A missionary John Williams's portrait before his return in the South Pacific;  Erromango his landing would be fatal.

A missionary John Williams’s portrait before his return in the South Pacific; Erromango his landing would be fatal.
PACIFIC, July 4, 2019. The matter that we will discuss in the following lines is well known Pacific Protestant missionary circles since the drama concerned two pastors, one of which was famous, and also because that this case had extensions hundred and seventy years later.

John Williams, since he is the main hero of our unfortunate history, was a member of the London Missionary Society, in which he was appointed missionary in 1816.

Born in Tottenham, near London in 1796, he was doomed to a lifetime of work in a foundry, as a laborer, when he had the opportunity to join the ranks of the LMS to satisfy a strong need, approached a passion, certain vocation, bring the “good word” to distant tribes; poles apart, in every sense of the word, from the foundry worker life to which he had been afraid of being condemned.


Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa …

In 1817, just months after being appointed to go into the “exotic” missions, he was sent with his wife, Mary Chawner in the Society Islands (French Polynesia), accompanied by William Ellis. He took his first job in Raiatea, the sacred island, but from this basis, circulated in many other islands in the region to try to increase conversions.

Thus we find the Aitutaki (Cook Islands north) in 1821, along with Tahitian converts who help him in his task (then known of these auxiliary “teachers”).

Obviously, the main island, Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, rather enormously to the Williams family (also often said -to tort- it’s this couple who discovered the island); they settled (Williams had eleven children, but only three survived and managed to adulthood) and began their evangelistic work with total dedication. John had time to push further west, to Samoa, his family being the first to land in the archipelago to try to adhere to the “true faith” the indigenous population.

In 1834, John Williams returned to Britain; he had not wasted his time in the Cook Islands, since he had learned the local language he mastered the eyes of his superiors, well enough to be asked to bring rarotongien the New Testament.

He was accompanied during this very long journey, a Samoan who could not bear the cold climate of England and died in London; finally, the Williams family was again the way to the South Pacific in 1837, on board the Camden (Robert Clark Morgan commander).

Williams had, in addition to his work, had time to write a reference book during his stay in London (Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Seas Islands) and, given its success on the field, the pastor quickly became famous and served, somehow, a reference for all the young apprentices missionaries eager to follow in his footsteps.


Well received, but killed the next day

In 1839, then only 43 years old, John Williams had the opportunity to change your world and momentarily abandon Polynesia to Melanesia. Williams, in fact, was not a man to be buried in his parish Ratotonga where he had worked wonders; He wanted, above all, keep the wearer to work the word to living people, as it was said, in sin and obscurantism.

John Williams went to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu today) with another missionary James Harris.

Embedded in Camden, the two men could go on Erromango Island, south of the archipelago, an island where the warlike island n ‘

We know little about what really happened on November 20, 1839, except that the two men hardly had time to begin to deliver the word. They were well received on the day of arrival, but the next day they fell under the blows of the puzzle of their host tribe. Warriors, delighted with their easy victory, decided to simply celebrate by putting in the oven the bodies of two unfortunate missionaries who were eaten away.

In 1839, a monument could be erected in the place of the crime, and it still is there also. But Erromango, the drama remained in the memories, and once converted, the people kept on consciousness that the murders could not remain without forgiveness.


170 years after …

Thus the drama of John Williams resurfaced in December 2009, the descendants of the pastor and his wife Mary have agreed to go to Erromango to attend a ceremony of reconciliation between the descendants of cannibals and missionaries who sacrificed.

