The Bishop and the Business of Slavery

The Bishop and the Business of Slavery

In 1863, 30 years after parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire and at the height of the American civil war to end slavery, the first shipload of kidnapped South Sea Islanders was herded onto the dockside at Brisbane by ‘blackbirders’ to open a sad new era of forced labour that is largely glossed over in our history books.

THERE IS NO KNOWN GRAVE for Bishop John Coleridge Patteson.  He was clubbed to death by natives on the island of Nukapu in the Solomon Islands on 20th September, 1871 and after his palm-wrapped body was found later, floating in a canoe, he was buried at sea.

He had left his home in Feniton, Devon as a young priest and spent the rest of his life as a missionary, fighting the slave trade in the South Seas, which was plagued by ruthless gangs, who practised so-called ‘blackbirding’, kidnapping natives and selling them in Queensland, Australia and Fiji, to work on sugar and pineapple plantations.

Patteson’s first church, at Alfington, near Ottery St. Mary

Patteson’s first church, at
Alfington, near Ottery St. Mary

Patteson has two monuments.  One is made of brick and stone and stands at the cross roads between Feniton and Ottery St.  Mary on the old Honiton to Exeter road.  The other is that his name and memory are celebrated in Anglican churches for his saintly life and as a martyr: he is commemorated with a Lesser Festival on 20 September.

John Coleridge Patteson was born in 1827 and grew up in Feniton.  He was the elder son of Sir John Patteson and Frances Duke Coleridge.  a niece of the poet and was known to family and friends alike as “Coley”.

After three years at the King’s School, Ottery St. Mary, he was sent first to Eton and then to Balliol College, Oxford.  A gifted linguist (he would eventually become fluent in 23 native tongues in Melanesia) he toured Europe before returning to Oxford in 1852, where he became a fellow of Merton College.   

He returned to his beloved Devon in September 1853 where he was ordained as a deacon and curate of the little church of St.  James and St. Anne at Alfington and a year later was ordained a priest at Exeter Cathedral by The Rt Hon Rev Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter and a man who, until the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, had profited from the employment of 655 slaves in Jamaica.  But that, as they say, is another story.

Image courtesy Queensland Photo Archive

Image courtesy Queensland Photo Archive

Patteson was 27 and was already looking beyond Devon to what would become his life’s work.  By the following March the young priest found himself on board a ship bound for Auckland, New Zealand and would never see England again.

He had been recruited to become a missionary in the South Seas by George Selwyn, himself the first Bishop of New Zealand and for five years Patteson toured the islands on the good ship Southern Cross, learning the many languages spoken by the islanders, running the Melanesian Mission in Auckland and founding a college for boys on Norfolk Island.

These were dark days in the islands which were plagued by ‘blackbirders’ who kidnapped men, women and children and sold them into slavery (a healthy male could fetch £4 in 1863) especially to Fiji and Queensland where there were vast pineapple plantations.

He was consecrated as the first Bishop of Melanesia in 1861 but with a diocese nearly 1,800 miles across he spent much of his day-to-day work of making first contact with islanders by determining to look as little like an Anglican bishop as he could.

Top HatWhen he reached a new island he would go barefoot, stripping down to shirt and trousers, rolled up to the knee.  Then he would lower himself gently over the side of the ship’s boat which then waited offshore whilst he swam to the beach wearing his bishop’s top hat: a top hat filled with small presents for the people.

He had what was described by his cousin and biographer, the novelist Charlotte Mary Yonge, as having a grave and gentle face, a ready smile and a good memory for names and faces which he could employ on subsequent visits.  He wrote grammars and vocabularies and translated the gospels into the Mota language.

Usually Patteson’s gentle, quiet manner reassured the indigenous peoples, but not always.  Once when he and his assistants were about to leave Santa Cruz, they were attacked.  Despite Patteson’s care for them, both of his companions died from the wounds they received from  poisoned arrows.

In 1867 the Melanesian Mission moved to Norfolk Island where in the milder climate the school could not only continue in the winter months but native foods such as yams could be grown.  Dynamic and practical, he taught the Mission to speak English, play cricket and tend livestock.

But the visits to the island were becoming yearly more dangerous.  In 1869 he wrote: “vessels which have been taking away S.  Sea islanders for the Fiji & Queensland labour market have acted in a very sad miserable way…  often with treachery and violence.  The effect is…  to embitter the islanders against any white man whom they do not as yet know well to be their friend”.

