Remembering Patteson – Diocese of Temotu


Patteson's Cross, Nukapu Island
Patteson’s Cross, Nukapu Island

This article is written as a contribution to the 150th Anniversary Celebration of the death of John Coleridge Patteson.

It presents a new Melanesian perspective in a unique and noble missionary bishop, John C. Patteson who was killed on Nukapu Island on 20th September 1871.

Some accounts say that a native of the Island, Teandule was responsible for Patteson’s death. This happened as a consequence of five young men abducted from Nukapu by labor traffickers.

At a meeting convened by the chiefs of Nukapu concerning the stolen young men, Teandule vowed to kill the first white man to turn up on the shores of Nukapu.

It so happened that Bishop Patteson was the first white man to step ashore from the Southern Cross. Teandule could not renege on his vow but took revenge for the sake of justice.

A theory around the Islands in Melanesia that overshadowed the minds and hearts of Melanesians was that Bishop Patteson had been impersonated by a man who recruited the five from Nukapu to work in Fiji Sugar Plantations. The act of impersonating Patteson caused confusion and betrayal of an innocent man.

Bishop Patteson had enjoyed eleven years of Mission excitements of service among Melanesians from 1855 to 1866 but the next four years (1867 – 1871) were years of tough challenges and conflicts in Melanesia.

Bishop Patteson was already aware of the labour traffic which began in 1867 in Melanesia prior to his last missionary journey in 1871. He knew perfectly well that in Melanesia was tension due to such savage practice where ships seized Melanesians and brought them to Fiji and Queensland. During the years of labour traffic, it was difficult to inject a friendly atmosphere among the natives. Bishop Patteson met his death in that critical situation.

The Martyrs' Pulpit, Exeter Cathedral
The Martyrs’ Pulpit, Exeter Cathedral

Bishop John C. Patteson we believe had certainly found a true path to journey to God. He confidently focused on this mission goal in the days of his last episcopal visit to Melanesia. He had willed in himself a strong passion out of love for Melanesia to give up his own life willingly for them.

What Bishop John Coleridge Patteson means to Melanesia?

There could be more to say about Bishop Patteson as a great man, but this article may only dwell on a few things that express how we value him. He is honored for what he has done for lives of people in Melanesia. Today in Melanesia there is a set time for celebration of Patteson’s life, work and death. People of Melanesia have to do this annually because they have looked upon him as their spiritual hero and icon for generations now and in the future. He is an inspiring figure for many people both in Melanesia and the Pacific Islands.

We can tell others and the world that through the glorious life and death of Bishop Patteson, he made “Unknown” Melanesia known to the rest of the world. He made Melanesia of different ethnic groupings and different color become one people in Christ with the people of Maori, Pakeha, New Zealand, Australia, England and the rest of the world. He led Melanesia into a new family of God which we continue to be part of today.

This has driven us to believe that in Christ, Bishop Patteson is our saviour and peace maker. His death with others ended the enforced labour trade by an Act of Parliament passed in England. His death in Christ has reconciled us to God and born in us a new hope in Jesus Christ. He is a gift to us and even to the whole Pacific Islands, and there is nothing we can give back in return to his family and people of England. But we believe that he has been fully rewarded by God our heavenly Father.

How do we Melanesians come to know Bishop John Coleridge Patteson and his ministry?

It took years to come to know more about Bishop John C Patteson and his ministry. To pass information by word of mouth is fearful approach or can be sensitive. So there has never any attempt to pass on by word of mouth the knowledge of Bishop Patteson’s death or ministry. Because according to Melanesian culture such is sacred and secret and does not for Tom, Dick and Harry to know about.

The widespread knowledge about him was delayed and took about eight decades before Melanesians begin to learn of him in more detail. However, the only possible means of widespread knowledge about him was through reports, journals, diaries, letters attributed to Bishop John C Patteson, Southern Cross Logs and other documents.

Through such materials, they were able to learn more of the inspiring attitudes of Bishop Patteson and his vitally important qualities of sharing, smiling, exchange of names and simple gifts, and accepting Melanesians with their good customs and cultures.

He came among Melanesians not only as bishop, but as a helping friend. He came to them in a personal way of interaction with chiefs, young men and women, by speaking and teaching in many different Melanesian languages and touching their hearts through culture and power of the gospel. His gentle presence and friendly manners in smiling and approach to them as learned from readings express a sincere love, patience and true way of service. Also, Bishop John C Patteson made himself equal to Melanesians as he never treated them as inferior to himself.

It is worth mentioning too, that there are lots of establishments dedicated to Bishop Patteson such as chapels or schools in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. There are already a large number of secular and theological institutions that accommodate ordained, lay men and women and youth, drawn not only from Anglican members but from other church members and islands within at least the four large nations of the Pacific.

The purpose of these mission development activities and programmes is to empower and build up better citizens for our countries and God’s Kingdom.  Our young people are being empowered in the values they have for their own lives, family, community and nations.

From these development activities, the physical, social, spiritual, political, economic and leadership components of the Melanesians countries are supported. It gives a sense of pride as evidenced today that in the different institutions we have produced great men and women leaders to suit all walks of life, such as priests, bishops, catechists, scholars, lawyers, doctors, politicians, governor generals, prime ministers, captains, engineers, carpenters, brothers, sisters etc.

At the moment, a major Anglican Church of Melanesia development project is the “John Coleridge Patteson University” that should be established on an already identified land on Guadalcanal Island.

John Coleridge Patteson University

In Temotu, where Bishop John Coleridge Patteson was martyred, there were already schools, colleges and churches named after the Bishop. Luesalemba, the only college in Temotu is now renamed, John Coleridge Patteson College. A chapel in Luesalo Rural Training Centre was also named after Bishop Patteson. And on the site where Bishop Patteson was martyred will be built a chapel dedicated to him.  This is one of the major projects that the Anglican Church of Melanesia is currently implementing in the Diocese of Temotu.

But yet another particular compelling image is the reality of the concept of the seed of the martyrdom of Bishop John C Patteson.

Some historians have criticised the early policy of conducting missionary activity from the remoteness of Norfolk Island. But we rather take and hold a different view and believe that the small seed of shedding blood and death on Nukapu Island has grown and expanded and has become a large tree, which is now the Church of Melanesia today. That dreadful death is not an incident of regret or curse but rather a demonstration of God’s grace and righteous mercy.

A priest in the Diocese of Temotu