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The Story of John G. Paton

told for young folks by his brother James Paton

A Perilous Pilgrimage

The other Mission Station, on the southwest side of Tanna, had to be visited by me from time to time. Mr. and Mrs. Mathieson, there, were both in a weak state of health, having a tendency to consumption. On this account they visited Aneityum several times. They were earnestly devoted to their work, and were successful as far as health and the time allowed to them permitted. At this juncture, a message reached me that they were without European food, and a request to send them a little flour if possible. The war made the journey overland impossible. A strong wind and a high sea round the coast rendered it impracticable for my boat to go. The danger to life from the enemy was so great that I could not hire a crew. I pled therefore with Nowar and Manuman, and a few leading men, to take one of their best canoes, and themselves to accompany me. I had a large flat-bottomed pot with a close fitting lid, and that I pressed full of flour; and, tying the lid firmly down, I fastened it right in the center of the canoe, and as far above water-mark as possible. All else that was required we tied around our own persons. Sea and land being as they were, it was a perilous undertaking, which only dire necessity could have justified. They were all good swimmers, but as I could not swim the strongest man was placed behind me, to seize me and swim ashore, if a crash came.

Creeping round near the shore all the way, we had to keep just outside the great breakers on the coral reef, and were all drenched through and through with the foam of an angry surf. We arrived, however, in safety within two miles of our destination, where lived the friends of my canoe's company, but where a very dangerous sea was breaking on the reef. Here they all gave in, and protested that no further could they go; and truly their toil all the way with the paddles had been severe. I appealed to them, that the canoe would for certain be smashed if they tried to get on shore, that the provisions would be lost, and some of us probably drowned. But they turned to the shore, and remained for some time thus, watching the sea. At last their Captain cried, "Missi, hold on! There's a smaller wave coming; we'll ride in now."

My heart rose to the Lord in trembling prayer! The wave came rolling on; every paddle with all their united strength struck into the sea; and next moment our canoe was flying like a sea-gull on the crest of the wave towards the shore. Another instant, and the wave had broken on. the reef with a mighty roar, and rushed passed us hissing in clouds of foam. My company were next seen swimming wildly about in the sea, Manuman the one-eyed Sacred Man alone holding on by the canoe, nearly full of water, with me still clinging to the seat of it, and the very next wave likely to devour us. In desperation, I sprang for the reef, and ran for a man half-wading, half-swimming to reach us; and God so ordered it, that just as the next wave broke against the silvery rock of coral, the man caught me and partly swam with me through its surf, partly carried me till I was set safely ashore. Praising God, I looked up and saw all the others as safe as myself, except Manuman, my friend, who was still holding on by the canoe in the face of wind and sea, and bringing it with him. Others ran and swam to his help. The paddles were picked up amid the surf. A powerful fellow came towards me with the pot of flour on his head, uninjured by water! The Chief who held on by the canoe got severely cut about the feet, and had been badly bruised and knocked about; but all the rest escaped without further harm, and everything that we had was saved. Amongst friends at last, they resolved to await a favorable wind and tide to return to their own homes. Singing in my heart unto God, I hired a man to carry the pot of flour, and soon arrived at the Mission Station.

Supplying the wants of our dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Mathieson, whom we found as well as could be expected, we had to prepare, after a few hours of rest, to return to our own Station by walking overland through the night. I durst not remain longer away, lest my own house should be plundered and broken into. Though weak in health, my fellow-missionaries were both full of hope, and zealous in their work, and this somewhat strange visit was a pleasant blink amidst our darkness. Before I had gone far on my return journey, the sun went down, and no Native could be hired to accompany me. They all told me that I would for certain be killed by the way. But I knew that it would be quite dark before I reached the hostile districts, and that the Heathen are great cowards in the dark and never leave their villages at night in the darkness, except in companies for fishing and suchlike tasks. I skirted along the sea-shore as fast as I could, walking and running alternately; and, when I got within hearing of voices, I slunk back into the bush till they had safely passed, and then groped my way back near the shore, that being my only guide to find a path.

