Reverend William Gray
Reverend William Gray
I was born and reared on a farm1 and stayed there till I was 21 years of age. . .. The only education I had was at the local school which I attended except in the time of seeding and reaping. When I left home in the middle of the year 1875, I had not seen a Greek or Hebrew character, or knew a word of Latin. I had to work for my living and educate myself. The task nearly mastered me. (SRG 123/79/48)2
William Gray entered into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, first at a rural posting in 1878, after which he took a divinity course and studied ‘sacred languages’ at Union College in Adelaide. He also studied Chemistry, Logic and Classics at the University of Adelaide, completing his degree in 1880.
Meantime, the Presbyterian Church of Australia was being urged to support missionary work in the New Hebrides and in 1869 resolved to support the mission ship, the Dayspring. Reverend John G. Paton visited South Australia in 1876 to raise funds for missionary work. Paton had been on Tanna in the southern New Hebrides from 1858 until 1862 and served on Aniwa from 1866 to 1881.
Around 1880, Gray volunteered to go to the New Hebrides. He then worked a year in the Adelaide Hospital and Dispensary and was appointed to a suburban Adelaide church. He was ordained in December 1881 and in February 1882 he married Elizabeth McEwen. In March 1882, he and his wife left Adelaide for the New Hebrides.
In Sydney, they purchased six months supply of ‘groceries, iron mongery, furniture and medicines and . . . material for a three roomed house.’ Elizabeth unfortunately contracted typhoid fever and they had to wait in Sydney until her recovery and the next voyage of the Dayspring, which was in October. They sailed for eight days to get to Aneityum where they picked up their supplies and the materials for their house, which had been stored there, and continued on to Weasisi on the east coast of Tanna. Gray wrote:
Arrived Saturday night. Went ashore next morning and interviewed the chiefs and were shown where we could build our house. On Monday morning we began work. We had the help of three brother missionaries, a native chief from Aneityum and several Christian natives. (SRG 123/A81)
The house was habitable after eight days, but not completed and, as Gray put it, ‘we were left to live among the heathen and paddle our own canoe’ (ibid.).
Gray kept a running journal of day-to-day activities from the time he arrived as did his wife. A manuscript titled ‘Jottings from our Journals’ (SRG 123/377/1), of almost 400 pages, begins in November 1882 soon after their arrival at Weasisi and ends in January 1885, recording the first two years of their work there. These ‘Jottings’ were posted to Australia from time to time, probably to inform his financial supporters back in South Australia of the progress of his work and of the conditions under which he laboured.
Gray’s ‘Jottings’ show that he was a patient man with a good sense of humour. This is evident in his description of making a piece of furniture soon after moving into the house at Weasisi.
I began today to prepare wood to make what we call a chiffonier [a cupboard with drawers]. . . I see this chiffonier was in hand for nine days. My friends must not suppose that it must therefore be a grand affair . . . Nor must our friends think I spent an immense amount of time in making it. The many interruptions one has to endure here make sad havoc of one’s time. You drive a nail or two and someone has brought a scrubby bunch of bananas for which a lava-lava [loin cloth] is wanted. It takes some time to explain that you cannot afford to give too much for the bananas. After some delay a bargain is struck, and as you return to work – you forget where you left off – you notice a head or two of shy Tanna girls peeping round a tree. You get to work again for a few minutes – long enough to discover that you need a tool that is not at hand. You start to go for the article in question, but before you get to it you are told someone has brought cocoanuts . . . By the time you get back to your work you have forgotten what tool you wanted and must go on till need reminds you of what you were once in search. By this time dinner [ie. lunch] is ready and the forenoon is gone. The afternoon is put in much after the same fashion and the day has passed with very little to show for it. (SRG 123/377/1, pp.4-5)
While there are occasional references to cultural practices in his diaries, it is evident that he must have recorded more detailed observations in other notebooks. In January 1892, he read a paper at the Annual Meeting of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science at Hobart, titled ‘Some Notes on the Tannese’. This paper, subsequently published in 1894, provided information on dress, circumcision, political and social organization, marriage-relations, war, kava, religion, the calendar, winds and language. In 1899 he published ‘Notes on the Natives of Tanna’, following as his guide the second edition of Notes and Queries on Anthropology. The information provided in that paper is primarily in the fields of physical and psychological anthropology.
