Biography of John Coleridge Patteson

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Bishop Patteson
Bishop Patteson

Missionary. New Zealand, discovered by Captain Cook in 1769, lay derelict for half a century, and like others of our Colonies it came very near to passing under the rule of France. From this it was saved in 1840 by the foresight and energy of Gibbon Wakefield, who forced the hand of our reluctant Government; and its steady progress was secured by the sagacity of Sir George Grey, one of our greatest empire-builders in Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. Thanks to them and to others, there has arisen in the Southern Pacific a state which, more than any other, seems to resemble the mother country with its sea-girt islands, its temperate climate, its mountains and its plains. A population almost entirely British, living in these conditions, might be expected to repeat the history of their ancestors. In politics and social questions its sons show the same independence of spirit and even greater enterprise.

The names of two other men deserve recognition here for the part they played in the history of these islands. In 1814, before they became a British possession, Samuel Marsden came from Australia to carry the Gospel to their inhabitants, and formed settlements in the Northern districts, in days when the lives of settlers were in constant peril from the Maoris. But nothing could daunt his courage; and whenever they came into personal contact with him, these childlike savages felt his power and responded to his influence, and he was able to lay a good foundation. In 1841 the English Church sent out George Augustus Selwyn as first Missionary Bishop of New Zealand, giving him a wide province and no less wide discretion. He was the pioneer who, from his base in New Zealand, was to spread Christian and British influences even farther afield in the vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean.

Selwyn was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, and these famous foundations have never sent forth a man better fitted to render services to his country. In a small sphere, as curate of Windsor, he had already, by his energy, patience, and practical sagacity, achieved remarkable results; and it was providential that, in the strength of early manhood, he was selected for a responsible post, which afforded scope for the exercise of his powers. In the old country he might have been hampered by routine and tradition; in a new land he could mark out his own path. The constitution of the New Zealand Church became a model for other dioceses and other lands, and his wisdom has stood the test of time.

What sort of man he was can best be shown by quoting a story from his biography. When the Maori War broke out he joined the troops as chaplain and shared their perils in the field. Against the enterprising native fighters these were not slight, especially as the British troops were few and badly led. He was traveling without escort over routes infested by Maoris, refusing to have any special care taken of his own person, and his chief security lay in rapid motion. Yet twice he dismounted on the way, at peril of his life, once under an impulse of humanity, once from sheer public spirit. The first time it was to pull into the shade a drunken soldier asleep on duty and in danger of sunstroke; the second to fill up the ruts in a sandy road, where it seemed possible that the transport wagons, which were following, might be upset. Many other incidents could be quoted which show his unconventional ways and his habitual disregard for his own comfort, dignity, or safety. In New Zealand he found plenty of people to appreciate these qualities in a bishop.

Though Selwyn was the master and perhaps the greater man, yet a peculiar fame has attached to his disciple John Coleridge Patteson, owing to the sweetness of his disposition, the singleness of his aim, and the consummation of his work by a martyr’s death. Born in London in 1827, he was more truly a son of Devon, to which he was attached by many links. His mother’s brother, Justice Coleridge, and many other relatives, lived close round the old town of Ottery St. Mary; and his father, an able lawyer who was raised to the Bench in 1830, bought an estate at Feniton and came to live in the same district before the boy was fifteen years old. It was at Ottery, where the name of Coleridge was so familiar, that the earliest school-days of ‘Coley’ Patteson were passed; but before he was eleven years old he was sent to the boarding-house of another Coleridge, his uncle, who was a master at Eton. Here he spent seven happy years working in rather desultory fashion, so that he had his share of success and failure. His chief distinctions were won at cricket, where he rose to be captain of the XI; but with all whose good opinion was worth having he won favour by his cheerful, frank, independent spirit. If he was idle at one time, at another he could develop plenty of energy; if he was one of the most popular boys in the school, he was not afraid to risk his popularity by protesting strongly against moral laxity or abuses which others tolerated. It is well to remember this, which is attested by his school-fellows, when reading his letters, in which at times he blames himself for caring too much for the good opinion of others.

