Puritanism in the South Seas


ON a September day in 1795, Mr. Joseph Hardcastle, a well-to-do London merchant, sat in his countinghouse in Duck’s-foot Lane, just off Thames Street, and contemplated the sinfulness of man. But Mr. Hardcastle was not downcast. Even if the revolutionary French across the Channel had enthroned the Goddess of Reason in place of the true God, or if the starveling apprentices in his own London were muttering radical opinions gleaned from Tom Paine’s atheistic Age of Reason, or if gin-soaked derelicts wallowed in his own gutters, nevertheless Mr. Hardcastle was in a glow of pious and optimistic excitement. A great adventure for the Lord was afoot, and Mr. Hardcastle was one of the instruments of that enterprise. As he sniffed the breeze that blew from the Thames his pulse beat faster and his thoughts went wandering out to sea, around stormy Cape Horn, to bring up at last on coral islands, peopled by gentle natives, waiting eagerly for the Word of God.

For on the previous evening, Friday, September 25, 1795, at a meeting held at the Castle and Falcon, the worthy merchant of Duck’s-foot Lane had been elected treasurer of the ‘Missionary Society’ organized on that occasion to evangelize ‘Otaheite, or some other of the islands of the South Sea.’ And already stirring in Mr. Hardcastle’s brain were plans that were to materialize into a voyage almost as strange and quixotic as any that Jonathan Swift might have imagined.

If it seems strange that prosaic merchants, small tradesmen, and preachers of the last decade of the eighteenth century were vastly concerned over the plight of a handful of heathen in the South Pacific, who were going to perdition right merrily without benefit of clergy, one must remember that this was the age that glorified the noble savage and believed in the doctrine of natural goodness. Rousseau’s beliefs had vaguely influenced the thinking even of men of trade and of God, though they would have been the first to deny any traffic with this unorthodox philosopher. And the evangelical movement, first set in motion by Wesley and Whitefield, and continued within the bosom of the Anglican Church by Wilberforce, was growing with lush vigor among middle-class Englishmen who yearned for opportunities to prove that man was capable of infinite perfectibility under the influence of Protestant religion. If the misery, suffering, and depravity of the English working classes, at that moment trying to adjust themselves to the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, cried aloud to the evangelists, the cry fell on ears far less receptive to it than to the call from the South Sea. English depravity and wickedness were commonplace; some even doubted whether the doctrine of perfectibility was applicable to such sinners as were to be found among the working classes of Birmingham, Liverpool, London, and elsewhere in England where laborers sweated, starved, squandered their wages on gin, and blasphemed against the Holy Ghost.

But far away in the Pacific was another race of men, untainted by the evils of European civilization, only waiting for Christianity to make them the perfect creatures about whom philosophers had dreamed. Hence it was that Mr. Hardcastle and many of his brethren-in-trade united with wellmeaning clergymen of various Protestant faiths to organize the Missionary Society, soon to become known as the London Missionary Society, which set about the task of carrying the message of Christ to the Polynesians. Along with the Gospel, the missionaries were also to carry a doctrine of trade, thrift, and industry to puzzled, indolent, and hitherto happy islanders. Of course these God-fearing adventurers could not foresee that they would likewise take with them the germs of diseases which would sweep most of the population of some of the islands into eternity, and even had they foreseen this calamity they could not have been deterred, for most of them were Calvinists who could have subscribed without cavil to the Westminster Confession, and their actions were in the hands of their Creator.


When it was bruited about that the London Missionary Society had the salvation of the Tahitians in hand, great was the eagerness of volunteers to go to a field so fertile for the saving of souls. Cobblers, weavers, brick masons, shopkeepers, and a host of other simple folk suddenly felt a call to preach the Gospel in those realms of gold where beauteous maidens waited to hear the Scripture story, and with one accord they offered their services to Mr. Hardcastle and his fellow directors. For already the good ship Duff was being prepared to sail for Tahiti with a cargo of missionaries and objects of barter.