The ceremony marked the 170th anniversary of the death of the two religious. The people of the island, very poor in a country’s own third world long believed that their situation was precarious due to the fact that their ancestors had killed and eaten both missionaries and God, from heaven, the was cursed and made them pay for their cowardly act. It therefore became essential, for them to obtain forgiveness of offspring: a chance for them to remember the tragedy; when the natives saw the two missionaries back to them on the beach, the day after their arrival, they were all armed puzzle, spears and other weapons and local history, transmitted orally, reports that Harris was immediately made died when Williams, who could take his legs to his neck,


Blame it on sandalwood

The people of Erromango confirmed at the same time the stories of old, that the two bodies had been devoured. That perpetrators were also recognized when, fifteen months after the tragedy, an English ship had stopped in front of the island. The people had then explained that in their eyes, the two men were a threat to the community; and for good reason ! Just days before the arrival of two missionaries, a sandalwood harvesters band had stopped in Erromango and had blithely massacred the population, not to have to negotiate rights to harvest precious wood.

In this context, besides a legitimate desire for revenge, the people of the island, when they saw reappear after the initial tragedy other white men only thought one thing, kill them quickly and eat to gain their powers and get rid of them forever.
In 2009, they were exactly eighteen descendants of John Williams to have moved halfway around the world to participate in this great and official reconciliation. At the ceremony, dozens and dozens of descendants of cannibals 1839 came silently, in single file, apologize to each of the descendants of the pastor.


Respect, contrition and reconciliation

The community went much further in its approach, asking Williams to agree to take over, to ensure his education, a girl of seven years in exchange for the loss of John. A very heavy responsibility that the family of the martyred pastor agreed to take.

Finally, to close these gestures of apology, the Erromango community announced that the bay where the killing took place, Dillon’s Bay, would, as from today, renamed Williams Bay, in memory of one who wanted to get them out of paganism.

Respect, contrition and reconciliation: 170 years after a meal that had shaken the world of missions in the South Pacific, Williams Bay waters have become totally welcoming to strangers …

Daniel Pardon


The missionaries cursed island

In the long history of the evangelization of the South Seas, Erromango, rightly, was listed as the cursed island for missions. Melanesia in general, Papua, Solomon, New Caledonia and Fiji of course, had a very bad reputation, but Erromango held the palm because the drama of John Williams and James Harris was not the only one. Do not think, reading this little preamble that we catalog the inhabitants of this island south of the current Vanuatu as wild Pacific worst, because if they proved hostile to Europeans and their envoys, these are not good reasons were lacking.

A couple Bible in hand

After the tragedy of 20 November 1839, the missionaries are not jostled to get back on the island, but were far from giving up; quite the opposite and soon they sent on site to try to calm the spirits, the “teachers” of the Cook Islands and especially Samoa. Men, women, children, the archives show forty people killed by the inhabitants of Erromango, hostile intrusion.
In June 1857, without ignoring the 1839 tragedy and the many victims that followed, George N. Gordon Protestant missionary of Canadian origin arrived with his wife, Ellen Catherine Powell, his Bible as the only weapon of defense. He arrived from Halifax, after spending a year in England to study tropical medicine to be sure to be able to face the New Hebrides climate. He was a member of the Presbyterian church and it is also during his stay in London he met the woman who was to become his wife.
Then thirty-five, the young religious, strong in the conviction that faith can move mountains, fought without any fear local tribes for less defensive. He installed his mission to Dillon’s Bay after a trip that lasted ten months, during which, through the work of his predecessors, he learned some basics of two languages ​​spoken there, which saved quite possibly his life on his arrival . The couple even bought land in chief Kowiowi, the very man who was responsible for the massacre of 1839. In fact, this island, like many others, had been raiding First sandalwood then blackbirders, who kidnapped, mostly illegally, from labor “black” for plantations of Queensland.

The deliberately introduced measles

Gordon was gentle but firm and the presence of this white woman was in itself a curiosity: the missionary managed to convert forty Melanesians in less than four years. But in March 1861 when the agreement was good between Gordon, his flock and other Melanesians of sandalwood disembarked determined to rein in the rebellious people, who had never agreed to submit to pillage imposed by these crews. Rather than cause always risky frontal conflict, sandalwood had on board a virus they knew very contagious and even deadly, that of measles. Two men on board, affected by the disease, were put in contact with the greatest number of people possible, and those, like wildfire, caught measles, against which they had no defense.
Gordon, maddened by the ravages of illness, devoted all his time with his wife at his side, trying to relieve the patients of which many would die (called hundreds of deaths from March 1861). Among Gordon’s patients were the two son of a powerful leader who passed from life to death despite the care lavished them. They were the only two deaths recorded by the couple. Mad with rage and pain, the chief thought it was Gordon who were responsible for the death of his two son; he armed once a band of his warriors and May 20, 1861, Gordon and his wife were both murdered.

