Florence S. H. Young was a mostly self-trained Christian missionary who preached to and taught Melanesian migrant workers in Queensland in the 1880s and 1890s. In the golden age of European Christian missions, she proposed an alternative to the mainstream model of how Europeans should preach gospel to indigneous peoples, and provoked a minor controversy which sheds light on missionary translators who later traveled to Melanesian societies.
In seaboard Melanesia, the last part of the 19th century and early 20th century was an era of intense contact with Europeans from Australia, and led to sustained involvement of these two cultural and sociopolitical orders. Two important actors in this contact were labor recruiters and missionaries, with an official government administration seeking to regulate each with various degrees of success. Many Christian reformers of the time opposed the labor trade, which they saw as akin to slavery. Even when colonial governments imposed stricter regulations, these reformers lamented how Melanesian workers were corrupted by European civilization. Missions to Melanesian islands sought to uplift and educate as well as convert, in other words, to replace a negative kind of cultural change with a positive one.
In this context, the work of Florence Young is particularly interesting (Griffin 1990). Having converted in her late teens in Dunedin, she eventually settled at Fairymead, her brothers’ sugar plantation in Queensland. Unlike many missionaries who opposed the labor trade, she appears to have favored it insofar as it brought workers into contact with Christianity. She began to teach Bible classes among her brothers’ South Sea Islands workers, and then with others, workers of other plantations. While on the one hand, her paternalistic views of Melanesians are similar to her contemporaries, her Queensland Kanaka Mission is interesting for its choice of Pidgin and so-called ‘broken English’. Planters and many others considered Melanesians to be intellectually inferior and incapable of learning. The major mission bodies, for the most part, believed that Melanesians could only express true faith after a long course of learning, which would only be possible in their native languages. Young writes in her memoir, Pearls from the Pacific, that she wanted to “put first things first; salvation before education or civilization” (Young 1925: 39). This seems to imply a difference from those churches which believed conversion came after a long process of change. Unlike other churches, Young and her mission wanted to convert as many Melanesian workers in as short a time as possible. They believed that the labor trade would be closed, and wanted to seize an opportunity to send back “consecrated men” (Buchanan and Young 1893: 4) who would preach to their own communities. In other words, she foresaw Melanesian men taking on a great deal of autonomy in the spreading of Christianity to Melanesia.
Several converted laborers returned to Malaita, Pentecost and other recruitment areas and taught Christianity to their home communities. They remained in contact with Young and her mission workers by letter, telling stories of the services they performed and lessons they gave. One good example comes from the annual reports of the Queensland Kanaka Mission. In 1893, as the contracts expired for the mission’s first cohort, one man named Samson wrote frequently in Pidgin to report on his progress in his home on Malaita. He appears to have laid the groundwork for the QKM’s eventual transformation into the South Seas Evangelical Mission in Malaita. Another case is that of Peter Abu’ofa (SIHE 2013; Hilliard 1978:178-179; Moore 2013). For their part, South Sea Islander workers sought opportunities to learn to read and write English so they could get better jobs in Queensland, and were thus drawn to mission schools like Young’s (Wetherell 1977: 101-102). Later Bible translators would relate to Melanesians as listeners and readers of translated Christian discourse. Young taught by rote but also seemed to encourage people to then repeat and extend this message themselves.
In this respect, Young’s effort stands out against the prevailing attitude toward Melanesians at the time. Missionaries and the broader society tended to regard Melanesian acquisition of English and other forms of Western culture as inherently flawed, if not, more ominously, as a deceitful mask of gentility which hid their savagery (Saunders 1975: 164). Young wished to convert and uplift her ‘boys’, yet nonetheless, she recognized their own capacity to engage with new ideas and make choices.
Buchanan F. G., and Young. E. E. B. 1893. Queensland Kanaka Mission 7th Annual Report for the Year 1892-1893. Bundaberg: Barriskill and Eadie.
Griffin, Helga M. 1990. “Young, Florence Selina Harriet (1856–1940).” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/young-florence-selina-harriet-9214/text16279, accessed 13 January 2014.
Hilliard, David. 1978. God’s Gentlemen: A History of the Melanesian Mission, 1849-1942. St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press.
Moore, Clive. 2013. “Peter Abu‘ofa and the Founding of the South Sea Evangelical Mission in the Solomon Islands, 1894–1904.” The Journal of Pacific History 48 (1): 23–42. doi:10.1080/00223344.2012.756162.
Saunders, Kay. 1975. “The Black Scourge: Racial Responses Toward Melanesians in Colonial Queensland.” In Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation, and Extermination,” R. Evans, K. Saunders, and K. Cronin, eds., pp. 147-234. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Solomon Islands Historical Encyclopaedia, 1893-1978. “Peter Abu’ofa.” http://www.solomonencyclopaedia.net/biogs/E000356b.htm, accessed 12 January 2014.
Wetherell, David. 1977. Reluctant Mission: The Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea, 1891-1942. University of Queensland Press.
Young, Florence S. H. 1925. Pearls from the Pacific. London: Marshall Bros.