Having made half the journey, I came to a dangerous path, almost perpendicular, up a great rock round the base of which the sea roared deep. With my heart lifted up to Jesus, I succeeded in climbing it, cautiously grasping roots, and resting by bushes, till I safely reached the top. There, to avoid a village, I had to keep crawling slowly along the brush near the sea, on the top of that great ledge of rock — a feat I could never have accomplished even in daylight without the excitement; but I felt that I was supported and guided in all that life-or-death journey by my dear Lord Jesus. I had to leave the shore, and follow up the bank of a very deep ravine to a place shallow enough for one to cross, and then through the bush away for the shore again. By holding too much to the right, I missed the point where I had intended to reach it. Small fires were now visible through the bush; I heard the voices of the people talking in one of our most Heathen villages.

Quietly drawing back, I now knew where I was, and easily found my way towards the shore: but on reaching the Great Rock, I could not in the darkness find the path down again. I groped about till I was tired. I feared that I, might stumble over and be killed; or, if I delayed till daylight, that the savages would kill me. I knew that one part of the rock was steep-sloping, with little growth or none thereon, and I searched about to find it, resolved to commend myself to Jesus and slide down thereby, that I might again reach the shore and escape for my life. Thinking I had found this spot, I hurled down several stones and listened for their splash that I might judge whether it would be safe. But the distance was too far for me to hear or judge. At high tide the sea there was deep; but at low tide I could wade out of it and be safe, The darkness made it impossible for me to see anything. I let go my umbrella, shoving it down with considerable force, but neither did it send me back any news.

Feeling sure, however, that this was the place I sought, and knowing that to await the daylight would be certain death, I prayed to my Lord Jesus for help and protection, and resolved to let myself go. First, I fastened all my clothes as tightly as I could, so as not to catch on anything; then I lay down at the top on my back, feet foremost, holding my head downwards on my breast to keep it from striking on the rock; then, after one cry to my Saviour, having let myself down as far as possible by a branch, I at last let go, throwing my arms forward and trying to keep my feet well up. A giddy swirl, as if flying through the air, took possession of me; a few moments seemed an age; I rushed quickly down, and felt no obstruction till my feet struck into the sea below. Adoring and praising my dear Lord Jesus, who had ordered it so, I regained my feet; it was low tide, I had received no injury, I recovered my umbrella, and, wading through, I found the shore path easier and lighter than the bush had been. The very darkness was my safety, preventing the Natives from rambling about. I saw no person to speak to, till I reached a village quite near to my own house, fifteen or twenty miles from where I had started; I here left the sea path and promised some young men a gift of fish-hooks to guide me the nearest way through the bush to my Mission Station, which they gladly and heartily did. I ran a narrow risk in approaching them; they thought me an enemy, and I arrested their muskets only by a loud cry—

"I am Missi! Don't shoot; my love to you, my friends!"

Praising God for His preserving care, I reached home, and had a long refreshing sleep. The natives, on hearing next day how I had come all the way in the dark exclaimed—

"Surely any of us would have been killed! Your Jehovah God alone thus protects you and brings you safely home."

With all my heart, I said, "Yes! and He will be your protector and helper too, if only you will obey and trust in Him."

Certainly that night put my faith to the test. Had it not been the assurance that I was engaged in His service, and that in every path of duty He would carry me through or dispose of me therein for His glory I could never have undertaken either journey. St. Paul's words are true to-day and forever—"I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

Green flower

The Plague of Measles

About this time I had a never-to-be-forgotten illustration of the infernal spirit that possessed some of the Traders towards these poor Natives. One morning, three or four vessels entered our Harbor and cast anchor in Port Resolution. The captains called on me, and one of them, with manifest delight, exclaimed, "We know how to bring down your proud Tannese now! We'll humble them before you!"

I answered, "Surely you don't mean to attack and destroy these poor people?"

He replied, not abashed but rejoicing, "We have sent the measles to humble them! That kills them by the score! Four young men have been landed at different ports, ill with measles, and these will soon thin their ranks."

