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The Scottish Churches' Work Abroad
The South Sea Islands

WHEN Captain Cook, by his voyages, brought to light the exquisite fairyland of the South Sea Islands, and revealed at the same time the abysmal degradation of its inhabitants, he little imagined that he was giving a powerful impulse to Missions. With amazing ignorance of the Christian spirit he affirmed that the introduction of the Gospel to the South Seas would never be seriously thought of, "as it can neither serve the purpose of public ambition nor private avarice; and, without such inducements, I may pronounce that it will never be undertaken."

This prediction went far astray. Not only did Cook’s narrative feed the missionary zeal of Carey, but very speedily the London Missionary Society took up the challenge of the futility of attempting to evangelise the South Sea islanders. With blundering enthusiasm at first, but afterwards with triumphant success, they carried the Gospel from island to island, and proved to the world that even cannibals could be won for Christ.


John Williams is worthy to be known as the Apostle of the South Seas. He was ordained in London along with Robert Moffat, the latter being sent to South Africa instead of the South Seas, on the suggestion of Dr. Waugh that " thae twa lads are ower young to gang thegither." Returning home after twenty years’ service, Williams visited Scotland, and was commissioned by the United Presbyterian Church to guide them in planting a Mission in the South Seas. Williams selected the New Hebrides group, so named by Captain Cook because the configuration of some of the islands reminded him of the mountains in Skye. On his return to the South Seas, Williams sailed to the New Hebrides and visited in succession the islands of Futuna, Tanna, and Erromanga, at which last he was brutally murdered by the natives, who had shortly before suffered outrage at the hands of passing traders. This was in November 1839.

Nearly a decade elapsed before the fallen standard was effectively raised. The United Presbyterian Church had meantime undertaken its Mission to Calabar, and freely renounced any claim it might have to the New Hebrides. The field was accordingly adopted by the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia, a daughter church of the Secession. It seemed most fitting, in name at least, that New Scotland should evangelise the New Hebrides. The first missionary was Dr. Geddie, a Scotsman born, though brought up in Canada, who landed on Aneityum in 1848. Some time before this the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the small but faithful Church of the Covenanters, had commenced a Mission to the Maories of New Zealand, to which, in 1844, Dr. Inglis was sent out. He found, however, that this Mission was a mistake, as the field was already adequately supplied. After friendly negotiations between the Churches, he was transferred to the New Hebrides, where he joined Dr. Geddie on Aneityum in 1852. These two distinguished men, working together with complete harmony and success, became the founders and foster-fathers of the New Hebrides Mission.

It is impossible to give in detail the story of the Mission, as island after island of the group was taken possession of for Christ, but it is a story which for courage and endurance, for sheer romance and heartrending pathos, is unsurpassed. Each missionary, accompanied in most cases by his heroic wife, was marooned in his little island among cannibals without contact with the outer world for months on end. Erromanga, the scene of Williams’ murder, has fully earned for itself the name of the Martyr Isle. Here George Gordon and his wife were clubbed to death. Here his brother, James Gordon, who had stepped into the breach, was suddenly struck down with the blow of a tomahawk as he sat translating the story of Stephen’s martyrdom. This succession of murders, the natives believed, would quench the Mission, but when the blank was immediately filled by H. A. Robertson and his wife, the heathen party began to despair of their cause. Yet many perilous days and sleepless nights and weary years had first to pass ere victory was won.


The Christian world is familiar with the Autobiography of John G. Paton, perhaps the best known of all the New Hebrides missionaries. He was sent out by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1858, and began his work in the island of Tanna. After a time, however, the attitude of the natives became so threatening that he had to escape for his life, and the subsequent scene of his labours was the tiny island of Aniwa, which he succeeded in Christianising.

Besides the savagery of the natives, these fairy islands abound in perils of another sort. At times they are swept by hurricanes, which lay everything flat with the ground where they strike. Moreover, being of volcanic origin, they are frequently shaken by earthquakes and devastated by tidal waves. Three of the islands are active volcanoes—Tanna, Ambrim, and Lopevi. Tanna flares up in the south continuously like the biggest lighthouse in the world. Ambrim has boiled over time and again, and sent broad streams of lava down to the sea. Sometimes services are conducted under a steady fall of ashes and soot, until preacher and congregation, whatever their original hue, are all reduced to an indistinguishable black. In 1913 the island was shaken to its very foundations, the ocean around was raised to boiling-point, and when the catastrophe passed, the beautiful Mission hospital lay under 70 feet of water.

Add to these calamities the trials which were the missionary’s daily lot—the wasting fever and ague, the terrible loneliness, years of separation from children, graves of loved ones, some of them so pitifully small. One thinks of the stricken father on Erromanga creeping out, under cover of the darkness, to lay his firstborn in a tiny grave beside the martyrs, and creeping home again, hardly daring to hope that the mother’s life would be spared. One thinks of the Mission house on Futuna, where father and mother and four little children all lie apparently at the point of death. Little Connie dies, and her father struggles up to make her coffin and bury her. "Whose house is this, mamma?" asks Madgie. " It belongs to the Free Church," replies her mother. "And whose house will it be if we all die ? " Madgie dies, and when her father, weak and blind with sorrow, is making her coffin, he makes one for little Ruth too, because she seems so near her end, and he feels he will not have strength to make another little coffin to-morrow. And there are people, God help them, who say the missionary has a fine time.