Apart from Gray’s intellectual and scholarly interest in the people, their culture and their language (he believed they should be able to read the Scriptures in their own language), there were other concerns he had and wrote about, such as the effect on the people of traders (especially the Labour Trade), the white man’s project of ‘civilising the natives’, and the question of which colonial power should assume control of the New Hebrides.
The missionaries regarded traders as a problematic presence in the New Hebrides. Many traders formed sexual liaisons with local women and sold firearms and alcohol to the men. This complicated the relations between other white people and the indigenes. Gray recalled:
‘I have taught school in a grass house at night with lamp alight; when friendly natives have watched outside with rifle in hand to protect me from being shot in revenge for the death of a trader that took place in our Bay’. (SRG 123/79/48)
The Labour Trade was a matter of great concern to Gray. It had commenced around 1863 and continued until early in the twentieth century (Holthouse 1969). Recruiters came through the South Sea Islands persuading young men, and sometimes women, to sign up for labour in the Queensland sugar cane fields. Often, recruiting was achieved through the use of force. Living conditions on the boats were appalling and the remuneration minimal. Labourers who returned to the New Hebrides at the end of their term brought back firearms, the arguably unhealthy habit of wearing European clothing, and a sense of being outside the obligations and controls of tradition.
After retiring from Tanna in 1895, Gray visited Queensland ‘to investigate the Kanaka trade from that end’ (SRG 123/A81). He then wrote and published a pamphlet titled ‘The Kanaka’ (1895), wherein he sought to expose the evils of ‘blackbirding’. He sent a copy to Mark Twain who mentioned it in Chapter Six of his More Tramps Abroad. But despite Gray’s concerns about the negative aspects of the Labour Trade, he was not fanatical about it. Early in 1884, the labour recruiting vessel Jaberwock visited Weasisi. Gray comments in his Jottings, ‘I believe the Jaberwock is as well conducted as any vessel in the labour traffic’.
Gray devoted long sections of his Jottings to the subject of the ‘civilising of the natives’ and wrote an extended essay on the meaning of the terms ‘heathen’, ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilised’. He revealed his growing empathy for the Tannese and his cultural relativism in the question, ‘Is there not as much barbarity in contorting a woman’s figure by tightlacing as in a savage painting his face?’ Discussing the meaning of ‘Civilisation’ and ‘Anglicising’, he identified the Anglo-Saxon Christian’s sense of racial supremacy and how this leads to wrong attitudes – for example the pressure for natives to wear European clothing as a sign that they are ‘civilised’. He remarked how bad this was for their health and disagreed with those of his colleagues who insisted their converts wear European clothing.
Another matter of concern to Europeans in the New Hebrides during the late nineteenth century was the issue of which country would assume colonial control of the islands. In 1878, the British and French agreed to a ‘hands-off’ policy. As early as 1882, the Presbyterian missionaries sent a petition to the Queen urging Britain to annexe the islands. In 1887, after a massacre of European settlers, a Joint Naval Commission was created to maintain order. This was found to be inadequate for resolving disputes between Europeans and indigenes, particularly over land, and the British–French Condominium was established in 1906.
Although Gray was pragmatic enough to concede that sole British control would make life easier for Protestant missionaries, as the French favoured the Marist Catholics, he made no assumptions about which colonial power would be best for the archipelago and its people. He was careful to give credit to French authorities where it was due. For example, a French citizen who wished to set up as a trader lost everything in a shipwreck on the west coast of Tanna. Gray did all he could to help the man, his family and crew and lent his small boat so that some of the crew could make their way to Noumea for assistance. In due course a French naval vessel returned Gray’s boat with appropriate gratitude and Gray expressed his satisfaction.
