Mark D. Tooley: Apologizing to the Missionaries

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mark Tooley is director of United Methodist Action at the Institute for Religion and Democracy.]

Apologizing for the sins, real and contrived, of Western Civilization, is suffocatingly trendy among the West’s cultural elites. It fits their ideological assumption that the West and its religion have ceaselessly victimized benign indigenous cultures around the world.
But this fad was tossed topsy turvey, recently, when Papua New Guinea tribesmen apologized for their ancestors having cannibalized Methodist missionaries 129 years ago. Thousands of villagers attended the apology ceremony in East New Britain province and listened to words of praise for the English missionary who had brought the Gospel to their region.

The apologetic Papuans, led by the Governor General of Papua New Guinea, offered their apologies to the High Commissioner of Fiji. Four Fijian missionaries, under the command of Rev. George Brown of the London-based Wesleyan Missionary Society, had been slain and eaten in 1878 by Tolai tribesmen, directed by their warrior chief Taleli.

According to a later report from Rev. Brown, the slain Methodist Fijians were targeted by the cannibals not specifically because they were Christians but because they were foreigners on the orders of a local warrior chief, Taleli, and were then cooked and eaten.

"We at this juncture are deeply touched and wish you the greatest joy of forgiveness as we finally end this record disagreement," Fijian High Commissioner Ratu Isoa Tikoca told the apologetic tribesmen at the August ceremony. Fiji itself had practiced cannibalism but gave up their meal habits under the influence of earlier missionary efforts.

Rev. Brown, the son of a British Unitarian clergyman, converted to a zealous Methodism and spent most of 50 years spreading the Gospel in the South Pacific. Based out of Sydney, Australia and ordained in Australian Methodism, he founded missions stations in New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He was champion of Christianity, while also defending the full humanity of the South Pacific islanders and upholding the benefits of the British Empire. He was fascinated by and respectful of the native cultures he encountered while having no illusions about them.

Once Rev. Brown described his visit to a Papuan village where he saw 35 human jaw bones hanging in a hut, clearly the results of a recent meal. “A human hand, smoke-dried, was hanging in the same house. And outside I counted 76 notches in a coconut tree, each notch of which, the natives told us, represented a human body which had been cooked and eaten there," he recounted.

Traveling throughout the South Pacific in the 1870’s on a ship appropriately called the “John Wesley,” Rev. Brown first got to what is now Papua New Guinea in 1875 and was charmed by its beauty. A prolific journalist and author, he recorded: “No mission could have had a more promising beginning than ours has had in all these islands. I believe that our principle difficulties in the future will arise from the great difference between the dialects, the constant feuds between the villages, and the want of authority among the chiefs. But as our knowledge of language increases, we shall no doubt be able to decrease very much the number of dialects as we introduce the use of books in our schools; and the reception of the religion of Jesus will soon produce peace and order where all is now discord and confusion.”

Rev. Brown planted missions stations with enthusiastic Methodist volunteers from Fiji, which had been evangelized starting 50 years before. Wherever possible, Brown favored native leadership over British or European leadership. One of his Papuan missions stations was headed by the Rev Sailasa Naucukidi, who was murdered and cannibalized in April 1878, along with three Fijian Methodist teachers. Brown was disbelieving until he visited on site and met the grieving widows and children. After consulting with native Methodist teachers and some chiefs, he was persuaded that armed reprisals were necessary to prevent both unilateral action by the victims’ colleagues or a full uprising by the cannibal tribes.

“I determined that as some action was unavoidable, even if not desirable, it was the best plan to enlist the sympathies and help of all the well-disposed natives on our side, rather than to array them against us; and let the punishment of the murderers come from the natives as much as from us,” Rev. Brown later explained. He lead a small party of armed natives, Fijians, Samoans and British and attacked villages involved in the cannibalistic massacre. They burned huts and killed ten of the cannibals, retrieving some bones of the martyred missionaries.

The reprisals persuaded the cannibal tribes to sue for peace and offer their friendship. Rev. Brown wrote of the episode: “The effect, I am certain, has been most beneficial, and in this conviction all the foreign residents here concur. I am certain that our Mission here stands better with the natives than it did before, and that we are in a better position to do them good. They respect us more than they did, and as they all acknowledge the justice of our cause they bear us no ill will. Human life is safe here now for many years to come.”

Some Australian press, foreshadowing modern preoccupations, condemned Rev. Brown’s swift armed reprisal. But his fellow missionaries and the British authorities exonerated him of misconduct. Brown remained in the South Pacific for much of the next 30 years, growing in renown among both natives and British. He eventually became chief of the Wesleyan Missionary Society.

Not only a courageous missionary, Rev. Brown was esteemed for his accomplishments in the natural sciences, ethnology and linguistics. He was politically prescient, warning against Imperial German encoraches on the South Pacific, and preferring not only British but American influence. Brown was loyal to his empire, while still admiring of other cultures, and serving the Kingdom of God above all.

The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who would befriend Rev. Brown when Stevenson moved to Samoa, would describe the missionary as “[a] splendid [man], with no humbug, plenty of courage, and the love of adventure.”

Multiculturalists of today, no doubt including many of Brown’s fellow religionists, would prefer to apologize to the cannibals for the missionary’s aggressive defense of his flock. But in now majority Christian Papua New Guinea, the descendants of the cannibals prefer to apologize to the descendants of their Methodist victims. Rev. Brown would be honored.

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