His interest in the distant seas where he was to win fame was first aroused in 1841. Bishop Selwyn was a friend of his family, and coming to say good-bye to the Pattesons before sailing for New Zealand, he said, half sportively, to the boy’s mother, ‘Will you give me “Coley”?’ This idea was not pursued at the time; but the name of Selwyn was kept before him in his school days, as the Bishop had left many friends at Eton and Windsor, and Edward Coleridge employed his nephew to copy out Selwyn’s letters from his diocese in order to enlist the sympathy of a wider audience. But this connexion dropped out of sight for many years and seems to have had little influence on Patteson’s life at Oxford, where he spent four years at Balliol. He went up in 1845 as a commoner, and this fact caused him some disquietude. He felt that he ought to have won a scholarship, and, conscious of his failure, he took to more steady reading. He was also practicing self-discipline, giving up his cricket to secure more hours for study. He did not scorn the game. He was as fond as ever of Eton, and of his school memories. But his life was shaping in another direction, and the new interests, deepening in strength, inevitably crowded out the old.

After taking his degree he made a tour of the great cities of Italy and wrote enthusiastically of the famous pictures in her galleries. He also paid more than one visit to Germany, and when he had gained a fair knowledge of the German language, he went on to the more difficult task of learning Hebrew and Arabic. This pursuit was due partly to his growing interest in Biblical study, partly to the delight he took in his own linguistic powers. He had an ear of great delicacy; he caught up sounds as by instinct; and his retentive memory fixed the impression. Later he applied the reasoning of the philologist, classified and tabulated his results, and thus was able, when drawn into fields unexplored by science, to do original work and to produce results of great value to other students. But he was not the man to make a display of his power; in fact he apologizes, when writing to his father from Dresden, for making a secret of his pursuit, regarding it rather as a matter of self-indulgence, which needed excuse. Bishop Selwyn could have told him that he need have no such fears, and that in developing his linguistic gifts he was going exactly the right way to fit himself for service in Melanesia.

Patteson’s appointment to a fellowship at Merton College, which involved residence in Oxford for a year, brought no great change into his life. Rather he used what leisure he had for strengthening his knowledge of the subjects which seemed to him to matter, especially the interpretation of the Bible. He returned to Greek and Latin, which he had neglected at school, and found a new interest in them. History and geography filled up what time he could spare from his chief studies. Resuming his cricket for a while, he mixed in the life of the undergraduates and made friends among them. At College meetings, for all his innate conservatism, he found himself on the side of the reformers in questions affecting the University; but he had not time to make his influence felt. At the end of the year he was ordained and took a curacy at Alphington, a hamlet between Feniton and Ottery. His mother had died in 1842, and his object was to be near his father, who was growing infirm and found his chief pleasure in ‘Coley’s’ presence and talk. His interest in foreign missions was alive again, but at this time his first duty seemed to be to his family; and in a parish endeared to him by old associations he quickly won the affection of his flock. He was happy in the work and his parishioners hoped to keep him for many years; but this was not to be. In 1854 Bishop Selwyn and his wife were in England pleading for support for their Church, and their visit to Feniton brought matters to a crisis. Patteson was thrilled at the idea of seeing his hero again, and he at once seized the opportunity for serving under him. There was no need for the Bishop to urge him; rather he had to assure himself that he could fairly accept the offer. To the young man there was no thought of sacrifice; that fell to the father’s lot, and he bore it nobly. His first words to the Bishop were, ‘I can’t let him go’; but a moment later he repented and cried, ‘God forbid that I should stop him’; and at parting he faced the consequences unflinchingly. ‘Mind!’ he said, ‘I give him wholly, not with any thought of seeing him again.’

In the following March, the young curate, leaving his home and his parish where he was almost idolized, where he was never to be seen again, set his face towards the South Seas. Once the offer had been made and accepted, he felt no more excitement. It was not the spiritual exaltation of a moment, but a deliberate applying of the lessons which he had been learning year by year. He had put his hand to the plough and would not look back.

The first things, which he set himself to learn, on board ship, were the Maori language and the art of navigation. The first he studied with a native teacher, the second he learnt from the Bishop, and he proved an apt pupil in both. In a few months he became qualified to act as master of the Mission ship, and the speaking of a new language was to him only a matter of weeks. His earliest letters show how quickly he came to understand the natives. He was ready to meet any and every demand made upon him, and to fulfill duties as different from one another as those of teacher, skipper, and storekeeper. His headquarters, during his early months in New Zealand, were either on board ship or else at St. John’s College, five miles from Auckland. But, before he had completed a year, he was called to accompany the Bishop on his tour to the Islands and to make acquaintance with the scene of his future labors.

