved tertiary education and tended to then achieve to a much higher standard in the Institute. This in turn benefited the indigenous people when the teachers went out into the island schools. The NZ Mission contributed towards the running costs of the Institute on a regular basis from 1934, and this amount rose until 1950 when it was sufficient to pay for one staff member.
Divesting of Authority :
In 1941, the Rev JG Miller was appointed as a successor to Rev Nottage who had resigned due to ill health. He strongly encouraged the native islanders to accept more responsibility for their own Church affairs and was firmly convinced that they now had the ability for such a task. He then worked hard to ensure that this new native authority was recognized and approved.
World War Two :
Although never over - run by the Japanese Imperial Forces, the threat of invasion was so great that Mission women and children were evacuated to New Zealand. The Mission work continued although transport to and from the islands was disrupted. Transport was at the allied military forces discretion and involved travel permits and availability for 'civilian' transport.
Tragedy & Hope on Epi :
By 1943 the threat had passed and the NZ Missions
Committee then heeded the request for an additional Missionary. The Rev
Ivan Muir was sent to Emae Island in 1944, covering an area which
included Rev Smaill's old island of Epi. Tragically, after 18 months of
service and despite all practical precautions, his wife Mrs Alice Muir
was struck down with a serious strain of Malaria and died.
His place was taken in 1947 by the Rev AG Horwell who served on the Islands until 1968. He latterly transferred his base to the neighbouring larger island of Epi, and set up a program to regain the ground that had been lost here during the previous years. The widow of the Rev Smaill, Mrs Helen Smaill, retained her interest in Epi and its people to the end and followed the work of Rev Horwell with great interest until her death in 1966 aged 99 years.
An Independent Native Church :
In 1947, there was a general consensus held among the Island Missionaries that the native church was ready to assume control of its own affairs; a desire envisaged from the very beginning of the Mission. A constitution was drawn up, and after amendments submitted by the NZ and Australian Mission Committees and the New Hebrides Mission Synod, it was adopted.
At a Centennial Synod meeting in 1948, the 100th Anniversary of the arrival of the Rev John Geddie, the first European Missionary in the islands, the native church was placed fully in charge of its own affairs. The island mission councils for Australia and New Zealand were then limited to the affairs of their immediate mission staff. The NZ Church continued to provide a large financial grant to the New Hebrides Presbyterian Church.
Post 1948 :
A strong focus on education and well - trained
Church leaders was maintained. The Tangoa Training Institute introduced
a curriculum for advanced Theological studies for the first time.
In the early 1950's, the NZ Missions Committee responded to the request for assistance to establish a High School at Onesua on Efate, along with funds and personnel to set up and run a cottage hospital on Tongoa. That a dire urgent need was seen for these facilities meant that funding and resources were swiftly provided. Unlike earlier days, the Committee viewed this project as a practical means by which the NZ Church could provide for a social need rather than a means for furthering evangelistic possibilities. This policy shift in Mission funding opened further possibilities where the Christian faith could be continually demonstrated to the island communities.
Other notable aid from NZ Church members was given to develop Navota Farm, a training farm in updated farming methods; the opening of the Maropa religious bookshop in Vila (both the brainchild of the Rev EG Jansen, previously of China) and qualified tradespeople to undertake building work. The NZ Bible Class volunteer scheme during the 1960s sent out young people to assist in work from building to nursing to administration.
The Mission, at the request of the Presbyterian Church of the New Hebrides, subsequently divested itself of all remaining authority in the islands so that our Missionaries effectively worked for the New Hebrides Church. In 1965 a memorandum was prepared which defined the terms of this "responsible partnership" and sought to define the responsibilities of each partner.
The Church continues today as the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu.
A Critical Analysis :
Despite our modern attitudes towards the early interventionist forms of control undertaken by the Mission, the positive effects far outweighed the negative effects. The efforts of the Missionaries in encouraging village communities to at last live in peace rather than in a state of constant warfare, ending cannibalism and other abhorrent tribal practises, and educating the island people have all been significant and highly successful. Stability and organization were provided by the Missionaries which appears to have been sadly lacking from the Anglo - French Condominium Administration.
The Missionaries frequently lobbied on behalf of the Island people in their desire to end the 'Condominium' where two countries were jointly - and thus not very successfully - responsible for all island political and administrative affairs. Our manuscript records give a first hand account of the unworkable nature of this political system over the years and the efforts to form a British Protectorate. Ultimately the island people suffered and political independence would have been achieved earlier but for the intransigence of the French authorities. That the missions greatly assisted the island people to educate themselves and encouraged them to assume responsibility to be ready for the demands of independence is acknowledged as a significant achievement.
Ultimately the New Zealand Presbyterian Church
Mission to the New Hebrides has been very successful. Despite the earlier
tragedies and set - backs it has been a most rewarding experience for the
NZ Church to have witnessed the spiritual growth and development of the
Native church and to have assisted the people to be ready and well equipped
for independence which only occurred as late as 1980.
Donald Cochrane, PCANZ Archives, March 2001
Resources used in writing this history :
- PCANZ Archives manuscript material
- "Presbyterian Church of NZ Mission to the New Hebrides 1904" by Rev A Don
- "Light in Dark Isles", by Rev A Don, 1918
- "Misi: by Rev O Michelsen, 1934
- "Peter Milne of Nguna" by Rev A Don, 1927
- "A Century of Growth" by Rev JS Murray (1969)
- "Live" Volumes I to V, by Rev JG Miller, 1975/87