March 10, 2011

King of the Cannibals

Growing up as a missionary kid in Vanuatu I knew of John G. Paton. He was one of the pioneer missionaries to Vanuatu (then known as the New Hebrides's). But that was about all I knew about him so I was interested to read King of The Cannibals by Jim Cremarty and find out a bit more about what he did.

I was interested to learn he grew up in Dumfries in Scotland which is where my Dads Grandparents lived before they migrated to Australia. It's kind of cool to think that our ancestors might have known about John Paton or heard about the work he was doing in New Hebrides.

The thing that struck me the most was that the New Hebrides described in this book is so different to the Vanuatu I knew. Cannibalism and murder seem normal and the fighting between villages saddens me. There was also alot of guns from trading with merchant ships, which seems so foreign to me. Reading this book makes me understand what people were talking about when they would tell us the missionaries helped turn Vanuatu around.

Paton began to learn the local language to hep translate the Bible into the local language and he worked hard to make conditions better for women and children - though I recognised the way that many of the Ni-Vanuatu acted as cultural ways of relating to one another which were still prevalent when we lived there. That being said, I didn't exactly agree with everything that Paton and his other missionaries did (At one point while complaining to his friends about the Ni-Vanuatu lying constantly Paton then decided to 'trick' them by claiming he had links with the Queen and asking a merchant ship to pretend to be a war ship to frighten the villages into returning some things they had stolen). As humans even missionaries make mistakes. I tried very hard not to judge Paton as I'm sure that some people looked at some of the things my family and our contemporaries did and thought it was inappropriate.

However I was frustrated  that the author seemed to take the missionaries side every time, rather than explaining that there were two different  cultures within the story that had different ideas/values. He seemed to (at times) take the position that because the Ni-Vanuatu did not act the way people from a western culture would act then they were automatically wrong or stupid. I feel that part of the job of writing a historical story would be to understand where all people in the story were coming from, not to excuse their behaviour but describe the story accurately.

Once you get past these parts, it is an inspiring story. The missionaries face a much harsher environment than I could ever imagine. Paton's wife and baby son die not long after they arrive in Vanuatu, and missionaries on a nearby Island were murdered while Paton was on his Island. These people took a step of great faith to tell the people of the New Hebrides about God, never knowing of they would ever see their family and home again.

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