Bishop Selwyn had wisely limited his mission to those islands, which the Gospel had not reached. The counsels of St. Paul and his own sagacity warned him against exposing his Church to the danger of jealous rivalry. So long as Christ was preached in an island or group of islands, he was content; he would leave them to the ministry of those who were first in the field. Many of the Polynesian groups had been visited by French and English missionaries and stations had been established in Samoa, Tahiti, and elsewhere; but north of New Zealand there was a large tract of the Pacific, including the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands, where the natives had never heard the Gospel message. These groups were known collectively as Melanesia, a name hardly justified by facts, as the inhabitants were by no means uniform in color. If the Solomon Islanders had almost black skins, those who lived in the Banks Islands, which Patteson came to know so well, were of a warm brown hue such as may be seen in India or even in the south of Europe. Writing in the very last month of his life, Patteson tells his sisters how the color of the people in Mota ‘is just what Titian and the Venetian painters delighted in, the color of their own weather-beaten boatmen’.

Selwyn had visited these islands intermittently since 1849, and had thought out a plan for spreading Christianity among them. With only a small staff of helpers and many other demands on his time, he could not hope to get into direct contact with a large population, so widely scattered. His work must be done through natives selected by himself, and these must be trained while they were young and open to impressions, while their character was still in the making. So every year he brought back with him from his cruise a certain number of Melanesian boys to spend the warmer months of the New Zealand year under the charge of the missionaries, and restored them to their homes at the beginning of the next cruise. At Auckland, with its soldiers, sailors, and merchants, the boys became familiar with other sides of European life beyond the walls of the Mission School; and their interest was stimulated by a close view of the strength to be drawn from European civilization. By this system Selwyn hoped that they on their return would spread among the islanders a certain knowledge of European ways, and that their relatives, seeing how the boys had been kindly treated, would feel confidence in the missionaries and would give them a hearing. This policy commended itself to Patteson by its practical efficacy; and though he modified it in details, he remained all his life a convinced adherent of the principle. Slow progress through a few pupils, selected when young, and carefully taught, was worth more than mere numbers, though too often in Missionary reports success is gauged by figures and statistics.

These cruises furnished the adventurous part of the life. Readers of Stevenson and Conrad can picture to themselves today the color, the mystery, and the magic of the South Seas. Patteson, with his reserved nature and his dread of seeming to throw a false glamour over his practical duties, wrote but sparingly of such sights; but he was by no means insensitive to natural beauty and his letters give glimpses of coral reefs and lagoons, of palms and coco-nut trees, of creepers 100 feet long trailing over lofty crags to the clear water below.

He enjoyed being on board ship, with his books at hand and some leisure to read them, with the Bishop at his side to counsel him, and generally some of his pupils to need his help. They had many delightful days when they received friendly greeting on the islands and found that they were making real progress among the natives. But the elements of discomfort, disappointment, and danger were rarely absent for long. For a large part of each voyage they had some forty or fifty Melanesian boys on board, on their way to school or returning to their homes. The schooner built for the purpose was as airy and convenient as it could be made; yet there was little space for privacy. The natives were constitutionally weak; and when illness broke out, no trained nurses were at hand and Patteson would give up his own quarters to the sick and spend hours at their bedsides. Sometimes they found, on revisiting an island, that their old scholars had fallen away and that they had to begin again from the start. Sometimes they had to abstain from landing at all, because the behavior of the natives was menacing, or because news had reached the Mission of some recent quarrel which had roused bitter feeling. The traditions of the Melanesians inclined them to go on the war-path only too readily, and both Selwyn and Patteson had an instinctive perception of the native temperament and its danger.

However lightly Patteson might treat these perils in his letters home, there was never complete security. To reassure his sisters he tells them of 81 landings and only two arrows fired at them in one cruise; and yet one poisoned arrow might be the cause of death accompanied by indescribable agony. Even when a landing had been affected and friendly trading and talk had given confidence to the visitors, it might be that an arrow was discharged at them by some irresponsible native as they made for their boats.