Shocked above measure, I protested solemnly and denounced their conduct and spirit; but my remonstrances only called forth the shameless declaration, "Our watchword is, — Sweep these creatures away and let white men occupy the soil!"

Their malice was farther illustrated thus: they induced Kapuku, a Chief, to go off to one of their vessels, promising him a present. He was the friend and chief supporter of Mr. Mathieson and of his work. Having got him on board, they confined him in the hold amongst natives lying ill with measles. They gave him no food for about four-and-twenty hours; and then, without the promised present, they put him ashore far from his own home. Though weak and excited, he scrambled back to his tribe in great exhaustion and terror. He informed the Missionary that they bad put him down amongst sick people, red and hot with fever, and that he feared their sickness was upon him. I am ashamed to say that these Sandal-wood and other Traders were our own degraded countrymen; and that they deliberately gloried in thus destroying the poor Heathen. A more fiendish spirit could scarcely be imagined; but most of them were horrible drunkards, and their traffic of every kind amongst these islands was, generally speaking, steeped in human blood.

The measles, thus introduced, became amongst our islanders the most deadly plague. It spread fearfully and was accompanied by sore throat and diarrhea. In some villages, man, woman, and child were stricken, and none could give food or water to the rest. The misery, suffering, and terror were unexampled, the living being afraid sometimes even to bury the dead. Thirteen of my own Mission party died of this disease; and, so terror-stricken were the few, who survived, that when the little Mission schooner John Knox returned to Tanna, they all packed up and left for their own Aneityum, except my own dear old Abraham.

At first, thinking that all were on the wing, he also had packed his chattels, and was standing beside the others ready to leave with them. I drew near to him, and said, "Abraham, they are all going; are you also going to leave me here alone on Tanna, to fight the battles of the Lord?"

He asked, "Missi, will you remain?"

I replied, "Yes; but, Abraham, the danger to life is now so great that I dare not plead with you to remain, for we may both be slain. Still, I cannot leave the Lord's work now."

The noble old Chief looked at the box and his bundles, and, musing, said, "Missi, our danger is very great now."

I answered, "Yes; I once thought you would not leave me alone to it; but, as the vessel is going to your own land, I cannot ask you to remain and face it with me!"

He again said, "Missi, would you like me to remain alone with you, seeing my wife is dead and in her grave here?"

I replied, "Yes, I would like you to remain; but, considering the circumstances in which we will be left alone, I cannot plead with you to do so."

He answered, "Then, Missi, I remain with you of my own free choice, and with all my heart. We will live and die together in the work of the Lord. I will never leave you while you are spared on Tanna."

So saying, and with a light that gave the fore-gleam of a Martyr's glory to his dark face, he shouldered his box and bundles back to his own house; and thereafter, Abraham was my dear companion and constant friend, and my fellow-sufferer in all that remains still to be related of our Mission life on Tanna.

Before this plague of measles was brought amongst us I had sailed round in the John Knox to Black Beach on the opposite side of Tanna, and prepared the way for settling Teachers. And they were placed soon after by Mr. Copeland and myself with encouraging hopes of success, and with the prospect of erecting there a Station for Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the newly arrived Missionaries from Nova Scotia. But this dreadful imported epidemic blasted all our dreams. They devoted themselves from the very first, and assisted me in ever way to alleviate the dread sufferings of the Natives. We carried medicine, food, and even water, to the surrounding villages every day, few of themselves being able to render us much assistance. Nearly all who took our medicine and followed instructions as to food, etc., recovered; but vast numbers of them would listen to no counsels, and rushed into experiments which made the attack fatal all around. When the trouble was at its height, for instance, they would plunge into the sea, and seek relief; they found it in almost instant death. Others would dig a hole into the earth, the length of the body and about two feet deep; therein they laid themselves down, the cold earth feeling agreeable to their fevered skins; and when the earth around them grew heated, they got friends to dig a few inches deeper, again and again, seeking a cooler and cooler couch. In this ghastly effort many of them died, literally in their own graves, and were buried where they lay! It need not be surprising, though we did everything in our power to relieve and save them, that the natives associated us with the white men who had so dreadfully afflicted them, and that their blind thirst for revenge did not draw fine distinctions between the Traders and the Missionaries. Both were whites — that was enough.

