John Coleridge Patteson Reaches Melanesia

This is the date that … John Coleridge Patteson was speared to death, in 1871.

He was born in London on 1 April, 1827, to devout upper-class parents, his father being a lawyer of good repute. Educated at Eton, he was elected captain of the College cricket team. Because it was the custom to sing ‘bawdy songs’ at the Eton Eleven’s annual dinner he resigned in protest. The team saw that he was right, asked him to remain as captain, and forsook their foolish and evil practice.

Eventually he was ordained to the Church of England ministry (14 September, 1853), and turned his eyes to the need of missionaries in the South Seas. He formed a strong friendship with Bishop Selwyn, Bishop to New Zealand, and learned from him the challenges taking the gospel to Melanesia. The multiplicity of languages was a major hurdle. Selwyn came up with the plan of taking youths to Auckland to be trained and then returned to their own islands.

When Patteson was asked to help he gladly did so and in 1855 he sailed for New Zealand with Bishop Selwyn. From Auckland the missionaries used a newly built schooner, the Southern Cross.

On May 1, 1856 the Southern Cross set sail for Melanesia. The trip took them to 66 islands, including 81 landings, and enabled them to collect a handful of young men to train back in New Zealand.

He writes to his father concerning a school he established: “I have the jolliest little fellows – about seven of them – fellows scarcely too big to take on my knee and talk to about God and Heaven and Jesus Christ…” Not all the boys survived the relocation to Auckland and the colder weather they were exposed to.

Visits to the Melanesian islands were made difficult by past violence from white men, including the Spaniards in the 1500’s. The islands were also troubled by the current practice of gathering slaves for the cane fields of Fiji and Queensland. Cannibalism was practiced on some islands as well.

In 1861 he was consecrated as the first Bishop of Melanesia. The French settlements promoted the Catholic faith and brought some opposition to the Protestant work of Patteson and his associates.

It was on a visit to the lonely island of Nukapu in the New Hebrides that his martyrdom took place a decade later. Hostile natives killed him – “in revenge for five natives who had recently died at the hands of white men…” traders who had no interest in the things of God. Apparently a ship had arrived at the island painted to resemble Patteson’s schooner, the Southern Cross. The deceivers kidnapped men and killed scores of others. Patteson had five wounds in his chest and his head had been dreadfully battered, but his face still retained its customary placid smile.

Bishop Patteson died at the age of 44.

Patteson’s death was used to urge the Queen to stop the illegal slave trade, referred to as “Blackbirding”. Britains were forbidden to enslave men, but they took them by force, supposedly as employees. The Pacific Islanders Protection Act of 1872 resulted.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

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