These voyages needed unconventional qualities in the missioner; few of the subscribers in quiet English parishes had an idea how the Melanesian islanders made their first acquaintance with their Bishop. When the boat came near the shore, the Bishop, arrayed in some of his oldest clothes, would jump into the sea and swim to land, sometimes being roughly handled by the breakers, which guarded the coral bank. It was desirable not to expose their precious boat to the cupidity of the natives or to the risk of it being dashed to pieces in the surf, so the Bishop risked his own person instead. He would then with all possible coolness walk into a gathering of savages, catch up any familiar words which seemed to occur in the new dialect, or, failing any linguistic help, try to convey his peaceful intentions by gesture or facial expression. When an island had been visited before, there was less reason to be on guard; but sometimes the Bishop had to break to relatives the sad news that one of the boys committed to his care had fallen a victim to the more rigorous climate of New Zealand or to one of the diseases to which these tribes were so liable. Then it was only the personal ascendancy won by previous visits that could secure him against a violent impulse to revenge.

All practical measures were tried to establish friendly relations with the islanders; and when people at home might fancy the Bishop preaching impressively to a decorous circle of listeners, he was really engaged in lively talk and barter, receiving yams and other articles of food in return for the produce of Birmingham and Sheffield, axe-heads which he presented to the old, and fish-hooks with which he won the favour of the young. But such brief visits as could be made at a score of islands in a busy tour did not carry matters far, and the memory of a visit would be growing dim before another chance came of renewing intercourse with the same tribe. Selwyn felt it was most desirable that he should have sufficient staff to leave a missionary here and there to spend unbroken winter months in a single station, where he could reach more of the people and exercise a more continuous influence upon them. Patteson’s first experience of this was in 1858, when he spent three months at Lifu in the Loyalty Islands, a group which was later to be annexed by the French.

A sojourn which was to bear more permanent fruit was that which he made at Mota in 1860. This was one of the Banks Islands lying north of the New Hebrides, in 14° South Latitude. The inhabitants of this group showed unusual capacity for learning from the missionaries, and sufficient stability of character to promise lasting success for the work carried on among them. Mota, owing to the line of cliffs, which formed its coast, was a difficult place for landing; so it escaped the visits of white traders who could not emulate the swimming feats of Selwyn and Patteson, and was free from many of the troubles, which such visitors brought with them. Once the island was reached, it proved to be one of the most attractive, with rich soil, plenty of water, and a kindly docile population. Here, on a site duly purchased for the mission, under the shade of a gigantic banyan tree, on a slope where bread-fruit and coco-nuts (and, later, pine-apples and other importations) flourished, the first habitation was built, with a boarded floor, walls of bamboo canes, and a roof of coco-nut leaves woven together after the native fashion so as to be waterproof. Here, in the next ten years, Patteson was to spend many happy weeks, taking school, reading and writing when the curiosity of the natives left him any peace, but in general patiently conversing with all and sundry who came up, with the twofold object of gathering knowledge of their dialect and making friends with individuals. While he showed instinctive tact in knowing how far it was wise to go in opposing the native way of life, he was willing to face risks whenever real progress could be made. After he had been some days in Mota a special initiation in a degrading rite was held outside the village. Patteson exercised all his influence to prevent one of his converts from being drawn in; and when an old man came up and terrorized his pupils by planting a symbolic tree outside the Mission hut, Patteson argued with him at length and persuaded him to withdraw his threatening symbol. But apart from idolatry, from internecine warfare, and from such horrors as cannibalism, prevalent in many islands, he was studious not to attack old traditions. He wanted a good Melanesian standard of conduct, not a feeble imitation of European culture. He was prepared to build upon the foundation which time had already prepared and not to invert the order of nature.

In writing home of his life in the island Patteson regularly depreciates his own hardships, saying how unworthy he feels himself to be ranked with the pioneers in African work. But the discomforts must often have been considerable to a man naturally fastidious and brought up as he had been.

Food was most monotonous. Meat was out of the question except where the missioners themselves imported livestock and kept a farm of their own; variety of fruit depended also on their own exertions. The staple diet was the yam, a tuber reaching at times in good soil a weight far in excess of the potato. This was supplied readily by the natives in return for European goods, and could be cooked in different ways; but after many weeks’ sojourn it was apt to pall. Also the climate was relaxing, and apt sooner or later to tell injuriously on Europeans working there. Dirt, disease, and danger can be faced cheerfully when a man is in good health himself; but a solitary European suffering from ill health in such conditions is indeed put to an heroic test. Perhaps the greatest discomfort of all was the perpetual living in public. The natives became so fond of Patteson that they flocked round him at all times. His reading was interrupted by a stream of questions; when writing he would find boys standing close to his elbow, following his every movement with attention. The mere writing of letters seems to have been a relief to him, though they could not be answered for so long. His journal, into which he poured freely all his hopes and fears, all his daily anxieties over the Mission, was destined for his family. But he had other correspondents to whom he wrote more or less regularly, especially at Eton and Winchester. At Eton his uncle was one of his most ardent supporters and much of the money which supported the Mission funds came to Patteson through the Eton Association. Near Winchester was living his cousin Charlotte Yonge, the well-known authoress, who afterwards wrote his Life, and through her he established friendly communications with Keble at Hursley and Bishop Moberly, then Head Master of Winchester College. To them he could write sympathetically of Church questions at home, in which he maintained his interest.

