Christianity a victim of custom and language differences on Tanna

Chief Lomai of Tanna

Landing at Tanna in 1774, the great navigator Captain Cook was received with apparent island courtesy. However, he could see that clubs, spears, bows and arrows were being prepared for use by the welcoming party and this quickly aroused Cook’s suspicion of how any visitors to Port Resolution on Tanna would be treated.

In addition, there was a total absence of women and he took this to mean the likelihood of mischief being intended. He ordered his landing-boat to return to his ship and this resulted in efforts to prevent the landing party from sailing.

Attempts were made to prevent the landing party from leaving the island. Violence ensued. Cook’s party had their oars taken and Cook felt obliged to fire on those trying to stop their departure. Four Tannese were killed, and others wounded. Cook noted that he felt it unlikely that a missionary endeavour could ever be seriously considered for the location in view of the attitude of the Tannese bystanders. An intention to develop business and society around Port Resolution was abandoned and Cook sailed for Erromango where worthwhile stands of sandal-wood, much valued by the Chinese for its sweet-smelling aroma when burned, an exuberant growth on Erromango, had been noted. Prices were high.

The London Missionary Society had sent three Samoan missionaries to Port Resolution, Tanna, where two remained safe for two more years after the murder of their resident missionary, John M Williams at Erromango.

Captain Cook’s hasty departure from Tanna was a service for Christian missionaries.

The publication of his “Voyages” was of particular interest to missionaries. William Carey and the Countess of Huntingdon each started missions and Tanna received its first missionaries. John M Williams had earlier been murdered on Erromango. The action showed the extent to which criminal riff-raf white men in their commercial undertakings might proceed for their own pockets in pursuit of their aims and objectives considered acceptable for the native or foreign businessmen by Asian interests. The wonder is so few whites were killed in this cut-throat commerce after missionary endeavours started.

John M Williams had established missionary activities in the Western Pacific along with the church activities of his Rotuman and Samoan missionaries. Mesdames Turner and Nesbit of the first British missionary couples on East Tanna suffered pilfering and loss to the natives living nearby and visiting trading ships gave no help to the white wantoks of their vessels in Port Resolution anchorages. Languages — so many being spoken on the southern islands — resulted in mis-understandngs with every poor usage. Help was not generally available.

Of greatest help to those beginning mission activities was the example of early Christian converts to the new faith: persons like the noted war chief, Lomai, who had lived for some time in Queensland. He was a friend of missionary John G Paton and his son. Differences between the Tannese tribes were minimised when such friends of the new church appeared.

The capability of sandal-wood to woo business people of Vanuatu’s southern islands was seen in a proper perspective matching the Tafean native’s understanding of what issues might be of importance to southern islanders: sandal-wood had no rating. Medicines were, however, considered of value, especially those which could cure a sickness. Gift giving had a positive role to play.

Jonas Cullwick, a former General Manager of VBTC is now a Senior Journalist with the Daily Post. Contact: jonas@dailypost.vu. Cell # 678 5460922

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