The circumstances of Islander conversions are important. Their way of life and existence had been threatened, their customary exchange voyages disrupted by pearlers and other fortune hunters. Christianity offered and encouraged a lasting peace between the clans and with their neighbours, as well as protection from the marauders within the ranks of the newcomers. When a team of scientists arrived from Cambridge University in 1898 'just in time to record the memory of a vanished past', the silence of the Meriam was interpreted as evidence of their complete conversion. However, their reluctance to speak about their old religion, their refusal to part with their most sacred symbols, and the signs of animated anticipation in their re-enactment of the sacred dances of Malo, were taken by the Cambridge team as signs that they retained a sense of 'the sacredness of religious customs.'
The Meriam buried the sacred mask of Malo. They refused to part with any of the sacred star clubs of Malo or Wasikor, the sacred drum of Malo. The Malo ceremonies were re-enacted for the Cambridge team despite the strongest opposition from the LMS pastor on Mer. The Meriam made the Malo mask out of cardboard under duress. According to Professor Haddon, the man who made it did so on the condition that he was paid in gold which he wished to put in the Church collection plate.
Today opinions vary, often clashing on the degree to which conversion represented an ending and a new beginning. One view emphasises discontinuity that unlike Jesus Christ Malo did not die and rise again so that Meriam and other believers might have eternal life.
While the LMS pastors banned the Meriam dances and outlawed the old Malo religion and other ceremonies and practices, when the Anglican Church took over from the LMS in 1915, some among the second wave of missionaries said, 'Go ahead, perform your dances.' New dances and chants were composed and performed including one where the dancers handed Malo's star club to one another, which 'signifies the life that is passed down from the previous generation to the present one.'
Source: Sam Passi, grandson of Pasi, in Noni Sharp, Stars of Tagai, 1993, p 251.
After the Meriam went over 'without a murmur' to the Anglican church it was not many years before priests were ordained: among the first were Rev Sailor Gabey and Rev Poi Passi, old Pasi's son. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that Meriam people began to make public comparison and contrast between their old Malo religion with Christianity and to draw some original conclusions: that they, the Meriam, had their own unique message to give to the world.
Keywords: anthropology, Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, ceremony, Christianity, Malo, Malo dance, religion, Stars of Tagai, wasikor, 1871-
Sharp, Nonie 1993, 'Stars of Tagai', Aboriginal Studies Press, p.251.
Author: Sharp, Nonie
Source: Passi, Sam (Grandson of Passi).