This zeal to go adventuring into the South Pacific is not surprising when one remembers that for a quarter of a century all England, indeed all Europe, had been reading romantic accounts of the islands of the South Seas. Since Captain Wallis in His Majesty’s ship Dolphin had rediscovered Tahiti in 1767 and Captain Cook had visited the island, first, in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus (surely a symbolic incident), Englishmen had felt a peculiar yearning to visit that region. Their interest had been greatly titillated by the alluring manner in which Dr. John Hawkesworth had dressed up the relations of recent voyages, which he had published to the delectation of his countrymen as An Account of the Voyages . . . in the Southern Hemisphere . . . performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret and Captain Cook (1773).

Many Londoners had seen an actual specimen of the noble South Sea islander in the person of Omai, who had been brought back from the island of Huahine by Captain Furneaux, associate of Captain Cook in his second voyage. From the highest literary circles to the lowliest gathering of apprentices, tales of the South Seas proved exciting. And always there were stories of the charm of oliveskinned beauties who lavished their favors on visiting voyageurs. Not even Dr. Johnson’s stern command not to ‘cant in defense of savages’ could keep Boswell from longing to go and live three years in Tahiti to satisfy himself as to ‘what nature can do for man.’

More recently Englishmen had been stirred by stories of the mutiny on April 28, 1789, aboard Lieutenant Bligh’s ship, the Bounty, which had been sent to Tahiti to gather breadfruit trees for introduction into the West Indies, and the public had not ceased to exclaim over the commander’s heroic voyage of nearly four thousand miles in an open boat to Timor, about which they could read in Bligh’s own narrative. Small wonder is it that Mr. Hardcastle and his brethren had to decline innumerable applications from would-be missionaries to the Tahitians, for countless Englishmen of all classes were longing to escape into distant realms of romance or far-away Utopias. Only the year before the missionary venture, two poets, Coleridge and Southey (who had once glorified Omai in verse), were dreaming of founding an ideal pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna.


The morning of August 10, 1796, saw the missionary ship Duff slowly moving down the Thames on the first stage of its voyage of salvation. At six o’clock the master had ‘ hoisted our missionary flag at the mizzen-topgallant-masthead: three doves argent on a purple field, bearing olive-branches in their bills,’ and passengers, captain, and crew joined in a prayer for the success of the enterprise. For the Duff was commanded by a godly man, Captain James Wilson, whose conversion had followed much suffering in India, where he had been imprisoned by Hyder Ali. The crew also was composed of no ordinary seamen, but of sailors professing religion, ‘about half [of whom] were communicants,’ who could be relied upon to resist the wiles of the island Circes. Thirty-nine others composed the missionary band, which included six women and three children. Only four of the evangelists were ordained ministers; the rest were simple tradesmen and artisans. There were William Smith, linen draper; Edward Hudden, butcher; Seth Kelso, weaver; Isaac Nobbs, hatter; Daniel Bowell, shopkeeper; William Crook, gentleman’s servant; William Shelly, cabinetmaker; John Buchanan, tailor; Benjamin Broom hall, harness maker; Henry Nott, bricklayer; William Henry, carpenter; and fifteen others who were leaving their trades to teach the Gospel lesson to the heathen. Pious men were these, Calvinistic in theology and strict Sabbatarians. The Tahitians little knew what manner of men were coming among them.

The long voyage outward was a season of prayer, preaching, discussion of doctrine, and the contemplation of God’s wonders, with some time devoted to the study of geography and the Tahitian language from a vocabulary prepared by a member of the ill-fated Bounty s crew. Some of the missionaries devoted themselves to writing journals, portions of which make up that naïvely entertaining book which first told of their expedition: A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean, Performed in the Years 1796, 1797, 1798, in the Ship Duff, Commanded by Captain James Wilson (1799). On the first Sabbath at sea three sermons set the pace which was to be kept during most of the voyage. The ordained ministers retained a monopoly of the formal ship’s sermons, but the others were free to participate in the discussion so long as they maintained an orthodox point of view. About the middle of January, however, one of the brethren became troubled about a point of doctrine and found himself unable to see eye to eye with the others, a condition which disturbed the peace of the company until they had reasoned the protesting member back into conformity.

