Happenings, News

The day Sophia Blackmore went to church with New Guinea natives

Accompanying Isabella Leonard on board the “Stettin”, Sophia Blackmore experienced probably her first encounter with natives. She was on her way to India (and Singapore) to becoming a missionary for nearly 40 years. Here, she recounts the Sunday in 1887 spent at a Wesleyan service in the little town of Matupi, New Guinea.

‘FROM Sydney to Singapore via German New Guinea ports was a voyage that promised to be full of interest and we were glad to arrange to travel on the NDL “Stettin” by the new route.

We were not disappointed; especially as our genial captain did all in his power to make his two lady passengers enjoy the New Guinea ports.

It was rather a showery Sunday morning (Dec 9) that found us in the pretty sheltered harbour of Matupi.

In a semicircle around the bay were hills of volcanic construction, one of which had its cone burnt away in recent years, another had steam issuing from it. All showed signs of internal fires. The other side of the harbour was the native town with its houses of grass that looked like ornamented haystacks. We heard that there was a Wesleyan church in this town and we were anxious to go to the service.

Soon after we landed we found a neatly dressed man with a book in his hand, who informed us that he was going to “lotu” (worship). We followed him and soon came up with others all going in the same direction. By and by, we came to a narrow path
hedged in with brushwood where all had to go single file. We joined in the procession and a man with two chairs on his back for the lady visitors followed up in the rear.

The church proved to be a commodious one, of very simple construction. The posts and rafters were coconut trunks, the sides and roof of attap with openings left for doors and windows. The floor was strewn with palm leaves. The pulpit was square, high and roomy with a rude ladder at the back. This pulpit with a small table was the only furniture in the place.

By degrees the building was very well filled, the men coming in and sitting on the floor on one side, the women sliding in and occupying the other. All were neatly dressed which spoke volumes for the patient work of the missionaries’ wives, for we were amongst savage people who wore only necklaces and such like, and 10 miles inland cannibals were to be found. The colours chosen were the brightest of the bright, turkey red and bright blue or green being in equal parts in a garment.

Their hair was short and curly of the Papuan race, but in many cases it had been bleached to yellow ochre with lime. This made the children particularly look so strange. The hair resembled a wig of sheep skin stuck on their dark pates.

One woman in the congregation seemed a little more important than the rest. I fancy she was the Fijian preacher’s wife. She came in with her baby tied to her breast. She had her books and a neat little mat in her hand. When the service began the mat was spread on the floor, the sleeping baby placed on it, while the mother gave her whole attention to the service.

One of our party, who seemed surprised at the number of people who came to the service, told in a facetious way of how, when the mission was started, tobacco was given to each one who would attend service. After a time the workers thought they ought to come without the bribe, but the natives replied, “No tobacco, no hallelujah.” We began to question this statement, and found out that this was a stock story told at all the islands where missionaries were at work.

Later we found one of our passengers had heard it and was writing it as a fact. But to return to the congregation. First came a catechism service. A neatly dressed man in white began by chanting the question. The whole congregation chanted the reply. We saw down on the floor by a woman and looked over her book. A word here and there like an English proper name we recognised.

One question we thought to be, “In what name were you baptised?” and were glad to be with these simple people who too were learning of the precious name of Jesus. We learnt afterwards that the cardinal doctrines of Christianity were taught in this way.

By the time the catechism service was over the Fijian preacher was in the high pulpit, and all gave reverent attention to the prayer and earnest sermon and joined heartily in the singing. We were particularly interested in these people for we could remember when a frail little woman, the wife of one of the pioneer missionaries had landed in this port, and how her brave heart had failed when she saw the naked savages among whom she was to work. As the result here was the Christian congregation at Matupi. – MM, January 1901, p.38-39.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.