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Reconciliation and the dark side of missionary history

By John Roberts,

Mission and Ecumenical secretary

There are times in church history when we acknowledge only half the truth. One such occasion was a recent reconciliation ceremony in Papua New Guinea. It was organised by the United Church to mark an event that occurred in 1878.

Representatives of the Tolai people during the reconciliation ceremony.

That event involved the legendary missionary figure George Brown. As a young man Brown travelled from England to New Zealand. He settled in Auckland, where he spent time with his aunt and her husband Rev Thomas Buddle. Brown experienced a conversion and in 1860 was accepted for missionary service in the Pacific by the Auckland Circuit of the Methodist Church of Australasia. He went to Sydney, where he was ordained before leaving for the mission field.

In 1878 Brown was serving in the East New Britain region of Papua New Guinea. Under his charge were several Fijian Methodist missionaries, and he sent Sailasa Naucukidi, Peni Luvu, Livai Naboro, and Timoci Baravi to evangelise the Tolai people. Some Tolai led by their chief Talili attacked and killed the Fijian missionaries. They dismembered their bodies and sold parts to Tolai villages for consumption.

This event was at the centre of the reconciliation ceremony that took place in August 2007. The reconciliation had been sought by the Tolai people. Representatives of the Methodist Church of Fiji attended, and about 3000 people were present for a moving ceremony at Tungnaparau, close to the scene of the attack. The Tolai people approached the Fijian church representatives in a spirit of contrition. They sought and received forgiveness and reconciliation through speeches and the exchange of symbolic gifts. A feast followed.

But something was missing from the history of this event as related at the reconciliation ceremony. The record tells us that Brown responded to the attack on the Fijian missionaries by leading a raid on Tolai villages. According to accounts of the time the number of villagers who were killed in this retaliation range between 10 and 100. There was no mention of Brown’s raid on the Tolai at the reconciliation ceremony. It’s as if he is so revered (George Brown Day is a public holiday) that his darker side cannot be openly acknowledged.

When news of Brown’s attack on the Tolai reached high commissioner of the Western Pacific Arthur Gordon in 1879, an investigation was launched. Brown received a legal summons to appear in court. Tension between Gordon and the judiciary led to the charges being withdrawn, however. Brown’s self justification in his written account of the incident was instrumental in his not facing trial.

When news of the raid reached Sydney, the Australasian Methodist Missionary society Board called an extraordinary meeting. The board absolved Brown on the basis that he had no other course of action open to him if his safety and that of other missionaries was to be protected. Again Brown’s personal account of the incident was instrumental in his not facing censure.

In 1879 The Australasian Methodist Conference formally considered Brown’s actions. The general secretary of the board of missions defended Brown’s actions; while they were regrettable, they were not censurable. The motion that was passed expressed confidence in Brown while affirming that “we can never sanction the use of military measures in our missionary enterprises”.

While the warring factions of 1878 were subsequently drawn together by the giving of shell money and a feast, the reconciliation ceremony of 2007 seemed incomplete. If 129 years after the event the Tolai felt the need to seek reconciliation with the Fijians, what about the heirs of the Methodist Church of Australasia? Should they similarly seek reconciliation with the Tolai? Maybe it’s a matter that should be seriously considered.