Moral lessons were drawn from every incident of the voyage. When a foundered hawk lighted on the rigging ana was caught, a seasick missionary observed: ‘So might my poor soul, wandering from its true home, be lost, if not graciously prevented by Divine mercy.’ The spouting of a school of whales made a profound impression on the astonished missionaries: ‘We were struck with awe and solemnity — How wonderful and manifold are thy works, O God! Heaven, earth, and sea, declare thy glory. Let everything which hath breath praise the Lord!’

So the voyage wore on and the Duff reached Rio de Janeiro, where the missionaries were hospitably received by the commandant and his lady. ‘And sorry we were,’ one of them wrote unctuously in his journal, ‘that we could make no acknowledgements in return; especially when we saw their rooted superstitions, beads and crucifixes hung about their necks; and the cross and their saints ... at the corner of every street, and before their houses.’ A desire to keep such superstitions from contaminating the Tahitians caused the missionaries a half century later to precipitate an international crisis between England and France. But as yet Tahiti was far away, and the brethren, refreshed with popish supplies to keep off scurvy, braced themselves for a fourtecn-thousand-mile voyage, for it was now determined not to risk rounding Cape Horn, but to go by way of the Cape of Good Hope!


After many trials, the Gospel ship sighted Tahiti on Saturday, March 4, 1797, but it was the next day before they could make land, and, it being the Sabbath, the missionaries lost no time in beginning their ministry to the heathen, who swarmed out to the ship bringing fruit, fowls, and hogs, which must have sorely tempted many of the godly brethren long since weary of ship’s biscuit and salt beef. Instead of bartering for the appetizing food, however, the missionaries announced a religious service, and the Reverend Mr. Cover forthwith preached a sermon upon the text, ‘God is love,’ from the first Epistle of John. ‘During the sermon and prayer,’ wrote one of those present, ‘the natives were quiet and thoughtful; but when the singing struck up, they seemed charmed and filled with amazement; sometimes they would talk and laugh, but a nod of the head brought them to order. Upon the whole their unweariedness and quietness were astonishing; and, indeed, all who heard observed a peculiar solemnity and excellence in Mr. Cover’s address that day.’ Fifty years later the ‘peculiar solemnity’ of Mr. Cover’s sermon had been transmitted to the whole race of Tahitians, and a French admiral commented that, under the missionaries, song and dance and laughter had vanished.

The reported hospitality of the inhabitants of Tahiti, the Friendly Islands, and the Marquesas had disposed the missionaries ‘ to promote their [the islanders’] best interests’ by settling among them. Another influence, perhaps even more potent, had been the accounts of the beauty of the women and their need of salvation. But the first sight of the enchantresses whom these tradesmen had come to save from their sins was disappointing. ‘ We began to view our new friends with an eye of inquiry,’ one of them confesses in his journal, but ‘ their wild disorderly behaviour, strong smell of cocoa-nut oil, together with the tricks of the arreoics, lessened the favourable opinion we had formed of them; neither could we see aught of that elegance and beauty in their women for which they have been so greatly celebrated. This at first seemed to depreciate them in the estimation of our brethren; but the cheerfulness, good-nature, and generosity of these kind people soon removed the momentary prejudices.’

The rigors of the Sabbath over, the missionaries and crew began a round of feasting and such jollity as their consciences would permit. If the women were not so lovely as English imaginations had made them, their kindness was great, and the brethren were mightily cheered in spirit by the food they brought. So completely was prejudice removed that by November one of their number ‘raised the very practical question, Was it proper for a missionary to marry a native woman?’ The brethren after much discussion decided that it was ‘contrary to the will of God, and resolved in the Lord’s strength to abide as they were.’

