Blood Stained Shores of Erromanga

Having completed the disembarkation of all our passengers on 11th of March , we shaped our course for Erromanga from Tanna, whence sailing past a headland we spoke the Gulnare Schooner. On the 12th we reached Erromanga, after twenty-four hours of baffling winds and calms. Our leisurely approach gave us full opportunity of gazing at this destination, visible all the way across Tanna. Any one who has read the history of the Polynesian Missions, upon meeting with the word Erromanga, cannot do otherwise than experience a dismal feeling. “The blood stained shores of Erromanga” is the designation familiarly applied thereto. It was on this island, sixty years ago, where the lamented John Williams was murdered in an endeavor to make it a mission station.

Double pages showing clockwise from top left: Rev. John William at Rarotonga; George Pritchard; The Massacre of Rev. John William at Erromanga; The Reception of Rev. John William at Tanna Reproduced from Portraits of the Famous and Infamous: Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific, 1492–1970 [by] Rex Nan Kivell and Sydney Spence (London: The author; 1974)

A fellow missionary that accompanied him met with the same fate in 1863. Mr Gordon an his wife, in after years, were also murdered. It is, however, but justice to say, that in each case the outrages were a result of violence preciously used by traders in visiting Erromanga. We bought an Erromanga native down with us, and had met with others in Queensland; they were certainly very good specimens of their race as regards intelligence, industry and faithfulness. In reply to questions put to the Erromangan on board, so far as could comprehend from his imperfect English, he said – “His countrymen killed Mr Gordon all in mistake, thinking him all the same as bad white fellows.” The account given of Mr Gordon’s massacre is that sickness breaking out amongst the natives, and, they, in their infatuation, suspected it was by some enchantment he had used that a scourge had fallen upon them; they accordingly gave him notice that unless in a certain time he sent the sickness away they would kill him. Having waited the appointed time, and the malady not disappearing they fulfilled their threat. Thus perished two self-denying Christians, who had forsaken their relatives and every other inducement of civilization in order to reclaim their fellow-creatures from barbarism. It is said some of the sandal wood traders instigated the idea amongst the natives that Mr Gordon had originated the sickness so that they might destroy his influence amongst the natives. Unfortunately they succeeded too well in their plan.

The massacre of the Rev. John Williams and Mr. Harris at Erromanga.

Making an offing from Tanna, we had stood across towards Erromanga during the night with a moderate breeze, and so at daylight the next morning the coast of our destination was plainly visible. As the sun rose the wind died away to a light air; what there was of it was favorable, but we were almost becalmed, while the atmosphere became heavy and oppressive, the wind being just sufficient to give steerage way, under which circumstance, like the crawl of a snail, we approached Dillon’s Bay, the scene of the memorable massacre of John Williams. The conditions of the atmosphere, as well as the anxieties of reaching anchorage, were not conducive to light-heartedness by the ship’s company. During the painful calm each and every one on board seemed cogitating within their own world. For myself, I seemed to welcome the circumstances which afforded me the opportunity of meditating in silence upon the sight of the bay where the apostolic Williams was martyred, a scene which I had dwelt upon with multitudinous reflections ever since I had read the closing scenes of his life; to my mind his death seemed on of the nearest resemblance in history to the death of Jesus Christ.

Erromanga, an island in the southern region of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) is only 40 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide, at its widest point. The famous explorer, Captain James Cook, who visited the island in 1774 and ended up having a military skirmish with the islanders, commented afterwards that “no one would ever venture to introduce Christianity into Erromanga because neither fame nor profit would offer the requisite inducement.”

In November 1839, John Williams, a British missionary who had worked in the eastern Pacific for over twenty years, did attempt to make contact with the people of Erromanga. Williams, who was scouting out potential new mission sites for the London Missionary Society, visited Erromanga on board the Camden. He received what he thought was a cordial reception. On his second excursion on the island further than the beach at Dillon’s Bay, the sheltered anchorage on the north-west part of the island, he and his companion James Harris, a sailor who was seriously considering entering the ministry, were attacked and killed. The news of their deaths shook the missionary community in the southern Pacific and back in Great Britain and in Canada as well.
The London Missionary Society missionaries from Fiji and Samoa supported a series of Samoan and Roratongan Christians who moved on to Erromanga with the purpose of preaching the gospel and teaching the children of the island. These missionary ventures often ended in tragedy as some of the Samoan and Roratongan missionaries were killed and others starved to death because no one on Erromanga would assist them with acquiring food. It is estimated that approximately forty Samoan and Roratongan Christians, both adults and children, died seeking to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the people of Erromanga.