Before leaving this terrible plague of measles, I may record my belief that it swept away, with accompanying sore throat and diarrhea, a third of the entire population of Tanna; nay, in certain localities more than a third perished. The living declared themselves unable to bury the dead, and great want and suffering ensued. The Teacher and his wife and child, placed by us at Black Beach, were also taken away; and his companion, the other Teacher there, embraced the first opportunity to leave along with his wife for his own island, else his life would have been taken in revenge. Yet, from all accounts afterwards received, I do not think the measles were more fatal on Tanna than on the other Islands of the group. They appear to have carried off even a larger proportion on Aniwa — the future scene of many sorrows but of greater triumphs.

Green flower

Attacked With Clubs

The lst January 1861 was a New Year's Day ever to be remembered. Mr. and Mrs. Johnston, Abraham, and I, had spent nearly the whole time in a kind of solemn yet happy festival. Anew in a holy covenant before God, we unitedly consecrated our lives and our all to the Lord Jesus, giving ourselves away to His blessed service for the conversion of the Heathen on the New Hebrides. After evening Family Worship, Mr. and Mrs. Johnston left my room to go to their own house, only some ten feet distant; but he returned to inform me that there were two men at the window, armed with huge clubs, and having black painted faces. Going out to them and asking them what they wanted, they replied, "Medicine for a sick boy."

With difficulty I persuaded them to come in and get it. At once, it flashed upon me, from their agitation and their disguise of paint, that they had come to murder us. Mr. Johnston had also accompanied us into the house. Keeping my eye constantly fixed on them, I prepared the medicine and offered it. They refused to receive it, and each man grasped his killing-stone. I faced them firmly and said, "You see that Mr. Johnston is now leaving, and you too must leave this room for to-night. To-morrow, you can bring the boy or come for the medicine."

Seizing their clubs, as if for action, they showed unwillingness to withdraw, but I walked deliberately forward and made as if to push them out, when both turned and began to leave. Mr. Johnston had gone in front of them and was safely out. But he bent down to lift a little kitten that had escaped at the open door; and at that moment one of the savages, jerking in behind, aimed a blow with his huge club, in avoiding which Mr. Johnston fell with a scream to the ground. Both men sprang towards him, but our two faithful dogs ferociously leapt in their faces and saved his life. Rushing out, but not fully aware of what had occurred, I saw Mr. Johnston trying to raise himself, and heard him cry, "Take care! these men have tried to kill me, and they will kill you!"

Facing them sternly I demanded, "What is it that you want? He does not understand your language. What do you want? Speak with me."

Both men, thereon, raised their great clubs and made to strike me; but quick as lightning these two dogs sprang at their faces and baffled their blows. One dog was badly bruised, and the ground received the other blow, that would have launched me into Eternity. The best dog was a little cross-bred retriever with terrier blood in him, splendid for warning us of approaching dangers, and which had already been the means of saving my life several times. Seeing how matters stood, I now hounded both dogs furiously upon them, and the two savages fled. I shouted after them, "Remember, Jehovah God sees you and will punish you for trying to murder His servants!"

In their flight, a large body of men, who had come eight or ten miles to assist in the murder and plunder, came slipping here and there from the bush and joined them, fleeing too. Verily, "the wicked flee, when no man pursueth." David's experience and assurance came home to us, that evening, as very real:— "God is our refuge and our strength ... therefore we will not fear."

I, now accustomed to such scenes on Tanna, retired to rest and slept soundly; but my dear fellow-laborer, as I afterwards learned, could not sleep for one moment. His pallor and excitement continued next day, indeed for several days; and after that, though he was naturally lively and cheerful, I never saw him smile again.