Since Tahiti had been selected by the majority of the missionaries as the field of their labors, these at once set about acquiring land and establishing themselves in power, as we shall see, while William Crook, gentleman’s servant, accompanied by John Harris, cooper, set out for the Marquesas, where, they had been assured, ‘the natives exceed in general beauty those of the groups already described, especially the females.’ No disappointment was to be theirs, for the missionary account asserts that the ‘women at the Marquesas, for beauty of feature, symmetry of form, and lightness of colour, far exceeded the other islands.’ If Brother Crook had been acquainted with literature, he would have thought, as the Duff approached the Marquesas, of the sirens who bewitched Ulysses’ men, or of the temptations of Armida, or of the Bower of Bliss, for the ship was met by ‘seven beautiful young women swimming quite naked, except for a few green leaves tied around their middle.’ Not even these garments were retained when the girls reached the deck, for the ship’s ‘ mischievous goats’ devoured the leaves and left them ‘completely stripped naked,’ a condition which prompted the missionaries to bestow on each a piece of Tahitian cloth. The sailors, communicants though they were, were marvelously pleased with their visitors, and one of the evangelists himself writes sympathetically: ‘It was not a little affecting also to see our own seamen repairing the rigging, attended by a group of the most beautiful females, who were employed to pass the ball, or carry the tar-bucket, &c.; and this they did with the greatest assiduity, often besmearing themselves with the tar in the execution of their office. No ship’s company, without great, restraints from God’s grace, could ever have resisted such temptations; and some would have probably offended if they had not. been over-awed by the jealousy of the officers and by the good conduct of their messmates.’

Having provided the Marqucsans with an opportunity of hearing the Gospel message, the Duff sailed from these Happy Isles to Tongatabu, where Brother George Vecson, bricklayer, and several others were to undertake the harvest of souls. Unfortunately, the bricklayer lacked some of God’s grace which had distinguished the ship’s company while lying off the Marquesas, and even before the Duff sailed away on September 7, 1797, his brethren had suspected him of misconduct. When, on October 3, ‘suspicion became a certainty,’ he was excommunicated and left to adopt native customs as he desired. Having started thus inauspiciously, the mission to Tongatabu ended in total failure after three of the workers, Daniel Bowell, shopkeeper, Samuel Gaulton, ‘probationer,’ and Samuel Harper, cotton manufacturer, had been massacred. Meanwhile, having found the Marquesans singularly unconcerned about their damnation, Brother Crook decided that he ‘could best serve the cause by returning’ to England; thereupon he took passage on a ship that opportunely touched at the Marquesas.


But to return to the settlers in Tahiti.

Since it was implicitly believed by Mr. Hardcastle and other business men who directed the affairs of the London Missionary Society that souls could be saved at a profit, or at least without loss, the missionaries had come to Tahiti in the expectation of turning an honest penny as they preached the Gospel. From the very first, the evangelists found it difficult to separate trade and religion, and if some of them had paid lip service to the doctrine of the simple life they speedily forgot it in their zeal to inculcate on the natives the bourgeois qualities of thrift, diligence, economy, and respect for property, virtues which honest tradesmen of London regarded as the basis of society. Incidentally, while the missionaries were instructing the Tahitians in the primer of trade, the Duff had picked up in China a cargo of tea that on arrival in London brought a profit of £4100; the directors had also received from the printer Chapman £2000 for the copyright of the account of the voyage. Surely the home society had cause to be pleased at the way the Lord had smiled upon the missionary enterprise. Meanwhile, the diligent preachers of the word in Tahiti were acquiring titles to land.

