J.F.K., Dr Who, and the Williamses
By Pacific Guardians
November 2013 was a month of historical significance. There were four events covering 174 years that stood out on the global scale.
Two of them political (John F. Kennedy, and Poto Williams), an entertainment marvel (Dr Who) and then there was Rev John Williams, the bringer of the Good News to the Pacific in the 1900s.
First off the list is 22 November. It was the day charismatic United States President, John F. Kennedy (J.F.K.) was assassinated.
It was a day the U.S.A. was brought to a standstill, while shockwaves reverberated around the globe as the reality of the tragedy sunk in.
In 2013, fifty years on, J.F.K. still stopped the country, a plethora of conspiracy theorists bring forth new versions of the tragedy, while emotional displays from Americans remain just as strong.
Second off the list, is in the entertainment front. Just one day after the J.F.K. event, on 23 November, Dr Who, the iconic British science fiction TV series hit the small screen.
The programme over the years has influenced generations. Along the way it is listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest-running science fiction television show in the world. It is the “most successful” science fiction series of all time and its 50th anniversary episode ‘The Day Of The Doctor’ is officially the most watched British TV drama in 2013 having drawn overnight ratings of 10.2million viewers on November 23. Since then, a further 12.8million people have watched the episode. Another perspective is there were 1.27million requests on BBC iPlayer, 24 hours after its premiere. That means it broke the record previously held by the London Olympic’s opening ceremony in 2012.
But for the Pacific islands, the majority of its people making up the microcosm in Aotearoa, New Zealand, there are two events that match J.F.K. and the Doctor for significance.
One of them happened 174 years ago, on 20 November 1839 in Vanuatu, a group of islands then known as Espiritu Santo when it was claimed for Spain by Portuguese navigator Fernandes de Queirós in 1605. A name that was changed three hundred years later, in 1906, to the New Hebrides by the British and French Condominium that managed them.
But of significance is that on the 20th of November 1839, a white man was seen on the beach of Erromango running for his ship. Alas, he was chased down, killed and then eaten by the natives.
He was Reverend John Williams and at the time was one of the more well known missionaries sent by the London Missionary Society to evangelize the South Seas region.
As the story goes, John and his wife Mary established the good news in many Polynesian islands. But they stood out and were greatly loved because they learned their languages and customs in converting them to Christianity.
Their first missionary post was established on the island of Raiatea in the Society Islands group. From there, they worked their way along a 2,000 mile Polynesian island chain landing on Aitutaki, one of the Cook Islands atoll in 1821, where they used Tahitian converts to carry their message to the Cook islanders.
In 1830 they were the first to introduce Christianity to Samoa. Arriving on their vessel the ‘Messenger of Peace’, they were welcomed into the village of Sapapalii by King Malietoa Vainu’upo who according to Samoan legend was waiting for a ‘Messenger from the one God’ and John Williams and his ‘Messenger of Peace’ was seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
John and Mary together with other missionaries from London preached the Good News and were able to affirm every known island along the 2,000 mile line had received the Gospel. He left Polynesian ministers at several of these outposts.
In 1834, he returned to Britain, where he supervised the printing of his translation of the New Testament bible into the Rarotongan language. They also took to Britain a Samoan, named Leota who was able to live as a Christian in London. At the end of his days, Leota was buried in Abney Park Cemetery having recorded his adventure when he left Samoa with the Williamses.
While in Britain, John Williams published the book “Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”, which raised the profile and popularity of the region in Britain. As a result, he roused huge interest wherever he spoke and with his book selling well, fresh funds poured in allowing him to make further mission trips.
He returned to Polynesia in 1837 where his deeds and media reports about him gained him fame in Congregational circles. That was until the 20th of November 1839 when he was killed. An incident that also increased his fame and became an inspiration to numerous other missionaries to venture to the islands. Several mission boats were named after him.
But it wasn’t until 170 years later that his legacy revisited Vanuatu.
In 2009, Charles Milner-Williams, 65, of Hampshire and 17 members of his family visited Vanuatu.
At a jungle clearing on the island of Erromango, descendants of the cannibals that killed Rev Williams 170 years earlier were bowing in apology to Mr Milner-Williams for having eaten his great, great, great grandfather.
At that 2009 ceremony, Mr Milner-Williams recounted the events that led to his great, great, great grandfather’s demise to the BBC who traveled with the British group to record the event.
“John Williams turned and ran towards the sea. They caught up with him on the sea shore.
“They clubbed him and shot him with arrows and he died there in the shallows.
“It was a Royal Navy ship that went back to the island. The islanders then said that yes, they had killed and eaten both [Rev James] Harris and Williams.”
In the ceremony, islanders bowed before Rev Williams descendants, grasping their hands, clearing their consciences of past deeds.
Mr Milner-Williams also agreed to accept responsibility for the education of a seven-year-old girl who was ceremonially handed to him in exchange for the loss of his great, great, great grandfather.
The reconciliation event marked the 170th anniversary of the death of Williams and Harris.
And according to Mr Iolo Johnson Abbil, president of Vanuatu, “Erromango needs it very much”.
He told the BBC, which showed the ceremony on Inside Out, BBC1: “People always look upon them that they killed a missionary.
“They think that it has a sort of curse on Erromango and that’s why it’s very important for them to have this reconciliation.”
Back in 1839, the news of Rev Williams’ death was greeted with much sorrow in the Pacific islands. Appropriately, a memorial stone was erected on the island of Rarotonga and is still there.
There are stories that the largest island in the Cook Islands group, Rarotonga, was discovered by the Williamses. And that Rarotonga held a special fascination for Rev Williams.
Which brings us to another November event of historical significance – one that occurred on 30 November 2013.
It was when Poto Williams became the first Pacific islander to win a South Island electorate seat to enter parliament.
But more significantly, she rewrote the history books becoming the first Cook Islands woman to be elected into New Zealand’s parliament.
In the lead-up to the by-election last week, she was well aware of the historical implications.
“If I win, I will become the first Cook Islands woman to be a member of parliament in this country,” she told the Pacific Guardians.
She said that will be a proud day for Cook Islanders in New Zealand and also for her villages back home in the Cook Islands.
“My father is from the village of Tukao, Manihiki while my grandfather’s house is in the village of Titikaveka in Rarotonga,” she said.
Rarotonga, a place dear to Rev John Williams and where his banner of looking out for the best interests of Pacific islanders is taken up by another Williams, into New Zealand’s hall of power.