John Coleridge Patteson

First Bishop of Melanesia, Martyr


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John Coleridge Patteson

Public Domain

John Coleridge Patteson, born to wealthy parents, was educated at a private school in Devon then at Eton, where he proved to be a good student, sportsman. and deeply religious. In 1845 he went to Oxford, where he was influenced by the Oxford Movement. Patteson studied briefly in Germany, becoming competent in Hebrew and Arabic, showing an outstanding flair for languages. Ordained deacon in 1853 and priest the following year, he offered himself to Bishop Selwyn for work in Melanesia.

1855 he arrived in New Zealand and 2 years later was put in charge of the Melanesian Mission. On 24 February 1861 he was consecrated as the first bishop of Melanesia. Like Selwyn, Patteson was another of a new style of bishop, a missionary, at the forefront of the church’s work, boldly leading the church into new areas rather than ministering to a settled diocese. It was a idea that caused debate in England, where the action of a Church of England bishop operating beyond the boundaries of British rule seemed strange, if not illegal.

Patteson inherited the missionary system established by Bishop Selwyn, in which young men and women from the islands were taken to Auckland for instruction during the summer. They were then returned to their islands, in the hope that they would provide some Christian input and influence in their communities. It was not very successful, and Patteson, for all his admiration of Selwyn, determined that missionary work must be done in the islands themselves and in one of the Melanesian languages.

The 10 years of Patteson’s episcopate were spent opening up the islands of Melanesia to the gospel, and arranging for the education of young Melanesians, first at Kohimarama in Auckland, then from a base on Mota in the Banks Group, and then on Norfolk Island from 1867. His novel idea was to establish a group of Melanesian priests. A brilliant linguist, he was "color blind", and made friends easily among other races, while the Melanesians seemed uncivilized, he had a clear vision of what they might become. Unlike most of his European contemporaries rather than replace the culture, Patteson was convinced that the Melanesians could accept and practise Christianity within their own culture.

In the 1860s, travel in Melanesia was always risky, his health suffered and his life was often in danger. A slave trade was growing in the islands as entrepreneurs in Australia and Fiji sought cheap indentured (“slave”) labour from Melanesia. Missionaries opposed the trade. But unscrupulous slave traders even used Patteson’s name to lure people on to their ships.

It was widely believed, although not proven, that Patteson’s death was in retaliation for the “slave” trade. Patteson was murdered on the island of Nukapu. Joseph Atkin and Stephen Taroaniara, who were with him, were mortally wounded and died a week later. Patteson’s death was mourned by all the Australian mainline churches with Methodists and Presbyterians joining together with the Anglican's in a strong call to the Imperial and Colonial authorites to take concerted action in the suppression of the slave trade. That call was heeded. Patteson’s attitude was such that his life was taken by those for whom he would gladly have given it.

BORN:1827, London, England.

DIED:20 September 1871, Nukapu, Solomon Islands, Melanesia