Captain Wilson had received explicit directions from the London Missionary Society to explain to the chiefs that ‘ as an inducement to us to prefer their island, they must give us a full title to the land we may have occasion for.’ Two days after the Duff had landed missionaries on Tahiti, they were dickering with the generous natives about land. Captain Wilson informed the most influential native in sight, whom the English promptly dubbed ‘king,’ that the good men who proposed to settle among them required ‘the free gift of a piece of land sufficiently stocked with bread-fruit and cocoa-nut trees, and so large as to contain a garden and admit of houses being built upon it; that this land should be their own.’ With extravagant generosity, the chief ceded the whole district around Matavai Bay. A picture, once in the possession of Captain Wilson’s widow (and reproduced in Richard Lovett’s History of the London Missionary Society, 17951895), shows Captain Wilson and the missionaries in their best frock coats, making a great occasion of the ceremony of cession. A few months later the missionaries at Tongatabu selected a convenient island for their own use. ‘We made choice of Makkaha,’ one of them records, ‘and the few natives, about thirty in number, became our tenants, from whom we could afterwards draw whatever we wanted of the produce; or demand their fish, if we chose it; or improve the island, by making what alterations in it we pleased.’ Thus the work of the Lord proceeded on a solid foundation of real estate.

But, liberal as the natives had at first been, they were not such fools as to be blind to the fact that the price of salvation was becoming high, and presently the missionaries had reason to write down as a general observation of South Sea Islanders that ‘they are so tenacious of their territory and of their canoes, so covetous of all we possess, and under a persuasion that all strangers are enemies, that they will, either by force or cunning, aim at the lives of those who are so unhappy as to place confidence in them till some friendly intercourse has been established.’ Experience was a school in which the Tahitians had only started a long tutelage that was to teach them much about the acquisitive habits of Christians.

Having acquired a base of operations, the missionaries now divided their time between religion and trade. ‘We drew up rules for every day’s work,’ records one of those left at Tahiti; ‘the bell to ring at six; to be assembled for prayer in half an hour; to labour till ten at our various occupations; to spend from ten to three in mental improvement; from three till night at our usual employment; bell to ring at seven for prayer, and the journal to be read. We then proceeded to divide our iron for traffic, and cast lots for the watches.’ Rich were the material rewards of their endeavors. Food poured in upon them without stint: hogs, fish, breadfruit, coconuts, and other commodities. Never in their lives had these evangelists lived amid such abundance. ‘Lord,’ writes one in pious thanksgiving, ‘ thou has set me in a heathen land, but a land, if I may so speak, flowing with milk and honey. O put more grace and gratitude into my cold heart, and grant that I may never with Jeshurun grow fat and kick.’

If it was important to teach the Tahitians Calvinistic Christianity, it was equally important, in the eyes of the first missionaries, to teach them certain fundamental concepts of bourgeois civilization. The first of these was a holy regard for property. When the natives gave away the gifts bestowed upon them the missionaries regarded this merely as proof of the stupidity and folly of uncivilized savages who had grown up without benefit of lessons in thrift, but when they freely pilfered articles from their self-appointed saviors such dishonesty and thievery aroused the righteous indignation of the missionaries.

Over no question did the two races have greater difficulty in understanding each other than over the attitude toward property. With the carelessness of children the islanders gave away their possessions, and with equal carelessness they took any articles that caught their eyes. This custom of the country greatly troubled the evangelists, who resolutely attempted to teach the natives ways more in accord with the civilization of Cheapside.

Only when the missionaries wanted the possessions of the islanders did the custom seem tolerable. To supply planks for the first blacksmith’s shop, one of the brethren went on a foray with the so-called king, who, ‘searching every house, took what he liked; many of the people stoutly resisted, but his men would not leave a plank. I told the king, with whom we exercise the most entire familiarity, that he was a thief. “No,” says he, “it is the custom of Otaheite.”’ But when, several weeks later, a native stole Brother Gillham’s clothes as he bathed himself in a secluded spot, the missionaries ran down the thief and chained him to a pillar. The wickedness of the native thief was the greater because he dressed in the Christian’s apparel and was on the verge of performing a heathen dance when captured. The stolen planks that went into the blacksmith’s shop, on the other hand, were used to house an anvil and bellows employed by the servants of the Lord. Much depended on that. Nevertheless, thievery long remained a major vexation of the evangelists. As soon as Brother Nott had learned the language sufficiently well, he preached a fiery sermon on the sin of theft, after which many possessions were returned to the missionaries. ‘This afforded some encouragement,’ a chronicler recorded a few years later, ‘and indeed, it was one of the first satisfactory fruits of the labours of our brethren here.’ There is no record of any plank from the consecrated blacksmith shop being restored.