It would take us too far afield to tell of the sufferings and sorrows that have befallen the islands through the sandalwood and kanaka traffic, and through the contamination of the islanders by strong drink and foreign diseases. Recruiting of native labour for Queensland, and later for the French plantations of New Caledonia, was a lucrative trade. "Blackbirding," it was called, and in many cases it simply amounted to kidnapping, with frequent accompaniments of outrage and murder. Many a missionary’s heart was broken as he saw his people remorselessly swept away, to return no more. These are among the causes which have led to serious decrease in the population of the islands—a decrease which the introduction of Christianity has only been able partially to check.

Despite all these trials and difficulties, the work of the Mission has been crowned with remarkable success. The complete triumph of the Gospel in Aneityum is strikingly set forth in the inscription on a memorial tablet to Dr. Geddie, at the back of the pulpit in his old church on the island: "When he landed in 1848 there were no Christians here; when he left in 1872 there were no heathen." Similarly John G. Paton was able to say at the close of his ministry, " I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Saviour’s feet." The saintly personality and work of John G. Paton caught the imagination of the churches in Australia and America, as well as Britain, and his lectures and writings brought many workers into the field. This, together with thc development of a native ministry, has relieved the Home Church of much of the work, so that now the United Free Church has only one ordained missionary in the field in connection with the Training Institution on South Santo. Over twenty of the islands may be regarded as Christianised, and the day seems not so far distant when the native Church may be left to its own development, with perhaps a certain amount of missionary supervision for a season.


No story of the work of Scottish missionaries in the South Seas, however brief, would be complete without some reference to one, perhaps the greatest of all the sons of Scotland who have laboured in these dark regions—James Chalmers of New Guinea, otherwise known as Tamate, his native name. Brought up in the United Presbyterian Church at Inveraray, his interest in the South Seas was awakened in the Sunday school. "I was sitting at the head of the class," he wrote, "and can even now see Mr. Meikie taking from his breast-pocket a copy of the United Presbyterian Record, and hear him say that he was going to read an interesting letter from a missionary in Fiji. The letter was read. It spoke of cannibalism, and of the power of the Gospel, and at the close of the reading, looking over his spectacles, and with wet eyes, he said, ‘I wonder if there is a boy here this afternoon who will yet become a missionary, and by and by bring the Gospel to cannibals ?‘ And the response of my heart was, ‘Yes, God helping me, and I will.’"

Seeking the speediest road to the fulfilment of his desire, he volunteered for service with the London Missionary Society, and was sent to Rarotonga in 1867. After ten years of service there he was sent as a pioneer missionary to New Guinea, where he continued his labours till 1901, when, being on an expedition with a brother missionary and some native helpers, he and his whole party were suddenly murdered and their bodies devoured by cannibals. The influence of Chalmers on the native mind may be judged by the letter of Ruatoka, a faithful helper who had followed him from Rarotonga to New Guinea. Writing after Chalmers’ death, he said : "At this time our hearts are very sad because Tamate and Mr. Tomkins and the boys are not here, and we shall not see them again. . . . Hear my wish. It is a great wish. The remainder of my strength I would spend in the place where Tamate was killed. In that village I would live. In that place where they killed men, Jesus Christ’s name and His word would I teach to the people, that they may become Jesus’ children. My wish is just this. You know it. I have spoken."

Tamate became known in other than missionary circles through his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson, who, meeting him in the South Seas, conceived for him, as his biographer says, "a kind of hero-worship, a greater admiration probably than he felt for any man of modern times except Charles Gordon." He was, indeed, the very sort of man to captivate the imagination of the great novelist. "A big, stout, wildish-looking man," so he describes him, "iron-grey, with big, bold, black eyes, and a deep, straight furrow down each cheek "—in short, a kind of sanctified sea-rover. It was contact with men like Chalmers that completely changed Robert Louis Stevenson’s view of missions. "I had conceived," he writes, "a great prejudice against missions in the South Seas, and had no sooner come here than that prejudice was at first reduced, and then at last annihilated. Those who deblaterate against missions have only one thing to do, to come and see them on the spot. They will see a great deal of good done; they will see a race being forwarded in many different directions, and I believe, if they be honest persons, they will cease to complain of mission work and its effects."

Thus the challenge of the discoverer of the South Sea Islands has been taken up and triumphantly met. And even if the population should dwindle away, and, like the natives of New Zealand, in time become extinct, these Missions will not have been in vain. They will remain an almost unparalleled monument of Christian heroism. They have also given to the world such a proof as could not otherwise be found, of the power of the Gospel to reach the lowest of mankind. If it should ever again be said, as it often has been said, that some races are too degraded to receive the truth of God, then, for answer, the Christian Church can point to Gospel triumphs in the South Seas, and tell the story of how cannibals were won for Christ.

The Slave Trade in the New Hebrides
Edited by the Rev. John Kay, Coatbridge (1872) (pdf)

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