The King’s war canoe


As a child living in Cooranbong (NSW) I loved the South Sea Islands Museum at Sunnyside. My favourite exhibit was the enormous Solomon Islands war canoe. I admired the sleek black hull carved from a massive log, with its inlaid shell and decorated high prow and stern, wanting to climb into it and sit in one of the more than 20 paddling positions, imagining the water rushing past as it was propelled along.

It was irrelevant to me that His Royal Highness Prince Philip had once sat in the large throne-like chair amidships, or that many years earlier it had been used to carry the first European woman to ride in a tomoko*. I did not know that one day I would marry the great-granddaughter of that pioneering missionary or that we would be ceremonially ferried ashore in a replica canoe.

By asking us to metaphorically die to ourselves then eat His body and drink His blood, Jesus asks us to take on His characteristics—with His blood coursing through our veins we are different, transformed.

Pioneer missionaries

Solomon Islands’ Western Province, an island cluster dominated by New Georgia, was, until the 1900s, a place of spirit worship. The head-hunting, human sacrificing and ritually cannibalistic inhabitants were people of war.

In 1913, Adventist leaders in Australia commissioned Captain Griffiths Jones and his wife Marion as missionaries to Solomon Islands. In 1914 they made their way to Viru Harbour on the island of New Georgia where they were welcomed by the locals, many of whom were tired of the bloodshed the spirits demanded of them and ready to adopt a way of peace. After six months, during which they set up a Christian school and began to learn the local language, the Joneses left on an urgent mission to introduce the gospel in the Marovo Lagoon area, believing the outbreak of World War I to be the commencement of the end of the world.

Oscar Hellestrand—a recently graduated nurse from what is now the Sydney Adventist Hospital—and wife Ella were sent to continue the Joneses’ work at Viru Harbour, arriving at the start of 1915. They added medical assistance to the services offered at the mission, introduced singing—in four-part harmony—and trained their students to be missionaries to the surrounding region. Their activities led to the development of a mission outpost to the southeast, in the Nono Lagoon. It was to here that Oscar and Ella made a tomoko trip, escorted by 11 of their evangelist students.

The local war canoe was repurposed from raiding vessel to mission transport, and one day in 1915, the Hellestrands and their islander missionaries—including Naejonah, Varane and Kere—paddled 10 kilometres down the coast, then trekked overland, carrying Ella across a jungled coral promontory, to the Nono Lagoon where they ran their mission. The villagers were receptive to the Seventh-day Adventist message and a church was soon built on the mainland shore opposite the small island-village of Bareho.

Following the conversion of the local chief, the Nono church was soon relocated to the taboo site of their former spirit-worship skull mound. This church was burned down by the Japanese during their occupation in World War II and was later rebuilt across the water on Bareho Island, where a newer structure remains today. Other “hand” churches were more recently established in nearby Maloka and Seghe. In December 2015, the Nono Seventh-day Adventist community commemorated the arrival of the Adventist message with a centenary celebration at Bareho, to which my wife, Cindy—a descendant of the Hellestrands—and I were invited.

Centenary celebrations

Cindy and I flew into Seghe village, were met at the plane and transported by small boat bound for Bareho Island. Near our destination we transferred to a waiting replica war canoe, were given woven headpieces to match those of our 20 bare-chested engines, and, accompanied by conch shell trumpet, were paddled as guests of honour the rest of the way to Bareho.

The centenary celebrations spanned four days with more than 600 people gathering for spiritual food, social interaction and reflection on God’s leading over the past 100 years. Guest speaker, Pastor Vince David, principal of Hoda Bible College, gave a series of compelling talks on the theme “We come this far by faith”, in which he outlined how, over the past 100 years, our respective ancestors were led by the Holy Spirit and sustained by their faith in Jesus. He challenged us to remain faithful to our unique beliefs and focus on spreading the Adventist message about Jesus’ soon return.

Reflecting on the communion service and baptism event, I experienced greater clarity about the way God gets inside us and changes us. These people’s grandparents used to attack their enemies, kill them, give the skulls to the spirits and often eat part of the body, believing that by imbibing some of their adversary they would take on a special characteristic or power—the mana—of that person. By asking us to metaphorically die to ourselves then eat His body and drink His blood, Jesus asks us to take on His characteristics—with His blood coursing through our veins we are different, transformed.

The people of Nono and Viru Harbour have benefitted greatly from the missionaries’ work. In addition to its thriving church, Bareho has a primary school, and the Viru Harbour villages—Tetamara and Tombe—each have a church and school, and Tetamara also has a clinic.

In celebrating the centenary of Bareho church the people of Kogu Nono, the Nono Lagoon, were cheering the transformation the past century had brought—transformation of cultural practices, way of life, knowledge, health and purpose. They are proud of their Adventist heritage and the singing to which they were introduced. They recommitted themselves to serving God and sharing their God-understanding and experience with the people around them.

Brad Cox recently fulfilled his boyhood dream of riding in the war canoe.

I was significantly impacted by our visit to Bareho. The hospitality was phenomenal: people with little gave very generously in many ways, and they were delighted to have us represent the Hellestrands. The Hellestrands were only in Solomon Islands for two years, but the Nono people expressed deep gratitude for their service.

I finally got to ride in that war canoe—albeit a replica. Its original had carried raiding parties, Ella Hellestrand—its first pale-skinned woman passenger—and Prince Philip. But the most important cargo that old tomoko ever carried was the awesome news about Jesus—the loving Creator, Rescuer and returning King.

* As told to us by the Bareho people.

Brad Cox teaches at Macquarie College, an Adventist school in Newcastle, NSW.