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John Coleridge Patteson

A Sermon by Canon Charles Elliot Fox on the Occasion of the Centenary of the Consecration of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, February 24, 1961.

[Typescript in Church of Melanesia Provincial Office, Honiara]

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006



S. John xv. 13.

John Coleridge Patteson was consecrated as the first Bishop of Melanesia on S. Matthias' Day 1861, one hundred years ago. The son of a famous Judge, he was educated at Eton and Balliol and became a good Hebrew and Arabic scholar in Germany. As an Eton boy he had heard Bishop Selwyn preach; on a second visit of the Bishop to England when Patteson was a young curate in Devon he was so attracted to the Bishop that he followed him to New Zealand and worked with him there for two years preaching in many of our Churches. The Bishop was then making voyages to the islands to the north and bringing back Melanesian heathen lads to be trained at S. John's College, and then go back to preach Christ to their own people. Patteson joined the Bishop in this work; more and more it was handed over to him, so that between the voyages he came to live at S. John's and tech the Melanesian lads there. After six years the Bishop was satisfied that in Patteson he had a man set apart by a wonderful gift of tongues for the work in the islands where more than 100 languages were spoken each quite distinct from the others, not similar dialects of one language as in Polynesia. Bishop Patteson learnt to speak 30 of them and taught each lad in his own language. He also spoke Maori well.

In person he was tall and athletic, a fine cricketer, with a grave, gentle and beautiful face, attracting all who came into contact with him. Europeans thought him serous; his Melanesians said he could be full of fun. In the islands he went barefoot, wearing only shirt and trousers, the latter tucked up above his knees. Following the example of Selwyn, when he came to an island were he did not know the people and where they might be hostile, he used to swim ashore wearing a top hat in which were presents for the people and it may have startled them to see a tall white man wearing only a black top hat, emerging from the surf; but in no time he had made friends, learnt their names and enough of their language to use it when he came again.

Though he was so lovable and his greatest gift of all was the gift of friendship, he was no weak character and Dr Codrington wrote: "No doubt his habitual gentleness made his occasional severity more felt. Words certainly would never fail him in twenty languages to express his indignation, but how seldom he had to use one." Archdeacon Dudley said of him: "He was naturally indolent, brought up in luxury, but he became the reverse, teaching himself to prefer the plainest food and to find his solace (brilliant scholar as he was) in the society of these unlearned islanders to whom his life was given."

Yet for Melanesian he neither felt that contempt which calls them "niggers" nor the more galling condescension which calls them a "child race" and treats them as children. He had no colour feeling at all and was simply their friend. He was not in the least blind to the fact that they were savages with many horrible customs, but he saw beyond that to what they could become, as our Lord called Peter a rock long before he was one, and as our Lord treats us all. Almost all Englishmen, whatever they may say, think of a man with a brown skin as an inferior. Patteson never did. And so he won all their hearts and his name is still handed down from father to son and scores of young Melanesians are still given it at Baptism; his most brilliant scholar Edward Wogala wrote [1/2] of him: "He did not live apart, he was always friends with us and did not despise in the least a single one of us." He never tried to make the Melanesians British, as Church and State have been trying so hard to do ever since; "East and west could not be made to think after the same fashion" he wrote, nor could Melanesians and Englishmen; the Church of Christ has room for both. "We try to denationalize these races, whereas we ought to change as little as possible. We take it for granted that what suits us is necessary for them."

There is no time to tell the history of those years, when everything went so well till we come to the years of the slave trade when numbers of British ships sailed there and took the islanders by force to work in Australia or Fiji, sinking their canoes and seizing the people in the water, or cutting off their heads and selling their heads to headhunters of other islands to enrich their collections; for this was done by Australian and New Zealand ship captains. From 1867 to 1872 there was really a state of war between the white man and the Melanesians and no white man's life was any longer safe among a people who had once been our friends. Patteson could do nothing to stop this. Though he was only 44 he was ill and looking old and he might have retired, but that would not have stopped the slave trade and God had other plans.

He spent the middle months of 1871 at Mota and had the joy of reaping the first fruits of the harvest, baptising 298 of the people and seeing one island at least becoming Christian. Then he sailed in the Southern Cross to the Solomons and began picking up young Melanesians for S. Barnabas' School on Norfolk Island. He left the Solomons and sailed to the Reef Islands coming to Nukapu on September 20. Though he did not know it five lads had been seized there by a man who said the Bishop was with him, and carried them off to Fiji. The uncle of one of these, Teadule, had found his father shot by the white man. As an act of justice Teadule had made up his mind to kill the first white man who landed. The people did not know this. They were Polynesians and Patteson's friends and their chief and Patteson had exchanged names, a custom of friendship.

