Villagers apologise for killing of Vanuatu missionary | Pacific Beat

Villagers apologise for killing of Vanuatu missionary

Villagers apologise for killing of Vanuatu missionary

Updated 15 February 2012, 13:47 AEDT

Vanuatu villagers whose ancestors killed and ate a Scottish missionary in the 19th century have apologised to the man's descendants at a ceremony on the anniversary of his death.

170 years after people on Erromango killed Presbyterian missionary the Reverend John Williams and his companion, James Harris, some of Mr Williams descendants travelled to the island to take part in a reconciliation ceremony last month.

Some local people felt Erromango had been cursed because of the killings.

Vanuatu anthropologist and the local member of parliament, Ralph Regenvanu, says Reverend Williams has an important place in history as being the first missionary to arrive in what was then called the New Hebrides.

Presenter: Bruce Hill

Speaker: Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu anthropologist and member of parliament

REGENVANU: He arrived in Vanuatu in 1839. He made landfall on the island of Futuna and that was the first place that a missionary had come to in Vanuatu when he arrived and then the second place to was Dylan's Bay on the island of Manga, and when he arrived there, he arrived at a very bad time, because just previously there had been some traders who had been involved in all sorts of devious activities. They had assaulted people and killed people in the search for sandalwood, mainly sandalwood. And so the people on Erromango, were had suffered under the hands of traders and so when the missionary came, they basically took their revenge on him. They killed him and his companions who came ashore and then ate them and that was back in 1839. And then as a result of the death of this missionary, the news went around Australia and Scotland, particularly where the Presbyterian church had sent people out and New Zealand and all the places that were sending missionaries to the Pacific and it was sort of a renewed calls to missionise the New Hebrides. So it was as a result of his death a very concerted effort was put in by especially the Presbyterian church to missionise and convert people in the New Hebrides to Christianity. It has very symbolic kind of meaning so to Vanuatu, but also to Erromango.

HILL: And how are the people on Erromango cope with this? They felt for a long time that there was some sort of curse on them for having killed and eaten this missionary, didn't they?

REGENVANU: Yes, there was a feeling that there was a curse on Erromango and that was reflected in the fact that they thought there was very little development projects in the island, it is very undeveloped and it is still to today.

HILL: Now, tell us about this reconciliation ceremony. This missionary's great, great grandson actually arrived on Erromango and there was a ceremony to try and lift this curse, to apologise for what had happened?

REGENVANU: There was actually a number of the descendants of the Reverend John Williams. The descendants came from Canada, from the UK, from Botswana, and from many of them it was the first time they had met also when they arrived in Vanuatu. It was the first time they had met each other. And they all came here with the purpose of this reconciliation ceremony, which had been in the planning for about two years prior to this and it happened on the 170th anniversary of the killing of John Williams, which was on the 20th November, 1839. It happened on the 20th November last month.

HILL: So how do people feel about it now that they have actually looked this guys descendants in the eyes and they have looked them in the eyes and they have made peace with what actually happened?

REGENVANU: Well, it's been a huge psychological advance. The meaning for the people of Erramango is huge, especially the descendants of those who killed the missionary, because they had felt for so long that they have carried some sort of a curse for having done this and this was the first opportunity after 170 years for them to actually make amends with representatives of the person that was killed.

HILL: Even though what happened, happened in 1839, which is a long time ago. I am guessing it would have still been a pretty emotional thing?

REGENVANU: It was very emotional. I was lucky enough to be there and witness it and it was incredibly emotional, because of the way that the people of Erromango organised it and the way that when, particularly the family of John Williams came forward to make the reconciliation ceremony with the descendants of John Williams, what happened then and genuine tears, crying and so on, it was just quite amazing.

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