Missionaries and Cannabalism

While these two topics may seem unrelated, they caught your attention and they do share some common themes.  

Reverend John Williams in RarotongaThe first missionaries to arrive in Vanuatu didn't last more than a few weeks. John Williams and James Harris visited the island of Erromango in 1839 and became the first missionary victims of canibalism. From the London Missionary Society, Williams had been in the South Pacific with his wife for over twenty years, mostly in the Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Rarotonga and Samoa. Following this inauspicious beginning, the Society then used Polynesian missionaries to convert the ni-Vanuatu.

In 2009, descendants of John Williams from around the world visited Erromango for a moving reconciliation ceremony. Many of the islanders believed Erromango was cursed for the 170-year-old killing, especially since the island is now very much Christian. Influential Member of Parliament and anthropologist Ralph Regenvanu assisted with the organisation of the reconciliation ceremony and this link from Radio Australia provides an interesting insight.  

The fate of the first missionaries did not deter, in fact in some ways hastened more activity. Other than the Polynesians sent from the London Missionary Society, Presbyterian and Anglican missionaries from England and Australia, and Catholic missionaries from France made various attempts, often short-lived, to convert the ni-Vanuatu. However, they were nothing if not persistent and by 1860s various denominational mission stations existed throughout the islands.  

The early missionaries deplored many of the barbaric practices of the islands, especially cannibalism, which was rampart throughout much of the archipelago and they devoted much of their attention to stamp it out. And over the ensuing decades many missionaries over the years became victims of the ritual. 

Leaving cannibalism for a while, the missionaries had a profound impact on society in Vanuatu. They brought education, medicine, basic trades as well as their message of salvation through Jisas Krais. They also introduced a range of diseases, which decimated parts of the islands and some would say did a lot to destroy a culture pre-existing for thousands of years. Many of the early missionaries, especially the Presbyterians were very much into salvation and totally changing local customs while introducing new skills and medicine. 

Reverend Dr John Gibson PatonRev. Dr John Gibson Paton, mentioned in Cargo Cult, and the first missionary on Tanna Island arrived in 1859. He was soon chased off the island, went back to Scotland, married and returned to serve on Aniwa, a small island close to Tanna in 1866. John Paton learned the language and adapted it to writing. His wife Maggie taught a class of about fifty women and girls who became experts at sewing, singing, plaiting hats and reading. They trained teachers, translated, printed and expounded the scriptures, ministered to the sick and dying, dispensed medicines, taught them the use of tools and sent native teachers to all the villages to preach the gospel. Enduring many years of deprivation, danger from natives and disease, they continued with their work and after many years, the entire island of Aniwa professed Christianity. In 1899 he saw his Aniwa New Testament printed and relished the establishment of missionaries on twenty five of the islands in the New Hebrides.

On an other island Aneityum, south of Tanna, Rev. John Geddie lived many years and his headstone there bears the following inscription: "In memory of John Geddie, D.D., born in Scotland, 1815, minister in Prince Edward Island seven years, Missionary sent from Nova Scotia to Aneiteum for twenty-four years. When he landed in 1848, there were no Christians here, and when he left in 1872 there were no heathen."

Over the years, the missionaries have gradually converted most of the South Pacific to Christianity in one form or another. Vanuatu is no exception however they are probably not as didactic as the Polynesians. Well known travel writer Paul Theroux in The Happy Isles of Oceania provides interesting views on the impact of Christianity on the different nations as well as some wonderful observations from his memorable journey.  

In the wonderful book The Shark God by Charles Montgomery, the author explores the complex areas of religion, myths and magic as he traces the steps of his great grandfather missionary through Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands before the first bishop of Melanesia, John Coleridge Patterson was killed on the tiny atoll of Nukapu in 1871. Here’s a review of the book from Kevin Rushby in The Guardian.    

The many missions operating in Vanuatu today vary in their approach from God fearing to the more pragmatic and practical contribution of the Seventh Day Adventists to something in between.

One way or the other, missionaries have changed the landscape immensely as has colonialism, education, trade and lately the Internet.  

Cannibal feast on Tanna late 19th centuryBack to the juicy topic of cannibalism, the last reported Kakae Man went into a Big Nambas ground oven on Malekula Island less than fifty years ago in 1969.

Cannibalism started well before the missionaries first arrived, was widespread throughout the islands and harks back to the days of tribal warfare and ritualistic ceremonies. Some tribes believed that consuming human flesh would give them magical powers while others just enjoyed the taste. Humans and pigs were often prepared together and white folk weren't considered a delicacy, as they tasted too salty. Apparently only the people of the Banks and Torres Islands in the north did not practice cannibalism.

The indulgence is well documented in Ethnology of Vanuatu by Felix Speiser, first published in German in 1923 before being translated, see pages 215-219.

Lastly, here is a delightful account from an Aussie who was offered the opportunity to meet the last cannibal living in Malekula.