For that morning, 1st January 1861, the following entry was found in his Journal: "To-day, with a heavy heart and a feeling of dread, I know not why, I set out on my accustomed wanderings amongst the sick. I hastened back to get the Teacher and carry Mr. Paton to the scene of distress. I carried a bucket of water in one hand and medicine in the other; and so we spent a portion of this day endeavoring to alleviate their sufferings, and our work had a happy effect also on the minds of others." In another entry, on 22d December, he wrote: "Measles are making fearful havoc amongst the poor Tannese. As we pass through the villages, mournful scenes meet the eye; young and old prostrated on the ground, showing all these painful symptoms which accompany loathsome and malignant diseases. In some villages few are left able to prepare food, or to carry drink to the suffering and dying. How pitiful to see the sufferers destitute, of every comfort, attention, and remedy that would ameliorate their suffering or remove their disease! As I think of the tender manner in which we are nursed in sickness, the many remedies employed to give relief, with the comforts and attention bestowed upon us, my heart sickens, and I say, Oh my ingratitude and the ingratitude of Christian people!"

Having, as above recorded, consecrated our lives anew to God on the first day of January, I was, up till the 16th of the month, accompanied by Mr. Johnston and sometimes also by Mrs. Johnston on my rounds in the villages amongst the sick, and they greatly helped me. But by an unhappy accident I was laid aside when most sorely needed. When adzing a tree for house-building I observed that Mahanan, the war Chief's brother, had been keeping too near me, and that he carried a tomahawk in his hand; and, in trying both to do my work and to keep an eye on him, I struck my ankle severely with the adze [cutting tool similar to an axe]. He moved off quickly, saying, "I did not do that," but doubtless rejoicing at what had happened. The bone was badly hurt, and several of the blood-vessels cut. Dressing it as well as I could, and keeping it constantly soaked in cold water, I had to exercise the greatest care. In this condition, amidst great sufferings; I was sometimes carried to the villages to administer medicine to the sick, and to plead and pray with the dying.

On such occasions, in this mode of transit even, the conversations that I had with dear Mr. Johnston were most solemn and greatly refreshing. He had, however, scarcely ever slept since the 1st of January, and during the night of the 16th he sent for my bottle of laudanum. Being severely attacked with ague and fever, I could not go to him, but sent the bottle, the proper quantity for a dose, but that he quite understood already. He took a dose for himself, and gave one also to his wife, as she too suffered from sleeplessness. This he repeated three nights in succession, and both of them obtained a long , sound and refreshing sleep. He came to my bedside, where I lay in the ague-fever, and said with great animation, amongst other things, "I have had such a blessed sleep, and feel so refreshed! What kindness in God to provide such remedies for suffering man!"

At midday his dear wife came to me crying, "Mr. Johnston has fallen asleep, so deep that I cannot awake him."

My fever had reached the worst stage, but I struggled to my feet, got to his bedside, and found him in a state of coma, with his teeth fixed in tetanus. With great difficulty we succeeded in slightly rousing him; with a knife, spoon, and pieces of wood, we forced his teeth open, so as to administer an emetic with good effects, and also other needful medicines. For twelve hours, we had to keep him awake by repeated cold dashes in the face, by ammonia, and by vigorously moving him about. He then began to speak freely; and next day he rose and walked about a little. For the two following days, he was sometimes better and sometimes worse; but we managed to keep him up till the morning of the 21st, when he again fell into a state of coma, from which we failed to rouse him. At two o'clock in the afternoon he fell asleep — another Martyr for the testimony of Jesus in those dark and trying Isles, leaving his young wife in indescribable sorrow, which she strove to bear with Christian resignation. Having made his coffin and dug his grave, we two alone at sunset laid him to rest beside my own dear wife and child, close by the Mission House.

From Chapters 27-29 from The Story of John G. Paton Told for Young Folks or, Thirty Years among South Sea Cannibals by James Paton. New York: A. L. Burt Company, Publishers, [1892]. This Young Folks' Edition by his brother was "re-cast" from John Paton's complete autobiography first published January, 1889.

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