Missions, Missionaries and Missionary Exhibitions.


Bill Tonkin.

The missionary movement while its main purpose was to spread the word of the Lord to the heathen, is never the less closely connected to exhibitions. In fact the only book I know of specifically written on how to organise and set up an exhibition was published by the Church Missionary Society in 1899, it’s a little 132 page book titled ‘A Manual for Stewards at Missionary Loan Exhibitions’.

The purpose of the exhibitions was two fold, on the spiritual side, to spread the word and entice the public to take a more active part in religion, bringing to their notice the millions of people throughout the world who had never been evangelised and secondly to raise funds to further the work done by missionaries working out in the field.

To supply the exhibition organiser there were firms that would send everything needed to set up an exhibition, the curios, native artefacts, the sign boards and notices, it all came ready to lay out. This explains why some missionary exhibitions held many miles and many months apart look familiar, they would have been supplied by the same firm.

While many of the exhibitions only lasted a few days the big one in 1908 was the Orient in London at the Royal Agricultural Hall from June 4 to July 11 put on by the London Missionary Society. Another big one was the Church Missionary Society’s ‘Africa & the East’ again in the Royal Agricultural Hall from June 8 to July 3 1909. Smaller versions of ‘Africa & the East’ toured the country for several years.

The story of some of the early Missionary Societies is interesting. One of them was the brain child of a clergyman the Rev Dr. Haweis whose imagination was fired by the story of Captain Cook, especially where Cook described the various South Sea Islands he discovered, peopled by savage cannibals. He determined these savages should become Christians, educated and taught a better way of life. At a meeting with seven friends in a coffee house off Cornhill they formed a company the Missionary Society later to be renamed the London Missionary Society, their object not to discover new islands in the South Seas, but to convert the inhabitants of those far off islands to Christianity.

They bought a small sailing ship the "Duff" and appointed Captain Wilson to be the commander. He sailed from the Thames on August 10th 1796 taking with him six carpenters, two shoemakers, two bricklayers, two sailors, two smiths, two weavers, a surgeon, a hatter, a shop keeper, a cotton factor, a cabinet maker, a tin worker, a draper, a harness maker, a butcher and four ministers. What they had in common, was that they were all missionaries going out to risk life and limb in their effort to pass on the message.

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John Williams of the London Missionary Society.

The missionaries themselves were completely dedicated to their chosen way of life, giving up everything to go off to some God forsaken (in the true sense of the word) place to devote the rest of their lives to converting savages. One such person was John Williams and I recently found a book ‘John Williams The Shipbuilder’ by Basil Mathews telling his story. This book has supplied most of the material for this article.

John Williams was born on June 29th 1796 and as a child he lived in the times when Captain Cook and Nelson were real life heroes, who stirred the imagination of all lads including young John. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a north London Ironmonger by the name of Tonkin. At the end of the day when the shop closed John would go into the workshop where the iron goods were made, and there learnt to use the forge and anvil till he became a skilled blacksmith. One Sunday the wife of the Ironmonger invited him to attended church with her and the story goes that while listening to the sermon by the Rev Timothy East he made the decision that was to take him from his life at the ironmongers and set him on the path to becoming a missionary. Later he heard a sermon by the Rev Mathew Wilks who spoke of the need for missionaries to go out to the South Sea islands to convert savages. John offered his services to the Missionary Society and at the age of 20 was accepted. Before he sailed he married Mary Chauner who at 19 was a year younger than him and they left for Sydney in the "Harriet". The voyage took a year and he spent his time learning all he could about sailing ships and seamanship.

At Rio two other missionaries Mr and Mrs Threlkeld joined the ship and on arrival they all took passage on the "Active" going to New Zealand and Tahiti which they reached in November 1817. On an adjoining island Eimeo, Williams found a skeleton, just the keel and ribs of a boat that had been started and never finished. Williams and Threlkeld decided to finish making it, Williams taking on the job of doing all the ironwork needed, so within three days of landing in Tahiti he was working the forge a job he was experienced at. Within eight days the boat was finished and named "Haweis" after the founder of the Missionary Society.

