Few people would link the transformation of a group of islands in the South Pacific with the tiny village of Alfington in East Devon… Yet the islands of Melanesia, including the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides, once renowned for being among the most violent anywhere, are now largely Christian, and famous for their welcome and friendliness: thanks to the vision and courage of a young curate, minister at Alfington church.
JOHN COLERIDGE PATTESON was not born in Devon, but in Gower St. in London on 1st April 1827; his father was a high court judge, his mother the niece of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was born in Ottery St Mary, two miles from Alfington. Because he had relatives in Devon, Coley, as he was always called, was sent at the age of eight to be a boarder at The King’s School in Ottery, where he spent three years, before going on to Eton, then Oxford University.
Coley had learned as a child to pray, and to read the Bible; and he decided very early on that he wanted to be a Bishop! When he was fourteen, he heard a friend of the family – a Bishop! – George Selwyn speak about working for God overseas; the Bishop even asked Coley’s mother if she might let him go abroad when he finished school. The idea began to take root in his mind, and in 1854 Coley was made a deacon and travelled back to Devon to take up his role as curate at Alfington.
But he was not to remain there long; after only a year Bishop Selwyn, who was working in New Zealand, came home on leave. His work was going well, and he needed an assistant: would Coley consider coming to join him? Coley knew that it would mean never seeing friends or family again: but he was convinced that this was God’s call to him. In 1854 he became a priest and in March 1855 set sail with Selwyn for the other side of the world
He began work among the Maoris and, some months later, made his first trip north with Selwyn to visit the Melanesian islands. In some places, the island people were still cannibals, and hostile to visitors; but mostly they were welcomed, and exchanged gifts of cloth, axes and fish-hooks for coconuts, yams or small canoes. Selwyn had visited several times, and the islanders were beginning to trust him, allowing him to take some children back with him to teach for a few months. This time, he and Coley took some of their young men back, to train them as leaders for the Melanesian church. Way ahead of their time, both felt that it was important for the church to be led by its own people; it was Coley’s job to train them, which he loved – and managed to learn over 20 of their languages!
Soon, Selwyn decided the islands should have their own Bishop, and in 1861 John “Coley” Patteson became the first Bishop of Melanesia.
It was not an easy calling: the islands were scattered over 1,800 miles of ocean, and he was not always welcomed. Usually his gentle, quiet manner reassured them, but not always. Once when he and his assistants were about to leave Santa Cruz, they were attacked and both assistants, despite Coley’s best attempts to nurse them, died from the wounds they received from the poisoned arrows.
Coley’s task was to be made even harder when traders from Australia began to visit the islands, keen to get men to go and work on their sugar plantations. Usually they kept the law and agreed proper terms of employment: but some simply kidnapped the islanders and carried them off in what became known as “snatch-snatch” boats. The relatives would be so angry and upset they would vow to take revenge on any white person.
It was August 1871 when Coley made another trip to the islands of Santa Cruz. They knew the snatch-snatch boats had been around, but did not know that five men had been kidnapped from the small island of Nukapu. When Coley arrived there, his boat could not land as the tide was too low for it to cross the reef. Some of the islanders came out in their canoes, and Coley got into one to be taken ashore, while his own boat waited at the reef. He went to rest in one of the village houses while the chief prepared a meal: not knowing that the man of the house was the uncle of one of those captured by the traders. As he rested, the man struck him on the head with his club; in the confusion that followed, the islanders shot at the waiting boat, hitting two helpers who later died of their wounds.
A local woman prepared the Bishop’s body for burial, and a grave was dug. She wrapped the body and put it in a canoe, which she towed towards the grave; but, seeing a boat put out from the missionary ship, she took fright, cut loose the canoe and paddled back. The men from the ship retrieved Coley’s body, and committed it to the sea. The empty grave remains, marked by a cross and a notice which reads;
“In memory of John Coleridge Patteson whose life was here taken by men for whose sake he would willingly have given it”
Bishop Patteson’s death shocked the British government into taking measures to stamp out the slave trade in its Pacific territories. Gradually the Melanesian islands began to lose their reputation for violence as the people learned a new faith and a new way of living.
The Bishops’ determination that they would not do things in a western, “white man’s” way but that the Melanesians should lead their own church in their own way demonstrated both vision and respect. It was still hard, though, to find even Melanesians who were happy to go into the inland parts of the islands to work among the bush peoples: until a member of the Solomon Islands Police Force, Ini Kopuria, felt that God was leading him to start a Brotherhood. This was a group of young men who were prepared to commit a few years of their lives to sharing the Christian faith, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and travelling to villages where no Christians had been before. Wherever they were welcomed, they would live alongside the villagers, working with them and serving them in whatever way they could. They soon became known for their simplicity, their hard work, their courage and for the miracles which God performed through them.
Today, there are around 700 members of the Melanesian Brotherhood. Because they are well known and respected, they have been able to help make peace when there has been trouble between islanders: though in 2003, six brothers were killed as they tried to negotiate with a rebel leader. Four days after announcing their deaths, however, he gave himself up.
In 2012, we came full circle as groups of Melanesian Brothers and Sisters travelled to the other side of the world to visit the place where it all started, and to share their faith, Melanesian-style, with us. So here was one local man, whose life, though just a drop in the ocean – was a catalyst which helped transform a nation through the gospel of Jesus Christ.