Indolence was another trait of the islanders that troubled their saviors, who had been nourished on the bourgeois and Calvinistic doctrine that man is called to labor diligently in some vocation. It is true that these natives had everything needed to satisfy their simple desires without unduly exerting,themselves. Because the Tahitians ‘idle about, and bask in the sun, telling their stories, and beguiling the time,’ as one of the shocked but busy men of the Lord reported, their indolence was perforce wicked. The Marquesans were even worse, not even taking the trouble to make use of iron tools left among them. Instead of work, they strangely preferred to spend their time in merriment, blowing conch-shells and idling their time away in a ‘state of nature and ignorance.’ ‘The conchshells they use when they go a-visiting from one valley to another, and as they gain the summit of the hills, they blow them with all their might, and take great delight and pride in listening to the long reverberating echoes.’ To prevent such idle iniquity, the missionaries at once dedicated themselves to creating new desires in the natives and teaching them trades. Brother Crook, who began his ministry in a rich valley in the Marquesas, had high hopes of training the natives to be prosperous farmers, to which end he carried with him turnip and other garden seeds, farming implements, and an encyclopædia.

The gayety and unrestraint of the islanders were a cause of great distress to the Puritans who had come to rescue them from impious levity. On first arrival, the missionaries had been pained by the eagerness of the Tahitians for entertainment, and the islanders had been disappointed at the dull reception afforded by this strangely melancholy ship. The chief who came to greet the visitors, says the official account of the voyage, inquired ‘after entertainments; and first sky-rockets, next the violin and dancing, and lastly the bagpipe, which he humorously described by putting a bundle of cloth under his arm, and twisting his body like a Highland piper. When we told them that we had none of these, they seemed rather dejected; therefore, to revive them a few tunes were played upon the German flute by Mr. Bowell and one of the seamen, though it plainly appeared that more lively music would have pleased them better.’ Four months after the arrival of the Duff at Tahiti, one of the missionaries wrote with satisfaction that their ‘example had already restrained the natural levity of the natives and overawed them.’ This long-faced piety was the ideal of Christian religion carried to the South Seas. When Alexander Smith of the mutinous Bounty repented his sins and set about teaching the Pitcairn Islanders piety, he succeeded so well that Captain Beechey, who visited the island in the Blossom in 1825, observed that the islanders never indulged in a joke, ‘or other levity, for the practice of joking was ‘apt to give offence.’

If it was desirable to restrain levity on ordinary occasions, it was doubly necessary on the Sabbath, which was kept by the missionaries with all the rigor of the Scotch Kirk. The day was given over to preaching, prayer, reading the Scriptures, and occasional psalm singing. No work was permitted, and even the bringing of gifts on the holy day was discouraged. A missionary reported of one of his brethren that a native brought a gift to him, but ’it being the Lord’s day, he declined accepting it till the next morning. ’ Not merely did the missionaries observe the Scotch Sabbath themselves, but they attempted to force the natives to a similar observance, and it was reported with some satisfaction that a native who had been working a bit in his garden on the Sabbath was instantly struck blind, a clear sign of the wrath of the Christian god. So well did the evangelists from the Duff succeed in fastening their grim holy day on the islanders that a quarter of a century later, when an official deputation went out to report on conditions in the South Seas, the Reverend Daniel Tyerman wrote approvingly of the Sabbath in Tahiti: ‘Not a fire is lighted, neither flesh nor fruit is baked, not a tree is climbed, nor a canoe seen on the water, nor a journey by land performed on God’s holy day; religion — religion alone — is the business and delight of these simple-minded people on the Sabbath.’ Sabbath observance was the ceremonial given greatest emphasis by the missionaries, who would have been vastly troubled in spirit had they known that the Duff had gained a day in the journey around the world, and that in reality they were observing Saturday instead of Sunday!