A few months after arriving at Tahiti their first child a son John Chauner was born. Their maiden voyage was to Huahine where they were welcomed and asked to stay. By now they had learnt enough of the language to make themselves understood and this quickly improved so he was soon able to preach to the natives in their own language. The older missionaries said they had never known any man to pick up the language so quickly as John Williams. Tamatoa, the king of Raiatea a neighbouring island, asked Williams and Threlkeld if they would come to live in Raiatea to teach and help convert his people. Soon the two missionaries with their families were on their way to Raiatea which was to be their home and base for many years, in Williams case for the rest of his life.

Williams was able to make lime by burning coral and by mixing this with sand, could make a form of concrete plaster from which he built his home and a church. He constructed a mill to crush sugar cane and set up a school to teach the natives to read the only book that had been written in their language, The Gospel according to St Luke, printed on a small press by the missionaries in Huahine.

There were other islands round Raiatea that Williams wished to visit so he decided to build another boat, it was to be 16 feet long. As there was no forge or iron on Raiatea the boat was held together by cinet a fibre cord. Nails were only used to fix the planks to the stem and sternpost.

Soon Williams set his eyes further afield and realised he would need a stouter ship and during a trip to Sydney bought a new schooner of 80 - 90 tons called the "Endeavour". When the ship arrived Tamatoa who by now was a staunch friend said the islanders would pay for it and as they had no money he filled her with coco-nut oil and arrowroot to be sold to the merchants of Sydney. The name of the ship was later changed to "The Beginning" (Te Matamua).

Williams was now busy training natives to become missionaries and as soon as they were ready were dispatched to neighbouring islands to convert and teach. They were welcomed by the inhabitants as the new religion which did not require human sacrifice of members of the family was very acceptable and quickly spread. Not all of Williams trips to islands were successful at Mangaia the two coloured missionaries and their wives he landed barely escaped with their lives and Williams reluctantly had to pass that one by. At another island Atiu where two teachers had been sent, they were stripped of all their goods, refused food, and were in a sorry state. Undaunted Williams and Tamatoa met Roma-tane the King of Atiu and were able to show him the error of his ways and convert him to Christianity.

Later Williams visited Rarotonga leaving a teacher behind to instruct the natives. Two more missionaries Mr and Mrs Pitman arrived at Raiatea and as soon as the had learnt the language they too went to Rarotonga. At this time the natives worshipped wooden idols decorated with feathers, the missionaries persuaded some of the islanders to burn their idols and when fearfully they obeyed and found there were no dire consequences from their fallen gods they accepted the new religion. The story goes that at the first burning the missionary cooked some bananas in the glowing embers of the idols and ate them. This effectually killed any lingering fear of the power of the idols. The ceremony of burning the gods became one of the missionaries strongest weapons.

On one occasion while at Rarotonga engaged on building a church, Williams had the need to send a request to his wife for a tool and using charcoal and a chip of wood wrote his message and sent a native to deliver and collect the tool. This utterly amazed the natives who could not understand how the chip of wood could talk. By this time Williams could speak the language of the Rarotonga’s and spent his evenings translating the Gospel of St. John into the Rarotongan language and writing a simple A B C. These were sent back to Huahine by the next vessel that sailed there and printed. These were used to teach the islanders how to read and write.