Every day on board, the Bishop had been teaching the schoolboys from the Acts of the Apostles. That morning his last lesson was on the death of Stephen. As he ended he said to the boys - "This might happen to any of us, to you or to me. It might happen today," and he said that if all were well ashore he would tie a white handkerchief to a stick. Four rowed him ashore, Joe Atkin a New Zealander trained at S. John's College, a priest and Patteson's great friend, expected by all to be the next Bishop; Stephen Taroaniara of San Cristoval, whom he meant to ordain when they reached Norfolk Island, and two more lads; John Ngongono and James Minipa. The tide was too low for the boat to cross the reef, so the Bishop went on in a canoe, leaving the four in the boat to wait for full tide. He landed, went into the long canoe and guest house, while the chief went to bring him food. Only Teadule and a small boy remained and the Bishop lay down on a mat. Teadule came up quietly with a heavy club used for beating out tapa cloth and killed him. Then he fled, pursued by the chief, seized a canoe and fled to Santa Cruz, 30 miles away, where the Santa Cruzians killed him.

Understanding what had happened the Polynesians in the canoes began shouting and shooting arrows at the four in the boat. All but James were hit; Stephen had six arrows in him, Atkin and John one each. They rowed back to the ship and were lifted on board to have the arrows taken out. Then Atkin turned to the [2/3] company of frightened schoolboys and said, "I am going back for the Bishop and who will come with me?" It needed courage, for the men of Nukapu were still shouting and shooting, but a lad of 15, Joe Wate, Joe Atkin's Godson, said quietly, "Inau" (I), and jumped down into the boat. He was followed by another lad of 15, his friend Charles Sapi. Joe Wate in after years was the first Melanesian ordained on the wild island of Mala, Charles Sapi was the first ordained on the island of Gela.

Meanwhile on shore, the women who knew and loved Patteson were startled and horrified at Teadule's act. One of them, Liufai, with her friends washed and prepared the body for burial. The men made five wounds on the body and placed a palm leaf with five fronds knotted on his breast to show that one life had been justly taken for five of theirs, and then Liufai wrapped it in a mat (now in our Cathedral in the Solomons) and placed the body in a canoe to take it to their cemetery. All was done in a state of excitement and confusion. Liufai began to tow the canoe, but saw the boat coming in and cast it off, and those in the boat took the body. It was buried at sea. John Ngongono recovered and went as the first Missionary to Meralava Island. Joe Atkin and Stephen died of tetanus and were buried at sea on September 28.

This is the story that is still told in every village in the islands on September 20, kept as a Red-letter Day in the Diocese of Melanesia. The Bishop had with him his faithful New Zealand priest, Joe Atkin; Stephen, who would have been the first Solomon Islander to be ordained, and Joe and Charles who were to be the first later on their islands. This little company is pictured together in a Church in America. We remember too the palm given him by men who had never heard of the victors with their palms. There were the five wounds, and the women who loved him preparing his body for burial, and there was the great darkness which followed all over the Solomons, people carrying torches till noon. This may have been caused by the ash from the volcano, Tinakula, just as I remember darkness in Gisborne when Tarawera erupted. But to the Melanesians it was a sign of anger.

Patteson's death ended the slave trade in its worst form, stirring England to make laws against it. He saved his Melanesians by his death, himself he could not save. The news of it sent men out everywhere as missionaries and caused the Anglican Communion to set apart a special day of prayer for Missions, the Eve of S. Andrew. Patteson bequeathed a portion of his spirit to the Church of Melanesia, the spirit of friendship between brown and white, a respect for Melanesian languages and customs, and a high regard for the capacity of their race.

In 1960 in a Melanesian newspaper a woman of Meralava wrote: "Every year we remember this day because he died for the Melanesian people, as our Lord Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world. John Patteson put down his life for his friends of Melanesia." Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Now, a hundred years later, 50,000 Christian Melanesians of our Church, along with another 100,000 fellow islanders, are moving towards self-government. In the Solomons, besides the children in the village schools, there are some 2,000 boys and girls in our church Boarding Schools, but what these schools lack is trained teachers to bring them to a standard where they can themselves go to New Zealand to be trained as teachers for their own people. Young Melanesia looks to Maori and Pakeha teachers from New Zealand to come and prepare them for their place in the British Commonwealth. It would be a richly rewarding work for those willing to come,
But on the whole, New Zealand looks elsewhere. Only once in these 100 years has a Bishop of the Province of New Zealand, with which we are associated, come to visit us. We are too far away.

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