For Those We Would Gladly Give Our Lives

Richard Carter at the Patteson 150 celebrations
Richard giving his talk at Exeter Cathedral in September 2021

At this year’s AGM and Festival Day, Revd Richard Carter, the Archbishop of Melanesia’s UK Commissary, vicar at St Martin in the Fields, London, and former Melanesian Brother was asked to speak about Patteson’s Life and Legacy –

The first Anglican missionaries to Melanesia were men and women with whom one could feel proud to be associated. The word missionary today often conjures many negative associations in the western world, men and women who crossed continents and oceans in the name of God and left behind the very conditions in which material interest, colonialism, exploitation, and white superiority could flourish. Yet in the Solomon Islands the islanders themselves still talk with love and pride about their early missionaries who established a model of sacrificial service which still inspires the young and old. Bishop George Augustus Selwyn who became the first Bishop of New Zealand in 1841 believed there should be “an episcopate of love as well as authority.”

“Missionaries must be ready at a moment to put their lives in their hands and to go out and preach the gospel to others with no weapon but prayer and with no refuge but in God.[1]

A student at Oxford John Coleridge Patteson, from Feniton, near Ottery St. Mary in Devon, heard Bishop Selwyn speak and his message inspired him. Patteson had not been a particularly outstanding student at either Eton or Oxford and in fact, apart from moderate success at cricket, his youth seemed quite unexceptional. Once Patteson joined the Melanesian Mission as a young priest his gifts were seen to flourish. He was noted for his sailor’s gift for enduring hardship, his Christian gift for deep friendship and his compassion and a linguist’s gift for being able to master many different languages of the Pacific. We sense a man who had become animated and fully alive in this mission.

What was remarkable about his ministry, and which emerges in all his writings, is the quality of his connection with the people of Melanesia and the genuine trust and respect he gave to them: he developed a relationship with the indigenous people that challenged the whole foundation of colonial prejudice.

I have for many years thought that we seek in our mission a great deal too much to make English Christians of our converts. We consciously and unanimously assume English Christianity to be necessary. We seem to denationalise these races as far as I can see; whereas we ought to change as little as possible; only what is incompatible with the simplest form of teaching and practice… Christianity is the religion for humanity at large. It takes in all shades and characters of race.[2]

The secret of these islands is to live as equals. Let them know that you are divided from them but united in Christ’s love. I do not want to make English Christians but Melanesian Christians dressed in the rich warm colour of their own native skin.

Patteson also began to question the whole position of the European missionary in relation to potential converts.

The pride of race which prompts a white man to regard Melanesians as inferior to himself, is strongly ingrained in most men’s minds, and must be wholly eradicated before they will ever win the hearts, and thus the souls of the people.[3]

His sermons express this  inclusiveness: a God who loves without prejudice irrespective of colour, tribe or creed, a God whose love knows no boundary:

And this love (of God) once generated in the heart of man , must need pass on to his brethren; that principle of life must needs grow and expand with its own inherent energy… No artificial or accidental circumstances can confine it, it recognises no human ideas of nationality or place but embraces like the dome of heaven all the works of God. And love is the animating principle of all.[4]

Patteson believed passionately that the initiative for mission should come from the Melanesians themselves and committed himself to their preparation and training, which  must involve equality and mutual respect. Patteson was convinced that Melanesians could not only become priests but better priests than many of their European counterparts:

I solve the difficulty in Melanesian work by saying ‘Use Melanesians.’ I tell people plainly:  ‘I don’t want white men!’ I have no intention of taking any more (clergy) from England, Australia or New Zealand. I sum it up thus: They cost about ten times as much as Melanesians (literally) and but a very small portion do the work as well.[5]

While Patteson may question the way in which the Christian faith is expressed, never does he doubt the relevance of the Christian message itself. In all of his letters there is a constant longing that Melanesians may know Christ and experience God’s promises. Charles Fox notes “the spirit of prayer” and “thanksgiving” which pervades all his writings. He is rigorous in his faith too, fearing sentimental attachment which would patronise the converts and overlook the need for  “true religion, sound learning and useful industry.”[6] Neither does he glamorise Melanesian culture or overlook the reality of blood feuds, tribal wars, head-hunting, and pagan practices:  he remains totally committed to the mission to bring the Gospel of Christ

What becomes increasingly obvious however is how personally and intimately he becomes involved in and respects the lives of those he seeks to convert and teach: his missionary methodology is the result of that deep care. For example in 1863 while he was training Melanesians at St. Andrew’s Kohimarama, New Zealand, there was an outbreak of dysentery which took the life of six Melanesian students and made twenty others seriously ill.

Even harder for Patteson to accept was the death of two of his most devoted Norfolk Island assistants in 1864, when they were fatally wounded in an arrow attack while returning with Patteson from the shore to the ship in Graciosa Bay, Santa Cruz.