During the summer months also, spent near Auckland, Patteson suffered from the want of privacy. At Kohimarana, a small bay facing the entrance to the harbor, to which the school was moved in 1859, he had a tiny room of his own, ten feet square; but the door stood open all day long in fine weather, and he was seldom alone. And when there was sickness among the boys, his own bedroom was sure to be given up to an invalid. But these demands upon his time and comfort he never grudged, while he talks with vexation, and even with asperity, of the people from the town who came out to pay calls and to satisfy their curiosity with a sight of his school. His real friends were few and were partners in his work. The two chief among them were unquestionably Bishop Selwyn, too rarely seen owing to the many claims upon him, and Sir Richard Martin, who had been Chief Justice of the Colony. The latter shared Patteson’s taste for philology, and had a wide knowledge of Melanesian dialects.

By the middle of 1860, when Patteson had been five years at work, he became aware that the question of his consecration could not be long delayed. New Zealand was taxing the Primate’s strength and he wished to constitute Melanesia a separate diocese. He believed that in Patteson, with his single-minded zeal and special gifts, he had found the ideal man for the post, and in February 1861 the consecration took place. The three bishops who laid hands upon him were, like the Bishop-elect, Etonians; and thus Eton has played a very special part in founding the Melanesian Church. What Patteson thought and felt on this solemn occasion may be seen from the letters, which he wrote to his father. The old judge, still living with his daughters at Feniton, had been stricken with a fatal disease, and in the last months of his life he rejoiced to know that his son was counted worthy of his high calling. He died in June 1861 and the news reached his son when cruising at sea a few months later. They had kept up a close correspondence all these years, which he now continued with his sisters; nothing shows better his simple affectionate nature. They are filled mostly with details of his mission life. It was this of which his sisters wanted to hear, and it was this, which filled almost entirely his thoughts: though he loved his family and his home, he had put aside all idea of a voyage to England as incompatible with the call to work. To the Mission he gave his time, his strength, his money. Eton supplied him with regular subscriptions, Australia responded to appeals, which he made in person and which furnished the only occasions of his leaving the diocese; but, without his devotion of the income coming from his Merton fellowship and from his family inheritance, it would have been impossible for him to carry on the work in the islands.

In his letters written just about the time of his consecration there are abundant references to the qualities, which he desired to see in Englishmen who should offer to serve with him. He did not want young men carried away by violent excitement for the moment, eager to make what they called the sacrifice of their lives. The conventional phrases about ‘sacrifices’ he disliked as much as he did the sensational appeals to which the public had been habituated in missionary meetings. He asked for men of common sense, men who would take trouble over learning languages, men cheerful and healthy in their outlook, ‘gentlemen’ who could rise above distinctions of class and color and treat Melanesians as they treated their own friends. Above all, he wanted men who would whole-heartedly accept the system devised by Selwyn, and approved by himself. He could not have the harmony of the Mission upset by people who were eager to originate methods before they had served their apprenticeship. If he could not get the right recruits from England, he says more than once, he would rather depend on the materials existing on the spot: young men from New Zealand would adapt themselves better to the life and he himself would try to remedy any defects in their education. Ultimately he hoped that by careful education and training he would draw his most efficient help from his converts in the islands, and to train them he spared no pains through the remaining ten years of his service.

His way of life was not greatly altered by his consecration. He continued to divide his year between New Zealand and his ocean cruise. He had no body of clergy to space out over his vast diocese or to meet the urgent demands of the islands. In 1863 he received two valuable recruits-one the Rev. R. Codrington, a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, who shared the Bishop’s literary tastes and proved a valued counselor; the other a naval man, Lieut. Tilly, who volunteered to take charge of the new schooner called the Southern Cross, just sent out to him from England. Till then his staff consisted of three men in holy orders and two younger men who were to be ordained later. One of these, Joseph Atkin, a native of Auckland, proved himself of unique value to the Mission before he was called to share his leader’s death. But the Bishop still took upon himself the most dangerous work, the landing at villages where the English were unknown or where the goodwill of the natives seemed to be doubtful. This he accepted as a matter of course, remarking casually in his letters that the others are not good enough swimmers to take his place. But caution was necessary long after the time when friendship had begun. In the interval between visits anything might have happened to render the natives suspicious or revengeful; and it is evident that, month after month, the Bishop carried his life in his hand.