By the early 1840s all missionary endeavors to reach the people of this tiny island ceased.
The end of missionary efforts did not mean that the people of Erromanga had no contact with white people; a number of traders sought to acquire the valuable and aromatic sandalwood that grew on the island. The Erromangans burnt this wood in cooking and heating and were willing to trade the wood for trinkets and the like. Some of the traders were brutal in their treatment of the native peoples, using their guns and cannons to impose their trade wishes. By the mid-1850s the appearance of white people filled the people of Erromanga with both fear and anger. The traders themselves recognised Erromanga as a dangerous destination, since a number of white traders had been killed there.

Approaching Erromanga from the south-west, it appears an island of considerable promise, being not too mountainous for extensive intercommunication, and at the same time sufficiently hilly to modify the climate, while it would not be too rugged to impede cultivation. Upon a closer view, the supposition is considerably confirmed, the dense vegetation betokening the richness of the soil (which is decomposed volcanic and limestone rocks); and the extensive tracts that may be subjugated by the plough points to it as an island capable of extensive development. It has long been worked by sandal wood traders of the Pacific, for which purpose they have recruited islanders from Tanna and Sandwich, so that whilst the Sandwich men cut the sandalwood the Tanna men would guard and protect them from being assailed by the men of Erromanga, who naturally warlike, could not remain passive spectators of their island being so invaded; consequently collisions would occur, wherein the Erromanga men are shot down like crows. This state of affairs has not been confined to the island of Erromanga; the sandal wood traders have pursued the same course at other islands where opposition is displayed to their landing. However it would be unjust to charge such proceedings upon everyone who had been engaged in the sandal wood trade of Polynesia; many respectable men have followed the enterprise and carried it out creditably, but others again have pursued it upon no better principles than buccaneering, whereby many cargoes that have been brought into Australian ports from Polynesia have been the fruits of lawless violence and aggression.

At Erromanga the cruise of the Petrel was well nigh coming to an unhappy termination. Dillon’s Bay being favorably reputed as a safe anchorage in southerly weather, and as it threatened very ominously from that quarter, Captain Helmsmann contemplated bringing up at the anchorage, with a view to land on the island, to procure some recruits for Queensland, as well as our passenger. During the afternoon we were endeavoring to reach the anchorage, but the wind was so light and baffling that we could not succeed. At last we reached a sheltered part of the bay, but not the usual anchorage which is shallow. We let go our anchor in forty fathoms of water, but it had scarcely checked the vessel’s way before the cable parted. Almost at the same instant the wind came in very suddenly from N.N.W., from which quarter the bay has not the least shelter. We were within half a mile of the rocks and fast drifting towards them; providentially our mainsail was still set, as well as the lower tospail. The parting of our cable was the response to the first gust of what proved a furious northerly gale. While staggering with astonishment at the suddenness of our seeming disaster, an active and intelligent seaman, Alex Bruce, happening to be standing by the jib halyards, volunteers to the captain “Shall we run up the jib, sir?” The thought was the salvation of the ship and all on board, from a terrible doom. The jib is run up, and the ship gathers way, the helm is put a starboard, the topsail braced forward. and round the ship comes like a top; heading off the shore, more sail was quickly made, and we stood out to sea, but not before we had got within a few lengths of the cliffs.

As night set I n the wind increased to such a hard gale from N.N.W, in which a frightful sea got up, that had we been at anchor, we could scarcely have ridden it out even with two anchors down in such deep water; the wind moderated during the night and next morning we stood into the mouth of the bay, where we could see a fearful surf lashing the rocks close under where our anchor parted. During the night the Petrel behaved splendidly. Coming across Australia, ere we rounded New Caledonia we encountered a few easterly sniffs wherein we had been compelled to shorten sail, but the capacity of our ship as a sea boat demonstrated during this eventful night. The vessel under close reefed canvas was put on the port tack till midnight, when we went across on the other tack.