While on Rarotonga Williams had no ship of his own and as he wanted to visit distant islands he decided to build a more substantial ship than the ones he had built at Eimeo and Raiatea which were not capable of tackling the 1,000 mile voyages he intended to make. Williams had no saw to make planks no canvas for sails or rope for rigging. The only iron on the island was a piece of chain left behind years ago by a visiting ship, driven off by the natives. Making his own forge and anvil he had to kill three of the four goats on the island to make leather for the bellows, unfortunately rats eat the leather. He next tried a wooden box bellows that took ten men to pump, once this was working he was able to convert the chain into nails. He used wedges to split tree trunks into planks and an axe head used as an adze to finish the planks to size. He designed a rope making machine using fibre from the bark of the hibiscus tree to make the ropes needed. He even made a crude lathe to turn sheaves for the blocks needed to raise the sails. Within fifteen weeks of laying down the keel the ship was finished and named the "Messenger of Peace". On the first trip the mast broke and they limped back to the bay where he had built the ship. A new mast was soon fitted and Williams made many voyages to distant islands travelling as far as Samoa.

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This post card of the "John Williams VI" has a rouletted left edge showing it came from a booklet.

and was given as a receipt for a donation of a 1/- to the London Missionary Society.

The arrival of another missionary Mr Smith and his wife who had come to take over from Williams meant that as soon as they could be taught the language Williams would be free to take on even longer journeys. This meant his ship would need to be enlarged and reinforced. He now had iron and copper sheet that had come from Britain and made the ship six feet longer with a new stern.

Williams visited many islands converting the peoples to Christianity and it was his wife Mary’s health that made it necessary for them to return to Britain after an absence of seventeen years. Back in Britain he travelled the country telling of his adventures.

He wrote several books " A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands, with remarks upon the Natural History of the Islands, Origin, Languages, Traditions and Usage’s of the Inhabitants." This ran into many editions. He also wrote "Missionary Enterprises".

His aim was to raise enough money to buy a substantial vessel and continue his travels and he was eventually able to buy a brig the "Camden" on which Williams with sixteen other missionaries would sail to the South Sea Islands. On the voyage Williams taught the other missionaries the Tahitian language which they would need once they arrived.

Once back in the South Seas Williams continued to visit far away islands on the "Camden|" converting savages. His last trip was to the New Hebrides among the black cannibal islanders of the Western Pacific. The ship moored off Erromanga the island that had driven off Captain Cook many years ago. Williams with two friend Harris and Cunningham were rowed to the beach and landed, where they were attacked, only Cunningham managed to reach the boat the other two were clubbed to death on the beach, and dragged away.

When the news reached Sydney a ship-of-war H.M.S. "Favourite" under Captain Croker was commissioned to sail to Erromanga and some of the natives were captured and questioned as to what had happened to Williams, "we ate him" they replied. They were able to recover his skull and a few bones which were brought back and buried at Apia in Samoa.

The "Camden" returned to Britain and a collection raised over 6,000 to buy a new ship named the "John Williams" launched in March 1844 and for twenty years she sailed the South Seas carrying on the work started by Williams until in 1864 she was wrecked on Danger Island near Rarotonga. Again collections raised more money, 11,000 this time and "John Williams II" set sail in January 4 1866 and was wrecked on the Island of Niué on her first voyage. Within a year money had been raised for "John Williams III" which was launched in October 1868 and after many years service was sold in 1895. It had already been replaced two years previously by a steam yacht "John Williams IV". By 1930 this too needed replacing and again by collections nearly 15,000 was raised for a new auxiliary schooner "John Williams V". The next ship "John Williams VI" was christened by H.R.H. Princess Margaret on the Thames on the 5th August 1948.

It is claimed that the money for the ships was collected mainly by children, but I have no doubt collecting boxes at the hundreds, probably thousands of missionary exhibitions also helped raise the money. Speaking only yesterday to an elderly lady at the local church coffee morning about the John Williams ships, she told me she remembered children collecting the old 1940’s half-penny’s with the ship on, to put into London Missionary Society collecting boxes.

The London Missionary Society published postcards of John Williams and of several of the ships named after him. People who donated one 1/- towards the "John Williams VI" were given a receipt in the form of a post card torn from a book of receipt post cards.

© Exhibition Study Group 2002