The Gray family, augmented by a son and two daughters, returned to South Australia on furlough at the end of 1887. There they had a fourth child, a son. During this time Gray visited many churches in Adelaide and nearby country towns, returning for sentimental reasons to visit the old farmhouse where he had grown up as a child. His talks and sermons were primarily to maintain spiritual and material support for his missionary work and he used a large map and the ‘curios’ he had brought back to Adelaide with him as visual aids. They returned to Weasisi late in 1888, where they remained until the end of 1894, returning to South Australia a few months after the birth of their fifth child, a daughter.
In 1895, Gray sold around 100 artefacts to the South Australian Museum. A handwritten list was made (see Craig 2007:26, 27) but the collection was not properly registered until after 1911. Objects that had lost their identity prior to 1911 were routinely attributed to the ‘Old Collection’.
Stone charms for procuring fish, Tanna (A.9300, -1, ‘Old Collection’ but possibly Gray collection); probably nauvetî nadî. Left 8 cm long, right 5 cm diam. Photo: Scott Bradley.
It is possible that there are pieces originating from Gray that are not on the hand list and are not attributed to him in the Register. Among these are two small black stones (Figure 1, A.9300,
9301), described as ‘Charms for procuring fish, Tanna’. These stones are almost certainly what Gray recorded as nauvetî nadî, ‘special stones for doing particular things’ such as for changing the winds, bringing rain or sunshine, catching fish and turtles, or assisting with the growth of garden crops (Gray 1894:234). Speiser calls them amulets (1990:310-314; Plate 84) and they are often stones, rather than some other material, because:
stones are most likely to have peculiar shapes which arrest the native’s attention and therefore contain mana. Moreover, stones are imperishable and can be transmitted from one generation to the next if the amulet has proved to work well. (ibid.:311)
Amulets are usually kept in small plaited bags (ibid.:311; Plate 81, Fig. 9, Plate 82, Fig. 6). Speiser concludes that the power of these amulets is impersonal, a power of nature or mana, for they are not worshipped or the subject of a cult. At most, the owner performs a ritual act, utters a spell, or chants a song to activate the mana in the stone.
Another type of charm or sacred stone is called nauvetî nŭrŭk. Gray records of a set of stones he had in his possession in 1892:
The large stone is called the body of the Nŭrŭk. It resembles a man sitting with his head drooping over his chest, just as a weary sick man would sit. Its length is 8 ins. and it measures about 11 inches in circumference. It weighs 4 lbs. It is a black recent-volcanic stone of irregular structure. . . The little stones are called the children of the big stone. . . The four little stones are minor Nŭrŭks, capable of producing continued indisposition, but not death. (1894:234, footnote 2)
An intriguing example of Gray’s thinking is his remark regarding the reality of the effect of the use of the nauvetî nŭrŭk stones. He wrote:
It is not unusual to assume that everything connected with Nŭrŭk is a deception. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The Nŭrŭker believes in his own power and so do the people. . . . The coincidence between the burning of Nŭrŭk [to activate its power]and the state of the victim is astonishing. A man’s Nŭrŭk is taken and he falls ill; it is recovered, and he recovers. A man falls ill without knowing that his Nŭrŭk has been taken; search is made for it, and when found, he recovers. So constant is this, that no native mind can resist the conclusion of there being a direct and objective connection. . . Good intelligent Christians accept evidence of direct answers to prayer less satisfactory and conclusive than that presented in cases of Nŭrŭk. (ibid:235)
Two bark cloths (A.56589 a, b) from Reverend H.A. Robertson, Erromanga, via Reverend William Gray, 1895. Left 160 x 80 cm; right 160 x 88 cm. Photo: Scott Bradley.
Gray also donated to the Museum several artefacts on behalf of Reverend H.A. Robertson, who served on Erromanga from 1872 to 1912 (Lawson 1994). Two of the items from Robertson were Erromango bark cloths (A.56589 a,b– Figure 2). Huffman (1996:136) describes the ritual use of these bark cloths (n’mah neyorwi), worn by women, and the occasions of their ceremonial display.
Of particular interest, because they demonstrate the possibility of retrieving information in the present about objects from the past, are two masks, an identical pair, A.7430, 7431 (Figure 3). It is likely that Gray purchased these on 6 July 1893 when visiting Wala Island, north-east Malekula; his diary at that date states ‘The people are selling their masks for 2 sticks of tobacco’.
