Martyr Island

They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death

In the work of my Lord and Saviour, I desire to live or die,” wrote John Williams, a missionary of Welsh descent, in 1823. He and his English wife Mary had been serving God in the islands of the South Pacific since 1817, evangelising and teaching the new believers. They continued together in their fruitful missionary work until 20 November 1839. On that date, John Williams, by this time highly acclaimed in missionary circles, visited an unevangelised island called Erromango, * part of the group of islands now called Vanuatu. * He was accompanied by the British Vice-Consul in Samoa and by a young man called James Harris, who felt a call to be a missionary to the Marquesas Islands, elsewhere in the Pacific.

The Erromangans gave their British visitors a friendly welcome, and gifts were exchanged. After a while, James Harris left his two companions on the beach and went inland. Suddenly he came racing back, followed by yelling islanders with clubs and spears. Without hesitation, the Vice-Consul ran and waded out to the rowing boat they had come in. But John Williams waited, apparently trying to identify whether the yells were hostile or not. Then he too began to run towards the sea. But he stumbled and fell in the shallows, which enabled the islanders to catch him and kill him. James Harris was killed in a nearby river. Afterwards the Erromangans ate the two bodies in a sacred religious ceremony.

Erromangan tradition recalls that the white visitors had moved too close to a nevsem (a tower-like structure symbolising peace and stability) that the islanders had built for Chief Natgo. This seemed like a calculated insult to the chief and came soon after white traders had killed a number of islanders. Chief Natgo had therefore summoned his warriors to attack.

Christians from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and from Samoa were grief-stricken at the loss of their beloved “Williamu” who had led them to Christ. They volunteered in their hundreds to take his place and bring the Gospel to Erromango.

An aged Rarotongan, who had been a great warrior, addressed his fellow Rarotongan believers:

Brethren, wipe away your tears. This is my question to you. What about the work? Who will stand where Williamu fell? Who will go and complete the battle which he began?

Brethren, I have been remembering the prayer of Jesus when he hung upon the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’  Now, in conclusion, I look to the missionary and I look to you, and I tell you that the desire of my heart is to be put on board the next ship that comes to our land, to be taken down to that dark land of Eromanga, and to be put on shore in the midst of the heathen who murdered Williamu.

I will tell them what we once were, and what the Word of God has now made us; and, it may be, they will understand what I say: but should I fall by their hands, [at this point he looked towards another church member] if I fall you, my brother, follow me; and if you fall let another come, and in this way the land of Eromanga, and all its people, shall be gained for Jesus, and become as we are this day through the preaching of His Word.”

The ordeals endured by these local missionaries were terrible. Before their conversion they had been warriors and some had been chiefs, but on the hostile mission field of Erromango they patiently suffered hunger, insults and abuse. Some were killed, while others perished of disease or starved to death because the Erromangans would not help them in acquiring food. Nevertheless, as soon as a missionary was withdrawn or died, others instantly volunteered to take their place. It is recorded that around 40 Christians from Samoa and Rarotonga – men, women and children – died in their efforts to bring the Gospel to Erromango.

Canadian missionaries George and Ellen Gordon arrived in Erromango in 1857. They were very concerned by the brutality of the white traders, who were not averse to using guns and cannon in the process of taking Erromango’s valuable sandalwood trees. The traders, part of the colonial expansion of the time, also stole precious food such as yams and pigs.

Rejecting conventional missionary practices of the time, the Gordons did not recruit Christians from other islands to teach and preach on Erromango. Rather than trying to maximise the number of Erromangans who heard the Good News, they focused on nurturing and training a few Erromangans who showed an interest in the Christian message. George translated portions of the Bible into one of the six Erromangan languages.

After four years there was a group of about 40 Christians, three of whom had been baptised. Then the sandalwood traders, changing their weapons from firearms to viruses, deliberately introduced measles to the island. Huge numbers of islanders died as they had no resistance to the new disease. George cared tirelessly for as many of the sick as he could, and only two of his patients did not survive. Unfortunately both were the children of a chief. Believing that George had deliberately killed his children by magic, the chief and a group of warriors killed George and Ellen on 20 May 1861.

The Erromangan Christians buried the Gordons and then fled en masse to another Vanuatu island called Aneityum, which already had a thriving Christian community. Later the same year they returned to Erromango and were still there when George’s younger brother James arrived.

George and Ellen Gordon [Image credit: Pacific Manuscripts Bureau]

James had volunteered promptly to take his martyred brother’s place on Erromango, but completed his theological training and some medical studies before setting sail, so did not reach Erromango until the mid-1860s. By this time the island was so depleted of sandalwood trees that a new trade was replacing it – a trade in men. Erromangans were being taken as indentured labourers, mainly to plantations in Australia, where they were often worked to death. “Blackbirding”, as it was called, was almost a slave trade and was strongly condemned by all the missionaries in Vanuatu, who wrote in protest to the authorities in both Britain and Australia.