It was relationships of genuine care and concern which had the power to convert. George Sarawia, who was to be the first Melanesian priest to be ordained, describing Patteson and the missionary example, wrote in his autobiography:

This is what they did for the sick. They were not ashamed to carry the bucket of waste matter and take it to the sea, they washed out the bucket and brought it back into the sick room. Then I thought they were doing what the Bishop had taught us in the school, that we should love one another and look after each other with love, without despising anyone, we should help the weak. All this they did to those who were sick. Then I thought it was true, if anyone taught…the things that Jesus did he must follow it himself and humble himself.[7]

Patteson’s own death became a parable for the people of Melanesia, perhaps even more powerful after his death than before it.  Before he died there is the sense of premonition of the event to come. On board the mission ship the Southern Cross he is said to have been teaching about the death of St. Stephen and to have said: “This might happen to any of us, to you or to me. It might happen today.” They reached the island of Nakapu near the Reef Islands in Temotu where Patteson requested to go ashore. It was 20th September 1871.Four men rowed him ashore but the tide was too low for them to cross the reef in the boat so the Bishop got into a canoe and went on without them although they tried to persuade him against this. He lay down to rest in the canoe house almost like sacrificial offering.  While he was lying there he was beaten to death with a club used for making bark cloth. His body was wrapped in a mat and put into a canoe and across his breast had been laid a palm branch with five knots in the leaves which led to the belief that his death was carried out in vengeance for five native men that the ‘black-birder’ slave traders had carried away from the island. Indeed in accounts we are told that Patteson’s body received five wounds, like the wounds of Christ, and only his face remained untouched.[8] It was also told that after he died darkness covered the islands and people went about with torches even at noon.

Some men then attacked the four others in the boat who were anxiously waiting for Patteson just beyond the reef: Joseph Atkin was hit by an arrow in his left shoulder, John Ngongono one in his right, Stephen Taroaniara had six arrows in him. Joseph Atkin reaching the Southern Cross immediately requested “I am going back for the Bishop who will come with me?” Then Joe Wate a boy of fifteen stepped up and said “Inau” (I), and also Charles Sapi, another fifteen year old.  They discovered the body of the Bishop floating in the canoe, one of the boys crying out “those are the bishop’s shoes.” The body of John Coleridge Patteson was buried at sea. Atkin wrote:

“It would only be selfish to wish him back. He has gone to his rest, dying as he lived, in his Master’s service. It seems a shocking way to die; but I can say from experience that it is far more to hear of than to suffer. In whatever way so peaceful a `life as his is ended, his end is peace. There was no sign of fear or pain on his face-just the look he used to have when asleep, patient and a little wearied. What a stroke his death will  be to hundreds! What the mission will do without him, God only knows Who has taken him away. His ways are not our ways.”[9]

Patteson’s followers we are told by Yonge “had deeply to drink of the cup of agony” Atkin was to die on the 27th from tetanus “his whole nervous system being jerked and strained to pieces” and his last words “I want nothing but to die.” Stephen lingered on in agony with an arrow wound in his lung, dying from tetanus on 29th of September. Bishop Patteson was 44 years of age, Atkin was 29, and Stephen about 25.

It was the news of the martyrdom of Bishop Patteson which stirred the British Government into passing laws to control the labour trade for the Queensland and Fijian plantations in the South Pacific.[10] Professor Max Muller predicted in a letter to The Times in 1872: “In the distant future, depend upon it, the name of Patteson will live in every cottage, in every school and Church of Melanesia, not as the name of a fabulous saint or martyr, but as the never to be forgotten name of a good, a brave, a God-fearing and God-loving man.”[11] This was not to prove an exaggeration, rather Muller had underestimated the legacy of his friend. Today not only do hundreds of Melanesians name their children after him but also their churches. Thousands attend his feast day and by the people he is remembered as both saint and martyr. The cross in Nukapu which marks the place where he was killed reads “His life was taken by those for whom he would gladly have given it.”

As I re-read the accounts of this story I am struck by two things. Firstly, how prophetic Patteson was to predict the indigenous growth of the church and secondly how closely the shape of this story of these missionaries’ deaths is to be repeated one hundred and fifty years later, this time by a group of indigenous missionary Brothers. Their death will also be an offering: there will be first the death of one and then the still more agonising death of those who risk their lives for him.  There will be sacrificial courage, and a tragic and seemingly futile loss of  innocent lives. It will seem that prayer has failed, and even God abandoned them. Their deaths will also rock the church and the nation, and shock all with the sacrilegious brutality of the murder of men of peace. Their deaths will seem to defeat everything they have strived for- and yet these men will also become catalysts for peace and symbols of hope. “God’s ways are not our ways” Is it simply the way we tell the story that gives it meaning and creates its shape? Or can we see something more? That here are the marks of the incarnation, and that the shape is the shape of the Gospel -Christ, his love, his death and resurrection, revealed in our own lives?

Revd Richard Carter


[1] Sermon of George Augustus Selwyn delivered at University of Cambridge 1854

[2] Charlotte Yonge 1874 Life of John Coleridge Patteson. Vol.2. London. Macmillan. 164-167

[3] Ibid. Vol.1 p.405

[4] Ibid. Vol 1  p.297

[5] The first ordination of a Melanesian was George Sarawia in 1868.

[6] Charles Fox Lord of the Southern Isles p19  The motto for St. John’s College New Zealand

[7] George Sarawia. They Came to My Island (translated and first published in 1968).Melanesian Press

[8] Margaret Cropper Shinning Lights: Six Anglican Saints of the Nineteenth Century, London 1963. p.50-67

[9] Yonge. Life of JCP. Vol 2. p.572

[10] 1872 British Government passed Pacific Island protection Act controlling the unregulated recruitment of labour.

[11] Sir John Gutch.1971 Martyr of the Islands. London: Hodder and Stoughton