The secret of his power can be found in his letters, which are quite free from heroics. His religion was based on faith, simple and sincere; and he never hesitated to put it into practice. From the Bible, and especially from the New Testament, he learned the central lessons, the love of God and the love of man. Nothing was allowed to come between him and his duty; and to it he devoted the faculties, which he had trained. His instinct often stood him in good stead, bidding him to practice caution and to keep at a distance from treacherous snares; but there were times when he felt that, to advance his work, he must show absolute confidence in the natives whatever he suspected, and move freely among them. In such cases he seemed to rise superior to all nervousness or fear. At one time he would find his path back to the boat cut off by natives who did not themselves know whether they intended violence or not. At another he would sit quietly alone in a circle of gigantic Tikopians, some of whom, as he writes, were clutching at his ‘little weak arms and shoulders’. ‘Yet it is not’, he continued, ‘a sense of fear, but simply of powerlessness.’ No amount of experience could render him safe when he was perpetually trying to open new fields for mission work and when his converts themselves were so liable to unaccountable waves of feeling.

This was proved by his terrible experience at Santa Cruz. He had visited these islands (which lie north of the New Hebrides) successfully in 1862, landing at seven places and seeing over a thousand natives, and he had no reason to expect a different reception when he revisited it in 1864. But on this occasion, after he had swum to land three times and walked freely to and fro among the people, a crowd came down to the water and began shooting at those in the boat from fifteen yards away, while others attacked in canoes. Before the boat could be pulled out of reach, three of its occupants were hit with poisoned arrows, and a few days later two of them showed signs of tetanus, which was almost invariably the result of such wounds. They were young natives of Norfolk Island, for whom the Bishop had conceived a special affection, and their deaths, which were painful to witness, were a very bitter grief to him. The reason for the attack remained unknown. The traditions of Melanesia in the matter of blood feuds were like those of most savage nations; and under the spur of fear or revenge the islanders were capable of directing their anger blindly against their truest friends.

The most notable development in the first year of Patteson’s episcopate was the forming of a solid centre of work in the Banks Islands. Every year, while the Mission ship was cruising, some member of the Mission, often the Bishop himself, would be working steadily in Mota for a succession of months. For visitors there was not much to see. At the beginning, hours were given up to desultory talking with the natives, but perseverance was rewarded. Those who came to talk would return to take lessons, and some impression was gradually made even on the older men attached to their idolatrous rites. Many years after Patteson’s death it was still the most civilized of the islands with a population almost entirely Christian.

A greater change was effected in 1867 when the Bishop boldly cut adrift from New Zealand and made his base for summer work at Norfolk Island, lying 800 miles northeast of Sydney. The advantages which it possessed over Auckland were two. Firstly, it was so many hundred miles nearer the centre of the Mission work; secondly, it had a climate much more akin to that of the Melanesian islands and it would be possible to keep pupils here for a longer spell without running such risks to their health. Another point, which to many would seem a drawback, but to Patteson was an additional advantage, was the absence of all distraction. At Auckland the clergy implored him to preach, society importuned him to take part in its gatherings; and if he would not come to the town, they pursued him to his retreat. He was always busy and grudged the loss of his time. A contemporary tells us that he worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and later; and besides his philological interests, he needed time for his own study of the Bible. In the former he was a pioneer and had to mark out his own path; in the latter he welcomed the guidance of the best scholars whenever he could procure their books. He spoke with delight of his first acquaintance with Lightfoot’s edition of St. Paul’s Epistles; he wrote home for such new books as would be useful to him, and he read Hebrew daily whenever he could find time. Into this part of his life he put more conscientious effort the older he grew, and was always trying to learn. It may have seemed to many a dull routine to be followed year after year by a man who might have filled high place and moved in brilliant society at home; but from his letters it is clear that he was satisfied with his life and that no thought of regret assailed him.

