Charles Fox

Scholar, Missionary

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Charles Fox
Scholar, Missionary

Picture courtesy of Project Canterbury

Charles Elliot Fox was one of the most outstanding members of the Melanesian Mission. A missionary, historian and anthropologist, he served the Anglican Church in Melanesia for over 70 years and holds the record as the longest-serving expatriate member of any church in the Solomon Islands. A man of scholarship, courage, generosity of spirit, and humility, his influence on the education and spiritual life of Melanesia was unequalled.

He came to New Zealand with his parents in 1884 when his father became vicar of Gisborne. Charles attended high school in Napier. While there he played cricket against a team from Norfolk Island, brought to New Zealand by Bishop Cecil Wilson of Melanesia. Fox conceived the idea of joining the Melanesian Mission. He graduated Master of Arts from Auckland University College in 1901. He received a degree in theology from St John's College, Auckland in 1902, and joined the Anglican Melanesian Mission in 1903.

Fox had never enjoyed robust health, so initially he was sent not to Melanesia but to St Barnabas’ College, Norfolk Island. He was ordained by Bishop Wilson in 1903, and in 1911 finally gained permission to go to the Solomon Islands. He was sent to set up a boys’ school at Pamua on San Cristobal. From then on he lived in the Solomon Islands, until he retired to New Zealand in 1973.

He served in various parts of the Solomon Islands and in various capacities: as district missionary, headmaster, and labourer. In 1932 he was asked to become the 7th bishop of Melanesia, but that invitation he declined. And instead for 11 years (1932-1943) he was the only European member of the Melanesian Brotherhood. During his time as priest on Makira, he was adopted into the Arosi tribe and exchanged names with one of the young chiefs. He lived as a member of the chief's household and developed a unique knowledge of the Arosi customs, history and language. His exchange name was 'Takibaina'. Because of his short stature he was nicknamed 'Kakamora'. His work among the villages during World War II was legendary, and he was a coast-watcher, successfully evading capture by the Japanese through his intimate knowledge of the terrain and the loyalty of the Melanesian people.

He was an expert in Melanesian languages, publishing several dictionaries. He published a pioneer study of the people and culture of San Cristobal, ‘The Threshold of the Pacific’s, for which he was awarded a D.Litt. in 1922. He also translated the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He wrote a history of the Melanesian Mission, ‘Lord of the Southern Isles’, and a charming account of his own work, Kakamora. He was awarded the MBE in 1952 and the CBE in 1974.

By the time he left the Solomon Islands in 1973, he had become a legend in his own lifetime. So closely had he identified with the work of the mission, that he regarded himself as a Melanesian. Even in his final years in New Zealand, he wrote often and maintained contact with the people he had worked and lived with for so long. For them he was a man of immense mana, both for his acceptance of Melanesian culture and customs as an entirely adequate vehicle for the gospel, and because he sought no power for himself and was entirely free of paternalism. He was affectionately known as 'The old man of Melanesia'.

After having again taken vows as a Melanesian Brother in the last years of his life, he died, one year short of a hundred. His body was flown back to Honiara for a funeral service at St. Barnabas' Cathedral and burial at the Melanesian Brothers head-quarters at Tabalia, at his own request.

BORN:1878, Stalbridge, Dorset, England

DIED:28 October 1977, New Zealand.