Mask with soliip bird on top; one of identical pair A.7430, -1, attributed to northeast Malekula. Gray collection, 1895. Height 82 cm. Photo: B. Craig.
In November 1997, I spent three weeks in central Vanuatu. At Norsup on Malekula, I met Sethy Regenvanu, at that time Minister for Culture. I showed him photographs of the two masks and he identified them as bang-lulu from north-east Malekula. They are quite like the mask from north-east Malekula illustrated in Bonnemaison et al. (1996, Fig.20; see also Speiser 1990, Colour plate XXV), except that the masks from Gray have a white bird on top of the head whereas the latter has a dark-coloured bird at the front of the head. Huffman reports that this type of mask ‘can, at least on Atchin, be classed of the botmolmoli (“round head”) type, used there in umanen dances that close the graded ritual cycles’ (ibid.:21).
Wood canoe prow (A.74721) carved by Malili Kami of Wala Island, northeast Malekula. Purchased in 1997 by B. Craig for the South Australian Museum. Length 42 cm. Photo: B. Craig.
What was particularly interesting was the identification by Sethy Regenvanu of the bird at the top of the masks in the Gray collection as soliip, ‘a sea bird that indicates the proximity of land’. On Wala Island I purchased for the South Australian Museum a canoe prow (Figure 4, A.74721) carved in the form of a bird also called soliip. I was informed by Malili Kami, the carver, that this bird is useful ‘for finding an island if a canoe has lost its way at sea; it finds home and is therefore the right image for a canoe prow’.
The shape of the bent wings and the forked tail of the bird on the masks suggested at first a frigate bird but I was told it was not a frigate bird which in any case is a dark colour and has a ‘hooked’ beak. The bird on the masks is white with a straight beak and a black stripe on top of its head. I consulted books of Pacific birds (Bregulla 1992, duPont 1976) and came to the conclusion that it represents a tern, most likely the Roseate Tern (Sterna dougalli). This corrects Kaufmann’s suggestion (in Bonnemaison et al. 1996:33 and Figs 51, 207) and Tilley’s conviction (1999:109-111) that the bird on the canoe prow is the frigate bird.
Even where an item has a relatively specific description, there are difficulties. For example, I was mystified to what object the following description referred:
‘1 Times (Ghost) Rev T.W. Leggatt, Malekula’
‘Spider web’ mask, southern Malekula (A.7758, ‘Old Collection’ but probably Gray collection). Height 26 cm. Photo: Scott Bradley.
Subsequently, I came across an item from Erromango, A.8197, presented by Bishop Cecil Wilson, called ‘Ghost dress’. This was the fibre fringe attached to a mask to conceal the identity of the wearer of the mask; therefore, the term ‘Ghost’ could mean ‘mask’. The object I was trying to identify had come from Leggatt who was based on southern Malekula where the generic term for several types of mask is temes (Bonnemaison et al. 1996:19-25). Thus it became apparent that the word ‘Times’ in the handwritten list is a faulty transcription of the vernacular term temes and therefore could refer to a mask. It happens that there are only two southern Malekula masks in the South Australian Museum. One is a small narrow mask (40 cm long) from F. Whitby in 1900, similar to one published by Speiser (1990, Plate 92, Nr 6). The other (A.7758, Figure 5) has a spider-web shroud, similar to the one illustrated in Bonnemaison et al. 1996, Fig. 24, and is attributed to the ‘Old Collection’. It was therefore possible that this latter mask was the ‘Times (Ghost)’ in the Gray hand list and that it had lost its identity.
But later on, I came across the following entry in Gray’s diary for June 15 1893, when he was visiting Leggatt at Aulua:
Got a club yesterday and a temes. The temes is set up at a festival when a man rises to a higher grade. The one I got from Mr Leggatt belonged to Barabitam Asing. Gave it up to become a worshipper. Brought from Sah Sun Bay [to the south of Aulua]. Not paid for. The work of a teacher. Made of rose apple. Head is the butt [of the tree]. The temes for a bara has round eyes; gulgul, oval eyes; malun, one of wood in a pit.