The year 1868 brought a severe loss when Bishop Selwyn was called home to take charge of the Diocese of Lichfield. It was he who had drawn Patteson to the South Seas: his presence had been an abiding strength to the younger man, however rare their meetings; and Patteson felt his departure as he had felt nothing since his father’s death. But he went on unfalteringly with his work, ever ready to look hopefully into the future. At the moment he was intensely interested in the ordination of his first native clergyman, George Sarawia, who had now been a pupil for nine years and had shown sufficient progress in knowledge and strength of character to justify the step. Eager though he was to enroll helpers for the work, Patteson was scrupulously careful to ensure the fitness of his clergy, and to lay hands hastily on no man. In little matters also he was careful and methodical. His scholars in Norfolk Island were expected to be punctual, his helpers to be content with the simple life which contented him. All were to give their work freely; between black and white there was to be equality; no service was to be considered degrading. He did not wish to hurry his converts into outward observance of European ways. More important than the wearing of clothes was the true respect for the sanctity of marriage; far above the question of Sunday observance was the teaching of the love of God.

Foreign missions have come in for plenty of criticism. It is sometimes said that our missionaries have occasioned strife leading to intervention and annexation by the British Government, and have exposed us abroad to the charge of covetousness and hypocrisy. But there are few instances in which this charge can be maintained, least of all in Australasian waters. A more serious charge, often made in India, is that missioners destroy the sanctions of morality by undermining the traditional beliefs of the natives, and that the convert is neither a good Asiatic nor a passable European. This depends on the methods employed. It may be true in some cases. Patteson fully realized the danger, as we can see from his words, and built carefully on the foundation of native character. He took away no stone till he could replace it by better material. He was never content merely to destroy.

Another set of critics are roused by the extravagance of some missionary meetings and societies: their taste is offended or (we are bound to admit) their sense of humor roused. It was time for Dickens to wield this weapon when he heard Chadbands pouring forth their oily platitudes and saw Mrs. Jellybys neglecting their own children to clothe the offspring of ‘Borrioboola Gha’. Such folly caught the critic’s eye when the steady benevolence of others, unnoticed, was effecting work which had a good influence equally at home and abroad. Against the fanciful picture of Mrs. Jellyby let us put the life-story of Charlotte Yonge, who, while discharging every duty to her family and her village, in a way, which won their lasting affection, was able to put aside large sums from the earnings of her pen to supply the needs of the Melanesian Mission.

Let us remember, too, that much of the bitterest criticism has come from those who have a direct interest in suppressing missions, who have made large profits in remote places by procedure, which will not bear the light of day. Patteson would have been content to justify his work by his Master’s bidding as quoted in the Gospel. His friends would have been content to claim that the actual working of the Mission should be examined. If outside testimony to the value of his work is wanted, one good instance will refute a large amount of idle calumny. Sir George Grey, no sentimentalist but the most practical ruler of New Zealand, gave his own money to get three native boys, chosen by himself, educated at Patteson’s school, and was fully satisfied with the result.

But this simple regular life was soon to be perturbed by new complications, which rose from the European settlers in Fiji. As their plantations increased, the need for labor became urgent and the Melanesian islands were drawn upon to supply it. In many ways Patteson felt that it was good for the Melanesians to be trained to agricultural work; but the trouble was that they were being deceived over the conditions of the undertaking. Open kidnapping and the revival of anything like a slave trade could hardly be practiced under the British flag at this time; nor indeed did the Fiji settlers, in most cases, wish to do anything unfair or brutal. It was to be a matter of contracts, voluntarily signed by the workmen; but the Melanesian was not educated up to the point where he could appreciate what a contract meant. When they did begin to understand, many were unwilling to sign for a period long enough to be useful; many more grew quickly tired of the work, changed their mind and broke their engagements. As the trade grew, some islands were entirely depopulated, and it became necessary to visit others, where the natives refused to engage themselves. The trade was in jeopardy; but the captains of merchant vessels, who found it very lucrative, were determined that the supply of hands should not run short. So when they met with no volunteers, they used to cajole the islanders on board ship under pretence of trade and then kidnap them; when this procedure led to affrays, they were not slow to shoot. The confidence of the native in European justice was shaken, and the work of years was undone. Security on both sides was gone, and the missionary, who had been sure of a welcome for ten years, might find himself in face of a population burning with the desire to revenge themselves on the first white man who came within their reach.