If the evangelists found the gayety and indolence of the natives distressing, their domestic liberties appalled the respectable tradesmen, who looked upon nakedness as iniquity and plurality of wives as the way to damnation. One of the first duties undertaken by the brethren of the Duff was to set about getting the islanders into respectable clothes, and that meant clothes after the English manner. Four months from the time the missionaries began work at Tahiti, Captain Wilson observed, on his return from the Marquesas, that the Tahitians’ ’dress and manners also exhibited great improvement on the side of modesty.’ One woman whom the captain provided with a gay gown and petticoat proved herself worthy of the gift by ‘taking more pains to cover her breasts and even to keep her feet from being seen than most of the ladies of England have of late done.’

Although the new missionaries could not clothe all Tahiti at once, they laid the foundation for the popularity of Christian garb by making the wearing of it a mark of prestige. Though Manne Manne, one of the chief priests, gave away all his other gifts, he was at pains to keep ‘a glazed hat, a pair of breeches, and an old black coat,’ together with Captain Wilson’s ‘own cocked hat,’ which had been given him as a mark of especial favor. Black coats and pants for the men, dismal loose-bodied gowns and hideous bonnets for the women, were soon to become the uniform of Christianity in the South Seas.

A little over three decades later a missionary observed with complacence that the heathen custom of wearing flowers in the hair had been almost discontinued in place of European caps and bonnets, while the Reverend Daniel Tyerman in 1821 officially reported his delight at seeing a congregation in Tahiti ‘clothed after the English fashion, and with English manufactures’ Surely the God of the Lancashire weavers blessed the enterprise.

More difficult than teaching the islanders to wear English clothes was the reform of their ideas about chastity, a problem that caused much travail of soul among the Duff’s company and ultimately came near wrecking their godly crusade. In the end, nature proved stronger than Scripture and sermons, and little if any progress could be truthfully reported. Although Malthus was preaching the danger of overpopulation in Europe, the English missionaries were horrified at the islanders’ practice of infanticide at birth as a means of preventing a disastrous increase in their population. Soon after their arrival the evangelists began attempts to check infanticide, but their labors did little more than produce ill will.


The enthusiasm for the newcomers in Tahiti had at first been great, but as the Gospelers began to interfere in native customs, and particularly to meddle in private domestic affairs, they quickly lost favor. Furthermore, the islanders began to weary of supplying them with hogs, breadfruit, coconuts, and vegetables, for the Gospel company were numerous, their appetites were good, and they were not supplied with manna from Heaven. Thus, after a few months, the missionaries found themselves at the beginning of a period of lukewarm favor which at length developed into open hostility. Worse still, some of the brethren were themselves beginning to murmur and grow faint-hearted. And worst of all, a few were falling into the sins of the heathen!

The first sinner from the ship’s company was John Micklewright, the captain’s steward, who had made ‘a profession of godliness,’ though his subsequent conduct but ‘very little adorned it.’ Finding the sirens of Tahiti too alluring, he deserted ship two weeks after arrival, and went to live among the heathen, to the infinite distress of the others, some of whom ‘thought he ought to be wholly separated from them as a hypocrite.’ Clearly Mr. Micklewright was not averse to the separation. But the defection of the captain’s steward, alas, was not the most painful experience that the company were to endure. As we have already noticed, one of the missionaries had contemplated marriage with a heathen, and Brother Veeson of the Tongan mission had proved a weak vessel and had also gone native. The worst, however, was yet to come. On August 1, 1798, Brother Thomas Lewis, one of the four ordained ministers, signified his intention to marry a native woman and even though the brethren threatened him with excommunication, he persisted in his error and went away to live in another district. This indeed was a scandal. So obstinate in his sin was Brother Lewis that he declined to desert his wife and child at the urgent behest of his former colleagues, who mournfully drew the proper moral when he was murdered, on November 28, 1799.