Carved and painted wood grade figure (temes), Sah Sun Bay, southern Malekula (A.7448, ‘Old Collection’ but identified as Gray collection). Height 120 cm. Photo: B. Craig.
Since the object referred to in Gray’s diary is a grade figure, and if the spider-web mask is not the ‘Times (Ghost)’ referred to in the Gray hand list, then it must be the carved and painted wooden post registered A.7448 (‘Old Collection’, Figure 6) as there are no other candidates. I always assumed from the style of carving (cf. Bonnesmaison et al. 1996, Fig. 242) that this post was from Ambrym but there was considerable commerce of rituals and ritual objects between southeast Malekula and west Ambrym (ibid.:184-5). The spider-web mask therefore may be the item ‘1 Malecula mask’ in the Gray hand list (A.7758).
Reverend William Gray (middle row, centre; Mrs Gray far right) and colleagues gathered for the Synod at Kwamera, Tanna Island, 1889. Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, MLMSS 1993 1(16).
The Presbyterian missionaries in the New Hebrides did not allow themselves to succumb to isolation. Regular meetings (Synods) were held annually on different islands to share and discuss the progress of their work – building churches, making converts, translating the Scriptures into local languages (Figure 7). Sometimes differences of opinion on various matters erupted into bitter feuds. Nevertheless, Gray was ready to drop everything and hurry by land or sea to the assistance of his colleagues in distress, whether caused by severe illness, death or other emergencies. Gray impresses as intelligent and fair, with strong principles, sympathetic to the indigenous people and courteous though forthright in his dealings with fellow Europeans.
Bregulla, H. L. 1992. Birds of Vanuatu. Oswestry, Shropshire: Anthony Nelson.
Bonnemaison, J., K. Huffman, C. Kaufmann and D. Tryon (eds). 1996. Arts of Vanuatu. Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House Publishing.
Craig, B. 2007. To ‘paddle our own canoe’: The Rev William Gray Collection in the South Australian Museum. In, Re-presenting Pacific Art, Eds K. Stevenson and V-L. Webb. Adelaide: Crawford House Publishing Australia. Pp.6-27.
duPont, J. E. 1976. South Pacific Birds. Greenville, DL.: Delaware Museum of Natural History.
Gray, W. 1894. Some Notes on the Tannese. Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie VII:227-241.
Gray, W. 1895. The Kanaka, or how the Queensland Planters Get and Treat their Kanakas. Adelaide: E.S. Wigg & Son.
Gray, W. 1899. Notes on the Natives of Tanna. Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 1 (N.S.):127-132.
Holthouse, H. 1969. Cannibal Cargoes. Adelaide: Rigby.
Huffman, K. W. 1996. ‘The “Decorated Cloth” from the “Island of Good Yams”: Barkcloth in Vanuatu, with Special Reference to Erromango’, in Bonnemaison et al. (eds) Arts of Vanuatu. Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House Publishing. Pp.129-140.
Lawson, B. 1994. Collected Curios. Missionary Tales from the South Seas. Montreal: McGill University Libraries.
Speiser, F. 1990. Ethnology of Vanuatu. An early twentieth century study. [translation by D.Q. Stephenson of 1923 German edition]. Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House Press.
Tilley, C. 1990. Metaphor and Material Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
1 At Sheoak Log near Gawler, about 30 kilometres north of Adelaide, South Australia.
2 Biographical material relating to Reverend Gray is in the Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia. Papers, correspondence and his journal for the period 1882-1884 are part of a large accession of archives (SRG 123) of the Presbyterian Church. Additional material was recently presented to the Mortlock Library by his granddaughter, Mrs Audrey Harvey of Canberra. These papers, accessioned PRG 991, consist of ‘diaries [1884-1898], correspondence, journal, report, letter book and miscellaneous items of Rev. William Gray, and the journal and correspondence [1882-1886] of [his wife] Elizabeth Gray’. Microfilm copies of all this material have been produced by the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau at the Australian National University in Canberra (PMB 1046, 1047, 1048 and 1123).