A church of the martyrs …

The tragedies were not completed for selecting missionaries Erromango. In 1864, the younger brother of George Gordon, James, also a member of the Presbyterian church, is involved in the New Hebrides, particularly in Erromango soon as he was made aware of the tragedy that caused the death of his brother and sister. James was ten years younger than his brother and preached on, forgiveness for the killers. His work in the field (he spoke very quickly almost fluently four languages ​​of the island) was remarkable. He was then sent to Santo, where he established a solid foundation for his church before being repatriated in New South Wales. But James refused to bow to the desiderata of the Presbyterian Church and decided to become independent of any missionary chapel, returning in 1870 to Erromango. There he continued his double work of conversion and translation of the Bible. But for reasons that remain obscure to this day, March 7, 1872, when he translated a sacred text, he was brutally murdered.

The efforts of Gordon brothers were not in vain, since faith progressed thanks to converts on the island. In 1880, a church was even built, called “the church of the martyrs” … In 1900, 95% of the population of the island had become Christian.


Erromango, south of Vanuatu

Measuring 88.1 km2, populated by a little less than two thousand inhabitants, Erromango is an island of the current Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), about thirty kilometers north of Tanna, famous for its constantly active volcano, Yasur. volcanic island, Erromanga peaks at 886 m (Mount Santop). Its discovery by Cook in August 1774 ended in a confrontation with the natives, dubbing the explorer then Erromango the “Head of the Traitor.”

It is Peter Dillon, tireless fighter of the South Pacific, the Erromango of sandalwood resources were revealed in 1825; until 1865, the sandalwood, lawless nor moral law, this land scoured by multiplying the violence, making people very suspicious and frankly hostile to whites. In 1865, the sandalwood resource was exhausted, but then came the blackbirders, especially Australians, decided to recruit by all means, including force, workers for the plantations in Fiji and especially Queensland. Today, Erromango resources are scarce, tourism is still embryonic and limited exports, although kava culture developed there.


Painted in the nineteenth century, the death of Reverend Williams and his assistant Harris was widely reported in the Protestant world.

Painted in the nineteenth century, the death of Reverend Williams and his assistant Harris was widely reported in the Protestant world.


Tanna, where he visited the home of the missionary John Williams was far more cordial than that which was reserved for him in Erromango.

Tanna, where he visited the home of the missionary John Williams was far more cordial than that which was reserved for him in Erromango.


James Cook discovered Erromango in 1774. The first contact was cordial, but the visit ended violently (4 dead and 2 injured Melanesian side).  Cook then called the island "Head Traitors".

James Cook discovered Erromango in 1774. The first contact was cordial, but the visit ended violently (4 dead and 2 injured Melanesian side). Cook then called the island “Head Traitors”.


A view of Dillons'Bay at the time of the tragedy that killed two religious.  By 1800, the population of Erromango was estimated at ten thousand people.  In 1913, there were just four hundred people ...

A view of Dillons’Bay at the time of the tragedy that killed two religious. By 1800, the population of Erromango was estimated at ten thousand people. In 1913, there were just four hundred people …


This double portrait is that of George and Ellen Gordon.

This double portrait is that of George and Ellen Gordon.


John Williams en route to the New Hebrides, after leaving the Cook Islands.  He was unaware that his trip would not return and that his end would be so brutal.

John Williams en route to the New Hebrides, after leaving the Cook Islands. He was unaware that his trip would not return and that his end would be so brutal.

Written by Daniel PARDON Thursday, July 4, 2019 at 17:30 | Source : TAHITI INFOS