September 20

1871 Martyrdom of a missionary bishop

On this date, churches of the Anglican communion celebrate the life of John Patteson (1827-71), the first Bishop of Melanesia. Patterson was the great-nephew of the poet Samuel Coleridge, educated at Oxford, and ordained a priest. He was a devoted student of languages and a country curate when he was recruited in 1854 to become a missionary in the Southern Pacific.

Based in New Zealand, Patteson sailed through the island chains of Melanesia trying to spread Christianity. To enable himself for this task he learned 23 native languages, wrote grammars for these tongues and translated parts of the Gospel. His job was made immeasurable harder by the presence in those areas of “blackbirders”, essentially kidnappers from British ships who would recruit islanders as indentured labourers and treat them as slaves on plantations. Patteson’s desire to offer a boarding-school education for native youth seemed to many of the locals as just another way of taking away their young men who would never return. Despite his opposition to this slave trade Patteson was attacked on more than one occasion. On this date in 1871 Patteson was killed on an island in the Solomons; his body was found floating at sea in a canoe with a palm leaf in his hand.

His death spurred a crack-down on black-birding and steps were taken to better protect islanders. Patteson is buried in Exeter Cathedral’s Martyrs’ Pulpit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *