The Covenant Makers: Islander Missionaries in the Pacific.
It is many years now since white historians of the Pacific - most numerously Australians - began insisting that an 'island-centred' approach should become the proper goal for the writing of Pacific history. Gone would be the days, they hoped, when the Pacific was treated solely as the site where nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Western nations vied for hegemony, as they sought in the islands of this vast ocean imperial aggrandisement or souls for Christ, precious resources or strategic bases. Instead, said the new historians, the focus would be the recovery of Islanders' lives and Islanders' ways of negotiating the social and cultural impact of the western intrusion that began with Captain James Cook in 1776.
'Island-centred' history, which mirrored the trend that historians elsewhere were calling 'history from below', turned out to be a promise more enthusiastically advocated than empirically realised. Some explanations are not hard to discover. Islander peoples have left few written sources, and these were often in languages that western historians did not read. Europeans' far more numerous recordings of events inevitably focused on their own concerns; traders, explorers, colonial officials and missionaries alike relegated Islanders to the margins of their narratives. Those Western scholars who ventured outside the formal constraints of historical evidence often lacked the entry into Islanders' language, and Islanders' confidence, that would have given access to indigenous oral traditions. The task of interpreting modern history through Islanders' eyes has, therefore, been a challenge awaiting creative solutions.
Given the acknowledged difficulty, all those interested in 'island-centred' Pacific history will find exciting Doug Munro's and Andrew Thornley's edited book The Covenant Makers. A modest publication, simply produced at the University of Suva in Fiji, it has an importance belied by its appearance. Sixteen historians, half of them of Pacific Islander origin, the rest closely connected to Pacific societies, bring together numerous stories of indigenous pastors and teachers who served as missionaries to fellow Pacific peoples, thereby spearheading the spread of Christianity across the region. The work of these scholars has been painstaking, driven by a commitment to recovering these mission endeavours, and marked by a dedication that has sustained them through the necessary fine-grained labour. They have also had the familiarity with Pacific languages and the personal acquaintance with indigenous informants that has enabled them to accomplish what their non-indigenous predecessors, with a few notable exceptions, often shelved as too difficult.
Taken together, the picture of indigenous missionaries established in The Covenant Makers is a confronting one, certainly for descendants of colonisers. The writers provide us with biographical essays that place the Islander missionaries centre-stage in the history of the missionisation of the Pacific, a crucial component of the history of modern transformations (despite continuities of behaviour and belief) in the region. Indigenous missionaries were undoubtedly significant agents of change, these writers demonstrate, a place more often reserved for their European brethren. But the implicit message of the collection goes further, with its capacity for interrogating and reshaping the dominant narratives of the practices and beliefs of the white missionaries under whose instructions these Islander missionaries served.
The majority of the essays in The Covenant Makers concern indigenous missionaries from the Protestant churches in the islands connected to the great British missionary societies, whose emissaries had been proselytizing in the Pacific since the late eighteenth century. New converts from among the Eastern Polynesians began the task of missionisation on nearby islands. They were followed by converts from the central Pacific, the Samoans, Tongans and Fijians who figured so numerously in mission outreach, as they ventured westwards to the less-known territories of Melanesia, places that were purportedly violent and 'cannibalistic'. Sione Latukefu (whose recent death leaves a lamentable gap in Pacific history) provides an overview of this mission work that deals, albeit tactfully and charitably, with a central theme of the book. The problems faced by Islander missionaries were by no means all caused by 'pagan' indigenous peoples, but by their white masters. Islander missionaries, these scholars argue, suffered and sometimes died for their faith, while their European superiors for the most part treated them in ways that ranged from the patronising, to the dismissive, to the outright racist, when judged through the eyes of the reader of the 1990s. While the experience of Roman Catholic indigenous missionaries varied from the Protestant because of the later arrival of the Catholics in the Pacific, the three essays from Vitori Buatave, Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulake and John Broadbent on Catholic assistants suggest only minor deviations from the Protestant pattern.
In his chapter 'The Imaging of Pastors in Papua', Max Quanchi illustrates graphically the white missionaries' assumption of hegemonic dominance over the Islander assistants under their control. He reproduces photographs taken from mission publications, in which Islander missionaries appear unnamed and mute, undistinguished from the indigenous converts pictured around them, while white missionaries are centre-stage. Further, white mission accounts could portray Islander pastors in denigratory and irritable fashion, not for their lack of dedication, but for pursuing methods of relating to and teaching their proteges that deviated from the mainstream hierarchy's policies. This arrogance becomes all the more reprehensible as we realise the extent to which Islander missionaries, men, women and children, were the shock troops of missionisation, making the first landfalls on hostile shores, sustaining a presence in new societies despite threats to their health, their well-being and frequently, their lives. The death rate was appalling. The trained white missionaries were a precious resource; indigenous missionaries, it seemed, were expendable, more easily replaced. Essays from Featuna'i Liua'ana, Papa Aratangi, Steve Mullins, David Wetherell, Michael Goldsmith, Winston Halapua and the editors themselves reinforce this picture. Turakiare Teauariki's piece on his own relatively recent experiences in Papua New Guinea adds a fascinating first-hand account that also, depressingly, serves to show the continuation of white racism well into this century.
If male Islander missionaries were tracked only with dedicated persistence, it will scarcely surprise anyone that recovering details of their wives' experiences defied most researchers. Just one chapter in The Covenant Makers, Jeanette Little's on Mary Kaaialii Kahelemauna Nawaa, focuses on the life of a woman in the mission circle. Details on the wives of Islander missionaries (single women did not serve in the mission field) are extremely rare in literary sources, but in this case the Hawaiian Mary Nawaa had left an account of the new mission she and her spouse founded on Mili in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia. Her situation had been a highly unusual one: widowed at the age of 26, pregnant and with a young son, Mary Nawaa nevertheless attempted to stay on Mili and sustain the mission, which gave rise to extreme concern among the American authorities in Hawaii. The chapter reveals the double jeopardy of race and sex of indigenous women who sought mission activity.
The Covenant Makers represents a revision of Pacific history which is occurring alongside the various island groups' detachment from colonial regimes, one that in terms of historiography has been reinforced by the emergence of postcolonial theory. As more indigenous scholars enter the field they will continue to frame new questions and develop critiques that are revitalising the field. Doug Munro and Andrew Thornley have steered this process in a challenging direction with their important book.
Patricia Grimshaw The University of Melbourne
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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