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Vengeful Islanders Murdered Patteson and His Team

Patteson anticipated trouble in the Santa Cruz islands and got it.

BORN IN ENGLAND, educated at Eton and Oxford, John Coleridge Patteson became a skilled linguist, and an Anglican missionary to the Pacific islands. At twenty-eight, he learned Maori in New Zealand in order to undertake an enormous work. 

The great missionary-bishop G. A. Selwyn had concluded that the best way to spread the gospel throughout the many islands with their numerous languages was to train young men from each island at a central location and send them back to teach Christianity to their own people. Patteson became responsible for recruiting these young men. This meant he had to tour the islands repeatedly, master the languages (he learned twenty-three Polynesian languages), and run the mission college. 

Patteson worked so hard that he collapsed under the tropical heat. At the age of forty, he already appeared to be an old man. Friends who had seen him in good health were astounded at how weak he was. It took him more than a year to recover, during which he reflected much on his failures: “Alas, you don’t know what a misspent life I looked back upon, never losing hold, God be praised, of the sure belief in his promises of pardon and acceptance in Christ. I certainly saw that a want of sympathy, an indifference to the feelings of others, want of consideration, selfishness, in short, lay at the bottom of very much that I mourned over.” 

When he was able to sail again among the islands, he no longer had the energy of his earlier years. However, he did have the joy of seeing how Christianity had changed the islands where his students had been at work. 

His recruiting efforts were made more dangerous by white sailors called “blackbirders” who seized natives to work on plantations. In one letter home he wrote, “The deportation of natives is going on to a very great extent here as in the New Hebrides and Banks Islands. Means of all kinds are employed: sinking canoes and capturing the natives, enticing men on board, and getting them below, and then securing hatches and imprisoning them. Natives are retaliating.” Some islands had few men left. Patteson and other missionaries pleaded for a thorough reformation of the dreadful system. 

On 16 September 1871, off the Santa Cruz islands, Patteson wrote that he had reason to believe the sailors had committed some outrage there. “I am quite aware that we may be exposed to considerable risk on this account.” He hoped that if any trouble came, Joseph Atkin, a convert from one of the other islands and an only son, would be spared. 

Patteson knew the Santa Cruz islands were tough. Every effort to start a mission work had failed there. He did what he could to lessen the danger of those who were to go ashore, picking as his landing place an island where he was known from a past visit. He had even learned a few phrases of that island’s language. 

On this day, 20 September 1871, he preached a sermon about the death of Stephen (Acts 7), then he and his fellow workers paddled for the shore. His apprehensions were justified. The natives of Nukapu Island clubbed him to death and attached five knots to his body. This has long been believed to mean that he was killed in retaliation for five men recently stolen by white sailors. The natives also shot arrows at the native mission workers. Three were hit. Joseph Atkin and Stephen Taroniara died from their wounds. 

Patteson’s death brought such an outcry that the British navy enforced a ban on the kidnapping of islanders. 

Dan Graves

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Patterson was not the only missionary to perish at hostile hands in Oceania. Here is the account of John Williams's martyrdom from our daily quotes: "Painful intelligence." 

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