Nor were the scandals over. In the year following Brother Lewis’s murder, Brother Benjamin Broomhall, the harness maker, who had been laboring with ill success to teach one of the chiefs to read, suddenly announced that he had ceased to believe in immortality. Thus freed from the fear of hell, he promptly took a native of Raiatea to wife and went away to live in sin. Nor were the actions of some of those who resisted the wiles of the native women much more helpful to the cause of religion than the scandals of the weaker brethren. For example, there was the doleful case of Brother John Harris, the cooper, who declined the offer of a wife on his arrival in the Marquesas, with such terrifying consequences that he immediately deserted his mission post.

The details given in the contemporary account reveal the cause of Brother Harris’s distress: ‘Mr. Harris told him [the chief] that he did not want the woman; however, she looked up to him as her husband, and finding herself treated with total neglect, became doubtful of his sex; and acquainted some of the other females with her suspicion, who accordingly came in the night, when he slept, and satisfied themselves concerning that point, but not in such a peaceable way but that they awoke him. Discovering so many strangers, he was greatly terrified; and, perceiving what they had been doing, was determined to leave a place where the people were so abandoned and given up to wickedness: a cause which should have excited a contrary resolution.’

Mr. Harris’s eagerness to leave an island of sinners was paralleled later by an agitation, led by the Reverend Mr. Cover, one of I he ordained preachers, to abandon Tahiti to its iniquity because four of the missionaries had been stripped and beaten in March 1798 after they had interfered with the natives’ traffic with a whaler. So frightened were the evangelists at the hostility of the Tahitians that eleven of the band deserted with Brother Cover and sailed away on the whaler Nautilus for Port Jackson, a little over a year after they had landed from the Duff with such high hope of converting the heathen to the faith of John Calvin.

Seven persistent brethren remained in Tahiti, among them Henry Nott, the bricklayer, who doggedly studied the language and labored on a translation of the Bible into Tahitian, a task which he lived to complete. The perseverance of these seven Calvinists was ultimately to bring the Tahitians as much woe as salvation, but the account of the final conquest of Tahiti by the Puritans is another story.

At this time, the missionaries had come to be despondent over the sodden state of their charges. ‘The poor heathen around us [have been] remarkably still throughout the day,’ one of them writes in his journal for September 16, 1798. ’They do not discover the smallest desire to know aught of the things of God; nor have they any curiosity to know why we so frequently meet together to read, sing, and pray; or why we so particularly honour every seventh day, in setting it apart for the worship of God, and refraining from labour thereon. . . . Notwithstanding their rude uncultivated state, they seem to hold themselves as civilized a people as any beneath the sun, and treat the arts and sciences, customs, and manners of Europeans with great indifference and contempt.’

The Tahitians reckoned without the ingenuity of Henry Nott and his six brethren, however, and they little knew that within a few decades the spirit of the proud Tahitians would be broken and they would find the arts and sciences and manners of Europeans too powerful to resist. Then there would be baptisms, and the men of Jehovah would rejoice. For already Mr. Joseph Hardcastle and his associates were sending recruits and supplies to strengthen the first missionaries. The ship Duff was captured by the French on its second missionary voyage in 1799, but two years later the Royal Admiral arrived at Tahiti with new helpers to labor for souls in the South Seas.

Satan was yet to wage a great fight, but he was no match for stern Puritans who knew the value of political strategy and the efficacy of gunpowder in the war for souls. But that is the story of the second stage in the Christianization of the South Seas.