Wednesday, 20 January 2016

An Object Label with a Story: Death of a Missionary Bishop

I have been transcribing some of the Museum's old hand-written labels. Each label will be filed as part of the "related documents" for the specific object and the relevant information added to the Museum's object database. The labels have become separated from the objects and do not always include the Museum identity number for the actual object. So a bit of detective work is sometimes required to match the information to the appropriate object.

The tiny neat hand-writing is lovely to look at but the content of the label is usually basic and not particularly interesting. Typically it will only say what the object is, the year the Museum acquired the object, the name of the donor, and where it is from.

Some of the labels I have been transcribing

Recently I came across a remarkable label that included more text than usual and even referred to a brutal death. This is what the label says:

Type of dancing club used in SANTA CRUZ group. Was labelled "Norfolk I. Facsimile of club wh. killed Bp. Patteson". L.M.S. states that he was clubbed & speared at NUKAPU, S. CRUZ group. L.M.S. station is on NORFOLK I. d.d. HEREFORD mus.

L.M.S stands for the London Missionary Society and d.d. for the Latin dono dedit, meaning 'gave as a gift'.

You can see the actual label below, plus the dance club it refers to - which the labels says is similar to the one used to kill Patteson.

Left: Club PRM 1942.1.408, right: the object label © Pitt Rivers Museum

Intrigued, I did some exploring and found out this was not a straightforward story. Bishop John Coleridge Patteson (1827-71) was the first missionary Bishop of Melanesia and was related to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his mother was Coleridge's niece. He went to Balliol College in Oxford from 1845 to 1848 and became a Fellow of Merton College in 1852. He was ordained in 1854 and, in the same year, was recruited by Bishop Welwyn of New Zealand for missionary work in the South Seas. They left for Auckland together the following year.

Patteson was a good linguist, who mastered many local languages, and made many friends among the indigenous people. It was in 1861 he became Bishop of Melanesia where he worked tirelessly for many years in this vast diocese, crossing the seas again and again.

So why did he meet such a violent death, brought about by the very people he had been working for?

It seems there were no witnesses of the actual murder. When he visited Nukapu in the Solomon Islands in September 1871 he went ashore alone. Separated from the others on the ship, who were then attacked, no one knew what had happened to the Bishop. His body was later found in a canoe floating in the sea, covered with palm fibre matting. On his chest was a palm branch.

The most plausible explanation appears to be he was mistaken as a slave-trader. At the time, many men in the area were kidnapped by the 'blackbirders', who used tricks and violence to recruit labourers for the sugar plantations in Queensland and Fiji. In Nukapu five men had allegedly just been taken away by 'blackbirders' when the Bishop and his colleagues arrived. The timing, therefore, seems to have been desperately unfortunate.

An alternative point of view argues that he had unintentionally made enemies of the mothers of the Island by taking their young sons away. Boys going to be educated at his School were away from home for several years. Some have suggested these women might not have clearly understood the difference between the missionaries and the slave-traders.

The death of Bishop Patteson made headline news in England. This caused people to take an interest in both Christian missionary work and human-trafficking in Britain's Pacific territory. Public outrage resulted in stricter enforcement of the law regulating the recruitment of plantation labourers. In addition, there was a call for the improvement of their working conditions.

There is a memorial to Patteson in the chapel at Merton College in Oxford.

Left: the Chapel at Merton College, Oxford; middle and right: details of the memorials inside the Chapel
including the one to Patteson © Fusa McLynn
After researching this story I think there are still a few questions about this incident that remain unanswered. A recent paper by two Norwegian researchers re-examines the circumstances of Bishop Patteson's death and makes some fascinating suggestions. Plus I would love to know more about the connection with Hereford Museum, who donated this object to the Museum.

You can see the dance club on display in the Upper Gallery on the top floor of the Museum in case U30A.

Fusa McLynn
Collections Volunteer

References and Suggested Further Reading:

C.H. Brooke, "The Death of Bishop Patteson", Mission Life: An Illustrated Magazine of Home and Foreign Church Work, ed. Rev. J.J. Holcombe, M.A., Vol. III, Part I (new series), London: W. Wells Gardner (1872), pp. 1-23

Reverend H.N. Drummond, Bishop Patteson Pioneer and Martyr, Parkstone: Ralph and Brown (1930)

T. Kolshus and E. Hovdhaugen, "Reassessing the death of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson", Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 45, Issue 3 (2010), pp. 331-355

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