1838-1841: Reverend John Williams on Board Ship with Native Implements, in the South Sea Islands

Commented by: Marion Bertin

Material description

This lithograph made by James Henry Lynch after Henry Anelay’s original shows the Reverend John Williams on Board Ship with Native Implements, in the South Sea Islands. The work by Henry Anelay is a watercolor, made around 1838 and currently part of the collection of the National Library of Australia. This print should have been made in the following years, between 1838 and 1841. An example is preserved by the National Library of New Zealand, 407 x 319 mm. File : http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=25598&l=en

Translocated objects visible in this image:
‘Fisherman’s god’, late 18th-early 19th century, Rarotonga (Cook Islands), wood, 44 x 24 cm, collected by the London Missionary Society, London, British Museum, Oc,LMS.36
Staff-god, late 18th-early 19th century, Rarotonga (Cook Islands), wood, barkcloth, feather, 396 x 60 cm, collected by the London Missionary Society, London, British Museum, Oc1978,Q.845
Mace-god, late 18th-early 19th century, Mangaia (Cook Islands), wood, human hair, coir, 91,4 cm, collected by the London Missionary Society, London, British Museum, Oc,LMS.42
God image, late 18th-early 19th century, Mitiaro (Cook Islands), wood, fibre, 39 cm, collected by the London Missionary Society, London, British Museum, Q82.Oc.121

Short Summary

Missionaries’ collections of objects are well-known for the great number of rare artifacts that are now held in world-wide private and public collections. Taken as souvenir or trophies they also symbolise the success of a process of conversion and so of course too the loss of many traditional religions and cultures that was the corollary of this enterprise. The Reverend John Williams was one of the main figures of the London Missionary Society involved in the conversion of Polynesian islands at the beginning of the 19th century.

Description and comments

Reverend John Williams (1796-1839) is depicted standing in this full-length portrait, wearing civil clothes and gazing into the distance. He is aboard a ship near the coasts of a Pacific island that can be seen on the background, possibly Rarotonga (Williams, 2015). At his foot are Polynesian artifacts, mainly from the Cook Islands and Society Islands where Williams stayed several years and converted people. The objects are piled up and Williams points at them though his gaze goes off to the horizon, expressing a kind of disdain for them. Some of the objects depicted can be precisely recognized and associated with pieces now preserved by the British Museum in London (Hooper, 2006). They were collected by Williams himself to be brought to Great Britain as evidence of native conversion. He reported some of these events in his Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands, published in 1837. Therefore, if there are few clubs, most of the objects are gods figures. The main types of sacred figures from the Cook Islands are visible : staff-gods and ‘fisherman’s god’ from Rarotonga, mace-gods from Mangaia, fan handles with god images from central islands, god-image that could be from Mitiaro. Seen as idols, these figures were partly destroyed, and partly taken away to be exhibited in Europe.

John Williams is one of the most well known missionaries from the London Missionary Society (LMS) who started the conversion in the Pacific islands at the beginning of the 19th century. After the Western encounters with the islands and their contacts with islanders, the LMS started a program for Christianization. Missionaries were commissioned to spread the Christian belief and morals in the Pacific and end “barbarism” (Thomas, 1991, p. 252). Reverend Williams and his wife Mary Chawner spent years in the Pacific islands, from 1817 to 1834, and then after 1837. Williams was killed by indigenous people in Erromango, now in Vanuatu, in 1839 and was said to have been eaten by islanders. The production of lithographs just after his death reveals the fame of the ‘Apostle of the South Seas’ (Williams, 2015).

This lithograph shows the moment when the objects are taken from their original society and upon a journey that will take them to a new European one. Their values change in the process : from religious and sacred objects, they became missionaries’ trophies, losing the power they had as embedded in specific local, social relations. This attitude can be described as an‘iconoclasm by collection’ (Hooper, 2008, p. 131). Other kinds of iconoclasm are documented such as public burnings or the destruction of objects. Nevertheless, even when objects were preserved, it was not without the loss of their full sense and meaning, generally outside of Williams’and other missionaries’ considerations and interests. They could also loose part of their material, often organic and fragile, such as the ‘nude’ staff-god lying on the deck of the ship without the barkcloth that was an intrinsic part of it. The other staff-god, now held in the collections of the British Museum, is the only example that stayed wrapped. Once in Great Britain, they were integrated into the collections of the LMS. A dedicated museum was opened in 1814 to exhibit these objects, presenting the success of Christianisation and designed to promote fundraising campaigns in support of the missions (Hooper, 2006, p. 27). From 1890 onwards different objects were lent in museums, including the British Museum which also purchased several pieces when the whole collection was dispersed and sold in 1910.

About the author

After studying the history of art and museology, Marion Bertin started a PhD in anthropology at the Ecole du Louvre and the Université de La Rochelle. She works on the circulation and the values of oceanic objects in private and public collections. Her research deals with the different values – aesthetic, economic, artistic, sacred, patrimonial – that can be attributed to a same object depending on diverse contexts, such as so-called tribal art market, museums, heritage. She has pursued her interests in museums studies and is an active member of the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM).

Hooper, Steven, « La collecte comme iconoclasme. La London Missionary Society en Polynésie », in Gradhiva, n°7, 2008. [En ligne] Disponible à l’URL : <http://gradhiva.revues.org/1101>, dernière consultation le samedi 18 novembre 2017.

Hooper, Steven, Pacific Encounters. Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860, London : The British Museum Press, 2006.

Thomas, Nicholas, Entangled Objects. Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, London & Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1991.

Williams, John, A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands, London : John Snow, 1837.

Williams, Nat, « Missionary murdered in Vanuatu. The life and collecting of the Rev. John Williams », website of the National Library of Australia, 2015, online :<https://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/treasures/2015/11/16/missionary-murdered-in-vanuatu>, last check on May, Tuesday 8th 2018.

Cite this article as:
1838-1841: Reverend John Williams on Board Ship with Native Implements, in the South Sea Islands, commented by 
Marion Bertin, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1838-1841-reverend-john-williams-on-board-ship-with-native-implements-in-the-south-sea-islands, published 17/05/2018.
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