Friday, 1 August 2014

Eaten by Cannibals

The story of John Williams, missionary

Yesterday a photo of the ship halfpenny, used in Britain from 1937 until 1969, was posted on Twitter. As soon as I saw it I was back in my Sunday school class in the late 1950s putting my ha’pennies into the collection box for the John Williams VI missionary ship.


As you might expect John Williams VI was the sixth ship of that name, but who was John Williams?  John Williams was born in Tottenham in 1796 and he became an apprentice to an ironmonger where he worked in the foundry and as a mechanic. Originally brought up as a Baptist, he joined the Congregational Church and in 1816 knew that he wanted to be a missionary.  He was commissioned by the London Missionary Society at the circular Surrey Chapel in Blackfriars Road, Southwark.  The LMS had been set up to, “Spread the knowledge of Christ among the heathen and other unenlightened nations.”


In 1817 John and his wife Mary set out for the Society Islands, an archipelago which includes Tahiti. They were accompanied by William Ellis, another missionary, and his wife. After a long voyage via Australia and New Zealand they arrived at the island of Raiatea where John and Mary Williams established a missionary post, from where John could visit several other Polynesian island chains.  This included the undiscovered island of Rarotonga, covered in dense jungle on a mountain of orange soil surrounded by a coral reef and a turquoise lagoon.

In 1821 John revisited Sydney where he preached and addressed public meetings.  He was influential in the later establishment of the Aboriginal Protection Society.  He bought a ship to trade between Raiatea and Sydney and employed Thomas Scott to instruct the Raiatean people in growing tobacco and sugar cane.

John and Mary had 10 children and they were the first mission family to visit Samoa.  By 1834 Mary was quite unwell so she and John returned to England.  They were accompanied by Leota from Samoa, who wished to live as a Christian in London.  When he died he was buried in Abney Park Cemetery.  John published his, “Narrative of Missionary Enterprise.” Appealing to the public, he raised £4000 to purchase a ship, the Camden, and he also supervised the printing of a New Testament in the Rarotongan language.
In 1837 John and Mary returned to the Polynesian Islands to continue their mission.  In Tahiti, John built a boat, “Messenger of Peace,” and later another, “Olive Branch.”

Sadly in 1939 when John Williams visited the island of Erromango in the New Hebrides, accompanied by fellow missionary James Harris, they were clubbed to death and eaten by cannibals.  In December 2009 descendants of John Williams travelled to Erromango to accept the apologies of descendants of the cannibals at a ceremony of reconciliation.


The London Missionary Society were able to purchase a new ship to continue John’s work using money raised by “Juvenile Friends,” a fund collected by children in the Congregational Church.  The ship “John William” was launched in 1844 and set sail from Gravesend with new missionaries.  Over the years there were seven John Williams ships, the last “John Williams VII” being decommissioned in the 1970s.

To read more about John Williams please go to:-

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