Patteson did all that he could, in co-operation with the local officials, to regulate the trade. There was no case for a crusade against the Fiji planters, who were doing good work in a humane way and were ignorant of the misdeeds practiced in Melanesia. The best method was to forbid unauthorized vessels to pursue the trade and to put the authorized vessels under supervision; but, to effect this in an outlying part of the vast British Empire, it was necessary to educate opinion and to work through Whitehall. This he set himself to do; but meanwhile he was so distressed to find the islanders slipping out of his reach, that in the last months of his life he was planning a campaign in Fiji, where he intended to visit several of the plantations in turn and to carry to the expatriated workers the Gospel which he had hoped to preach to them in their homes.

But before he could redress this wrong he was himself destined to fall a victim to the spirit of hostility evoked. His best work was already done when in 1870 he had a prolonged illness, and was forced to spend some months at Auckland for convalescence. In the judgment of his friends his exertions had aged him considerably, and the climate had contributed to break down his strength. Though he was back at work again before the end of the summer he was far more subject to weariness. His manner became peaceful and dreamy, and his companions found that it was difficult to rouse him in the ordinary interchange of talk. His thoughts recurred more often to the past; he would write of Devonshire and its charms in spring, read over familiar passages in Wordsworth, or fall into quiet meditation, yet he would not unbuckle his armor or think of leaving the Mission in order to take a holiday in England.

In April 1871, when the time came for him to leave Norfolk Island for his annual cruise, his energy revived. He spent seven weeks at Mota, leaving it towards the end of August to sail for the Santa Cruz group. On September 20, as he came in sight of the coral reef of Nukapu, he was speaking to his scholars of the death of St. Stephen. Next morning he had the boat lowered and put off for shore accompanied by Mr. Atkin and three natives. He knew that feeling had lately become embittered in this district over the Labor trade, but the thought of danger did not shake his resolution. To show his confidence and disarm suspicion he entered one of the canoes, alone with the islanders, landed on the beach and disappeared among the crowd. Half an hour later, for no apparent reason, an attack was started by men in canoes on the boat lying close off the shore; and before the rowers could pull out of range, Joseph Atkin and two of the natives had been wounded by poisoned arrows which, some days later, set up tetanus with fatal effect. They reached the ship; but after a few hours, when their wounds had been treated, Mr. Atkin insisted on taking the boat in again to learn the Bishop’s fate. This time no attack was made upon them; but a canoe was towed out part of the way and then left to drift towards the boat. In it was the dead body of the Bishop tied up in a native mat. How he died no one ever knew, but his face was calm and no anguish seems to have troubled him in the hour of death. ‘The placid smile was still on the face: there was a palm leaf fastened over the breast, and, when the mat was opened, there were five wounds, no more. The strange mysterious beauty, as it may be called, of the circumstances almost make one feel as if this were the legend of a martyr of the Primitive Church.’

Miss Yonge, from whom these lines are quoted, goes on to show that the five wounds, of which the first probably proved fatal, while the other four were deliberately inflicted afterwards, were to be explained by native custom. In the long leaflets of the palm five knots had been tied. Five men in Fiji were known to have been stolen from this island, and there can be little doubt that the relatives were exacting, in native fashion, their vengeance from the first European victim who fell into their power. The Bishop would have been the first to make allowance for their superstitious error and to lay the blame in the right quarter. His surviving comrades knew this, and in reporting the tragedy they sent a special petition that the Colonial Office would not order a bombardment of the island.

Unfortunately, when a ship was sent on a mission of inquiry, the natives themselves began hostilities and bloodshed ensued. But at last the Bishop had by his death secured what he was laboring in his life to effect. The Imperial Parliament was stirred to examine the Labor trade in the Pacific and regulations were enforced which put an end to the abuse.

‘Quae caret ora cruore nostro?’ The Roman poet puts this question in his horror at the wide extension of the civil wars, which stained with Roman blood all the seas known to the world of his day.

Great Britain has its martyrs in a nobler warfare yet more widely spread. Not all have fallen by the weapons of war. Nature has claimed many victims through disease or the rigour of unknown climes. The death of some is a mystery to this day. India, the Soudan, South and West Africa, the Arctic and Antarctic regions, speak eloquently to the men of our race of the spirit, which carried them so far afield in the nineteenth century. Thanks to its first bishop, the Church of Melanesia shares their fame, opening its history with a glorious chapter enriched by heroism, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom.



MLA Source Citation:

Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 24 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-john-coleridge-patteson.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


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