When his own end came it came out of a clear blue sky, on the island of Nukapu.  The log of the Southern Cross showed that they were in nine fathoms of water beyond the reef, it was 91 degrees and 11.30 on the morning of 20th September, 1871, the equatorial midsummer eve.  This is how his scholar, Edward Wogale, reported events.

“The ship’s boat took him to some waiting canoes.  There was a delay of about twenty minutes; and then two canoes went with the one containing the Bishop, the two chiefs, Moto and Taula, who had before been so friendly to him, being in them.  The tide was so low that it was necessary to wade over the reef, and drag the canoes across to the deeper lagoon within.  The boat’s crew could not follow; but they could see the Bishop land on the beach, and there lost sight of him”.

Patteson’s memorial at Merton College depicts his body in the canoe in which he was found

Patteson’s memorial at Merton College depicts his body in the canoe in which he was found

“The boat had been about half-an-hour drifting about in company with the canoes, and there had been some attempt at talk, when suddenly, at about ten yards off, without any warning, a man stood up in one of them, and calling out, ‘Have you anything like this?’ Shot off one of the yard-long arrows, and his companions in the other two canoes began shooting as quickly as possible, calling out, as they aimed, ‘This for New Zealand man! This for Bauro man! This for Mota man!’”

The boat was pulled back rapidly, and was soon out of range, but not before three out of the four had been struck; James only escaped by throwing himself back on the seat, while an arrow had nailed John’s cap to his head, Mr.  Atkin had one in his left shoulder, and poor Stephen lay in the bottom of the boat, with six arrows in the chest and shoulders”.

The Southern Cross outside the reef at Manu, Solomons

The Southern Cross outside the reef at Manu, Solomons

(The rescue party from the ship) “had long to wait till the tide was high enough to carry them across the reef, and they could see people on shore, at whom they gazed anxiously with a glass.  About half-past four it became possible to cross the reef, and then two canoes rowed towards them: one cast off the other and went back; the other, with a heap in the middle, drifted towards them, and they rowed towards it”.

“As they came up with it, and lifted the bundle wrapped in matting into the boat.  The boat came alongside, and two words passed, ‘The body!’ Then it was lifted up, and laid across the skylight, rolled in the native mat, which was secured at the head and feet.  The placid smile was still on the face; there was a palm leaf fastened over the breast (in which were five knots tied – the number of the slain, as they supposed, or possibly of those whom his death was meant to avenge) and when the mat was opened there were five wounds, no more”.  (There then followed a description of the wounds which revealed that death was probably instantaneous)”.

Charlotte Yonge surmised: “All this is an almost certain indication that his death was the vengeance for five of the natives.  ‘Blood for blood’ is a sacred law, almost of nature, wherever Christianity has not prevailed, and a whole tribe is held responsible for the crime of one.  Five men in Fiji are known to have been stolen from Nukapu; and probably their families believed them to have been killed, and believed themselves to be performing a sacred duty when they dipped their weapons in the blood of the Bishop whom they did not know well enough to understand that he was their protector”.

Patteson's Cross

Patteson’s Cross

The next morning, St.  Matthew’s Day, the body of John Coleridge Patteson was committed to the waters of the Pacific.  He was 44 years old.

Yonge concludes: “There is pain too in telling the further fate of Nukapu.  H.M.S.  Rosario, (an 11-gun screw sloop sent to the Australia station to bring an end to ‘blackbirding’) Commander Markham, touched at Norfolk Island, and Captain Markham undertook at once to go to the island and make enquiries”.

“A protest was drawn up and signed by all the members of the Mission against any attempt to punish the natives for the murder; and Captain Markham, a kind, humane, and conscientious man, as no one can doubt, promised that nothing of the kind should be attempted”.

“But the natives could not but expect retaliation for what they had done.  There was no interpreter.  They knew nothing of flags of truce; and when they saw a boat approaching, full of white men, armed, what could they apprehend but vengeance for ‘Bisope’?”

“So they discharged a volley of arrows, and a sergeant of marines was killed.  This was an attack on the British flag, and it was severely chastised with British firearms.  It is very much to be doubted whether Nukapu will ever understand that her natives were shot, not for killing the Bishop, but for firing on the British flag.”

John Fisher

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Writer, author, script and sketch-writer, cartoonist, public speaker, Visitor Engagement Volunteer (National Trust) and would-be ukelele virtuoso.