Whilst plunging over the billows, I settled myself down upon one of the lockers, and going to sleep, experienced on of the most encouraging dreams of my life, wherein I find myself in the company with some old nautical associates of my earliest years; amongst them Captain Goodman, a sea captain who upwards of twenty years before had been lost in a typhoon, wherein his ship floundering he was never heard of again. Being one of the most valued friends of my boyish days, he had a cherished home in my memory, not only through the numerous books which he had bought me, and all the curiosities of foreign lands, but there was a charm even in his voice, the echoes whereof are ever present with me; the uniform kindness and amiability of his disposition had remained a constant theme in my mind for years after I had given him up as lost. The last time I saw him before he embarked on his fatal voyage he was all dressed in a suit of blue, and being in the prime of his life my last impression of him was a very happy one. While the Petrel was plunging and pitching and rolling I see Captain Goodman as in my last farewell and am listening to his cheering voice in the storm. This circumstance may be very easy of explanation. When the force of the gale was upon us, and the ship had been gone under the snug canvas, as I composed myself on the locker I commenced to review some of the nautical adventures of my old friend, amongst them an incident of his craft being battened down for three days in a gale in the China Sea, and as Captain Goodman had oftimes cruised through Polynesia, the thought passed my mind, “what he would do if now in command of the Petrel? for if he were on board my faith would rise to the confidence that we must outride the gale.

These thoughts as they become very intense, would communicate with my friend on the Astral plane, where former residents of this earth, disembodied from physical conditions, remain in their Astral garments for periods according to the circumstances which hold them down there. If that they are suddenly cut off in the prime of life, while their desires are very ardently concentrated on mundane affairs, they may continue on the Astral plane until they will have attained unto the preordained destiny of their incarnation through three score and ten years; but if, like Samuel the prophet, their earth work is accomplished, and they are rapidly divesting themselves of their Astral garments, the approach of Saul, interrupting their entrance into their eternal home, is an invasion which incurs the rebuke, “Why hast thou disquieted me.” In like manner intense grief at the loss of a departed friend, or on the other hand, ardent love and affection, will keep that friend detained in Astral conditions. Many individuals, who in their prime or their youth, have their physical life suddenly snatched away, as in a ship foundering, continue all their desires and attachments to their earthly associates, who they constantly overshadow with their counsel and help for periods ranging up to thirty years, until the grief of their friends subsides or their affections flow in other directions; this explains the ardent memories of departed friends which occupy our minds.

Captain Goodman was deeply mourned and affectionately remembered by a very large circle of relatives and friends – by none of them more than myself. The ardour with which I watched for his return, and hoped to see him again, was really tremendous: all my soul seemed poured out to see him once more; which fully explains his visit. the intensity of my thought had bought him back to me, and it may in some way explain the fact that during the darkness the wind went down – evil elements cause storms and hurricanes; good elementals allay them, saying “Peace be still”.

Although the gale moderated before sunrise the aspects of the weather were not sufficiently promising for the ship to go in again to the anchorage, the boat was dispatched to land the passenger, which was effected near the mission station, but with considerable difficulty through the surf. While the ship was standing off and on, the scenery from various points of observation seemed even more impressive than on the preceding day, when a murky calm cast a gloom, which is now changed to one of wild grandeur in the surf lashing the cliffs, and the towering hills above them, the scud flying over them, with their rich valleys of massive verdure, the whole comprising the isolated haunts of savagedom. Looking over in the direction of Dillon’s Bay, my heart sympathies extended to Mr Gordon, who had taken up the work of his massacred brother, only to incur the same fate, for a few months afterwards, when administering medicine to a sick family, he was ruthlessly murdered under the accusation that he had induced the disease. Verily the sight of Erromanga is only an aspect of the world of man in miniature – the social and moral world; how impervious it remains to the approach of the Sons of mind: its would be instructors and benefactors proclaiming the possibility of improvement. And so the world goes on – the world of greed, of selfishness and scramble, protesting against all advocates of harmony and Divine guidance, saying to them, “Let us alone, what have we done with Thee? Art Thou come to destroy us?”