The Call of the Solomons
Chapter 1: The Women
Chapter 2: Status
Chapter 3: Experiences of Mission Life
Chapter 4: Work
Chapter 5: The Return Home
This study is a group biography. It surveys the lives of 106 New Zealand women who worked on the Methodist mission field in the Solomon Islands between 1922 and 1972. The main elements of the topic, embracing such matters as who these women were, what status they held, their experiences of mission life, their work, and their lives after their departures from the mission, are each addressed in separate chapters.
The Methodist mission to the western Solomon Islands began in 1902, as the outreach of the Australasian Methodist Church. Although it was run mainly by Australia, New Zealand supported the mission with both money and workers. Even with the independence of the New Zealand Church in 1913, the arrangement continued through until 1922. It was then that, to celebrate one hundred years of Methodism in New Zealand, and to assert its recent independence, the New Zealand Church assumed responsibility for the Solomons mission field. In that same year, the Solomon Islands Methodist District was expanded into Bougainville. This story begins with the assumption of responsibility by the New Zealand Church in 1922. It ends in 1972, four years after the Solomon Islands Church became independent in the form of the United Church of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
There is much general literature addressing the effects of missionary work. Such evaluations cannot be effectively performed without looking at the workings of actual missions. Attempts to do so tend to concentrate unduly on men and politics. The case with the Methodist mission is that women made up almost seventy percent of the white staff. It is this group that comprised the majority of the white workers, yet it is this group that has not yet been adequately historically examined. Literature specifically on this Methodist mission does point to the existence of the women, and the need to tell the story of their work. However, the part of the women in establishing and developing the mission has not been addressed in the context of their status.
An initial distinction must be made between two groups of women. The first women to serve the Methodist mission to the Solomon Islands were Pacific Islanders, the wives of Fijian and Tongan pastors. It is from these women that the name 'Marama', applied to all mission wives, comes from. Later, as Solomon Islanders were converted, local women also served as pastors' wives. The Island workers, both women and men, are significant in the development of the mission. By 1933, they were the majority of the workforce; the white staff numbered sixteen, while the Island catechists and teachers numbered 202. However, the problems involved in studying the Island women, the lack of accessible sources and language difficulties, necessarily limit the scope of this present work. Thus, only the European women will be addressed, or more specifically, the New Zealand women employed by the New Zealand Methodist Foreign Mission Board.
For the purposes of this study, 'New Zealander' has been defined as: those women who were living (or who had been trained) in New Zealand prior to their, or their husbands', appointments. Thus Grace McDonald, who emigrated to New Zealand in the 1920s, falls within the bounds of this study. However, Mrs Binet will be excluded. She was born in Bath in England and, after marrying the Rev. Vincent
Le C. Binet, left England to work on the Australian gold fields. It was from Australia that the two offered to serve in the Solomons. In spite of the couple's eventual retirement to New Zealand in the 1930s, they do not fall within the parameters of this study.
White women who were not New Zealanders are excluded from this study for one specific reason. While there is material available for the Australian and English women, it is limited in nature by comparison. Ethel McMillan's diaries are a case in point. McMillan was an Australian sister who served on Choiseui from 1914 until 1941. In 1941, the New Zealand General Secretary requested that McMillan write her autobiography. Instead, she sent her diaries, by registered post from the Solomons to Rita Snowden in New Zealand. Snowden was a popular writer and, McMillan felt, better qualified for the job. However, the diaries never arrived; Snowden has no knowledge of ever receiving them. According to oral tradition, twenty seven years worth of diaries written on Choiseui between 1914 and 1941 were lost in the post. As far as can be ascertained the diaries have never surfaced.
A lecture pad full of names and a folder of corresponding questionnaires that had been compiled by Nancy and George Carter were the starting points of this study. The groundwork that had been carried out by the Carters in this respect, and the access granted to the material, was instrumental in locating and identifying the group of women to be studied.
In the course of creating a biography of those 106 names, twenty oral interviews were conducted; nineteen were recorded and one was written. A pragmatic approach was taken in the selection of subjects. The three main criteria used were availability, consent, and time constraints. This system proved extremely fruitful, producing a wide selection of interviewees.
The problems of oral history cannot be overlooked. The presence of the interviewer can restrict and distort the evidence that is given, especially if concerns for keeping the interview 'relevant' are over-emphasised. An interviewer intent on getting answers to questions may often fail to recognise the importance of seemingly 'irrelevant' information or that a question may have been inappropriate. Also problematic are the memories of the subjects, coloured by their own views and the passage of time. These factors make oral history a very biased source, but in that it is no different from any other historical source.
The first step in guarding against the biases of oral history is to realise that they are there. Employed well, oral accounts can provide the historian with very useful and otherwise unobtainable information. Oral interviewing, especially of the married women for whom few sources remain, was vital. Without the benefit of these interviews, comment on them would have been extremely restricted.
Although the women are recalling events as opposed to recording events, the passage of time is useful for this study. The concern to look at the effect of missionary service on the women in chapter five was the result of material obtained from the interviews. The women themselves reflected upon the personal effects of their time in the Solomon Islands. Although the sources are not available for an in-depth survey of the impact upon the Islanders, they are more than adequate for the equally relevant question of the impact upon the missionaries. Other biases and inaccuracies are feelings and frustrations. One woman was unwilling to grant access to her pre-war diaries for this reason. Because a diary was often the only solace that a worker had, the detailed and sustained descriptions of friendships, arguments and divisions provide a personal, if skewed, picture of mission life.
Two diaries of Farland's were used. One was a typed manuscript of a journal dating from 1938 to 1940. Her second, dating from late 1941 until 1943, has an involved history. Farland did not evacuate from the Solomons with her colleagues in 1942 but remained behind Japanese lines, and during the period wrote her 'war journal'. It is intriguing that she considered it safe to keep a journal, detailing the visits, identities and whereabouts of various coastwatchers. However, she did take one precaution against the document's falling into Japanese hands. In December 1942, Merle Farland left the mission to assist the coastwatcher Donald Kennedy as a radio operator and decoder. Worried about the survival of her journal, she duplicated it and left the copy with the Rev. Wattie Silvester. She took the original with her ' ...in a parcel ready to drop in the deep [sea] if we meet trouble [Japanese]'.
However, the diaries cover only four women, all of whom began their careers before World War II. Another source contemporary to the period, and which covers a wide sampling of women, is letters. Correspondence between the women and their families, and the women and the General Secretary of the mission provide two excellent views. The first is personal, yet at the same time, careful not to disclose sensitive mission business. The correspondence with the General Secretary reveals discussions of formal matters which affected the women. They were not shy in informing the General Secretary of their own opinions, yet they showed restraint in divulging the same information to their families.
Official sources temper the emphasis of the women's view and provide an understanding of the official view. Documents from the application process and staff record cards, both incomplete, reflect how the Mission Board viewed the women. Other 'official' sources used were minutes of synods, Mission Board meetings and the Minutes of the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church of New Zealand. In addition, church newspapers and periodicals illustrated the light in which the women were presented to the New Zealand church.
Owing to a shortage of space in this publication, the footnotes have been excluded, and only a select bibliography included. A fully documented version of this work, entitled The New Zealand Women of the Methodist Solomons Mission, 1922-1972', is held at the University of Auckland Library.