The Erromangan Christians welcomed James warmly. As a brilliant linguist who had studied his brother’s Bible translations during the long sea voyage, he was able to preach in one of the Erromangan languages almost as soon as he arrived. He followed his brother’s unorthodox missiology method, pouring his time and energy into a small group of Erromangan Christian young men, hoping that they would become future leaders of the church. These men accompanied James in his extensive travels around the island. By 1870 he had baptised 16 people.

On 7 March 1872 James was on his veranda, translating the book of Acts. He had almost reached the words “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60) when he was attacked and killed.

Most of those James had baptised went on to share the Gospel with their fellow-Erromangans. The young church grew quickly and was able to raise up leaders from its midst.

In 1880 a church building was constructed, named the Martyrs’ Church. Sadly, this name referred only to six Western missionaries who were killed or died of disease in Erromango, not to the 40 Samoan and Rarotongan missionaries who perished similarly but whose names and stories have been lost. Twenty years later around 95% of the people of Erromango identified as Christians.

The Martyrs’ Church, c. 1890 [Image credit: National Library of Scotland]

Erromango was developing a distinctive reputation. Amongst Western Christians it soon became known as “the martyr island”. But some of the Christians from other islands of Vanuatu looked at this differently: they blamed the Erromangans for having killed so many missionaries, suggesting that because of this their island would never thrive.

A culture of reconciliation

The Erromangans were burdened by the knowledge that their ancestors had killed John Williams, the first Christian missionary to their island, as well as later ones. They felt that the blood of the missionaries was crying from the soil of Erromango, like the blood of Abel (Genesis 4:10). But a tradition of reconciliation had been strongly embedded in Erromango’s culture for many generations (as in the culture of other Vanuatu islands). The building of nevsems was one of the ways in which peace was made and kept between rival tribes and villages. Another custom was that, if an innocent life had been taken in a tribal conflict, a female should be given in recompense. The idea was that, through marriage and childbirth, she would restore life to those who had lost a family member.

Adding to this tradition the Christian teaching on forgiveness, it perhaps should not be surprising that eventually a reconciliation ceremony took place in Erromango. It involved 18 descendants of John Williams, from all around the world, and hundreds of Erromangans from across the island, who came, singing and praying, to meet them. The date was 20 November 2009, the 170th anniversary of John Williams’ martyrdom.

The day included a re-enactment of the killings. At another point, dozens of descendants of the killers queued up to apologise individually to the descendants of John Williams. One Erromangan couple symbolically “gave” their seven-year-old daughter, a descendant of Chief Natgo, to the Williams family, in exchange for the loss of John Williams. (She remained in Erromango, and the Williams family undertook to be responsible for her education.)

In 2018 a New Zealand researcher asked various chiefs, pastors and elders in Erromango about the effect of the reconciliation ceremony. They all agreed that people felt released from a heaviness that had weighed on them, and that the people of the other islands could no longer continue to blame them for killing missionaries. Some also noted that the population was growing, churches were working more closely together, a second high school had been built, and other positive developments in the island’s infrastructure and economy, including the restoration of sandalwood forestry.

Reconciliation Ceremony, 20 November 2009 [Image credit: Erromango Cultural Association]

An example to all

What a wonderful example the Erromangans have set for the rest of the world! The missionaries they had killed (thinking them to be a danger) are so few in number compared with the deaths caused by many other nations. The sandalwood traders and blackbirders alone caused far more deaths of Erromangans, while the white colonial powers from which they came harmed and killed so many innocents that the number cannot be computed. Yet today’s generation in those countries, affluent and with a predominantly Christian heritage, does not seem to dare to apologise for what their ancestors did during colonial times.

The Christians of Erromango have shown us a higher and better way. Of course, the current generation of Westerners are not personally responsible for the atrocities of the past, yet what healing and wholeness they could bring if they were to apologise for the actions of their ancestors!

You can read more about these martyrs in Patrick Sookhdeo’s books of daily devotional readings on Christian martyrs, Heroes of Our Faith, Vol. 1. pp. 150, 330-331 and Vol. 2, pp. 215, 347. (Isaac Publishing, Vol. 1, 2012, second edition 2021, ISBN 978-1-9524501-2-9, Vol. 2, 2021, ISBN 978-1-952450-15-0)  To purchase these books please go to barnabasaid.org/resources/books or contact your nearest Barnabas Aid office (addresses on inside front cover) or write to sales@barnabasbooks.org

* Erromango is also called Eromanga. During colonial times Vanuatu was called the New Hebrides.

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