Missionary murdered in Vanuatu
The life and collecting of the Rev. John Williams
18 November 2015
The life of the Reverend John Williams (1796–1839) is one of the more remarkable stories of the European colonisation of the Pacific. The most celebrated missionary of his age, the ‘Apostle of the South Seas’ was to be much mourned after his dramatic death in 1839 on the beach at Erromango in Vanuatu, and for his cannibalisation. It seems Williams and a colleague were killed in retribution for a murderous attack by sandalwood collectors who had earlier plundered the Eromangan’s food and pigs and killed them indiscriminately. The drama of his murder is captured here by his friend George Baxter (1804–1867), the popular English book illustrator who became well known for his work with John Snow, the publisher of the London Missionary Society (LMS). Famously, Baxter developed a process to produce colour prints from blocks and plates using oil-based inks. It was his aim to make available for sale good, inexpensive prints which would imitate oil painting. He believed, 'that while their artistic beauty may procure for them a place in the Royal palaces throughout Europe, the prices at which they are retailed introduces them to the humblest cottages'. Baxter’s prints illustrated Williams’ A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Seas but, sadly, Baxter’s Patent Oil Printing was not economically viable. Baxter was declared bankrupt in 1865 and died as a result of injuries acquired in an omnibus accident in January 1867. Collector Rex Nan Kivell was fascinated with Baxter’s coloured prints and what they revealed of European exploration of the Pacific and avidly collected them. He also assisted other collectors to do so as well. There are four versions of the famous print illustrated above, in Nan Kivell's collection.
In his memoirs published in 1837, Williams claimed to have ‘travelled a hundred thousand miles and eighteen years promoting the spread of the Gospel' around the Pacific. He certainly covered a lot of ground between his apprenticeship as a foundry worker and his extensive and successful Pacific voyaging after his dramatic conversion. He was ordained by the LMS in 1816 and, the following year, he and his 19-year-old wife Mary visited Australia en route to Tahiti and the islands of the Pacific beyond. Williams was very hands-on and had the ability not just to preach and to convert, but also to build boats and buildings as the need arose. In the frontispiece to his memoirs, he states, ‘For my own part I cannot content myself within the narrow limits of a single reef ’. He didn’t. The Williamses were the first Europeans to discover Rarotonga and were the first missionaries to visit Samoa. Wherever they went, filling ‘the whole world with the glory of the Lord’, they busily and successfully converted the ‘heathens’ they encountered. They lost seven of their ten children in the process.
This memorable watercolour image of Williams, by the little-known British artist Henry Anelay (1817–1883) depicts the missionary formally attired in the tropical heat and set against a dramatic island landscape—possibly Rarotonga. It represents a moment when things were significantly changing for the people of central Polynesia. Williams cites examples in his published Narrative, of islanders renouncing and destroying or burning their local gods, represented in idol form.
Here, in this image from the work’s title page, we can see tapa cloth-wearing Polynesians laying Rarotongan ‘staff gods’ at the feet of the Williamses and their associates, the Pittmans. To the right, a large standing staff god dominates the scene and the image bears the biblical quote from Isaiah, 'And the idols he shall utterly abolish'. In his Narrative Williams describes Tuahine, a chief of Rarotonga and a deacon to the Williamses, telling the locals, ‘There are some things we term the poison of the sea; these idols hanging here were the poison of the land, for both body and soul were poisoned by them. But let us rejoice, their reign is over’. The idols—the toppled trophies that Williams rather dismissively gestures towards in Anelay’s watercolour—are some of the ones, along with weapons, removed from Aitutaki and Rarotonga, described by Williams in his memoirs and sent back to London and now held in the British Museum’s collection. A wonderful book by David Shaw King, entitled, Food for the Flames tracks the artefacts illustrated in Anelay’s watercolour which made it back from the Pacific via the LMS’s Museum and identifies their current locations.
In the exhibition this watercolour of Tangaroa, the chief of idols, which crudely depicts a Rarotongan staff god, is hung adjacent to Anelay’s portrait of Williams. Nan Kivell was not averse to including non-human representations in his maverick book of Portraits. The large watercolour may be by Williams or possibly his son and it seems was part of a series used as a lecturing tool when the Reverend toured around England fundraising for his activities in the Pacific. Having returned to England in 1834 as something of a celebrity, sometimes Williams dressed in ‘native’ costume to give his lectures. On one occasion he regretted, 'I tried to work on their sympathies by giving them affecting accounts of heathen cruelties and wrung tears from their eyes, but only £4 from their pockets. They are a cold-blooded lot'. A huge staff god now in the British Museum’s collection (Oc1978,Q.845), was brought back by Williams in 1833.
It came to hold a central and commanding position in the very varied display in the LMS Museum, as seen below, where it is accompanied by a stuffed giraffe.
Williams described how the staff god had been ‘unceremoniously’ taken apart by the British Customs agents on reaching England to ensure it was not hiding goods or contraband, noting wryly that the agents were better protectors of the king’s revenue than makers of idols. Tangaroa suffered in being reconstructed and was not ‘so handsome as when it was an object of veneration to the deluded Rarotongans'. Hence the strange shape of the object which now tapers in reverse compared to the earlier image as depicted in Williams Narrative account as seen here.
Interestingly, ‘The Fisherman’s god’ also included here in the published account, can be seen ‘toppled’ on its side in Nan Kivell’s Anelay watercolour. This, perhaps, was to emphasise the victory of the missionaries over the ‘deluded’ people they encountered and the triumph of Christianity which they wrote about in their volumes. In 1969, Roger Duff, the former Curator of the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, speculated that such staff gods depicted Tangaroa, which was said to be the supreme deity of the Cook Islands pantheon. This has been confirmed by later research but clearly the hand that originally inscribed Nan Kivell’s Tangaroa watercolour in pencil, ‘Tangaroa, the chief of gods’ was aware of this fact. The depictions of Tangaroa in the Anelay watercolour and in the watercolour seen above are subtly different but seem to be of the same important Rarotongan object which may be a diminutive rendering of the extraordinary staff god now preserved and held in the British Museum’s collection.
Williams’ symbol of authority, his gold and carnelian seal, with which he would presumably finalise his letters to his superiors in London, dangles diminutively, but absolutely centrally, in the watercolour. It perhaps hints at the good news he would transmit to head office letting them know that the Lord’s word was successfully taking hold thousands of kilometres away. Additionally, it may hint at how the news of Williams’ death was transmitted by letter overland from India to London in early April 1840. ‘The Martyr of Erromango’ was much mourned. Ironically, it was the actions of Williams and other missionaries that both destroyed and led to the preservation of sometimes unique cultural artefacts such as those depicted here.
As recently as 2009, relatives of John Williams visited Erromango to participate in a reconciliation event marking the 170th anniversary of his death. The President of Vanuatu, Iolu Johnson Abil, spoke of the need for his Christian country to participate in a reconciliation to remove a kind of ‘curse’ that remained after Williams’ death.
This, and many more stories like it, can be found in the portraits contained in our current exhibition, Portraits of the Famous and Infamous: Rex Nan Kivell Collection, on show until Sunday 13 December 2015.