Williams, John, 1796-1839.


A narrative of missionary enterprises in the South Sea islands : with remarks upon the natural history of the islands, origin, languages, traditions, and usages of the inhabitants / by John Williams of the London Missionary Society ; illustrated with engravings on wood by G. Baxter. (London : John Snow, 1838)

The Rev. John Williams of the London Missionary Society was an inspirational figure. He arrived at the Society Islands in 1817 and was a colleague of William Ellis. He encouraged the Tahitians to build houses and taught them carpentry, plastering and blacksmithing, with some success. He believed in the importance of encouraging trade between the settlers in Sydney and the islands and bought a schooner for the Christian chiefs of the Society Islands using his own money. He moved his attentions to other island groups and made some notable conversions, particularly in Samoa and the Cook Islands. He returned to England in 1834 for a series of lecture tours and to publish his book on the South Sea Islands. This proved very popular and he was able to raise a considerable amount of money; enough to purchase a boat, the Camden, to continue his work.

The “dark islands” of southern Melanesia were felt to be a particular challenge and soon after returning to the pacific, Williams ventured to Eromanga in the southern New Hebrides. He and his party landed at Dillon’s Bay on 20th November 1839. The local inhabitants were not however welcoming and Williams and his assistant, James Harris were clubbed to death and later eaten.

His death as a martyr resulted in Williams being seen as a heroic figure and there was a great outpouring of popular literature on the subject, much as was to happen later when, in 1901, the Rev. James Chalmers was killed and eaten by the natives of New Guinea.

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